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last update 30.Sep.07
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December Boys   3/5  
december boys With a strongly emotional tone, this low-key Australian coming-of-age drama is beautifully filmed and acted. Although it does lay on the nostalgia rather thickly.

In an Outback orphanage in the 1960s, the four boys born in December are like a family within the family. As a gift, they're given a holiday to the coast, staying with a retired seaman (Thompson) and his wife (McQuade). On the beach, they meet a young childless couple (Stapleton and Hill) that would make perfect parents, so Misty, Spark and Spit (Cormie, Byers and Fraser) start competing for their affection. Meanwhile, older boy Maps (Radcliffe) is distracted by another neighbour, the blonde teen Lucy (Palmer).

There's a powerful autobiographical tone to this film, which uses wistful anecdotes to tell its story, including a Wonder Years-style narrator and a present-day coda. The problem is that this also makes the film feel rather pointless and empty, like a glowing memory that has very little relevance to anyone else besides the general idea that, at some point, all of us have had to figure out who we are regardless of our backgrounds.

The production design is strong, with a nice sense of light and shadow on the sunbaked coastline. The gorgeous beach and surrounding hills and cliffs offer plenty of scope for boyish exploration and discovery, mainly of the female variety (one of them faints when they see Hill sunbathing topless), while Stapleton's motorbike rider offers another kind of thrill. There's also a heavy dose of quirkiness in the local residents, a mythical sea creature and a horse that catches fish for the local cats.

The young actors dive into their roles, and it's great to see Radcliffe leave Harry Potter completely out of the frame, but the film is so gentle and sweet that it's impossible to really engage with anyone. Dark plot turns and comical set pieces mix uneasily with the muted relationships and earnest life lessons. And the variety of rather random story threads all lead back into a heartwarming, wondrous longing for youth and much simpler times. It's a nice look at what makes a family but, for a movie about childhood memories, it's rather forgettable.

dir Rod Hardy
scr Marc Rosenberg
with Daniel Radcliffe, Lee Cormie, Christian Byers, James Fraser, Jack Thompson, Teresa Palmer, Sullivan Stapleton, Victoria Hill, Frank Gallacher, Ralph Cotterill, Kris McQuade, Max Cullen
palmer and radcliffe release UK/US 14.Sep.07,
Aus 20.Sep.07
07/Australia Village 1h45
12 themes, innuendo
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The Inheritance   3.5/5  
the inheritance Moody and evocative, this brief Scottish feature shows real talent both behind and in front of the camera. Its short running time and bleak tone might limit it to the festival circuit, but as a calling card, it doesn't get much better than this.

In an Edinburgh churchyard, two brothers meet after their father's funeral: Fraser (Sivewright) is darkly resentful that he was left caring for Dad while the even angrier David (Barrow) ran off to London. Their father (Hardy in a flashback) has left them an enigmatic letter containing a key that will open up their inheritance on the Isle of Skye. So off they go in Dad's old VW van. But even while travelling together, they find it difficult to escape their bitterness. And when they pick up a hitchhiker (Toner) it gets even worse.

The tension between these two characters is almost overpowering, played with a realistic offhandedness by both actors, with dialog that often feels improvised. They have reasons for being so furious with each other, and yet there's also that unspoken brotherly bond that they can't quite escape. Barrow makes David into such a fiery grouch that he's not easy to like, while Sivewright's brooding Fraser is slightly more sympathetic, but not much. And Toner adds an intriguing edge as the interloper who both softens them and stirs the pot.

With the unreliable red van driven by men in black suits, it's almost like a drunken, Scottish Little Miss Sunshine meets the Blues Brothers. The blackly comical tone gets increasingly bleak, even as the scenery turns more spectacular as they reach the Highlands and Skye. Although the weather gets seriously grisly. Cinematographer Chris Beck captures the imagery with an impressive eye for detail, accompanied by Fiona Rutherford's evocative score.

Director Bellville assembles this with an assured hand, establishing a compellingly moody tone that draws us into the stew of grief and anger, plus an elusive spark of hope. Near the end, the plot takes a couple of turns that are somewhat simplistic or vicious--and more like the climactic gut-punch of a short film than a feature. But it's shot and edited with so much skill and inventiveness that the microscopic budget becomes a non-issue. These are definitely actors and filmmakers to watch.

dir Charles Henri Belleville
scr Tim Barrow
with Fraser Sivewright, Tim Barrow, Imogen Toner, Tom Hardy
barrow and sivewright release UK Sep.07 rff
07/UK 1h02

15 themes, language, violence
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The Killing of John Lennon   3.5/5
the killing of john lennon There's a creepy tone to this subtle thriller that really gets under our skin, as the filmmaker painstakingly recreates the last three months before Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon. It's thoroughly disturbing but so psychologically complicated that it really makes us think.

During the presidential campaign in September 1980, 25-year-old Mark Chapman (Ball) develops an unsettling obsession with phoniness, voraciously reading The Catcher in the Rye and settling on John Lennon as a symbol of the problem with society. How can a millionaire ask us to "imagine no possessions"? Mark's wife (Omori) and mother (Fairchild) don't take this obsession seriously, even when he abruptly quits his job, buys a gun and leaves his Honolulu home for New York City. On 8 December, he guns down Lennon in the doorway of his apartment building.

The film doesn't end there; it follows Chapman to Bellevue and Attica, where his mental state degrades further into fantasy. And this full arc of madness is seriously chilling, played to perfection by Ball, who brings to mind the brilliant film portrayals of Eric Bana in Chopper and Charlize Theron in Monster. Like those two films, this isn't a sympathetic dramatisation; it merely shows us the complexity of the person at the centre of the story, forcing us to see a human being behind the villain.

Piddington shot completely at the original locations using only dialog from the public record. This attention to detail gives the film an unsettling authenticity that's echoed in the unfussy, almost home-video production style and understated performances. Several scenes echo Scorsese's Taxi Driver, one of Chapman's other inspirations, while the constant voiceover (taken from Chapman's interviews) gives us chilling insight into his the mind of a stalker.

This is a man in the grip of a dark internal frenzy, unable to make a clear decision or to sort out his feelings for his family, strangers and the world at large. None of this excuses his actions, but it does make us think about how society deals with people like this. And it also asks hard questions about our celebrity-obsessed culture, which glorifies our heroes' hypocrisy and encourages us all to become stalkers.

dir-scr Andrew Piddington
with Jonas Ball, Mie Omori, Krisha Fairchild, Robert C Kirk, Thomas A McMahon, Joe Abbate, Sofia Dubrawsky, James Hadde, Collin Martin
ball release UK 7.Dec.07
US 4.Jan.08
06/UK Works 1h54

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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Shrooms   3.5/5
shrooms With a fairy tale atmosphere and a standard slasher style, this creep-out thriller isn't perhaps as frightening as it could be, but it's still thoroughly entertaining, right up to the twisty finale.

Five American university students head off for a magic mushroom camping trip in Ireland. Tara (Haun) is looking forward to seeing her Irish boyfriend Jake (Huston), who has made all the arrangements. Holly (Greczyn) is looking forward to partying with her stoner boyfriend Troy (Kasch). And Lisa (Hazen) is trying to keep her musclehead boyfriend Bluto (Hoffman) away from the other girls. But there's an abandoned Catholic school near the campsite, creepy neighbours (McGinley and Wycherley) and a local mythology involving murderous priests and ghostly children. And these stories only get scarier when you're high on shrooms.

From the moment it starts, we know exactly what kind of film this is: a group of carefree young people head off into the woods, joking and teasing and ignoring all the menacing signs around them. Red herrings appear at every turn, and yet we know there's something real out there waiting to pounce. So by the time the dumbest one in the group gets it, we are less horrified than glad that the carnage has finally begun.

That said, at least there's an attempt to introduce characters beyond mere stereotypes, not that it makes us care about them any more. But the six central cast members are likeable and engaging enough that we at least hope they die in the correct order. Haun gets the meatiest role by far, as the one who inadvertently munches on a shroom that offers premonitions, visions and, potentially, a heart attack. While Kasch and Hoffman get the lively lad roles as boys with one thing on their minds. And we know what that leads to.

Director Breathnach assembles the elements skilfully, with a nice mix of lush Irish greenery and grainy freak-out cutaways. Into this mythically misty forest, he intriguingly stirs in imagery reminiscent of J-horror movies (such as jerky women with long black hair), trippy drug-induced weirdness and that old abandoned-school chestnut. Not to mention a talking cow. So it's a pity that the whole thing, while consistently enjoyable, isn't remotely scary.

dir Paddy Breathnach
scr Pearse Elliott
with Lindsey Haun, Jack Huston, Alice Greczyn, Max Kasch, Maya Hazen, Robert Hoffman, Sean McGinley, Don Wycherley, Toby Sedgwick
creczyn, hazen and haun release UK 23.Nov.07
07/Ireland Capitol 1h26

edinburgh film fest
18 themes, language, violence, drugs
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2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall