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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.

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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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin