In just the first sixty seconds of Fritz Lang’s silent spy thriller Spione (Spies), the following occurs: a safe is ransacked of its contents, a high-ranking Minister is assassinated in a drive-by shooting, and all-out panic ensues as news of the aforementioned events spreads along telephone wires like wildfire. Who is responsible for these heinous crimes? “Ich,” declares criminal mastermind Haghi (Rudolf-Klein-Rogge, titular lead in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse diptych), revealed to us instantaneously and in full close-up – a devilish goatee accentuating his sinister air – revoking his anonymity for the sole benefit of the viewer. His foes in the Secret Service are, unlike us, none-the-wiser as to his identity; they flail around like headless chickens, in stark contrast to the composed, prepared Haghi, sitting calmly behind his densely populated albeit organised desk as if waiting for nothing less than another successive confirmation of a mission gone entirely to plan.

The modern spy thriller traditionally establishes its heroic protagonist first and foremost, before steadily unravelling a web of conspiracy whose buck stops at an omniscient villain – usually someone we hadn’t guessed. Here, the villain has been introduced from the off, so that the viewer is almost complicit in looking over his shoulder at the ensuing chaos. As the plot circles around a MacGuffin and a tangle of myriad international figures – from honourable Japanese minister Dr Masimoto (Lupu Pick) to the traitorous Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) – it becomes apparent that what Haghi actually wants besides domination is unclear and not necessarily important, thereby placing the focus squarely on the adventurous, romantic qualities of the narrative. Nevertheless, one could feasibly draw on theorist Sigfried Kracauer, supposing that the character of Haghi anticipates a duplicitous authoritarian leader in the vein of Hitler.

Haghi’s unwilling accomplice is Sonja Baranilkowa, whom he charges with the task of fending off his adversary – and her love interest – Agent 326 (Willy Frisch). The latter spy is a far cry from the suave, hardened action heroes of the modern era; he smothers his lady with puppy kisses and sobs over a stiff drink when he fears to have lost her forever. There’s a boyish vulnerability and cluelessness to this man (Sonja always knows more than 326 at any given moment) that seems to have been bled out of the modern action genre in favour of rough or ravishing male leads and meaningless female sidekicks to match. That’s certainly true of the James Bond series, for which Spione is otherwise a clear heavy influence, from the ballroom masquerade, to the spy identified by a three-digit number, to even Haghi himself, an obvious forerunner to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Despite Sonja appearing as an ostensible ‘captive princess’ to Haghi, it’s curious to note that the upper hand in Spione is almost always secured by its women. Colonel Jellusic allows his libido to get the better of him, with fatal consequences; Agent 326 is gamed by Sonja until he rather desperately chases her down the street; even Mitsamuto, equally as prepared as the all-seeing Haghi, has his last-ditch plans outsmarted at the eleventh hour by a new lady-friend. As for Haghi, his formerly fool-proof machinations never appear on such shaky ground as when Sonja begins to assert her free will.

All this human manoeuvring builds a steady momentum that culminates in a train crash, a high-speed car chase, and a bank siege waged against both the clock and an onset of poisonous gas. The script by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, based on her original novel, feeds just enough dialogue and leaves the rest to these images of vehicular carnage and visually distinctive character designs. It’s a remarkable feat, considering the odds against a silent film in a genre since known for its convoluted plotting, but then for audiences in 1928 this would all have seemed as fresh as anything. At two-and-a-half hours, Lang’s penultimate silent feature is a brisk ride through the origin points of beloved spy thriller tropes.

Fritz Arno Wagner’s photography has been restored from a process begun in 2003 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung working from various nitrate copies, the basis of which came courtesy of Národní Filmový Archive in Prague. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format set comes packaged with a 69-minute documentary on the film, and a 40-page booklet containing writing by Murielle Joudet and Jonatham Rosenbaum.

For lovers of music, seeing a great tune put to an image can be an incredible joy. It also works wonders to see a fondness for music really shining through in something. For instance, John Carney’s Once, where a street busker writes and rehearses songs, with an jubilant tone, found a large audience both during its cinematic run, home entertainment release, and then its stage adaptation. Carney made such an impression with Once that to see him return to a musical focus made perfect sense. He writes and directs Begin Again (originally called Can a Song Save Your Life – a more fitting title), a story of a disgraced music producer who finds a great talent in a young singer-songwriter during an open mic-night.

Going from the naturalistic style of Once, with unknown actors, to the Hollywood-produced, huge star ensemble of Begin Again, thinking of Carney selling out could initially be accepted. Almost instantly, however, Begin Again shows that the nuanced sensibilities found in his 2006 feature are still intact. There are some big set-pieces, and luxurious scenes related to the moneyed side of the music industry, but are so obviously highlighted, that they are made to feel out of place alongside the grounded focus. Mark Ruffalo as the lead is an excellent choice to present this ideology – an actor who eases into his roles and always feels like the “everyman”. Keira Knightley regularly falls outside of this spectrum, so glamorous and chic in the media. In this, she loosens up and shines as the blossoming talent that Ruffalo’s Dan discovers. Reconsidering how they present their stars is not the only fascinating aspect of Begin Again, the regular rom-com formula is eschewed whereby love and heartbreak are dealt with entirely realistically.

Balancing a domestic situation between Dan, and his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife (Catherine Keener), a break-up between Knightley’s Gretta and singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), and a production of a live street-recorded album, Begin Again is a compound narrative. Carney never struggles with this, with only minor moments feeling dull or forced. Carney simply has a very measured take on plot and focus, able to cross between arcs without anything seeming inharmonious. And his spotlight on musical creation is always marvellous – the core of this film, and what everything pivots around. The soundtrack is the pulse of the film – with earbugs that will stay with you long after – full of life, keeping you entertained all the way through. It shows the progression of an album with tact, educating on the process and showing you the ebullient time that people must have creating music they love and believe in.

Some may find that Begin Again feels too kitsch in parts, and it never tries to recreate the matter-of-fact aesthetic of Once, leaving it as a polished yet practical film. Performances and music are warm and heartfelt, making it a certain crowd-pleaser. One scene explaining how one song can illuminate the most banal happening is a precious Carney observation, and a sublime, brief piece of cinema. And to leave you with one thought, who could have imagined the star of Lesbian Vampire Killers, James Corden, could steal so many moments away from famed Hollywood actors?

The non-professional actors, verité style and political undertones would already qualify The Golden Dream for Ken Loach comparisons. This claim is complete, however, knowing that director Diego Quemada-Díez was once a cameraman for the British social-realist director. An obvious passion for the life-affirming, straight-talking aspects of Loach, Quemada-Díez brings the story of three Guatemalan immigrants journeying to the US to life with paradoxical raw tenderness.

Moving through the treacherous landscapes of Southern America, The Golden Dream’s best asset is highlighting the dangers of poverty-stricken countries. Viewing that from a teenage perspective adds to the intensity of the mood, where Juan (Brandon López), Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and Sara (Karen Martínez) are in a state of limbo regarding their maturity – they have not yet reached adulthood, yet they have passed the point of needing guidance.

As well as magnifying the “big bad world” fears that the three have whilst travelling, their age also buttresses a notion of innocence and delight. Seeing a large part of the world for the first time – whether it includes dangers or not – is a beautiful experience. Having been a camera operator for Loach and even Alejandro González Iñárritu, Quemada-Díez has a fantastic eye, adorning his film with lush colours and excellent framing.

Beyond the art of the film, the performances capture the spirit of “Viva la…” perfectly, too.As much as the film focuses on turmoil, it also relies on zest for life, of which the main actors reflect. Brandon López is the stand-out performer, showing no signs of being a novice. He is steady and candid in his approach to the journey. Without him the film would lose some of its power, so kudos must be given to casting agent Natalia Beristáin.

Perhaps not a film you could watch too often – it is a movie in the moment – The Golden Dream impacts strongly upon viewing. There is no sheltering element to the story, with very few moments you can latch on to for comfort; this is never something to criticise, instead it is a smart depiction of immigration. Whatever Diego Quemada-Díez goes on to direct next should be significant, having made a great name for himself here.

Traditionally a horror film maker, Jim Mickle takes on Joe R. Lansdale’s Texas set crime noir Cold In July in a sweaty, gore-soaked, testosterone-fuelled thriller. Mickle assembles a vintage cast including Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down) and Don Johnson (Miami Vice, Nash Bridges) along with Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under) in a straight-to-video b-movie exploitation film, that is part True Detective and No Country for Old Men, but without the charm or philosophy.

Set in 1989 we are treated to some retrograde nostalgia where men were (still just about) men, VHS’s ruled the technology roost and synth-filled hair metal ruled the airwaves. While to some that sounds like hell, these factors are used smartly to tell a story and re-create a world that’s not so far away, as the “home movie” become an important plot point and the John Carpenter-esque soundtrack creates a welcome, creepy mood.

The film has some intriguing narrative pieces, initially with home invasion, mistaken identity, normal-guy-turned-local hero tropes, which turn on their head after the first act when Richard (Hall) saves Ben (Shepard)’s life after he has been terrorising his family for believing that Richard killed his son in self-defence. Unfortunately for those who like definable plots though, this more or less renders the first act of the film largely pointless, as the corrupt police chief who put Ben in danger in the first place is entirely forgotten about.

And so the “plot” plods on forgetting details along the way until it reaches it’s inevitable, silly, corner-written-in shoot-out climax. There are plenty of questionable morals in the film, sometimes for the best – the film briefly questions masculinity and the role of men taking danger and risk in a post-war/baby boomer generation world – but also for the worst, as it largely forgets these more interesting ideas for the sake of mindless, heroic action.

While that sort of macho-action thriller has a place, it is frustrating to watch a film that looks like it may do a decent job of questioning those questionable ultra-masculine themes only to succumb to them. Hall as the lead, Richard, doesn’t quite convey enough sympathy (or anything really) to make Richard a particularly engaging character, not helped by how similar his character looks to Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss in the aforementioned Coen Brothers’ pic.

Meanwhile Johnson is fairly ridiculous as the over-reaching detective Jim Bob, but Shepard does a decent job with the troubled father, even if we sort of forget he is an ex-convict after his initially terrifying turn as De Niro from Cape Fear. While the film has some brilliantly tense moments, it fails to really engage, or backup its ideas into anything tangible. By the time of the credits roll, we feel short changed with how much of the spotty narrative has been forgotten about, rather than left intentionally vague.

Adam Turner-Heffer

There is something brilliantly magnetic and potent about seeing photographic stills on the cinema screen. For those brief few moments, time seems to stand still as we take in the details of the scene – almost, perhaps, more powerful than examining a photograph in real life. The new documentary Finding Vivian Maier is an excellent testament to the alluring power of the still image. Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel hone their lens in on the elusive Vivian Maier, a New York nanny in the 60’s and 70’s who left a hidden world of photographs behind, only to be unearthed recently.

Co-director Maloof was the lucky recipient of those photographs. An avid antique lot goer, he chanced upon an unidentified trunk of negatives and duly purchased them, only to find that this lot was not so ordinary. Meticulously scouring through the negatives, he discovered images of great beauty; monochrome street photography that captured life in all its variety. The photographer had an acute eye for composition, a sense of playfulness and an ability to capture their subjects vivacity.  The images feel at once timeless and completely alive. Ladies of leisure are juxtaposed against homeless cripples stranded on the pavements, children battling against their mothers.

But what about the person behind the camera? Maloof discovers someone clearly set apart from the art world, a woman who renounced attention and fame for the freedom that anonymity offers. Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for a number of different well-to-do families around New York and Chicago. Through a series of talking heads we learn about the mothers of those families and their now grown up offspring. They tell a story of an intensely private, eccentric person who would take her camera almost everywhere. That she took jaw dropping photos is a huge surprise to them. While not really the focus of the film, it is quite incredible how people can be so close to someone and not really know them at all.

While the photos interspersed throughout the documentary are indeed striking, Maier is no less of an interesting subject. That she became a nanny makes complete sense; an occupation where you are observing, perhaps even intruding, on other people’s lives while retaining a distance, an occupation that allowed discretion and encouraged the freedom to go outside, which Maier clearly thrived on. For much of the film, Maier comes across as fairly harmless, an extroverted introvert finding the world through her camera lens. However, the documentary takes a darker turn when there are hints of Maier’s darker, more sadistic side. What we are left is an impression of a distinctly complex character, who doesn’t conform to any easy characterisation.

There are a few minor flaws in the film; the restless, sub- Glass score is overbearing and typical of some of the brasher, less refined US documentaries. Maloof has also come in for criticism in some parts, his eager, nerdy presence on screen irking some viewers who feel he detracts from the focus on Maier. Personally, I found Maloof’s story made the film richer as a whole as it mirrored the audiences excitement at the discovery. There is also a danger of the film becoming a little too dry and worthy, painting Maier as an important artist. One question does arise from the documentary: what would Vivian herself, who was so keen to hide herself away, make of a film that exposed her to the whole world? And does it matter?

I’m glad to have seen the film and come to know both Maier and her photographs, even if we will never know the full story. There is a perhaps an enjoyable romance in a great artist never revealing their gifts, but in this case, romance can go to hell.

Polish born, Paris/London based director Paweł Pawlikowski’s (My Summer of Love, Last Resort) new film Ida is the first of his to be shot and set in his native Poland. This seems a crucial decision, for Ida is a film about looking into the past, be it the characters, director or an entire nation. Set in 1962 and filmed in monochromatic, “Academy” ratio (traditionally used for silent movies) we find Poland on the precipice: the haunting ghosts of World War II still linger over the perpetually foggy countryside, a place that no doubt looks the same as it did in the middle ages, with the modernism of Jazz music and technological advances heralded by the Soviets just around the corner.

We join Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young, sheltered, novitiate nun in her convent, who is ordered by her mother superior to visit her one surviving relative before she takes her vows. Said relative is her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who is Anna’s complete opposite; a steely willed, loose talking, heavy drinking former judge of Stalin’s regime, who coolly delivers the news that they are in fact a Jewish family, the rest of which perished during the war and that Anna’s real name is Ida Bernstein. Consequently, Anna/Ida wishes to find out what happened to her family while attempting to retain her Catholic upbringing and while Wanda offers to help, questions “What if you go and find there is no God?”

The film’s narrative is driven by the past, discovering what happened to these people, both real and imagined, in post war Poland as they go hurtling into the future. What’s fairly astonishing about Ida is how it manages to do with this without any particular rhetoric and avoids nostalgia or sentimentalism. Here, the war has thrown these varying peoples and the previous order they knew, be they Jewish or Catholic, into the air and those who have been left behind are scrambling around for answers as they move into a brave new world. This is perhaps the modernist bent a film set 50 years prior provides, but it is refreshing nonetheless to find a film with so much socio-political dressings be entirely human and relatable.

None of Ida would really be so affecting if it wasn’t for the chemistry of it’s terrific cast. Both Trzebuchowska (her debut) and Kulesza are excellent as the central leads. The former brings all the initial restraint and naivety of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, who slowly realises the currency of her religious sisterhood and her beauty coaxed by her world-weary aunt into burgeoning modernity. Wanda’s own deeply traumatised scars begin to show, over time, her maternal opposition with Ida driving much of the narrative. Meanwhile the hitch-hiking jazz musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) sparkles while on screen with Ida; their youthful exuberance daring to break the form of the film, introducing her to Jazz which both contextualises and affects due to the film’s mostly diegetic soundtrack. Between him and Wanda, they show Ida an alternative to her current being, often just through a series of exchanged glances.

While the film has many dark notes, highlighted by it’s use of shade and focus, in what seems like every single beautifully composed frame the cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski throw at us, there is a lot of light in Ida‘s script too. Co-written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, it allows for much humour and cynicism in a film about holocaust survivors. While there are plenty of emotional moments, especially in the uncovering of barely dug graves, Ida still manages to keep a playful tone where necessary, especially through Kulesza’s firey “Red” Wanda. Therefore, it really is not surprising to learn that Ida has already won the highest accolades at both the Toronto and London Film Festivals. A film this perfectly balanced does not come around very often.

Adam Turner-Heffer


‘Not with a bang but a whimper’.

The words of Dolly Parton, or perhaps TS Eliot, I can’t remember which, come to mind when we watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final screen performance. A Most Wanted Man is by no means a bad film, in fact there is much to recommend it, yet Hoffman’s career is littered with so many jewels that you can’t help but compare. He was a great actor who saw a great screenplay lurking in the corner of a crowded room and went about seducing it until it was his. Hoffman had the ability to morph from weak and pathetic characters to ones full of an almost sociopathic confidence, domineering and charismatic.  He was willing to debase himself in order to portray the uglier side of life, all the while humanising characters that often might repulse you.

A Most Wanted Man follows hot on the heels of the last big John Le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While that film delved into the murky waters of the Cold War era, this adaptation is a contemporary post 9/11 spy thriller. A young Chechen immigrant named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg and seeks help from a local human rights lawyer, Annabel (Rachel McAdams) to avoid the authorities. The secretive German intelligence unit, led by Gunther (Hoffman) gets wind of Issa’s arrival and suspect he is trying to broker a deal with bank owner Brue (Willem Dafoe) in order to fund a terrorist group. In order to ascertain Issa’s intentions, Gunther’s band of spies must keep the elusive subject under constant surveillance.

The film is a slow-burner, steadily pulling the audience in. In fact, there is not one single shot fired in the film. Anton Corbijn, who directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control and the George Clooney vehicle The American, keeps his camera at a distance. There are some cute shots betraying Corbijn’s previous career as a photographer; an angular tower block lit only by a single light where a moody spy awaits. The edting by Claire Simpson is snappy and concise, and the film moves at a fair pace. The performances are all pretty solid; Hoffman is fine but unstretched by the grumpy, jaded Gunther, while Dafoe and McAdams are fairly convincing.

One thing that took me by surprise, though, was that Hoffman, Dafoe and McAdams are all actually German. Yes, they spoke a weird, broken language of Germanican. Who would have known! Seriously though, there is a question of why we still need to see these weird hybrids on screen. Sure, Hoffman and co. bring in the commercial clout, but as a piece of serious, ‘authentic’ film making, it looks and sounds ridiculous. It would have been nice to have seen the film performed in German, but then we would have to use subtitles, and who the fuck reads anything now anyway? While we are the on the subject of authenticity, the film also fell down in a few plot holes that for a John Le Carre adaptation felt strangely simplistic.

To reiterate, A Most Wanted Man is not a bad film, just a slightly disappointing one, and an unremarkable end to a remarkable career. The film ticks all the requisite boxes for a spy thriller: there is a hefty amount of atmosphere and suspense, and the audience is never left bored, yet there is something missing. For a director who has made his name for visuals rather than anything else, the film is oddly bland. There is no edge to the colour schemes. The story is intriguing rather than punchy, and you get the feeling that Le Carre has written better work. Finally, while the characters were solid and served the plot sufficiently, there was not enough invention or nuance to make them more than just cut out cliches.

For fans of the contemporary remake of House of Cards, breed fans of Kevin Spacey. Those who already knew of Spacey’s talent, the TV show has only cemented their opinions on his skill. Those mostly unaware of him now praise him endlessly. Still, somewhere in the middle of each audience are those who don’t know of his work outside of film and television. The man is a theatre buff, drawing crowds from behind the curtain (running the Old Vic theatre) to bringing them in their masses to see him on stage. NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage shows us the most recent fruits of Spacey’s stage labour, with his and Sam Mendes’ production and tour of Richard III.

The documentary explores the genesis of the show, largely the brain-child of Spacey and Mendes as they reteamed after American Beauty. The idea of camaraderie becomes the main focus of the documentary and so if you are looking for an investigative spotlight on drama productions, you may not find what you’re looking for with NOW. There is a lot to take from how each actor takes on their respective characters in Richard III, and set and lighting is intermittently discussed. However, what you take from the film by the end is a reflection on work, colleagues and friendship.

It’s difficult to define the film as engaging, though it does stimulate you with its fly-on-the-wall documentation of budding relationships. Most of the cast and crew of Richard III hadn’t worked with each other prior to the staging and so you see people getting to know one another, developing strong bonds. You can see either lots or a select few of incidences that you would have experienced yourself in life and this is always interesting. The Richard III production almost becomes a backdrop the actor profiles we see more and more of. Aadel Nodeh-Farahani’s photography wonderfully captures all of this – seemingly invisible to the crew as he films rehearsals and backstage antics. Then the interviews, that explain the ins and outs of it all (what the main demographic will be pining for), are expertly edited together by Will Znidaric.

At 97 minutes, it is a relatively condensed documentary, which is exactly what it needs to be. Spacey is a great actor, and Mendes a wonderful director, but there is a lot of gushing going on. Keeping it short and sweet is director Jeremy Whelehan’s best directorial objective; you can learn a fair bit about a stage production (especially with one so rare as to tour worldwide) and even more about actors and crew members building up relationships over the course of a staging/shoot.

rsz_boyhood-2014-movieWhen we think about Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s new film, it is interesting to note the maverick auteur Werner Herzog’s idea about the ‘ecstatic truth': the suggestion that film makers will never be able to truly capture life in all its authenticity, that fabrication and imagination is the key to unlocking life’s gilded mysteries. Linklater has proven to be keenly entranced by the idea of authenticity and documenting the passing of time over his career. Slacker, Dazed and Confused and the beloved Before Sunrise trilogy all took place over the space of 24 hours, polaroid pictures of scattered lives and fleeting moments. Boyhood is his most ambitious project yet, tracing one boys blossoming into adulthood over a 12 year period.

Everything that has been written and eulogised about the film essentially comes down to Ellar Coltrane, the young boy plucked as a 7 year old to star in an alternate vision of his own life. His ‘character’ Mason is a thoughtful child living with his precocious sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and single Mom (Patricia Arquette) in suburbia, Linklater’s usual playground. His early years are defined by endless bike rides with friends, delinquent graffiti vandalism and video games. Linklater uses musical cues by Coldplay and other pop punk hits to define the cultural landscape of the early 00’s. We are introduced to his vagrant Dad (Ethan Hawke), arriving back from Alaska to bribe his offspring with daytrips out and presents.

The film then becomes defined by Mom’s choices; a series of hopeful marriages turned sour by alcohol and new schools for the kids to acclimatise to. We begin to see how the adult world is just as messy and confused as the children’s lives, and how a child’s life can be transformed on the parent’s whim. Mason becomes more introverted, his cherubic glow giving way to a sullen teenager. He begins to make contact with girls and finds a passion for photography, all the while trying to come to terms with his mother’s nomadic lifestyle. Dad flits in and out of the film, much like a customer of separation would, and starts his own family. Boyhood is not a film of great invention and drama, but one trying to illuminate the smaller moments.

The ambition shown by Linklater is quite astonishing. There was a recent Michael Winterbottom drama that similarly tried to evoke a stretch of time like this, but other than that Boyhood is something of an anomaly. In interviews the director has stated that they tried to film for a few weeks every year, creating a short film annually. He admits that there was an element of uncertainty running through the production, and if we are being objective, it shows. Casting a couple of young children to play out characters and watch them evolve shows a remarkable degree of trust. Does it work? In my opinion, not quite. As Coltrane ages, the initial charm he has as a kid subsides; his introversion comes to the fore, and he doesn’t have the requisite acting chops to deliver the more dramatic scenes. Neither does Linklater’s daughter Lorelei for that matter.

Yet there is a strange beauty in this flaw, the unpredictability of these human beings and what life will throw at them down the years. Linklater has obviously had to adapt his story and his characters as the two actors develop. Where the film falls down, and in quite a big way, is the broad strokes that Linklater uses to convey the story. In dealing with such an epic timeline, he resorts to numerous cliches and cut out characters. Professor Bill, for example, Mom’s first husband, changes from charismatic saviour to monstrous pig with no warning. There is a lack of character development and nuance here. Elsewhere Linklater hams up his themes a little; the religious right and the war in Iraq are both dealt with in crude slabs.

While Boyhood is not a perfect film, there are moments of poignance running through the film. Particularly Mason’s relationship to his errant Dad, and his attempts to instil some fatherly advice on camping trips. Many viewers will delight in observing the changing cultural landscape, as we see the leaden, clunky iMacs fall to the wayside as iPads and Facetime take over. There is a particularly nostalgic moment for our generation as Mason attends the arrival of the newest Harry Potter books; it hits a personal chord because my sister also attended one of the midnight openings. That’s the thing about this film: for Western audiences there will be something that everybody can identify with at one point or another, whether it being a first shitty job or drinking your first can of beer.

An ambitious yet flawed film, it still feels like an event and for large parts, quite an achievement on Linklater’s part.

If you ever need a change from the humdrum assembly line of Hollywood movies, it is always worth checking out the Academy Award Foreign Language film winners, nominees and submissions. Nearly every year there’s a gem or two to be found in the selection; in this case it’s the Australian submission (sadly not entered for competition), The Rocket. The feature debut from Kim Mordaunt is a sweet, uplifting and often shocking account of a family in Laos. Mordaunt brings his knowledge of the land (after directing documentary Bomb Harvest that looked at the remaining bombs from the US attack on Laos) along with a magic-realism tone and Spielbergian child character to create a truly enchanting film.

With a land destitute, lacking a particular age, Laos has a fascinating beauty. Due to its scarred land, it is also a place of solemnity. These are the two key aspects of Mordaunt’s film – a joyous depiction of splendour combined with heartbreak and toil. It begins with the birth of Ahlo and his still-born twin brother; the former being tagged “little balls” comically before the latter’s bereaved entrance. This juxtaposition continues throughout, making The Rocket an honest and therefore affecting film.

In a nutshell Ahlo’s twin genetics marks him as a figure of bad luck. In his young life he experiences this continually, yet he always strives to overcome it. When his family are moved out of their homes due to planned construction, the trek to a new life leads them to an unfit area of living. Ahlo then hears about a rocket-building competition that offers money to the winner. With his intellect and spirit he plans to win it, keeping his family safe and able to move them to a better property.

The simple storyline expands beyond its perimeters to explore notions of innocence, discrimination and the bonds we find in life. As a family film (with a 12A certificate), The Rocket is affirming and intelligent, worthy of comparison with some of the Capra and Disney greats. Not only does it keep your attention fixated on the determination of one boy, it reminds you of the scarcity in some people’s lives that can be overruled on the strengths of family and virtuousness.

Messages and morals aplenty, The Rocket is never preachy. It has a very clear set of values and an unquestionable elegance. The first 30 minutes are laced with stunning cinematography and a finely tuned score. As the film becomes more of a character study the visuals become less styled, thankfully reintroduced in the finale. It is a work of class, with Mordaunt making a terrific name for himself. He has the wit, humanity and wisdom to make the right sort of film, and The Rocket is already an excellent example of that.

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