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

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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.


Summit Entertainment

Bella is the new girl in town, and Twilight waits a full hour before revealing to her what the rest of us knew from the moment he strode pale-faced into the school cafeteria: the quiet, glowering boy in her grade is a vampire. It's the skin, it's the brooding look, it's the magnificently gelled hair, it's the slo-mo entrance. Dead giveaways. He doesn't talk to anybody, ever, but, alas, he locks into Bella's gaze, and she smolders for the rest of the film, usually in tight shots that alternate with close-ups of his burning unrest.

Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) sees the humor in the portrayal, and her whiffs of wit carry a long, slow setup. When the vampire, Edward, is seated in biology class -- still brooding, ever brooding -- Hardwicke positions a stuffed bird on the shelf behind him, spreading its wings so they seem to be attached to the scruff of his neck. In Magnolia, P.T. Anderson used a caduceus painted on a back wall to make the sad boy genius in the foreground even more angelic, even more Falconetti-esque, and in Twilight Hardwicke evokes genuine, giddy laughter with the shots of first one wing, then two, the pair growing in prominence as Edward senses Bella's approach through the bio-science doorway.

“It's a dangerous thing to confuse children with angels.”

But Edward is not, in fact, happy to see her. He holds his head low like the reluctant angel in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. This blue-lipped, aggressively plucked boy is not a reluctant angel, of course, but a reluctant vampire smitten by the girl who should be his prey.

Therein lies his conflict, and therein lies hers, and from the two a familiar story emerges: love at first sight needs no justification; opposites attract; beautiful people attract; dangerous boys attract bold girls who, in time, will benefit from the protection provided by their speed, strength, mystique, and wisdom (or, here, telepathy). Protection from what? It matters not; girls need protecting. From reckless drivers. Rival vampires. What have you.

But -- here's the rub -- if the boy loses control of himself in the heat of passion he could destroy her. She has an intoxicating scent. She's filled with blood-red deliciousness. Perhaps he would not retract his teeth were they ever to take hold. It's the story of a thousand romances, of two thousand movie teens who struggle against chastity, and it's a story not altogether different from that of poor Peter Parker who cannot declare his love for whatshername because certain ne'er-do-wells would then use her as Spider-Man bait. In short, nothing attracts boys like somebody else's letter jacket. But in this case, the ne'er-do-well is Edward himself. Stuff that duality into your Spidey tights, Peter.

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Rose Serra / Wild Bunch

Abel Ferrara's film-before-last is getting a belated release in New York this weekend. You can read my review of Mary, starring Forest Whitaker, Matthew Modine, and Juliette Binoche, at the site-before-last.

Lions Gate
Josh Brolin in Oliver Stone's W.

The early criticism of Oliver Stone's W. has centered around its lack of ideas, and indeed it's a veritable void, another entry in a catalog of fictional films about the Iraq war that haven't benefited from time and reflection.

It is the funniest of those films, and seems the least angry, but it doesn't function as commentary or insight, and more strikingly it doesn't function as a character study, even a fictional one. While the performances -- by Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Thandie Newton, and others -- are enjoyable to watch, it's hard to imagine this Condoleezza Rice sharing a scene with this George H. W. Bush. She's in a broad comedy, but he stepped out of an earnest TV melodrama about fathers and sons. They don't share a scene, but the glue between them is W himself whose outlines are left hazy so as to coerce the film's disparate modes into coexistence. On the outside, he's a face-feeding, shallow-thinking, attention-deficit-suffering plunger. On the inside, well that's anybody's guess.

Screenwriter Stanley Weiser seems to have assembled the script from notecards containing memorable phrases from recent American history. The greatest hits. "Fool me once ... can't get fooled again." "Slam dunk." "We know where [the WMD's] are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." He hasn't put the quotations where they belong in history; he's scattered them into the story like he's playing a parlor game, a cute corpse, not terribly exquisite. In this film, Rumsfeld makes his claims about the location of the WMD's not on TV but in the war room with Bush, Powell, Cheney, Franks, et. al. Instead of waving his hands, he waves a laser pointer.

These aren't factual errors; they're a deliberately ahistorical juggling of familiar iconography, and yet this shuffling presumes little difference between how these people talked to each other and how they talked to the public, which is wrong, dead wrong, maybe even fundamentally disqualifying. Would any general tasked with finding the WMD's sit quietly across the table from someone who told him he knew where they were? It's odd enough that George Stephanopoulos did it, but TV lights do strange things to people.

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Remember that old dude in Jurassic Park who unleashed a bunch of prehistoric beasts by reanimating them from a drop of blood that was caught in the proboscis of a mosquito who'd met her doom in a blob of DNA-preserving amber? Remember when those beasts got loose and tore up the joint, and the old dude likened it to a flea circus he'd built in his youth? And remember when Laura Dern told him that this seemingly intractable problem -- which he created -- was something he couldn't think his way out of, that he'd have to feel his through it, which is maybe the dumbest advice ever given to a mad entrepreneur in the movies? Well, he ate it up. Said, yes, he'd feel his way through it so that next time it wouldn't go so disastrously haywire.

Well, a year before that incident in the jungle, the same ass -- Richard Attenborough -- made a movie about Charlie Chaplin, and he didn't understand Chaplin any better than he did velociraptors. He feigned interest in Chaplin's art and acted like he was going to feel his way through the biography, but even though his heart swelled in the vicinity of the master, he somehow churned out a tabloid biopic of the worst kind. Little did anyone know that Pola Negri or some such starlet was so pivotal in this history. She gets some naked screen time in Chaplin, but Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight and A King in New York -- Chaplin's later films, the first an oddly chilling subversion of his most famous character -- don't exist. Attenborough barely examines the films that he does acknowledge, except to give them a cursory glance and place them into a timeline that seems to mock the entire medium. You'll find no greater fan of Chaplin than me, but it's silly to think that cinema was all about thrown pies until Chaplin alone turned it into an art form. Attenborough's 50 years in the business surely taught him that much, but the token idolatry of his film says otherwise. As far as the plot is concerned, the work is a mere psychological motivator that serves, above all, to bring the artist fame and fortune. I suspect the real Chaplin, who shot 300 hours of footage for an 82-minute film called The Gold Rush, would disagree with that assessment of his priorities.

Attenborough probably could have reanimated Chaplin from blood, mosquito, and amber, but instead he did the next best thing: he hired Robert Downey Jr. for the lead role, and this actor clearly put something more than just heart into the job, something more like elbow grease and I assume significant practice. I'm not sure how exactly he tapped into the contradictions of Chaplin's personality nor how he mimicked the physical performances with such staggering precision, but I remember thinking in 1992 that the movie, bad as it is, might be a net positive if it replaces in the public's mind the gussied up tramp of those IBM commercials with Downey Jr instead. I also get a kick out of seeing the great Geraldine Chaplin play her own grandmother in a small role, but it's Downey Jr. who makes the film more than a regrettable footnote; thanks to his out-of-band contribution, it's a regrettable footnote with an asterisk that reads "outstanding performance."

To date, Attenborough's film is the only feature-length biopic on Chaplin, and while there are several documentaries -- some of them only a tad better than this fictional feature -- the best by far is diametrically opposed to gossip. Unknown Chaplin, a three-part BBC documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, goes into the weeds and tries to divine Chaplin's methods from the footage he cut away. Brownlow and Gill show a nine-minute sequence cut from City Lights in its entirety, without talking over it, the antithesis of the highlight reel that ends Attenborough's film. Theirs is the studied gaze of knowledgeable and still-curious cinephiles who pore over shots like excited archeologists, and their unpacking of Chaplin's early short film The Immigrant is both scholarly and suspenseful, proving that the subject withstands scrutiny and holds an audience even with no mention of starlets and scandals.

A special 15th Anniversary Edition of Chaplin arrives on DVD today.
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.

Sarah Shatz / Dreamworks

In Ghost Town, Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) sees dead people thanks to a botched medical procedure. Manhattan has a lot of them. Dead people, that is, roaming around with unfinished business, looking very normal to each other, and now to Pincus, but invisible to everyone else. They look so normal that Pincus isn't even aware of his new ability until he joins a group of people crossing the street, steps in front of a moving cab, and startles at the screeching brakes and sudden horn. He didn't realize the other people are ghosts whom the cab driver can't see.

We behave differently in crowds. We're more likely to join a pack crossing the street than dart out alone during a yellow light, because we know the cars are already stopping for other people, because we know that any blame will be spread across all of us. We'll decide to stand or sit, head for the exit or wait in line, by weighing the actions of other people, and for a minute the film seems to have built this common social math into its story: What if one man sees a crowd that others don't?

However, screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps have a different reason for including the cab scene: it tells the ghosts that Gervais is not one of them. "Hey, the cab stopped for you!" a dead person says. In that slight exchange, the film's trigonometry turns into simple addition, and it continues in that vein to the end. The acute social observation that I thought I saw never again rears its head.

But at least there's Ricky Gervais. He's a dentist, a Scrooge, a lonely curmudgeon. Greg Kinnear is a ghost with unfinished business, Téa Leoni is his widow, and the film's trick -- which practically performs itself -- is to make this triangle line up without using sines or cosines.

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Vivendi Entertainment

I had to ride six escalators to watch An American Carol yesterday afternoon, so it's entirely possible the altitude killed a few of the jokes. Keep that in mind.

As I sat down and wondered what I was doing, I also wondered how many of the other eight people watching this Monday matinee were people I shared a screening of Expelled with several months ago. Wait, that was in another city, another liberal oasis. Still. A few of these folks approached the film with the steadily declining enthusiasm of true believers, but I have a feeling the rest of us may have been living out a variant of Fight Club. I am Rob's morbid curiosity. I am Rob's counterproductive illusion of fairness.

'Cause most of the commentary I've stumbled across on political blogs about An American Carol begins and ends with the schadenfreude (there's that word again) of people reading its lackluster box office receipts like phrenologists massaging America's scalp. But divining truths from ticket sales is a fool's errand, and reading the zeitgeist by counting beans is easy only if you're wearing blinders. There are just too many variables for a simplistic conclusion. Sure, The Passion of the Christ cleaned up. And in the ranking of grosses for 2004 it falls between Spider-Man 2 and Meet the Fockers. Read them apples. An American Carol tanked, but so did War, Inc. People want comedies that are actually funny, you could say. But the financial reports in Variety often tell us otherwise.

So I had to see it. But I'm not fair. I remember telling my wife this time last year that I could live a happy life if I never had to see, read, or hear another adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol again for as long as I live. Don't like Tiny Tim and the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future nor the ghost of Jacob Marley appearing in Scrooge's brass knocker. Enough. Don't care if Scrooge is Bill Murray or Rich Little or a Michael Moore look-alike. Don't like being told I hate America, or that I'm not from "real America" because I live in a city instead of a suburb and because I don't listen to the right kind of music (which is arena-friendly, radio-ready pop-country). I have a couple of Ralph Stanley albums but, alas, no Trace Adkins. I'll put a boot in your bah humbug, it's the American way. Or a clog. Whatever. (Incidentally, I think this counts as breaking ranks.)

More importantly, don't like watching a comedy that can't deliver the goods. My post-screening tweet went like this:

AN AMERICAN CAROL lands not one joke. Michael Moore is fat! Smells bad! Hates America! NYC ain't real America. (Except ground zero.) Troops!

If Twitter had allowed me another four letters, I'd have finished with "Troops yay!" But I stand by the joke count. I don't remember a single chuckle, which makes this, by a wide margin, the least funny comedy I've seen all year. And remember, I saw War, Inc., and The Love Guru.

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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.
Lol Crawley / Alluvial Film Company
JimMyron Ross and Tarra Riggs in Ballast (Hammer)

Darren Aronofsky's new film is called The Wrestler, and much of it is shot with a handheld camera that sometimes -- only a few times, really -- stares at the back of its eponymous hero's head as he walks around. It brings to mind Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne whose films -- only a few of them, really -- sometimes make use of this same composition. It's exciting to think that mainstream American filmmakers may be influenced by the Dardennes, but the link to The Wrestler is fairly superficial. That isn't to say it's a bad film, not at all, but Aronofsky's appropriations, if they be, are skin deep. If he'd used a Steadicam for that same shot, we'd all be citing Béla Tarr.

The linkage goes much deeper in Ballast, the tiny, Mississippi-based debut by writer-director Lance Hammer who not only alludes directly to the Dardennes with a shot of a guy on a motorcycle but also seems to have internalized the humanism that drives their style. Rather than use the camera to gawk at an unfamiliar world, Ballast feels like an attempt to live within that world for as long as possible.

The Dardennes are known for using minimal exposition, natural light, only diegetic music -- a quilt of countervailing minima, you could say -- and they've proven that such a spare style lends weight to even minor flourishes. A film's entire attitude may rest on the timing of a cut to black. There's a scene in Ballast that shows the young protagonist sketching the face of a playing card, a king, while his mom discusses his schooling with his uncle. The discussion is happening in the wake of a family tragedy that has left everything in question, including the boy's future. While he and his pen remain in focus, the grownups are a blur in the background, squished by the lens so they look like aliens. Aside from its inherent beauty, the shot seems open to the mind in a way that it might not be if it were just one of many such gestures. But it's unique in the film, and it seems to have leapt from the work of the Dardennes -- who, to my recollection, haven't shot anything that looks quite like this -- toward something that is similarly inspired but also quite new. In this scene, the boy's attention remains fixed on his pen-project while Hammer's remains fixed on his camera-project, which is the boy, the lives of rural Mississippians, the world he seeks to know however an outsider with a camera can. The voices of the adults are soft in the mix.

Hammer's final shot before the Son-like cut to black is a pan inside a moving car that sets the characters on a particular trajectory. This simple, quick camera movement connects the same three people we saw in the sketching scene and elegantly answers a central question, answers it in the affirmative, and answers it silently. There's great pleasure in watching characters solve their problems by standing on them like ballast, and there's great pleasure in discovering a new filmmaker who's more interested in watching the rise than the fall.

Hear also: my chat with Hammer at Sundance '08.
Dale Robinette / Warner Independent Pictures

In Alicia Erian's novel Towelhead, Jasira's mother, angrily packing a suitcase, tells her daughter to call her a cab. A suburban 13-year-old doesn't often use taxis, and Erian takes us through the details of Jasira's thought process, which begins in confusion. She tries the yellow pages but isn't sure what to look for. "Cab" takes her to "taxi," "taxi" takes her to a number of choices, one of which leads to a phone call, which raises questions about location and destination.

But on that day, without direction or supervision, meek and naive Jasira successfully schedules a cab for her mother, and her pride at having run this gauntlet is tamped down by parents who don't even know the gauntlet exists.

Most of the trials in Erian's novel aren't about calling for cabs. They're sexual in nature, and they involve various predators who swarm around Jasira, and while Alan Ball includes many of these trials in his awkward new film based on the book, he's omitted the one about the cab. More importantly, he's omitted -- or failed to convey -- the all-important sense of wonder and trepidation that a young person can feel solely because her view of the world is limited by lack of experience. The episode with the cab mirrors a dozen others that would -- and do, in the film -- lean toward the lurid and titillating when stripped of the child's logic.

Ball has recorded the motions but none of the understanding, and his heavy-handed direction punches up each character's cartoonish traits while eliminating any nuance. So Jasira's father is a racist, and the woman next door is a nosy bitch. I get the feeling that even Ball didn't intend those simplistic characterizations, but that's what clumsy direction will do to a story full of minefields.

Rob said it another way in the September 2008 issue of Paste Magazine.
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