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Column Fri Oct 29 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, & The Desert of Forbidden Art

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

After watching the third and final installment of the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's wildly popular Millennium trilogy (following The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, which was just released on DVD this week), I realized that as three separate films viewed months apart, the story seems strangely and unnecessarily stretched out. Watched in a single day, one after the other, I think these three movies would feel like exactly what they are--a single, layered story that takes place in both the present and the past, in which the two time frames merge in a fairly unique and imaginative manner. Still, to get this trilogy in a single calendar year feels pretty special, especially when you consider the powerhouse performance we get from actress Noomi Rapace, who played the beyond-damage (but not beyond-rapair) Lisbeth Salander.

I've already heard some people complain about The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest because Lisbeth spends more than half the film either in a coma or recovering in a hospital bed with very little to do (the remainder of the film has her largely in a courtroom, which isn't exactly Action Central either). I actually think that restricting Rapace in such a way has shown that she's still a compelling enough actress to make us care about her in any state. And I could stare at her face for days, both because she can make it beautiful when she wants and make it absolutely terrifying. The first time she walks into the courtroom in full Lisbeth piercings, spiked hair, studded collar, and ghostly makeup, I practically broke out into applause. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Hornet's Nest is directed by Played With Fire director Daniel Alfredson and picks things up right after the events of the last film. Lisbeth has been shot in the head and beaten nearly to death. Her partner in crime (who shares almost no screen time with Lisbeth) is journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) who is taking the information he learned in the last film and preparing a massive exposé on government corruption and how Lisbeth has been treated horrifically by the system most of her life. As part of his investigation, he will attempt to exonerate Lisbeth who is about to stand trial for the attempted murder of her father, who is also recovering in bed at the same hospital. When those with secrets that may be revealed in this article discover that Blomkvist has documents that could seriously damage their lives, an effort gets underway to recover the papers and eliminate any loose ends, including Lisbeth. Bodies begin piling up, evidence is acquired and lost, and events of the past come crashing into those of the present.

If I have one major complaint about Hornet's Nest is that it's a bit unfocused. As much as I think the film would like us to think Blomkvist is the one we're supposed to care the most about, there are far more interesting characters to attract our attention away from him. His staff at the magazine feels threatened (thanks to, you know, death threats and attempts on their lives), but that's never really dealt with. Blomkvist's editor and sometimes friend with benefits Lena (Erika Berger) stops coming into the office as a result, but the magazine comes out anyway. There are a group of decrepit old men that seem to make life and death decisions to protect what little is left of their lives, but again, the film never really stays with them long enough to make me care.

I will admit that I completely love the character of Lisbeth's sociopathic half-brother Ronald Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), who returns to unleash utter chaos and destruction. He's awesome. The most fully realized of Hornet's Nest's supporting characters is Lisbeth's abusive and corrupt psychologist Dr. Peter Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom). In my mind, he's the villain we most want to see taken down in this movie, and Ahlbom plays him with just the right amount of self righteousness, guilt, and fear to make him oh-so worthy of our hate.

I don't really think any of the Millennium trilogy films are great works of art, but I've been eagerly anticipating the second and third parts ever since Dragon Tattoo flashed before my eyes and caused me to wonder "What the hell was that, and who is that remarkable, highly dateable woman in the lead?" At the same time, this story has run its course, and I'm not sad the series is over. And while I'm always curious about what David Fincher has in store, I can't say I'm bouncing off the walls with anticipation about his version of this story, especially since the films are being released at much greater intervals. As for the Swedish version of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, my strongest recommendation is to watch the other two films first, then head out to see this one. Treat them like a single, really long movie. I think you'll find the entire experience more interesting that way. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

I've seen other documentaries about one of Chicago's favorite sons, Hugh M. Hefner, but I can't remember one quite as thoroughly committed to setting the record straight on every last one of Hef's contributions to society--both positive and negative. A Canadian production from director Brigitte Berman, Playboy, Activist and Rebel is a fantastic life story seen through the eyes of the child of fairly restrictive parents who grew up not only to change the face of popular sex culture in America, but he also had a leading role in battles regarding the First Amendment, birth control, civil rights, abortion, the antiwar movement, and even gay rights. Hefner seems more proud of the world-famous authors and journalists he was able to attract to the magazine's pages than he is of the buxom, girl-next-door women whose photographs drew Playboy's mostly male readership into the magazine to begin with.

I'm sure Berman thinks she's presenting balanced cases for and against the contributions to society Hefner made, but the truth is this is a very pro-Hef document, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially since there's an incredible array of rare footage, interviews, and very informative conversations with Hefner, who tends to be flipping through one of his dozens of self-compiled scrapbooks that he's been keeping since he was a kid, perhaps to trigger memories of his accomplishments. But the film does a wonderful job placing Playboy's place in history, from its birth in the puritanical 1950s through the free love years of the '60s and into the new brand of what Hefner called Sexual McCartheyism during Ronald Reagan's 1980s.

I also liked that even his greatest admirers and friends seem to agree that when Hefner went from being the magazine's editor and publisher to transforming into "Mr. Playboy," his reputation and legacy may have suffered as a result simply because it's difficult to listen to man in a silk bathrobe talk about equal rights or free speech. My eyes could barely stay in my head while watching the parade of important musicians, comedians, actors, and thinker of all races show up on Hefner's syndicated television show "Playboy's Penthouse" or "Playboy After Dark." And the first (of many) Playboy Jazz Festival is still considered one of the single greatest jazz events in history.

The parade of detractors aren't surprising: Pat Boone takes the Christian morality position; Susan Brownmiller brings in the feminist point of view; while Mike Wallace (who was one of the first national broadcasters to interview Hefner) takes a more intellectual approach, but also seems to represent perhaps the largest group of Hefner admirers--the converted. Wallace eventually admits that, for ill or not, Hefner is one of the most important figures of the late 20th century--and not just for being the world's best-known pornographer. What may surprise some are the familiar faces that give interviews in favor of Hefner, including George Lucas, who applauds Hef's commitment to film preservation (although I guess not the preservation of the original Star Wars trilogy). Lucas even tries to equate himself and Hefner as creators of different brands of fantasy. Um, okay...?

I was impressed with the way Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (thanks for spelling it out right there in the title, folks) took what could have easily been a film regurgitating the same old song and dance about Playboy's undeniable role in the sexual revolution, and instead gave us the story of a man who was targeted by the government, who contributed to humanitarian efforts, and who fought for actual freedoms that have been in the Constitution from day one. As as shocking as it might come to some of you, there's a fair bit of nudity in the movie as well. But that's okay, because you're here to read the articles. The film opens for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center with Hugh Hefner and director Brigitte Berman attending the now-sold-out opening night screening on Friday at 6pm.

The Desert of Forbidden Art

As little as I know about art, I know even less about modern (as in 1900s-era) art of the Soviet Union outside of the type that celebrated the working class and laborers that Stalin insisted all artists glorify shortly before Russia's involvement in World War II. But the revelatory 1997 "discovery" of small museum in the city of Nukus in largely desert nation of Uzbekistan by The New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer was a find that turned portions of the art world on its head and forced many art scholars to revise their history books. This documentary is truly about collector Igor Savitsky, who somehow managed to use government grants that were meant to fund archeological digs to create, build, and stock an art museum so far off the beaten path that the oppressive Stalinist authorities simply couldn't be bothered to go such great distances to check on Savitsky.

Filmmakers Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope managed to interview many relatives of the painters Savitsky sought out to submit works to his museum. What's more remarkable is that most of the artists did so with nothing more than an I.O.U. from the curator for money that may never come (and often didn't). The paintings are extraordinary primarily because they reveal the merging of several different styles. With the nations large Islamic numbers, the subjects of the paintings were often of that culture but shown using techniques more like those of European impressionists or Asian artists of the time. Most of the works show peasant life, not in the glorified way state-sanctioned artists would portray them, but in a far more realistic and hard-lived manner. Savitsky seemed especially thrilled when he could find early works by the Soviet Union's more famous artists, works that could never find a home in museum's mere blocks from The Kremlin.

Like the best documentaries about artists or artistic movements, the directors of The Desert of Forbidden Art allow the work to speak for itself, and they show us as much of the museum's hundreds of works on display and a small sampling of the thousands of pieces in storage and in desperate need of restoration and framing. The film also has a sense of urgency about it as Kinzer reminds us that the safety of the collection may be in jeopardy as the fundamentalist factions in the region grow stronger. Using actors like Ben Kingsley (who provides the voice for Savitsky's letters), Ed Asner and Sally Field, the filmmakers really bring to life what could have been a very dry and dull work. Instead, we are treated to the story of a rebel who didn't just know how to work the system; he basically ignored it and challenged it with every fiber of his being. This is the tale of an extremely clever man, who thankfully had an eye for great art and the means to gather it for safe keeping. This is a tremendous film for those of you who love discovering lost chapters in history. The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, October 31 at 3pm, and Monday, November 1 at 8pm.


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By Nancy Bishop

Explore one of the most important buildings in the city at a new Chicago Cultural Center exhibition.
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