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.


Merrick Morton/Columbia Pictures
Will Smith and Rosario Dawson in Seven Pounds

Let me get this out of the way. Seven Pounds is retarded. If this thing didn’t have the star power of Will Smith and Rosario Dawson, Lifetime Network execs would reject it. On an online forum I frequent, someone was curious and asked what the movie was about. My friend Garth described the plotline, and people genuinely thought he was pulling their leg. So when I spoil the plot for you near the end of this review, trust me, you’ll thank me for it.

But rather than focus on the ridiculous contrivances that occur in this film (apparently, stalking people is ok if you’re as handsome as Will Smith) or the irritating way the movie both withholds information (so as to draw out the interminable narrative) and yet foreshadows every single plot point (wait! what’s he doing with that jellyfish??), I thought I’d reflect on the nature of sacrifice in movies.

The theme of someone sacrificing herself for the good of the group is as old as literature itself. It is the hallmark of almost every major religion and a primary motif in too many stories to count. Despite its familiarity, it still packs a wallop, in part because we want to believe that people are willing to do this and because it’s universally admirable when someone does, even if we don’t agree with his motivations.

For Hollywood, the sacrificial hero is the prestigious flip side of the summer blockbuster. In action and comic book movies, the hero is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the world. But he’s so awesome (and sequels are so lucrative) that the movie contrives to have him survive his ordeal. But at Oscar time, the sacrificial hero must follow through to the bitter but poignant end. The movie seems the more realistic for it, and we have the powerful emotion of pathos to send us out of the theater inspired.

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Merrick Morton / Paramount and Warner Bros.
Taraji P. Henson and Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
This is another in our series looking at year-end lists. series introduction and index

As the best-of-2008 lists begin to congeal around a certain body of films, the lists that attract my eye are of course the ones that contain outliers.

For instance: Kent Jones.

He likes Leos Carax and Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-hsien; I've always appreciated his taste. Last year Hou's latest film, Flight of the Red Balloon, seemed to be underwhelming audiences at festivals (although not all of them) and then earlier this year seemed to slip into American theaters almost unnoticed, along with Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights, as if it were not a remarkable turn of fortune for a long-revered, contemporary Asian master with historically limited success at finding distribution in the US to be screening a film at the art theater of many American downtowns. Jones was one of the film's champions, and I appreciated his efforts on the film's behalf. (How interesting that a year later, Flight of the Red Balloon has just topped the indieWIRE critics poll. Meanwhile, the dentists who vote for the Golden Globes have never heard of the guy.)

For 2008, Jones' list of favorite films is buried inside a special issue of Sight & Sound, but let me pull it out for perusal:

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This week the New York Times gives us three profiles of old souls, two of them unplanned:

  • Michael Kimmelman reveals the present-day whereabouts of Bruno S. who, some thirty years ago, emerged from nowhere to give a remarkably odd performance as the title character in Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Kimmelman's portrait describes Mr. S.'s apartment as a labyrinth that rivals Ken and Flo Jacobs' Manhattan flat and notes that the space includes a curious piece of furniture, courtesy Mr. Herzog.
  • Harold Pinter has died.
  • And, on Christmas Day, so has Eartha Kitt.

    Chiang Kai-shek sends me pots of tea
    Gayelord Hauser sends me vitamin D
    And, furthermore, Ike likes me


Karen Ballard/Paramount Vantage
Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber in Defiance

Tis the season for ... World War II movies. It’s easy to see why. As we ramp up towards Oscar season and take stock of our world, World War II allows for big set pieces, period costumes, epic conflicts, and unambiguous, unironic good guys and bad guys. All things that make film critics and arthouse audiences swoon and the Academy weak in the knees.

I, on the other hand, have grown weary of WWII and especially Holocaust films. I’m tired of the faux ethical dilemmas that movies like The Counterfeiters raise, the moral uplift those movies supposedly offer. Audiences leave the theater thinking they would’ve risen to those same challenges, blithely ignoring the fact most Germans failed miserably and we certainly aren’t rising to the challenges of Darfur and the Congo today. So it was certainly more from a sense of duty than any kind of excitement that I sat down to watch Defiance, The Reader, and Valkyrie. Surprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed two.

Defiance is the most conventional of the three but also the best. A stirring story of a group of Jews in Byelorussia who fled into the deep forest in fall 1941 and made a camp for themselves, it shows how they survived through both perseverance and fighting back. These are the Jews who kick ass. It’s a straightforward narrative, though the movie doesn’t skirt away from the theme of revenge and whether it might be necessary and even right to kill. The movie also integrates familiar tropes in inspiring ways: the joys of love, no matter the circumstances; sibling rivalry and devotion; hope in the midst of evil. And I particularly like the way Moses and the Exodus are invoked; it’s subtle without being opaque. The acting from Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell is strong, with Schreiber’s manly fighter the most interesting of the three. And the character actors provide a well-rounded sense of community. The movie’s only weakness is a doozy--a battle when Schreiber suddenly comes out of nowhere like Han Solo returning in the Millennium Falcon. Cliched and corny. Fortunately, little of the rest of the film is like that.

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Guy Ritchie, de-punctuator

From our discussion of the year in film, I must detour for a moment to examine the serious matter of titular ink.

The titles of most of the movies released this year had absolutely no punctuation, so adding even a tiny period, as Oliver Stone did, said something, don't you think? When he called his movie W. he said, hey (or perhaps look), this isn't M or Z or V or any such film. It's W., quaint as can be. In a title so short, even a period claims a good 8-10% of the title's ink, and that's not counting the serifs. The serifs matter. The period matters. This title smiles.

Looking back at the films of 2008, I can see that a punctational vision like Stone's was in short supply. Happy-Go-Lucky is sporting hyphens, sure, and Mamma Mia! is jacked up with an exclamation point, but think of how many more titles could be improved dramatically with a few well-placed marks.

Saw V!

But we must respect the ability of such a mark to alter a film's thrust, sometimes irrevocably. An errant drip of ink can turn I've Loved You So Long into a Dear John letter (I've Loved You; So Long), create an equivalence that did not exist before (Beverly Hills: Chihuahua), change a title into a Craigslist ad for a vacation rental (Lakeview, Terrace), turn an innocuous teen romp into a Hair ripoff (High: School Musical), or transform a phrase into a sequence of events (Sex, Drive).

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  • Neat: How cool to see graphic artist Chris Ware's take on Ozu's Tokyo Story, as highlighted by Doug Cummings at
  • Clever: Google has observed a correlation between certain queries and the presence of the flu. Organize those queries geographically and, voila, you have Google's Flu Trends.
  • Funny: I can imagine someone applying George C. Scott's disgust in Hardcore to any number of clips, but someone on YouTube has applied it to Rick Astley. (via Matt Prigge)

Ralph Nelson/Universal Studios
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon is one of those Oscar-bait movies that gets the Academy all worked up. Throw in two titanic actors (Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in this case), a hot-button issue, prestigious art direction, and you’ve got a film destined to make certain Top 10 lists. Not mine, though. Oh, wait. This one will make my Top 10 list.

But why does this piece of Oscar bait thrill me while Doubt leaves me in a funk? It’d be easy to say that the subject matter has something to do with it. I’ve been a political junkie since I was in elementary school, and the paper I remember most from junior high was on Watergate. So a movie about President Nixon’s interviews with the British talk show host David Frost has an innate appeal. Even better, re-living the moment when the Dark Lord of the Sith received his comeuppance is most satisfying. And the movie is smart enough to subtly link Nixon’s abuse of power with our current president’s comedy of errors. Maybe it’s just me, but the Nixon quote “I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal” has real contemporary bite.

That doesn’t quite explain my differing opinions, though. For the subject matter of Doubt--the struggle with religious uncertainty--would usually be right up my alley, as well. So what’s different about this prestige pic?

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This is another in our series looking at various best-films-of-2008 lists that are appearing as we reach the holidays. series introduction and index

At the opposite end of some sort of rainbow from Roger Ebert is James Quandt, senior programmer of the Cinematheque Ontario and tireless scourer of the globe for lost prints of important films. His work often results in retrospectives that redefine a filmmaker's career or revive interest in forgotten masters. The prints he assembles, if we're lucky, work their way through the world's (too few) cinematheques, and if we're luckier still they end up on DVD, so I've been the indirect beneficiary of his efforts through many darkened screenings at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and now a few at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

Plus, I've only seen three of the ten films on his list (or four of the eleven, depending on how you manage the tally), which is perfect. His list appears in Artforum and comes to us online via my friend Girish Shambu. Please click through to see Quandt's top ten films of 2008.

Value of the Unknown to a Festival Maven

Unlike Ebert's list, which for this active moviegoer elicits a string of yays and nays but very little action, Quandt's list has a different impact: it goes, almost in its entirety, onto my "films to see" list.

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Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Film Corp.
Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt

Doubt is one of those Oscar-bait movies that gets the Academy all worked up. Throw in two titanic actors (Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in this case), a hot-button issue, prestigious art direction, and Roger Deakins’s always assured cinematography, and you’ve got a film destined to make certain Top 10 lists. Not mine, though.

It stars Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn, a friendly, progressive priest, and Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the kind of nun who terrorized parochial students in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Sister Beauvier doesn’t much like Father Flynn, and that dislike turns ugly when a younger nun (played by wide-eyed Amy Adams) suspects Flynn of making untoward advances on a young boy.

I can understand why Meryl Streep has received so much acclaim (she knows how to chew her scenery without over-stuffing her mouth), but I could never get past the fact that I was watching Meryl Streep. Hoffman, on the other hand, gets just as many dynamic moments and yet effortless slips into his character. His Oscar nomination will be richly deserved.

Effortless slipping is not how I’d describe director John Patrick Shanley, who wrote and directed the original play. Plain old slipping would be more like it. On more than one occasion, he punctuates critical moments with lightning and thunderclaps, a cliche that even horror maven Clive Barker would find hoary. At another time, we have a scene where a cat catches a mouse. Ah, metaphor--I learned about that in junior high. And while cantic camera angles might work in The Third Man, which is all about style, they’re as out of place in this naturalistic setting as a pedophile at Chuck E. Cheese. Ok, that’s not such a good analogy.

The writing is also unnecessarily direct. An early homily by Father Flynn starts with the not-so-subtle, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Hmm, I wonder what this movie’s about? For those who’ve never taken a philosophy or religion class, this might be provocative stuff, but the theme never rises above the superficial.

I do give the film credit for at least keeping the audience in doubt. Is Father Brendan Flynn a compassionate priest looking out for an outcast student, or is there something much more sinister at work? At various times, the movie has us leaning in one direction only to push us in the other. And because the movie is set in 1964 and we know what would happen in too many Catholic parishes over the next 30 years, we have great sympathy for Sister Beauvier’s passion for ferreting out the truth. Even if our natural inclination is to see her unwavering certainty as a self-righteous flaw, we know that the opposite response of looking the other way led, in real life, to too many shattered lives.

Still, it’s not that hard to keep an audience suspended between two poles. What’s much more difficult is to provide a satisfying ending to such an exercise. In that, Doubt utterly fails. It feels like we’re missing a couple scenes. How else to explain one character’s sudden, unexpected, and completely unexplained burst of emotion? And with that character weeping for her Oscar moment, the camera pulled back and up--yet another film cliche--and I silently swore that I had no doubt how I felt about this film.

This is the first in our series looking at various best-films-of-2008 lists that are appearing as we reach the holidays. series introduction and index

Roger Ebert. He's a film critic of the people and a fan of good movies. He watches a lot of them, and he writes with enviable energy. He's also firmly in touch with the mainstream even as he keeps a toe or two invested in more adventurous films. So his list seems like a fine place to begin.

This year, instead of ranking ten films sequentially he chose to identify twenty features, five documentaries, and one special jury prize, sorting each group alphabetically. Another reason his list is a good place to start is that I've seen all of these films. First, take a look at his list and read his remarks.

He chose the following features (listed alphabetically):

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