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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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.


François Duhamel/Warner

The first half of Body of Lies is a crackerjack spy thriller. Leonardo DiCaprio is Roger Ferris, an up-and-coming operative who can actually speak Arabic. Russell Crowe is his handler back at Langley, driven to track down a terrorist (nefarious, obviously). The two Americans spend a great deal of time talking to each other on the phone, as Ferris criss-crosses the Middle East--starting first in Iraq and then Jordan and Dubai.

As you might imagine from the title, conspiracies and deception are intimated from the very beginning. Is that intelligence chief in Amman all he appears? What about Ferris’s new assistant? Is he on the up and up? And should Ferris really be falling in love with a Jordanian woman who lives in a Palestinian refugee camp? Of course, those of us who’ve seen these kinds of movies before will suspect Russell Crowe from the beginning.

The film, though, is more in the Tony Scott blowing-stuff-up mode than John le Carre’s cerebral approach. But Ridley Scott directs set pieces more effectively than his brother, incorporating high-tech surveillance footage and old-fashioned explosions into taut, urgent chases and confrontations that aren’t marred by ridiculously convoluted editing. This being a modern-day spy story, the Internet is also a primary location, though Hollywood still hasn’t learned how to make those kinds of encounters exciting (“now send emails to all his associates!!”).

The movie raises some interesting political issues early on, but those are quickly ignored for standard-issue espionage. Still, Scott and his editor Pietro Scalia move things along, offering just enough information to keep us guessing. That is, until the film’s final act when the guessing turns into head scratching.

The problem is that the film does such a good job of establishing Ferris’s motives early on that we don’t believe the story when his motives suddenly change. I spent far too much of the final 45 minutes asking, “Why is he doing that?,” and not coming up with a satisfactory answer. Indeed, a couple decisions are absolutely inane, but the movie hopes we won’t notice. This all culminates with a climactic scene that is both gratuitous and unconvincing. It’s all relatively watchable, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed.

Sarah Shatz / Dreamworks

In Ghost Town, Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) sees dead people thanks to a botched medical procedure. Manhattan has a lot of them. Dead people, that is, roaming around with unfinished business, looking very normal to each other, and now to Pincus, but invisible to everyone else. They look so normal that Pincus isn't even aware of his new ability until he joins a group of people crossing the street, steps in front of a moving cab, and startles at the screeching brakes and sudden horn. He didn't realize the other people are ghosts whom the cab driver can't see.

We behave differently in crowds. We're more likely to join a pack crossing the street than dart out alone during a yellow light, because we know the cars are already stopping for other people, because we know that any blame will be spread across all of us. We'll decide to stand or sit, head for the exit or wait in line, by weighing the actions of other people, and for a minute the film seems to have built this common social math into its story: What if one man sees a crowd that others don't?

However, screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps have a different reason for including the cab scene: it tells the ghosts that Gervais is not one of them. "Hey, the cab stopped for you!" a dead person says. In that slight exchange, the film's trigonometry turns into simple addition, and it continues in that vein to the end. The acute social observation that I thought I saw never again rears its head.

But at least there's Ricky Gervais. He's a dentist, a Scrooge, a lonely curmudgeon. Greg Kinnear is a ghost with unfinished business, Téa Leoni is his widow, and the film's trick -- which practically performs itself -- is to make this triangle line up without using sines or cosines.

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The S&P 500 dropped another seven percent today. Something to keep in mind as you look at your retirement account or whatnot: seven percent of your account isn't as much today, in real dollars, as it would have been if this had happened a week ago.

Our obligatory movie-related content, but Slap Shot and Paul Newman deserve separate posts of their own
*Well not exactly. Four NHL teams actually opened their season this past weekend with games in Europe. It was a publicity stunt designed to get people talking about hockey. Did it get you talking about hockey? Didn’t think so. — JRP

The National Hockey League season kicks off tonight*. For most people, that “news” elicits something between a shrug of the shoulders and a furrowed brow. Hockey in the second week of October? Isn’t football still on? At least people aren’t asking whether hockey players are still on strike.

I’ve been a hockey fan as long as I can remember. I joke with friends that growing up white and lower class in Michigan requires that you be a Detroit Red Wings fan, but I’m only half-joking. My childhood years coincided with the worst stretch in Red Wings history. In the first 16 years of my life, they only made the playoffs twice. And this was in a league where 16 out of 21 teams made the playoffs. Yeah, not good. Yet, still I rooted and hoped, believing as all true believers do that success was just around the corner, that my team would eventually shed the “Dead Things” nickname.

Eventually, they did, in large part because of two people: Mike Illitch, the owner who bought the team in 1982 and has run the organization with dignity ever since; and Steve Yzerman, who was drafted in 1983 and quickly became The Captain. I won’t bore you with my man-crush for Yzerman (and I am not alone, let me assure you). But I’m not embarrassed to say that I cried the day two years ago I heard Yzerman was retiring.

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Vivendi Entertainment

I had to ride six escalators to watch An American Carol yesterday afternoon, so it's entirely possible the altitude killed a few of the jokes. Keep that in mind.

As I sat down and wondered what I was doing, I also wondered how many of the other eight people watching this Monday matinee were people I shared a screening of Expelled with several months ago. Wait, that was in another city, another liberal oasis. Still. A few of these folks approached the film with the steadily declining enthusiasm of true believers, but I have a feeling the rest of us may have been living out a variant of Fight Club. I am Rob's morbid curiosity. I am Rob's counterproductive illusion of fairness.

'Cause most of the commentary I've stumbled across on political blogs about An American Carol begins and ends with the schadenfreude (there's that word again) of people reading its lackluster box office receipts like phrenologists massaging America's scalp. But divining truths from ticket sales is a fool's errand, and reading the zeitgeist by counting beans is easy only if you're wearing blinders. There are just too many variables for a simplistic conclusion. Sure, The Passion of the Christ cleaned up. And in the ranking of grosses for 2004 it falls between Spider-Man 2 and Meet the Fockers. Read them apples. An American Carol tanked, but so did War, Inc. People want comedies that are actually funny, you could say. But the financial reports in Variety often tell us otherwise.

So I had to see it. But I'm not fair. I remember telling my wife this time last year that I could live a happy life if I never had to see, read, or hear another adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol again for as long as I live. Don't like Tiny Tim and the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future nor the ghost of Jacob Marley appearing in Scrooge's brass knocker. Enough. Don't care if Scrooge is Bill Murray or Rich Little or a Michael Moore look-alike. Don't like being told I hate America, or that I'm not from "real America" because I live in a city instead of a suburb and because I don't listen to the right kind of music (which is arena-friendly, radio-ready pop-country). I have a couple of Ralph Stanley albums but, alas, no Trace Adkins. I'll put a boot in your bah humbug, it's the American way. Or a clog. Whatever. (Incidentally, I think this counts as breaking ranks.)

More importantly, don't like watching a comedy that can't deliver the goods. My post-screening tweet went like this:

AN AMERICAN CAROL lands not one joke. Michael Moore is fat! Smells bad! Hates America! NYC ain't real America. (Except ground zero.) Troops!

If Twitter had allowed me another four letters, I'd have finished with "Troops yay!" But I stand by the joke count. I don't remember a single chuckle, which makes this, by a wide margin, the least funny comedy I've seen all year. And remember, I saw War, Inc., and The Love Guru.

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In this week's guide to pronunciation, we offer help with a word that's been bandied about recently. It's pronounced SHAH-den-froy-duh. So if you're at a cocktail party and want to impress your friends, feel free to drop a line like, "The Dick Fuld hearing was an especially empty example of political theater, but at least it provided a good jolt of schadenfreude." Watch everyone's eyebrows rise in admiration or envy at your fine cultured self.

We here at Daily Plastic don't spend a lot of time listening to DVD commentaries, so we're always happy when someone else does the hard work for us. Doug Cummings offers a particularly nice write-up (nice because it earns its length) of the new Touch of Evil 50th Anniversary Edition that's just been released. Given our discussion of the Coen brothers last week, our ears perked up when we came across this line:

I’ve always considered Touch of Evil the best Coen movie not directed by a Coen brother, and the film’s sense of irony was easily thirty years ahead of its time; it also highlights the facile nature of today’s winking detachment in which nothing is taken seriously enough.

Hmmm yes.

Glen Wilson/Universal

One of the more pleasant surprises of last spring was the romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Though much of the marketing focused on Judd Apatow--the movie’s tagline was “From the guys who brought you The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up”--a producer credit is hardly a guarantee of success. Portending ill was a debut director, a debut screenwriter who had also finagled himself into the lead role, and a cast of TV actors who hadn’t shown any ability to carry a film. Besides, it’s hard to make a movie that’s both funny and romantic.

But Forgetting Sarah Marshall is able to pull off that winning double. Jason Segel, the aforementioned screenwriter/actor, is sweet and comical as a TV music composer trying to get over being dumped by his famous girlfriend (Kristen Bell). In his attempt to get away from it all, he lands at the very resort where his ex and her new boyfriend (the hilarious British comic Russell Brand) are staying. As in all great screwball comedies, the random and uncomfortable ways characters bump into each other provide much of the humor.

This being an R-rated comedy, sex and its foibles provide the rest. Nudity abounds. Well, male nudity at least, which is a much richer vein for laughs. But the actors also play off each other well. Mila Kunis (best known for her role in That ‘70s Show) is particularly winning as the new girl who may or may not be right for our hero.

The film also earns its emotional payoff. It doesn’t demonize the ex (Kristen Bell is too cute for it to work, anyway) or the new boyfriend, but it makes clear who we’re rooting for. And then it swings the audience back and forth, so that we’re not quite sure what path we’re on. Romantic comedies aren’t designed to surprise you with their endings (was there ever a doubt who Cary Grant was going home with?); their charm relies on how we get to that foreordained conclusion. Forgetting Sarah Marshall does it with laughs, a dash of intelligence, and a strong, likable cast.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall was released on DVD last week.

People learning English often say that prepositions are tricky. Using 'at' instead of 'on' can completely undermine your argument or turn your aside into an attack. You have to memorize idioms. There's no way around it.

For instance, today I accidentally typed Burn Without Reading when writing about the Coen movie. A number of writers have joked about the actual title of the movie being applicable to the film itself (guilty), but I think "without" might've invited even more of it.

A few alternate titles:

  • Burn despite Reading
  • Book-lovers Burn about Reading
  • Arsonists in Berkshire: Burn in Reading
  • And my favorite: Burn by Reading. Zap!
Lol Crawley / Alluvial Film Company
JimMyron Ross and Tarra Riggs in Ballast (Hammer)

Darren Aronofsky's new film is called The Wrestler, and much of it is shot with a handheld camera that sometimes -- only a few times, really -- stares at the back of its eponymous hero's head as he walks around. It brings to mind Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne whose films -- only a few of them, really -- sometimes make use of this same composition. It's exciting to think that mainstream American filmmakers may be influenced by the Dardennes, but the link to The Wrestler is fairly superficial. That isn't to say it's a bad film, not at all, but Aronofsky's appropriations, if they be, are skin deep. If he'd used a Steadicam for that same shot, we'd all be citing Béla Tarr.

The linkage goes much deeper in Ballast, the tiny, Mississippi-based debut by writer-director Lance Hammer who not only alludes directly to the Dardennes with a shot of a guy on a motorcycle but also seems to have internalized the humanism that drives their style. Rather than use the camera to gawk at an unfamiliar world, Ballast feels like an attempt to live within that world for as long as possible.

The Dardennes are known for using minimal exposition, natural light, only diegetic music -- a quilt of countervailing minima, you could say -- and they've proven that such a spare style lends weight to even minor flourishes. A film's entire attitude may rest on the timing of a cut to black. There's a scene in Ballast that shows the young protagonist sketching the face of a playing card, a king, while his mom discusses his schooling with his uncle. The discussion is happening in the wake of a family tragedy that has left everything in question, including the boy's future. While he and his pen remain in focus, the grownups are a blur in the background, squished by the lens so they look like aliens. Aside from its inherent beauty, the shot seems open to the mind in a way that it might not be if it were just one of many such gestures. But it's unique in the film, and it seems to have leapt from the work of the Dardennes -- who, to my recollection, haven't shot anything that looks quite like this -- toward something that is similarly inspired but also quite new. In this scene, the boy's attention remains fixed on his pen-project while Hammer's remains fixed on his camera-project, which is the boy, the lives of rural Mississippians, the world he seeks to know however an outsider with a camera can. The voices of the adults are soft in the mix.

Hammer's final shot before the Son-like cut to black is a pan inside a moving car that sets the characters on a particular trajectory. This simple, quick camera movement connects the same three people we saw in the sketching scene and elegantly answers a central question, answers it in the affirmative, and answers it silently. There's great pleasure in watching characters solve their problems by standing on them like ballast, and there's great pleasure in discovering a new filmmaker who's more interested in watching the rise than the fall.

Hear also: my chat with Hammer at Sundance '08.
Dale Robinette / Warner Independent Pictures

In Alicia Erian's novel Towelhead, Jasira's mother, angrily packing a suitcase, tells her daughter to call her a cab. A suburban 13-year-old doesn't often use taxis, and Erian takes us through the details of Jasira's thought process, which begins in confusion. She tries the yellow pages but isn't sure what to look for. "Cab" takes her to "taxi," "taxi" takes her to a number of choices, one of which leads to a phone call, which raises questions about location and destination.

But on that day, without direction or supervision, meek and naive Jasira successfully schedules a cab for her mother, and her pride at having run this gauntlet is tamped down by parents who don't even know the gauntlet exists.

Most of the trials in Erian's novel aren't about calling for cabs. They're sexual in nature, and they involve various predators who swarm around Jasira, and while Alan Ball includes many of these trials in his awkward new film based on the book, he's omitted the one about the cab. More importantly, he's omitted -- or failed to convey -- the all-important sense of wonder and trepidation that a young person can feel solely because her view of the world is limited by lack of experience. The episode with the cab mirrors a dozen others that would -- and do, in the film -- lean toward the lurid and titillating when stripped of the child's logic.

Ball has recorded the motions but none of the understanding, and his heavy-handed direction punches up each character's cartoonish traits while eliminating any nuance. So Jasira's father is a racist, and the woman next door is a nosy bitch. I get the feeling that even Ball didn't intend those simplistic characterizations, but that's what clumsy direction will do to a story full of minefields.

Rob said it another way in the September 2008 issue of Paste Magazine.
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