Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Directed by Ang Lee
Written by Written by James Schamus
Starring Dimitri Martin, Henry Goodman, and Imelda Staunton

Taking Woodstock is the story about how the legendary three day concert, which celebrated it's 40th Anniversary this past August, came into existence. The townsfolk in the original location ran the Woodstock organizers out of town because of the counter cultural people (hippies) it would attract. At the same time, Elliot Teichberg (Dimitri Martin) is working hard to save his parent's fledgling hotel from foreclosure. When he hears that Woodstock is in jeopardy he works hard to save both the concert and the hotel by bringing the event to his hometown despite similar objections from the locals. What starts as an attempt to pay the mortgage explodes into the defining event of a generation.

The story is interesting but in this film it has no weight, no depth, and is just flat out empty.

One of the reasons is because the film is exclusively comprised of 60's stereotypes. The hippies are beyond peace loving and approach some kind of transcendental state of harmony. The townsfolk are so conservative that they spend most of their time grimacing at anything that resembles counter-culture. The theater group, led by Devon (Dan Fogler,) spends all their time doing unique acting exercises and putting on shows that challenge the audience to "expand their mind." Vietnam vet Billy (Emile Hirsch) is affected by the war but only in a movie way. He suffers from the movie version of flashback, which means he wakes up screaming and feels like people are watching him when he is in the forest. None of these characters are authentic by any stretch of the imagination, they are all surface deep. It feels like rather than really researching the people and the culture of the era the filmmakers based the characters on people from other movies about the 60's; everybody is a copy of a copy.

Elliot, the main character, appears to be in a constant daze through out the film peppered with a few moments of worry or confusion. It's hard to root for a character who constantly has a "why me" look on his face. In this film, Dimitri Martin has absolutely no charisma or screen presence, he is a complete bore. In a few scenes, when he does display some emotion, it is kind of surprising and a little off putting because it seems to come out of nowhere. I was shocked to see that he could do something besides stare at everything in a wide-eyed wonder.

If I were to pick a favorite character or performance in this film it would almost certainly be concert promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) not because he does anything special but because it is so outlandish. He speaks in a ethereal tone and uses a horse as his primary means of transportation. He is the ultimate hippie bringing peace and enlightenment everywhere he goes. Who else could have been the guy to start Woodstock but somebody that rides around on a horse?

I say that he is almost certainly my "favorite" character because I can't ignore Vilma (Liev Schreiber), the cross-dressing former marine. This character is the kind of person that can only exists in the movies. Not only is Vilma a cross-dresser, but he also provides magical sage-like advice to people, wears a gun strapped to his leg, and provides people with pot brownies. Now, I'm sure that a person with all these traits exists, but I've never met them. This whole character is fantastically unbelievable and outrageous and it feels likes he would be more fitting in a farce, than a comedy-drama.

As for the concert, well, if I had never heard of Woodstock before I watched this film I would have no indication that it was the defining moment of a generation. The film tries to show the significance of this concert amid the turbulent year of 1969, but it doesn't sink in. The characters seem largely unaffected by the lunar landing and war in Vietnam, though it could be because I was largely unaffected by the characters. Still, the story asks the audience to be in the era without being willing to bringing them into it. As a result Woodstock just feels like something that happened.

I was completely underwhelmed by this joyless experience. Director Ang Lee fails to capture any of the energy of the original concert. I was completely and utterly unmoved by the characters and story of this film. It's a film that tries to tell the story of Woodstock without being able to capture the reason why it was so significant. It's like the Pepsi sponsored Woodstock of 1994, without the spirit of the original it's just a show.

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