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Column Fri Aug 28 2009

Taking Woodstock

Hey, everyone. Thanks to a combination of me missing a couple of screenings and a couple films not being screened for critics at all this week, the column this week is a little light. That said, I've heard nothing but great things about the documentary It Might Get Loud, opening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema today. From director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), the film is about nothing less than the evolution of the sound and styles of the electric guitar, featuring a gathering of three of the guitar's most influential players: Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, who not only talk but also jam together. I cannot wait to see this film.

Under the category of running scared we have two horror films sneaking onto screens today that were too underwhelmed by their own magical powers to show the critics (I'll still see them, mind you). Rob Zombie's Halloween 2 and The Final Destination (in 3-D!) were kept from critical eyes so that we wouldn't muddy the opening weekend. The truth is, I've enjoyed most of the Final Destination movies, so it really surprises me that they didn't screen this one, especially considering the 3-D aspect. Anyway, hope that helps you in planning your weekend movie-going endeavors.

Taking Woodstock

You have to give Taiwan-born director Ang Lee credit for at least one thing. The guy never, ever repeats himself. Lee has been making movies for less than 20 years, with about half of his productions being English-language films that have been highly regarded for their sensitivity. Of course, he also like to kick ass with such works as the original Hulk movie and one of the finest wire-fu offerings ever made, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you haven't seen them, his earliest films — Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman — are equally beautiful, funny and moving efforts that transition nicely into his tellings of Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil and his masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain. His last movie, Lust, Caution, was explicit in its sexuality and its emotional nakedness, but many of the critical press rejected it. I found myself enraptured by its beauty, lust and fascinating wartime story. With Taking Woodstock, Lee returns to his lighter origins, and I think it suits him, at least for now.

It's tough to categorize Taking Woodstock or even explain what its purpose is. Being such a huge fan of Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary Woodstock, my defenses were up at the idea of sometime attempting to tell the story behind the three-day music festival from the perspective of the citizens who lived year round in Bethal, New York, where the festival actually occurred. Demetri Martin (from "Important Things with Demetri Martin" and The Rocker) plays Jake Teichberg, a character based on Elliot Tiber (whose book serves as the basis for this story). Jake is the son of immigrant Jewish parents Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonja (Imelda Staunton, who wanders into Jewish mother stereotype a few too many times). The family owns a rundown motor lodge (they like to call it a resort) that is close to bankruptcy in this Catskills location, and they've managed to hold off the bank from foreclosing one more summer season.

We learn almost with realizing it that Jake has just moved back here from New York City where he failed as both an interior designer and one half of a gay relationship. When Jake reads in the paper that the citizens of the town of Woodstock have forced the music festival out, he contacts an old friend Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), who just happens to be the man in charge, to come take a look at Bethal, in particular a dairy farm run by Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy, who look astonishingly like the real Yasgur). Since Jake already has a permit for a music festival in the town, he simply hands over the planning of the festival to the Woodstock people, and before you know it, the entire town hates his guts for setting the stage for a hippie invasion.

Jake was strictly thinking that the money from the festival would help pay off his parents' motel, but in less than a month, somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 people are passing by their front gate on their way to Yasgur's farm. To be clear, Taking Woodstock has nothing to do with the music festival, at least not directly. Instead, Ang Lee seems more interested in how a group of largely like-minded people formed a decent-sized city one weekend in 1969 where once there was not one. Lee peppers his cast with familiar faces just to keep things interesting. Emile Hirsch plays a friend of Jake's, a Vietnam vet who has just returned from the war to his home of Bethel, and clearly left a piece of his sanity behind. Paul Dano and Kelli Garner play a couple of hippies that Jake meets in their VW van, and before you know it, they're dropping acid and having an orgy. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is buried in the cast as a citizen of Bethel who tries to shut down the festival. Dan Fogler plays the head of a theater troupe that has taken up residence in the barn on the Teichberg's property. My favorite supporting players is Liev Schreiber as the transvestite Vilma, who offers her security services to the Teichberg family when thugs start showing up looking for protection money.

On the one hand, Taking Woodstock is a film chronicling Jake's coming of age. A few too many things happen in one weekend that wrap up the loose strings in his life for this telling of his story to feel 100 percent authentic, but the film isn't attempting to be overly serious about any of its elements. Still, Demetri Martin does a terrific job underplaying Elliot and making us feel the overwhelming nature of this time in his life as both a gay man and the guy who accidentally invited a half a million people into his town (he may have also led the masses to believe the concert was free). Some of the best moments in the film are in the background. During a couple of sequences, Lee lingers on some background players who fans of the 1970 documentary will recognize as figures from that film — the nuns flashing peace signs, the guy maintaining the port-a-potties, and a couple other moments are wonderful lifts from that landmark movie.

The few glimpses we get of the actual music festival are from so far away that we can never see or hear who is playing, but that never bothered me. Taking Woodstock isn't about that aspect of the event. For many who attended, and at least one who helped host it, the three days was a turning point or landmark moment in their young lives, and Lee does an admirable job capturing that spirit. The film has a free-floating vibe to it, and we simply go from scene to random scene, not always for reasons that make sense. But I think Lee is attempting to make his audience feel like they are a part of this experience, which clearly has a meandering quality to it. It's not what I'm used to from a film, but sometimes I like stepping out of conventional storytelling just long enough to remind myself that life doesn't always work itself out in three acts. Taking Woodstock is by no means a great film, but thanks to its talented cast and fine director in Ang Lee, we are transported to what sometimes feels like another planet where muddy aliens lived and naked humans roamed the surface. I was able to ease into this story, enjoy my time in it, and then exit not really taking anything away from the experience, but still managing to have a groovy time. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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