It Might Get Woodstock (Weekly Links)


Avoiding the brown acid, Taking Woodstock.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week. No press screenings for Halloween II or The Final Destination.

Taking Woodstock. “Good vibes prevail.”

It Might Get Loud. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Ah, it sounds like a great idea: hold a guitar-god summit with virtuosos from three generations of rock, and put them in a room with an amp.

That’s the notion behind “It Might Get Loud,” but the face-to-face meeting between the maestros is awkward. Maybe when music is your first language, conversation is a distant second—or maybe you have to be a little cracked, a little warped, to be this good at the mystery of making music. The three are Jimmy Page, the legendary lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin; The Edge, of U2; and Jack White, of the White Stripes. Thankfully, the documentary includes more than just the three of them facing each other in a room.

Director Davis Guggenheim, who won a rather generous Oscar for the illustrated global-warming lecture “An Inconvenient Truth,” delves into the backstories of each musician. The common thread is that each began by wanting to create something new—something different from the prevailing rock sound of his time. Page comes across as a still-childlike absentminded professor—but you have to love the guy for his continued devotion to an old 45 of Link Wray’s “Rumble,” which he plays as an example of a guitar sound he reached for in youth. The movie doesn’t do Page any favors by including a film clip from “This is Spinal Tap,” a parody that drew quite a bit from Led Zep-style excess. He does sound like he might wander over and tune his amp to 11, but the guy can still make “Whole Lotta Love” sound like a wall of noise.

The Edge comes across as the most human of the three, a real person who thinks deeply about social concerns. He also talks about his use of technological gimmickry to create giant sonic canvases, demonstrating what a tiny U2 riff sounds like without gonzo amplification.

Jack White is full of youthful, back-to-basics brio; in the beginning of the film we see him thumbtack together a guitar out of plywood. His oddball persona is one reason the three-way summit seems stilted, but he sure does fascinating things with music. Even if that conversation doesn’t come off (maybe it needs a skilled moderator—the Jack Black character from “School of Rock”?), “It Might Get Loud” has undeniable appeal for guitar freaks. And arriving just a few days after the death of electric guitar fountainhead Les Paul, it stands as a tribute to the signature sound of the plugged-in era in music.

Lorna’s Silence. “No escape from past actions.”

The Answer Man. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

In the world of “The Answer Man,” the name Arlen Faber has a magic, forbidden ring to it, like J.D. Salinger: he’s a famous, zillion-selling author who dropped completely off the map after early success. In Arlen Faber’s case, that success is intensified by the religious nature of his book, an opus titled “Me and God.” In it he recounted a conversation he had with god in which much wisdom was imparted.

That was 20 years ago, and Arlen, played by Jeff Daniels, hasn’t written anything since. In fact, he’s a cranky recluse, refusing to do interviews or readings—he won’t even identify himself to his postman. This disappearing act is difficult to maintain, because his book is still selling like hotcakes. But the embittered writer is driven out of his Philadelphia townhouse by persistent back pain. When the chiropractor turns out to be a chipper single mom (Lauren Graham), well, you can kind of write the rest of the movie yourself. For a subplot, toss in a used-bookstore owner (Lou Taylor Pucci) trying to stay sober, who needs the advice of the great writer.

“The Answer Man,” which was known as “Arlen Faber” when it played at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is written and directed by a first-timer, John Hindman. You want to root for this movie, just because its subject isn’t common. But Hindman doesn’t find a way to keep it fresh.

Jeff Daniels is an actor who deserves bigger roles than he generally gets, and he can flourish when he goes against his regular-Joe looks (as he proved as the shifty father in “The Squid and the Whale”). And Arlen should be a meaty part, affording many loud opportunities (and a few quiet ones) for an actor: The guy must have some wisdom in him, but most of the time he’s an irritable jerk.

But by the time Arlen reveals his closet full of old monster models, it was clear the movie had a more cut-and-dried concept of him. Hmm, perhaps keeping his monsters in hiding is a way of demonstrating Arlen’s refusal to acknowledge his own fears and demons? The movie, well meaning as it is, plays like that, a literal-minded talkfest. Even the big chance for Daniels can’t save it.

Burma VJ. “A gripping documentary.”

Arid Lands. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

At first “Arid Lands” comes on like a standard history of an interesting event: the moment when an area on the Columbia River near the town of Hanford, Washington, was abruptly commandeered for a gigantic government project. The nature of the project was secret, but it turned out to be the development of plutonium for an atomic bomb. That’s a great story, but the film gets even better after this history lesson. It explores the way the Hanford area has mutated through different phases in the years since the Manhattan Project changed everything.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation displaced a couple of local towns and quite a few Native Americans; it also brought thousands of workers to the area, to say nothing of massive quantities of nuclear waste. In fact, the waste left behind is responsible for the current boom around Hanford and the Tri-Cities area. The U.S. government is spending 2 billion dollars a year on the toxic clean-up, and new settlements have been creeping out into once-uninhabited land. Not that such makeovers are new: as the film points out, ever since the dams of the 1930s began to harness the rivers, these vast stretches of brown sagebrush have been transformed.

And so have the once-wild rivers, of course. An entire eco-system of salmon is now changed, and so you have the bizarre spectacle of the trucking and barging of salmon downriver to hasten their journey around the dams. Irrigation created room for farmers, and lately it has created room for vintners—the warm weather and stable water supply is ideal for grapes. The farmers seem to regard these Merlot-sipping newcomers with skepticism, but hey, they all drink from the same well.

Filmmakers Grant Aaker and Josh Wallaert collected dozens of interviews with experts and locals, all with different points of view. Among the anecdotes is a man describing what it’s like to be on the controlled Columbia at night when it rises two feet in a few hours, the better to supply Portland with more electricity. Another observer notes that the area itself is teeming with folks who regularly espouse anti-government views—without seeming to realize that the entire desert region owes its habitable existence to giant government projects, from the dams to the nuclear plant.

“Arid Lands” won the Best Film award at last year’s Local Sightings Film Festival at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum. It’s a valuable and (thanks in part to a cool song soundtrack) evocative addition to Northwest storytelling.

And I’ll be on KUOW-FM this afternoon talking about Woodstockian liberation movies (and again with the KUOW on Monday morning at 10 for a back-to-school special).

Movie Diary 6/24/2009

It Might Get Loud (Davis Guggenheim, 2009). Interesting idea – put three generations of rock guitarists in a room for a summit meeting – although we spend less time in the room than we do tracking some conventional how-they-got-here background material. The three are Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White; the most human of the bunch is The Edge.

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009). It sounds like the same old thing: aging kvetch (this time played by Larry David), worried about germs and death, irresistible to very young women. Right? But Allen’s timing is back, and if this were a movie by a young unknown filmmaker I think it would look pretty good. (full review 7/3)

Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy, 2008). From the first minute you can see that a crafty filmmaker is at work; not content to lean on the spectacularly empty Kazakh steppes, Dvortsevoy shows a talent for deadpan humor and a touch with actors. (full review 6/26)