Back in the reel world

By Russell Baillie

Last year's Auckland International Film Festival was the year of the megadoco - with Fahrenheit 9/11 and SuperSize Me the loudhailers for the whole shebang and its record crowds. This year, the programme doesn't quite have that same easy megaphone-power. Not that it worries festival director Bill Gosden.

"It's not like last year everyone was saying 'have you got 9/11? Have you got SuperSize Me?' Those were the two main ones, obviously, but there's nothing that's out there making those kind of headlines.

"I think that moment has kind of passed - there is almost like a hangover from that over-excitement of a year ago. Particularly with the growing perception that 9/11 sparked the engines of the wrong campaign," he says referring to how a backlash against Michael Moore's prize-winning polemic may have helped to re-elect George W. Bush.

So this year's programme is the year of the ... well, what?

Well, there's lots more films this year and there seems to be many a title about growing up.

"There are kids in just about every movie. There are so many children in the film festival," says Gosden.

Of course, the festival programme - which Gosden and his staff having been hammering out right until this week's print deadline - is the only way to make sense of it all.

But below, we've identified some other groups among this year's selection, even with its baffling diversity. A breadth of movies that will have festival-goers pondering such conundrums as "James Dean, James Stewart or Battleship Potemkin?"

(The festival's retrospective section features all of the above)

Or: "Have we got time for the one with the guy from Footloose and that one in the Uruguayan sock factory?" (Whisky, a comedy about Jacobo, a 60-year-old bachelor who runs such a factory in Montevideo). Sure you have. That's the film festival spirit.

The big names

Put aside the auteur theory for a moment - there's some big acting names appearing in films more challenging than we're used to seeing them in. Topping the star list is a short-haired Nicole Kidman in Birth, a paranormal drama about a widow who encounters a 10-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her late husband.

Says Gosden: "Nicole Kidman is fantastic in Birth. What a strange film that is. She's amazing. She's mesmerising. I am always surprised how good Nicole Kidman is for some reason. I guess because she always appears so unsure of herself when she appears in magazines but when you see her up on screen it's definitely where she belongs. She has a close-up in Birth which lasts about three minutes which is riveting. It's a very odd film though."

Keanu Reeves is a long way from his usual saviour-of-mankind leads playing a supporting roll as a "zen dentist" in the American indie satire Thumbsucker. He's hilarious, apparently. Hollywood faces Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Don Cheadle and Brendan Fraser are part of the ensemble in the multi-story multicultural Los Angeles drama Crash. And if that film's narrative web evokes the phrase "six degrees of separation", it's always been associated with work of journeyman screen actor Kevin Bacon. But he's had some of the best reviews of his career for his role in the provocative psychological thriller The Woodsman as a paedophile re-entering society after years in prison.

The award winners

It might not quite have the political momentum of its 2004 Palme D'Or predecessor Fahrenheit 9/11, but Belgian film The Child arrives straight from winning this year's Cannes film festival top prize with its own tailwind of acclaim. The programme also boasts Hidden the winner of the Cannes director and critics' prizes as its opening night film. There is also Shanghai Dreams the Cannes jury prize winner, and many a film that was "in competition" at the French extravaganza this or last year.

The Cannes-approved line-up includes Emir Kustarica's absurdist Bosnian war story Life is a Miracle, Agns Jaoui's French drama Look at Me, Wong Kar-wai's 1960s Hong Kong romance 2046, Jonathan Nossiter's wine tribute Mondovino, Hans Weingartner's German political thriller The Edukators, Johnnie To's Hong Kong triad drama Election, and Oshii Mamoru's animated Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

The festival also provides the first screenings of The Sea Inside, the Spanish winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Alejandro Amenbar, it's based on the true story of Ramn Sampedro - played by Javier Bardem - a quadriplegic who fought the Spanish Government for the right to end his life.

The hot country

As for as fresh territories making their cinematic presence felt in this year's festival, Gosden says the festival is strong on films from Africa - especially South Africa with two films. But this year's breakthrough country is Argentina with its man-and-his dog tale Bombon - El Perro, family road movie Rolling Family, as well as Little Sky.

Gosden says despite the country's economy, which also features in the Canadian documentary The Take, there's a lot of production coming out of the South American nation.

"These are not expensive films, they are very script-based and actor-based. There is nothing spectacular in any of them. It's quite a European sensibility, which is not surprising - Argentina is a piece of Europe transplanted. The films are all very much about character."

The good sports

Yes, sports fans, there is plenty in this year's festival for you. That's especially if you like boxing, with the one-two doco combination of Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story and Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

The former looks at the history of the 1962 fight in which Benny "Kid" Paret died after being pummelled by six-time welterweight champion, Emile Griffith at Madison Square Garden live on network television. In the latter, acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns profiles the life and tumultuous times of the first black heavyweight boxing champion.

There's also a double dose of sport with spokes - Hell on Wheels goes behind the scenes of one team on 2003's 100th Tour de France while Murderball is an American doco about paraplegic wheelchair rugby, focusing on the intense rivalries between the United States and Canadian teams, culminating with the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.

The hot country II

While the film festival offers docos about avant garde classical musicians and indie rock cult figures, there's a definite country lilt to the music films.

There are biographical films about three late great legends - Be Here To Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt, Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons, and granddaddy of them all Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues. Yeeha. Shhh, would you? Sorry.

The mega-cartoons

Among the animated offerings are the much-anticipated latest works by the giants of Japanese anime. As well as the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell 2, the programme includes Howl's Moving Castle the adaptation of the British children's book by Hayao Myazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). There is also Steamboy from Otomo Katsuhiro of Akira fame, which in its English dub has Anna Paquin voicing the title character.

In Aramaki Shinji's, Appleseed anime character design gets combined with state-of-the-art computer graphic effects in a manga-derived story of blonde action babe Deunan "as she fights off robot tanks, angsts over the fate of newly reassembled metallic ex-boyfriend and matches wits with a council of floating Yoda clones".

The hot steppers

The live Auckland Philharmonia performance of the original 1925 score to accompany the restored print of the Sergei Eisenstein Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin "should have "the elephants quaking at the Civic" laughs Gosden. But there are a couple of other films that could have patrons dancing in the aisles.

Mad Hot Ballroom is a doco following the dancing teams of 11- and 12-year-olds from three New York public elementary schools preparing for competition. And it sounds like it could do for waltz lessons what Spellbound did for spelling bees. The probable funkiest offering is Rize, the urban dance documentary about the Krumpers and Clowners - two rival groups of street dancers from South Central Los Angeles. The film starts with a disclaimer: "The images in this film have not been sped up in any way."

The controversial one

There's plenty of films under the programme's That's Incredible festival-within-a-festival that are sure to offend with risque content or lashings of violence. Okay, perhaps not the alleged final Godzilla movie ever Godzilla Final Wars. And the outrageous chop-socky of Kung Fu Hustle sounds like it would sit just as neatly in the cartoon section.

But the one that's already causing a censorship stir from the festival's main programme is 9 Songs, director Michael Winterbottom's digital hand-held depiction of a couple getting together, going out to see bands, going home, having sex - unsimulated sex.

Says Gosden in the programme notes: "The wannabe censors have only themselves to thank if one of the few contenders [potential film festival-goers] have heard about is 9 Songs."

And talking to TimeOut, Gosden sounds exasperated by the attention the experimental film is getting.

"The film is what it is. It is a very simple piece of work and tomorrow I get to defend it at the Board of Review, which is ridiculous really."

LOWDOWN

WHAT: 37th Auckland International Film Festival, the biggest and longest-running annual film festival in New Zealand

WHEN: July 8 to 24

WHERE: Civic, Academy Cinema, Village SkyCity

PROGRAMME OUT: Wednesday

RELATED FESTIVALS: Wellington, July 15-31; Christchurch, July 28-August 14; Dunedin, July 22-August 7; Palmerston North, August 4-21; Hamilton, August 11-28; Tauranga, August 25-September 7; New Plymouth, September 1-14; Nelson, September 8-21; Masterton, October 12-26; Queenstown, October 27-November 9; Gisborne, November 10-23; Whangarei, November 17-30.

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