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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

SpIFF 2014 will open like a ‘Rocket’

We're less than a week from the opening of the 2014 edition of the Spokane International Film Festival, which will hold its premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday at AMC's River Park Square Theatres. I reviewed that opening-night movie, "The Rocket," for Spokane Public Radio. The transcript follows:

On page 37 of the official “How to Put on a Film Festival in YOUR Hometown” handbook, it states – and I quote – “Always make sure that your opening-night movie appeals to the largest segment of your audience possible.”

Not that I’ve ever studied the handbook. Though – and this is full disclosure, here – I’m a board member of the annual Spokane International Film Festival, I’ve only ever glanced at the handbook, and even then mostly just looked at the pretty colored pictures. I leave those kinds of chores to festival director Pete Porter, whose day job sees him teaching film and theater at Eastern Washington University.

And Prof. Porter seems to have done his job well for 2014’s festival – which we refer to under its somewhat precious nickname of SpIFF – because this year’s opening-night movie, “The Rocket,” certainly has a little something for movie fans of most, if not all, ages.

If you haven’t already heard, this year’s festival – which, over its 10-day run, includes 20 feature and 34 short films from 25 countries – begins on Thursday. “The Rocket,” Australia’s Academy Awards foreign-language entry, will play at 7 p.m. at AMC River Park Square, with a reception to follow at Kress Gallery. For ticket and other information, go online at spokanefilmfetival.org or call (509) 720-7743.

Regarding “The Rocket,” though it was written and directed by Australian filmmaker Kim Mordaunt, it has little in common with most films hailing from that continent. Mordaunt, whose 2007 documentary feature “Bomb Harvest” involved bomb disposal and Laotian children who collect bomb parts to sell for scrap metal, takes again to Laos’ backwoods. But this time he tells a fictional story that involves both tradition and superstition, harks back to the Vietnam War, tells a coming-of-age tale, includes an homage to the Godfather of Soul James Brown, engages in some magical realism, all while managing to be the kind of movie whose biggest explosion is not of pain and anguish but of unabashed joy.

Central to the story is 10-year-old Ahlo, whose birth as the elder of a set of twins almost ended in a quick death. Spared because his sibling dies naturally, and because his mother begs her mother-in-law for mercy, Ahlo nevertheless lives his life under a cloud of suspicion: Will he bring good, or bad, luck?

The answer seems to be obvious when Ahlo’s family is displaced from their mountain farm because of a dam project. During the move, a fatal accident occurs. Then the government, promising a bright new life, dumps them on the edge of what looks like a garbage dump. Trying to improve things for his remaining family, Ahlo makes their lives even worse – again drawing the ire of his unforgiving grandmother.

He ends up befriending an orphaned girl, cared for by her drunk of an uncle – a former Laotian soldier who embodies the movie’s James  Brown obsession. Their support energizes Ahlo and propels him to find ground to replant both his family and the mango seeds that his mother told him came from a 400-year-old tree.

Buoyed by the lush Southeast Asian scenery – Mordaunt shot his movie in both Laos and Cambodia – and set to an atmospheric music score, “The Rocket” truly is a fitting opener for Spokane’s annual celebration of film.

Just as the handbook dictates.