Wednesday, December 23, 2009

DVD catch-up: Ang Lee's sweet, smart TAKING WOODSTOCK

Think of TAKING WOODSTOCK as the flip side of Woodstock, that 1970 movie with the music by Michael Wadleigh. If you must have the music, then rent that one. Meanwhile, if you -- like me and almost everyone else in these United States -- missed seeing the theatrical release (its box-office barely topped $7 million) of this lovely coming-of-age tale from Ang Lee (shown below), thanks to reviews that ranged from so-so to worse, I'd suggest you give the film a shot. The movie garnered only 49% fresh on RottenTomatoes' critical rating, but interestingly enough over 4,000 IMDB voters rated it a 7 out of 10, and nearly 17,000 Netflix viewers gave it a 3.2 out of 5. Sometimes film-goers are more astute than film critics as to what is worth seeing. Part -- only a small part -- of my enthusiasm may be chalked up to lowered expectations; I'll be surprised if this one does not end up on my list of favorite films for the year.

Might as well say it upfront, however: The main reason for the movie's critical drubbing and also for its lack of what we might term "popular appeal" is its gay element. In one of the more ham-fisted judgments on the film, Mark Peranson, in his Cannes 2009 assessment in the summer '09 (# 39) issue of Cinema Scope magazine, says: "Ang Lee made what probably can be called both the stupidest and gayest film about Woodstock imaginable". Mark, honey, when the main character of a coming-of-age movie is gay, are you really asking for more heterosexuality? But of course you are, as do, on a regular basis, maybe 70 to 80 percent of male viewers -- even though Woodstock and the hippie era was notori-
ously given to fomenting bi-sexuality and sexual experimentation. You're also younger than I, who remembers the whole Woodstock/
Hair/hippie scene from a more personal perspective.

I have no idea of the sexual proclivities of director Ang Lee (he's married with family, but then, so was TrustMovies for 20 years) but I do know that the film that first put Lee on the map (The Wedding Banquet) was gay-themed, as was the film that won him his Best director Oscar (Brokeback Mountain). In any case, Taking Wood-
(and yes, the word "taking" has ramifications political, social, economic and sexual) is all about a boy on the cusp of manhood and how he helps bring the fabled event into actual being by being himself smart, businesslike, forward-thinking -- and the head of his little community's Chamber of Commerce (and not coincidentally the co-author of the book on which the movie is based).

In (relative) newcomer Demetri Martin (above, center), Lee has found a delicious young actor with just the right mixture of "push" and reticence. In Martin's hands, his character Elliot seems a young man on the cusp of just about everything, trying his best to step forward gracefully without falling in. If this actor never makes another movie (or one anywhere near as good), I'll remember him well for this. In an enormous cast that includes everyone from Paul Dano (flanking Martin above, right: blond and gorgeous) and Kelli Garner (above, left: also blond and gorgeous, but we're used to that mix from her) to Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton who play Elliot's sad parents (as Catskill Jews, both these Britishers are terrific), Emile Hirsch as a baby-faced VietNam vet, and Eugene Levy as the farmer on whose land Woodstock takes place, it's Liev Schreiber (above, right), who is most memorable. So centered, sexy, and on-target in each idea and thought he puts forth in his role of, yes, a transvestite security guard, he nearly steals the movie (this is the kind of part, and the playing of it, that Oscars were made for).

Ang Lee always likes to get "behind" the subjects of his films to see how things really work: the "key parties" of The Ice Storm, the Civil War in Ride with the Devil. In Taking Woodstock, he shows us how, via chance, timeliness and the various skills of a multitude of people, one of the most famous concerts in the world came to happen. Yet, rather than the concert itself, which we glimpse and hear only from afar, it's everything else that seems important: the fate of the rundown motel Elliot and his folks occupy, the bright-eyed concert promoter (played by Broadway's Jonathan Groff) and his retinue (among which is Mamie Gummer), the spaced-out hippies hoping for something special -- and mostly Elliot himself, who gives everything he has but then gets everything he could have hoped for from this wildest of weekends. I wouldn't be surprised if you do, too.

Taking Woodstock is available now for purchase or rent.

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