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.

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Murray Close/Warner Bros. Pictures
Brendan Fraser and Eliza Hope Bennett in Inkheart

“Since the dawn of time, storytellers have enchanted,” a deep-voiced narrator tells us at the beginning. But rather than hearkening back to the dawn of time, Inkheart references The Wizard of Oz and especially Harry Potter. The Wizard of Oz references are explicit, as Brendan Fraser plays Silvertongue, a man who can make fictional characters appear in real life, just by reading a book. So he reads L. Frank Baum’s famous story, and a tornado and flying monkeys appear.

The problem is that Fraser’s “gift” also makes real people disappear into the book, which is what happened to his wife. So he, with a cutie tween daughter in tow (played by Eliza Hope Bennett), is searching for a copy of the novel that holds said wife imprisoned. But Fraser isn’t the only one looking for that book. Paul Bettany plays the morose Dustfinger, who was summoned by Fraser but desperately wants to get back into fiction-land so he can be reunited with his wife. And then there’s the villain Capricorn, who likes being in the real world and only wants to force Fraser to keep reading from various books, so as to get more wealth and power.

No one mentions Harry Potter in the film, but that was clearly on the minds of its producers and screenwriters. Inkheart tries to summon the magic and utterly fails. Part of the problem is that the movie feels cheap, with substandard special effects, chintzy production design, and lots of scenes where people just stand around and talk. Not that dialogue is necessarily bad, but it is when it’s merely a way to move the story forward without having to conjure up a new set.

Fraser is apparently the Hollywood go-to guy for acting in front of a green screen, and he’s fine here. Bettany is largely wasted, but he doesn’t embarrass himself. Ditto for Helen Mirren. And while I’m sure Miss Bennett looks smashing on the commercials that air on Nickelodeon, someone will have to explain why Brendan Fraser’s daughter speaks with a British accent. Suffice it to say, I was not enchanted.

Laura Magruder/IFC Films
Demian Bichir and Benicio Del Toro in Che

Director Steven Soderbergh has often alternated between big-budget Hollywood flicks (Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11) and smaller, indie fare (Schizopolis, Bubble). Che, his newest film, has elements of both. It has a big star in Benicio del Toro, a sexy topic in the life of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and an epic scope as Che helps to overthrow the Batista government of Cuba. But it’s also a small movie, as Soderbergh intentionally limits the film’s scale and focuses on the difficulties of creating a revolutionary movement.

This is particularly true in the movie’s second half, which skips ahead to 1966 when Che went to Bolivia in the hopes of replicating the success he had in Cuba. But as Soderbergh methodically shows, the circumstances were different in Bolivia. While the Cuban leftist political parties banded together with Castro and Che’s military movement, the communist party in Bolivia was skeptical and refused to lend support. While the Batista government was largely incompetent in how it ignored the revolution fomenting in the mountains, the Bolivian government, with the help of the CIA, didn’t make the same mistake. And while Che was able to work with a wide variety of charismatic leaders in Cuba, he was largely alone in Bolivia and was never able to create the momentum or sense of inevitability that occurred in the Cuban countryside.

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I had a smile on my face the entire day yesterday. The entire day. I marveled at the sea of people on the Mall. Looking at the Lincoln Memorial, I pondered how far my country has come and how far it still has to go. I was filled with a strange joy watching Malia and Sasha and thinking how happy I’ll be to watch them grow up and smile over the next eight years. I chuckled at how the sight of Cheney in the wheelchair reminded me of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. That led me to think of the ways in which President Obama is strangely like George Bailey (stopping the run on the Savings & Loan, indeed). I smiled.

I was of course moved by Obama’s speech. Even if it wasn’t his finest, it was still a beautifully constructed, powerful statement of America’s democratic values and aspirations. I shouted “Amen” to the lines “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” and “Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.” If nothing else, I felt inspired that my president is a man who can thoughtfully craft his own Inauguration speech and deliver it with such power. I kept smiling, and cried a bit, too.

Walking around Hyde Park, I tapped into the electricity that continues to buzz through my neighborhood even after our First Neighbors have departed for somewhat warmer climes. I sat down with two retired black women and talked about what this day meant to them. I thrilled at the sight of Barack and Michelle walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. I still can’t get over how much I love the sight of them together. I teared up as I listened to Jesse Jackson talk about the significance of this day. I even sat around and watched Obama and Joe Biden watch the parade. What does it say about me that I was watching someone else watch? It means I didn’t want the day to end. I was still smiling.

Of course, the day eventually passed. But I woke up this morning to look at photos, to relive the awesome and historically transformative occasion. I read newspaper accounts from around the world and reveled in how America’s status has been reborn. I pinched myself and called to mind that the long nightmare of the last eight years is finally over. That thought alone will have me smiling for weeks.

A friend from Egypt has been in town the last few days, and I was trying to explain how the economic events of the last several months have not only created a horribly difficult situation; they’ve caused a crisis of confidence, a fear that borders on despair. But yesterday, whether it’s rational or not, that mood of fear seemed to be swept away. I’m enough of a realist to know that one man can’t make that much of a difference, no matter how much power he has. And the difficulties confronting President Obama are so immense I’m not entirely confident he’ll succeed. But I can think of few people I would rather have sitting in the Oval Office. The fact that he’s there today has put another smile on my face.

For a different take on Cheney in the wheelchair, go here.
Francois Duhamel/Paramount Vantage
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in one of their happier moments in Revolutionary Road

Much has been made of the fact that Revolutionary Road reunites Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since they swept us off our feet in Titanic. But if elegant romance is what you’re looking for here, you’ve come to the wrong time period. Even Rose and Jack’s passion couldn’t have survived the ‘50s.

At least that’s the message most audiences will take away from this bleak drama. The movie is based on Richard Yates’s 1961 novel, one of the first to pinpoint the despair behind the happy picket fences of suburbia. Unfortunately, that theme has been beaten to death in the last 40 years, so one more tale of people in gray flannel suits and pretty cotton dresses suffering quiet desperation feels dated, if not irrelevant.

Fortunately, if the story needs to be retold (and maybe, with all the politicians pining for the values of the ‘50s, it does), it could do far worse than a production of this caliber. Kate Winslet gives a brilliant performance as the wife who convinces her husband to drop everything, move to Paris, and escape “the hopeless emptiness of the whole life here.” Leo doesn’t quite have the gravitas to match his on-screen wife, but he powerfully conveys what happens when a man looks around and realizes his dreams have no hope of coming true. Michael Shannon is great as a mentally unstable young man who still perceives more than anyone around him, though that character was a cliche the moment Yates wrote him. Best of all, though, is Kathy Bates as a nosy neighbor. The inflection she gives to a simple “Yoo Hoo” says more about stifling suburbia than any dialogue ever could.

Even better than the acting, however, is the film’s production design and art direction (courtesy of Kristi Zea, Teresa Carriker-Thayer, John Kasarda, and Nicholas Lundy). Their use of browns and beiges, grays and blues is both gorgeous and thematically potent. The relatively open vistas of the husband’s office contrast sharply with the divided rooms of the couple’s house. And Roger Deakins, one of contemporary film’s finest cinematographers, complements it all with gorgeous long shots and perfect camera placement. If you want to remind yourself that suburbia is America’s hell and conformity its defining characteristic, then this is the movie for you.

As Israel again goes to war against one of its neighbors, hoping to create a sense of security for itself, Ari Folman’s anti-war animated feature Waltz with Bashir couldn’t be more timely. It focuses on one of Israel’s first “defensive invasions”--when it entered Lebanon in 1982 with the hope of rooting out the PLO. That invasion “ended” with Israel occupying a swath of southern Lebanon for two decades.

The stench of war, however, was particularly foul, as hundreds of Palestinians were massacred in the Sabra and Shatila camps by members of the Lebanese Phalangist party while Israeli soldiers stood outside. Whether the Israeli army was complicit in the killings has always been disputed. Israeli soldiers were surrounding the camps, but it’s unclear how much they realized of what was going on, though later an Israeli government commission found General (later Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon “personally responsible.”

Folman was an Israeli soldier and part of the ground forces during that invasion, and yet he recalls little of what happened, except for a strange dream he keeps having, rendered in gorgeous yellow-hued animation in the movie. Wondering why he can’t remember, he approaches his psychiatrist, who encourages him to explore his dreams and memories by interviewing fellow soldiers who might’ve been there with him. Those conversations were originally shot on film and then animated by Yani Goodman. These are intercut with scenes that Folman does remember of his time in Lebanon, including various battles and, in a moment that consciously evokes Apocalypse Now (the mother of all Jungian war films), surfing.

The focus on dreams and memories, repressed and remembered, is incredibly provocative, and the simple but effective animation works far better than live action photography could. The animation dovetails particularly well with the Jungian/Freudian imagery on display, giving the entire film an archetypal quality. That threatens to minimize the horrors of war, but Folman always knows when to pull back, when to allow the details of an interview to ground the material. Only an unnecessary porn-tape interlude breaks the spell. The film’s soundtrack, however, is particularly effective, both in its use of effects and music. The musical choices complement the material at times but also cut across it at others, creating a stimulating sense of discontinuity that meshes with the overall themes.

While the movie uses the memories of Folman and his fellow soldiers as the template, the idea of cultural memory is clearly what’s in view. Waltz with Bashir asks how we can forget the past--this in a world in which “Never Forget” is a powerful rallying cry--and continually repeat the same mistakes. Those come into shocking view in the film’s final, powerful moments. This is a must-see film, especially now.

Rob's take can be found here.

Many critics have remarked that 2008 wasn’t the best year for movies. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I think it’s important to qualify the point. It was actually a strong year for strong films, but it was a weak year for great ones. I probably saw just as many movies this year that I could recommend, but I’ve struggled to fill out my Top 10. So instead of being bound by the round number of ten, I’ve decided to offer my Top 9 of 2008 and then list a whole bunch of other movies that could have easily been #10 but wouldn’t have come close to cracking the list in previous years. Am I cheating? How can I be when I’m the one keeping score?

A few general notes before I dive into the list. For consistency’s sake, I’m going by the policy of choosing films that played at least a week in New York. That’s the approach that most critics use, and it’s as good as any. Not that this makes everything clear. For example, many critics are including 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days on their 2008 list, while I had that as my #1 film of 2007. No, I’m not going to include it again, though the stats fiends may care to note it would be the #2 film of 2008 if I did. Similarly, it’s unclear whether Carlos Reygadas’s masterpiece Silent Light qualifies as a 2008 release. It played for a week at MOMA in New York, but it’s getting a traditional theatrical release in early ’09 and will hopefully make its way around the country. For reasons I won’t try to explain, I’ll leave it for ’09.

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I haven't seen Vivre sa Vie (waiting for the big screen experience later this winter), so I can't speak to how the two films compare. But this juxtaposition of film posters outside the Music Box theater pleased me.

Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata

2008 began, for me, with Blade Runner and City Lights, and it ended with Bridge on the River Kwai. While the movies in between didn’t always reach those lofty heights, I saw a lot of great stuff in ’08. For better or worse, most of the truly great movies I saw last year were repertory films that played at theaters like the Music Box, the Siskel Film Center, and Doc Films. So I thought I’d lead off this year with the Top 10 Old Films of 2008. Don’t worry, though. I’ll get to the more traditional top 10 in a couple days. My only requirements for this list are that they played somewhere in Chicago and that I saw them for the first time last year. For fun, I’ve listed the theater where I saw each film.

1. Charulata (Doc Films)
One of the best movies I’ve seen anywhere in several years, this incredible “woman’s picture” from Satyajit Ray completely blew me away. A story of a wife who finds her own voice in writing, it’s an incredible portrait of both a woman and her marriage. While I enjoyed Ray’s Apu trilogy, nothing in that prepared for me for his incredible style in this film, which is full of tracking shots, spectacular lighting, and breathtaking freeze frames. Made in 1964, it’s clearly influenced by the French New Wave just as the Apu films owe much to Italian neo-realism. But Ray takes the playful New Wave-isms and joins them with his Bengali sensibilities to create a film that’s staggering in its accomplishments. A movie that I wanted to see again as soon as I left the theater and one I’ve been thinking about ever since.

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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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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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