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Why is Denzel Washington playing it “Safe”?


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Everybody likes Denzel Washington. A steady film presence for 25 years, he’s won two Oscars, been nominated for three others, and been a consistently reliable box office performer. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s never jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, never been indicted for tax evasion, and never been caught by TMZ making drunken, racist comments. Sure, he’s not always the warmest of interview subjects and Bronson Pinchot definitely doesn’t like the guy, but stacked up against most other Hollywood mega-stars, those sorts of quibbles are rather small potatoes. But at this stage of his career, Denzel’s likeability is, weirdly enough, starting to become his greatest liability. There used to be a time when we loved him. But it’s hard to love a career that seems to be stuck on autopilot.

That sense of dull inertia is very apparent in his latest film, “Safe House,” and like too many of his recent offerings it’s a solidly-crafted action-thriller that’s kinda forgettable but mostly works because of how effortlessly cool Denzel Washington is in it. While it’s true that most stars eventually just start playing themselves, the Washington who shows up as the rogue C.I.A. agent in “Safe House” isn’t all that different than the one who played the veteran train engineer in “Unstoppable” or the ruthless crime boss in “American Gangster.” Whether he’s the good guy or the bad guy, Washington is always the coolest guy on the screen — the man with the lethal charm, the man with the quickest wit.

This is hardly the worst thing in the world. Unlike a lot of action stars, Washington can actually act — as if to prove that point, he snagged a Tony in 2010 for his performance in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” — and his ability to lock into a dependable onscreen persona guarantees that anything he’s in will be elevated simply because of his presence.

But that’s part of Washington’s problem of late. The decent-enough “Safe House” is symptomatic of a lot of his recent work. Sure, he’s not slumming in dreck like “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” but when’s the last time Washington’s career choices really surprised anyone? 2007’s “American Gangster” was his last serious drama, although it wasn’t particularly inspired, and his last really great hit was 2006’s “Inside Man.” Instead, what you usually get from him these days are so-so Tony Scott vehicles or blandly inspirational dramas that he directs. It’s gotten to the point that he’s almost become a charismatic self-parody, which explains why Jay Pharoah’s dead-on spoofs of him on “Saturday Night Live” have been so funny. They’re not particularly mean — Washington is too likeable to really rip — but the send-ups nicely tear apart the actor’s overly familiar acting tics: the casually menacing glare, the off-kilter cadences, the hair-trigger laugh.

I don’t want to be too harsh. In “Safe House,” Washington’s as magnetic as always, and unlike a lot of A-listers, his movies don’t seem as if they’re designed simply as vanity projects. (In both “Safe House” and “Unstoppable,” he’s actually quite generous to his younger co-stars — Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pine, respectively — allowing them to shine in their own right.) And give Washington credit: because he’s never been obsessed with being the world’s biggest action star, he’s focused on sturdy, stylish, respectable thrillers that don’t seem ludicrous for someone his age to be in. (He turned 57 at the end of last year.) He’s only had two $100-million-plus films in the last 12 years, but he turns out consistent doubles commercially, which have allowed him to age gracefully — a rare feat.

But, ultimately, what have all those sensible career decisions brought him? The grittiness of “Devil in a Blue Dress” is now 17 years ago. The stunning embodiment of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s brilliant biopic is now two decades old. The genuinely daring turns — such as in “He Got Game” and “Training Day” — are starting to feel more like aberrations in his catalogue. Instead of pushing himself, Denzel Washington seems to have settled into a comfortable groove that does well enough with audiences and impresses enough critics that nobody really minds.

Still, watching “Safe House,” I felt like I had already seen this Washington enough. It’s an intense performance, but there’s oddly no sense of stakes to it. Washington has never been beset by scandal — he’s been married to the same woman for almost 29 years — and he’s also never really suffered from a downturn in his commercial clout. If you wanted to show a young actor how to conduct his career (and life), you’d point him in the direction of Washington. But, oddly enough, while an erratic star like Tom Cruise has had his shares of up and downs, at least he has a certain urgency that gives his movies a jolt. (Part of the fun of the most recent “Mission: Impossible” was Cruise’s all-in commitment to the terrific action sequences.) Washington is steady as a rock professionally, but I do worry that it’s neutered his sense of adventure in choosing roles. One of his generation’s best screen actors, he has too long being content to simply coast. Even worse, too many of us have gotten so used to this fact that we don’t even seem to care.


Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at


Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…