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Blu-ray Review: Taking Woodstock

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Taking Woodstock is a change of pace return to lighter comedic filming for director Ang Lee. Coming off the widely acclaimed Brokeback Mountain, and the more ambivalently received Lust, Caution, this film feels like Lee catching his breath and telling a story that touches on some of his core themes, but is primarily about having fun observing a major cultural event and letting the viewer get caught up in the madness and spectacle of the behind the scenes preparation for the generation-defining Woodstock music festival.

The film tells the story of Woodstock’s birth through the eyes of Elliot Tiber, a frustrated artist trapped at his parents’ rundown Catskills motel. Through a series of fortunate coincidences, he winds up bringing the Woodstock festival to his neighbor’s farm, and the motel becomes a busy hub for the event. The film never actually shows any of the bands that play the festival, it’s more about the community that arises to realize the festival, and the way that becoming part of this event reinvigorates both Elliot and his mother and father.

The big criticism of the film on its Cannes premiere was its slightness. For such a seismic cultural event, most of the film is a low key character study. It’s not about Woodstock, and I’ll admit that it is a bit frustrating to never reach the main stage or see any actual performance. The film posits Woodstock as more of a cultural event than a musical one, but you can’t help but want to catch a glimpse of The Who or Hendrix after getting so engaged with the event.

But, as a character piece, the film works. Demetri Martin does a great job as Elliot, but the two standout actors are Henry Goodman as Jake’s father, who gets new life running the busy motel, and fully accepts the various counterculture personalities who come to the motel, and Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a war vet who just happens to be a transvestite. The brilliance of the performance is that Schreiber plays it utterly unaffected — change the costume and you’ve got a regular vet, but juxtaposing that attitude with his women’s clothing makes the counterculture world clear.

I think there’s an interesting film to be made following the people who organized and brought about the festival, and there’s definitely an interesting film to be made about people at the festival itself, but this isn’t that film, and that doesn’t make it bad. I think the less than enthusiastic reaction to the film is largely a function of expectations, but if you accept the film as just a character piece that happens to take place at Woodstock, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and engaging.

Video is 1080p, presenting the film in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It looked great on my screen; the visual standout was the split screen sequences, which are shot in 16mm and designed to mimic the look of the classic Woodstock documentary. Audio is a DTS-HD 5.1 mix that sounds fine, but is not particularly notable. The high point was an LSD trip sequence that had some nice audio immersion. On the whole, the Blu-ray presentation is strong. The image is flawless, and sound is not particularly notable, but solid.

In terms of special features, there’s an entertaining commentary with director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus. They discuss a variety of things; particularly noteworthy is Ang Lee connecting the film to his previous work, specifically the post-Woodstock generation portrait The Ice Storm. There are a couple of deleted scenes and an EPK style featurette that talks to both the cast and some of the real people behind the story. There’s a similar featurette focusing on the theater troupe in the film, The Earthlight Players, that juxtaposes the cast with the real people they’re playing. It’s nothing exceptional, but entertaining enough.

Perhaps that sums up the entire film experience. This won’t be anyone’s favorite movie, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and engaging. Lee does a great job of building up a little world within the film and gives you a strong sense of the culture surrounding Woodstock, if not the event itself.

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