Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Film Review | Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Hugh Hefner Superstar

by Thomas Delapa

Celebrities, here’s a tip worthy of the Playboy Advisor: If you consent to a documentary biography, make sure you hire a pal to direct.

After making Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, the only remaining to-do items for director Brigitte Berman is to nominate her subject for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in time, canonization. P.S., if you read the press-book fine print, you’ll discover that Berman and Hef have been friends for years.

While an Oscar-winning filmmaker in her own right (Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got), Berman doesn’t exactly pursue the naked truths behind her controversial and paradoxical subject, despite being granted unique access to Hefner’s voluminous personal archives. The portrait that emerges is less a sharp profile than a glossy, R-rated edition of This Is Your Life, complete with a gallery of genuflecting testimonials.

That’s a shame, because Berman uncovers lively facts and footage that focus on Hefner’s part-time career as liberal-minded social activist. While undoubtedly most famous (or infamous) as the founder/editor of the first mainstream nudie magazine, Hefner can also be credited for his work—however opportunistic—on such landmark 1950s and 1960s causes as racial integration, free speech, and anti-McCarthyism. Only in recent years has it come to light that Hefner’s activism merited the snooping surveillance of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI during the tumultuous Vietnam-War era.

Lounging in his familiar red smoking jacket, Hefner makes his case in earnest, and Berman, all ears, hops to it. A parade of impressive guests, from Jesse Jackson and Dick Cavett to Tony Bennett and Bill Maher, toast Hefner’s guts, integrity, and courage under fire. Playboy mansion regular James Caan commends his taste in women. If there’s not enough hot air, we’re treated (seriously) to several stirring refrains of “Blowin in the Wind.”

Backed up by eye-opening vintage footage, Berman isn’t all bluster. On Hefner’s short-lived, hipster TV shows, syndicated in the 1950s and 1960s, we see a racially mixed gathering of guests, including Sammy Davis Jr. and blacklisted folk singer Peter Seeger; as well as the controversial “sick” comic Lenny Bruce. Hefner’s 1960s swingin’ Playboy Clubs were among the first to feature black comics, such as Chicago’s Dick Gregory. And in the earliest of Playboy’s landmark interview pieces ( “It set the standard,” says Hef ), a pre-Roots Alex Haley talked at length with jazz legend Miles Davis.

For token counterpoint, feminist Susan Brownmiller chimes in, along with singer and social conservative Pat Boone. Brownmiller dismisses Hefner’s activism (and literary pretensions) as a clever, self-serving ruse to dress up and legitimize “soft” pornography that thrives on the objectification of women. At bottom, Playboy is essentially a purveyor of male sexual fantasy, and arguably has helped open the floodgates for today’s multi-billion-dollar porn industry. While Hefner rather disingenuously declares his original intent was to show that “female beauty was everywhere”, Brownmiller argues that Playboy’s 57 years of photographic spreads create the voyeuristic and sexist fantasy that “the girl next door will take her clothes off for you.” Of course, in Hefner’s case, it was no fantasy.

For another unlikely defender, Berman beams up director George Lucas, who un-Forcefully claims that Star Wars isn’t so different from Playboy’s layouts of bare naked young ladies with come-hither expressions. “I create fantasy; Hef creates fantasy,” says the creator of Han Solo and Jar Jar Binks.

Apart from a smattering of discouraging words, there are few cracks exposed in Berman’s Mt. Rushmore-lofty tribute. We hear only scant stories from the thousands of women who’ve disrobed for Playboy. In this top-heavy chronicle, Berman brings us up to date with Hefner in his eighties, sans pipe and wives, but still surrounded by a bevy of busty 20-something blondes.

In the age of Viagra, what 84-year-old millionaire playboy needs the fountain of youth?

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
is currently playing in select theaters in the U.S. and Canada.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/26/10

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Joan Rivers Has a Documentary Worthy of Mike Tyson

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Review)

Startlingly honest and spellbinding documentary shows comedienne's resolve and desperation

By Steven Rosen
(From Cincinnati CityBeat)

Can we talk? Let’s discuss what a startlingly honest and spellbinding film Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is. And this, frankly, is a surprise. Who would have thought Rivers — 75 when this film was made and now 77 — was still so interesting?

It wasn’t long ago that Rivers was regarded as a joke. Her Fox network talk show had bombed, she and daughter Melissa performed high-kitsch red-carpet commentary before award-show broadcasts and she even had the bad taste to star in a made-for-TV movie about the 1987 suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg. Her days as a tough, pioneering female comic seemed a long, long way in the past. Now there was an air of desperation about her.

One key element of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the documentary made by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, is that desperation does indeed permeate her every pore. But it doesn’t make her a joke; it keeps her humor relevant. Despite the mistakes listed above, she's kept doing stand-up as edgy and profane as, say, Kathy Griffin. Maybe more so.

What makes Joanie run? Fear that one day she won’t be able to.

The revelation of Piece of Work isn’t just how funny (and naughty) her jokes still are; it’s that she’ll do anything to keep working. She holds up an appointment book to the camera and bemoans the lack of bookings. She travels from a shopping-channel appearance in Toronto to a casino in cold, snowy Wisconsin — where she explodes at an audience member who protests a joke about Helen Keller’s deafness (“Oh, you stupid ass, comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot,” she berates him.)

Part of her drive might be that she needs the money. She lives in a rococo-style Manhattan apartment that could be the setting for a film about royal decadence in pre-Revolution France. She has a small staff, wears thickly luxuriant fur coats and travels by limousine.

But there’s more to it than that. “She hears the clock ticking every minute, everyday,” an agent says. She’s also still seething at how mentor Johnny Carson, who made her his favorite substitute host, dropped her like a rock (and maybe blackballed her) when she got her late-night talk show on Fox. She wants a comeback to prove him wrong.

Stern and Sundberg’s background in documentaries about societal underdogs — The Trials of Daryll Hunt (about a man wrongly convicted of murder) and The Devil Came on Horseback (about genocide in Darfur) — have taught them to dig hard for truth and to have empathy for their subject. That serves Rivers well; she needs someone to understand her as a person and not treat her as some kind of icon. (In fact, when a broadcast reporter asks her what it’s like to be an icon, she responds, “I’m not ready, fuck you!”).

The filmmakers also stay out of Rivers’ way. While this is a contemporary documentary, very much a product of our era with its color photography and sophisticated interspersing of vintage clips with current material, it has the contemplative, fly-on-the-wall quality of classic cinema verite.

This film spends too much time on the appearance by Rivers and her daughter on the crappy, corny Celebrity Apprentice TV show, which they both seem to take way too seriously. But it also captures some extraordinary soul-bearing moments, as when Rivers brings a Thanksgiving meal to a wheelchair-bound woman named Flo Fox. She had once been a photographer with as tough and daring an aesthetic as Rivers has for comedy. Rivers goes home to look her up on the Internet, is deeply impressed and then shaken by the unfairness of her fate. “Life is so mean,” she says.

Like Phyllis Diller before, if less extreme, the young Rivers at first used her unspectacular looks as a source for humor. A Piece of Work shows examples from her appearances on shows in the 1960s and 1970s, especially The Tonight Show. And like Diller, she has undergone extensive plastic surgery and now makes that as well as her reliance on heavy make-up sources of her humor. I wonder why. As this film’s many close-ups of Rivers show, the work she has had done looks effective, as does the windswept-blonde hair and the make-up. When she smiles or laughs, she seems much younger than her age.

Since Rivers rants and wails like a mourner at a funeral against the aging process that has left her feeling abandoned by the 21st century (and loss of friends), it’s worth comparing A Piece of Work with another documentary about a cultural figure who, with age, has become more self-aware and eloquently insightful about his mistakes: Tyson. Yet the tragedy that film reveals is there’s little Mike Tyson can do now with his hard-won knowledge — boxing, the sport that made him famous, is a pretty unforgiving profession for a guy in his mid-forties.

Rivers’ lessons learned, however, keep her career in stand-up vital. Everything becomes material. “Good things don’t always happen to good people, and I’m very angry about it,” she comments. “But the anger fuels the comedy.”

This might be the key reason for Rivers’ current comeback. She is getting older and she’s getting better.

Grade: B-plus

Friday, August 20, 2010

Film Review | Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim 1 -- The World 0

Pow! Zap! Crunch! Hey, hey, Japanese manga meets The Monkees when Toronto slacker Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) goes mano-a-mano with the seven evil exes of the punky, magenta-haired girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) of his dreams. In this pop-culture compost that starts with Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels, director Edgar Wright hits the recycle button with a vengeance for the cartoonish adventures of the super-dorky but awesomely-powered hero. From riffs on Veganism to Seinfeld, kung fu fighting to Pac-Man, Scott Pilgrim gobbles up a generation of X-number of pop touchstones without so much as a burp. For the audience world over age 20, indigestion will likely set in by the overstuffed finale, fed by a steady diet of empty, rock-em sock-em special effects. Like, you’ll wish for “Game Over” before Scott does. With Kieran Culkin. --TD

Monday, August 16, 2010

Film Review | Countdown to Zero

Numbers Game

by Thomas Delapa

Want to see something really scary?

Forget Independence Day, 2012 or any other Hollywood horror story. This summer, Countdown to Zero should land on your Top Ten list. The cast includes such international stars as Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair. The doomsday plot? Unless the world acts quickly, time will run out on our ability to defuse the looming nuclear threat.

In a season of dreamy cinematic escapism, director Lucy Walker’s incendiary documentary hits home with a vengeance. Back in the hot years of the Cold War, U.S. military strategists were called upon to “think the unthinkable.” Walker goes one further, both thinking—and envisioning—the apocalyptic nightmare of either accidental or intentional nuclear catastrophe.

Serving as both past and prologue is President Kennedy’s 1961 address to the U.N., in which he warns of the “nuclear sword of Damocles” hanging over humanity. That was when only a few superpowers had the Bomb. Now that the Cold War has thawed, nuclear proliferation and global terrorism have emerged as the itchiest potential fingers on the atomic trigger. Since the 1960s, Pakistan and North Korea have also joined the nuclear club, and both have been players in the illicit trade of nuclear technology, particularly to Iran.

The number-one shocking lesson to learn in Countdown might be that basic nuclear weaponry isn’t rocket science. A bomb roughly equivalent to the one that leveled Hiroshima only requires a grapefruit-sized quantity of fissionable uranium or plutonium. The creation of that enriched uranium—however time-consuming and expensive—can nevertheless be accomplished with 1950s centrifuge technology. According to Walker’s experts, the hardest part is fabricating a device for detonating or delivering the warhead. Alert viewers—if not Homeland Security—may well ask why these experts so readily broadcast such Nukes-for-Dummies tips on film. After all, armed evidently with only low-tech box-cutters, a handful of terrorists staged the most devastating attack on America since Pearl Harbor.

Today, not only is the nuclear genie out of the bottle, but no one can find the cork. In the former Soviet state of Georgia, one N-plant worker smuggled a small quantity of enriched uranium past the flimsy security. He planned to sell it on the black market so he could buy luxury American cars. Once smuggled, a ball of dense, weapons-grade uranium can easily be hidden within a small lead container. Entrance into a U.S. port might be smooth sailing, given the enormous tonnage of all shapes and sizes that pass daily through our many ports.

Unlike many advocacy documentaries, Walker works to defuses any charge of bias by including experts from a range of the political spectrum, including Republican die-hard James Baker and a grave Valerie Plame Wilson, the ex-CIA agent notoriously outed by the Bush/Cheney White House. For historical benchmarks, Walker summons up haunting black-and-white footage of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. While he famously expressed regrets over his paternity, Oppenheimer also brazenly admitted that “when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it.”

While Walker launches Countdown as a cautionary documentary, it hits the target as a hot-button horror show. An interview with a former Minuteman-missile silo officer reveals just how close the Cold War world was to a Dr. Strangelove-style Armageddon. Though today’s arsenals have been reduced as a result of U.S.-Soviet treaties, there are still at least 23,000 nuclear warheads on the ready. One think-tanker soberly concludes, “There’s nothing that makes the launch of nuclear weapons impossible.”

In a blitz of chilling graphics, we see H-bomb blast scenarios laid over maps of the world’s great cities. Try thinking this unthinkable: at ground zero, temperatures would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit.

From this unspeakable brink, Walker brings us back down to earth, adding a not-so-disarming coda on the strategies united nations can use to stop this countdown to madness. Judging by these experts, time isn’t on our side.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/13/10

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Chilling Winter's Bone

A Chilling Winter's Bone

By Steven Rosen

(Adapted From Cincinnati CityBeat)

Winter's Bone (Review)

The Sundance Film Festival has always offered a friendly home for naturalistic, rural/small-town-set family dramas with strong suspense/thriller elements; think Ulee’s Gold and last year’s Frozen River.

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone — winner of the Dramatic Film Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance — continues that tradition, improving upon it in some ways but also coming on a little too strong.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, it tells of 17-year-old backwoods Ozarks girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) who needs to get her missing meth-cooking father to a court date or her family will lose their log-cabin-style home because he jumped bail.

Because her mother has had an apparent breakdown, it’s up to Ree to take care of a younger brother and sister. She could also save the homestead, alternately, by finding proof dad has died — maybe in a messy squabble with other drug dealers, of whom the picturesque but impoverished Ozarks has its share.

The film manages well at incorporating an insightfully sociological -- and evocatively cinematographic -- sense of place, yet not getting bogged down either "meaning" or a rapturous take on nature. As Ree’s search for her father quickly takes hold, putting her in contact (and conflict) with some very tough (and haggard-looking) adults, the suspense elements rise.

Granik — who also co-wrote the screenplay — moves the action and terse dialogue around quickly and economically; you have to stay alert to keep abreast of what’s happening. And the characters are never cheap stereotypes — even the meanest are rendered with subtlety.

The outstanding Lawrence, who has a refreshing fresh-scrubbed innocence (she looks a bit like a young Jewel) to match her character’s spunk and grit, gets some strong support from John Hawkes, who plays her dangerous uncle Teardrop with the ferociousness yet smartness of a young Harry Dean Stanton.

The film has some moments when Ree seems far tougher than her years, as when teaching her younger brother how to gut a squirrel. Other times, as in a wrenching climactic scene in a boat when her father's fate is put in her hands, she conveys a child's horror at the cruelty of her world.

But for all the emphasis on naturalism, that world depicted here seems too cut off from the rest of America as we know it to feel totally authentic. That’s brought home in a brilliant scene when Ree tries to enlist with a wise military recruiter — is this the only contact with the greater government (other than a small-town police officer) that she has?

These aren't Davy Crockett days. Her total backwoods isolation doesn’t quite ring true for our modern times. Still, Winter's Bone reminds us that Americana can be chilling.

Grade: B-plus
Labels: Debra Granik, Steven Rosen, Winter's Bone

Thursday, August 5, 2010

American Idle: Adventures in TV Land

by Thomas Delapa

If you want to seriously study the sick state of TV in the age of Fox News, reality shows and infomercials, spend a few days semi-conscious in a hospital bed.

Some 50 years ago, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow controversially declared television to be a “vast wasteland.” That was when TV was limited to three monolithic national networks. Today, Minow’s diagnosis is no less grim, especially with the metastasizing growth of cable channels into a hundred-headed Hydra monster.

Like a reclined, reluctant tourist in Dante’s Hell, I descended into TV land, armed only with a remote control to temporarily zap the devilish dross I bore witness to. While no one can argue that network TV of the fifties was heaven on Earth, at least the networks sought to edify audiences with such notable dramatic series as Playhouse 90 and Studio One. Where have all the quality dramatic shows gone? A nation turns its lonely, bleary eyes to you, HBO.

In a bloodshot reflection of our splintered society, there’s seemingly a cable channel and program for every interest group, bias, demographic, and gender, all ubiquitously interrupted by a rising tide of noisy commercials. One of the original promises of cable was the absence of advertisements, but that pledge has long been canceled, and is unlikely to ever return in re-runs. Against the swamp of commercialism, PBS remains a lonely oasis of arts and educational fare, despite a notable drop in original content. While the History Channel is a source of informative, if sensationalized, factoid films, the Animal Planet has viciously regressed, devolving the nature documentary into when-animals-attack Darwinism.

Of course, there’s no better advertisement for America’s post-Reagan social Darwinism than the reality show, TV’s version of the Roman bread and circuses—hold the bread. In fact, there’s very little that’s “real” about these spectacles, whether the contrived settings, manipulated action or the exhibitionist participants themselves, who are pre-selected for potential on-camera ballistics. Voyeurism and exhibitionism go hand in hand on these (sur)reality shows, exposing our perverse fixation with the biggest winners of the great American game—as well as its biggest losers.

The only news about cable news is how the 24/7 format serves to both magnify and distort whatever news there is, however trivial or lurid, and often to paranoid extremes. With Fox News, MSNBC and the pioneering CNN now in ratings competition, the battle isn’t for old-school journalistic scoops anymore, but how to out-spin the other with the loudest mouths. On the feverishly right-wing Fox, a scary parade of dolled-up blond pundits march in lockstep with Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, et al., dishing out snide, cynical barbs at anything remotely liberal, intellectual or Obaman. This drone of negativity is best exacerbated when accompanied by a simplistic video prop, like the endlessly repeated disaster-cam shot of the gushing BP oil well, bleeding black gunk in the Gulf of Mexico and killing all those poor pelicans. At no point during the catastrophe did any of Fox’s slick commentators remind us of Sarah Palin’s campaign cry to “Drill, baby, drill.”

Crude is only one of the words that come to mind for most of cable-TV. Outside of the “premium” HBO (which produced the superb John Adams mini-series), the erratic AMC (home to the Emmy-winning Mad Men) and Turner Classic Movies, the small screen’s big picture is a blur of re-runs, inane game shows, old movies, cartoons, semi-pornographic music videos, televangelists, infomercials and, of course, an exhaustively wide world of sports and pseudo-sports, including NASCAR, martial-arts cage matches, and high-stakes poker—my bet as the nerdiest of televised non-events. The Bravo channel, which once merited applause for high-brow fare, has even dumbed down, going gaga for a Lady Gaga photo shoot.

Dazed and discontented viewers may well ask who took the “vision” out of television. It’s become our national id, where egos rule. For every great show like The Simpsons, there are a hundred Hell’s Kitchens or Wipeouts. But in an increasingly insular, bored, home-theater society that wants its TV and MTV, nobody today is yelling “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going take this anymore.” Resistance seems programmed to fail. Like Chauncey Gardiner, the numbed voyeur of Being There, Americans like to watch.


Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/4/10