The annual Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF) has become a yearly end of winter highlight for us. Always the last week in February, the weather often is still winter cold, but invariably sunny. Occasionally, film festival week is embellished with a spritz of snow, icing on the already spectacular red rocks, but not enough to snarl traffic.
This film festival week was sunny as usual, but unusually warm, reflecting the warmest February on record everywhere. Only 3 weeks before though, it had been freezing cold, cold enough to keep snow longer than usual and even icicles frozen up in Oak Creek Canyon.
Oddly enough, during this year at the festival, two of our favorite films were films for which we didn’t even initially register, which just goes to show what happy accidents and chance encounters can engender. The festival should really be called a movie marathon, as pacing is what is required. The festival runs from Saturday through to Academy Award Sunday of the following weekend, 9 full days of films, starting at 9 in the morning and going until the final showings at 9 pm. Only the hardest core make every showing but there are regulars who do just that. That is how we met James and Jeanette from Phoenix, who favor the same types of films and seats in the theater, year after year. We try for a vacation/life balance, meaning 2-3 films per day for 7 days of the festival, hiking in the morning and at least one hot meal each day. We cannot live on a diet of popcorn and smuggled nuts and dried fruit alone!
Sunday, February 21, 2016
We were off to a good start with our first selection, the utterly charming The Little Prince, a 2015 French-Canadian film in English directed by Mark Osborne. Yes, a captivating animated version of the classic children’s tale, which I read while learning French in recent years. The opening scene was a hilarious send up of a prototypical helicopter parent hovering over a hapless programmed child. The eccentric next-door neighbor turns out to be the aviator from The Little Prince. This is a film appealing to both adults and children, coming soon to theaters, which also showed at the San Diego Latino Film Festival the following month.
We both also enjoyed the drama The Girl in the Book, which writer /director Mayra Cohn indicated was based on a kernel of personal truth in her life. The 2014 film, her first feature film, is set in the world of New York publishing. Alice, played by Emily VanCamp , is the daughter of a high power literary agent and an aspiring writer herself, struggling with writer’s block. When her publishing house is about to reissue a bestseller based on events from her adolescence, she is forced to confront the past in order to move on with her future. The film features excellent acting by the entire cast, including Michael Nyqvist, as the author whose book is being re-issued and whose reappearance in Alice’s life propels her into taking control of her life. He is best known to American audiences as the journalist from the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Partisan, a 2015 Australian film, was my last selection for my first full day of the film festival. it was directed by Ariel Kleiman, who co–wrote with Sarah Cyngler. It was an intense father-son drama, sit in a grim looking generic Eastern bloc looking country. It was filmed in Georgia. At the heart of the action is a charismatic, father-like figure named Gregori, played by Vincent Cassel, who lives in an isolated enclave with multiple women and their children. One of the children, 11-year-old Alexander, is sent by Gregori on missions to gun down selected targets in the nearby town. His dawning consciousness and willingness to question Gregori’s authority lead to the central conflict.
Monday, February 22, 2016
We hiked from the house and had an unusual wildlife encounter right on the Jordan trail-a herd of javelinas! Although not an infrequent sighting crossing a road or the yard, our experience is that they usually do not allow close enough approach for a good shot. This group was busily chowing down on prickly pear pads and were much less elusive than has been our experience.
We made it off the trail in time for our first film, called Very Semi – Serious, a fabulously funny documentary about the cartoonists of the New Yorker magazine. Since we both love reading the New Yorker and the cartoons, and recently loved a graphic novel by one of the cartoonists, Roz Chast, I had selected this offering thinking Steve would love it. Which we both did.
We followed this up with another documentary, No Home Movie, which promised to be something very different. And very different it was. Quite simply, despite the title, it was like a bad home movie. We stuck it out longer than two thirds of the audience, but eventually gave up as well. Even the opening sequence, a 4 minute long scene of wind whipping through trees, was about 15 times longer than necessary, even if the intent was to be uncomfortably long. The film purported to be a documentary about the filmmaker’s mother, an Auschwitz survivor. From the opening sequence, I debated leaving. I lasted longer than most, mostly because it was in French, so it was a good opportunity to practice listening. I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when Steve leaned over and said: ” Can we go?” A second showing of No Home Movie later in the week was later canceled, with the film festival Director Patrick commenting that it had received the lowest scores in the entire history of the film festival.
In the evening, we headed over to the high school to the Sedona Performing Arts Center for Dr. Keeling’s Curve, a one-man show by Mike Farrell, best known as BJ Honeycutt from the long-running TV series MASH. Dr. Keeling was a Scripps Institute of Oceanography scientist, who developed a method for measuring the concentration in parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, which demonstrated the inexorable increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over the decades since he developed this technique. This powerful, affecting and well acted performance was a very accessible means of presenting the overwhelming evidence for the crisis of climate change.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Prior to settling in for three movies in a row, we attempted to work off some of the prior day’s sitting with a two hour hike on the Jim Thompson Trail.
Our first film for the day was a comedy by writer and director Daniel O’Connor, Look Again. The protagonist was portrayed by appealing Anand Rajaram, who is striking out on all life fronts, from being betrayed by his girlfriend to be cleaned out by his business partner. He is in a serious slump, doubting his ability to assess who is trustworthy. A pair of guardian angels appear to him as he attempts to end it all on an abandoned railway. To help him through this trying period, his guardian angels endow him with a powerful tool, glasses which enable him to see who is good and who is bad. His reliance on the glasses tests his relationships with family and friends. Lighthearted, “Look Again” was a very fun and well acted film looking at issues of trust and judgment in the miasma of relationships.
Our second film, I Dream Too Much, was written and directed by Katie Cokinos, a resident of the small Hudson River Valley town in which the film was shot in the winter. It stars Diane Ladd as Great Aunt Vera and Eden Broslin (yes, Pierce’s daughter) in her first starring role as Dora, a recent college graduate whose mother very much intends for her to go to law school, but whose head is anywhere but in the mode of studying for the LSAT. She dreams of distant destinations, scribbling down random poetic thoughts and observations along the way. When Great Aunt Vera breaks her foot and needs assistance, Dora is only too eager to volunteer, the better to escape the maternal home and scrutiny. I found this film charming, with appealing female protagonists, with interesting self and familial discovery along the way.
The Q&A was enlivened by a complete Sedona moment. A member of the audience had a very long question about neurobiological implications of Alzheimers and imprinting of thoughts on your spine. It was pretty clear that neither the audience nor the filmmaker could follow the question. She dealt with it completely and fully with a single word response “No.”
The short Anna, shown prior to I Dream Too Much, was a loving portrait of the matriarch of the family, now afflicted with Alzheimer’s, a complete contrast to the interminable mother – daughter elegy of the prior day, No Home Movie.
Our final film of the day was a last-minute change. Earlier in the week, we had dashed over to Java Love for a quick bite between films. It was crowded enough that there were no tables, so we approached a lone diner with a laptop to share a table. At the table was Jim (James Sadwith), a filmmaker from Woodstock, Vermont, who spent many years prior to that working in television in LA. He had seen Reparation at the Austin Film Festival, and his recommendation was so glowing, we decided to forgo our original selection and exchanged our tickets. San Diego friends Rick and Sandy had arrived by that time and joined us as well.
One of the filmmakers, Kyle Ham, and his people were in the row in front of us. The film was fabulous, a very intense, extremely gripping psychological drama. Bob, played by Marc Menchaca, is a former military policeman for the Air Force. He doesn’t recall much of his time there. A mysterious figure from his past, played by Jon Huertas, materializes in his idyllic life on an Indiana farm, becoming a menacing intrusion and threat to Bob, his wife, and their young daughter.
Wednesday, February 24, 2015
Jim, the filmmaker we had chatted with earlier in the week, joined Steve, me and Rick for a short hike in the morning, up Cibola Pass trail and down Jordan in a loop from the house.
Jim also influenced that day’s film selection. Having met him, and hearing the backstory of his film, of course we wanted to see it. There was just one problem, one showing of his film was past and the second was already sold out. Thankfully, our Gold passes worked magic, as a pair of tickets materialized for us. His film, Coming Through the Rye, is based on his own story as an adolescent, outcast in an East Coast boarding school, who identifies so strongly with Holden Caulfield that he adapts Catcher in the Rye as a play for his senior project. He journeys with a female friend by car to seek out reclusive author JD Salinger in an effort to gain his permission to produce the play. The protagonist was perfectly played by awkwardly appealing Alex Wolff, who is accompanied on his quest to find Salinger by girl next-door Stephania Owen. Chris Cooper plays the gruff and standoffish author. The film perfectly captures the time and place, as well as the innocence, cruelty and longing of adolescents.
I think we all dozed a little through our mid afternoon film, a documentary produced with a grant from the National Science Foundation called In Defense of Food, prominently featuring journalist and author Michael Pollan.
Afterwards, Steve and Rick headed home to cook dinner (Steve’s famous eggplant parmesan paninis and roasted brussel sprouts and cauliflower), while Sandy and I went to a final film, which we both loved and was later a Director’s Choice selection for the final festival day. Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?… proved to be a terrifically funny comedy with a serious subtext (gun control) by writer and director Matt Cooper. At the Q&A following the film, he said that the withholding sex story line was born 19 years ago, before Columbine. He described the difficulty of selling the project, a comedy about gun control , with some people passing on involvement as in bad taste. This was the first public showing, and was a hilarious take on a serious subject, with a priceless scene featuring the hokey pokey. The filmmaker mentioned shutting down social media during pre-production as a precaution, a sad commentary. Disturbingly, later in the week, while conversing with a film festival organizer from South Carolina, I learned that the National Rifle Association, which is very amusingly portrayed in the film, is pressuring film festival organizers to not show the film. This film festival organizer from South Carolina was hesitant to book the film for his conservative region.
Thursday, February 25, 2015
Dating Daisy, a 2015 film written and directed by Neel Upadhye, was a premiere, being the first public showing of a funny, touching and charming tale of two 20 somethings in an on again, off again relationship. The pair, played by Brennan Kelleher and Sascha Alexander, are off-again when they are drawn together by Daisy’s car breaking down right before Thanksgiving, leading them to carpool back to their hometown for Thanksgiving with their families, where they will grapple with familial expectations, career uncertainty, and re-examine their relationship.
Following a much needed “real meal”, lunch at Creekside, we divided and conquered. Steve and Rick went to the 6 o’clock showing of a documentary on a much loved institution from their formative years, National Lampoon, called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. Meanwhile, Sandy and I underwent restorative massages at Uptown Massage.
Steve and Rick stayed home by the fire, while Sandy and I headed out for a 9 pm showing of The Life and Death of an Unhappily Married Man, a bittersweet comedy about a 20 something year old boy – man whose life unravels all at once, with his wife asking for a divorce, his belongings stolen, and being fired from his soulless, hated job, prompting him to head home to Oklahoma to figure out where it all went wrong. Writer and director Josh Hope, there for a Q&A after the film, indicated the source material was somewhat autobiographical. The unhappily married protagonist is well played by Tommy Beardmore. He is initially not a particularly sympathetic character (he seemed to deserve the misfortunes befalling him), but I did warm up to his earnestness and evolving awakening.
Friday, February 26, 2016
Jim came over in the morning, as we were saying goodbye to Rick and Sandy heading back to San Diego, to join us for a hike to our local landmark, one of the thumbs of the Cibola Mitten formation.
We had to hustle to make it to our noon showing, but it was well worth the effort. We both loved the 2015 French language film In Harmony (en français, le film s’appelle En Équilibre). After being paralyzed in an accident while shooting a film, a stunt equestrian (Albert Dupontel) marches wits with an agent from the insurance company, played by the divine Cécile de France. The story is based on the autobiographical book Sur mes quatre jambes (on my four legs) by Bernard Sachsé, who co-wrote the script with director Denis Dercourt.
We took the afternoon off, having lunch at Mesa Grill and then heading home to house projects for Steve, while I did some online medical continuing education and worked on my very delayed Socorro blog.
We did venture out late to see an interesting Finnish film, Boy Upside Down. This 2014 film was written and directed by Juha Lehtola. An 11-year old’s world is suddenly turned upside down when both parents are killed in a car accident. He bounces off the adults around him while trying to sort out the cause of the accident and come to terms with his new reality.
Saturday, February 27, 2016 was our final film festival day, since Sunday was reserved for driving back to San Diego.
We were up so late the night before that we did not get out for our customary morning walk. We did make it out by noon for our first film, A Canadian/UK co-production from 2015 called Despite the Falling Snow. Written and directed by Shamim Sarif, this film of espionage and intrigue is set in Moscow during the Cold War. Rebecca Ferguson plays Katya, as well as her niece Lauren 30 years later. The storyline is gripping, and there are lush production values underpinning this love story spanning decades.
Exiting the theater, we ran into my friend Evelyn, who also divides time between San Diego and Sedona, who I originally met in the Le Cercle Française, the French language conversation group in Sedona. Heading over to next door Java Love for a quick pick me up between films, we had a chance to catch up with our friends, fellow mid-century and Russel Wright aficionados, Gary and Laura.
Our second film was something completely different, a fun and clever comic cross – cultural love story called Hybrids, directed by Tony Randel and written by Tony Schweikle. Brother and sister teens Blaz and Velana are hybrids, the products of a mixed marriage between a vampire father and witch mother. Chafing at being confined to their dreary home castle, they flee to Florida to pursue their dreams, and become involved in a student film production.
Back at home, Steve tackled the gutters, while I headed out for a last hike from the house as the sun was setting. I was rewarded with a spectacular sunset (above).
My last film of the festival, to which I ventured out alone after Steve decided to stay in for the evening, is Spain’s submission in the foreign-language film category for the Academy Awards. In English, the 2014 film is called Flowers. Knowing it was from Spain, I was utterly befuddled that I could not understand a single word. Even if were in Catalan, I would expect to understand an occasional word. It turned out to be a unique offering, a Basque language film. The film is quite lyrical and mysterious. It beautifully depicts the fading visibility and colorlessness of middle-age, with Nagore Aranburu as a woman who lives a quiet existence in a joyless marriage, whose life is brightened by the mysterious weekly delivery of flowers.
Final film festival tally: 9 days, 45 film slots for those with greater seat stamina than us!
We attended 7 days, so could have attended 35 films. This does not count short films, which are often paired with feature films with related themes. We managed 2-3 films/day. My grand total: 19! Steve’s: 16!
Our festival favorites (I expect you can find In Harmony and The Little Prince; as for the others, I hope these films will find distribution, as they definitely deserve a wider audience):
Coming Through the Rye, In Harmony, The Little Prince, Reparation, Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?…, Very Semi – Serious, Look Again, I Dream Too Much; actually, all of the films we saw were worth seeing, with the notable exception of No Home Movie.
Can’t wait until next year!