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.


Laika / Focus Features
Henry Selick's Coraline

During the opening credits of Coraline, a thick sewing needle, manipulated by a vaguely sinister, vaguely mechanical praying mantis, pushed out of the screen at me as it zigged through the seams of stuffed dolls. Yes, I said, tapping the temple of my theater-issued, circularly polarized 3D glasses: these things are workin'.

But then a funny thing happened. Or didn't happen, actually. Once the mechanized seamstress passed the 3D test with flying colors, the movie rarely poked out at me again. Maybe the button-eyed character known as the Other Father reached his spring-loaded hands toward Coraline (and the camera, and me) a couple of times, but for the most part this is not the kind of 3D movie that tries to exceed the limits of the screen and get in your face. Instead, it does something I'd never seen before, something far more captivating: it maintains the consistent illusion that we're looking at a moving diorama just on the other side of the screen.

The in-your-face effects of many 3D films have a pretty narrow field of movement, approximately the size and shape of the old Tempest arcade game, a pyramid seen through the bottom whose edges will instantly jerk needles or fists or pistols back from your nose and flatten them into two dimensions whenever the hovering objects touch the illusion-destroying frame.

It's a Good Life, third segment of Twlight Zone: The Movie, by Joe Dante

Instead of working to break out of the rectangle, artificially, Coraline establishes the frame as a window that looks into a three dimensional world, which frees the viewers' eyeballs to roam that space looking for details in the corners. Sometimes the screen is a window pane with raindrops running down its surface — between the audience and the moving figures — and sometimes the pane is lifted to give an unobstructed view. I suppose the roving camera and the edits themselves remind us that we're watching a movie, but within each shot it's easy enough to imagine that you're sticking your head into the box and moving it around, with the camera as your surrogate.

That world, by the way, is a dark and scary one that borrows a few ideas from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (and, I'm told, from MirrorMask, which is based on a book by the same author as Coraline, Neil Gaiman), but it finds horror on the other side rather than absurdity. Coraline is closer in spirit to that wonderful/terrible world in the Twilight Zone movie where the family is forced to watch cartoons and eat marshmallows around the clock, or else face the wrath of sweet, adorable Anthony. Here, understimulated, imaginative Coraline, left by her busy parents to explore her new house, opens a small plastered-over door that leads to an alternate universe. Everything is the same over there, but much better. Her parents are attentive, the food is delicious, the colors are warm and vibrant, and the neighbors are fabulous, bawdy entertainers. But the Other World has a dark side, too. For instance, you really shouldn't leave. And the Other Mother wants to eat the souls of children.

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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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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.
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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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.

You know what would be great? To take Hitler down? And stop the gassing and the conquest and the thing and the guy? Would be an audacious hotshot with the guts to get in there and do it. A guy so good he could do it with one eye tied behind his back. A guy so good he counts his blown-off right-hand as an asset because he can "Heil Hitler" ironically and you can never really call him on it. And I know just the actor to play him.

Stauffenberg hatching his plan.
Stauffenberg selling his plan to Nazis who are starting to question this Third Reich thing, circa 1944.
Stauffenberg psyching himself up for the dangerous mission.
Stauffenberg expressing self-doubt. (deleted scene)
Stauffenberg expressing absolute confidence in the mission and himself.
Stauffenberg upon being told that his paperwork must be signed by the Führer.
Stauffenberg insisting that he blew Hitler up but only after the paperwork was signed.
Stauffenberg, God bless him, expressing outrage that Op Valk was not engaged as planned, wasting the three precious hours that he'd previously gained through ingenuity.
Stauffenberg taking even more charge than he'd taken previously. Must he do everything single-handedly? Time to school these chumps; the only problem is that he lacks a pupil.
Stauffenberg running the German government with an eye toward Berlin.
'Do you think he has a sense of humor?' 'I think his optometrist has a sense of humor.'
Stauffenberg inquiring after the safety of his wife, Frau Stauffenberg.
Stauffenberg coming to the conclusion that Hitler was not blown up and wondering if the mistake was due to faulty depth perception on the part of one of his peers.
Stauffenberg about to be executed but only after naming a name to clarify that the failure was not his but that of Shiva the God of the Wrong Person's Death.
Stauffenberg as remembered by the footnotes of history, steely.

Valkyrie is based on a true story, which I know because the screen says so at the beginning of the film in German. And I know that it says so at the beginning of the film in German because the letters morph into English before they go away. Then we hear the hotshot writing his diary in German, which eventually morphs (audibly) into the English words of Tom Cruise who seems almost frustrated by the cumbersome translation process, as if the hotshot can't be bothered to continue in German when something more serious is at stake. Also: we hear what he writes. Linguistic efficiencies could and will be made.

And the movie's off. A sequence in the middle of the film involves putting a bomb at the Führer's feet, and I quite liked the suspense, even though throughout that stretch I was thinking, "I wish Eddie Izzard were taking down the Führer instead of nervously making a phone call in the background." That's what's nice about this movie. It gives you time to think about what you're seeing. Like: Is Tom Wilkinson speaking only his dependent clauses with a British accent? Is that Peter Cushing back there? And, say, who do you think would win in a peaked-cap face-off between Grand Moff Tarkin, General Zod, and let's say Hitler? That kind of thing.

Then more morphing, this time in the face of the sometimes eye-patched, sometimes digitally walleyed Tom Cruise. It's his steely performance, his 1,000 faces that carry the film, each one revealing a facet of Hotshot Claus von Stauffenberg, each of them determined, each of them steely. If it weren't for that Germano-English text up front, I'd think this guy could probably pull it off. Ice the Führer, engage Operation Valkyrie to gain control of Berlin, gain control of Germany, gain control of Europe, and finally install Field Marshall Goose just in time to put the egg back on the mantel before the Allies arrive to say, "Yo, what the?"

Alas, he had no strafing partner, this hotshot. The rest is footnoted history and symphonic strings.

His wife lived and raised their kids without incident. Did I mention his wife? No matter.

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