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Film Review: Hugh Hefner, A Stand-up Citizen

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
directed by Brigitte Berman
starring Hugh Hefner, Dick Gregory, Tony Bennett, James Caan, Jenny McCarthy, Shannon Tweed, Susan Brownmiller, etc.Hugh Hefner and his Bunny Plane

"You can do many things to insure that your libido works properly until you're in your 90s," wrote sex therapist Ruth Westheimer in her book, Dr. Ruth's Sex After 50: Revving up the Romance, Passion & Excitement! And it's safe to say that octogenarian Playboy empire founder Hugh M. Hefner has done all of them.

The new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, however, is less concerned with his romps between the bed sheets than with the social and political freedoms his magazine has stood up for in racist, puritanical and homophobic America. That's just one of the numerous reasons to catch director Brigitte Berman's latest film when it opens.

A more voluptuous portrait of the civil rights era may be hard to find. Footage from Playboy's Penthouse and other pioneering TV shows reveal "Hef" as a ballsy impresario of desegregation, hosting club-shunned acts from Count Basie to Dick Gregory.

His crusade "against censorship and for the individual’s right to freedom of expression on all fronts" led him to book blacklisted performers at the height of McCarthyism and, during the Vietnam War, to welcome protest songs from the likes of Country Joe and the Fish.

Hefner's particular lust for blues and jazz led him to produce the Playboy Jazz Festival. It seems he was so taken with Berman's documentary about jazz great Bix Beiderbecker, Bix: Ain't None of Them Play Like Him -- and with Berman -- that they struck up a friendship. Years later, when she requested access to his personal albums and archives, he ushered her into his mansion.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker plays these materials against engaging tête-à-têtes with Hef, his pals and his commentators, including singer Tony Bennett, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons, and actor James Caan; Playmates Jenny McCarthy and Shannon Tweed; feminist Susan Brownmiller; and the aforementioned Dr. Ruth.

But it doesn't take a shrink to suspect that the hug-deprived-lad-turned-lothario isn’t as thrilled chasing bunnies as one might think. Not only does he come off as depleted by his own orgasmic Olympics, but so does his place in history as a major champion of progressive causes, as a person of integrity and as an original contributor to the country's intellectual life.

Though the jury is still out over his credentials as a liberator of female sexuality or as a self-enriching sexist (why the compulsive vamping of the Barbie bod?), Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel makes a strong case for honoring the silk-pajama'd sybarite as an upright citizen -- and for not dismissing him as a "dirty man."

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Opens Friday, July 30, 2010
Angelica
18 West Houston Street
New York

Kevin’s Digital Week 29: Zoe and Buster and Others

Blu-rays of the Week

The Losers
(Warner Brothers)
Loud, bombastic action pictures are a dime a dozen, and The Losers, despite clever touches, is no exception: a group of CIA black ops, stuck in Bolivia, finds themselves battling various thugs and underworld criminals while being helped by a femme fatale to end all femme fatales. Sylvain White’s flick has the requisite shootouts and rote violent sequences--including a badly-done CGI explosion that mars the slam-bang finale--but it has, among a mainly interchangeable cast of male actors, the indispensable Zoe Saldana.

Freed from her hideous blue colorings in Avatar, the gorgeous Saldana shows enough gumption guts to ignite the fantasies of the James Cameron fan boys. She might actually have the goods to make a female-based action franchise succeed (especially if Angelina Jolie in Salt fizzles out). The Losers gets a top-notch hi-def transfer, good news for a movie about guns and hardware. Extras include the usual bombast about its making and fun with the cast, including a featurette about Saldana joining--and outclassing--the boys’ club.

Steamboat Bill Jr.
(Kino)
Arguments about whether Buster Keaton was “greater” than Charlie Chaplin are moot: I would side with Chaplin, but happily, we don’t have to choose. In any case, Keaton’s slapstick films rank among the funniest ever. Although Steamboat Bill Jr. ambles along for 45 minutes, the pay-off sequences late in the movie, in which Keaton is caught in a hurricane and a flood, are so stunning in their sheer audacious hilarity (high winds blow Keaton around and houses crumble around him, all expertly done by the star himself, of course--no stunt doubles or CGI) that you watch the final 20 minutes with your jaw on the floor.

Kino’s new hi-definition transfer is the best-looking Steamboat Bill, Jr. I’ve yet seen, although not on the level of their earlier Blu-ray of Keaton’s The General. Extras include an alternate cut of the film, a short retrospective documentary, even two music videos (!!). It’s too bad that, on the back of the box, the illiterate phrase “comprised of” is used not once, but twice.

DVDs of the Week

Entre Nos 
(IndiePix)
This valentine to co-director/star Paolo Mendoza’s mother showcases, without sentimentality, how a new immigrant living in Queens with her husband and two young kids learns to survive after hubby leaves for Miami and a better job and never returns. In this heartwarming drama, Mariana discovers that she can raise her children even in the most difficult of circumstances. 

Mendoza’s lovely and utterly natural acting as her own mother makes it very easy to fall in with this low-key and unassuming movie, even as it smoothes over some hardships the family faces. Special features include a directors’ commentary, Mendoza’s short film Still Standing, a behind-the-scenes featurette and another one about making empanadas (the movie will explain!). 


A Town Called Panic
(Zeitgeist)
This Belgian stop-motion animated feature is, in a word, wacky. The introduction of the denizens of the panicky place in which the movie’s set is gutbustingly funny, as they--to a man (or animal)--are supremely on edge. After the first, transcendently creative half--as the tiny plastic figures are made to do things so insane (and inane) that the filmmakers who actually thought it all up deserve our endless thanks--gags start getting repetitive, jokes get staler and the movie comes apart at the seams, limping to the homestretch.

Still, it deserves applause for what it attempts, if not what it achieves, and for doing it in a very original way. Zeitgeist’s disc includes interviews with directors Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier, deleted scenes, Le Fabrique de Panique (a 52-min. making-of doc) and a bizarre short, Obsessive Compulsive, chosen by the directors as the winner of the company’s Stop-Motion Animation Contest to accompany this film on DVD.

CDs of the Week

Tribute to Frederic Chopin by Irena Portenko
(Blue Griffin Recording)
Victoria Mushkatkol Plays Bach and Chopin
(Fantasy Records)
In this bicentennial year of Frederic Chopin’s birth, it’s only natural that we are getting inundated with many Chopin CD releases. The Polish composer’s reputation rests almost entirely on his solo piano music, even though he wrote concertos and other orchestra works; and it is that formidable array of compositions that these new releases are leaning on, including these excellent new discs by pianists Irena Portenko and Victoria Mushkatkol.

Portenko’s disc focuses on two dozen of Chopin’s glorious Etudes, 12 each of Op. 10 and Op. 25. Hearing these short but substantial pieces--most no more than two to three minutes long--might make one think that Chopin was a master of miniatures; even the meatier works Portenko plays on this enticing collection (Etudes, Op. 10, No.3, and Op. 25, No. 7) are less than six minutes long.

Mushkatkol’s more substantive two-CD set opens strongly with Bach’s French Overture before settling into Chopin’s larger keyboard pieces, among them several Ballades, scherzos, and mazurkas, along with an opening Barcarole. Both women play Chopin as if their lives depended on it—which, being pianists, they obviously do.

Theater Review: "A Disappearing Number" Mostly Adds Up

Most moviegoers today believe life takes place in 3-D. Suspecting they may have a point, I took a momentary break from the cinema to catch the flesh-and-blood performance of A Disappearing Number, at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts' David H. Koch Theater in New York City. Image from A Disappearing Number

Presented as part of the Lincoln Center Festival (July 7 to 25, 2010), it's one of 45 works by artists and ensembles from 12 countries.

The play, it turns out, makes liberal use of 2-D screens, as is the wont of English playwright and director Simon McBurney and his theater] company Complicite, with whom he shares writing and creative-juice credits for this mind-tickling piece.

McBurney had me applauding from the production notes. "Time for school, where I would understand nothing about math except that I got the wrong answer," he recalls his boyhood trauma. This was the assurance I needed to brave 110 minutes of musings about mathematics and the World War I-era collaboration between Cambridge University math
professor G. H. Hardy (David Annen) and young Indian clerk Srinivasa Ramanujan (Shane Shambhu), a raving mathematical genius.

Fortunately for numbers-challenged viewers like me, the play also ponders beauty, imagination and love, not to mention the nature of infinity and the past's link with the future.

A Disappearing Number takes its opening spark from Ramanujan's first overture to Hardy, as described in Hardy's book, A Mathematician's Apology. The then unknown quantity scrawled a letter to the tweedy don proving that 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 ... equals -1/12. At first glance Hardy figured it was the rantings of a crank, but soon recognized amid the scratchings the Riemann zeta function with s = - 1. Apparently we have all this to thank for today's cell phones and computers.

But rather than concentrate on the relationship between the plumped Brit and the pinched Brahmin, Complicite folds a present-day love
story into the mix. Contemporary audiences can relate to the gadget-wielding Indian-American businessman, Al (Firdous Bamji) and his math lecturer partner, Ruth (Saskia Reeves) without having to digest a period piece on top of demanding curriculum. And their
figure-fueled philosophical – and even geographical -- quests
certainly draw resonances with the historic pair's.

Yet the Julie and Julia device gets a bit choppy, and leaves something of an artificial aftertaste. Foretaste as well: we first encounter Ramanujan's mathematical ideas when Ruth first encounters Al, in the opening scene. Through the course of the play we will join them in fathoming the mysteries of the universe, in celebrating connectedness and in mourning the loss of a baby, a marriage and a spouse.

Too bad such character development eludes the heroic duo of Ramanujan and Hardy. Competing for our emotional allegiance, they don't stand a chance.

Fortunately, there's more than enough passion and intrigue to go around in the use of math concepts as a prism into human nature. For example, death is compared to infinity; partitions of numbers stand as a metaphor for the partition of individuals as well as of India and Pakistan; and the entropy of cadavers is matched with the decomposition of numbers into prime factors.

If math's essence is complexity at its simplest expression, Complicite can slap gold stars on their foreheads for the stark elegance of its thematic inquiry.

The narrative structure also offers a riff on math. Hopping back and forth in Al and Ruth's relationship – and across the century – teases out mathematical patterns, as do our protagonists.

Michael Levine's production design and Paul Anderson's lighting take the logic of patterns to its poetic and pulsing edge. Though at times
almost too much of a good thing, the projected infinities of calculations filled the stage with chaos' beauty and mystique.

Taken together with Nitin Sawhney's music of live tabla rhythms (played by Hiren Chate) and hypnotic chants of mathematical sequences, the play gives a sound and light show of sufficient dimensions to put any 3-D movie out there to shame.

Additional details about A Disappearing Number and the Lincoln Center Festival are posted at: www.lincolncenter.org.

A Disappearing Number
Lincoln Center Festival
July 7 to 25, 2010
David H. Koch Theater
20 Lincoln Center Plaza
(Columbus Avenue at 63rd Street)

New York, NY 10023

Kevin's Digital Week 28: Outstanding "Moments"

Blu-rays of the Week


Everlasting Moments

(Criterion)

Directed by Jan Troell — who is, at age 78, a true grand master of cinema — Everlasting Moments is both a heartening example of artistry distilled to its very essence and a riposte to the frantic shrillness of empty crowd-pleasers like Avatar and Slumdog Millionaire. With acute insight, Troell paints a loving portrait of an early 20th century woman becoming a photographer in a difficult era for her gender’s place in society. Maria Heiskanen’s subtle, nuanced portrayal creates a headstrong Maria whose picture-taking liberates her from household drudgery, even if she never fully comprehends its meaning in her life. As she takes pictures, Troell moves between comedy and tragedy, the latter in a haunting sequence of a dead girl’s mother requesting photos to remember her by. Once, at the end, Troell uses a freeze-frame to visualize a photo, and this moment—in lesser hands, a mere platitude—has great power and effectiveness.

Remarkable, too, is the sepia-soaked cinematography which appears to catch light in half-tones, as it were—the shadows dancing on these very human faces provide a visual wonderment that can’t be reproduced by any other director. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer preserves the excess grain and muted color palette of the original 16mm shoot, a miracle in itself. Extras include cast and crew interviews, an hour-long documentary about Troell’s underrated career, and a nine-minute featurette showing Maria‘s real photos. 

The White Ribbon
(Sony)

Michael Haneke’s 145-minute melodrama about the roots of fascism is, like all his films, meticulously shot and impeccably acted: it’s also written and directed by a world-class sadist. That’s not necessarily a criticism because, as one of today’s most talented cinematic provocateurs, Haneke makes intelligently disturbing movies.

The White Ribbon is of a piece with his earlier work, showing how a German village on the eve of World War I becomes prey to unexplainable atrocities, from injuring the local doctor (and killing his horse) to blinding a retarded boy.  As usual for Haneke, the quite horrific sadism is primarily psychological, but from the director of Benny’s Video, Funny Games, and Cache, we expect that. Still, it’s a spellbinding allegory about instilling the roots of the Third Reich in children who would grow up to yell “Heil Hitler!” The White Ribbon is photographed in immaculate black and white, recreated brilliantly on Blu-ray: indeed, this may be the best-looking hi-def transfer yet. Extras include a Haneke interview, footage from the film’s Cannes premiere and a thorough, involving making-of documentary.  

DVDs of the Week

 

The Greatest 

(E1)

Carey Mulligan again paints an indelible portrait as memorable as her Oscar-nominated turn in An Education: she plays Rose, a young woman who insinuates herself into the grieving family of her boyfriend, who was killed in a freak accident that left her — and their unborn child — alone. Mulligan’s incisive, thought-through characterization gives this well-acted soap opera the charge it needs to overcome its mawkishness.

Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon give intelligent performances as the parents reacting to their son’s surviving girlfriend and carrier of their grandchild, and Johnny Simmons is exceptionally good as their younger son. But it’s Mulligan who is the backbone of Shana Feste’s well-intentioned but frustratingly uneven exploration of grief and its aftermath. Extras include brief interviews with Feste and her cast. 

Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill
(Acorn Media)
Originally broadcast on PBS in 1975, Jennie is a supremely entertaining British mini-series about the life of Winston Churchill’s American-born mother, who is fabulously embodied by a luminous Lee Remick. Writer Julian Mitchell drew on the Churchill family’s private letters and papers, and the result — while not completely melodrama free—is a fascinating portrait of a unique and quintessentially American woman, whom Remick plays with wit, flair and stylishness.

 

The supporting cast of Jennie comprises top-notch British actors—including Warren Clarke, Christopher Cazenove, Siân Phillips and Jeremy Brett — who perfectly complement Remick’s winning portrayal. Presented on four discs, the seven-hour mini-series is another winner from Acorn Media, which happily seems to be releasing every storied and obscure British television program in existence. 

 

CDs of the Week


The Excursions of Mr. Broucek

(Supraphon)

Several towering tragedies by the great Czech opera composer Leos Janácek (Jenufa, Kata Kabanova, The Makropulos Case and From the House of the Dead) are regularly performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and his delightful The Cunning Little Vixen will be staged by the New York Philharmonic next season. But his experimental comic opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is barely known hereabouts, possibly because this Eastern European absurdist work is, for all its musical beauties, seriously disjointed, since its protagonist journeys to the moon in Act I and back in time to the 15th century in Act II.

Happily, a recording this good (from 1962, with superb Czech singers and players) allows the listener to bypass the clunky libretto and concentrate on Janácek’s mesmerizing way of creating compelling drama and comedy out of simple musical materials. The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is not Janácek’s best opera by a long shot—not with so many other indisputably fine ones to choose from—but it shows off a great composer’s complete mastery of his medium. 

Les Noces/Oedipus Rex
(Mariinsky Label)
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev recently led an Igor Stravinsky Festival with the New York Philharmonic, and the concerts were filled with alternately exasperating and revelatory performances of much of Stravinsky’s orchestral and choral output. Although the players on this recording are Gergiev’s hometown Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus, the musical outcome is the same. 

The Russian composer's dance cantata Les Noces / The Wedding, which features the Mariinsky Chorus, soloists and percussionists, contains much impressive banging, while the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex stars several leather-lunged Russian singers, along with actor Gerard Depardieu speaking the narration in Jean Cocteau’s original French (here in New York, Jeremy Irons intoned E.E. Cummings’ English translation). Gergiev’s patented intensity brings each work to a shattering climax, although neither performance—however beautifully recorded—would be considered truly definitive by Stravinsky aficionados.  

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