Visionaries: "Taking Woodstock" filmmakers Ang Lee and James Schamus have successfully tackled a wide variety of stories. (Pictured here: Eugene Levy and Demetri Martin; photo by Ken Regan, courtesy Focus Features)

Lee, Schamus and Woodstock

Dennis Harvey August 27, 2009

Traversing an extraordinary thematic and cultural range in less than two decades, Ang Lee and his writing-producing partner James Schamus have arguably never made a bad movie—possibly excepting Hulk, their sole attempt so far at the megabudget Hollywood blockbuster. (The answer to "Is there anything they can’t do?" may thus be, "Well, that.")

So the critical stakes are perhaps unfairly high whenever they complete another feature. Taking Woodstock premiered at Cannes this May to underwhelming response, flagged not so much as a failure as an underachiever. People expecting a definitive statement on the historical event were offput by its loose, rambling Altman-esque ensemble narrative, which focuses on aspects way behind the scenes—never even coming near the legendary rock festival’s stage and its fabled acts. Instead, the script centers on a poky upstate, New York burg’s upheaval when young gay Manhattanite Elliot (newcomer Demetri Martin) tries to help out his parents’ struggling Catskills motel by securing local permits for what turns out to be the signature music and cultural event of what we now call "The Sixties."

Based on Eliot Tiber’s memoir, the movie surrounds its dramatized Eliot with an ever-growing array of colorful characters, from his long-suffering pa (Henry Goodman) and near-insufferable ma (Vera Drake’s Imelda Staunton) to a wigged-out Vietnam vet (Emile Hirsch), a bewigged Manhattan drag queen (the surprisingly cast Liev Schreiber), and one entire nudist experimental theater troupe.

Some plot strands stay undeveloped over Woodstock’s digressive course, and those anticipating seeing Jimi and Janis impersonators are out of luck. But taken on its own terms, the movie is sweetly insinuating and a true reflection of the era portrayed. It also has one of the subtlest, most knowing depictions of an LSD trip ever shot.

This new release provides an opportunity to look back on Lee and Schamus’ very impressive, diverse screen resume. Ergo, below is SF360’s own highly subjective/critical guide to their features so far, all of which are readily available on DVD:

Pushing Hands (1992) Lee and Schamus’ first feature was this quietly assured drama about a retired Tai Chi master (Sihung Lung) who moves in with his Americanized son in upstate New York, then deals not only with cultural displacement but a hostile daughter-in-law. While a commercial non-starter here, Hands got noticed—and Lung, who appeared in several of the team’s subsequent films, won Taiwan’s "Golden Horse" Best Actor award.

The Wedding Banquet (1993) A significant arthouse hit, this charming seriocomedy avoids all the sitcomish predictability risked by its premise: A young Thai Chinese man happily living with an Anglo partner consents to marrying a female Chinese immigrant artist in order to fool his very traditional parents, who have no idea he’s gay.

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) The third in what might be considered a trilogy about intergenerational conflicts between Taiwanese parents and their Westernizing children, this agreeable foodie ensemble piece shifts the focus to the women. A master chef’s three adult daughters, still living under taciturn daddy’s roof, each itch to find their own independence. This is one of those movies that, among its other virtues, sends viewers ravenously in search of meals like those prepared onscreen.

Sense and Sensibility (1995) The "What can’t he do?" line about Lee commenced when Emma Thompson unexpectedly tapped him for her adaptation of Jane Austen’s genteel 19th-century comedy of manners. The result was a "Merchant-Ivory type movie" many considered better than those by the costume kings themselves. Thompson’s script—the only one to date Lee has directed that didn’t involve Schamus—won the Oscar.

The Ice Storm (1997) Rick Moody’s novel became a corrosive Me Decade portrait on film, telling a tale of parents and kids alike recklessly experiencing with sex, drugs and drink in affluent 1973 suburban Connecticut. Featuring one of the creepiest swingers’ parties in movie history.

Ride with the Devil (1999) This undersung, beautifully detailed Civil War epic is better than the similar Cold Mountain, but apparently wasn’t starry or spectacle-oriented enough for audiences. Thus it wound up being a $35 million production that grossed a disastrous mid-six figures at the box office. Lee and Schamus weren’t happy with the studio-mandated release edit; perhaps their director’s cut coming to DVD early next year will finally give Devil its due.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) After so many varyingly scaled but always character-focused efforts, the duo didn’t seem natural candidates for a full-on, highly physical martial arts fantasia. But this international smash brought depth, humor and stylistic vigor to the genre, winning over viewers who’d normally disdain flying fisticuffs—or shrink from subtitles.

Hulk (2003) An even greater leap was this one into CGI-laden, Marvel Enterprises-endorsed popcorn superhero-dom. Despite some interesting visual ideas approximating comic-book style, the ambitious attempt to combine emotional heavy lifting of Greek tragedy-like humorlessness with a giant green thing running around smashing things just didn’t work. Adding insult to injury, just five years later Marvel unleashed The Incredible Hulk, which wasn’t a sequel but basically a start-over.

Brokeback Mountain (2007) Lee and Schamus more than bounced back with their flawlessly nuanced version of Annie Proulx’s short story about two male ranch hands who meet in 1963 Wyoming. They’re made for each other—but it’s a love doomed by the times and milieu. Lee won his first directing Oscar, and there was a bit of an uproar when Crash sneaked up to nab Best Picture. Said it before, I’ll say it again: Brokeback was robbed.

Lust, Caution (2005) In occupied Shanghai during World War II, a young drama student (Wei Tang) is recruited to seduce a high-ranking Japanese official (Tony Leung) and set him up for assassination. This lengthy tale of intrigue certainly deserved the notoriety won by its graphic sex scenes, but most viewers found the story’s emotional side rather frigid.