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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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.