A Tall Tale: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock movie poster

 

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, that purports to be the untold story of how the Woodstock music festival came to Bethel, NY, in August 1969. Tiber claims he was the crucial go-between that introduced the festival’s organizers to Max Yasgur, owner of the farm that became the site of the famous three days of music, peace, love, mud, brown acid, and traffic jams.

Even if only a portion of Elliot’s tall tale is true, it’s incredible that it has not been dramatized before now. In his version of events, an ordinary, meek kid becomes the accidental midwife of one of the biggest cultural events in modern history. Mix in most of the hot-button issues of the time — the hippie vs. square culture clash, gay awakening, anti-semitism, the mafia, and fallout from the Korean and Vietnam Wars — and you end up with what should have been a richly definitive movie dealing with the era.

Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking WoodstockTripping the light fantastic in the magic bus

That Tiber’s account of the festival is vigorously disputed by almost everyone involved (and sober enough to recall events now) is beside the point. The story is a good one, but the film never seems to capture the joy, anxiety, or excitement of the moment. So what if it isn’t true? We already have a supposedly objective documentary on the festival (but more on that below).

The biggest problem is Demetri Martin, who despite his success as a comedian and contributor to The Daily Show, possesses approximately as much star charisma as a plank. To be fair, his character is written to be repressed and buttoned-up, but the kid remains boring even after what ought to have been a transformative number of enlightening experiences, including his first gay kiss, first acid trip, and betrayal by his mother. Emile Hirsch appears in a small role as a psychologically scarred vet, and clearly would have been better in the lead role. Even Elliot’s parents are both more compelling characters than he. His father’s (Henry Goodman) interactions with the burgeoning counterculture awaken him from the virtual coma his life had become, and his mother (Imelda Staunton) is a self-destructive hoarder, which the film links to Holocaust survivor’s guilt.

Demetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in Taking WoodstockThat’s a man, baby!

Lee’s visuals are fairly straightforward, making it rather jarring when split-screen sequences visually allude to Michael Wedleigh’s documentary Woodstock (1970). Taking Woodstock supports Wedleigh’s thesis that the mostly harmless hippies that sought a weekend of peace and music instead found hostile locals and a combative, condescending press. But other moments in Taking Woodstock serve to undercut the original documentary, such as when Wedleigh is seen coaching a trio of nuns to flash the peace sign. If that iconic image was staged, what else might have been false or exaggerated? Taking Woodstock may be a tall tale, but it also makes clear that Wedleigh’s film isn’t necessarily reliable either.

Taking Woodstock ends with organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) about to mount another free concert featuring the Rolling Stones. The Woodstock festival may have been chaotic, but it was successful insofar that it proved people could gather in massive numbers and celebrate positively and peacefully. Lang is energized by what he achieved, but the mood is not so optimistic for those of us that know how it all turned out. The chaos and murder of the Altamount debacle that marked the end of the Summer of Love would be documented by The Maysles Brothers in Gimme Shelter (read Matthew Dessem’s excellent take on the film at The Criterion Contraption).

Demetri Martin in Taking WoodstockOne of the most famous traffic jams in history

Just as Taking Woodstock never quite takes off, Elliot never actually makes it to the concert. The fact that we never see it, and barely even hear it, is part of the point. Many of the 400,000 attendees probably never got any closer, either. And even those that did may have been too altered to recall much.

Random observations:

  • There are puzzling hints that Lang’s assistant Tisha (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter) is significant, but her character is ultimately superfluous. The role is not significant enough to match the notable casting.
  • Like contemporaries Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle, Ang Lee seems determined to never make the same film twice. Seen in that light, Taking Woodstock is a refreshing break in tone from his grim, thoroughly nonerotic Lust, Caution.
  • Further, it’s also worth noting that Eliot’s homosexual awakening is much more successful and fulfilling than that of the tortured cowboys in Brokeback Mountain.

Official movie site: www.takingwoodstockthemovie.com

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Milk

Milk movie poster

 

Any friend of The Dork Report will know that I almost universally hate biopics. As I’ve complained in my reviews of Control, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and even Walk Hard, I believe that the feature film is fundamentally ill suited for biography. One seemingly minor lesson from college that wound up sticking with me is Edgar Allen Poe’s definition of the short story as a prose piece that can be experienced in a single sitting (The Philosophy of Composition, 1846). No one expects a serious portrait of a person’s entire life in a few pages, so why should we applaud a movie? The feature film’s two-hour running time is more akin to a short story than to a book-length novel or biography, and yet the biopic is a dominant genre in movies. I would argue the primary reason is that they give ambitious actors the opportunity to exercise their imitation skills. It pleases audiences who perceive “true stories” as being of greater merit than fiction (mere make-believe!), and pandering to the Academy, who love nothing better than a technically impressive mimicry of an addict or handicapped person. I actually welcomed Walk Hard, for although a terrible movie itself, it finally mocked the formulaic drug-addicted musician biopics Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie En Rose, and El Cantante.

Sean Penn in Milk

Director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black’s Milk, on the other hand, strikes me as less insincere than its peers. For one thing, it examines only a ten-year span of a man’s life, avoiding the genre’s usual Cliff’s Notes-like approach to summarizing a famous figure’s life into a series of highlights. And yes, Sean Penn did win an Oscar for a lively, spirited performance worlds apart from his natural demeanor. But I believe he, like everyone else involved, approached the project with nothing but the highest integrity, and truly hoped the timely project could affect public opinion.

Milk was in theaters during shortly after the national debate over California’s Proposition 8, which denied the right to marry to a significant portion of the population (thanks to commenter Sapphocrat below for the correction). It’s impossible to miss the parallels to Harvey Milk’s struggle in 1978 against Proposition 6, which would have enabled the firing of homosexual teachers and (this is the truly amazing part) anyone that supported them. One of the movie’s biggest achievements is that it emphasized the sheer urgency of the gay rights movement. Equality was not just something that’s time had come. Gays were not only fighting for rights they hoped some day to have; they were fighting to keep the what rights they did have from being taken away.

Josh Brolin in Milk

I must admit that all I knew about Harvey Milk was the tangential bit of trivia that his assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin) was the first to employ the infamous “Twinkie Defense” in court, claiming that a diet of junk food altered his body chemistry and created a temporary state of insanity. Harvey was originally a New York insurance man, closeted from coworkers and family, but not so much so that he couldn’t brazenly pick up a stranger on the subway (with gaydar so fine-tuned that he could immediately tell that what I would assume to a normal-looking dude in 70s fashions was a fellow Friend of Dorothy). Scott Smith (James Franco) urges him to move to California where he can live more honestly. Harvey initially is happy to just live his new life, but becomes politicized as he faces prejudicial opposition to his small business.

Although it may seem to contradict part of my tirade against biopics at the beginning on this post, it might have been illuminating to see a little more of Harvey as a younger man, before he blossomed into a politically aware, out man. We only learn through passing dialogue that he hid not only his sexuality but even Scott’s very existence from his family. If the aim was to compress the essence of Harvey Milk into a short-form narrative, it strikes me that the major dramatic arc would be his transformation from a closeted man into someone that would later ask an entire community to come out at once.


Official movie site: www.milkthemovie.com

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Speed Racer

Speed Racer movie poster

 

The good news is that Andy & Larry Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extraordinary to watch. As with their breakthrough The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feeling that you’re seeing something new; not just emergent technologies but a whole new style of moviemaking. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much. Why undertake such huge effort and expense just to replicate the essence of a poorly written and cheaply animated TV series that no one, not even the geekiest Japanese anime otaku (fanboy), really misses? This film might have been so much better if they had jettisoned the baggage of the intellectual property (a misnomer in this case) and told an original story in this radical new style.

The movie incarnation of Speed Racer has inherited the visual quirks of the original 1960s cartoon, cross-bred with the information-rich computerized motion graphics of modern televised sports. The color scheme is dominated by bright, primary colors like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before computer graphics and digital color grading). Talking heads laterally pan across the screen, usually redundantly narrating the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watching ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.

Christina Ricci in Speed RacerChristina Ricci can see for miles and miles

The film is also modeled after video games and Japanese anime in general. Huge sequences are entirely computer generated, with what little live action photography there is most likely shot against greenscreen soundstages. The Wachowskis’ resident special effects mad scientist John Gaeta meticulously stages the many incredible car chases like battles in a war movie from an alternate universe. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogies, the movie practically is animated. Just watching it, it’s possible to imagine what the tie-in video game must be like.

Every single line of dialog is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car driver, a lone honest man in a corrupt industry. Yes, his name is actually Mr… Speed… Racer. His disgraced older brother Rex died a mystifying death years before, providing Speed with the motivation to prove himself both as a driver and as an honest man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman) sometimes appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoying little brother with a Brooklyn accent and, god help us all, a monkey. The oddball extended Racer family also includes the Australian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s helicopter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endearing baby fat and now seems startlingly skinny). The whole gang apparently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the living room like an extra sibling.

Lest all the action be of the vehicular variety, the Wachowskis wisely scatter about a few awesome wire-fu fight sequences designed (apparently not designed by The Matrix’s genius choreographer Woo-ping Yuen). The most exciting and visually impressive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow providing manga-like motion lines (a characteristic of Japanese comic books). The fights are even more fun when John Goodman gets in on the act, and one understands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for reasons other than a big studio paycheck).

Emile Hirsch in Speed RacerLike audiences worldwide, Emile Hirsch is a little overwhelmed by the visuals

If I were to single out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suffers, like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (read The Dork Report review), with too much backstory. Overlong for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adversaries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean popstar Rain) to accomplish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injustice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has something to do with veteran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remember details after two-plus hours of sheer sensory overload? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dangling (mostly involving the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypothetical third episode.

For any number of possible reasons, this very expensive folly bombed and we almost certainly won’t see that trilogy. The Wachowski brothers were perceived to have fumbled the wildly popular Matrix franchise with two obtuse sequels (although this Dork Reporter would argue in favor of the minority opinion that the second, The Matrix Reloaded, is actually their masterpiece), they produced the thickheaded V for Vendetta (muddying up and widely missing the point of the powerful anarchist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and one is rumored to have had a sex change. With such a track record it’s not surprising that the moviegoing public, even the genre-loving fanboys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the original Speed Racer cartoon is exceptionally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.

Warner Bros. revealed their embarrassment by issuing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crappiest movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc package padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added material. There’s nothing at all on the DVD about the obviously groundbreaking special effects. Instead, the filmmakers decided that what audiences wanted was more monkey (the vile beastie stars in the closing credits sequence) and more annoying kid brother (who costars in a mockmentary feature with an embarrassingly poorly acted appearance by producer Joel Silver).


Official movie site: speedracerthemovie.warnerbros.com

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Into the Wild

Into the Wild

 

Like many young men cursed with a privileged life of education and time to think for themselves, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) wanted only a vaguely defined “truth” and to not have to rely on anyone. Synthesizing his reading of Henry Thoreau and Jack London, he imagined for himself a life of self-sufficiency in the wilderness. So McCandless dropped out of society in the summer of 1990, leaving behind all connections whatsoever, including his legal name and identity. Despite his absolutely clean break, he never seemed to view this transformation as permanent; he mentions more than once that he may write a book when he “comes back.”

Interestingly for a young man, he also seems to make a point of avoiding even temporary female companionship. He rejects the friendship of Jan (Katherine Keener), and abandons his younger sister Carine (Jena Malone), the person with whom he apparently had the closest bond. Carine narrates the film, with total sympathy for his beliefs and actions. But even she points out that he acted with “characteristic immoderation.”

Into the WildThe Rough Guide to Self-Actualization

McCandless died alone in August 1992. He remains a controversial figure (should his asceticism be admired, or was he a fool?), and his solitary death the subject of an intriguing mystery (was he really trapped with food poisoning, or did he allow himself to die slowly as a form of passive suicide?). This film interpretation of his story does make it clear that he was a privileged kid who hadn’t truly suffered. While drinking with new buddy Wayne (Vince Vaughn), he lets slip his adolescent belief that one of the worst forms of tyranny in the world is “parents.” As we see, his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) are all too human and not half as monstrous as he imagines. So perhaps his adventure was more than an idealistic reaction to mere money, society, and materialism. He was also running away from the “free” things that living in society affords, what everyone craves in life: family, friends, and lovers.

Into the WildHence the title

A note on the music: just as McCandless looks backwards for literary inspiration, he also has antiquated taste in music for a kid living in the early 90s. His new name for himself, “Supertramp” puns on the classic rock band and his new lifestyle. He christens his new and final home, an abandoned bus, after The Who’s “Magic Bus.” For the music of the film itself, director Sean Penn drew upon two musicians that made names for themselves in the early 90s: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (who contributed songs to Dead Man Walking), and guitarist/composer Michael Brook. Vedder’s songs for the film were released as an album, but Brook’s excellent score is also available digitally.

Into the Wild is yet another in a long series of films I’ve seen recently that are based on books I haven’t read (The Kite Runner, No Country for Old Men, The Namesake, The Assassination of Jesse James, etc.). But even so, I believe I can detect a few remnants of the film’s prose origins as John Krakauer’s book:

  • the film is broken into “Chapters” with onscreen titles
  • voiceover narration
  • the visual device of superimposed text from McCandless’ own journals provides a second “voice”
  • episodic feel – but that’s justified by the events/phases of his journey – he keeps making clean breaks every time he comes close to settling in somewhere

Official movie site: www.intothewild.com

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