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This week:
Taking Woodstock

Filthy says:
"Man, these hippies fucking reek."

A lot of things could have improved Taking Woodstock, but the most important one would have been a story. Some movies give you this feeling something is happening and that it's all going somewhere, even that it matters. They have beginnings, middles and ends. The good ones even make you care where they're going and worry a bit over the characters. This dog has none of that.

Demetri Martin has some fame as an deadbeat, absurdist comic, but he brings none of his charm to the lead role of a mid-20s artist who comes home to help his stereotyped Jewish parents at their failing, crappy roadside motel in the late 60s Catskills. Imelda Staunton's oerformance as the Jewish mother isn't kosher to watch; it'll smear ham all over your eyes. Martin tries to draw tourists and save the motel, then an opportunity to host the legendary concert lands in his lap. Of course, neither he nor anyone else understands how damn big and hippie-infested the event's gonna be until it's consumed their town and plugged up the New York state thruway like a dozen or so deep-fried Oh Henry's clog your bowels. For days. Until it hurts really bad every time you bend over. Seriously.

The concert is a godsend to Martin and his folks. For the overbearing, guilt-trip-laying , money-grubbing Staunton (I think she had a previous life exchanging money in a temple), it's cash by the buttload. She turns every motel room into three, charges for pillows, towels and soap, and they rent out space to the concert organizers. For the browbeaten, well-intentioned father (Henry Goodman), it's some sort of vague reconnection with youth and freedom. We're supposed to believe he's been so beaten down by his wife that a bunch of smelly, barefoot hippies is a treat. What is never shown with much conviction is what Martin himself thinks of his role in putting this on. I have no idea whether he felt overwhelmed, or like he betrayed the townspeople, or was proud of it. It doesn't even bother to tell us whether he likes the music or not. The movie just isn't interested in letting its central character show much.

Once Woodstock, the concert, happens, the free-loving hippies are everywhere, smoking their weed and putting flowers in their hair. They hump in the bushes and drink out of the swimming pool. They slide in mud and flash each other a shitload of peace signs. The movie says nothing new about the event. Hell, it doesn't say anything that isn't already a clichÈ memorialized by Time/Life Books. That gives the whole movie a real sense of being inauthentic and made by people nostalgic for something they weren't even part of. Taking Woodstock doesn't show the concert, staying on the very far fringes. Very little of the three-day concert's music is heard, either. The one time Martin's character bothers to attend the show he gets sidetracked by taking LSD in a Volkswagen Microbus with psychedelic drawings on its walls.

Taking Woodstock, see, isn't about Woodstock, the event. It's about Martin "Taking (wood)stock" of his life, becoming an independent person and breaking free of his demanding mother and their shithole in the Catskills. He's gay, too, and hooks up with carpenter working on the concert stage. Yet, the movie never make clear whether this is a breakthrough for Martin or a continuation of the way he lives away from home. I don't know whether he's happy about it or regretful. Did he just realize he's into the dudes, has he always known but been afraid to act on his feelings, or has he always liked feeling stubble when he kisses? Director Ang Lee doesn't say and I didn't much care. The movie doesn't think anything is. It's all just a long, flat journey to nowhere.

This is a small story set against a monstrous and historic backdrop whose importance overwhelms what happens on screen, because it's more interesting. He avoids the concert, but it's too big to ignore. And when he does reference it and the people it drew, his reliance is on a hackneyed vision. Tie-dye, free love, lots of peace, everyone getting groovy. I think a different backdrop could have freed Lee to tell a better story, or at least give us richer characters with more shit going on in their lives. Or better still, show a new side of Woodstock, even if it was made up, could have been used more directly to tell the story. I'm not saying Martin should have fucked Janis Joplin or David Crosby, mainly because I wouldn't even wish something that awful on Uwe Boll. But, some more interesting link would have been nice.

Martin's main character is a snore, and his performance does nothing to improve that. His character's big obstacle is indecisiveness and reluctance to stand up to his badass mother. The actor's range of emotions, though, is so narrow that I got no sense any of it mattered to him, or that breaking free made him happier. Most of the other movie's characters are just so fucking weak and corny that they really emphasize how far way from being real this depiction of the 60s is. Staunton and Goodman give Norman-Lear-sitcom portrayals of braying, unhappy Jews. They're as stiff and square as Saltines from the thrift store, so you can be damn sure they'll unknowingly get high and act crazy by the end of the movie. Lee thinks watching old people laughing hysterically at nothing is pure comedy gold. What? They couldn't work a foul-mouthed granny into the script? The "avant garde" theater troupe at the motel are supposed to be hilarious, but they act exactly as you'd expect: ripping off clothes to startle the locals, way-out there performance art and a leader who's going for the Jack Black Award for Fat Man Overacting. Most confounding for me, though, was Emile Hirsch as a kid back from Vietnam who has cheesy flashbacks. He wears his army jacket and bitches a lot about what he's lost in the war. The character is written as though all the horrible Vietnam experience of our young men must be distilled into a single person. He can't have his own awful experience, but a greatest hits from the works of every cornball Nam drama out there. And there are too many already. Hirsch just acts agitated, unpleasant and lost for what his character is supposed to be.

Lee overdirects. While the story moves like a turtle with a rock on its back, the camera trickery hustles overtime. Much of the movie takes place in split screens that don't illuminate the story. They just multiply the stereotypes and cliches. That, and they make it harder for me to know what to focus on. It's some fancy shit, and maybe it has some meaning, but it sure as hell didn't make a boring story any more interesting.

Taking Woodstock is just a bad fucking movie. Not much to say, no joy in saying it, and all set against a backdrop that's tired and overtold. Two Fingers, mostly because all that free love does mean lots of boobs.

Want to tell Filthy Something?



Jim Ferguson of ABC-TV

The Time Traveler's Wife is "A magnificent love story!"

In Extract "Jason Bateman is hilarious!"

Filthy's Reading
Philip Roth - Exit Ghost

Listening to
No Age - Weirdo Rippers


We Jam Econo - The Story of the Minutemen