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Films I Neglected To Review: Summer Loathing

by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Born in Chicago," "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" and "The Kings of Summer."

For those of you who were outraged over the very idea of Taylor Swift performing on stage with the Rolling Stones during one of their recent Chicago concerts (and pseudo-purists who think that act single-handedly destroyed their credibility as artists should check out "Their Satanic Majesty's Requests," that giant inflatable penis, the last two "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies and every Mick Jagger solo album other than the underrated "Primitive Cool"), the new documentary "Born in Chicago" should come as a blessed relief. Through priceless archival footage and new interviews with famed musicians Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite and Harvey Mandel, the film tells the story about how a bunch of white kids from the suburbs of Chicago in the mid-Sixties came to the city to practice their craft with legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and took what they learned and spread it to larger audiences through collaborations with the likes of the Stones and Bob Dylan. As a film, it isn't much--director John Anderson is content to follow the standard talking head/archival footage template--but as a collection of great tales involving what would prove to be one of the key eras in contemporary music, it is undeniably entertaining (especially the tale about how guitarist Mandel lost out to Ron Wood when the Stones needed to replace Mick Taylor before a tour even though it was Mandel who played guitar on two of the most notable songs on their then-current "Black and Blue" album) and if you live in the Chicago area, it will serve as a needed reminder of the city's eternal musical legacy.

"Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" is a film that would seem to have two strikes against it before it even gets started--it is yet another documentary of a cult entertainment figure comprised largely of archival footage interspersed with talking head interviews, not exactly the most exciting form of cinema one could hope for, and it deals with the world a magic, a subject that does not necessarily lend itself easily to the world of film, as anyone who sat through the likes of "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" or "Now You See Me" can attest. Happily, this engaging film manages to sidestep those pitfalls easily enough for a couple of good reasons. For one thing, the stories we hear about Ricky Jay's life and work--he is a magician, card sharp, historian, raconteur and an occasional actor who has worked frequently with the likes David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson--as well as his own personal inspirations are so fascinating that the film could be twice as long and the film would still be spellbinding. For another, when Jay does perform magic for the camera, he does so in such a disarmingly direct manner that the extra layer of remove is all but forgotten and one views his illusions with the same kind of rapt attention that they would give if they were watching him performing right before their eyes. Throw in a bunch of nifty clips showing Jay plying his trade that range from footage of him performing at the age of four as his grandfather's assistant to a memorable episode of "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" that had him sharing the bill with Kansas and the Sex Pistols (my favorite being a hilarious game of three-card monte he plays with Steve Martin on Dinah Shore's old talk show) and the end result is a film as ultimately elusive and entertaining as its subject.

My guess is that virtually every review of the Sundance favorite "The Kings of Summer" is going to compare it to the cult favorite "Napoleon Dynamite"--the only difference is that some will invoke that title as a good thing while others will mention it as a dire warning as to the horrors contained within its deeply innocuous title. Put me in with the latter group because while I may not hate this film quite as much as "Napoleon Dynamite"--which I consider one of the most odious and annoying comedies I have ever sat through in my life--its grotesque combination of self-consciously weird humor and misfired sentiment is not much better. In it, three teenage boys--Joe (Nick Robinson), his best pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias)--get fed up with their controlling parents (played by,, among others, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally) and run away to a nearby forest where they plan to build a house and live their own lives. Inevitably, this grand idea begins to fall apart over the course of the summer, largely thanks to the arrival of a teen queen that Joe like but who Patrick scores with, and the three learn hard lessons about life, love and poisonous snakes.

The screenplay by Chris Galletta is your standard-issue coming-of-age saga that adds nothing new to the conversation and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts lays on the quirk at Wes Anderson levels without betraying any of Anderson's talent for telling an engaging story. The three lead actors are not very interesting and anyone lured into going by the promise of seeing the likes of Offerman and Allison Brie should be warned that they are kept offscreen for most of the running time. Oh yeah, all of you decrying "The Internship" for being little more than one long ad for Google should know that "The Kings of Summer" spends a lot of screen time extolling the virtues of Boston Chicken. In fact, at the press screening I attended, the publicist even brought along sandwiches from the chain for those in attendance. Luckily, the turkey sandwich went down a lot smoother than the movie.

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originally posted: 06/07/13 05:18:14
last updated: 06/07/13 06:16:18
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