This year's New Zealand International Film Festival programme serves up plenty to surprise, delight and confound, reports Russell Baillie

Michael Douglas isn't the sort of face you'd normally see lighting up the big screen on the opening night of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Then again, he's not exactly wearing his normal face.

In Behind the Candelabra he's playing Liberace in director Steven Soderbergh's acclaimed biopic of the late legendary Las Vegas piano man based on a book by the camp but closeted star's much younger boyfriend, Scott Thorson, who gets played by Matt Damon.

Candelabra was in competition at Cannes last month where Douglas was touted as a leading contender for the best actor prize (but lost out to Bruce Dern for Nebraska).


And there's a trophy cabinet's worth of other Cannes prize winners in this year's programme.

That includes Mexican drug-gang story Heli (best director), Singaporean family drama Ilo Ilo (Camera d'Or), French-Iranian portrait of a marriage The Past (best actress for Bernenice Bejo, last seen in The Artist), Chinese crime saga A Touch of Sin (best screenplay), Japanese family drama Like Father Like Son (jury prize), and Palestinian thriller Omar (special jury prize in Un Certain Regard section).

Other films arriving here with a Cannes tailwind include Paolo Sorrentino's stylish ode to contemporary Rome The Great Beauty Chilean-French cult crazy Alejandro Jodorowsky's return after a 20-year absence with The Dance of Reality as well as Roman Polanski's Weekend Of a Champion which revisits his 1971 documentary about Formula One Champion Jackie Stewart.

But it's Candelabra - a film which was backed by TV giant HBO after US movie studios turned Soderbergh down - in pole position.

The programme describes Douglas' performance as "a glittering colossus of kitsch" - so aptly perfect for a Civic opening night, then.

That's just the first of many starry nights the festival brings to the picture palace, the main Auckland venue for the two week extravaganza.

The night after Liberace's opening overture, it's the turn of veteran Italian prog-rock band Goblin playing their 1977 soundtrack to horror maestro Dario Argento's weird witch tale Suspiria.Their live performance promise to turn the Civic palace into "a Gothic cathedral of psychedelic doom."

Fortunately, the karmic balance and good taste should be restored on the following night when Toa Fraser's film of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's production of Giselle has its world premiere.


Goblin isn't the only live music to feature in the festival with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra playing the score to Buster Keaton's 1928 The Cameraman - that's Keaton in a shot from the movie on the cover - and Wellington's SMP ensemble playing a specially composed ragtime-influenced score by Johannes Contag for the screening of King Vidor's The Crowd, another silent film from 1928.

As for the rest of the fortnight, here's edited highlights of what else is in the programme ...

Local bows
As always, the festival is a launchpad for an annual avalanche of local shorts and features. While most of the dozen features in the Aotearoa section are docos, there are dramas including Fantail, starring and written by rising local star Sophie Henderson and directed by her husband Curtis Vowell.

Meanwhile, the Bard goes camping NZ style in Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song, director Tim van Dammen's adaptation set to the songs of former Screaming Meemees-turned-musical-composers Michael O'Neill and Peter van der Fluit. all against the backdrop of the Verona caravan park.

The biggest local movie on offer is also the oldest - in Utu Redux veteran director Geoff Murphy has recut and digitised his 1983 epic, which might be set against the New Zealand Wars but plays like a Western with a musket and a moko.

Notable directors
Elsewhere, this year's festival brings in works from many directors it has featured before. Among them is Spanish master Pedro Almodovar who returns to camp comedy with I'm So Excited - yes it does feature the Pointer Sisters song - set on a passenger jet which can't find anywhere to land in Spain due to the country's economic woes.

The latest from left-field British director Sally Potter (Orlando) is Ginger and Rosa, a 1960s coming of age tale starring Elle Fanning and Alice Englert (Jane Campion's rising star of a daughter) as well as Mad Men's Christina Hendricks and Annette Bening.

American maverick Terrence Malick, whose directing career had had extended fallow periods, makes a quick return after 2011's Tree of Life with To the Wonder. The art romance stars Ben Affleck, most recent Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, most recent Bond villain Javier Bardem and Rachel McAdams in a movie that may well make Tree of Life look structured and coherent by comparison.

The fest also delivers a chance to see In the House, the latest from Francois Ozon, which stars Kristin Scott Thomas which is among a strong French contingent in the programme. That also includes Michel Gondry's undoubtedly zany Mood Indigo, his retro-futurist adaptation of Boris Vian's 1947 cult novel starring Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou.

Leading the American indie invasion is Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, the based-on-a-true-story film starring Emma Watson as one of a gang of fame-obsessed teenage brats who burgled the homes of Hollywood celebrities.

In what looks like a strong year for music movies, the rockumentary line-up includes Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me about the unsung but influential US powerpop band.

Charles Bradley: Soul of America looks at the former James Brown impersonator who has finally become a soul star under his own name.

Fans of gloomy American indie outfit The National might have a reason to smile at Mistaken for Strangers, a tour movie shot by frontman Matthew Berninger's very different younger brother Tom. And those who remember the Skeptics as one of the most brilliantly confounding bands to shake these isles in the late 80s will need to see Sheen of Gold.

But the one most likely to set off the spine tingles is Twenty Feet from Stardom, the acclaimed doco which looks at the session back-up singers whose voices we've all heard but faces we've never much seen. It features interviews from appreciative former employers such as Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen.

Hot docos
Having established himself as the pre-eminent American documentary maker of his time with films such as Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney keeps on cranking them out. This year's festival features two of his - We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks offers "the rise and fall of Julian Assange, with no skimping on the weirder bits" while Silence in the House of God is his study of the Catholic Church's protection of child molesters among its priests. The War on Terror is in the firing line in both Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars, exposing US covert operations and Annie Goldson's He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan.

And it's time for 56 Up, another in Michael Apted's doco series. He has returned every seven years to talk to the same people about their lives, having started in the 1964 British television original 7 Up when they were 7-year-olds.

As well as the Jackie Stewart race doco, this year's focus on sportspeople includes The Crash Reel about the rise of US champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce - who will be a festival guest - and his devastating head injury and recuperation.

Surfing fans get Uncharted Waters: The Personal History of Wayne Lynch about the legendary Aussie waxhead. While followers of the NBA are directed towards Linsanity about Chinese New York Nicks star Jeremy Linn achieving his hoop dreams.

What: The New Zealand International Film Festival
Where and when: The 45th Auckland International Film Festival opens July 18 at the Civic. Screenings also at SkyCity Theatre, Rialto, Bridgeway, Event Queen St, Academy, Lido; Wellington festival opens July 25 with regions to follow.
Info: Programme is out this week and is also available on

- TimeOut