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On Movies: 'Get Low' ranks high; 'Hefner' is OK

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2010 - In contemporary rap slang, "get low" means get down and dirty, but in the mountains of Tennessee in 1930s, it meant "get down to business." The business Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) wants to get down to in the fine new independent movie "Get Low" is his funeral, and he is not willing to wait until he dies.

Based on a true story and the legend that grew up around it, "Get Low" is the second good non-studio movie this year to focus on mountain people without being either patronizing or overly sentimental, the first being "Winter's Bone," set in the Ozarks.

About 40 years before the film takes place, after a terrible event, Bush becomes a hermit in his ramshackle cabin in the deep woods. He lives alone and backs up his "No damn trespassing" sign with a shotgun. Bush seldom goes to town, and when he does, hitching up his ancient mule to a clattering wooden wagon, he hides behind a scruffy beard and a gruff, threatening manner, giving believability to the rumor that he once killed someone. (For what it's worth, this is at least the second time Duvall has been superb in the role of a misunderstood "boogeyman" hermit, the first time of course being the 1962 role of Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird," his first feature.)

Bush knows that the people in town and in the hills tell wild stories about him, and, with a perverse sense of humor, he has decided he wants to attend a graveside memorial service where he can enjoy hearing his neighbors share these tales. He also has a secret motive for a Tom Sawyer-style funeral, a motive that the audience can pretty much figure out as the movie goes along.

On a visit to town, Bush finds himself in the office of an undertaker (Bill Murray) who is more than eager to sell the cranky old man a first-class, no-corpse funeral, particularly after Bush pulls a fat bundle of cash out of his overalls and proposes a way of coming up with even more money - sell tickets to a drawing to be held at the funeral. The winner would inherit Bush's 100-odd acres of land, but not until he actually dies.

A local radio station publicizes the auction, and the money pours in. The undertaker, played with a light sardonic touch by Murray, is more than a bit of a crook, and he contemplates absconding with the cash. Keeping him honest is his young assistant (Lucas Black), who becomes fond of the old man and figures out that Bush is haunted by some ancient tragedy.

The excellent cast also includes Sissy Spacek as a widow who, as a girl, had been in love with Felix Bush, and Bill Cobb as a country preacher who had been Bush's friend when both were young men. "Get Low" is the first feature film for director Aaron Schneider, a cinematographer who won an Oscar for the short "Two Soldiers," based on a story by William Faulkner.

At times, some of the characters in "Get Low," country eccentrics presented with dignity, resemble residents of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. In a Faulkner moment, after he has lost an argument with Bush, the undertaker remarks, "Is it just me, or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?"

The solid and ungimmicky script is by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. The film moves along at a leisurely pace without ever dawdling to no purpose, and its moments of pathos are leavened with a good amount of humor. "Get Low" was filmed by cinematographer David Boyd and the director without frippery and with full appreciation that the woods are not just lovely, but dark and deep. As the movie makes clear, the people who live there can also be dark and deep.

Opens Aug. 20

'Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel'

Hugh Hefner could hardly ask for a more favorable and even adulatory portrait than the new documentary about him by Brigitte Berman, who previously demonstrated that she enjoys the company of men who love lots of beautiful women with her excellent Oscar-winning feature-length portrait of musician-Casanova Artie Shaw. Berman's "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel" is an entertaining if not particularly penetrating look at a major figure in modern American pop culture. The film provides an engaging quickie cultural history of the second half of the 20th century, particularly the periods when Hefner's Playboy concept had its biggest success - the 1950s through the 1970s.

Berman's central point is that Hefner, throughout the career that begin in 1953 with a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe, has been a financial and editorial supporter of freedom of speech and civil rights, including many feminist causes. Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson and other activists praise him on camera for his support.

Only feminist writer Susan Brownmiller represents the point of view, which seems unassailable, that Hefner's magazine objectifies women. Berman allows Brownmiller one really good jab - on some long-ago talk show, she asked Hefner why, if he didn't think Playboy demeans women, he didn't put on one of those Bunny costumes himself and wag his cute little tail?

Of course Playboy objectifies women - what it didn't and doesn't do is attack them in overtly misogynistic ways, as does Hustler and its prolific imitators, in print and on the Web. They really are obscene. Berman doesn't really deal with that issue, nor does she let on that there might be something slightly pathetic - or perhaps tragically human -- about a man in his 80s popping Viagra so he can keep up with seven structurally altered blond girlfriends in their 20s. She also seems to take Hefner's word for it that he is hip. Hefner was hip for maybe a year before Elvis turned the culture upside down, and made finger-popping, pipe-smoking, cardigan-wearing, jive-talking white boys passe.

Still, I enjoyed the movie, particularly for revisiting some of the more interesting periods in recent American history. So, with reservations, did my favorite feminist. "You can't deny that he changed the world," she remarked. No, I can't.

Opens Aug. 20

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.