indiemoviesonline.com | Aug 28th 2009
Regarding Taking Woodstock … oh, they took it all right. And what they left behind, moans Kimberly Gadette, is one heck of a bummer, man.
In 1969, the term "wasted" was a positive thing … pass the doobie and let the good times roll. In filmmaker Ang Lee's 1969, the term "wasted" um, isn't so positive. "Wasted" as in the chance to tell a profound gay acceptance story. "Wasted" as in the casting of Liev Schreiber as a 2D, 6'3" fairy godmother, endlessly hovering and beaming without reason. "Wasted" as in the fact that a film intended to celebrate the spirit and mythology of Woodstock barely, vaguely scratches the surface. And "wasted" as in the two hours of viewing time that could have been better spent tie-dyeing the dog.
Whoa. Before I get too far out, let's get back to the plot: in the summer of 1969, closeted gay boychik Elliot (Demetri Martin) temporarily moves back in with his Russian immigrant parents (Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman) in order to help them save the shabby family Catskills motel that's in arrears. Meanwhile, music promoters are unable to stage their rock music festival in nearby Woodstock. Elliot volunteers his motel, talking neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) into offering up his property as well. Before you can say "hey, who stole my bell-bottomed jeans?" the festival is on, the cash is flowing, the motel is saved and crowds are streaming in from all over the country. Elliot makes new friends, and walks the three miles up and back between his place and Max's, trying to get a glimpse of the concert on at least four different occasions. Yeah, we feel his frustration – we'd like to take a peek, too. But no. Rather than a film about the musical event that is historically known as the defining cultural icon of the peace-and-love anti-war sentiment of the hippie generation, we watch a timid fellow constantly trying to get somewhere. And never quite succeeding. This isn't a bad trip. It's not a trip at all.
Maybe Mr. Lee ingested a bit too much bong water. Because no other explanation makes sense as to the casting of a non-actor, expected to carry a two-hour film. Per Martin, who studied with Ang Lee for three weeks: "This was an exciting opportunity to learn about acting." If only we could have seen a bit of that excitement up on the screen.
It's almost as if Lee has been replaced by some artless clone. He coaches Staunton – usually impeccable in her choices – into a broad caricature straight out of a 60s Neil Simon stage play. It's as if both director and actress have forgotten that the cinematographer's lens will magnify the slightest tic.
Perhaps Lee shared that same bong water with screenwriter James Schamus. The story is an assemblage of lifeless fragments rather than a cohesive whole, most of the scenes and characters utterly flat. That said, two performances manage to break through the purple haze. Emile Hirsch gives us a heart-wrenching, damaged Viet Nam vet, but he's wasted (yes, that word again) since his character is allowed only a few minor scenes. And Henry Goodman's father might have blossomed, if only the filmmakers had allowed him some true focus. When his son presses him for an answer as to why he's put up with forty years of nasty behavior from his wife, all the dad can proffer is a hackneyed "I love her." Presenting Woodstock, the soap opera.
Also lacking is a sense of urgency, with conflicts resolving themselves in mere moments. New Jersey thugs demanding money ascend on the family; a few swings of a baseball bat and they're gone for good. Bigots scrawl racial slurs on a motel wall; a few strokes of a paintbrush, and they're gone as well. Aggressive cops turn kind, sticking flowers in their motorcycle helmets. Threatening townsfolk move on down the road. It's all so very, very nice. And so very, very dull … I hear even Yasgur's cows moved on to more exciting pastures.
For those of you craving a bit of a love-in music fest after ingesting a few magic brownies, check out Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary. Groovy, groovy times.
But if you're looking to get back to the garden with Taking Woodstock, consider yourself warned – this film's a dead end.
Rating on a scale of 5 blown minds: 2
Release date: US: 28 August 2009 UK: 6 November 2009
Directed by: Ang Lee
Screenplay by: James Schamus
Based on the book by: Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte
Cast: Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Eugene Levy, Liev Schreiber, Paul Dano, Dan Fogler, Mamie Gummer
Rating: US = R; UK = 15
Running Time: 120 minutes
Original Page: http://www.indiemoviesonline.com/reviews/Taking-Woodstock
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