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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Inspired by Rob’s re-evaluation of the Coen brothers’ latest (even if his original opinion remains largely intact) and various defenses of the film (check out the great comments thread in that post), I’ve been trying to understand my own relationship to the Coens. Because unlike a lot of critics, I’m not consistent. I think O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of the great comedies of the last fifteen years, and I was more than happy when No Country won Oscar earlier this year. I even remember liking Intolerable Cruelty, though I don’t remember much about it besides Roger Deakins’s incredible cinematography and George Clooney’s white teeth. But I’m much less comfortable with their brand of humor in Burn after Reading, and even Fargo troubles me. So when Rob remarks about Burn, “I’m not sure they ever strayed far,” I disagree and obviously think the film a serious step backwards. But why?

I think much of it has to do with mockery. The Coen brothers have enjoyed making fun of the dolts from the very beginning. Blood Simple might be a tight little noir, but it still relies for much of its humor on mocking the idiots. Ditto, Raising Arizona, of course. I re-watched Miller’s Crossing last night, another fave of mine, and noticed how many of the secondary characters are just caricatures set up for the Coens’ mocking camera. But why does it bother me in Burn and Fargo but not in O Brother and Miller’s Crossing?

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Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

A whole bunch of sites have been posting their previews for the fall/winter movie season, but who really cares about that? It’s just going to be a bunch of depressing family dramas, war movies, and stuff about history. The Oscars themselves are awesome, but watching the actors try to win Oscars sure isn’t. Anne Hathaway is already getting buzz for her performance as some kind of addict, but I wish she’d just give America what it wants--another Princess Bride sequel. Apparently, Mickey Rourke is playing a washed-up celebrity. Why doesn’t he stick to what he knows best?

Me, I’m still basking in the glow of this past summer. I mean, how often do we get Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy in the same summer? I saw Made of Honor three times, The Love Guru four, and College five. My favorite, though, was Wanted. The plot was a bit complicated, but the chance to see a beautiful pregnant woman slaughtering whole cities doesn’t come around every day.

So rather than waste time trying to figure out what you should see these next couple months, I thought I’d look ahead to next summer’s lineup, when the real action will heat up!!!

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David Lee
Omar Benson Miller and Matteo Sciabordi star in Miracle at St. Anna

Two years ago, directors Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood got into a pissing match about Eastwood’s two Iwo Jima films. Lee was upset that there wasn’t a single African-American soldier in either movie, arguing that Eastwood was perpetuating old Hollywood stereotypes that denied the role of black soldiers in WWII. Eastwood responded by saying that Lee should “shut his face.”

Skip ahead two years to Spike Lee’s rejoinder, a 160-minute war story entitled Miracle at St. Anna. It focuses on the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division during the Italian campaign of 1944. Though he doesn’t paint all the black infantrymen as upstanding heroes, Lee obviously wants to hail the bravery of those soldiers too often ignored in official histories, as well as highlight the endemic racism that existed both in the Army and back at home. That worthy goal unfortunately results in didactic exposition and dialogue that sound like the script was written by a clumsy historian rather than a skilled screenwriter.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s plot revolves around a Holy Fool character, a private named Sam Train who, early in the film, finds a young Italian boy talking to himself in a barn. Though the two can’t speak to each other, they quickly bond over chocolate, and Train commits his whole being to the boy’s safety. Much of the movie takes place in a small Italian village where a quartet of black soldiers have been separated from their unit and taken up residence. While there, they flirt with the one pretty local woman, interact with the Italian Partisans, and seem strangely unconcerned about whether the Nazis might suddenly show up.

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense in Miracle at St. Anna, but there’s a lot to appreciate, too. I love how Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique use desaturated colors to beautifully convey the historical time period without resorting to black-and-white or sepia-toned. There are several scenes inside buildings that contrast light and shadows in gorgeous ways. The movie also ponders the deeper spiritual themes of good and evil in times of war, even questioning the idea of how God could perform a small miracle and yet allow so much destruction (pay attention to everything that happens at the St. Anna church). I’m a sucker for those kinds of metaphysical debates.

On the acting front, Derek Luke is stiff as the stand-tall sergeant, but the other primary actors are solid, especially Omar Benson Miller as Train. While there’s not a single believable aspect to his character, the relationship between Train and the boy still packs a punch. Strangely, Lee has cast several high-profile actors in surprisingly small roles, so don’t go in expecting Joseph Gordon-Levitt or John Turturro to get much screen time.

With all the film’s flaws (the poorly constructed battle sequences are another), I would’ve grudgingly admired Lee’s latest if not for a risible frame story set in 1983 that seems designed merely to set up some kind of emotional ending. The only emotion I felt, though, was disgust, and the closing credit song of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” didn’t help any. He may have the whole world, but let’s not blame him for this movie.

Jessica Miglio/Fox Searchlight
Brad William Henke and Sam Rockwell in Choke

“I’m ok, you’re ok” burst into American consciousness in the ‘70s and has become a mantra of sorts for millions. But no one really believes that crap. It’s more “I’m ok, and you’re a selfish a-hole who needs to stop talking so loud on the damn phone.” One of the bracing things about Choke is that its main character, Victor, doesn’t even try to pretend he’s ok. He’s a sex addict, and he’s proud. He takes advantage of almost everyone around him, and he doesn’t lose a wink of sleep over it. He makes money by forcing himself to choke in front of wealthy diners, hoping they’ll save him and then, feeling a sense of connection, start sending him cash. Amazingly, it works.

His life, though, is a shambles. His mom is moving up the floors of a mental illness facility (up is bad), and she doesn’t even recognize him anymore. And the only people he hangs out with are other sex addicts who, once they find genuine relationships, don’t really need Victor’s caustic friendship anymore. But one day he bumps into a caring, pretty doctor at the facility. Even better, he finds his lust turning into genuine ... well, maybe not love but something approach affection. Oh yeah, he also might be the son of God.

This unlikely setup would be almost impossible to take if it didn’t have Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) and Kelly MacDonald (No Country for Old Men) in the lead roles. Rockwell sells the stylized narration and dialogue (courtesy of the novel by Chuck Palahniuk) as if it was a loaded used car, and MacDonald conveys a vulnerability that humanizes the entire story. And truth be told, some of the movie is hilarious, particularly the scenes set in a Colonial living museum.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough. The repeated flashbacks with Victor as a boy and his mom are pointless. Not only does Anjelica Huston as the mom seem bored, these attempts to add some kind of emotional depth to Victor’s condition are as phony as his choking condition. The Jesus metaphor is equally hollow, serving only to distract us from the somewhat three-dimensional chracters on screen. Worst of all, the film loses its nerve, abandoning the humor and actually embracing the “I’m ok, you’re ok” philosophy. After 85 minutes of cynicism, that cliche is a bit hard to, uh, swallow.

Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim in Treeless Mountain

It’s the last day of the Toronto Film Festival, and a bit of regret darkens my morning. I’ve skipped a few films the last few days, both because of poor reviews as well as a lack of energy. But as I walk to lunch, I can’t help but think of movies not seen, opportunities not taken. Who knows? Maybe one of those would’ve been my favorite of the fest? Ah well. Sometimes 40 films don’t feel like enough. Fortunately, there are three more before I head back home, and two are exceptionally enjoyable.

Some friends have described Treeless Mountain as a “children-in-peril” movie, which I find a bit strange. Yes, it’s a movie about two young girls, aged six and four. And, yes, they’re in a somewhat uncomfortable situation, as their mother has left them with an aunt to go find their father. But the girls are never in any danger. The aunt may be harsh at times, but she’s not a wicked stepmother figure, and most of the other adults in their lives are kind and comforting.

Instead, the movie’s focus is on how siblings interact, particularly in the way older ones, even as young as six, look after the younger ones and how the younger ones both depend on the older ones and live in their shadow. In this, director and writer So Yong Kim has captured incredibly naturalistic performances from her young charges. Much of the film is shot in tight close ups on their faces, and the tremendous emotion they convey is reminiscent of Victoire Thivisol’s amazing debut in Ponette. The movie is also funny in numerous places, as the girls try to take care of themselves, believing that if they can save enough money their mom will return.

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Sony Pictures
Patrick Wilson and Samuel L. Jackson in Lakeview Terrace

Twenty minutes into the new film Lakeview Terrace, I wrote in my notes, “Is this a ‘neighbor from hell’ story? I hate those.” Yes it is, and yes I do. The movie tries to trick us at the beginning, since the first person we meet is Abel Hunter (an expectedly strong performance from Samuel L. Jackson). That’s significant because usually the first character in a narrative is our hero, and Abel doesn’t seem like a villain. Initially, at least, he’s a strict but loving father. But when the interracial couple Chris (a surprisingly good Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (the always welcome but unfortunately underutilized Kerry Washington) move in next door, Abel quickly turns into the nastiest s.o.b. who’d ever show up at your housewarming party.

There are the consistent, not-so-subtle digs about Chris being white. The security lights shining in Chris and Lisa’s bedroom. Their air conditioning mysteriously breaking down. And that’s all in the first act. Before long, Abel is flaunting the immunity he has from being a cop, cutting down their trees, and sexually humiliating Chris at a bachelor party. If Lisa had a dog, it’d be a goner.

The movie wants to say something about race, particularly how black men can feel threatened by interracial relationships. But Abel’s character is so punitive that we quickly come to hate the way he consistently pushes Chris’s buttons, and the backstory the script provides for Abel is no excuse. Besides, director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) has never been known for his subtlety.

Even those flaws can’t prepare you for the ludicrously awful last twenty-five minutes, which combine a wildfire, several guns, and a well-timed ringing cell phone. That the movie has the gall to arbitrarily gloss over its one interesting conflict is indicative of the film’s bankruptcy.

Benecio Del Toro as Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s Che

I wake up early this morning. Not just because it’s a 9 a.m. screening, but because it’s a 4+-hour film at the Ryerson, by far my least favorite theater used in the festival. The Ryerson isn’t actually a movie theater for most of the year; it’s a college auditorium. So the seats are narrow, there isn’t much leg room, and the rake (the change in elevation) is flatter than a traditional theater, much less stadium seating. What this means is that the only way I’m going to be even remotely comfortable for Steven Soderbergh’s Che is if I get an aisle seat. So I get in line an extra hour early. At least it’s not raining.

The film is a surprisingly straightforward bio-pic of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Like Soderbergh did in Traffic, he uses various film stocks and color schemes to separate the various storylines: Che in Mexico before heading to Cuba, Che in the jungles and hills of Cuba, Che speaking at the United Nations several years later. But once you get used to that framework, the story moves through its paces. Only a faux-overture feels the least bit postmodern.

Those unfamiliar with the Cuban Revolution will find much to learn here, though anyone relying on a movie for that kind of information is asking for superficiality. And while the movie isn’t out to make Che into some kind of saint, it doesn’t do anything to puncture the balloon of reverence many people feel for him. Benicio Del Toro is fine in the lead role, though I was surprised at how low-key his performance is. It’s certainly not Oscar-bait, for which I guess I should be grateful. And Soderbergh knows how to edit his footage together, keeping everything moving forward, never letting the audience lose track of the story.

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Hugo St-Onge-Paquin and Marianne Fortier star in Lea Pool’s My Mom’s at the Hairdresser

I first noticed director Lea Pool with her 1999 feature Set Me Free, about a girl on the edge of adulthood. Pool’s ability to portray and work with adolescents was powerful. So when I heard her latest film, My Mom’s at the Hairdresser, also dealt with children, I slotted it into my schedule. I’m glad I did, as she again obtains wonderfully naturalistic performances from her trio of stars.

In this case, the characters are three siblings--the oldest Elise, middle Coco (a boy), and youngest Benoit--starting summer in idyllic Quebec in 1966. Elise jumps off the school bus barefoot, ready to get going, Coco has plans to build his own go-cart, and Benoit ... well, Benoit is asking a lot of questions at the age of 5 or 6. The first third of the film is wonderfully comical, as Pool, working from a novel by Isabelle Hebert, captures how children play and interact. But the movie also realizes that children understand more than we give them credit for, that they watch adults and learn, in both good ways and bad.

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Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale

Fridays are normally reserved here at Daily Plastic for new reviews. And unlike the last few weeks when almost nothing good was released, there are some interesting possibilities for today. But we’re having too much fun in Toronto to wax poetic about Burn after Reading and Righteous Kill. But to make it up to you, we’re posting TWO days of TIFF reflections. Cuz you really didn’t want to work today anyway, did’ya? This is Day 7, while Day 6 (due to the brilliance of blogging technology) is farther below.

Today was a strong day, with three winners out of five and only one bad film. The best was Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. Festival co-director Piers Handling introduced it as a movie “about a dysfunctional family par excellence,” and he’s exactly right. The mother Junon (a wonderfully cold Catherine Deneuve) is openly hostile to her son Henri (Mathieu Amalric, delightfully unstable), whom she blames for her eldest son’s death at the age of six. No matter that Henri was still in diapers at the time. Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) detests Henri as well and even went so far as to banish him from the family. Elizabeth’s son Paul is in the midst of a nervous breakdown. And I could go on and on. Only the patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon as the doughy moral center of the film) and the youngest son Ivan seem to get along with everyone, but maybe not.

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A shot from Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City

I’ve realized over the last couple years that sold out doesn’t always mean sold out at TIFF, and I’m not just talking about the possibility of rush lines. Tickets are reserved in advance for publicists and other festival guests, but obviously not all of those seats are needed. So often by the fourth or fifth day, when TIFF has a better perspective on what it requires, it releases more tickets. Furthermore, the lines to exchange tickets are often significantly lighter by Monday than they are over the weekend. So today I walked into the box office at 9 a.m., strode confidently to the open agent, and proceeded to get all four movies for which I had been shut out of in the lottery. Woo hoo!

The morning just keeps getting better when I meet up with Ken Morefield for a delicious breakfast at Cora’s, which includes lots of discussion about college teaching, academic writing, and of course movies. And then we’re off to one of the more difficult films of the fest. But I’ll save that for the end.

• • •

The Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke made one of my favorite films of the decade with Still Life/Dong. Though those are two different movies, I saw them both at TIFF ’06, and their similar subject matter makes them a natural pairing. He followed that up with last year’s Useless, which was interesting and well made but didn’t scale anywhere near the heights of his previous work. Even still, I had high hopes for his latest, 24 City.

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