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Column Fri Jun 07 2013

The Internship, The Purge, The East, The Kings of Summer, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay & Violet & Daisy


The Internship

Although I suspect this will change as early as next week, 2013 has been a terrible year for comedies. There are some promising works on the horizon, but between the annoying Identity Thief to the impotent A Haunted House to the two-laugh The Hangover Part III, there's been very little intentional laughing going on in theater this year. And I'm afraid the re-teaming of Wedding Crashers' stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson doesn't help the situation; in fact, I'd say it makes things so much worse. You know what? I don't even care that The Internship is a giant sex act performed on the company Google. If a movie is funny, I don't care who funded it, how many product placements there are, or how perfect a corporation wants to portray itself. I'll recommend it, if it makes me laugh. And aside from a few muted chuckles, The Internship did not make me laugh. It made me restless.

Vaughn and Wilson play Billy and Nick, a pair of high-end-watch salesmen whose company goes under while they're on a big sales call. Their boss (John Goodman) pulls the rug out from under them, with nothing to fall back on but their chemistry and witty banter. Yes, shockingly enough Vaughn is front-loaded with salesman-like banter, while Wilson takes a folksier approach to selling. Scraping around for a new job, Billy discovers that Google has a summer internship program, and the intern team that does the best goes on to receive guaranteed jobs at the company. After enlisting in an internet college so they can claim they are students, the pair are actually accepted to the program and are immediately branded as "old" and "without any usable computer skills," both of which are true. And cue the hilarity.

Naturally, Billy and Nick are thrown together with the reject pile of interns to form a misfit team that would appear to be the weakest of the bunch. But all of that can-do spirit from the old guys rallies the geek troop, and they make a run to be the best of the best. (It helps that Nick somehow becomes a computer whiz in the course of a few weeks.) Because a film like this needs an obstacle beyond being unqualified for their jobs, screenwriters Vaughn and Jared Stern toss in a snooty intern (Max Minghella from The Social Network) to scoff at every mistake the other teams make. And because a film like this needs a love story to stretch the running time to exactly two hours, Rose Byrne is tossed in as Dana, a Google exec slash love interest for Nick. Way to empower women and squander a great actor, guys.

As directed by Shawn Levy (both Night at the Museum films, Real Steel, Date Night) The Internship's biggest sins against cinema and comedies is that pretty much every college-age character isn't actually a character at all; they are types. There's the classic model ├╝ber nerd who is constantly making Star Wars references; the Asian kid who's afraid of his demanding, critical mother; the hipster kid who never puts down his smart phone and just makes snarky comments; or the geek girl who talks like she lives the sexually fueled party life, but is a virgin with aspirations. The list goes on and on and on and on. Not that the slightly older characters fare much better.

Not a single thing about The Internship isn't predictable. And what's most sad about this effort is that Vaughn and Wilson aren't sleepwalking through it; they're really trying to make us laugh, and you probably will once or twice. I like both of these guys as comic actors, but they feel trapped by this stifling PG-13 storyline that basically reduces them to babysitters. I actually think there could be a truly funny workplace comedy made about working at company like Google, if the company was willing to be honest and open about the types of people who fill a tech company. But this ain't that, and the film is a sweeping disappointment from all angles.

The Purge

If you aren't inherently curious about social experiment film The Purge just from the premise, actually seeing the film may not make you any more interested in it. I, for one, was fascinated by the concept. The political nature of the United States has become so overrun by religious groups and social conservatives, that one 12-hour period per year has been set aside for a pure, brutal lawlessness called "the Purge," during which all crime is legal, including murder. Why is this a socially slanted practice? Because the richer folks can afford to have high-end security systems installed to keep out all intruders, while the have-nots have to fend for themselves behind a simple locked door.

One of the fine citizens selling security systems is James Sandin (Ethan Hawke). In fact, he's the best in the region at selling the things, and we find out early on that a few of his neighbors resent the fact that he profits from their fear. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) is even mocked openly for a new extension on her house, paid for by said cash. All this pent-up hostility is exactly why the Purge is necessarily, say its supporters. We're told crime has been nearly eradicated since it was implemented. It's like the occasional bout of binge drinking.

The Sandin's live with their two kids, Charlie and Zoey (Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane), both of whom have substantial morality issues with the Purge, and as most change in America, it's the younger generation that is already doubting societal injustices. So the Purge begins, the family locks down and goes about its business as best they can, and then somebody comes knocking on their door, bloody and terrified. He appears to be a homeless man being chased, and he's looking for safe haven. Then Charlie opens the security gates, and all hell breaks loose.

Writer-director James DeMonaco (probably best known for writing the screenplays for other siege-related films, the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Negotiator) has crafted a smart b-movie that never allows its cameras to leave the house once the Purge begins. As much as it's built as a simple home invasion story, it's also a cautionary tale about letting the privileged run the roost. Apparently they would simply allow the lesser classes to thin the herd via the Purge. I don't think we're supposed to like James that much, although he loves his family and would do/does anything to protect them. Any view of the outside is shown via security cameras or through windows, and the levels of tension the film builds are many.

I don't want to say too much about what happens from this point on, but when the masked people chasing the character known as "Bloody Stranger" (Edwin Hodge) show up, they aren't happy with the Sandins at all. They are led by a terrifying Australian actor Rhys Wakefield (playing the "Polite Stranger"), who will be getting more villainous work in the future. The violence itself isn't that substantial, but when underscored with the sheer brutality of those engaging in the Purge, this is a tough film to watch at times.

Even if you watch the film purely for its shock value and messy body count — and ignore its social commentary — it's a solid, tight little movie that doesn't have an ounce of fat in its running time. The Purge is truly the definition of lean and mean. As he does in most of his genre work (Gattaca, Sinister, Daybreakers), Hawke doesn't hold back on the acting. It's his reactions to this very real danger that sell us on this film. And while you might not react to his character the same way you do to his work in Before Midnight, his A game is on full display. I think The Purge is one of those interesting works that ought to provoke conversation, and that's always a good thing. I just hope people see it for what it is, and let the talk flow. I'm not sure I'd recommend the film to those of you with problems with violence, but I'm thinking the rest of you will dig it.

To read my exclusive interview with The Purge executive producer Jason Blum, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The East

I make no secret about the fact that I'm impressed with the way actor/writer Brit Marling and her directing and co-writing partners Zal Batmangliq (Sound of My Voice) and Make Cahill (Another Earth) think. They take a familiar genre (such as science fiction) and use it as a loose framework for some of the most interesting character studies and thought-provoking stories I've seen from new filmmakers in quite some time. But they also go the extra step of making their films accessible even as they ask audiences to flex their brains a little bit.

Marling and Batmangliq's latest work, The East, follows more of the mold set in the 1970s conspiracy theory films of Alan J. Pakula, as it profiles former FBI agent Sarah Moss (Marling), who now works for a private security company, run by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Her first big case is to infiltrate an eco-terrorist organization known as The East, whose special gift is targeting corporations who are doing harm to people and the environment and using their own dirty deeds against them. For example, a prescription drug that a pharmaceutical company says is safe is slipped into the drinks of every guest at one of the company's receptions.

Sarah makes her way into the group, run by an anarchist named Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and his second in command Izzy (Ellen Page in top form). And while the group's "jams" are staged in rather exciting and tense ways, the most interesting elements of The East have more to do with Sarah's evolving moral compass, which grows more and more sympathetic to the the group's causes. The other factors that come into play are the backgrounds of Benji and Izzy, who are not simply wayward souls who grew up in bad households.

I was particularly impressed with how detailed we get to see Sarah's undercover techniques and skills, and how gradually her priorities shift, as she grows to disapprove of her company's tactics. At one point, she is told not to stop a potentially dangerous action by The East, simply because target is not a client, which doesn't stop her company from swooping in after the jam is complete and offering up their protective services. Skarsgard delivers a subtle performance that is a nice blend of dark and comforting, with a dash of menace. Page, on the other hand, borders on mentally unstable, making her the most radical in the group. The two balance each other out nicely, but it's Marling who seals the deal. She may be too clean and pretty for this gaggle of hippies, but she's smart and she knows that such a look will make the men more trusting of her.

The East is a politically tinged thriller that dares to ask the audience to use their brains as well as take stock in their belief systems. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The East star/co-writer Brit Marling and director/co-writer Zal Batmangliq.

The Kings of Summer

One of the best-reviewed films to come out of this year's Sundance Film Festival was the debut feature from director Joran Vogt-Roberts, The Kings of Summer, an R-rated (strictly for language) coming-of-age story about three teenagers who all have very different reasons for wanting to leave home. As a result, Joe (Nick Robinson) finds a perfectly serene spot in the woods not too far from home, and along with his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and the freakiest kid in their school, Biaggio (Moises Arias), builds a not-quite-up-to-code house out of scrap wood and metal from nearby construction sites. The film works as both a seriously funny comedy, but also as a drama about young love and a household made unstable by a missing mother. The god-like Nick Offerman plays Joe's truly dickish father, who is attempting to raise his son the best he can, which is not that good. Joe's older sister (Alison Brie) comes home from college to act as a buffer between the two when she can, which isn't nearly often enough.

Patrick's parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are just goofy, overprotective and an embarrassment to their son, and it seems clear that he must either leave or murder them slowly. But the man of the hour is the feral creature known as Biaggio, who is a fountain of some of the funniest dialogue you will here this or any year. He's a special kind of freak, and the film makes the most of his unique energy and otherworldly origins.

Vogt-Roberts does something worth applauding. He actually hired young actors to play kids their own age. These are not 20-somethings playing young; these kids are playing 17 and 18, and as a result, they aren't too knowing about the world around them. Joe begins to fall for Kelly (Erin Moriarty), but when he finally brings her to the house in the woods, she starts to have feelings for Patrick, and Joe has real trouble processing the pain of that rejection. Everything about his immature reaction in the midst of what some might see as a mature run for independence screams authenticity, thanks in large part to Chris Galletta's superb script.

But The Kings of Summer never forgets to make the audience laugh. I've seen it twice now, and can't wait to see it again when it opens wider this weekend. Offerman, in particular, is just on fire. There's a total throwaway scene involving a guy delivering Chinese food to Joe's house, and Offerman gets into it with the delivery guy. Not an ounce of plot is forwarded in the sequence, but I guarantee that you'll be laughing your ass off.

This is going to be a great summer for coming-of-age films. Keep you eyes open for The Way, Way Back and The Spectacular Now in the next two months. And in the meantime, The Kings of Summer kicks off a certain kind of storytelling that is timeless but also lets us tap into a moment in our lives when the world was both so much simpler and overwhelmingly complicated. You'll love it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with The Kings of Summer co-stars Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

In the fascinating documentary concerning the men who acted as slight-of-hand expert (among his many professions) Ricky Jay's teachers since he was a child, those who know Jay make it clear on more than one occasion that he is not so much an expert in deception, but rather a skilled guider of direction. When he gathers of deck of playing cards in his hand, he's not just manipulating the cards; he's also in complete control of where our eyes are looking and what our minds are collectively perceiving. So even in this telling of his personal history of the world of magic (he learned and studied from illusionists with stage names like Slydini and Malini), there's a bit of misdirection going on, controlled by Jay's magnificent skills as a storyteller as well as a trickster.

One should not go into Deceptive Practice thinking this is a biography of Jay (born Richard Jay Potash). He refuses to talk about his long estrangement from his family. We don't even find out the man is married until the film is in its final 10 minutes. No, the film from seasoned editor and first-time feature director Molly Bernstein is, as the title indicates, about the magicians that Jay sought out for guidance, teachings and secrets.

Jay makes it clear that it is common practice for magicians to divulge some of their secrets to their pupils but hold back some key tricks. The metaphor practically writes itself as Jay guides us through a portion — albeit the most significant and entertaining portion — of this life, and introduces us to the illusions and life lessons from the likes of Al Flosso, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. One of the most enjoyable elements of the film is seeing what aspects of his mentors Jay borrowed from, whether it was a certain dark mystery about his tricks, a carnival barker persona, a specific way of flourishing the cards, or the way he turns what seems to be a great story into an even better slight of hand.

Most times, Jay seems far more at ease talking about these teachers than he does himself. But his education in the world of magic and other oddities shows throughout history gives him a unique perspective to speak not just about individual tricks, but on the culture of those who practice magic. He reminds us that magic is a unique type of confidence trick, since the con man tells you ahead of time that he's going to deceive you. It's an honest form of deceit, and you still end up giving the man your money.

The moments of Deceptive Practice that do focus more of Jay's career are equally enjoyable as he walks us through his years on the talk show circuit, making frequent appearances on "The Tonight Show," as well as shows hosted by the likes of Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin. The film largely stays away from Jay the actor, who has frequently shown up in the works of Paul Thomas Anderson and David Mamet. Even when Mamet is interviewed, he chooses to speak to Jay's dedication to magic and not to his abilities as a solid, reliable actor. One of the best stories of Jay's youthful touring days had him performing in a psychedelic variety show, sandwiched between Timothy Leary talking about LSD and the musical act, Ike and Tina Turner.

With all of the film's wealth of information and historical value, there are few things more mesmerizing than watching Jay sit in front of a three-way mirror and practice card tricks over and over and over again. He says it's the thing that soothes him most immediately, and we have no trouble believing this. One of the more revealing portions of the film comes when we meet a couple of men who have become Jay's pupils, and it becomes clear that the best pupil is one who has a few tricks to teach the teacher. Like his mentors before him, Jay parcels out information, and only when his students have mastered one illusion does he allow them to move onto the next. Not surprisingly, even with people he's known for decades, there are some tricks that he will take to his grave.

Deceptive Practice ends with Jay reading a nasty bit of poetry written for him by Shel Silverstein called "The Game in the Windowless Room." For the film, Jay has turned the writing into an amalgam of his skills, calling upon his captivating voice, his signature card throwing (with which he could pierce the skin of a watermelon), his steely look that he used when he wanted his audience to believe there may be dark forces at work, and a bit of fun. That's the man in a nutshell. They didn't call him "Tricky Ricky" for nothing as a kid.

Like his best illusions, the film is carefully staged and executed, letting out just enough details of Jay's life to make us feel like we've got a handle on what makes him tick. But like all great magicians, we also get a sense that he's keeping some of the best stuff close to the vest. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Violet & Daisy

I'm not quite sure if it makes sense that the first black writer to win an Oscar (for Precious), Geoffrey Fletcher, would follow up that milestone by writing and directing an original story about two skinny white teens who are also assassins, but I guess a man with an Oscar can write what he wants. Loaded with vapid thought, a non-sequitur-laden plot and career-worst performances by every actor in the film, Violet & Daisy is a forgettable, empty work that seems to think that if you put big guns in the hands of pretty young woman, you don't need to construct an actual watchable movie around them.

Fairing best in this mess is Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, an assassin who actually has never killed anybody. She simply positions herself in close proximity to her unsuspected partner, Violet (Alexis Bledel), and lets her do all the killing. When the pair find out that their favorite singer, Barbie Sunday (Cody Horn), is releasing a new line of dresses, they decide it's time to do one more high-paying job before they leave the assassination business for good. The target in question is Michael (James Gandolfini), who is actually more than happy to die at their hands because he just happens to be suicidal.

Something about shooting a willing victim doesn't sit right with the ladies, and they have a severe crisis of conscience. While they struggle with how to handle the situation, other killers show up to do the job as well, and the girls have no problem wiping them out of existence (or at least Violet doesn't, as Daisy shoots blanks at her side). One of the would-be guns for hire is Iris (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who seems more on hand to add some class to the proceedings and make sure the girls get the job done.

Michael manages to unload his soul to Daisy, and she starts to feel terrible for being part of killing him. It seems he has issues with his daughter, who is about the same age as Violet and Daisy. But it all seems so trumped up and forced that nothing about the situation connects emotionally. I liked the banter between Violet and Daisy, but when Gandolfini enters the picture, it's like someone pulled the emergency brakes on the dramatic momentum of the story. Hell, the man looks half asleep, as if he (like us) can barely muster an enthusiasm for this dopey movie.

Violet & Daisy isn't a long movie, but god, it feels endless and unnecessary. Remember after Pulp Fiction, when there was a rash of films that were clearly "inspired" rip-offs of the hipster banter of that film? This feels like a script written then that was accidentally(?) dropped behind a bookcase and was just recently discovered. Some people's "retro" is other people's "dated" and "stale." Moving on... If you're a fan of self-torture, the film opens today in Chicago at AMC 600 North Michigan Ave. theaters.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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