An Uncool Icon: Our Brief Tribute to the Work of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Celebrity deaths rarely make an impact on me. It’s not that I’m heartless or unsympathetic to the family of the departed, but the passing of someone I never met is more often a curiosity or bit of information than a moment of reflection and mourning. There are exceptions, of course. I felt a profound sense of loss when Roger Ebert passed away last spring, and it seemed as though the whole world was filled was sad reminders of that fact for days and days. Similarly, I will spend this week being quietly reminded that Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent drug overdose on Sunday morning in New York City.

The news itself staggered me this afternoon. I was helping my wife make lunch when Travis texted me the news, and I ran to the computer to confirm. It seemed impossible that a man who was still so young, only 46 at his passing, with decades of more great performances waiting, should be gone so suddenly. The sad details of his struggles with drug addiction and the young family left behind will make for a lot of tabloid fodder. Personally, I didn’t know the man and can only be sympathetic about such things from a distance. What I wanted to write about for The Recorder is what I know Phillip Seymour Hoffman as: an actor of the highest order who improved every project he was in through his sheer talent.
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“Drinking Buddies” and the Attractiveness of Opposites

    Drinking Buddies is available on Netflix Instant Watch. (Photo credit: The New Yorker)

Drinking Buddies is available on Netflix Instant Watch. (Photo credit: The New Yorker)

The 2013 Joe Swanberg-directed mumblecore film “Drinking Buddies” came out last summer to less fanfare than deserved, but it has found new life this month after being made available on Netflix streaming. The film was shot and takes place in Chicago, and centers around two co-workers at Revolution Brewing in Logan Square.

While the jury is out among Chicagoans I’ve talked to about whether or not the Windy City locales and references worth watching for, I feel it’s the characters and dialogue that make this 90-minute movie worth your time.

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The Vision of Martin Scorsese, in a Chorus of “F—s”

“Hookers and blow,” Travis said to me when I got home from the cinema Monday night “That’s all I kept repeating for half an hour after that movie ended. Hookers and blow.”

“Guilt,” I said. “So much Catholic guilt.”

Travis looked up from where he was grilling burgers, paused, and nodded in acknowledgment that we were both right.

Martin Scorsese, the greatest lapsed Catholic to ever direct movies, is always first to admit that his old faith’s morals, iconography, and attitudes form a major undertone—and are quite often vividly on display—in his oeuvre. And that faith’s lingering trappings have never risen to the forefront as they do in The Wolf of Wall Street, his magnificent black comedy which doubles as a purging litany, a three-hour documentation of the modern world’s sins crafted to highlight their obscene ridiculousness and cancerous effects on humanity, both individually and as a collective. It is by turns hilarious and humiliatingly repulsive. It is a film that people need to see. I’m not sure if it’s a great film; it’s not in the league of Scorsese’s masterpieces (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Departed) but it in some aspects it ranks with Dr. Strangelove in terms of dark satirical power.

The immediate point: the multitudes who are decrying that Scorsese glorified Jordan Belfort and made him into some sort of hero are drastically missing the point. Belfort’s introduction to us is immediately smarmy, a man you would have to refrain from punching in the stomach as he smiles at you, and his character only gets worse from there. His sparks of humanity flash only in bursts of seconds. Whenever confronted with a choice between the decent or sensible thing and self-indulgence, he opts for self-indulgence with no hesitation. He surrounds himself with enablers who only exaggerate his worst traits as mentors, friends, and business partners. He has no respect for anything but money and playing off people’s need for money. And when he does find two people who try to bring out his best, his self-control, who tell him what sort of man he’s becoming, he pushes both of them away for further hedonism. It’s almost—ALMOST—a caricature straight out of the Franks, Capra and Tashlin, but sadly, we now have lived long enough under a system which produces more and more accumulators of wealth at the expense of others. Jordan Belfort is no cartoon but a test case. This is, then, a film arriving at an opportune moment, but the pervasive nature of sin is so timeless a theme that, like Wilder and Sturges’s pictures, it is also a film that won’t date.

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Slaves, Hustlers, and Space: The 2013 Oscars Conversation Begins

You know it’s important when Thor takes charge.

The other day on Facebook, I got involved in a conversation about anticipating the Oscar nominations with an old friend, Clifford Galiher (2007 Jeopardy college champion, defeater of Andrew Rostan in that year’s Tournament of Champions), who compared Oscar Nominations day to Christmas Eve, all full of anticipation, but Oscar Night itself to New Year’s Eve—we all know what’s going to happen, but we still drink and have a great time.

I loved the simile, but I don’t think it entirely holds for 2013. This year, I don’t think there’s a single race you could call certain. Not even Best Animated Feature, because when you put Frozen up against what may be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, you get a fight I don’t want to call.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than among the three largest nominees, which present me with an interesting dilemma. Since I first became obsessed with cinema, there are two kinds of movies I have loved and always wanted to see get more Academy recognition, and you can probably blame Annie Hall and 2001: A Space Odyssey and David Lean’s movies for this. First, films that aren’t serious and weighty with importance but are lots of fun, with great acting, clever writing, plenty of laughs, and still able to leave you with some insight into humanity.


Second, intelligent spectacle, films with imagery and production which take your breath away while still having more on their minds than pure adventure or robots and monsters punching each other (NOT to put down Guillermo…and on the other hand, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the rare exception that proves the rule).

Two movies exactly like these ended up leading the pack with ten nominations each, but they had the bad luck, in my opinion, to come out the same year as a movie that got nine and happens to be, further in my opinion, one of the greatest American movies ever made.

All of them were nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and wracked up a huge presence in the other major categories.

There are plenty of other films to consider besides American Hustle, Gravity, and Twelve Years a Slave, but I’m going to kick off what I think will be an annual conversation with Alex by focusing on these three to ask, and answer, a series of questions which will make me wish Damien Bona was still around to offer smart and sarcastic home truths.

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An Amateur Made a Bunch of Oscar Nomination Predictions; You’ll Never Believe How Wrong He Was…Or How Right.

Okay, so the Golden Globes ceremony is in the books and the Oscar nominations being announced on Thursday. Guess it’s time for my 2nd Annual “Alex Makes a Lot of Predictions About Oscar Nominations, Many of Which are Wrong!” column. Good title, that. Or, no, I want more hits. “An Amateur Made a Bunch of Oscar Nomination Predictions; You’ll Never Believe How Wrong He Was…Or How Right.” Perfect.

In the name of saving you a lot of wasted time when I am wildly wrong on a lot of things in a few days I will but down greatly on my bloviating in this year’s column. That way there’s less egg on my face and you have more time to drink coffee and watch videos on UpWorthy. So I’ll paste in my predictions and then write a few sentences on each of the big races. For reference to a lot of the acronym-loving awards bodies please see this.
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Frozen: A Disney “What if?”

I am an unabashed lover of fairytales. My fondest childhood memories are mostly about my siblings and me sacking out on our parents’ bed while Mom read to us from an illustrated version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales. It opened with the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” which was fine. My little sister preferred “The Little Mermaid” or “The Little Match Girl,” but my favorite was the “Snow Queen.”

Gerda & the Reindeer (Edmund Dulac, illustrator)

I have no hate for Disney. I’d consider myself an affectionate if critical observer. I don’t really go in for dressing as a princess, but the Disney Marathon is on my bucket list. I know and understand the problems with ‘Princess’ culture—the idea that women need to be rescued from isolation or the control of our parents, that we need marriage (and therefore sex) to become adults and understand the world—yep, that’s all troubling. There’s been a lot of criticism written about it — just Google “problems with Disney princesses” and you’ll get results from The Week, the Boston Globe, and a host of bloggers. That said, I will still sing along with every single Disney song written between 1989 and 2000.

Thus, I was tentatively delighted when I heard that Disney’s newest conquest was to be my favorite fairytale. [Read more…]

How Would You Touch Me?: Spike Jonze’s Her


I used to have an OKCupid profile. It led to…well, nothing much, really. I’m not very good at dating. Most of my relationships to date have come about by my being in the right place at the right time. I tried online dating for a bit as a way to try and broaden my options. However, it just never felt right. Meeting people/talking online was weird. The lack of personal interaction was bizarre, to say the least. When the time came to finally meet people, there was an overt familiarity that lent itself towards social anxiety. This may be a case that many of you find familiar, or it may simply be me being socially awkward. Judging by my lack of OKCupid success, I’d lean towards the latter.

Anyway, one thing I continually noticed on the site was listed under a section titled “Things I couldn’t live without.” Around 90% of the time, people had their phone listed. The reasons varied, yet the unassailable uniting factor was that their phone had become such a large part of their life, whether through social communication, apps, or whatever the fuck Yelp is supposed to do, people found that their daily lives could no longer continue without them. It had become almost a part of them, a “significant other”, to use the term lightly (“other” meaning a strange object outside the realm of nature and “significant” meaning…well, significant). It’s only a matter of time before you see phrases everywhere like “I’m in love with my phone”.

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One Bad Thing and Three Great Things About “American Hustle”

Before I tell you why you need to see American Hustle, I need on my end to explain why it is not a great movie. A movie with great things in it, yes, but not a great movie all around.

After my own viewing of American Hustle, my brain began to ponder my love for David O. Russell’s body of work and came to this conclusion: there’s a theme that runs through his movies about how something, be it war (Three Kings), the search for the meaning of life (I Heart Huckabee’s), or life itself (The Silver Linings Playbook) is fundamentally absurd, does not deserve to be on a pedestal, and may ultimately be meaningless due to its random ability to completely shift your world on a dime with one act, one new piece of information, one ridiculous coincidence.  But, and here I borrow two definitive phrases from one of my new Twitter friends, David Roth of SB Nation (@david_j_roth…follow him), if one Lives Life Passionately and displays a Radical Compassionate Sentimentalism, appreciating the absurdity but never neglecting to care for others, one finds their own meaning and ultimately fulfillment, purpose…their silver lining as Pat Saliterno would call it, or their happy ending, their deserved happy ending, as I would call it.

The problem with American Hustle, a film that now allows Russell to revel in the absurdity of institutions, from government to law to organized crime, while filling it with passion, compassion, and a positive ending, is…

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