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David Poland

By David Poland

Taking Woodstock

There are many things wrong with this film.
It attempts too much. It glides around some of the issues that it seems to want to confront. And it sets up many interesting ideas that it never finds the time to dig into.
But I kinda liked it walking out of the theater… and i have liked it more in retrospect as the weeks have passed.
Ang Lee is, obviously, a quality filmmaker. He’s got skillz. And he has put together an often compelling and unexpected cast.
The stand-out is Imelda Staunton, though she is also the actor most vulnerable to attacks for overacting. I am on the pro-Staunton train on this. Her performance as an immigrant Jew who didn’t go to the camps, but did get chased out of Europe with that threat on her heels, and then settled in rural upstate New York, is muscular. She is the bull, whether in the field or the china shop. And the reason it’s not overacting is that it all feels like it is coming right from the soul of that woman. The problem, unfortunately, is that her story is one of those that gets many interesting angles, but doesn’t get fulfilled by the overloaded blintz of a movie. Her use as a comic character would have been fine… had they given her the full expanse of her storyline.
Demetri Martin is good as the Mary Richards of the film.. though to be fair, he is a somewhat more proactive character than just being the soft center around which the crazies dance. But what is driving him? Again, this is a hole in the storytelling. The movie gives us all the touchstones of what is going on with him, but isn’t coy so much as so overwhelmed by everything else that it fails to allow the time for his issues to solidify.
Even the idea that this young man brought Woodstock: 3 Days Of Love, Peace & Music to Woodstock: The Town (or really, the town next door) but never gets to enjoy his accomplishment is given a central line through the movie… but doesn’t quite congeal into what it clearly seemed to be going for.
Still… as unset a pudding as it is… as prone as it is to want to recreate the experience on the ground there and then become a drawing room comedy and then turn into Meatballs and then become a 70s coming out movie… the warm spots stay with me. Emile Hirsch seeming like he is about to go off the rails and then bringing it all back again… Eugene Levy giving a solid performance without resorting to schtick… Paul Dano looking handsome and Kelli Garner feeling completely real as a girl you’d get into the VW bus with just in case the drugs have loosened her belt as much as her memory… Liev Schreiber set up to fail horribly, but pulling it out regally… the folks who make up the town… Carmel Amit and Jennifer Merrill as the girls you can’t take your eyes off of in the Earthlight players… Henry Goodman, best known in the US for failing to replace Nathan Lane in The Producers, delivering a relaxed turn as a so-familiar aging man who just wants to get along… Jonathan Groff, who played Claude in Hair in Central Park last year and gets to play a wealthy spin on Berger – he’s still a little young – in this film… Mamie Gummer looking more like her mom here, but seeming more of her own actress than in other roles…
The number of little gems – and that is just a partial list – is why this film overcomes its weaknesses for me. It’s a tapas movie when I was expecting a full meal. But the tapas are tasty. And that lingers with me.

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20 Responses to “Taking Woodstock”

  1. Hopscotch says:

    You’re being kind DP. I didn’t completely dislike this movie, but the last act the film falls apart. And in the end it doesn’t amount to much.
    I do agree that Eugene Levy’s brief appearance is stellar, and Liev Schreiber’s opening scene is a doozy. But what about the towns folk? What about the barnyard players? What about Emile Hirsch’s war flashbacks? does any of this get any kind of resolve in the end? barely.

  2. David Poland says:

    I don’t disagree with any of your complaints, Hopscotch. I share them.
    And yet, I have to admit… I feel a warmth towards the film that does not fit a negative review.

  3. Joe Leydon says:

    Who says things in movies always have to get resolved? Again, there are times when I vastly prefer messy to neat. I loved this movie, for many reasons. On a strictly personal note: It reminded me of something that, even though I lived during the period, I’d mostly forgotten: The parents of most Woodstock attendees were of the WWII generation. Specifically: I’ll bet the majority of the fathers of the “hippies” in attendance were WWII vets. We tend to forget just how close those two eras – 40s and 60s — really were. No wonder people my parents’ age were by turns fearful and angry and profoundly perplexed in response to the anti-war, anti-establishment youthquake. Once again, I realize how lucky I was to have a father with whom I never had a quarrel about the war or music or drugs.
    And before you ask: No, I wsn’t there in ’69. I made it only to the Bad Woodstock, in 1999.

  4. Nicol D says:

    Just to be clear…the 60’s youth were not anti-war. They were just against American intervention in Vietnam. They said nothing and stayed very silent about the atrocities of Mao, Stalin, Castro, Guevera etc.
    Anti-war with the benefit of hindsight is perhaps being a bit kind.

  5. Joe Leydon says:

    Nicol: With all due respect: I was there. You read about it in books. OK?

  6. Nicol D says:

    So then did you protest Mao, Stalin, Castro and Guevera along with America? If you did I would think that was awesome!
    But sadly, there is no record of anyone in the hippie movement doing that in any history book. Only America.

  7. Cadavra says:

    Stalin was alive in the 60s? Who knew?

  8. LexG says:


  9. jeffmcm says:

    Wow, Nicol. Your comments here show clearly that, with all due respect, that You Just Don’t Get It. Protesting war in general is one thing. Protesting wars that one’s own government is involved with is another thing altogether.
    I mean, your ideological obsessiveness and fervor is incredibly arrogant and frustrating. I don’t know how you expect anyone to tolerate you.

  10. Stella's Boy says:

    Nicol is that kind of similar to how the neo-cons fervently support giving democracy to the people of Iraq but couldn’t care less about the people of Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Syria, etc? What does your book say about that and the atrocities taking place there? It seems to have all the answers.

  11. I think I liked the movie about the same as Dave, but with differing opinions on aspects. Imelda Staunton, for example was – I thought – awful. Her entire character was incredibly unpleasant (she gets a brief moment of respite and then the end completely slashes her to bits again) and while I get the movie is a “comedy” (although one without any actual laughs) I think she belonged in an entirely different movie altogether.
    Liev Shreiber was great though.

  12. Joe Leydon says:

    Nicol: We were protesting against American policies because we were — and are — Americans, and didn’t like what our country was doing. Again, your knowledge of this era is second-hand, and, judging from your posts, informed largely by right-wing talking points.

  13. Chucky in Jersey says:

    Thanks to the “Academy Award-Winning Director” line in the trailer and the poster this movie is D.O.A.
    The trailer has been good for one thing: It made sure the song “Woodstock” stuck in my head. Why else would Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young make it their biggest hit?

  14. Chucky in Jersey says:

    Not as much as the Liberal Media.

  15. yancyskancy says:

    Maybe it’s a Jersey thing, and we just don’t understand. Maybe all over the Garden State, conversations such as the following happen every weekend night:
    Tony: Want a catch a movie tonight?
    Sal: Sure, what’s out?
    Tony: This Woodstock picture sounds like something I’d go for.
    Sal: Okay, let’s check the showtimes — Oh, shit.
    Tony: What?
    Sal: Sorry, Tony.
    Tony: Aw, don’t tell me — Academy Award-winning director?
    Sal: Yep.
    Tony: Screw that then. Is G.I. Joe still playing?

  16. Joe Leydon says:

    Again: I saw an original Taxi Driver trailer today — or, to be more precise, a long excerpt from it, in the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls documentary — and saw how they name checked Scorsese for Mean Streets and De Niro for Godfather II. Guess that’s why Taxi Driver flopped, right?

  17. Che sucks says:

    Joe, which doc on ’70s cinema do you think is superior? Easy Riders, Raging Bulls or A Decade Under the Influence?

  18. Joe Leydon says:

    It’s a close call, but I’d say Decade, if only because it has more new interviews (well, OK, “new” when the doc was made) with ’70s filmmakers — primarily, because a lot of people who were featured in Peter Biskind’s original Easy Riders book were so pissed off about how Biskind depicted them that they refused to be interviewed by the makers of the spin-off doc. (BTW: Before anyone tries to read into that “Leydon is dissing Biskind,” let me hasten to add that I use Biskind’s book as one of two textbooks in my Social Aspects of Film course this semester.)

  19. christian says:

    So therefore by Nicol’s unique, startling insight, if Russian citizens were protesting their government, they would be considered naive and anti-patriotic for overlooking other repressive governments outside their walls? Hmmmm…

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

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