Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Sex in the early '60s: Hef and the Bunnies.

(2009) Documentary (Metaphor) Hugh Hefner, Bill Maher, Tony Bennett, George Lucas, Joan Baez, Jim Brown, James Caan, Jesse Jackson, Jenny McCarthy, Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed, Pete Seeger, Mike Wallace, David Steinberg, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis. Directed by Brigitte Berman

There have been many polarizing figures in the 20th century. Ronald Reagan, for example; conservatives look at him as a great president, one whose economic philosophy have shaped our economy for the past thirty years and have led us to unprecedented prosperity. Liberals look at him as the architect for our greed-dominated society and see his presidency as an American tragedy.

Hugh Hefner gets the same sort of reception. The publisher of Playboy magazine is responsible for the popularization of the centerfold. To the minds of the radical feminists, he has led to the objectification of women and is indirectly or directly responsible for the rape and abuse of women by men who have bought in to his philosophy. To conservatives, he is an immoral man, dedicated to the destruction of American society and the corruption of American morality.

Most people see the swinging lifestyle; the pajamas, the pipe, the smile and the 20-something women cavorting at the Shangri La-esque Playboy mansion. They see an octogenarian with seven girlfriends young enough to be his great-great granddaughters and yes, there is an element of the ridiculous to it. Overkill at the very least.

But there is more to Hef than meets the eye, and those who have followed his career will know that. Hef has been a crusader for First Amendment rights through his magazine, supporting the legal defense of those rights (often with cash donations) and during the Blacklisting era, printing pieces by Dalton Trumbo and other writers who could get no work elsewhere.

He has also been a champion for civil rights. His Playboy clubs and “Playboy After Dark” television show gave exposure to African-American performers who might never have gotten an audience. Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie and Dick Gregory all regularly worked in Hefner’s establishments. He supported Martin Luther King’s agenda both editorially and with contributions to his cause.

And he has also defended women’s reproductive rights as well as their civil rights as well. He has supported the “Equal Pay for Equal Work” theory as well as nurturing the careers of women into executive positions at his own company. He works tirelessly for the environment as well as for the preservation of jazz, an art form he’s passionate about.

Berman was given unprecedented access to the magazine’s archives and to Hefner’s own personal collection of letters and documents; she also was able to get her hands on footage from Hefner’s television shows which are some of the most fascinating moments of the film.

Hefner is often simply thought of as a pornographer and a fairly mild one at that; his pictorials tend to be much more artistic and less hardcore than those of, say, Larry Flynt or Bob Guccione. In some ways, he’s rather archaic – Playboy is essentially less of a factor in publishing the pictures of naked women than the Internet is. His legacy, however is far more complicated.

Hef didn’t invent sex but he brought it out of the recesses of puritanical dogma. He didn’t make it okay for women to like sex, but he supported the concept and helped popularize it. He didn’t objectify women – that’s been around far longer than Playboy – but he did help develop what the male ideal was for women physically (can we all say big boobs?) and make being a centerfold an aspiration for many women.

There is nothing wrong with sex. There is nothing wrong with being sexual. Pleasure doesn’t have to be a dirty word. But sex goes arm in arm with responsibility and Hef knew that. He used the prurient interest in his magazine to fund his social causes and there is some irony in that.

Tarring Hefner with the brush of a pornographer misses the point of what he’s done, and is rather simplistic and naive. I don’t always agree with his lifestyle and I wonder why he has rarely gone for women closer to his own age – I also wonder if there is too much emphasis on sex in his philosophy. Sex is, after all, only a part of life and while it is an important part, it’s not the most important part.

But that’s once again not all there is to Hefner. He has championed causes that have needed a champion, and has stood up for things that were unpopular back in the day. Most importantly, he has helped usher in a change of American values and hopefully, not all of it has to do with sex. Some of it has to do with compassion and the dignity of all people. Hugh Hefner may not be a hero to most, but in all honesty he deserves to be and this movie captures that largely unremarked upon aspect of him.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity (of the Playboy centerfold variety) and a bit of sexual content as you might imagine.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10,000 on an unreported production budget; I suspect the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: J.Edgar

The House Bunny


The House Bunny

Anna Faris would make a bodacious Bunny!

(2008) Comedy (Columbia) Anna Faris, Colin Hanks, Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Dana Goodman, Katharine McPhee, Rumer Willis, Christopher McDonald, Beverly D’Angelo, Hugh Hefner, Kiely Williams, Holly Madison, Tyson Ritter. Directed by Fred Wolf

Sometimes we see our lives unfolding in a certain direction and we just assume that the course will remain the same eternally. However, life loves to throw us curveballs and it’s how we respond to them that really determines who we are.

Shelley Darlingson (Faris) is a Playboy playmate who has lived in the Playboy mansion for years but on her 27th birthday, she is unceremoniously booted from the mansion by Hef himself. She didn’t do anything wrong – it’s just that she had to make room for someone younger. Ah yes; 27 and over the hill. Life can be cruel.

She finds herself at a Southern California college with nowhere to go. Through convoluted circumstances, she discovers the Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority, the campus sad sacks whose charter is about to be revoked because they have grown so unpopular, managing to attract only outsiders and losers according to collegiate way of thinking.

She becomes the house mother and teaches the girls how to be popular, something Shelley knows a lot about – and how to attract guys, which is something else Shelley knows a lot about. She does makeovers for rebellious Mona (Dennings), too-smart Natalie (Stone) and even pregnant Harmony (McPhee) and body brace encumbered Joanne (Willis). As the girls begin to strut about in skimpy outfits and lots of make-up, the guys begin to flock to Zeta house, making the other sororities jealous.

In the meantime, Shelley falls for Oliver (Hanks) and discovers her methods won’t work on him. She needs to get herself edu-ma-cated and in a hurry. In that sense, Shelley needs a makeover of her own and soon discovers that popular isn’t everything.

This is from the writers of Legally Blonde and unfortunately in a lot of ways they’re repeating themselves, from the sorority culture of So Cal to the attention to fashion and popularity. This is essentially their take on Revenge of the Nerds complete with the girls dressing up as jocks and performing a song and a jealous sorority releasing a pig in their house. I don’t mind homages but this one borders on rip-off a little too close for comfort.

Faris is a terrific comic actress who unfortunately has appeared in a lot of really terrible comedies. I’m waiting for her to appear in something worthy of her talents but to date that hasn’t happened yet. She is the best thing about the movie, even though her performance is somewhat uneven by her standards. She certainly looks good in skimpy outfits.

The other gals fare unevenly, from solid to not so much. Stone and Dennings have gone on to better roles since then; Stone in particular shows lots of promise as a lead actress and Dennings is not far behind her. Hanks also has shown some potential, although neither he nor Dennings have gotten the vehicle yet that showcase it.

A note to dumbass film critics: because women dress provocatively or seem to like sex, it doesn’t make them whores. It makes them provocatively dressed. Women probably wouldn’t dress that way if they could be taken on their own merits instead of just their physical ones. The conceit of having the girls of the sorority dress provocatively to become more popular isn’t condescending or exploitative – it’s a fact of life. Does Hollywood contribute to this? Absolutely! But then I don’t happen to think it’s a crime for a woman wanting to be noticed or thought attractive.

Anyway rant aside this is a film that isn’t going to wind up on anybody’s best lists except for those who want to see Faris’ naked derriere. It has moments, but not enough for you to go looking too hard for this, although it’s relatively easy to find.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever concept. Anna Faris has her moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks execution – could have been a bit funnier. There are scenes lifted whole cloth out of other movies, particularly Revenge of the Nerds and Legally Blonde.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sex-related humor as well as a bit of partial nudity, not to mention a bit of strong language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some scenes were shot inside the actual Playboy mansion.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.4M on a $25M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Perrier’s Bounty

Hop


Hop

When Willy Wonka sees this, he's going to be contacting his attorneys.

(2011) Fantasy (Universal) James Marsden, Russell Brand (voice), Kaley Cuoco, Hugh Laurie (voice), Hank Azaria (voice), Gary Cole, Elizabeth Perkins, David Hasselhoff, Tiffany Espensen, Chelsea Handler, Hugh Hefner (voice), Coleton Ray. Directed by Tim Hill

While Hollywood has produced its share of Christmas movies, Easter movies have not been quite so plentiful. Perhaps because Christmas is all about birth and Easter is all about death; opposite ends of the life cycle. Indeed, Easter time seems to be a time where movies like The Ten Commandments have held sway.

However, here’s one about the Easter Bunny which fills in some of the mythology. The Easter Bunny (Laurie) is the latest of a 4,000 year line (I know, I know – the screenwriters are a little deficient on math) and is eager to pass on his Eternal Egg – a kind of scepter that I the key to the Easter Bunny’s magic – on to his son, E.B. (Brand).

The problem is, E.B. has dreams of his own – he wants to be a rock and roll star, a drummer to be exact (and we all know that nobody thumps like a rabbit). Of course Dad finds this out and gets into a row with his son, forcing E.B to travel by convenient interdimensional transportation tube from Easter Island to Hollywood.

There he runs into (literally) Fred O’Hare (Marsden), the ne’er do well 30ish son of Henry (Cole) and Bonnie (Perkins). Henry is very hard on his son, and the parent in me says with good reason as Fred is directionless, living at home and turning down job after job a “bad fits.” In the meantime his over-achieving sisters, Sam (Cuoco) – the older sister, and Alex (Espensen), the younger – have become the apple of their parent’s eyes, while their son is in danger of becoming a disappointment.

While Fred continues to find himself, E.B. manages to get himself an audition on a talent show hosted by the venerable David Hasselhoff (playing himself) and is finally on the road to fulfilling his dream. Unfortunately, Pink Ninjas – the personal guard of the Easter Bunny (why he would need one is anyone’s guess) – are after E.B. to haul him back home in time for the ceremony in which the mantle is passed from father to son and Fred continues to create a further rift in his family dynamic. In the meantime Carlos (Azaria), an oversized chick and the Easter Bunny’s #2 is plotting a coup. Fred and E.B. ultimately discover that they are good for one another and that destiny can sometimes be a good thing.

This is a mix of live action and CG animation, and of late that has been a very, very bad thing indeed (think Yogi Bear, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield). For whatever reason, studios seem to think that these sorts of movies should be completely dumbed down for kids. Personally, I don’t get it – we give children these sophisticated and clever fully animated movies that both kids and their parents can enjoy but when it comes to live action it becomes an endless, tedious Nickelodeon original episode.

Marsden is horribly miscast here. Not only is he much too old for the role, you get the feeling that he’s taken Botox in order to keep the smile frozen on his face because, left to its own devices, that face would be left in a frown of disdainful disgust. From being Cyclops in the X-Men franchise to this? A very sad fate indeed.

The animated portion, provided by the same people who did Despicable Me is the movie’s highlight. Their Easter Island settings are magical in the same way Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was decades ago. I could have spent a good long time exploring the candy factory of the Easter Bunny and do some taste testing of my own.

Unfortunately, that’s about it as far as reasons to see this go. The script is most decidedly unfunny, falling flat in nearly every attempt at humor and the story lacks tension. It just seems to meander a bit until coming to a painfully obvious conclusion.

There should be magic in a holiday movie and there just isn’t enough of it here. I think of something along the lines of The Polar Express when it comes to digitally enhanced holiday movies and Hop just doesn’t compare. You may wind up being dragged to a matinee for this movie this weekend. For once it will be the parents kicking and screaming when they are taken someplace they definitely don’t want to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the Easter Island backdrops are very nice.

REASONS TO STAY: Desperately unfunny, panders to the lowest common denominator, treats audiences like idiots – need I go on?

FAMILY VALUES: A bit of poo-poo humor here but nothing to get concerned over.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Browning doesn’t have a line of dialogue (despite being the lead character) until nearly twenty minutes into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the digital imagery should be seen on a big screen and if you have little ones, you’re going to be dragged into the theater to see this anyway so might as well enjoy it.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Fanny, Annie and Danny

Miss March


Miss March

Women would rather kiss each other than Trevor Moore.

(Fox Searchlight) Zach Cregger, Trevor Moore, Raquel Alessi, Craig Robinson, Molly Stanton, Hugh Hefner, Sara Jean Underwood, Carla Jimenez. Directed by Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore

Change is inevitable, and no matter how much you want them to remain the same, things never do. We turn around and then one day we realize how much our lives have changed in, oh, four years or so. You know what they say: time flies when you’re in a coma.

Eugene (Cregger) and Tucker (Moore) have been friends for life. High school is coming to an end and the straight-arrow Eugene has yet to have sex with his girlfriend Cindi (Alessi). Tucker, a world-class horndog and worshipper of all things Playboy is incredulous that Eugene could let such a hot property go unspoiled. In fact, the two of them travel to middle schools with one of those abstinence presentations that is supposed to scare younger kids into keeping it in their pants (but never does).

To Eugene’s surprise, Cindi herself is eager to lose her virginity and the two resolve to make it happen the night of the prom. The big night arrives and Eugene is understandably nervous. Things get worse when the rented limo shows up to pick him up and in it is a former classmate turned rapper who goes by the name of Horsedick.mpeg (Robinson) who is ALL about the sex – which makes Cindi’s parents nervous.

Eugene is still pretty tense by the time they get to the after-prom party where he and Cindi have planned to take the big step. Tucker, ever his best friend and ever an idiot, gives Eugene several shots to calm him down. Next thing you know, Eugene is going through the wrong door, tumbling down the stairs into the basement, and because in a movie like this that can never be enough, has a toolbox and a bookcase fall on top of his head. Next stop: coma.

Fast forward four years. Eugene is still in a coma and apparently not likely to get out of it. Tucker however has the perfect solution – he hits the prone, comatose Eugene in the face with a baseball bat. Someone call the Mayo Clinic – Eugene is awake hallelujah and a broken nose is a small price to pay. Of course his limbs have atrophied after four years of non-use but with plenty of physical therapy and hard work, he’ll be able to walk again someday.

Eugene is still trying to wrap his head around being asleep for four years but the biggest blow is that his beloved Cindi is now the Playmate of the Month (Miss March…catchy title) and faster than J. Geils can call his lawyer Tucker has Eugene out of the hospital and the two misfits are heading to California to get Eugene to the Playboy Mansion so he can re-unite with his girl…and maybe finish what they’ve started. They are being chased by Tucker’s vengeful girlfriend whom he stabbed in the face with a fork when she bit down on his manhood during an epileptic fit that occurred when Tucker turned on a strobe light while she was giving him a blow job. Trust me, it’s not nearly as funny as it sounds on paper.

Cregger and Moore, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred in this thing, are both members of the New York-based sketch troupe “The Whitest Kids U Know” who have had a cable show that my son Jacob thinks is mildly funny. This movie doesn’t even rate that faint praise.

I like to think that I’m neither high-falutin’ nor prissy; I love a fart joke as much as the next guy, but only when they’re actually funny. I wish the movie could have been a lot better, but they went the lowbrow route every time, without exception. A little bit surreality might have done them some good, but nothing really worked here. There’s a running joke about firemen being essentially malevolent sociopaths as a group and in deft hands that might have been hysterical. It gets wasted here.

The characters are all, as a rule, unlikable and those that aren’t are blander than hell. The only one character that rises above is Hugh Hefner, who makes a brief cameo to explain the joys of true love. It had a certain sweetness that the rest of the movie lacked, but unfortunately it was too little, too late.

There might have been a good movie here but there is absolutely no subtlety present. As I said, I have no problem with crude humor but it needs that subtlety to balance itself out against. With no balance, the movie sinks like a bowling ball in an inflatable pool. And we, the audience, drown right along with it.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s the Playboy mansion…hello!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Humor is dumb, sophomoric and quite frankly disappointing.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of toilet humor, sexuality and sex jokes…definitely meant for more mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hefner was originally going to be played by actor Robert Wagner but when he saw a rough cut of the film, he was amused enough that he elected to play himself in the movie. As a result, all of Wagner’s footage was scrapped.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an unrated version but it doesn’t really add very much.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Appaloosa and further Florida Film Festival coverage with a mini-review of Leaves of Grass