2005 SUNDERLAND FILM FESTIVAL :The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,The Woodsman,The Door in the Floor

official site : www.sunderlandfilmfestival.com

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THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN : [5/10] : UK 1988 : Terry Gilliam : 126mins

Until Quixote pic, most famously accursed of Gilliam's many, many (way too many) films maudits. His problem: background as cartoonist/animator, where artist is limited only by power of imagination. Never seems to learn that film is collaborative medium, reliant on getting money from philistine sources. Munchausen case in point: ramshackle, clumsy, over-elaborate pantomime where too much is never, ever enough. Sub-sub-Shandyish tall tales : get-out clause of fanciful inventions / c18 theatrics. Paradoxically, as it goes on increasingly reveals limits of Gilliam's RESTRICTED imagination (as well as uneven budget! some rickety FX). Dated: emphatically of its time (rips off Time Bandits!). Wildly uneven script drags over 2 hours. Clump of late-80s Euro (Brit/Cinecitta) film industry's last legs (Revolution feel!) (fair guess more money spent on siege towers than script). Disastrous Eric Idle pythonism (less said about his wretched contribs better) – Oliver Reed and Robin Williams schtick disastrously indulged. Big pluses are the (then) new faces: 17-y-o U.Thurman, 8-y-o S.Polley… 62-y-o John Neville (first feature since before Thurman born) does valiant best to save the day, but it is enough?

Neil Young
18th February 2005

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THE WOODSMAN : [6/10] : USA 2004 : Nicole Kassell : 87mins

It's now just over a year since The Woodsman had its world premiere at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival – for more than a decade the leading American showcase for home-grown independent cinema. And almost immediately two main talking-points emerged from the picture: its brave treatment of a nightmarishly tricky issue – the rehabilitation of paedophiles – and its central performance by Bacon, whom many critics reckoned had a solid chance of an Oscar nomination for what was widely described as a career-crowning work. But the exact same critics warned that The Woodsman's small scale and the uncomfortable harshness of its subject-matter could well conspire to ensure the film would be overlooked by the Academy.

And so it proved when the nominations were announced: Bacon joined an unusually eminent  'salon des refuses' alongside Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Liam Neeson (Kinsey), Javier Bardem (The Sea Inside) and Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But it would be a mistake to regard The Woodsman as merely a vehicle for its star's long-underappreciated talents – excellent though he is as the taciturn, introverted Walter, recently released after a 12-year prison term. His off-screen wife Sedgwick matches him step for step as the fiercely no-nonsense Vickie, who works as a fork-lift-truck driver at the Philadelphia lumber yard where Walter finds employment.

There are vivid supporting turns from Benjamin Bratt (as Walter's apparently sympathetic brother-in-law, the only family member who hasn't cut him off), rapper Mos Def (as a surly cop) and young Hannah Pilkes in the crucial role of Robin, the pubescent birdwatching schoolgirl whom Walter "befriends" in what is easily the film's most powerful, tense and unpredictable scene. Here, as elsewhere, the performers are given fine service by debutant director Kassell and her script, co-written with Steven Fechter and based on the latter's play. Economic and skilfully handled in all departments, The Woodsman may be a touch too low-key for some tastes, but this is an absorbing, refreshingly restrained and uninflected journey into some genuinely dark psychological waters, nimbly avoiding easy answers and – more importantly – easy questions.
              
Neil Young
14th February 2005
originally rated 7/10, but downgraded after further reflection, 10th Oct 2005

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THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR : [8/10] : Tod Williams : USA 2004 : 120mins

The sprawling novels of bestselling author John Irving have seldom translated especially well to the big screen. The movies made from The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules and even The Hotel New Hampshire all have their moments, but there's often the sense of an unwieldy literary quart being uncomfortably squeezed into a celluloid pint pot. So, it's perhaps unsurprising to find that The Door in the Floor – far and away the most satisfying and accomplished Irving adaptation to date – is based only
on the first third of his book A Widow for One Year, and not the whole shebang.
Their lives blighted by the accidental deaths of their teenage sons in a car crash some years before, affluent couple Ted (Jeff Bridges) and Marion (Kim Basinger) have drifted further and further apart. On the point of divorce, successful children's writer Ted hires bookish student Eddie (Jon Foster) as his summer assistant – and babysitter to precocious young Ruthie (Elle Fanning). The nervous Eddie moves into the family's beachfront Long Island house, and it isn't long before he and Marion become lovers. Complications
ensue – some raucously funny, others powerfully poignant.

Debutant writer-director Tod Williams handles some very tricky shifts of tone with impressively confident aplomb -he's aided no end by the fact that he's able to use one of America's few genuinely great actors (Bridges) at the absolute peak of his powers. But even great actors are only as good as the screenplays they're given, and Williams' complex, subtle script is at least as impressive as his stylish, confident direction. This is high-calibre movie-making for patient, mature audiences: there must be something seriously wrong with the Academy Awards when a pleasing but flawed little picture like Sideways is showered with Oscar nominations while The Door in the Floor – which shades Alexander Payne's picture in almost every department – picks up precisely zip.

Neil Young
14th February 2005

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all films seen at CineWorld cinema, Sunderland : Munchausen and Woodsman on 24th January 2005, Door on 28th January : public shows, 2nd Sunderland Film Festival

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