DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on Brad Pitt, the Unpredictable Movie Star

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Brad Pitt is unquestionably a movie star, but what kind is he? The lead in this past weekend’s “Killing Them Softly,” he doesn’t have a single movie in the Top 140 of the all-time domestic box office chart, and his biggest worldwide hit, “Troy,” is just outside the Top 100 of the international chart. And yet he’s indisputably one of our most recognizable faces, one half of the world’s biggest celebrity couple. But despite the many memorable films he’s been a part of over the last 20 years, he doesn’t have a “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Men in Black” franchise that’s catapulted him into the ranks of mega-blockbuster stars. (Even the “Ocean’s Eleven” films don’t quite count because of their ensemble nature and the fact that none of them have ever cracked $200 million. They’ve always been cool, hip doubles or triples rather than outright home runs.) I don’t bring any of this up to knock him. In fact, I realize it’s part of the reason why I like him so much. With his looks and charisma, he was probably going to be a star regardless. But how he’s decided to approach his stardom has been consistently gratifying as a viewer.

Pitt will turn 49 on December 18, making him about six months younger than Johnny Depp and 18 months younger than Tom Cruise. He’d been working in television in the late ‘80s — landing parts on everything from “Dallas” to “Head of the Class” to “21 Jump Street” — before really coming to moviegoers’ attention with 1991’s “Thelma & Louise.” It was a minor but crucial role as a cocky hunk who seduces Thelma and, oh yeah, steals her money. Despite not having a lot of screen time, Pitt established a persona that has presaged just about every role he’s taken since, playing a handsome, carefree guy who’s sharper and more calculating than he first appears. Additionally, it was a quality movie, an early sign that he (or, at least, his handlers) had the good sense to pick strong, interesting work.

The rest of the ‘90s saw Pitt transitioning into studio projects, but hardly ones that were always overtly commercial. He would do an “Interview With the Vampire,” where he played second fiddle to Cruise, but he’d also try his hand at more thoughtful fare like “Seven Years in Tibet” and “A River Runs Through It,” a drama directed by Robert Redford that inspired many comparisons between the boyishly gorgeous young actor and his equally photogenic, golden-haired director. But like Redford, Pitt didn’t want to be judged just by his looks, choosing edgier thrillers like “Kalifornia,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “Seven” that would showcase his darker side. (And with “Twelve Monkeys,” he received his first of four Oscar nominations, for Best Supporting Actor.)

The decade culminated in perhaps the perfect amalgam of Pitt’s commercial and artistic ambitions, starring in “Seven” director David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” still one of the nerviest, most subversive movies to ever come from a studio. Not surprisingly, the movie bombed, only to become a cult hit in subsequent years. As Tyler Durden, the loopy, dangerous mentor to Ed Norton’s miserable office drone, Pitt delivered his finest performance to that point, fully comfortable as a seductive movie star but willing to play with that image to produce a character who was funny and unsettling.

This isn’t to say he didn’t have his missteps. His earnest turn in “Meet Joe Black” couldn’t save that film, and his one-note gimmick of a performance in “Snatch” could make you worry that he was getting bored with being a star and lapsing into self-indulgence. But then he’d surprise you with something that seemed completely dashed-off and yet endlessly amusing. At least that’s my take on “Ocean’s Eleven,” that rare instance when a lot of big-name talent — director Steven Soderbergh, stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Pitt — all decide to make a big, silly, stylish lark and it actually turns out to be as much fun to watch as it sounds like it was to make. Pitt’s Rusty isn’t so much a character as he is an attitude, but that hardly mattered since the actor’s essence filled in the gaps; “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels are Pitt at his most effortless, having a ball but letting the audience feel like they’re part of the gang as well.

His career was soon going to change thanks to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the 2005 hit that’s still his highest-grossing in the U.S. The movie is completely fine, but its real cultural impact is that it set in motion his relationship with co-star Angelina Jolie (and breakup with wife Jennifer Aniston), which became instant tabloid fodder. Since then, Pitt and Jolie have always been overshadowed a little by the whole “Brangelina” phenomenon. That’s too bad since Pitt has worked his hardest to make us focus on the work instead, starring in “Babel,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (his third pairing with Fincher). “Jesse James” in particular was a real revelation: a chance for Pitt to play the quietly frightening mythic villain James, who already seems to have one foot in the grave as the movie begins. It’s perhaps his greatest performance and the sort of role that’s ideal for a star who knows how to exude charisma while at the same time communicating the weariness of man so famous that it’s almost like his real self is vanishing. Clearly, it can be quite tempting to look at “Jesse James” as Pitt’s commentary on his own celebrity.

Entering his third decade in film, he’s hardly resting on his laurels. His work in “The Tree of Life” was another Pitt entirely: a larger-than-life ‘50s father who seemed to embody all the rugged, emotionally stunted masculinity of that generation of men. And then “Moneyball,” where endless charm and even-more-endless competitiveness duked it out. In a sense, that role was an encapsulation of the Pitt we now know: immensely likable, nonchalantly commanding, soulful around the edges. And his next two movies are, as always, a demonstration of his different creative impulses. The prickly, distinctive “Killing Them Softly” finds him reuniting with his “Jesse James” writer-director, Andrew Dominik, while next year’s “World War Z” is a hopeful studio blockbuster. “Killing Them Softly” will tank — it received a disastrous “F” rating from the audience polling company CinemaScore — but it hardly matters. (Pitt, playing a principled gangster, is terrific in it.) This is one of the advantages of being a star who’s not really beholden to any one big franchise: He can do what he pleases, and more often than not, what he does is worth your time. I see no reason to think that will change in the near future.

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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.