Sunday, 15 November 2009

REVIEW: Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee is one of the few directors to actually pull off versatility. In his career he's made a very good western, a very good kung fu movie, a very good Jane Austen adaptation, a very good movie about repressed sexuality in 60's America, a very good Gay cowboy love story, a very good pseudo erotic period romance and at least a half-decent comic book movie, although I know Hulk has its haters. But clearly my point is that arguably no director in history has pulled this off to quite the same successful extent with the possible exception of Stanley Kubrick. Lee is clearly a just a great story teller, and more pressingly one you can't put a label on. That being said, Taking Woodstock is probably one of his weaker efforts, standing only above Hulk in his repertoire. Its not a bad movie, and its by far the best movie of this week, but compared to the very high standard Lee has set himself it falls slightly short.

That's not to say there isn't stuff to enjoy here. There's plenty of good performances, the coming of age story works well and to be honest its a been a while since there was a good film about hippies. (Excluding last week's The Men who stare at goats of course, because it fucks over my argument) The story follows Elliot (Demetri Martin), a relatively bookish young man living with his parents at their run down motel, who inadvertently sets in motion Woodstock '69 the music festival of the ages it seems. There's not really a plot here and its more about the rising atmosphere of the event itself and Elliot's journey into being self-assured, via the mind-freeing powers of the hippies. Its pleasing to see a film take such an unapologetically loving view of hippie culture, given the epic amount of mockery they take on film. Sure they're hop-heads, but they're hop-heads who preach acceptance, peace, tolerance and love, they just want good things to happen. Which is more then can be said for many other counter-cultures or even mainstream ones. What the film does well is effectively convey the the aura of the moment and the place, playing up the mythos of the summer of '69 very well.

Demetri Martin, who was a practical unknown prior to this, is a good protagonist with whom to take this journey because he plays the stuffed shirt so well the proverbial opening of his eyes works so much better. Its a straight man role to be sure, but he allows all the craziness to bounce off his grounding influence and that allows for it to work for the better. There's some very good supporting performances too, particularly Imelda Staunton as a dragonish Russian matriarch and Liev Schreiber as a transvestite security guard. Schreiber in particular lands a role that could have been a one note joke and gives it some depth and relatability. Its always good to see a transvestite role underplayed, given the sheer amount of Brian De Palma inspired stigma of OTT that surrounds them. Also hell must have frozen over, because Dan Fogler, of Good luck Chuck, Balls of Fury and Love Happens fame actually gives a good performance here and when someone you've written off as shit turns good its faith-inducing in the world. There a plenty of cameos, from Emile Hirsch as a Vietnam vet, to Paul Dano as some random hippie to American Pie's Eugene Levy and all of them are good value.

Love letters to the flower power generation are in too short a supply, but the thing thats stops this from being great is that it is slightly hit and miss at times, and the nature of the story means we are on the outside looking in, so while the mystique of the event is effectively created, we only briefly get to see the magic of it, and that prevents the film from being all it could be in a way. But its a fun and intriguing film that is sure to be under-seen.

Rating: 7/10

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