Thursday, September 24, 2009

Taking Woodstock

The only other film about Woodstock that I've seen was Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock documentary from 1970 (one year after the 1969 concert). Wadleigh captured the large scale that was necessary to convey the grand feelings that were circulating among the attendants during that very summer in the Catskills. Taking Woodstock's director Ang Lee takes a different approach by doing a more back-door examination of how the festival started and the movie is more about organizer Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin in his first dramatic role) than it is about the festival. Unfortunately, it seems that one must use a large canvas if they really want to delve into the themes that Woodstock now represents in popular culture. The characters need to seem as grand as the events but instead Lee and screenwriter James Schamas decide to place the audience as a fly-on-the-wall and let moments (the concert itself) and flow by and the emotion (present in the characters) remain thinly veiled.

There is a huge ensemble of actors present in the film, but most of them feel like the equivalent of cameos. That is not to say that the variety of cast members are only limited to a few appearances, it is just that they come-and-go and we really only stay with the emotions that Elliot Tiber is experiencing. Imagine if Robert Altman (or even Paul Thomas Anderson) had handled a Woodstock movie? Altman was the master of these massive character studies and introduced his own narrative flow through the interconnectedness of the characters themselves (see MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, Pret-A-Porter, and Gosford Park to know more about what I'm speaking of). I think Ang Lee could've pulled it off and I'm almost disappointed that he didn't take this opportunity to do something grand (just as a reminder, Ang Lee is a massively talented and I sometimes feel widely underrated director whose filmography includes The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and Lust Caution). By just sticking with Tiber, we often miss out on the implied events that we hear about going around in the background. Perhaps if Tiber was placed alongside those events (and there a few very well shot and choreographed moments involving large crowds) maybe we would've came to a greater understanding about both Elliot and the themes from the festival itself.

Tiber is played by Martin as a shy boy who is still struggling with his sexuality. He often has to put up with his cranky parents (his mother is played by Imelda Stauton in a wildly enjoyable and different role compared to the ones I often see her in) but he is politically active enough that he pushes the idea of having a concert in the town of Bethel to the entire town hall. This leads to some interesting scenes between Tiber and Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) who owns a nearby farm that Tiber wants to try to use as a part of the festival grounds. Perhaps it is because Levy and Martin are both comedians that of all the supporting characters, Yasgur appears to have the most interesting chemistry with Tiber. Yet it appears that Lee would rather have us take notice of Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the main Woodstock organizer. I actually found Groff to be annoying in his portrayal of Lang. Perhaps I was just uncomfortable at the sight of a bare chested hippie but Groff gives Lang this unwarranted and nearly overdone enthusiasm about practically everything. He gives a "wow" or "gosh" to just about every situation that arises while planning the concert.

The other character that I think people will find the most interesting and engaging would be Vilma (Liev Schreiber). Yet it is not because of Vilma's interactions with Elliot (as is the case with Yasgur) but instead Vilma just stands out thanks to Schreiber's convincing portrayal. The character is a former marine turned transvestite that is humorously hired for security. This leads to a few entertaining situations but there is one moment that I'd rather let viewers discover that speaks to his/her character in a very unique way. Even though the interaction between the Elliot and Vilma is not the most interesting, Vilma has a very important impact on how Tiber lives his life. Towards the end of the film, Tiber gives into his feelings and defies his parents while completely stepping out of the closet so that he can be at peace with himself. Yes, this goes along with the theme of peace that Woodstock brought about but I feel Lee still doesn't fully grasp the metaphor.

Like I said before, Lee is just not grand enough in his depiction of Woodstock. Although there are several other good performances (forgot to mention Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Emile Hirsch, and Paul Dano), the film is primarily a biopic about Elliot Tiber and his own personal struggle that would've been enhanced if Lee went the path of Wadleigh and actually used the concert itself as a perspective.


Whiteout was originally a graphic novel created by writer Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber for Oni Press. The film version directed by Dominic Sena (Gone In Sixty Seconds, Swordfish) adheres surprisingly very close to the plot of the comic book. There are a few changes in story and character, but they are all frankly expected and necessary for adapting the work from one medium to another. Yet there was something about how Rucka built up the suspense on each page and how Lieber picked a specific image frozen in time to showcase (because after all, a comic book is simply the textual aspect of a novel and the aesthetic aspect of a film). Whiteout is much more special because of the advantages of the comic book medium that Rucka chose to use. On the other hand, as a film, Whiteout is something that is conventional and nothing all that special. Under the influence of other filmmakers, perhaps something interesting could be achieved but instead we are treated with a murder tale that is highly convenient. 

The whole film is practically the pilot episode for a procedural drama that one would find on CBS. Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is a U.S. marshal working as the supervisory agent at a science research base in Antarctica. Her job there has been routine until a graphic murder is committed. We are treated with flashbacks and slow motion, the kind that we see Gil Grissom or Horatio Caine walk around to on the CSI shows. The villain is apparently made all the more scary because he walks around with a pick-axe (and Stetko doesn't feel like shooting him I guess). The original story when published as a monthly felt reasonable yet here I can't help but feel that some of the factoids about Antarctica are incorrect. I'm pretty sure that visibility would be significantly less (as Tom Skerritt's character points out, but I guess he was just speaking to pass time) and I'm also sure that Kate Beckinsale's lips would be chapped from the snow. In fact, the beauty of Kate Beckinsale is one of the few reasons to see this film, past that it is truly a predictable experience and a huge disappointment for those who've come to see Stetko as one of the most formidable and independent female characters in comic books.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Joel (Jason Bateman) is one of the more desperate characters that I've seen in film recently. He owns a flavor extract plant which he operates from his cozy office even though he often has to step out to deal with a variety of matters. He is clearly more reactive than proactive, but a wild set of problems lead Joel to having to change his ways and redeem himself in his own eyes. Mike Judge perfected the "guy-who-is-a-jerk thinks his job is the problem but it turns out the guy-who-is-a-jerk is the problem" formula with Office Space, and this time he tries the same thing but by switching white collar workers with blue collar workers. This leads to a series of one-dimensional characters and typical set-ups with the characters all at least sharing one common trait, that they are idiots (reminiscent of Judge's film Idiocracy). 

Joel's partner at the plant (played by J.K. Simmons) can't be bothered to learn anyone's name, Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) loses a testicle in a freak accident, Mary (Beth Grant) is a racist who berates the plant's spanish-speaking employees, and Rory (T.J. Miller) only really uses the workers at the plant to gather an audience for his band's gigs. On the home front, Joel is married to Suzie (Kristen Wiig) who is no longer into having sex with her husband and there is also his annoying neighbor (David Koechner) who seems to be under the impression that he and Joel are friends. Matters become complicated for Joel when a con-artist named Cindy (Mila Kunis) uses Step's testicle incident as an excuse for him to sue the company as means for getting money.

The characters sound like they'd make a great ensemble cast for a TV show similar to The Office, but as interesting as these characters might seem, they are really too typical and if anything they are borderline stereotypes. The movie clearly aims to be funny but even with the good acting, the story never gets too uniquely dramatic or comedic for any of the actors to really flesh out their characters more. There are two exceptions, Clifton Collins Jr. continues to establish himself as a character actor while Ben Affleck turns in the most humorous performance of the film as Joel's drug-loving friend, Dean (this leads to a scene that may include the longest bong hit every captured on film). On the down side, David Koechner and Gene Simmons (as Step's lawyer) both phone in their performances but I suppose the intent of having those characters in the story is to annoy Joel (and they really end up annoying the audience). 

Stuck somewhere in the middle is Mila Kunis (who when I last saw her, was playing a very engaging character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Kunis's character is a mischievous girl who uses her sexuality to get what she wants but the conclusion for her character (which mirrors Joel's redemption) seems to come out of nowhere unless she somehow realized how wrong her ways were while being off-screen.

Overall, the film just suffers greatly from a general lack of focus. I was still happy to see Bateman in a lead role as it reminded me of his Arrested Development days. The film is just so unconvincing that all of the effort these enjoyable actors possess, just goes to waste.

Monday, September 7, 2009


The premise of Gamer is that several years into the future, incarcerated criminals on death row are given a 'get-out-of-jail-free-card' if they participate in thirty sessions of a real-time combat scenario. During these sessions, they are controlled by a video-game player who is relaxing in the comfort of their own homes as if you are playing Call of Duty with real people. If these hardened killers survive those thirty sessions, they can be allowed to walk free. However, it is pretty rare that a felon survives long enough, but Kable a.k.a John Tillman (Gerard Butler) is close to being the first inmate to ever be set free. Along with his player, a young boy named Simon (Logan Lerman), Kable is very close to winning but he becomes aware of a conspiracy involving the technology in the game which will be employed by the game's creator, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), to... well, pretty much just take over the world and have everyone under his control.

Gamer is a high concept film and yet the directing duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Pathology) once again decide to simply fool around with the premise without achieving any emotional connection between the characters and the audience. That is perhaps why I can't fault the acting for being so bad (and this film has a very interesting ensemble cast that also includes Aaron Yoo, Alison Lohman, Terry Crews, Ludacris, Kyra Sedgwick, John Leguizamo, Keith David, and Amber Valletta) since after all, the material is just so shallow that there truly is nothing for the actors to work with. Many topics involving video games and their cultural and technological impact are touched on in a way that might make some take notice of those topics, but the film does very little to come to any conclusion about the methodology or psychology of video-gaming. There are moments where I'm almost sure that the film wants to criticize the constant violence that takes place in video game content and how it makes human beings less adept with social skills (we see this with the real-world game called Society) and yet the film doesn't go anywhere with the talking points it showcases because after all, the film is at the end of the day a depiction of a violent action-packed blood-sport.

The film is essentially if Paul W.S. Anderson or Michael Bay had made Tron only I think Neveldine/Taylor aren't even as skilled with how they present their subject matter as their fellow action directors (and I mean that as an insult to the likes of Anderson and Bay). The cinematography of the film is meant to act like a video-game with static and fast-cutting and zooming in-and-out several times during a single shot. Those with a weak-stomach may find this headache inducing and if you couple the look of the film with the nonsensical subject matter, you are left with a very poor criticism of the social niche that video-games have introduced to society.