Taking Woodstock Rebounds…A Little

Last time we checked in on Taking Woodstock, things were not looking good for Larchmont director Ang Lee. He screened his film, based on the book of the same name by concert organizer Eliot Tiber and shot in the Hudson Valley, at the Cannes Film Festival—and received a bruising reception. Most of the critics placed it somewhere along the spectrum of sweetly nonessential to cartoonishly broad.

Now the film is in wide-release, available to the public and critics who couldn’t review it at Cannes. Including me: I saw it this weekend, and I think the bad buzz was mostly unfair. If you’re looking for a lovingly detailed re-creation of the three-day landmark concert, you’re going to be disappointed. Even though the word “Woodstock” is right there in the title, the festival is hardly more than a backdrop. Instead, Lee zeroes in on a single coming-of-age story that took place somewhere within all that craziness. And that story, I think, mostly works, largely due to the likeability of star Demetri Martin. (Other side characters don’t fair so well, unfortunately.) Lee throws in some fantastic filmmaking flourishes, like long tracking shots, to remind us that—even though the movie feels very light—there’s still some serious filmmaking going on.

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Apparently, others agree with me. Since the wide release of Taking Woodstock, which came in ninth at the box office this weekend, the film is finally starting to get good reviews. (Maybe the Cannes articles adjusted expectations about the role Woodstock actually plays in the film.) Here are some of the positive notices:

“Lee and writer James Schamus aren’t making a historical pastiche. This is a comedy with some sweet interludes and others that are cheerfully over the top.”
Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times

“Taking Woodstock has the appeal of an inside story told from an especially good angle. But beyond that, the movie is a celebration of the way this event has gone into memory and of the meaning it has acquired…throughout, Lee aims for a feeling—that specific sense that sometimes comes over us when we’re young, of moving through a golden moment and knowing it.”
Mick LaSalle, the San Francisco Chronicle

“As varied as his films have been…director Ang Lee has never made a bad one, and the genial comedy Taking Woodstock certainly doesn’t break his streak. Expectations must be set appropriately, however. This is very light material, and, unusually for a Lee picture, not everybody in the ensemble appears to be acting in the same universe, let alone the same story. On the other hand: It’s fun.”
Michael Philips, Chicago Tribune

“Like Mr. Lee’s 1999 Civil War drama, Ride With the Devil, which was set on the war’s western fringe, Taking Woodstock operates on the principle that contemplation of historic events from the margins can be more revealing than from the hot center…For all its sincerity, Taking Woodstock lacks the passion of Mr. Lee’s finest films…I would add, however, that given a subject that has become synonymous with overblown mythmaking, its modesty becomes it.”
Stephen Holden, the New York Times

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Then again, it’d be inaccurate to stay that the film is getting mostly good reviews. It still rubs some critics the wrong way, and is getting just as many pans as positives. Here, some less flattering criticism:

“Aquarian Nostalgia™ is the most oppressively sanctimonious and dull stripe of reminiscing…Taking Woodstock does nothing more than recycle the same late-’60s tropes seen countless times since the Carter administration.”
Melissa Anderson, the Village Voice

“Ang Lee is normally such an expert calibrator of performances—there wasn’t a weak link in Brokeback Mountain—that it’s a shock to find both overwhelmers and underwhelmers at loose in his latest work…Lee is a precisian, not a prober, and you can feel the film floundering as it seeks its proper focus; now and then, as he did in Hulk, he splits the screen, like the Teichbergs dividing motel rooms into three to triple their income, but he lacks the will to nose around, to pull in and out of passing scenes, that Robert Altman brought to Nashville.”
Anthony Lane, the New Yorker

“Gentle, genial and about as memorable as a mild reefer high…the picture serves up intermittent pleasures but is too raggedy and laid-back for its own good, its images evaporating nearly as soon as they hit the screen.”
Todd McCarthy, Variety

Did any of you see it? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

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