Taking Woodstock (Focus Features, R)

takingwoodstock-header.jpgAs the movie lays down its framework and leads up to Woodstock, it finds itself being an uneven, almost embarrassingly bad affair.

 

 

 

 

 

I wonder how many people claim to be "fans" of Ang Lee. He’s well known for making all sorts of different kinds of movies, from Jane Austen adaptations (1995’s Sense & Sensibility) to martial arts epics (2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), comic book movies (2003’s Hulk) to softcore historical political thrillers (2007’s Lust, Caution). Of course, his most famous film is arguably 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, for which he won the Best Director Academy Award. Aside from the fact that Lee directed them, these films don’t have much in common, including their level of quality.

Personally, I can take or leave Ang Lee, and his new film, Taking Woodstock, is one that can be left. There’s a lot of good ideas behind it, but nothing ever quite coheres into a worthwhile moviegoing experience. The plot, for example, is interesting-it is based on the true story of the small town folk who wound up bringing Woodstock to their fields, an endeavor that was spearheaded by a young man named Elliot Teichberg (played by the comedian Demitri Martin); most of the town is against the idea of hippies coming and overrunning the place, and most of the film deals with the events leading up to the festival itself. Elliot is the son of Jake and Sonia Teichberg (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton, respectively), who own a grotesque motel called the El Monaco, which is not very profitable (until Woodstock, that is) due to its out-of-the-way location, and is about to be foreclosed on.

As the movie lays down its framework and leads up to Woodstock, it finds itself being an uneven, almost embarrassingly bad affair-while I like the idea of casting Martin as the lead in this film, he is neither charismatic enough nor has the acting ability to really make you want to watch him. Worse is Staunton, an Oscar nominee for Vera Drake, whose character is written far too broadly and then played even broader than that. The only character in the main cast who remotely wins the audience’s sympathy is Jake, but he’s not given much to do aside from be put upon by his crazy Jewish stereotype of a wife.

Once the festival actually begins the movie gets quite a bit more interesting, thankfully, but the by this time the film is about three quarters over, so it can’t quite save it. While Lee foregoes showing concert footage in favor of focusing on the reality of being someone who attended and/or worked at the festival, he does some neat, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas-type work with putting the viewer in the position of taking acid, while his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, was fun finding new ways of appropriating his fellow Frenchman Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic traffic jam shot from Weekend, and of showing that old trope of Woodstock films, people sliding around in the mud.

Most of the fault of Taking Woodstock‘s failure comes from Staunton and the first-draft-quality script from James Schamus, Co-President of Focus Features, and Lee’s longtime scriptwriter/producer. I can’t help but feel like both of those problems could have been overcome if it had been directed a little more competently, though-if this film had been made in the vein of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, for example, a lot could have been wringed out of inserting old documentary footage from time to time, giving the film more of a grounding in reality. As it stands, Taking Woodstock is just a predictable, sub-par Hollywood rehash of important historical events that only figures out how to express itself in its final act. | Pete Timmermann

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