DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on the Triumphant Return of Joaquin Phoenix

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There are several things to savor in “The Master,” writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s powerful new film about a postwar cult leader and the young loner he takes under his wing. But chief among them is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie, the loner, who sees Dodd the cult leader (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) as not quite a father figure and not quite a friend. Scarred by his experience in World War II fighting in the Pacific — not to mention being dumped by his underage flame — Freddie is a desperate alcoholic who has clear anger issues and possible mental problems. It’s a role that normally requires a big performance, but what’s remarkable about Phoenix is that while he’s appropriately oversized in his emotions, he’s physically shrunken and recessive otherwise, mumbling his words in such a way that makes you think Freddie would rather just disappear. The character is like a drowned rat with the coiled fury of a lion. Dodd wants to tame him, but no one can — for that to happen, Freddie would need to know what would bring him happiness.

It’s an extraordinary performance, and in retrospect it seems obvious that Phoenix’s entire career has been building to this moment — the clues were there all along. Thank goodness it all didn’t get derailed a few years ago.

When Phoenix began as an actor, he was in the shadow of his older brother River, who had earned accolades starring in everything from “Stand by Me” to “The Mosquito Coast” to “Running on Empty” to “My Own Private Idaho.” River seemed destined to have a long, distinguished career, but his life was cut short when he died at the age of 23 from a drug overdose on Halloween 1993. Joaquin had done some performing by that point — appearing in “SpaceCamp” and “Parenthood” — but he first really announced himself as a serious actor with “To Die For,” the 1995 dark comedy about a conniving weather girl (Nicole Kidman) who seduces an impressionable teen (Phoenix) into killing her husband. Phoenix was not yet 21, but “To Die For” established his onscreen persona: the emotionally wounded, potentially dangerous outsider who might respond with violence or tears in any situation. You’re not sure whether to hug the poor guy or back away slowly.

Over the next 13 years, Phoenix appeared in a wide range of films — everything from “Quills” to “Signs” — but his best roles contained that same DNA shown in “To Die For.” And most impressively, he could provide this unique spark to even big-budget films. His turn as Commodus in “Gladiator” elevates a potentially one-note villain into something more poignant — which, in turn, only makes the character more evil. Playing a weak young man undeserving to inherit the crown of his dying father, the emperor, Phoenix made Commodus a pitiful figure equally consumed by jealousy and ambition. Commodus is a great antagonist because, on some level, he knows Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a better man than he is, and so his constant efforts to destroy the people’s champion is really just a way for Commodus to silence his own doubts about himself. Phoenix earned his first Oscar nomination for the role, and it’s easy to understand why: Few modern film villains are as tortured as Commodus, and Phoenix made you feel his pain, even while you were rooting for Crowe.

But Phoenix hasn’t just been adept at playing bad guys — sometimes, he’s superb portraying good people trying to outrun their dark sides. That was certainly the case with his role as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” a better-than-average musical biopic. Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her turn as June Carter, but Phoenix’s Cash was the trickier part, playing a man with such presence and such demons who was trying to find his way toward loving this good woman. Throughout his career, Phoenix has done a fine job portraying people who, if things were different, would probably be fine, upstanding members of society. But they can’t get out of their own way — either their failures or their inadequacies or their addictions grab them by the ankles — and so they stumble forward, and it’s in their refusal to stop trying that they become truly heroic.

That certainly was the case with “Two Lovers,” in which he played a suicidal, imbalanced New Yorker who finds himself drawn to two very different women: a good girl (Vinessa Shaw) and a high-maintenance party gal (Gwyneth Paltrow). Before “The Master,” this was his most complete performance, and it can be tempting to see “Two Lovers” as a warm-up for Freddie’s tortured, almost inarticulate longing. Unfortunately, not enough people saw “Two Lovers,” in part because by the time it came out, Phoenix had announced that he was retiring from acting to focus on a rap career. Of course, the whole thing was a hoax connected to the mockumentary “I’m Still Here,” which pretended to follow his journey from film to music. But after a bizarre, mumbling, bearded appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman” that was part of the act, most assumed that Phoenix had become another brain-dead Hollywood celebrity, and nobody paid much mind to “Two Lovers.” That’s a shame — it’s a film ripe for rediscovery.

“The Master” is Phoenix’s first film since the “I’m Still Here” debacle, and even that mockumentary shows signs of how the actor constructed his portrayal of Freddie. In “I’m Still Here,” Phoenix fearlessly allows himself to look pathetic — there’s little question that his “character” is a terrible rapper — and yet his total commitment to the role (and the accompanying ridicule) is stirring. All of the aspects of Phoenix’s onscreen persona are on display in “The Master”: the vulnerability, the darkness, the bravery, the danger. And with it will probably come his third Oscar nomination. His has been a career that has been marked by its unpredictable, edgy characters — as a longtime fan, it’s gratifying to see him take a part tailor-made for his talents and knock it out of the park the way he does in the new movie. I always knew he had it in him, but even I wasn’t quite prepared for how galvanic it would be.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.