Combustible Celluloid
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With: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber, Dan Fogler, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Skylar Astin, Kevin Chamberlin, Kelli Garner, Paul Dano, Daniel Eric Gold, Mamie Gummer, Edward Hibbert, Steven Kunken, Andy Prosky, Kevin Sussman, Richard Thomas, Darren Pettie
Written by: James Schamus, based on the book by Elliot Tiber, Tom Monte
Directed by: Ang Lee
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language
Running Time: 120
Date: 05/16/2009

Taking Woodstock (2009)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Going Up the Country

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If Ang Lee is good at anything, it's taking all different kinds of subjects and turning them into award contenders by slowing them down and making them pretty. He gives the impression that he's elevating a supposedly "low" genre, while really he's just inflating it. His films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) are adored by people who have never actually seen any other kung-fu movies or Westerns, and his new film Taking Woodstock will no doubt be adored by anyone who has never seen a 1960s-era psychedelic head-trip movie.

Worse, this time around Lee and his regular screenwriter James Schamus have attempted to liven up their film by adding humor, something that neither of them appears to be much good at. The humor comes fitfully during the film's first half, and then disappears as a yearning, wistful tone takes over. The story focuses on Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), a young man with a head for business. He lives with his parents in their rural, upstate New York hotel and nurtures great plans for the place, even as it crumbles around him. In the summer of 1969, things appear to be coming to an end, as debts begin to outweigh income. But then Elliot learns about a concert that needs a home, and he quickly arranges for it to take place on the nearby cattle farm of his neighbor, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), while his parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) will provide rooms for all the organizers.

Of course, things get out of hand as more and more people arrive, and more and more characters come into the picture. Elliot has a brief love affair with a handsome carpenter; it seems like a tacked-on subplot to impress all the Brokeback fans. Emile Hirsch stars as a Vietnam vet (complete with flashbacks) so that an essential, award-ready anti-war message can creep into the movie. And cross-dressing Vilma (Liev Schreiber) arrives to cover "security" but also to befriend Elliot's lonely father (this also comes to nothing). Meanwhile, the movie tries for feeble jokes about uptight Elliot discovering hippies and drugs for the first time. (The drug jokes are really no funnier and just as clueless as the one in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.) One extended LSD sequence is supposed to be life-altering, but Roger Corman did the same thing for a fraction of the budget back in 1967 with The Trip. Lee also tries to dazzle us with all kinds of split-screen shots that were a staple of Michael Wadleigh's seminal 1970 feature documentary Woodstock.

In essence, Elliot is a passive and uninteresting lead character, and none of the other characters gets enough screen time for much else. The tone wobbles all over the place, and not even the music is really that impressive. Lee deliberately never focuses on the stage itself, and we never see any rock stars performing. The music that does appear on the soundtrack is the cheapest, least interesting stuff from the original show (Canned Heat, Country Joe & the Fish, etc.). In the end, one character mentions another upcoming show, featuring the Rolling Stones at Altamont; this was the show whose violence closed the curtain on the hippie movement. What a way to end this supposedly hopeful, eye-opening story! It seems that Lee and Schamus had no idea what it was they wanted to say here. Did Woodstock matter? Does anyone care?

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