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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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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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.

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 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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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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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.

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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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.
Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist opens up on what appears to be the same street where Juno was filmed. This is no accident. Like Juno, it also stars Michael Cera as a sensitive young man somewhat befuddled by women who throws himself into his hobby as a way to deal with the outside world. Here, that hobby is playing and listening to music. And like Juno, the leading lady is a sharp-talking brunette who might be a little too aggressive for him but still has a heart of gold.

The comparisons aren’t terribly flattering for Nick & Norah, which doesn’t have the thematic depth or scintillating dialogue of its predecessor. But it does have Cera, who continues to play a variation of his wonderful Arrested Development character (no complaints from me), and Kat Dennings as Nora, who’s endearing and compelling. In fact, the scenes with just the title characters are pretty wonderful, as they slowly come to realize they like each other, despite some holdover feelings for old exes.

The problem is the movie keeps tearing us away from our protagonists and focusing on those exes or other friends, who can’t match Nick and Norah in the personality department. This is a bit unusual, as most romantic comedies feature sidekicks that are at least as interesting and quirky as the leads. Not so here, and so the inevitable scenes designed to keep our lovers apart quickly grow irritating.

I was also a bit surprised that director Peter Sollett, who made the wonderful Raising Victor Vargas, doesn’t capture the vibrancy and specificity of Manhattan nightlife. This feels like it could’ve been made in any city. And am I the only one who was consistently surprised at how the characters kept driving around New York and, even more amazingly, kept finding parking spaces? At least the wall-to-wall music is good, befitting a movie that’s about how people find each other in a song. If it had focused just on that, we might have been talking about moving beyond Juno, instead of falling short.

Bill Maher outside the Vatican City

Bill Maher has gained a devoted following with his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. His intellectually skeptical approach to politics and other issues, combined with healthy doses of humor, have made him a darling of many. Now he’s decided to take that platform to another level and take on religion. Yes, all religion.

Maher’s thesis is that religion is not only wrong but decidedly harmful, not only for the people who practice it but society as a whole. He argues that the only proper perspective is doubt, and that anyone who claims any certainty on faith is deluded. To clear up that delusion, he hit the road with a film crew in tow to interview people around the world (though mostly in the U.S.) and challenge them to justify their beliefs. Snippets of those interviews make up the bulk of his new documentary.

For someone who celebrates doubt as much as he does, Maher is certainly sure of himself. This reaches its nadir in the movie’s closing minutes when he offers his own sermon of fire and brimstone. Images of the most awful religiously motivated atrocities (a plane flying into the World Trade Center features prominently) intercut with Maher deploring all religions and calling on the atheists of the world to stand up for themselves.

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Simon Pegg and Megan Fox try to imagine themselves in a much better movie

Ok, here’s how. Make a movie that:

a) utterly wastes the comedic talents of Simon Pegg, one of the funnier guys working in movies today.
b) has its main character be an utter jerk and idiot except when he suddenly needs to be warm and sensitive. Flip a coin before each scene to figure out which personality he’ll be.
c) has entire scenes revolving around a pig running through a high-class reception and an irritating dog flying out a skyscraper window. Those are two different scenes, by the way. Apparently, animals in motion are comic gold.
d) assumes chewed-up food and naked transsexuals are inherently hilarious.
e) is marketed as a comedy even though most audiences will laugh twice. Maybe three times if they’re drunk.

And that's one guaranteed way to lose friends and alienate people.

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