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

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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 ...

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About

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.

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Focus Features
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Brad Pitt shooting Burn After Reading

If there's a trait I hate to see in a film critic it's the willingness to dismiss with little thought a film that doesn't immediately reveal itself. So when I sense that tendency in myself, I feel a little guilty.

Take the Coen brothers. I was a fan in college but eventually decided that I'd seen all their tricks and lost interest. College seems like the right age to appreciate their stuff, and while I always wished they'd attempt something a little more ambitious with their obvious gifts, that mythical film has never materialized. I kept watching their movies up through Intolerable Cruelty, the one with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the one with the asthma inhaler gag, the one with the rapid fire conversations that — I remember noting — I'd like to watch again one day, separate from the rest of the film, if possible.

But it was the last straw. The Coens were no longer an auto-see. I skipped The Ladykillers.

Even No Country for Old Men, which I watched in the ritzy digs of Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival, felt to me like an exercise of their technical abilities — their way with storytelling mechanics more than anything else — and an exercise that sustained a good hour before it drifted into pretensions I didn't believe.

But after a quick dismissal and the subsequent guilt, I gave it more effort. Everyone else was. It seemed only fair. Revisiting No Country for Old Men didn't turn me around, but it reminded me that their exceptionally well-crafted films do offer certain pleasures, like the pleasure of releasing a shoelace from its knot. But when the knot seems to exist for its own sake, when it seems to have been created only for me to unravel — gee, thanks — I'm inclined to use the scissors and get it over with.

Burn After Reading isn't generating the same critical dialogue that No Country for Old Men did, for whatever reason. As our sample of quotes in the grid attest (which are not, of course, representative of the universe of criticism; they're just our faves), this one is disappointing to many people who see it as the return to a lesser form. Me, I'm not sure they ever strayed very far.

But when Michael Sicinski, Mike D'Angelo, Victor Morton, and Karina Longworth actually sort of agree that Burn After Reading has merits and find plenty to roll around in (a couple of them placing it among their favorite films of the year!), maybe it's worth a little more time, even while steeling myself against the the aroma that's always steaming from the Coens stew: that we the viewers — and especially we the critics — are one of the joke's many butts. To bark in all caps at the idiocy of other reviewers, to complain that some of the film's detractors in Toronto* were "people who like to spend a lot of time bitching," is reminiscent of its own noisiest characters.

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Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

A whole bunch of sites have been posting their previews for the fall/winter movie season, but who really cares about that? It’s just going to be a bunch of depressing family dramas, war movies, and stuff about history. The Oscars themselves are awesome, but watching the actors try to win Oscars sure isn’t. Anne Hathaway is already getting buzz for her performance as some kind of addict, but I wish she’d just give America what it wants — another Princess Bride sequel. Apparently, Mickey Rourke is playing a washed-up celebrity. Why doesn’t he stick to what he knows best?

Me, I’m still basking in the glow of this past summer. I mean, how often do we get Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy in the same summer? I saw Made of Honor three times, The Love Guru four, and College five. My favorite, though, was Wanted. The plot was a bit complicated, but the chance to see a beautiful pregnant woman slaughtering whole cities doesn’t come around every day.

So rather than waste time trying to figure out what you should see these next couple months, I thought I’d look ahead to next summer’s lineup, when the real action will heat up!!!

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Dreamworks

Let's suppose for a minute that it's OK for a movie to be completely, flat-out, sponge-brained preposterous.

A woman rings up Shia LaBeouf, tells him the FBI will be at his door in 3, 2, 1 — boom — enter the FBI. This woman continues to be prescient, wait, not just prescient but able to control every object in Chicago that runs on 'lectricity. She can dial any phone, swing any crane, and reverse any El. She can put messages on the screens at McDonald's, flip the traffic lights to Mr. LaBeouf's favor, and dispense orders from the FBI's fax machine. I bet she could even update your Facebook status without your knowledge. She's just that connected.

Fine. Let's accept that. She rings up Mr. LaBeouf — Jerry, a regular guy who works at Copy Central — to tell him that he's "been activated," which is a euphemism for being framed by a disembodied, preternaturally connected female voice. Jerry is to meet up with Rachel (Michelle Monaghan) who's been comparably activated. The voice tells them to drive to such and such and do something, and since they're running from the FBI, having been framed, this trip involves not a leisurely drive but a massive car chase, shown with such fast cutting that I began to feel somewhat activated myself by the end of the first big crash-up.

Here's my problem. In real life, a menace that's everywhere and unescapable would be terrifying. But in movies, it's the locatable killer who generates more suspense. A man with an axe is bound by the laws of physics, so our minds calculate where he might be. Behind the door? In the basement? Out back? The killer who's everywhere — in your dreams, your brain, your walls and drains and household appliances — has it too easy.

Eagle Eye isn't a horror film, but the same principle applies. I don't mind that it makes no sense. I mind that it makes no suspense. (Har har.)

Thanks to her impressive reach, the voice is able to coerce Jerry and Rachel into a mission against their will and, I must say, one that could have been accomplished by simpler means. Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson — two cogs in this Rube Goldberg machine — are the straight-talking authorities pursuing our coerced pair of everypeople. As they were in The Fugitive, the cats and mice are likable in this film. For his previous movie, Disturbia, director D.J. Caruso borrowed heavily from Hitchcock's Rear Window, and this time he's consciously mining North by Northwest (a man is roped into a scheme he cares nothing about) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (a set piece is built around a musical crescendo). And by the end he even folds Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey into the mix.

Say, where is the menace in 2001? He's everywhere, it seems. The HAL-9000 computer has a red glowing eye in every part of the ship. But the points of tension in Kubrick's film, the iconic conflicts between man and machine, generate suspense by constraining HAL's location: the astronauts step into a docked pod so HAL won't hear them, negotiate with HAL to get back into the ship, and dismantle HAL by entering his physical memory.

Eagle Eye isn't so carefully considered, of course, and it has only one layer of metaphor to 2001's two thousand and one. It's built around a single, reasonably clever analogy that says we're all slaves to something that I shall not reveal in this review. You'll have to see the film. But if answering that question sustains your interest, you're a more activated person than I.

David Lee
Omar Benson Miller and Matteo Sciabordi star in Miracle at St. Anna

Two years ago, directors Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood got into a pissing match about Eastwood’s two Iwo Jima films. Lee was upset that there wasn’t a single African-American soldier in either movie, arguing that Eastwood was perpetuating old Hollywood stereotypes that denied the role of black soldiers in WWII. Eastwood responded by saying that Lee should “shut his face.”

Skip ahead two years to Spike Lee’s rejoinder, a 160-minute war story entitled Miracle at St. Anna. It focuses on the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division during the Italian campaign of 1944. Though he doesn’t paint all the black infantrymen as upstanding heroes, Lee obviously wants to hail the bravery of those soldiers too often ignored in official histories, as well as highlight the endemic racism that existed both in the Army and back at home. That worthy goal unfortunately results in didactic exposition and dialogue that sound like the script was written by a clumsy historian rather than a skilled screenwriter.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s plot revolves around a Holy Fool character, a private named Sam Train who, early in the film, finds a young Italian boy talking to himself in a barn. Though the two can’t speak to each other, they quickly bond over chocolate, and Train commits his whole being to the boy’s safety. Much of the movie takes place in a small Italian village where a quartet of black soldiers have been separated from their unit and taken up residence. While there, they flirt with the one pretty local woman, interact with the Italian Partisans, and seem strangely unconcerned about whether the Nazis might suddenly show up.

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense in Miracle at St. Anna, but there’s a lot to appreciate, too. I love how Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique use desaturated colors to beautifully convey the historical time period without resorting to black-and-white or sepia-toned. There are several scenes inside buildings that contrast light and shadows in gorgeous ways. The movie also ponders the deeper spiritual themes of good and evil in times of war, even questioning the idea of how God could perform a small miracle and yet allow so much destruction (pay attention to everything that happens at the St. Anna church). I’m a sucker for those kinds of metaphysical debates.

On the acting front, Derek Luke is stiff as the stand-tall sergeant, but the other primary actors are solid, especially Omar Benson Miller as Train. While there’s not a single believable aspect to his character, the relationship between Train and the boy still packs a punch. Strangely, Lee has cast several high-profile actors in surprisingly small roles, so don’t go in expecting Joseph Gordon-Levitt or John Turturro to get much screen time.

With all the film’s flaws (the poorly constructed battle sequences are another), I would’ve grudgingly admired Lee’s latest if not for a risible frame story set in 1983 that seems designed merely to set up some kind of emotional ending. The only emotion I felt, though, was disgust, and the closing credit song of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” didn’t help any. He may have the whole world, but let’s not blame him for this movie.

Jessica Miglio/Fox Searchlight
Brad William Henke and Sam Rockwell in Choke

“I’m ok, you’re ok” burst into American consciousness in the ‘70s and has become a mantra of sorts for millions. But no one really believes that crap. It’s more “I’m ok, and you’re a selfish a-hole who needs to stop talking so loud on the damn phone.” One of the bracing things about Choke is that its main character, Victor, doesn’t even try to pretend he’s ok. He’s a sex addict, and he’s proud. He takes advantage of almost everyone around him, and he doesn’t lose a wink of sleep over it. He makes money by forcing himself to choke in front of wealthy diners, hoping they’ll save him and then, feeling a sense of connection, start sending him cash. Amazingly, it works.

His life, though, is a shambles. His mom is moving up the floors of a mental illness facility (up is bad), and she doesn’t even recognize him anymore. And the only people he hangs out with are other sex addicts who, once they find genuine relationships, don’t really need Victor’s caustic friendship anymore. But one day he bumps into a caring, pretty doctor at the facility. Even better, he finds his lust turning into genuine ... well, maybe not love but something approach affection. Oh yeah, he also might be the son of God.

This unlikely setup would be almost impossible to take if it didn’t have Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) and Kelly MacDonald (No Country for Old Men) in the lead roles. Rockwell sells the stylized narration and dialogue (courtesy of the novel by Chuck Palahniuk) as if it was a loaded used car, and MacDonald conveys a vulnerability that humanizes the entire story. And truth be told, some of the movie is hilarious, particularly the scenes set in a Colonial living museum.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough. The repeated flashbacks with Victor as a boy and his mom are pointless. Not only does Anjelica Huston as the mom seem bored, these attempts to add some kind of emotional depth to Victor’s condition are as phony as his choking condition. The Jesus metaphor is equally hollow, serving only to distract us from the somewhat three-dimensional chracters on screen. Worst of all, the film loses its nerve, abandoning the humor and actually embracing the “I’m ok, you’re ok” philosophy. After 85 minutes of cynicism, that cliche is a bit hard to, uh, swallow.

James Bridges / Roadside Attractions

When Tim Robbins isn't twitching or faking an accent, I kind of like him. When his characters clinch their jaws or go all crazy in the head, I can't stop thinking, "Now, what's he supposed to be again?" And by the time I uncock my head, I realize that I've missed some important dialogue.

Point is, he's a normal dude in The Lucky Ones, and it makes all the difference. Three American soldiers are on leave from Iraq — Rachel McAdams, Michael Peña, and Robbins — and the plot conspires to keep them in the same car as they drive across the US en route to home and loved ones. It helps, therefore, that all three have enjoyable personalities. They're not in the least bit twitchy.

It's clear from the start, from the way these soldiers begrudgingly embark on a road trip in the face of air traffic hiccups, from the way the hand of the screenwriter keeps appearing like the wires on a flying saucer, that the film is a lightweight, quite a change from Neil Burger's previous film, a heavy confection called The Illusionist. But the light touch fits the story, which favors the simple emotional bonding of three people who don't know each other over the trite wartime lessons of movies like Stop-Loss. One of Burger's almost invisible successes is designing his characters as a balanced contrast of ages, genders, and attitudes linked only (only?) by common experience in Iraq and the scars they have to show for it. And a need to get across the country.

The film shifts smoothly between light comedy and light tragedy — thoughts of suicide are very real one minute but something to chuckle about later — much more easily than it navigates the hairpin turns of the plot. When you need to plant an RV full of beautiful sex workers at a rest stop, or when you need a tornado to cure a character's impotence, you've lost your purchase as a screenwriter.

But the three road-trippers somehow remain true despite the many elbows in their highway, and even the melancholy ending feels natural and poignant, which half-way through I would have thought to be impossible. The film avoids simple bromides about the war, families, or the soldiers who oscillate between them, yet in a subtle way the conclusion has an attitude toward all three.

Slim Volumes is our series about very short books. Today we look at Devotional Cinema by Nathaniel Dorsky. Published in 2003, 54 pages.

Shots and cuts need each other. They are cinema's primal handmaidens. The shots, as moments of luminous accommodation, ripen and expand and are popped like soap bubbles by the cut.
— Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema

When experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky spoke last year at a screening in San Francisco, he described his mysterious form of filmmaking as a constant effort to prevent his work from "collapsing into meaning."

I love that. Narrative filmmakers work hard to tell stories visually, to make movies that have a literal meaning, even if that meaning is just a sequence of events in an action thriller: one man is stalking another and intends to shoot him. Or: that woman is annoyed by that child.

But half the work of constructing a film's meaning belongs to the viewers. By now, we all know how movies work. We know that two shots in succession fit together somehow. They're side-by-side because they're two views of the same building or two sides of a conversation. Even a bad film may meet the requirements of film grammar, the way a disaster-ridden wedding may still come off OK, if only because every attendee is a veteran of such events. The crowd propels things forward by supplying missing details, by collapsing the gaps into something that makes sense.

Many of Dorsky's non-narrative shorts are shot on the streets of San Francisco, but his goal isn't to create a travelogue or city symphony. San Francisco is just the raw material, so he constantly works against traditional cinematic language and against the viewer's natural tendency to see the object that his camera was pointed at instead of the color and shapes on the celluloid. His films aren't meaningless, but if they succeed it's because, rather than capturing a beautiful world, they undulate with a beauty of their own, one that reflects the world of the filmmaker but doesn't seek to contain it. A film that shows the Golden Gate Bridge may disappear when the bridge becomes the object of interest. Dorsky's films don't disappear; they appear.

Devotional Cinema, which grew out of a talk that Dorsky gave at Princeton in 2001, contains the ideas of someone who's thought about how and why films work, at a poetic-physical level. He considers not just experimental films but popular narrative films, too, and like his visual work, his text is crisp, spare, and gives me new ways to see movies.

The quality of light, as experienced in film, is intermittent. At sound speed there are twenty-four images a second, each about a fiftieth of a second in duration, alternating with an equivalent period of black. So the film we are watching is not actually a solid thing. It only appears to be solid.

On a visceral level, the intermittent quality of film is close to the way we experience the world. We don't experience a solid continuum of existence.

We sleep. We wake. We lose ourselves in thought. The traffic light turns green, popping the dream like a soap bubble. We reawaken to our surroundings. We turn our heads and see not a smooth pan but a series of jump cuts. "Intermittence penetrates to the very core of our being, and film vibrates in a way that is close to this core."

  • We love it when Reverse Shot puts together a symposium on a particular filmmaker, and few are as worthy as Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien. We went on about Hou ourselves back in November on our podcast.
  • And speaking of podcasts, we've enjoyed listening to our buddies in San Francisco talk movies on a new podcast called Vinyl is Podcast. No frills. Just chit chat about the great film offerings in the Bay Area. Be jealous.
  • This week in proper pronunciation: Italo Calvino's first name is pronounced EE-ta-lo. We have a hazy memory of Dustin Hoffman pronouncing it EET-lo

    in Stranger than Fiction, which probably works, as well.

  • We heard through the grapevine that John Lydon, whose last name is pronounced RAH-tuhn, is hawking butter on TV in the UK. Would the young man seen below in a 1980 interview with Tom Snyder approve? Actually, we're not sure.

A cliffhanger? Here's the rest of the interview.

Thanks for following our reports from this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Here's an index of our coverage:

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Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim in Treeless Mountain

It’s the last day of the Toronto Film Festival, and a bit of regret darkens my morning. I’ve skipped a few films the last few days, both because of poor reviews as well as a lack of energy. But as I walk to lunch, I can’t help but think of movies not seen, opportunities not taken. Who knows? Maybe one of those would’ve been my favorite of the fest? Ah well. Sometimes 40 films don’t feel like enough. Fortunately, there are three more before I head back home, and two are exceptionally enjoyable.

Some friends have described Treeless Mountain as a “children-in-peril” movie, which I find a bit strange. Yes, it’s a movie about two young girls, aged six and four. And, yes, they’re in a somewhat uncomfortable situation, as their mother has left them with an aunt to go find their father. But the girls are never in any danger. The aunt may be harsh at times, but she’s not a wicked stepmother figure, and most of the other adults in their lives are kind and comforting.

Instead, the movie’s focus is on how siblings interact, particularly in the way older ones, even as young as six, look after the younger ones and how the younger ones both depend on the older ones and live in their shadow. In this, director and writer So Yong Kim has captured incredibly naturalistic performances from her young charges. Much of the film is shot in tight close ups on their faces, and the tremendous emotion they convey is reminiscent of Victoire Thivisol’s amazing debut in Ponette. The movie is also funny in numerous places, as the girls try to take care of themselves, believing that if they can save enough money their mom will return.

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