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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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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.

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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…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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