Taking Woodstock (2009)

You almost wouldn't know, from Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, that a music concert happened 40 years ago in Bethel, New York. The movie, based on Elliot Tiber's memoir, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life remains almost entirely on the periphery of that watershed festival. Music is occasionally heard, drifting across fields and forests to reach The El Monaco Motel, a shabby, rundown establishment operated (barely) by the Teichberg family in White Lake, NY. Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and Jake Teichberg (Henry Goodman) are Russian Jews; she's penny-pinching and greedy, chasing off potential customers with unkempt rooms and extra fees for towels. Jake putters around the property -- if he's doing any maintenance, it doesn't much show. Their son Elliot (Demetri Martin) is a closeted interior decorator, forced to move back in with his parents to help them run their motel, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Elliot is also the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, and the organizer of an annual arts festival at which the performances consist mainly of records played over the motel loudspeaker.

When the nearby town of Wallkill pulls the permit for a music festival, Elliott gets the grand idea of hosting it himself. He rings up Woodstock Ventures, introduces Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) to dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy, a hoot), and the rest is history. The El Monaco is soon the bustling headquarters of Woodstock Ventures, and within weeks, a steady stream of hippies are making their way to the fabled "Aquarian Exposition." The locals, depicted as a provincial, insular lot, are none to happy about all the visitors -- they practically greet them with pitchforks and torches (although eventually, there are sandwiches).

Somewhere in there, a concert happened. But Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee and written by James Schamus, isn't really about that. It's about Elliot, and his parents, and the intersection of commerce and art, the uneasy alliance of idealism and capitalism. It's mostly about how Elliott gets his groove on, and lets his hair down, and blooms (a little) among the flower children.

Lee directs Taking Woodstock in a decidedly old fashioned way. It pretty much feels like a 1960s movie in its pacing, and looks like one too. Lee captures the mood and look of the festival -- well, the outer rings of the festival -- frequently evoking Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary Woodstock as the movie follows Elliot through hippie-clogged roads and muddy hills. The movie meanders and drifts fairly aimlessly and inconsequentially, an episodic collage (including several scenes rendered in split screen, as in Wadleigh's doc) of groovy and not so groovy stuff going down. Although there are plenty of reminders that something big is going on in the background, Taking Woodstock is a very small film, a breezy, ironic comedy with a little darkness around the edges. It doesn't so much get back to the garden as get lost -- contentedly, it must be said -- in the weeds. Lee and Schamus don't seem to really have a point to make in Taking Woodstock, and so they don't.

Martin, a standup comedian, gives an extremely low key performance -- Elliot is the center of the story, but he's barely there as a character. Maybe that's on purpose -- Elliot doesn't really know who he is, so we don't know him either. The filmmakers want to make something of Elliot's coming out, but Martin is too wan a presence to carry that much narrative and metaphorical weight (there are awkward allusions to the Stonewall riots, which happened only months earlier, and to connections between the Age of Aquarius and the dawning of the gay rights movement). Vilma (Liev Schreiber), a burly, ex-Marine transvestite who wanders into the El Monaco and stays on as director of security, serves as a gay confidant to Elliot. Schreiber plays against stereotype, and makes Vilma a macho man in a pink dress. On the one hand, Schreiber's portrayal is strong and interesting enough to make Vilma substantial and vivid despite the underwritten script. On the other hand, Vilma is not the only potentially interesting character to get pushed to the periphery while the film makes too much of money-grubbing Sonia and anxious Elliot. Others seem to have been left largely on the cutting room floor, like Elliot's pal Billy (Emile Hirsch), a vet who returned from Vietnam burned-out and deeply disturbed. Billy is so sketchy, and is given so little screen time that he seems more cliché than character. Groff makes a strong impression despite relatively little screen time. He portrays promoter Lang as an almost comically calm, angelic creature, a curly-haired hippie knight who travels by helicopter and by horse, and a shrewd capitalist-idealist who rides in and saves the El Monaco, for what its worth, and pulls off one of the more fabled events in recent history.

Taking Woodstock is an enjoyable little film that only hints at the bigger story. Sometimes, focusing on a small story gives a better sense of large and momentous events -- we can understand the forest better when we pay attention to the individual trees. That was surely the goal in Taking Woodstock, which looks at a single detail (and a potential future question on Jeopardy!) -- What Catskills motel served as HQ for the Woodstock Festival? -- to tell the tale of a generational groundshift. But the focus of Taking Woodstock is a little too tight, and the rest of the picture a little too diffuse. Taking Woodstock tells the little story -- a little story that's quirky and fun and modestly interesting -- but kind of misses the big picture.


Inglourious Basterds (2009)

In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino rewrites history (and spelling) because, well, he can. The history in question would be the history of World War II, which we moviegoers have been painfully reliving, with brutal realism, since the war ended, I suppose, but especially since Schindler's List upped the ante on tragical realism in war movies. Tarantino is no tragedian, and neither is he especially a realist, so Inglourious Basterds looks with fresh brutality at man's inhumanity to man, but with a twist. This time, the bad guys get what they deserve, at least on a traditional war movie reading of just deserts, and no one stands on principle when it comes to brutalizing and murderizing Nazis.

Or, as Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) calls them, "Natt-seez." Raine leads a small unit of Jewish-American soldiers who have infiltrated Nazi-occupied France, where they wage a guerilla war on the Third Reich. They work for the OSS, and they enjoy their work. Their specialty is scalping the Nazis they kill, and they kill most every Nazi they find. Tarantino has a reputation (undeserved, if you ask me) as a filmmaker whose movies are gratuitously violent. In reality, more violence is implied than is ever seen in his films -- he's too stylized to be blatant or obvious. For a war movie in which revenge against Nazis is a prominent theme, the depiction of violence is quite restrained inInglourious Basterds -- as usual, more is implied than is shown although what is shown is sometimes gruesome and, not shockingly, rather satisfying.

Inglourious Basterds is steeped, as all of Tarantino's films, in cinematic tradition. The title is taken from Italian director Enzo Castellani's film Inglourious Basterds. Aldo Raine's name is meant to invoke movie star Aldo Ray, who starred in numerous war pictures and B-movies. The Basterds (and the plot) call to mind *The Dirty Dozen*, but the film is as much spaghetti Western as it is war movie. Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), an escaped Jew, owns a Parisian cinema that shows the Third Reich's fave actress-turned-mountaineer-turned-director Leni Riefenstahl's The White Hell of Pitz Palü, a film that is referenced again by undercover operative and suave movie critic (aren't they all?) Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender). Eli Roth, director of the Hostel torture/horror movies, plays a Basterd known as the "Bear Jew," a baseball bat-wielding Southie who enjoys beaning Nazis. (Roth is no better an actor than Tarantino, which is to say, not very good at all, but as Shosanna says, "We French respect directors.") That Parisian cinema is the setting for two separate and complicated plots to assassinate Hitler and key members of the Third Reich, as well as a movie premiere featuring a Joseph Goebbels film starring war hero-turned-actor Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who tries to woo Shosanna.

The story begins on a dairy farm in Nazi-occupied France, where Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates a farmer he believes is hiding Jews. Landa, an effete, chatty, and astute monster, is nicknamed the "Jew Hunter." He's highly effective at his job, in part because he enjoys it. Waltz unexpectedly and brilliantly dances away with the movie -- his Landa is a Nazi monster like no other: ironic, self-serving, twee, honorable, ingenious (and of course, utterly evil).

Landa is the nemesis of the movie's heroine Shosanna, after he murders her family. Shosanna is an unlikely siren and object of Nazi affection. For Landa, she's the one that got away. Zoller, a monster of a different sort (and a cinephile in his own right), lavishes unwanted attention on her as well. In several instances, Inglourious Basterds twists cinematic tradition, taking qualities that would traditionally be considered virtues in a movie character (resistance, patriotism, killer marksmanship) and provocatively attaching them to Nazis in a way that forces a reconsideration of the so-called virtue. Shosanna is a calculating and vengeful lady in a red dress (and a propagandist filmmaker and would-be mass murderer), but her cause cannot be called unjust (unless one is a Nazi). This is also true of Raine (a.k.a. "Aldo the Apache") and his Basterds, who are brutal and bloodthirsty, but in the service of justice and retribution. Pitt's performance as the fast-talking, hard-boiled Southerner Raine approaches caricature, with a strong undercurrent of dark humor. It's the kind of mannered performance that complements Tarantino's mannered dialogue in a way that really works.

The meandering plot of Inglourious Basterds winds around sufficiently to incorporate numerous war movie tropes, and combines fact and fiction, movie history and world history, and comes to an utterly satisfying and inflammatory (in more ways than one) conclusion in which film itself is the agent of vengeance and correction (in more ways than one). Inglourious Basterds is fanboy cinephile Tarantino's homage to war movies, westerns, and to pre-war German cinema, but with his own postmodern twist: titles, keening spaghetti western music and grinding rock guitar riffs, and occasional narrative interludes featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson (discussing -- what else? -- pre-war film stocks). There's more too -- as a film that is essentially about Jewish anger and vengeance for the Holocaust, Inglourious Basterds references the ovens at Auschwitz and the tattooing of inmates, but in irreverent, table-turning fashion.

Depending on how much reverence one demands from films about the war and the Nazi atrocities, and whether one believes such films can (or should) be entertaining, Inglourious Basterds is either a film to be taken very seriously, or not seriously at all. Tarantino likes his B-movies, and likes, too, to elevate B-movie conventions to art. He succeeds better sometimes than others, and like a true contrarian, he succeeds better when he reaches higher, and is more ambitious. Inglourious Basterds is ambitious, irreverent, and accomplished. Like a work of high caliber fanfic, it is related to the war movie's canonical universe, and simultaneously exists outside that universe, offering an alternate ending that satisfies our desires with respect to historical reality and with respect to happy (well, more or less happy) movie endings.


District 9 (2009)

If movies have taught us anything, it's that we must beware the aliens who will one day visit us (or perhaps, already have visited us), probes and disintegrating ray guns in hand. With the exception of the occasional chocolate addict like E.T., the alien invaders mean us no good.

But what if it's the other way around? What if it is they who ought to fear us? That's the scenario imagined by South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp in District 9, in which we humans, with our history of murder, deceit, genocide, medical experimentation, speciesism, racism, and exploitation, are the species the rest of the universe ought to give an intergalactically wide berth.

In a documentary-style opening montage, District 9 lays out an entirely plausible and woeful history in which, some time in the 80s, a massive alien ship appeared, and hovered, apparently stalled, over Johannesburg, South Africa. When impatient humans finally breached the ship, they discovered many malnourished aliens aboard. These "prawns," so called because of their vague resemblance to the crustaceans, were in dire straits, and were eventually settled in a vast refugee camp. That was apparently the end of Earth's humanitarian impulses. The camp, known as district 9, eventually became a slum, a shantytown like so many impoverished, dysfunctional, dangerous third world slums, with millions of aliens segregated from their unwelcoming human neighbors. (Insert Apartheid analogy here.) Decades later, the refugees fall into violence, and scavenging, and are preyed upon by violent Nigerian gangsters who exploit their addiction to cat food.

For reasons that become clear as the story progresses, the prawns are to be resettled in a more remote camp, with the dirty work to be done by MNU (Multi-National United), a vaguely evil corporation engaged in various kinds of vaguely evil doings. The bloke in charge of the resettlement is a mild-mannered, nervous, paper pushing bureaucrat named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), whose father-in-law (Louis Minaar) heads MNU. Wikus gets no respect (and earns none) from either his coworkers, or from prawns. Backed by (mostly white) MNU mercenaries, he heads into the camp to serve eviction notices on the prawn residents. Wikus is like so many ordinary citizens throughout history, members of a privileged class who are actively or passively complicit in the persecution of those deemed Other, or Unclean, or Subhuman. And like a few others, Wikus is forced out of his complacency (and into some kind of heroism) by a clanging cognitive dissonance. For Wikus, an incident occurs during his eviction rounds -- without giving too much away, let's just say it is a truly alienating experience. Things subsequently go terribly wrong, and he discovers, to his horror, just what has really been happening to the prawns at the hands of MNU soldiers and doctors.

There are pointedly allegorical and political aspects to District 9, but Blomkamp, who co-wrote the screenplay with Terri Tatchell, doesn't get heavy-handed or preachy about the message embedded in his ingenious and fascinating film. Instead, District 9, in the tradition of the best science fiction and horror genre pictures, integrates thought provoking ideas into a smart, suspenseful, darkly humorous, and thoroughly entertaining movie. District 9 is a cracking good and gruesome horror film that morphs into a fast-paced, action-adventure alien-human buddy picture (with cute-ish alien kid thrown in for good measure).

That alien buddy to Wikus is known as Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), a prawn father who is much more than he appears. Christopher's relationship with Wikus is complex, burdened by a history of mistrust, exploitation, and betrayal, as well as a language barrier (the aliens speak in clicks, translated for the viewer in subtitles). The prawns and humans seem to understand each other about equally, which is to say, only partially. But real communication transcends language, and Wikus and Christopher come to an understanding, and find common ground and purpose, a recognition of their mutual (if not superficially obvious) personhood. The cosmic joke of District 9 is that for the prawns, becoming more human is a degrading experience; for Wikus, becoming a mensch requires a thorough alienation from his humanity.

Moon (2009)

Astronaut Sam Bell logs miles on a treadmill, wearing a t-shirt that reads "Wake me when it's quitting time." It's one of many inside jokes and telling clues in Moon, a compact, spare movie about a man on the moon. Sam (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his three year stint as the sole human occupant of a remote mining operation on the far side of the moon. (Astronomers will quibble because Sam can see Earth from there, which, if I know my astronomy, can't be done from way yonder on the moon.) The station is outfitted with many amusements, but Sam's only companion is GERTY, a roving computer/robot, which speaks in the monotonous, deadpan voice of Kevin Spacey and flashes vaguely inappropriate emoticons on a small screen.

GERTY's kinship with HAL, the homicidal computer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is both clear and ambiguous -- GERTY is apparently friendlier than HAL, but the association is meant to raise warning flags. 2001 is also clearly a forebear of Moon, but where the former was ambitious, tedious, intentionally obscure, and, if you ask me, unbearably dull (it's a movie I have less and less patience for every time I see it), Moon is sprightly and engaging, if far less ambitious. (Moon also calls to mind Douglas Trumbull's terrific film *Silent Running*, both in its ecological theme and in its exploration of the isolation of space and the companionship of robots.)

Rather than being weighed down by ponderousness, Moon suffers more from the weightlessness of brevity. There are several interesting and complex ideas explored in Moon, including science fiction mainstays: human cloning, exploitation, personal identity, human and machine consciousness, freedom, mortality, and fatalism. Any one of them would have been enough for a single movie, so none are explored with as much depth as they might have been. Nonetheless, Moon is satisfying and intriguing.

While Sam anticipates leaving the Moon and seeing the wife and child he left behind on Earth, odd things begin to happen. His physical body starts to deteriorate, and a mysterious replacement worker suddenly appears at the mining station. Not much can be said about Sam's replacement that wouldn't give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that he is also portrayed by Sam Rockwell, and the two astronauts are less simpatico than might be expected. Rockwell's performance is strange (as usual) and marvelously rich, funny, melancholy, and poignant, as he portrays two men who are both compatriots and rivals, buddies and enemies. Sam and Sam's replacement are forced together by odd (very odd) circumstances, isolation, and deception. They were never supposed to meet, but having met, they're forced to confront deeply disturbing questions about who they are and why they exist.

Moon is directed by Duncan Jones (heretofore, but surely not henceforth best known as the son of David Bowie), from a story conceived by Jones and scripted by Nathan Parker. They've taken a futuristic scenario and pared it down to an essentially human drama, then pared it down even more into a one-person drama about, primarily, identity, and in particular that ol' philosophical headscratcher about the persistence of identity over time: what makes you the same you that you were yesterday, or a week ago, or three years ago, when you started your long, lonely night shift on the far side of the moon?

Like much of the best science fiction, Moon also explores the complex relationship between man and technology, and the ways that our essential nature may be threatened by the improvements and efficiencies of a streamlined, technologically enhanced existence. Moon also explores the possibility that it's the other way around, and we humans will always infect the machine perfection of our creations with our all too human imperfections. Are there some improvements we (or the wes we think we are) may not survive? Or will we instead leave our indelible mark -- our human crud and hair, and wear and tear, our emotionalism and sentimentality, wherever and whenever we go -- like the footprints we left, and the flag we planted on the once pristine lunar surface?