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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Forget Oscar

Find Your Spirit Animal

The Spirit Awards are LIVE this Saturday at 2p PT/5p ET.

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In just a few precious days, the greatest, most epic, most star-studded awards ceremony of the year comes to IFC.

And please, we’re definitely not talking about the Oscars. We’re talking about the Spirit Awards. Hosted by iconic comedy duo Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, it’s a relatively under-the-radar awards show with serious cred. And if the past is any indicator, we’re in for a wild night.

If you feel like doing your homework, you can find a full list of nominees and performance excerpts here. It reads like a who’s who of everyone that matters – those larger-than-life personalities with status that borders on mythological. Our celebrity spirit animals, if you will.

This isn’t hyperbole. Literally everyone who takes the stage at the awards show is spirit animal material. Let’s see if we can help you find yours…

Do you

Live in someone else’s shadow despite shining like the sun? Do you inexplicably vandalize your pretty-boy good looks with a sloppy-joe man bun and a repellent pubic-hair beard? Do you think sounding stoned and sounding thoughtful are kinda the same thing?

Congratulations, your spirit animal is Casey Affleck.

He’s the self-canonized patron saint of anyone who’s got the goods but doesn’t give a damn.

Do you

Have mid-length hair and exude a certain feminine masculinity that is universally appealing? Are you drawn to situations that promise little to nothing in the way of grooming or hygiene as a transparently self-conscious attempt to conceal your radiant inner glow? Does that fail miserably?

Way to go, your spirit animal is Viggo Mortensen.

He’s the yoga teacher of actors, in that what should make him super nasty only increases his curb appeal.

Do you

Get zero recognition for work that everyone knows is unrivaled? Do you inspire greatness in others yet get shortchanged when it comes to your own acclaim? Are you a goddam B-52 bomber in an industry of biplanes?

Bingo, your spirit animal is Annette Bening.

What does it take for this artist to win an Oscar? Honestly now, if her performance in 20th Century Women doesn’t earn her every award on the planet, consider it proof that the Universe truly is a cold dark void absent of reason or compassion.

Do you

Walk into a room full of strangers and walk out with a room full of friends? Have you been hiding under the radar just waiting for the right moment to leap out into the spotlight and stay there FOREVER? Do you possess the almost messianic ability to elevate Shia LaBeouf’s on-screen charisma?

You guessed it (or not), your spirit animal is 100% Sasha Lane.

If you haven’t seen American Honey, then you haven’t heard of her. She came out of the blue with a performance both subtle and powerful, and now she’s going to be in all the movies from this moment on. Or she should be, at any rate.

Don’t see your spirit animal there? Worry not. There are many more nominees to choose from, and you can see them all (yes, including Shia LaBeouf) during the Independent Spirit Awards, this Saturday at 2pm PT/5pm ET only on IFC.

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Car Notes

Portlandia Keeps Road Rage In Park

Get a lesson in parking etiquette on a new Portlandia.

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It’s the most American form of cause and effect: Park like a monster, receive a passive-aggressive note.

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This unofficial rule of the road is critical to keeping the great big wheel of car-related Karma in balance. And naturally, Portlandia’s Kath and Dave have elevated it to an awkward, awkward art form in Car Notes, the Portlandia web series presented by Subaru.

If you’ve somehow missed the memo about Car Notes until now, you can catch up on every installment online, on the IFC app, and on demand. You can even have a little taste right here:

If your interest is piqued – great news for you! A special Car Notes sketch makes an appearance in the latest episode of Portlandia, and you can catch up on it now right here.

Watch all-new Portlandia Thursdays at 10P on IFC.

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Naked and Hungry

Two New Ways to Threeway

IFC's Comedy Crib gets sensual in time for Valentine's Day.

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This week, two scandalous new digital series debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib.
Ménage à Trois invites people to participate in a real-life couple’s fantasy boudoir. And The Filling is Mutual follows two saucy chefs who invite comedians to make food inspired by their routines. Each show crosses some major boundaries in sexy and/or delicious ways, and each are impossible to describe in detail without arousing some awkward physical cravings. Which is why it’s best to hear it directly from the minds behind the madness…

Ménage à Trois

According to Diana Kolsky and Murf Meyer, the two extremely versatile constants in the ever-shifting à trois, “MàT is a sensually psychedelic late night variety show exploring matters of hearts, parts and every goddamn thing in between…PS, any nudes will be 100% tasteful.”

This sexy brainchild includes sketches, music, and props that would put Pee-wee’s Playhouse to shame. But how could this fantastical new twist on the vanilla-sex variety show format have come to be?

“We met in a UCB improv class taught by Chris Gethard. It was clear that we both humped to the beat of our own drum; our souls and tongues intermingled at the bar after class, so we dove in head first.”

Sign me up, but promise to go slow. This tricycle is going to need training wheels.

The Filling is Mutual

Comedians Jen Saunderson and Jenny Zigrino became best friends after meeting in the restroom at the Gotham Comedy Club, which explains their super-comfortable dynamic when cooking with their favorite comedians. “We talk about comedy, sex, menses, the obnoxiousness of Christina Aguilera all while eating food that most would push off their New Year’s resolution.”

The hook of cooking food based off of comedy routines is so perfect and so personal. It made us wonder about what dishes Jen & Jenny would pair with some big name comedy staples, like…

Bill Murray?
“Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to… Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to avoid doing any kind of silly Groundhog Day reference.” 

Bridget Everett?
“Cream Balls… Sea Salt encrusted Chocolate Ganache Covered Ice Cream Ball that melt cream when you bite into them.” 

Nick Kroll & John Mulaney? 
“I’d make George and Gil black and white cookies from scratch and just as we open the oven to put the cookie in we’d prank ’em with an obnoxious amount of tuna!!!”

Carrie Brownstein & Fred Armisen? 
“Definitely a raw cacao “safe word” brownie. Cacao!”

Just perfect.

See both new series in their entirety on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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