Collision of the end of summer and the start of fall: massive pileup. Quite separate from the seven new movies that opened in our town last Friday alone, eight more are slated to open this coming Labor Day weekend, not even including the kiddie matinees of Thomas and Friends: Hero of the Rails and Barbie and the Three Musketeers. That works out to two and two-thirds movies per day for the average weekend, or an even two per day with the extra holiday, or one per day if spaced out over the entire week and one still left over. It makes me want to hide my eyes. Through my fingers I’ve managed to see this much….
Taking Woodstock. Ang Lee, evidently still banking on the critical goodwill since Brokeback Mountain, whips up some innocuous nostalgia around the milestone music festival of the summer of 1969, a fortieth-anniversary fictionalized addendum to Michael Wadleigh’s official Woodstock, complete with imitative split-screen effects. This docucomedy, so to call it, centers with gentle condescension on an interior designer and Sunday painter who, as the reluctant heir and caretaker of the tumbledown mom-and-pop El Monaco Motel, happens to possess a permit for an annual (theretofore prerecorded) music festival, happens to extend an unauthorized personal invitation to a dispossessed concert promoter he knew in high school, and, high on weed at a press conference, happens to dispense the misinformation that the concert — Joplin, Hendrix, Cocker, Baez, The Who, et al. — would be free of charge. In tight pants and mop top, Demetri Martin drifts ineffectually and disengagedly from scene to scene in a style that worked, to judge by his ensuing career, for Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Time will tell about Demetri Martin.
Though he twice sets out on foot for the concert stage, he never gets near the music — no nearer than the emblematic mud slide — so that the movie lacks a proper payoff, unless you can count the paint-by-computer acid trip or (cashing in a Brokeback dividend) the homosexual coming-out. It lacks, to put a finer point on it, a sense of purpose, a raison d’être. A few feigned tensions arise along the way — Mafia buttinskies, inhospitable townsfolk, congested traffic — but nothing to derail the prevailing love-in. We get our fill, never fear, of “far out” and “cool” and “groovy” and “heavy,” and we get a handful of hindsight drolleries: “Can you believe it? A dollar for water!” Imelda Staunton, a bulldog in two-toned glasses frames, claims the limelight from both the protagonist and a supporting cast of half a million, in the part of the motel mom, a Russian Jewish immigrant who pinches pennies on a pathological scale (one dollar per towel), an irresistible candidate for a hash brownie. A yardstick, that brownie, of the filmmaker’s docile conventionality.
The Answer Man. The reclusive author (Jeff Daniels) of the best-selling Me and God, cornering “ten percent of the God market,” slowly yet suddenly comes out of his shell at the twentieth anniversary of the book’s publication. Writer and director John Hindman, owing a good deal to As Good As It Gets (although Jeff Daniels is very much his own grump), shies from the big issues in preference for the characters’ individual little eccentricities and frailties, democratically distributed: the overprotective single mother (Lauren Graham), the recovering alcoholic bookstore owner (Lou Taylor Pucci), his unregenerate alcoholic father (Thomas Roy), the fragile chiropractor’s receptionist (Olivia Thirlby), and the ditzy bookstore clerk (Kat Dennings, having little to work with in the way of lines). Some overly broad and forced comedy dents the charm. Like A Woman in Berlin, its next-door neighbor since last Friday at the Reading Gaslamp, this “alternative” offering may reasonably be called Landmark caliber (as I called A Woman… just last week), inasmuch as it was long on the Landmark schedule and long advertised at Landmark theaters. The Gaslamp, in one of its useful functions, played backstop when Landmark threw it away.
World’s Greatest Dad. Pitch-dark comedy, truly (if briefly) switching off the lights midway through, built around a hangdog high-school poetry teacher and unpublished writer, as well as around his more popular and successful rival in the English department (printed in The New Yorker on first try), his sweet-talking secret lover in the art department (“Cupcake,” “Cheesecake,” etc., addressed in turn as “Honeydew Melon,” “Watermelon Sherbet,” etc.), and his nihilistic unreachable sullen son: “Movies are for losers and art fags.” The last-mentioned (the Brillo-haired, potty-mouthed Daryl Sabara), a monstrous mutation of a teenage type, attracts the strongest interest, but he — without giving away too much of the plot — cannot sustain the film. Several of the supporting characters are well and amusingly delineated, but in the title role, Robin Williams, he of the fishhooked mouth and stitched-tight eyes, proves too heavy for the lighter bits and too light for the heavier. His microphone mercifully is cut during his impassioned pitch for the Oscar, letting a muffling pop song carry the emotion. Bobcat Goldthwait, who puts in an appearance uncredited as a Hollywood limo driver, wrote and directed in his fatiguingly combative manner.
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. Documentary disinterment of a half-forgotten (or more than half), and deservedly remembered, radio and television trailblazer, Gertrude Berg, the writer and star of the approachably ethnic sitcom, The Goldbergs. Her warmth emerges even through the degraded broadcast footage (only the final 1955 season comes through sharp and clear), the degradation somehow underscoring the preciousness. Aviva Kempner, who directed The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg about another Jewish trailblazer, makes rather unscrupulous use of archive clips (Chaplin’s The Immigrants, the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts, Jolson in The Jazz Singer, and the like) to get away whenever possible from the talking heads (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Susan Stamberg, Gary David Goldberg, Norman Lear, biographer Glenn Smith, assorted collaborators and descendants). When the chronology runs into the subject of radio, shots of people listening to a radio will illustrate that invention. When the musical theme of the show falls under discussion, a shot of an orchestra will reveal where music comes from. And when a library gets mentioned, there will be shots of libraries for anyone unfamiliar with such institutions. The talking heads dominate, even so.
The Final Destination. To the chain of chain-reaction predestined deaths — fourth installment in the series, even numbers directed by David R. Ellis — is added the amenity of 3-D, which transforms the people into 2-D paper dolls slotted into the middle distance, air in front and air behind. A lot of gore, and a little waiting, in barely an hour and a quarter.