Edgy festivals take centrestage

ROGER EBERT: The much-loved film critic is the subject of the documentary Life Itself.
ROGER EBERT: The much-loved film critic is the subject of the documentary Life Itself.

Life unscripted is the theme of this year's ninth international documentary film festival.

Kicking off at Auckland's Q Theatre on Wednesday (before heading to Wellington's Roxy Cinema on June 5), the Documentary Edge Festival (as it is more commonly known) is billed as an annual celebration of local and international film-making.

Executive director Dan Shanan says the access and insights into other cultures, people and stories the festival offers has become even more important since the demise of TVNZ7 almost two years ago.

CODEBREAKER: Ed Stoppard plays Alan Turing in this 2011 docudrama about the famed British cryptographer.
CODEBREAKER: Ed Stoppard plays Alan Turing in this 2011 docudrama about the famed British cryptographer.

While still advocating for the return of a similar public service channel , Shanan believe's this year's near 60-strong lineup of features and shorts represents the kind of films "we should all watch discuss, debate and enjoy".

Culture had the opportunity to preview a cross-section of titles:

Bending Steel: I'm still not sure that this isn't the best unintentional comedy of the year so far. Dave Carrol documents 150-pound (68 kilograms), Winnie-the-Pooh-keyring-carrying, Ron-Howard lookalike Chris Schoeck as he attempts to gain fame as an old-time strongman.Standing in his way is an intense fear of performing in public, parental disapproval and potential sabotage from both his trainer and Hurricane Irene.

Dancing in Jaffa: With other aspects of his life already documented by 2005's Mad Hot Ballroom and 2006 drama Take the Lead (where he was improbably played by Antonio Banderas), you could be forgiven for thinking you knew it all about world renowned dance teacher Pierre Dulaine. Think again.

Hilla Medalia follows Dulaine as he heads back to his birthplace, endeavouring to forge a better understanding between Jewish and Palestinian children by getting them to partner up on the dance floor. Watching this force of nature attempting to overcome decades of hatred is ultimately a thing of beauty.

Doc of the Dead: Pop culture specialist Alexandre O Philippe follows up his investigations into the Star Wars prequels and Paul the Octopus with a look at the evolution of zombie culture. With contributions from luminaries such as George Romero, Bruce Campbell, Max Brooks and Simon Pegg, he also thrashes out the fast versus slow zombie debate and offers advice on how to survive a zombie pandemic.

A Fragile Trust: Subtitled plagiarism, power and Jayson Blair at the New York Times, Samantha Grant's film not only investigates the disgraced reporter's actions in intimate detail and how it affected others around him, it also allows Blair the opportunity to present his own side of the story. While the portentous imagery and soundtrack sometimes border on the manipulative, the frankness of the participants and stark warning of the potential for more Jaysons in this increasingly electronic age make it a compelling watch.

Life Itself: Hoop Dreams' director Steve James is behind this engaging and enlightening look at the life and last days of much-loved film critic Roger Ebert. Filmed as the famous raconteur deals with being permanently silenced, James has created both an intensely intimate portrait and a fascinating survey of an incredible life. Documents his rise to fame, long-running enmity with fellow Chicago reviewer Gene Siskel and some of his most withering criticism. Definitely worthy of Ebert and Siskel's trademark two-thumbs up.

No. 9: A surprisingly entertaining tale about a near 70-year-old racing car and its passionate Ponsonby owner Gordon McIsaac. Built in Alameda, California, the 1935 midget won the first Kiwi race in the class at Western Springs on Christmas Day in 1937, before going on to a glittering career in the hands of multiple Kiwi driving legends (including A1-driver Jonny Reid's grandfather Ross). Having never married or held down a job, talented painter and motorsport museum owner McIsaac's tale is equally fascinating.

For more information and screening times, see documentaryedge.org.nz

Billed as the best collection of queer films ever programmed, the 19th annual Outtakes Festival begins its three-city tour at Auckland's Rialto Cinemas Newmarket on Thursday.

From more than 500 submissions, organisers have selected some 70 shorts and features to screen during the fortnight-long festivals in Auckland and Wellington (with around half making the journey across Cook Strait for Christchurch's four-day "taster" in June).

Outtakes chief programmer Simon Fulton believes there will be plenty to appeal to everyone and anyone, with stories including award-winning adaptations of popular books, films set in places as diverse as the Canadian prairies, the Swiss Alps, the Hawaiian shores and the Thai countryside, and tales featuring personalities like Alice Walker and Johnny Rapid.

The Case Against 8: Like a particularly good story arc on The Good Wife, this HBO documentary closely follows the depositions and tension-filled court-room drama as two gay couples attempt to throw out California's Proposition 8 - a referendum which overturned their right to marry. It was a three-year battle that saw political lines crossed, the plaintiffs openly abused and the meaning of the beloved American constitution endlessly debated.

Cherry: James Franco, Heather Graham, Dev Patel and The Blacklist's Megan Boone star in this 2012 drama which follows one young woman's (newcomer Ashley Hinshaw) adventures in the San Francisco porn industry. Despite following the well-worn A Star is Born/Rock of Ages/Showgirls template, Cherry is a sexually adventurous but surprisingly coy tale, which has been praised for its accurate portrayal of life working in skin flicks. Perhaps that's not surprising given it was co-penned by adult-entertainment star Lorelei Lee.

Codebreaker: Before he gets the big-budget biopic treatment later this year in The Imitation Game, here's an excellent primer on famed British cryptographer Alan Turing. Mixing archival footage with dramatic recreations, this TV movie examines the impact Turing's work had not only on the war effort, but also modern day computing. It also laments his treatment by the British authorities after their discovery of hishomosexuality.

The Last Match: Gritty but still pretty romantic-drama about two young Cuban men who find their attraction to each other can only end in tears before bedtime. Reinier (the Cristian Ronaldo-esque Reinier Diaz) is a promising footballer and rent boy whose propensity for gambling lands him in hot water with a crimelord and also into the arms of Yosvani (Milton Garcia), the crimelord's prospective son-in-law.

The Rugby Player: While New Zealand waits for its first high-profile rugby player to come out , here's an inspirational tale of one American man who not only left his mark on the sport but also in the minds of many of his fellow countrymen. PR executive Mark Bingham was one of the leading lights of the San Francisco Fog rugby club when he boarded United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. He is believed to have been one of those who stopped the hijackers reaching their target, and a biennial international rugby competition has been held in his memory since 2002.

For more information and screening times, see outtakes.org.nz

Sunday Star Times