Taking Woodstock


Demitri Martin, Eugene Levy has only three words for ya: Second City Television.

(Focus) Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Adam Pally. Directed by Ang Lee

From August 15 through August 18, 1969 a festival billed as “three days of peace and music” took center stage in the universe of the counterculture. It remains the granddaddy of all rock festivals, the touchstone to which all other large-scale festivals are inevitably compared. My brother-in-law Jim Ivey was one of the half million in attendance and has the ticket stubs to prove it; if you went by the number of people who claimed they were there, millions of people were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that day. The festival is known simply as Woodstock.

Elliott Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer in Greenwich Village whose parents Jake (Goodman) and Sonia (Staunton) own a dilapidated hotel in White Lake, New York near the bucolic town of Bethel. The hotel is gradually going broke, run to ground by his parents’ inability to run even basic maintenance and his mother’s abrasive personality and unbridled greed.

He doubles as the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, authorizing permits for the city. He has a counterculture theatrical company, the Earthlight Players, taking up residency in his barn and is planning a music festival where he’ll essentially spin records to inert townspeople on the lawn of the hotel.

None of this is doing any good. The bank is about to foreclose; they have managed to finagle enough time to last the summer, but that’s it. His parents, Holocaust survivors, they’ve gone through quite a bit and as unpleasant as Sonia is, Elliott still worries.

When he hears that the organizers of a large-scale music festival have been denied permits in Walkill, New York, he recognizes the golden opportunity to save the hotel. A festival with big name performers will draw people who will fill the hotel for the weekend but also serve as a headquarters for the festival. The festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (Groff) and Artie Kornfeld (Pally), come in with a bit of a flourish and the laid-back Lang instantly takes to Elliott. When the hotel property proves to be inadequate for the size of the crowds the organizers are expected, Elliott introduces Lang and Kornfeld to Max Yasgur (Levy), a dairy farmer who is sympathetic to the idea of a rock festival.

The rest of the town, not so much. The most vocal of these is Dan (Morgan), a man whose son Billy (Hirsch) came back from Vietnam shell-shocked and broken. He feels the hippies are disrespectful to the country that his son gave so much for. The tension between the townies and the hippies (including Max and Elliott in the eyes of the town) is palpable.

Against all odds, the festival comes together; even the weather conspired against them. In the process, Elliott comes to terms with his parents and makes the decision to follow his own heart.

Ang Lee is one of the most gifted directors in the world. One of my all-time favorite movies is the Taiwanese director’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His other films – The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman among others – are always compelling, even the ones that are less successful. Here, he captures the essence of the festival nicely. He made the decision to put almost no emphasis on the music; the actual concert takes place off-screen and the only time music from the festival. Instead, he concentrates on the backstage elements behind the festival; after all, the music and the concert were already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock which is paid homage to in several places during the course of the movie.

Martin is best-known as a stand-up comedian and he’s a very good one. Strangely, even though this is a comedy, his role is more or less as a straight man. His deadpan stand-up delivery is mirrored here; the role is very low-key but is nonetheless still compelling. Staunton and Goodman give high-powered performances and Levy is surprisingly solid in a straight dramatic role. Schreiber shows up about halfway through the film and nearly steals the movie as the transgendered security guard Vilma. He is working on a level most of the other actors don’t attain, at least in this movie.

Sadly, the movie is a bit of a jumble. The performances are fine but they seem to be all coming from different movies. There’s no cohesion, no sense of unity; there are times you feel like you’re channel surfing while watching a single movie. That’s not a good feeling.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Elliott Tiber (renamed Teichberg here for some reason) whose version of events has been disputed by the real Michael Lang. The movie is not meant to be a documentary-like representation of what really happened; I get the feeling that Lee was attempting to replicate the spirit of Woodstock and illustrate just what a miracle it was that it got staged at all.

Woodstock remains a cultural touchstone for us even now, more than forty years after the fact. It is not only a symbol of a time, place and a movement; it remains a beacon of hope that the ideals of a generation may someday be adopted by a nation. Woodstock means different things for different people but regardless of how it makes you feel, nearly every person in the Western world is aware of its significance. This isn’t the movie that properly honors the event and I couldn’t tell you (having not been at the real one) if this gives you a sense of being there yourself. Still, it was insightful enough – and visually compelling enough – to make it worth a mild recommendation.

WHY RENT THIS: Even in his worst movies, Lee has a marvelous visual sense that borders on the poetic. Martin makes for an intriguing lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a jumble; the performances, while well-acted aren’t really cohesive and feels like the movie is made up of a series of unrelated vignettes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of drug use and nudity (hey, it was the Sixties after all) and some rough language; may be a little too much for younger folk to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No actual footage from Woodstock was used; while many of the events depicted here actually happened, they were all re-enacted for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette entitled “Peace, Love and Cinema” not only does the usual happy-handed behind-the-scenes lovefest there are also interviews with the real people being portrayed in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Rudo y Cursi

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Away We Go


Away We Go

A young couple face an uncertain future armed only with their love for each other.

(Focus) John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Chris Messina, Catherine O’Hara, Jim Gaffigan, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider. Directed by Sam Mendes

At some point in all of our lives we are forced to grow up. Usually some sort of life-changing event is the catalyst – a new job, financial difficulties or impending marriage/parenthood. Whatever the cause, we are required to put aside the irresponsibilities of our youth and get serious about our future.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are very much in love. They are pleasant, smart people, both with jobs that enable them to work at home wherever that home may be. They live in a ramshackle house that is probably well beneath what they can afford. However, Verona is expecting their first child and that changes everything.

Further complicating things are Burt’s parents Gloria (O’Hara) and Jerry (Daniels) who they were hoping would help with the child-rearing thing. Rather than assisting with their grandchild, Gloria and Jerry are more eager to move to Antwerp. This leads Burt and Verona to the revelation that they are completely free to live anywhere now, but with that freedom comes choice – where to live?

This leads them on a road trip to visit various relatives and friends to examine the relative merits of various locations as places to raise their impending family. First is Arizona, where Verona’s ex-boss Lily (Janney) lives with her husband Lowell (Gaffigan). Lily is a foul-mouthed, borderline alcoholic who actually does her best to convince Verona not to move to Arizona. It’s probably a good thing, too, considering all the dumbass legislation that has been coming out of there lately.

Next on the list is Madison, Wisconsin where lives a childhood friend of Burt’s, LN (Gyllenhaal), who teaches radical feminist bullshit (as far as I can make out) and has adopted a goofy New Age mantra that makes her a loonie of the first order. I’d say she’s a caricature but I’ve met a few sorts who aren’t far off from the views she espouses so we’ll leave it at wacko.

It’s on to Montreal where college chums of the both of them Tom (Messina) and Munch (Lynskey) seem to be living ideal lives and at first it’s very appealing to Burt and Verona but soon the desperate unhappiness simmering beneath the surface for their friends comes boiling through.

Next is Miami where Burt’s brother (Schneider) is struggling with a wife who left him to raise their children alone. This is one of the more poignant of the vignettes, but the experience leaves Burt and Verona a little shaken. After all this, Burt and Verona are faced with their decision, but what are they going to choose?

Director Mendes made this hot on the heels of his last movie, Revolutionary Road which was a totally different animal. Mendes is known for his condemnation of the suburban lifestyle, which he has explored in movies like the aforementioned Revolutionary Road and American Beauty but this is a bit gentler and a bit more quirky than his previous movies.

Krasinski and Rudolph, both TV veterans (from “The Office” and SNL respectively) do very well on the big screen. Their relationship is totally believable and the viewer is left with no doubt that these are two people who love each other very deeply. Yes, they have a certain amount of indie film arrogance about them, but Burt and Verona are genuinely nice people who are a little bit more educated than most and a little bit kinder than most. If that makes them smug and superior to some, well I suppose they have reason to be.

The various location vignettes work with varying degrees. Janney and Gaffigan are a bit out of whack with the overall tone of the film and it is a bit jarring. The Miami and Montreal vignettes are the best, ruthlessly honest and brutally frank.

The script is well-written by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida who are romantically involved themselves. One gets the impression there’s an awful lot of the two of them in Burt and Verona (even the names are similar), so that may be why the film rings so true. Authenticity is a commodity that serves movies like this very well, and there’s an abundance of it here.

The truth of the matter is that there is always someplace better, but if you want the perfect place, it is almost inevitably the place where you’re at – wherever the one you love is, there is the perfect place to raise a family. Those who complain that there are no good romantic comedies anymore would do well to check out Away We Go – it blows all those formula movies right out of the water.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Krasinski and Rudolph is more than believable, and they both deliver fine performances. Supporting cast does very well.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a bit too low-key for its own good; the one vignette that is louder is jarring to the film’s overall tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, as well as some foul language. For my taste, some of the humor is adult but mature teens will be able to enjoy this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Collette was originally cast in the Maggie Gyllenhaal role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on how the filmmakers tried to make the production eco-friendly with the help of a group called Earthmark.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: State of Play

Hollywoodland


Hollywoodland

Adrien Brody gets ready to punch out this photographer in preparing for his next role as Sean Penn.

(Focus) Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Molly Parker, Robin Tunney, Jeffrey DeMunn, Joe Spano, Dash Mihok, Lois Smith, Zach Mills, Larry Cedar, Seamus Dever, Daisy Fuentes. Directed by Allen Coulter

Fame is a glittering object, dazzling and seductive. Many are seduced by the incandescent glow that promises immortality, adoration and wealth. Fame is also vain, fickle and cruel and it can turn on you, eat you alive from the inside and spit you out, a desiccated husk. It has happened in Hollywood too many times to count and the names of those who fell victim to the allure of Tinseltown is long. One name on it is George Reeves.

Reeves (Affleck) is an actor who once had a small role in Gone With the Wind. He came to Hollywood looking for fame and glory and finding it a political entity in which the major studios had absolute autocratic control. Trying to break in, despite his matinee idol looks and acting chops, is near-impossible. However, he does manage to land a role in a TV series that doesn’t have much of a chance for survival – in fact, it has no sponsor whatsoever, usually the kiss of death in the television landscape of the 1950s.

Still, Reeves needs the money and although he has doubts about the quality of the show and his role in it, he takes the paycheck and dons the grey and brown tights of – Superman. The show becomes a hit to everyone’s surprise and Kellogg’s Cereal takes the sponsorship of the show, allowing them to film in color (and allowing Reeves to don the more familiar blue and red tights seen in the comic books).

Reeves becomes a hero to million of kids and his life is forever changed. He chafes under the restrictions of the role and fears that typecasting as Superman will effectively end his aspirations for a serious acting career, fears that are realized after Superman is canceled. Despondent over what is apparently a dead-end dream, he says good night to some guests (which included his fiancee, Lenore Lemmon (Tunney) whom he was due to marry in three days) at a small dinner party in his home the evening of June 16, 1959, calmly walked upstairs and shot himself in the head.

The police called it a suicide and closed the case with unseemly haste. The victim’s mother, Helen Bessolo (Smith) contracts a private investigator to look into a case that the police have already written off. Louis Cimo (Brody) is a bottom feeder, reduced to accepting money from a delusional paranoid (Cedar) who believes with absolute certainty that his wife is cheating on him, despite the lack of any evidence to support his claim. Cimo, a headstrong headline-hunting investigator who prefers to do much of his work through the press, is divorced and living a squalid existence. When a police buddy (Mihok) steers Cimo towards Bessolo, he takes on what he hopes will be a high-profile case that might get him noticed, and in turn generate more business.

As he investigates further, he begins to find out more about the man George Reeves. He discovers early on that Reeves is having an affair with Toni Mannix (Lane), the aging wife of powerhouse mogul Eddie Mogul (Hoskins), a bigwig at MGM. She buys him a house and supports him in getting the part that he will forever become identified with, much to the delight of his agent (DeMunn). Still, George chafes at his situation; he doesn’t necessarily want to be a kept man.

As Cimo delves into the case, things turn ugly. He is given a terrible beating and warned to back off. He becomes disillusioned when one of his previous cases turns to tragedy, and he descends further into alcoholism, imperiling his relationship with his son (Mills) and his estranged wife (Parker). As he gets closer to the truth, he realizes that the truth is a dangerous commodity in a town built on creating illusion.

This is a film noir thriller at heart, one which relies on shadows and grit to create a mood. There is a certain degree of fatalism in the movie; the more we get to know Reeves, the more likable he becomes and the more tragic his death is. Director Coulter, whose background is in some of HBO’s most critically acclaimed series including The Sopranos, Sex in the City and Six Feet Under, recreates Hollywood in the late ‘50s nicely. Although the studios remain all-powerful, their grip is slowly slipping as the aging moguls rail against the TV monster that is evaporating their audience before their eyes. It is a town built on the dreams and the desperations of the young, and both qualities are captured nicely.

It doesn’t hurt that Coulter has a terrific cast to draw on. Lane, Brody and Hoskins are all Oscar winners or nominees, and they all do exceptional work here. Brody, in particular, has the most expressive eyes I think in Hollywood; often the expression in his eyes is far more telling than the dialogue.

Better still is Affleck, whose career has been on the downswing ever since his disastrous hook-up with J-Lo. He is charismatic, vulnerable and flawed and he makes George Reeves a real, breathing human being which is a difficult task given that most of us that remember him at all remember the smiling man in the horrible Superman suit. This is the kind of performance that can really turn things around for him and get him some roles that better suit his talents than the ones he has been reduced to lately.

The movie presents several of the theories of what really happened to Reeves to this day. Although suicide continues to be the official verdict, there are many who believe that Reeves was murdered, a belief that persists to this day. Eddie Mannix, who had mob ties, may have been responsible as well as his fiancee, whom it was rumored that George was going to break up with. Most who knew him couldn’t believe that he was suicidal; he had just started filming a new Alfred Hitchcock movie (which turned out to be Psycho – his scenes were refilmed with Martin Balsam in the role) and he was optimistic that he had a future as a director or producer.

The movie does seem to take a position at the very end (although the filmmakers are coy even with this) and you won’t walk out of the theater with a feeling like you know what happened. At this point, it is unlikely that the questions surrounding the case will ever be answered. Still, this is an extremely entertaining movie, well-acted and nicely put together. The language is a little raw, and the movie is a little short on lightness to balance the darkness, but all in all this is something I can confidently recommend to just about anyone. Note the “R” rating, however.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck nails his role, making Reeves feel both human and vulnerable as well as egotistical and frustrated. Director Coulter captures the period and the place nicely. Supporting cast is superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly grim. Anyone looking for insight into the death of George Reeve may walk away disappointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic violence, particularly in the depiction of Reeves’ death, as well as some sexuality and a great deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Alvis automobile that Reeves is shown washing is an extremely rare vehicle which the producers had a difficult time finding but eventually had one of the few remaining models shipped to the set for filming. Reeves actually drove an Alvis, although not the same model shown here.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bourne Ultimatum

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day


A lovely trio of Depression-era fashionistas.

A lovely trio of Depression-era fashionistas.

(Focus) Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Payne, Mark Strong, Christina Cole, Stephanie Cole. Directed by Bharat Nalluri.

In these economic times we are all of us riding the thin line between success and poverty, with one push in either direction sending us skittering towards one or the other. While in some sense this is almost always generally true, in only one other era was this more the case than the one we live in now – the Great Depression.

Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) is a vicar’s daughter who works as a governess. Plain, socially awkward and somewhat plain-spoken, she finds herself dismissed from one position after another. After her latest dismissal, her agency declines to find another placement for her – ever. Desperate, knowing starvation and homelessness are awaiting her she impulsively steals a placement as a social secretary for a flighty and somewhat promiscuous actress by the unlikely name of Delysia Lafosse (Adams).

Adams, an American working in London as World War II looms, came to the UK as a lounge singer but hopes to find success enough in the West End to propel her to Hollywood. She has her sights set on a part in a new play produced by Phil Goldman (Payne) and is willing to do anything – and anyone – to get what she wants. Ditzy and disorganized, she lives in a swanky London flat that turns out to be the address of Nick Calderetti (Strong), the hot-headed nightclub owner she works for and is sleeping with. However, her heart belongs to Michael Pardew (Pace), a talented pianist who has just finished serving a term in jail for a “misunderstanding.”  

Miss Pettigrew is completely out of her element, but all the characteristics that made her unsuitable as a governess are just what the doctor ordered for Delysia. Conversely, Delysia is able to make the dowdy governess blossom with her knowledge of fashion, make-up and hair. The two are perfect for each other.

However, the world around them is spiraling out of control. The part that would make Delysia’s career is in danger of going to another actress, Charlotte Warren (C. Cole) but accepting that role would put an end to her relationship with Michael, who is returning to New York. Add to that the complication of Edythe Dubarry (Henderson), a fashion maven whose engagement to lingerie designer Joe Blomfield (Hinds) she wants Miss Pettigrew to rescue. However, Miss Pettigrew is attracted to the quiet, gallant Joe herself while Edythe begins to suspect the Miss Pettigrew isn’t who she says she is.

Based on the 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, the film rights had belonged to Universal since 1939 languishing there for nearly 70 years before finally getting made by Focus, the studio’s independent and art film arm. Director Nalluri takes the elements of a screwball comedy and adds a 21st century romantic comedy ethos to it. The results are neither fish nor fowl, but an odd amalgam of both, rendering a not-unpleasant effect.

McDormand, one of Hollywood’s most consistent leading ladies, is quite understated as the somewhat timid Pettigrew. Adams, who is blossoming into not only a fine actress but also a charismatic lead, is sensational. She takes a character that sleeps around and is something of a birdbrain and gives her humanity and charm. You wind up liking this girl even though in real life, you probably wouldn’t…unless she was Amy Adams, that is. She also gets to sing a song, “If I Didn’t Care” which just about brings down the house. Lee Pace, so good in TV’s “Pushing Daisies” is somewhat lost in his role. Better are Henderson and Hinds, character veterans who have richly earned reputations for solid performances, and they don’t disappoint here.

Screwball comedies, so popular in the 1930s, are a skill in and of themselves. When done properly, they are some of the best entertainment value there are. In all honesty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day doesn’t really hold up with the best of that genre, but is sufficient enough that because they are so rarely made these days, its rating might be skewed up a bit because of it. With the economy rapidly mimicking that of the Great Depression, I wouldn’t be surprised if we begin to see a lot more of them in the coming years. That, in itself wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent screwball comedies are rare and this one is definitely that. Adams and McDormand are two of the best actresses in Hollywood, at the top of their games here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: 21st century audiences may find this a bit dated stylistically speaking.  

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages; almost no raunchiness to speak of, although the Delysia Lafosse character’s promiscuity is implied.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Miss Pettigrew’s father is revealed to be a minister. Actress McDormand’s father is also a minister.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the author’s son, who gives some fascinating insight into how the movie came into being.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Inkheart