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 ...

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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.

Archive

After a few days of being sick and then a few more days studying for and taking the Illinois drivers test and/or supporting a spouse doing the same, I managed to catch a handful of films at the Chicago International Film Festival, mostly movies that I'd missed at previous festivals. I'm sure I'll have more to say at some point about those films, but in the meantime you can monitor our quick reactions to recent screenings on our sidebar, Twitter, and — for reactions to new films in theaters — the grid.

Plus, we have a drift of interviews coming up here and on the podcast, with the likes of Claire Denis, Darren Aronofsky, Rian Johnson, Danny Boyle, and Arnaud Desplechin, each of them offering do-it-yourself instructions for performing some type of automotive repair, just in time for winter. Be there or be stranded. On yet another future episode, J. Robert Parks will go out of his way to try to convince me to watch a few classics that I've never seen, and vice-versa.

It's a pretty exciting queue of items, and I'm just glad we decided to call our site Occasional Plastic instead of one of the other, more demanding names we'd considered, which might have required us to type more consistently, read less exhaustively, and chew less safely. whew

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to get work done the last few weeks. I sit down to start grading papers or write that review, and instead I find an excuse to start surfing politico.com or MSNBC’s First Read or any of the dozens of political websites I’ve tripped over this election season.

I’ve been a political junkie for most of my life. I distinctly remember being enthralled with the 1976 presidential primaries when my third-grade teacher decided to put a big chart on the wall. I had no idea who Reagan or Carter were, but the steadily building numbers of delegates seemed almost mystical. A few years later I discovered a game about presidential campaigns and electoral votes at a friend’s house. I’m embarrassed to say I’d sometimes ignore him just so I could finish the game that he’d got bored of.

In high school, I became passionate about Model UN, and my political interests broadened. Ever since, my reading has revolved around newspapers and magazines that let me indulge my passion for understanding how the world — especially the political world — works and doesn’t work.

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Opening this weekend are three big movies that I'm not particularly interested in:

  • High School Musical 3
  • Saw V
  • Pride & Glory IV: Glory's Revenge Upon Pride

If you see them, please report back. We'll do the same if we get lost and stumble into the wrong darkened room and accidentally get a glimpse of one of them. Smaller releases include:

  • I've Loved You So Long, which I like less than others.
  • Changeling, the new Clint Eastwood film, which I'm afraid will remind me too much of that scene in Mystic River or that thing that happens in Million Dollar Baby. But maybe I'll check it out.

Far more interesting among the small releases are two imperfect but surprisingly fascinating films

  • Happy-Go-Lucky
  • Synecdoche, New York

The former is the new film by Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy) and the latter is the directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. I skipped the Leigh film in Toronto, assuming that it would be ... fine. But it turns out to be quite a bit better than that, not only because the Amélie-like surface of the main character is covering something far more interesting but also because she comes into contact with other personalities who to tease it out instead of highlight it with sprinkles. In the theater, Kaufman's film feels familiar and unpleasant — like rolling around in someone's laundry. But something about it is sitting well in the brain. More later.

Coming Soon

The early word from reliable sources on the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace, is not encouraging.

Halloween is fast approaching, so if you're planning to decorate your stoop or dress up that bale of hay that's sitting on your front lawn, you're going to need some pumpkins, first off. Second, you're going to want to carve faces into one or more of them, just like the one shown here. It's the traditional way. All your neighbors are doing it. But if you need instructions, check this site, which has more pictures of sample jack-o-lanterns for you to copy.

• • •

Too much work? The other tradition is turning off the porch light, reclining with an oversized bag of individually wrapped, bite sized candy bars, and watching a scary movie. For suggested rentals, we're turning to the gray lady's Dave Kehr, bloody historian:

Psycho, of course, was the great game-changer of the horror genre. Hitchcock’s masterpiece did away with any residual, romantic notions of the supernatural. True horror was to be found in the malformations of the human mind, and in the graphic violence practiced upon human bodies. By the time The Texas Chainsaw Massacre appeared in 1974, there was no turning back: the old dark house was now populated by psychopaths rather than spirits, and the ruling metaphor was the butcher shop.

...it would be dissolved by now. If you took a Claritin RediTabs here...

I remember the day — or at least the month — when a single advertiser started buying every billable surface inside a subway station so as to deliver an overwhelming heap of Message to transit passengers. You'd step from the train on your way into work, and suddenly you were in a pharmaceutical ad or an iPod commercial. Or, rather, you were the bleary-eyed wallflower glaring at the party's colorful dancers, still going strong from the night before.

Once an advertiser could buy an entire subway station, the next thought, clearly, was to go beyond simply filling the spaces with existing ad units to designing ads that are meant to hang in sequence. Like frames of animation, a line of billboards can deliver a long sentence or a joke, one phrase at a time.

This strategy does, of course, require some cooperation from the installers, who need to hang the signs in the right order. Otherwise you send idiosyncratic, needlessly ontological messages when simple persuasion is the goal.

Take the two Claritin ads, shown above, hanging in a San Francisco metro station. They're two of many in this series, but they occupy a prime location at the end of a hallway, the perfect spot for a one-two punch that, when read left to right, seems to claim that Claritin works so well its effects can be felt even before the drug is taken, a remarkable trait engineered by chemists who have finally tapped into a little known corollary of the placebo effect to create a drug that piggybacks on the serotonin — or whatever it is — that's released by the mere thought of taking a RediTab, by the faintest feeling of the foil wrapper against the fingertips, and who more impressively have engineered a tab that can be taken even after it has dissolved. Into what, taken how, the ad doesn't say. Perhaps it was dissolved into a purse or a backpack. Dissolving substances into my backpack is no trick, but I've never figured out how to consume them after it happens.

Then again, I've never tried. And they say that genius is the guts to try what average people won't.

On second thought, maybe the ads are aimed at people who walk backward, or people who read clauses right-to-left but words left-to-right, prime candidates for an allergy medication, both of them.

Rose Serra / Wild Bunch

Abel Ferrara's film-before-last is getting a belated release in New York this weekend. You can read my review of Mary, starring Forest Whitaker, Matthew Modine, and Juliette Binoche, at the site-before-last.

Lions Gate
Josh Brolin in Oliver Stone's W.

The early criticism of Oliver Stone's W. has centered around its lack of ideas, and indeed it's a veritable void, another entry in a catalog of fictional films about the Iraq war that haven't benefited from time and reflection.

It is the funniest of those films, and seems the least angry, but it doesn't function as commentary or insight, and more strikingly it doesn't function as a character study, even a fictional one. While the performances — by Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Thandie Newton, and others — are enjoyable to watch, it's hard to imagine this Condoleezza Rice sharing a scene with this George H. W. Bush. She's in a broad comedy, but he stepped out of an earnest TV melodrama about fathers and sons. They don't share a scene, but the glue between them is W himself whose outlines are left hazy so as to coerce the film's disparate modes into coexistence. On the outside, he's a face-feeding, shallow-thinking, attention-deficit-suffering plunger. On the inside, well that's anybody's guess.

Screenwriter Stanley Weiser seems to have assembled the script from notecards containing memorable phrases from recent American history. The greatest hits. "Fool me once ... can't get fooled again." "Slam dunk." "We know where [the WMD's] are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." He hasn't put the quotations where they belong in history; he's scattered them into the story like he's playing a parlor game, a cute corpse, not terribly exquisite. In this film, Rumsfeld makes his claims about the location of the WMD's not on TV but in the war room with Bush, Powell, Cheney, Franks, et. al. Instead of waving his hands, he waves a laser pointer.

These aren't factual errors; they're a deliberately ahistorical juggling of familiar iconography, and yet this shuffling presumes little difference between how these people talked to each other and how they talked to the public, which is wrong, dead wrong, maybe even fundamentally disqualifying. Would any general tasked with finding the WMD's sit quietly across the table from someone who told him he knew where they were? It's odd enough that George Stephanopoulos did it, but TV lights do strange things to people.

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On Monday night, Jon Stewart analyzed the New John McCain that was rumored to drop out of the rafters last weekend:

But the joke's on Jon: McCain pulled a switcheroo and brought a previously-seen John McCain to tonight's debate instead. Ha!

In non-political grudge matches: filmmaker David Fincher directed the latest Nike commercial about the fated meeting of LaDainian Tomlinson and Troy Polamalu:

Remember that old dude in Jurassic Park who unleashed a bunch of prehistoric beasts by reanimating them from a drop of blood that was caught in the proboscis of a mosquito who'd met her doom in a blob of DNA-preserving amber? Remember when those beasts got loose and tore up the joint, and the old dude likened it to a flea circus he'd built in his youth? And remember when Laura Dern told him that this seemingly intractable problem — which he created — was something he couldn't think his way out of, that he'd have to feel his through it, which is maybe the dumbest advice ever given to a mad entrepreneur in the movies? Well, he ate it up. Said, yes, he'd feel his way through it so that next time it wouldn't go so disastrously haywire.

Well, a year before that incident in the jungle, the same ass — Richard Attenborough — made a movie about Charlie Chaplin, and he didn't understand Chaplin any better than he did velociraptors. He feigned interest in Chaplin's art and acted like he was going to feel his way through the biography, but even though his heart swelled in the vicinity of the master, he somehow churned out a tabloid biopic of the worst kind. Little did anyone know that Pola Negri or some such starlet was so pivotal in this history. She gets some naked screen time in Chaplin, but Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight and A King in New York — Chaplin's later films, the first an oddly chilling subversion of his most famous character — don't exist. Attenborough barely examines the films that he does acknowledge, except to give them a cursory glance and place them into a timeline that seems to mock the entire medium. You'll find no greater fan of Chaplin than me, but it's silly to think that cinema was all about thrown pies until Chaplin alone turned it into an art form. Attenborough's 50 years in the business surely taught him that much, but the token idolatry of his film says otherwise. As far as the plot is concerned, the work is a mere psychological motivator that serves, above all, to bring the artist fame and fortune. I suspect the real Chaplin, who shot 300 hours of footage for an 82-minute film called The Gold Rush, would disagree with that assessment of his priorities.

Attenborough probably could have reanimated Chaplin from blood, mosquito, and amber, but instead he did the next best thing: he hired Robert Downey Jr. for the lead role, and this actor clearly put something more than just heart into the job, something more like elbow grease and I assume significant practice. I'm not sure how exactly he tapped into the contradictions of Chaplin's personality nor how he mimicked the physical performances with such staggering precision, but I remember thinking in 1992 that the movie, bad as it is, might be a net positive if it replaces in the public's mind the gussied up tramp of those IBM commercials with Downey Jr instead. I also get a kick out of seeing the great Geraldine Chaplin play her own grandmother in a small role, but it's Downey Jr. who makes the film more than a regrettable footnote; thanks to his out-of-band contribution, it's a regrettable footnote with an asterisk that reads "outstanding performance."

To date, Attenborough's film is the only feature-length biopic on Chaplin, and while there are several documentaries — some of them only a tad better than this fictional feature — the best by far is diametrically opposed to gossip. Unknown Chaplin, a three-part BBC documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, goes into the weeds and tries to divine Chaplin's methods from the footage he cut away. Brownlow and Gill show a nine-minute sequence cut from City Lights in its entirety, without talking over it, the antithesis of the highlight reel that ends Attenborough's film. Theirs is the studied gaze of knowledgeable and still-curious cinephiles who pore over shots like excited archeologists, and their unpacking of Chaplin's early short film The Immigrant is both scholarly and suspenseful, proving that the subject withstands scrutiny and holds an audience even with no mention of starlets and scandals.

A special 15th Anniversary Edition of Chaplin arrives on DVD today.
Universal
Will Ferrell and a whole bunch of Sleestaks in the adaptation Land of the Lost

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned how 11 of the 30 movies already scheduled for next summer are sequels or prequels. I know what you’re thinking — that leaves a lot of room for original stories. Fortunately, however, there are a lot of blockbusters based on other things we’re already familiar with. Like TV shows! Who can forget delightful TV adaptations like Charlie’s Angels II and The Beverly Hillbillies? So in the great tradition of The Mod Squad, next summer will give us The A-Team. I pity the fool who doesn’t go see that movie!!

I was starting to get nervous that Hollywood was running out of TV shows to make into movies, but then I heard they’re making Land of the Lost. Of course! Saturday morning live-action TV shows! We could be watching those movies for years to come! Even better, Will Ferrell is starring in this one. That’s kinda cool because he usually doesn’t have any movies in the summer. I’m a bit surprised, though, as I don’t remember Land of the Lost being a comedy when it was a TV show. But I guess with this and Semi-Pro, Ferrell is tired of making us laugh and hopes to make us cry, too. You go, big guy!

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