Sedona Film Festival, February 2017

Friday, February 17 and Saturday, February 18, 2017

We had an epic, literally tempestuous, start to our annual Sedona film festival week this year.

The symbol of Sedona, Cathedral Rock, reflected in Oak Creek

A major rainstorm was predicted for California the day of our planned drive to Arizona.   While the drive can be easily done in one day, it is a long and tiring one. We decided to leave Friday after work to break up the drive, staying somewhere en route. What I didn’t know was that Steve actually pre-paid for a hotel in Yuma, so we were committed. Driving home from work on Friday afternoon, the volume of rain and the noise of the drops thrumming on the car was impressive.

I had to stop at the house before proceeding on to the hospital to pick Steve up. I wasn’t at all sure it was a good idea to proceed with our plan. That was when I learned that Steve had prepaid for the hotel. We were spending the night in Yuma! When the din of the rain on the car diminished to where we could actually hear, we whiled some of the time away listening to Born a Crime, very well read by author Trevor Noah. Each hour on the road brought plague-like tests of driving concentration, first pounding rain, then intense wind, and finally, shifting waves of sand, à la Lawrence of Arabia.

We made it into Sedona by mid-Saturday afternoon, a few hours ahead of our guests for the week, John and Joan. This gave us a chance to pick up our film passes and tickets, drop off artworks for framing, and pick up a few groceries.

Joan and I made it out to one film Saturday evening, called 29+1.  This was an enjoyable and endearing chick flick, telling the story of two very different 29-year-olds, who share the same birthday, and are at turning points in their lives as they head into their 30s. The Hong Kong based director Kearen Pang and her editor were present for a Q and A afterwards. The work is based on a play written by the director, an actress by training, in which she played the role of both women.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

John and Joan were off early to catch a 9 AM showing, giving me a chance to exercise for the first time in three days, rowing while watching a particularly violent and gruesome episode of Breaking Bad.

Steve and I started our movie marathon, the first of four today, at the high school, catching a wonderful adventure film, a documentary called Voyagers Without Trace.  It tells the story of and recreates an epic journey of exploration by kayak of the Green and Colorado rivers by a trio of extremely attractive Frenchman, a couple and their friend, in the late 1930s. The cinematography was superb and the storytelling engaging, alternating between vintage footage, including early color video (a year before Hollywood would release its first color film, The Wizard of Oz) and the modern retracing of this journey by writer and director Ian McCluskey, who recruited a kayaking expert couple friend to accompany him.

Feature number 2 was The Sabbatical, a 2015 Canadian improvisational comedy co-written, produced and directed by Brian Stockton, in which a photographer professor’s collision with a free-wheeling young artist Lily prods him out of a creative stall.

Round 3 was Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro, an HBO documentary of a young infantry man who did amazing combat photography while in the trenches.

To see 4 films in a day, one must choose carefully; I often opt for comedies or dramas for later offerings, that is to say, NOT documentaries.  My final feature was an excellent 2016 feature film based on actual events, In Her Name (Au Nom de ma Fille), starring Daniel Auteuil as a father pursuing justice over three decades for his daughter, raped and killed by her doctor stepfather.  Steve didn’t go this final round, opting to head home and build a fire.

Monday, February 20, 2017

We did a morning hike of Ant Hill from the house, eager to stretch our legs after the prior day’s movie marathon.

Prior to seeing Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, we saw an adorable short film, a family affair called “Rated”, written and produced by a husband and wife team, Christie Lynn Smith and John Fortson. John also directed. It was truly a family affair, with this actor couple playing a couple in the movie, with their two children being played by their own two children. It was a hilarious, gentle and wry commentary, as family life is turned upside down one morning when the adults wake up to find they have rating stars over their heads. Unfortunately, the mother is only 2.5 out of five, leading comically to ostracization and discrimination.  They plan to expand this to a full-length feature, which I would enjoy seeing.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Taxi was an interesting roving movie, a slice of life, as the director/cabdriver operates a shared cab, picking up passengers who squabble with each other. At one point, the cab and cabbie director act as an ambulance for a bleeding man and his howling wife.  The backstory is perhaps even more interesting than the film itself-Panahi has been under house arrest and banned from film-making since 2010, for political dissent.  This film was produced surreptitiously using a dash-mounted camera, and in existing, is itself a political protest.

We took the afternoon off and headed to Cottonwood for a late lunch/early dinner at pizzeria Bocce.  On the way back, we received a text from our friend Ann, mentioning she was heading to see the 2016 German film Toni Erdmann at Sedona Performing Arts Center. None of us were scheduled to see this film. Looking up the film, we realized it was nominated for the foreign language Academy award, prompting us to swerve into the high school to book tickets.

We had a few minutes to chat and catch up with East coast friends Kathy and Steve, spending the month in Sedona away from winter in Pennsylvania.  Toni Erdmann was a long film, at two hours and 42 minutes, but didn’t drag. A prank loving father tries to intervene in the life of his corporate climbing, hard-driving only daughter.

There were some votes to bag the last film, (Médecin de Compagne) The Country Doctor, a French film starring François Cluzet.   But we persevered and all ended up being glad that we saw the film, in which a dedicated and hard-working country doctor, crisscrossing lonely roads making house calls, is forced after learning he is seriously ill to accept the assistance of a young recently graduated female doctor (the graceful and lovely Marianne Denicourt). We all had some critiques of the medical details, but the story itself was lovely and well told.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Our morning hike from the house got us as far as Marie’s Mesa, where we launched the drone, hoping as we returned that the helicopter overhead was not seeking out airspace scofflaws.

Sea Gypsies: The Far Side of the World was a rollicking, swashbuckling sea adventure chronicling a journey from New Zealand to Patagonia on a 120 foot sailing vessel, by way of Antarctica. The crew is an adventure loving, scrappy, but not particularly orthodox, expedition team.

We managed to secure only one ticket to Frantz, so Steve and John sat out the 6 PM showing. We had an early dinner, expanding a Blue Apron offering of Cajun catfish with mushrooms, spiced rice and collard greens.

Frantz was a terrific, very absorbing, lyrical film set in the aftermath of World War I. A mysterious young man appears in a small German town, befriending the bereft parents and fiancée of a slain German soldier. The 2016 François Ozon Franco – German coproduction movie was interesting on many fronts, even switching effectively back-and-forth between black-and-white and color. There was an interesting ambiguous, underlying sexual tension among the protagonists, including the slain soldier.

Steve and John joined us at the theater and a packed house for the 9 PM showing of Fanny’s Journey (Le Voyage de Fanny).  We had been hearing all week that this was a must, and evidently, that was responsible for the house being full at 9 PM.  Written by Lola Doillon and Ann Peyrégne and directed by Lola Doillon, it is based on a true story by Fanny Ben-Ami.  During WW II, Fanny and her sisters and other Jewish boarding school students, initially in a neutral zone in Occupied France, are transferred to another facility under Italian control, only to be endangered again, leading them to make for the Swiss border.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Our view in Sedona

Our morning hike, this time in the other direction on the Jim Thompson Trail, returned us to the house at 11 AM, leading to a mad scramble of showers and quick bites before heading off to our respective theaters for noon showings. Steve and I saw I Am Not Your Negro, which Joan and John had seen earlier in the week.  This powerful documentary, based on the writings of James Baldwin and directed by Raoul Peck, makes extensive use of vintage footage of him, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medger Evers. The nucleus of this film was 30 pages of an unfinished manuscript proposed by James Baldwin in 1979 to be a book called Remember This House, to be based on his personal experience of the lives and assassinations of these three giants of the civil rights movement who were his personal friends. It is a fascinating presentation of the simplistic depiction of black lives by the media and Hollywood, with continuing implications for today’s race difficulties.

Our follow-up Canadian feature, Grand Unified Theory, a 2016 film written and directed by David Ray, was a comedic treat. The lives of an astrophysicist and his wife and two teenage children are turned upside down during a weekend of comic cosmic convergences. The filmmaker materialized from Vancouver just in time for a terrific question and answer session afterwards. The film was made for a minuscule $100,000, with each of the actors accepting $100 a day as payment. Filming was at David Ray’s parent’s home.

Steve and I relaxed at home, cooking up our last Blue Apron meal for the week, chickpea and sweet potato chicken chili. Everyone but me bagged the last film, but I was glad I went to see Sink at 9 pm. This compelling drama was set in the Johannesburg house dominated by the accidental death of the housekeeper’s young daughter (while under the care of her employer), while the employer is newly expecting herself.  It was written and directed by Brett Michael Innes, based on his 2015 novel Rachel Weeping.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

We did a morning hike to Lost Canyon and an abbreviated drone flight, which was cut short by a helicopter overhead.  Returning after 11 am,  we had a mad scramble for showers, with Steve and John dispatched to save us seats at the Mary Fisher Theater for the noon showing of Certain Women, including some heavy hitter actresses, Laura Dern and Michelle Williams. This lyrical slice of life of overlapping narratives in lonely but lovely and winter cold Montana garnered mixed reactions from our group.

Our friends Gary and Laura were acknowledged for their restroom contributions in the opening remarks by Patrick.  We hooked up with them afterwards for a quick lunch and catch up at Piza Lisa. I had been thinking during the morning that I hadn’t seen them all week, and indeed, this was their first film, having just come from Palm Springs Modernism.

We weren’t originally signed up for Obit, our 3 pm selection, but Ann’s text earlier in the week prodded me to add it on. We all enjoyed it, but generally thought it could’ve been shortened a bit.

Our 6 PM film was also an add-on, another Academy Award nominee for foreign film, called The Salesman. This proved to be a phenomenal domestic drama by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. We had seen two of his prior films, both excellent, The Past and A Separation, which won the foreign language Oscar in 2012. The Salesman was justifiably a nominee for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language film. A young couple, who play opposite each other as Willy Loman and his wife in a local theatrical production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, is suddenly forced to move when cracks appear in the walls of their apartment and the building is declared unstable. A member of their theatrical troupe has a lead on an apartment for rent. The prior tenant’s connections lead to events that shake their marriage to the core. Fascinating, fantastic, suspenseful family drama, my vote for the best film of the festival.

What to follow-up such a terrific film but with dinner at Elote?!

Friday, February 24, 2017

The West Fork of Oak Creek is usually relatively easy to cross…

After a delicious breakfast of eggs with salsa and Elote leftovers, we headed up Oak Creek Canyon, intending to hike the West Fork of Oak Creek.  The emptiness of the parking lot, despite the mid-morning hour, was our first clue that perhaps this was not the ideal day for the signature hike. Arriving at the first creek crossing, we found the creek running high. The usually easy to cross stream was now accessible only by icy logs.

Not what we were expecting…

Re-grouping, we headed to Sterling Pass, after stopping in to confirm the location of the trailhead at a small café we had never checked out before, the Butterfly Garden Inn. After reaching the saddle, a steady climb up in one hour, with great views along the way, Steve made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. He would hike back down the way we came up and meet us across town, allowing us to descend the other side and head across on the Vultee Arch Trail.

The descent is a series of switchbacks, easier on the knees than what we had just ascended. Once on the opposite side, we had a very pleasant, rolling, mostly level walk. We saw Vultee Arch in the distance but elected not to pursue it, thinking we would be seeing Devil’s Bridge later in the hike.

Devil’s Bridge on another day’s hike, with our friend Dave

The pleasant young proprietor of the Butterfly Garden Cafe predicted it would take us four hours to traverse to the other side of town. He was about right. I was surprised when we reached the Vultee Arch trailhead to find there was no alternative but to proceed on FR 152, a heavily rutted jeep road, which gave off the trailheads to Secret Canyon and Brins Mesa before eventually giving us access to the Chuckwagon Trail. By this time, we were approaching the appointed hour for our rendezvous with Steve in the car, so there was no time to actually go to Devil’s Bridge. Emerging onto the road, I had just switched my phone off airplane mode to see if we could get a signal to contact Steve, when he miraculously appeared!

After his descent back down Sterling Pass trail, he had enjoyed a homemade, cooked to order hamburger at the Butterfly Garden Inn, showered and picked up the drone. He materialized with chocolate chip cookies for us and a diet Dr. Pepper for Joan. The three of us had a very late, 4 o’clock-ish lunch at Enchantment, while Steve took off with the drone, heading for Robbers Roost.

The view from Robber’s Roost…

Robber’s Roost view by drone

After stops to pick up a roasted chicken at Whole Foods for the following day and a stop at the Hike House for Joan to try on new hiking boots, we decompressed at the house, getting cleaned up and relaxing before heading back out for a 9 pm film.

Looking at a topographical map of Sedona, retracing our hike, I was surprised to find a magenta sticky note from some prior visitor or exchanger that said “I love when you lead us on hikes. I love exploring new places with you”.

Joan and John had seen Blood and Glory earlier in the week. Their reaction encouraged me back out for the 9 pm showing. This proved to be a good decision, as it was a fantastic film, one of the best of the week. The writer and director Sean Else was present for the question-and-answer session afterwards. This was a fascinating 2016 narrative feature from South Africa, set in 1901 during the Anglo – Boer war. It is based on actual events. The Dutch Boer settlers rebelled against attempts by the English to subjugate the region, including incarceration of women and children. Willem Marko is imprisoned on an island in the St. Helena concentration camp after attempting to rescue his wife and child, who die. The camp is dominated by a ruthless Colonel Swannell. A situation arises in which the Boer prisoners must learn to play rugby for a match against the British.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

John and John were headed to an early film, God Knows Where I Am, which encouraged me to get up earlier than usual, in order to see a film that interested me, but for which I had not registered. This was Call of the Ice, and I ended up being very glad I went. It was written and directed by Xavier Liberman and Mike Magidson. Mike was present for a question and answer session. He is an American, raised in Southern California, although lives in Paris. He has become involved with Greenlanders, including prior film projects. Call of the Ice is a film documenting his challenge to himself to learn to survive as an Inuit hunter. The film documents his one month of preparations and intense training, learning to fish through an ice hole and to hunt seals from a blind, as well as managing sled dogs, near Uummannaq, Greenland, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.  I had seen one of his prior films, which screened in Sedona in 2012, the 2010 feature Inuk.

I was the only passenger on the shuttle over to SPAC, where Steve met me to see a 2015 feature from the UK called Burn Burn Burn. The title is derived from Kerouac’s On the Road.  It was a black comedy road trip film, in which two 20 something-year-olds, scatter the ashes of their recently deceased friend, under his video direction.

Steve and I checked out a new-to-us restaurant, a nice homestyle Mexican place called Tamaliza, with good tamales and chicken mole. I managed a short hike, before we headed out again for a 6 pm and final movie. Steve and I saw a romantic comedy called Sunny with a Chance of Sunshine. We found ourselves sitting with Rebekah, James and Jeanette, all friends from prior film festivals (we found ourselves sitting again and again in the same area of the theater) and had a chance to hear about their favorites from the week.

Our final dinner was a group affair at home, a green salad concocted by Joan, a chicken and pasta salad by Steve, and roasted cauliflower, a delicious ending to another wonderful film festival week in Sedona.

Until next year…see you at the movies!




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