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November 23, 2014

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New documentary, visit to Arsenio Hall and long-awaited cow act keep Penn & Teller busy

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The Rio headliners Penn & Teller receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Friday, April 5, 2013.

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Penn & Teller's 20th-anniversary performance and celebration at The Rio on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013.

They are but a two-man act, but it often seems Penn & Teller are an entire franchise.

The comedy-magic act is characteristically busy on multiple fronts. P&T is giving Arsenio Hall a boost Thursday night during Hall’s premiere week with his new talk show “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Hall’s return to the talk medium, where he starred for five years on Fox beginning in 1989, airs at 10 p.m. in Las Vegas on the CW.

Hall and Penn Jillette are linked inextricably because of their appearance on “Celebrity Apprentice.” Of Hall, Jillette says, “What makes Arsenio a great talk-show host is he’ll give you that look of fascination no matter what you’re telling him. ‘You know, milk is pretty much the same no matter how it’s labeled. Vitamin D is about the same as 2 percent, which is about the same as skim,’ he’ll look at you and nod and go, ‘That’s really something.’ ”

On that milk-ian topic, Penn & Teller are still working on what has become their most expensive act ever in their show at the Rio, a brief bit involving a cow. A real cow, not a person in a cow suit. Total cost: $200,000, and the routine is still under development.

More pertinent than all of this is the new film P&T premiered at the Telluride Film Festival before moving on to the Toronto Film Festival last week. The film is the documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” which traces the research of computer/optics expert and inventor (and Penn & Teller friend) Tim Jenison, who unearths the techniques of the great 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. The painter was known for his ground-breaking images, which seemed as precise as any modern-day, black-and-white photographs. This precision seems to defy a method that could not be attained with the naked eye.

Over the years, some art historians and critics have assessed Vermeer’s work and suggested that he used primitive camera lenses to accomplish the images — in essence charging that he painted over photos. Jenison, and the resulting film, shows what the researcher was able to uncover in his quest for the secret behind Vermeer’s technique. The film, culled from 250 hours of footage, features an appearance by Penn & Teller favorite Martin Mull and marks the debut of Teller as a director. Penn is the listed producer, and earning an executive producer credit (his first) is longtime P&T Executive Director Glenn Alai.

The next film out of P&T is principally a project of Jillette's. Titled "The Director's Cut," it is but a script, a dream and a fundraising campaign. As Jillette notes, major studios love the material, but the film is too obtuse to be considered for widespread release (and the funding for such). So he's embarked on a guerrilla donations campaign, or something close to that, by inviting fans and anyone who would otherwise support the film to FundAnything.com to help him raise money to make the film.

"I've written the script, and it's way nutty and I'm really proud of it," Jillette says. "And I've teamed up with my favorite director of this century, Adam Rifkin (who directed Jillette's favorite movie, "Look.")." The campaign begins in earnest Sept. 19. In his FundAnything note to prospective supporters, Jillette says, "I've got tons of groovy rewards in return for your support."

Until that script blossoms into a fully realized movie, the duo is charged up over response to "Tim's Vermeer." The film is touring the film-festival circuit but is already being praised by reviewers. Variety calls it "an uncanny crowdpleaser," which is an apt way to describe what Penn & Teller unleash onstage at the Rio — cow or no.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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