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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Thank Azaria

Best. Characters. Ever.

Our favorite Hank Azaria characters.

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GIFs via Giphy

Hank Azaria may well be the most prolific voice and character actor of our time. The work he’s done for The Simpsons alone has earned him a permanent place in the pop culture zeitgeist. And now he’s bringing another character to the mainstream: a washed-up sports announcer named Jim Brockmire, in the aptly titled new series Brockmire.

We’re looking forward to it. So much so that we want to look backward, too, with a short-but-sweet retrospective of some of Azaria’s important characters. Shall we begin?

Half The Recurring Simpsons Characters

He’s Comic Book Guy. He’s Chief Wiggum. He’s Apu. He’s Cletus. He’s Snake. He’s Superintendent Chalmers. He’s the Sea Captain. He’s Kurt “Can I Borrow A Feeling” Van Houten. He’s Professor Frink. He’s Carl. And he’s many more. But most importantly he’s Moe Szyslak, the staple character Azaria has voiced since his very first audition for The Simpsons.

Oh, and He’s Frank Grimes

For all the regular Simpsons characters Azaria has played over the years, his most brilliant performance may have been a one-off: Frank Grimes, the scrappy bootstrapper who worked tirelessly all his life for honest, incremental, and easily-undermined success. Azaria’s portrayal of this character was nuanced, emotional, and simply magical.

Patches O’Houlihan

Dodgeball is a “sport of violence, exclusion and degradation.” as Hank Azaria generously points out in his brief but crucial cameo in Dodgeball. That’s sage wisdom. Try applying his “five D’s” to your life on and off the court and enjoy the results.

Harold Zoid

Of Futurama fame. The crazy uncle of Dr. Zoidberg, Harold Zoid was once a lion (or lobster) of the silver screen until Smell-o-vision forced him into retirement.

Agador

The Birdcage was significant for many reasons, and the comic genius of Hank Azaria’s character “Agador” sits somewhere towards the top of that list. If you haven’t seen this movie, shame on you.

Gargamel

Nobody else could make a live-action Gargamel possible.

Ed Cochran

From Ray Donovan. Great character, great last name [editorial note: the author of this article may be bias].

Kahmunra, The Thinker, Abe Lincoln

All in the Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian, a file that let Azaria flex his voice acting and live-action muscles in one fell swoop.

The Blue Raja

Mystery Men has everything, including a fatal case of Smash Mouth. Azaria’s iconic superhero makes the shortlist of redeemable qualities, though.

Dr. Huff

Huff put Azaria in a leading role, and it was good. So good that there is no good gif of it. Internet? More like Inter-not.

Learn more about Hank Azaria’s newest claim to fame right here, and don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Flame Out

Brockmire and Other Public Implosions

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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There’s less than a month until the Brockmire premiere, and to say we’re excited would be an insulting understatement. It’s not just that it stars Hank Azaria, who can do no wrong (and yes, that’s including Mystery Men, which is only cringeworthy because of Smash Mouth). It’s that the whole backstory of the titular character, Jim Brockmire, is the stuff of legends. A one-time iconic sportscaster who won the hearts of fans and players alike, he fell from grace after an unfortunate personal event triggered a seriously public meltdown. See for yourself in the NSFW Funny or Die digital short that spawned the IFC series:

See? NSFW and spectacularly catastrophic in a way that could almost be real. Which got us thinking: What are some real-life sports fails that have nothing to do with botched athletics and everything to do with going tragically off script? The internet is a dark and dirty place, friends, but these three examples are pretty special and mostly safe for work…

Disgruntled Sports Reporter

His co-anchor went offsides and he called it like he saw it.

Jim Rome vs Jim “Not Chris” Everett

You just don’t heckle a professional athlete when you’re within striking distance. Common sense.

Carl Lewis’s National Anthem

He killed it! As in murdered. It’s dead.

To see more moments just like these, we recommend spending a day in your pajamas combing through the muckiness of the internet. But to see something that’s Brockmire-level funny without having to clear your browser history, check out the sneak peeks and extras here.

Don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Mirror, Mirror

Portlandia Season 7 In Hindsight

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available Online and on the IFC App.

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Another season of Portlandia is behind us, and oh what a season it was. We laughed. We cried. And we chuckled uncomfortably while glancing nervously around the room. Like every season before it, the latest Portlandia has held a mirror up to ridiculousness of modern American life, but more than ever that same mirror has reflected our social reality in ways that are at once hysterical and sneakily thought-provoking. Here are just a few of the issues they tackled:

Nationalism

So long, America, Portland is out! And yes, the idea of Portland seceding is still less ludicrous than building a wall.

Men’s Rights

We all saw this coming. Exit gracefully, dudes.

Protests

Whatever you stand for, stand for it together. Or with at least one other person.

Free Love

No matter who we are or how we love, deep down we all have the ability to get stalky.

Social Status

Modern self-esteem basically hinges on likes, so this isn’t really a stretch at all.

These moments are just the tip of the iceberg, and much more can be found in the full seventh season of #Portlandia, available right now #online and on the #IFC app.

via GIPHY

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