Plastic Podcast

The venerable and exceedingly intermittent Plastic Podcast, which has outlived the two blogs with which it was intertwined, and whose audio archives were difficult to ...

The Plastic Podcast

An audio program about movies. Listen with your iPod or computer.

Plastic Podcast

The venerable and exceedingly intermittent Plastic Podcast, which has outlived the two blogs with which it was intertwined, and whose audio archives were difficult to ...

Other Recent Podcasts


Favorite Recent Tweets

via Twitter


Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

The © copyright of all content on Daily Plastic belongs to the respective authors.


Merie Weismiller Wallace/DreamWorks
Brandon T. Jackson, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder

Comedies these days lack explosions and firearms, but Judd Apatow and Ben Stiller are on the job. Apatow's Pineapple Express and Stiller's Tropic Thunder, which have arrived in theaters during the dog days of August, are action-comedy hybrids that follow genre conventions even as they poke gentle fun at them. As a low-budget affair, Baghead, also in theaters, adds modestly-funded terror instead of top-dollar napalm to its comedy, but it too is a hybrid. Genres are back in vogue among hip young filmmakers, with rubrics so nice, they've followed them twice.

Very funny and very frivolous, Tropic Thunder is a big movie about making a big movie. Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and Jack Black star as actors shooting a Vietnam war film in the jungle. The film-within-the-film has a British director, played by Steve Coogan, who's in over his head, but the producer, played by Tom Cruise under heavy makeup, is turning the screws. He barks orders and spews invective over a video link from California, determined to whip this movie into the can. Desperate to comply, the emasculated director takes the radical step of 1) planting digital cameras in the jungle's trees and 2) dropping his stars in the middle of nowhere, with their costumes, fake guns, and a script outline. His last-ditch effort is to shoot their improvisations guerilla style.

The setup reads like the parody of a well-known piece of moviemaking folklore, one that's retold like a war story: the massive production beaten by the jungle. Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo are as famous for their schedule overruns, uncontrollable stars, and maniacal directors as they are for the final products. Consequently, their associated behind-the-scenes documentaries -- Hearts of Darkness about Coppola's adventure and Burden of Dreams about Herzog's -- are as fascinating as the films themselves, and maybe more.

But Tropic Thunder's satire isn't so lofty. It's down in the undergrowth, skewering certain Hollywood personality types using the folklore as a frame. Critics have collectively tied themselves into knots trying to measure how close the movie comes to crossing various lines of good taste, but more interesting than whether it causes offense is how carefully, or carelessly, Stiller and company navigate a minefield of stereotypes. They're walking on eggshells one minute and riding roughshod the next.

Continue Reading

Michael Snow's Wavelength
1. Squeezing Tears From an Emotional Interviewee

The subject sits in front of the interviewer and tells her sad story. The subject sits in front of the interviewer, over whose shoulder is aimed a camera, and tells her sad story. The subject sits in front of the interviewer, over whose shoulder is aimed a camera, behind which crouches a man squinting into a viewfinder, and tells her sad story. She hesitates when asked to say a little something about how it must feel to have gone through such an ordeal. It's still so hard to talk about. The man with the squinting eye reaches in two directions at once: one hand down between his legs, the other to curve around the zoom lens, trained on the subject, aimed from the outset of the interview so that a simple zoom will shrink the frame around her eyes in order to squeeze out a tear or preferably two.

And it starts. Her response to the difficult question. The rising action. His heart races. Her chin puckers. His fingers tug the tiny shaft. Her eyes look left and right. She tells her sad story. He moves in closer, close enough to feed upon the tears of wounded subjects. The interviewer tilts her head to the right and nods to keep the subject talking, and then shifts her notepad to the opposite knee so that, when the time comes, she can reach forward and pat the subject's hand, a comforting attagirl for a job well-done. It's a crucial moment. But the squinting man is in charge. His choice to begin zooming now, to draw the viewer into the miserable world of the subject, will govern the edit, will define the scene. When he stops zooming, the scene is over, but not before. It's his shot to get, and his to lose. He stands astride the very earth.

Continue Reading

Victor Bello/TWC 2008

Vicky is serious and engaged. Cristina is carefree and impulsive. Barcelona is beautiful and very, very sexy. Actually, that’s also true of Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, who play Vicky and Cristina in this golden-hued romantic drama. Oh, and Javier Bardem, too, who plays Juan Antonio (the name itself is sexy). And we can’t forget Penelope Cruz, as the overly neurotic Maria Elena, who is, despite her character’s troubles (or maybe because of), the sexiest one of all. That’s pretty much what you need to know about Woody Allen’s new movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona. To be honest, there’s not much more than that.

As the movie opens, Vicky and Cristina have arrived in Barcelona for a summer vacation. A droll but largely unnecessary voiceover brings us up to date, and soon the two have met Juan Antonio, an exceedingly suave Spanish painter who forthrightly invites them on a weekend getaway which will probably involve a threesome. 99.9% of all men would find themselves slapped in such a situation. Javier Bardem does not. What follows is a love triangle that later becomes a trapezoid when Maria Elena, Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, enters the picture. Word might have reached you that Johansson and Cruz engage in some kissing, but voyeurs (and aren’t we all, in a dark theater) should remember that the movie is rated PG-13.

To Allen’s credit, this rather preposterous setup comes off almost naturally. I might have recalled this hilarious Onion article on a couple occasions, but the actors are so strong and Barcelona so gorgeous that I found myself swept along for the ride. It helps immensely that, unlike Woody's films of the last 40 years, the male protagonist isn’t anything like Woody himself, for no one would ever confuse Allen and Bardem. Instead, Bardem plays the sophisticated European as every woman’s fantasy (women wishing to argue for Allen’s fantasy value can send their comments to our Antarctica office). He’s romantic and assertive, strong but sensitive, creative and handsome. We understand why a one-night stand with Juan Antonio might have Vicky reconsidering not only her wedding but her entire future. Her early declaration “I’m not free, I’m committed” feels more and more like a noose as the movie continues.

That theme of commitment vs. romance plays out like a battle, especially when a friend named Judy (Patricia Clarkson) encourages Vicky to follow her fantasy and screw the consequences. But even the plot threads of suicide and infidelity can’t compete with the filtered summer light that Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk to Her) conjure, with everything subsumed in a warm, hazy glow.

Yet, the film ends strangely like a sitcom, with the finale bringing us back to the very spot from where we began and with each character largely the same. A summer vacation may seem like an escape from the real world, but it’s hard to imagine that Barcelona and Juan Antonio wouldn’t leave more of a mark.

Jose Haro/First Look Studios

A filmmaker can do a lot with two people on a train, especially if they’re a husband and wife still working out their relationship. The cramped quarters, the parade of strangers, the disorientation of a new environment all provide rich soil for character development and conflict. So it is with Transsiberian, a movie about Jessie and Roy (played by Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson) riding a train from Beijing to Moscow.

The two are relatively happy, but differences lurk over whether to start a family and how to deal with their respective histories (Jessie has led a much more colorful life). Things get more complicated when Carlos and Abby, a mysterious young couple, join them in their sleeping car. Carlos takes a liking to Jessie, while Jessie is trying to figure out what’s going on with Abby. Roy and Jessie soon get separated (is Carlos responsible?), leaving Jessie in a tenuous position.

Director Bran Anderson knows how to manipulate the audience. Hints abound that Carlos might be up to something bad. Drug smuggling? Maybe. Human trafficking? Possibly. But he also could just be a suave Lothario. No matter what, we know that Jessie shouldn’t go on that "innocent" walk with him when they get off the train, and soon she’s in a lot more trouble than she could have ever imagined.

But just when the movie should focus on characters and relationships, it takes a right turn into plot. And an ugly, barbaric plot it is, which is surprising. If you’re making a movie that stars Ben Kingsley (as a narcotics investigator) and features exotic railway travel and interesting characters, the likely target audience will be middle-aged arthouse fans. Last I checked, that demographic isn’t so big on brutal mutilation and punishing violence.

This shift in tone is particularly regrettable because Harrelson gives a wonderfully subtle performance as an earthy, religious husband. I’m not usually a fan of Harrelson’s wide-eyed approach, but here he creates a likable and genuinely interesting character. Roy wants to connect with his wife despite their contrasting pasts, and he’s willing to look like a fool and take some chances to make it happen. Kingsley doesn’t have much to do besides practice a different accent (Russian this time), while Mortimer is a nicely down-to-earth actress who’s a bit outmatched in the movie’s more intense scenes. Unfortunately, there are a lot of those.

Lucasfilm Ltd./Warner Bros. Pictures

Mark Hamill, the star of the first three Star Wars films, once remarked, “I have a sneaking suspicion that if there were a way to make movies without actors, George Lucas would do it.” Film critics who sat through The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones had a similar feeling. And now with the further development of animation technologies, Lucas has reached that point.

He isn’t directing the new computer-animated flick Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but his DNA is all over it. The story about Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi trying to save the son of Jabba the Hutt is just a skeleton for some cool battles (at least my nephew thought so) and overly intricate political intrigue.

The movie is a set-up for the TV show set to debut this fall on Cartoon Network. The animation is intentionally retro, in the movie, at least. None of the beautiful backgrounds of Kung Fu Panda, little of the sleek design of the Pixar films. Instead, we have the somewhat geometric characters that are common in video games, which fits since most of the movie feels like a long video game, with various battles involving ships, droids, and clones. And of course Jedis with lightsabers.

The most interesting character is also the one that feels the most calculated. Ahsoka is a young Jedi-in-training, or Padawan for the fanboys out there. So she functions as both the spunky sidekick and the object of interest for the pre-teen crowd who are the most likely viewers of the TV show. And yes, she’s a she, in what I suspect is a vain attempt to attract young girls to the franchise.

Fans of the franchise won’t need any prodding to check out Lucas’s new direction, though ‘new’ isn’t quite the right word. The Clone Wars storyline started out as a video game in 2002, became a TV show in 2003, and morphed into a series of graphic novels. But re-baking old material is old hat for Lucas. Only the technology changes.

Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

Glenn Kenny writes:

Although WALL*E ends with a very apt and moving nod to City Lights, it is in fact Pixar’s answer to Modern Times...

Michael Sicinski writes:

For a film as fundamentally simple as WALL*E, there are myriad ways to begin discussing it. Perhaps one entry point, and a key distinguishing feature from other Pixar films, is the fact that it actually integrates live-action material. The taped messages from Fred Willard's Shelby Forthright, president / chairman of Buy 'n Large not only provide a filmic texture distinct from the rest of the film; they represent a critical "outside" to the post-apocalyptic robot world and the flabby parahumanity supported by it.

  • Chaplin's second movie with sound is Modern Times, but it's often referred to as his last silent film because it was shot without sound and the characters' voices are never heard. But it features an orchestral score, several of its jokes require sound effects (such as a sequence involving a radio advertisement), and two of the characters' voices actually are heard, including Chaplin's as the Tramp. Late in the film, the Tramp sings a song of nonsense syllables that sound vaguely French, but the film's larger and more imposing voice belongs to the factory boss who appears on a giant screen above his workers and seems to be able to watch them from on high. The boss barks orders: "More speed." He doesn't need to call himself the great-and-powerful anything, because he controls the machines. (Chaplin made the film five years before the Wizard of Oz and almost two decades before George Orwell wrote 1984.)
  • Modern Times is a hybrid. So is Chaplin's previous film, City Lights, which also has an orchestral score and a joke about audible speech (Chaplin voiced the characters in the opening scene with a kazoo). But Modern Times, which was made well after the advent of talkies, was conceived from the start as an anachronism. Its outdatedness is built into the theme. The Little Tramp is moving into the mechanical age, the mindless age of industry. The machine to which he's a slave, the machine that swallows him past its conveyor-belted tongue, looks from the side like a giant film projector that jams when the Tramp is threaded like film itself onto its sprockets.

Continue Reading

As many critics have remarked, the first 45 minutes of WALL*E feel like a silent movie, using purely visual elements to construct its characters and story. It’s possible, though, that the Pixar folk didn’t look all the way back to the silent era. Rather, they might just as easily have studied Albert Lamorisse’s famous 1956 short film, The Red Balloon.

That 34-minute movie relates the tale of a little boy who discovers that an unusually large balloon is following him. ‘Tale’ might be too sophisticated a word, however, as the narrative is simple to the point of being iconic. Boy finds balloon, boy sometimes loses balloon, boy and balloon join together again, boy and balloon traipse through Paris. The delight in watching such a simple story comes from how Lamorisse endows the balloon with a strong, magical personality. It hovers outside the boy’s room, waiting for him to come outside again. It refuses to let other boys play with it. In one hilarious sequence, it taunts an old man who, in frustration, has locked up the boy.

Still, the primary relationship comes from how the balloon teaches the boy. It is more than happy to play with him, but it refuses to be controlled by him. Early on, he scolds it, “You must obey me and be good.” Not quite, we soon learn. Rather, the boy must learn to respect the balloon, and only then can the magic happen. And indeed it does happen, with finely tuned sight gags and beautiful, visceral tracking shots through Paris streets. This reaches its zenith when a rebellion of balloons fills the sky with brilliant color over the famous Parisian architecture. Then in a truly transcendent moment, boy and balloon become one and take flight. Don’t let its short length fool you; there is more joy here than in most films four times longer.

The Red Balloon was released on DVD earlier this spring by Criterion.
James Rexroad/Paramount Vantage
Nanette Burstein shooting American Teen

Nanette Burstein was nominated for an Oscar for her debut film On The Ropes and received critical acclaim for The Kid Stays in the Picture, but her latest documentary shifts from the highly specific story of a well-known movie producer to the more universal tale of teenagers. Indeed, American Teen feels almost archetypal, as Burstein follows four classic American types--the popular girl, the band geek, the quirky outsider, and the jock--through the ups and downs of their senior years. The film captures the teens as they fall in and out of love, wrestle with the demands of friends and parents, and struggle with where (or whether) to go to college.

We sat down with Burstein and talked about reality TV, crafting a story, and whether teenagers really are that self-absorbed.

On the Whys and Hows of Filming Teenagers

J. Robert Parks: You've done documentaries on boxers, on music, on Robert Evans. Why teenagers in small-town Indiana?

Nanette Burstein: I wanted to do a film on teenagers. One, I was influenced by this documentary called Seventeen, which was actually shot in Indiana. Also, my high school experience was such an important time in my life. It was very challenging, but also very formative in defining who I ultimately became. So I wanted to do a movie that was personally very important to me.

JRP: One of the things I find interesting about the film is that these teenagers almost seem like they're out of central casting. You've got the band geek, you've got the queen bee, you've got the jock and so forth and so on. I'm curious how you chose the teenagers you did. Were you looking for those kinds of things, or did that storyline develop as it went on?

NB: I was definitely looking for kids from different social cliques and different social classes. But they didn't have to be as archetypal as they were. I'm glad that they are, because I think they defy the stereotypes and are surprising and unexpected, and that's what I was looking for. You think you know who they are, just like their peers think "oh this is the theater geek." But in fact they're very different people, and they're complicated, and they're trying to figure out who they are.

Continue Reading

Warner Bros. Pictures

Three years ago, when the first Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie hit theaters, Alexis Bledel and Amber Tamblyn were the well-known stars, courtesy of their TV shows Gilmore Girls and Joan of Arcadia. But now things have shifted, with their fellow Sisterhood stars Blake Lively and America Ferrera grabbing magazine covers with TV hits Gossip Girl and Ugly Betty. As for their characters in the Sisterhood, well all four are riding high when we first meet them in the sequel, with Brown, Yale, NYU Film School, and Rhode Island School of Design the markers of success.

Still, as most 19-year-olds would tell their younger siblings, just getting into your dream college doesn't necessarily guarantee happiness. And as Tibby (Tamblyn), Lena (Bledel), Carmen (Ferrera), and Bridget (Lively) head towards the summer, not all is well. For starters, all four are scattering to summer projects, so that last f in bff looks a bit tenuous. Even worse, those projects have a way of bringing up problems of their own. Lena finds out her boyfriend from the first film has gotten married to someone else, Bridget is dealing with issues related to her mother's suicide, Carmen is struggling at a theater camp and, in the most provocative of the storylines, Tibby might be pregnant.

Although this material could be ripe for after-school specials, the conflicts are handled with patience and surprising depth. It helps that the actresses are strong. Tamblyn is especially good in conveying the anxiety that an unwanted pregnancy could bring, and Lively combines her natural charisma with some genuinely emotional acting. Only Bledel looks a little bored, though that might have something to do with her storyline being the purely romantic one of the bunch. Not that the other girls don't have potential love interests (in today's teen entertainment, this goes without saying), but romance is refreshingly secondary to issues of family and identity.

As with the first film and the books they're based on, the four storylines are largely independent of each other, so the narrative sometimes feels fragmented. Ironically, when the quartet finally does come together, the movie doesn't know what to do with them. But otherwise, director Sanaa Hamri keeps it all going, and there are several affecting moments. Tibby's scenes with her boyfriend are refreshingly mature (parents take note), and the movie slows down enough for us to appreciate their interactions. The same is true when Bridget confronts her dad and grandmother. Twelve-year-olds will be able to follow the story, but twenty-year-olds won't find the material beneath them.

True, the boyfriend possibilities feel like the work of a focus group of 14-year-old girls (soooo dreamy). But in a summer when Anne Hathaway has been caught in her lingerie and Angelina Jolie has been dipped in wax, it seems the height of hypocrisy for male critics to begrudge young women a little wish fulfillment of their own.

⟨ Later PostsEarlier Posts ⟩