Saturday, February 19, 2022
We’re back! Masked, to be sure, and seated Noah’s ark-style, separated by a few seats from our fellow cinephiles, but definitely back. Actually, the Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF) is one of the few film festivals to have hardly skipped a beat during the pandemic. SIFF 2020 was actually the last “normal” (carefree, maskless, pre-pandemic, large groups of people together) event we attended just before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. That was probably our 10th year in a row to attend the festival, held the last week of February.
Except in 2021, that is. The festival was postponed and took place in June. Its postponement from its usual late February timeframe freed us up for an annual, ephemeral event, firefall in Yosemite, which takes place, in years when favorable conditions converge, for 2 weeks centered on February 21.
SIFF did go on in 2021, without us, in mid-June. Adjustments were made along the way to the realities of the pandemic, with the theaters less filled, assigned seating and patrons masked.
The realities of our radiology group merger and staffing shortages meant we weren’t sure until less than a month before that we would have the time off to attend in 2022, but it did eventually come together. The preceding week’s winter photography trip in Grand Teton and Yellowstone was postponed from the prior year and ended on the Friday before the film festival.
Initially thinking we’d only be able to come for a long President’s Day weekend, I made arrangements to fly from Bozeman to Flagstaff, our first time to try this tiny mountain town airport.
We did eventually make it to Flagstaff, but traveling on a smaller jet meant delays while the weight of the heavier loads of winter clothing the passengers were packing in checked luggage was calculated. It also meant an arrival well after the rental car agencies at the airport closed. We booked a night in an AirBnB casita near the airport. The next morning, apologies were made-Enterprise hadn’t received back the mid-size SUV they were expecting but a vehicle was coming for us from town. For the half hour delay, they reset the start time of our rental to the afternoon, fitting it into a week and knocking $150 off the price.
Having missed the 10 am film already, we stopped for breakfast on the drive down Oak Creek Canyon at Indian Gardens (a breakfast burrito for Steve and a really tasty Greens & Grains bowl for me of roasted carrots and brussels sprouts with quinoa, avocado and pepitas).
After unloading the car and starting a load of laundry, we were on our way to SPAC (Sedona Performing Arts Center) at the high school to pick up our passes and tickets for the week, as well as to see 2 features:
1 pm: Luzzu, a 2021 film from Malta, written and directed by Alex Camilleri, concerned the heartbreaking conflict between old and new ways of life as a traditional Maltese fisherman (non-actor Jezmark Scicluna) struggles to support his wife and newborn son, working in a system pitted against him.
4 pm: Peeky-a cranky high school drama teacher, on leave at home recovering from a broken ankle, finds help working through her grief at her mother’s recent passing with the aid of an unusual neighborhood teenager. Written and directed by Jack Paulson, this film was a family affair; with his drama student daughter Madeleine Paulson playing Peeky and long-time friend Jill Holder playing teacher Beth Levine. Charles T Jones and Paulson produced the film, which was shot in 8 days, guerrilla style.
Peeky was touching enough that I discovered tears and paper surgical masks are not a good mix. We gave our Dr. Elvis tickets for the evening to Jim and Jeanette in favor of heading home to cook up a Blue Apron dinner of mushroom risotto with seared scallops, with dessert chocolate truffles dusted with pistachios. Steve had already seen Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new feature for Netflix twice, Bigbug, but was anxious for me to see it, so that was our third screening of the day.
Sunday, February 20, 2022
10 am: Plan A (2021, written and directed by Doron and Yoav Paz). Patrick introduced this as the darkest film in the week’s line-up. A German Jew, Max (August Diehl), who has lost his wife and son in the war, falls in with a group of British Jewish vigilantes trying to foil another group of Jewish vigilantes plotting to avenge their losses by poisoning the water supply of German cities.
1 pm: You Will Remember Me (Tu te souviendras de moi) 2020 Canadian film written and directed by Eric Tessier, set in Quebec of a family coping (or not) with the patriarch’s (Rémy Girard) progressing dementia.
We skipped the 4 pm showing. I managed a 1 hour hike up Picnic Rocks and down Jordan, before tuning in remotely to my book group, discussing the Booker Prize winning selection, Damon Galgut’s The Promise, which follows the lives of a Dutch Africaans family in South Africa as apartheid unwinds.
Steve stayed home while I zipped back out for the 7 pm screening of France, which follows a famous and flamboyant TV journalist, France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux), as her professional and personal fortunes wax and wane. It was overlong at 2 hours and 13 minutes, an uneven send up of sensationalist journalism. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actress cry so much in a single film.
Monday, February 21, 2022
We started our day with a disturbing 10 am documentary Speer Goes to Hollywood, focused on Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer and his attempt to whitewash his reputation with a film based on his book Inside the Third Reich. The director Vanessa Lapa and sound editor Tomer Eliav taped an engaging Q & A screened afterwards.
For the afternoon, we were off to SPAC again for a 1 pm screening of a 2021 French film Black Box and a 4 pm showing of Implanted. We both were completely engrossed by the taut thriller Black Box, which traces the life and death race for the truth wrought by an obsessive analyst, Matthieu (Pierre Niney) as he investigates lines of inquiry which don’t add up in the aftermath of a plane crash which kills 300 passengers. When he is dismissed from the case, he is driven to desperate measures which affect his wife (Lou de Laäge).
Artificial Intelligence figured in both of our afternoon films. In Implanted, a 2021 American film, a homeless young woman is driven by money issues to undergo implantation of a LEXX microchip which monitors her bodily functions and health status. Initially, Sarah seems to co-exist with the voice in her head, until it begins to compel her to increasingly murderous actions. The actress playing Sarah, Michelle Girolami, was on screen virtually every minute in a demanding role and was charming and eloquent at the Q & A afterwards.
Steve made us an evening meal of Blue Apron extras, an arugula, farro and pear salad sprinkled with pistachios, with thyme biscuits with truffle butter, while I rowed and watched the first episode of the 4th season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Yes, Midge is back in New York after being left on the tarmac after being dumped as the opening act for Shy Baldwin.
Tuesday, February 22, 2022
We took the morning off. Steve was dealing remotely with our gas line repair ongoing in San Diego. I did a 1 hour hike up and around Ant Hill, via Jordan, encountering only one mountain biker and no hikers on the trail. A winter weather advisory was predicted for later in the day, with the first hints manifesting already.
While I was at the computer, an enticing email arrived. There was an opening in the upcoming weekend’s PhotoPills seminar with Rafael Pons. Steve, Greg and I were signed up for the originally scheduled course in August 2021, which was cancelled due to Covid. Rafael lives in Majorca and at that time, several months before the workshop, Spain was behind in vaccination and Rafael couldn’t travel to the US. I grabbed the spot.
We planned to see the 1pm, 4 pm and 7 pm films, but pooped out after the 2 afternoon shows. The title of the first, Drunken Birds, puzzled us. This 2021 Canadian film was framed by a love story, but centered on the lives of immigrant farm workers picking lettuce in Quebec. The visuals were lovely and the music excellent, if the story a little improbable.
Between films, we started to walk on the road paralleling the track at the high school. We were about halfway around when a small car zoomed toward us. The woman driving it informed us there had been a “stranger danger” alert-meaning us. Apparently, the campus is closed. So, we had to backtrack, probably achieving even more steps than if we had completed the circuit.
The 4 pm showing of a 2021 French film Delicious (Delicieux) was filled to Covid capacity. In 1789, a French chef (Grégory Gadebois) is ousted from his post in a Duke’s (Benjamin Lavernhe) household for having the temerity to innovate. Together with his son and an apprentice of mysterious origins (Isabelle Carré), he transforms his humble abode into a country inn and the first restaurant accessible to the public, making gastronomy available beyond the nobility.
Steve prepared a hearty and tasty Blue Apron meal for us, orange-glazed turkey meatballs with baby bok choy and carrots over brown rice. The last few evenings we’ve enjoyed a roaring fire after dinner. I completed half of an on line ACR nuclear medicine CME course while he was cooking.
Wednesday, February 23, 2022
We awoke to a beautiful blanket of lovely snow transforming our views into a winter visual delight. We always hope for snow when we’re here in the winter and occasionally our timing is on.
At SPAC, the theater was empty enough that the attendees could have each had a row to themselves. In his introduction, Patrick said by 7 am, he had already received 18 calls asking if the screenings would be cancelled. Being from Minnesota, he just laughed. The roads were clear, so I was surprised so many people bowed out. Amazingly, school was cancelled today.
The 10 am show was a 2021 Isreali film called Ahed’s Knee. The name derives from a film within the film, by an intense filmmaker called Y (Avshalom Pollak). He attends a showing of his latest film at a remote desert village. The event’s organizer (Nur Fibak), an employee of the Ministry of Culture, has to have him complete a form constraining his comments at the Q & A to follow, which touches off an explosive confrontation. Both Steve and I found elements of this film interesting, with some of the stylistic choices flamboyant and occasionally, irritating.
Steve made a Whole Foods run between films, procuring us surprisingly tasty Indian food for a quick bite. I did a short and lovely snow hike from the high school on nearby Scorpion Trail.
Attendance recovered by the 1 pm screening of a touching and funny dramedy, Pie in the Sky. The promise of apple pie after the screening may have been a motivator as well. Based on a two person play, it featured K Callan and Laurie O’Brien as mother and daughter (85 and 65 years old) who live together. The action takes place in the kitchen, as the mother awakens early to bake her daughter her specialty apple pie for her birthday. Over the course of the film, the pie is assembled and family secrets are revealed.
The snow was so beautiful and as we know from experience, transitory, leading us to settle for 2 films in favor of an afternoon hike from the house on the Jim Thompson Trail, which was wonderfully transformed. The snow was fresh enough that the footing was good, that satisfying scrunch of fresh snow underfoot.
Thursday, February 24, 2022
10 am: Tokyo Shaking is a 2021 French natural disaster thriller, set in a French bank in Tokyo in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2011 which set off the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. The lead, Karin Viard, was terrific as a banker caught between familial loyalty and career demands. Stéphane Bak was wonderful as her Congolese intern, as was Yuri Narita as her Japanese assistant. The cultural differences in the reactions of the multinational employees of the bank to the disaster was particularly interesting. The earthquake sequences were skillfully simulated and integrated with archival footage of the horrifying tsunami.
We made a Whole Foods run between films to procure some prepared Indian food for a quick lunch.
1 pm: Americanish is an amusing, touching and culturally diverse romantic comedy directed by Iman Zawahry involving three young Pakistani women, including two sisters and their cousin (Shenaz Treasury), newly arrived from Pakistan and intent on finding a doctor to marry. The older sister (Aizzah Fatima, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zawahry) is career-minded and the younger (Salena Qureshi) is set on admission to medical school. Their mother was played by Bollywood royalty Lillete Dubey. One of the producers, Paul Seetachitt, was present for a lively Q & A afterwards.
4 pm: Peace by Chocolate. This was the best attended screening of the festival, with the SPAC auditorium filled to Covid capacity. The lure of chocolate afterwards, supplied by Gayle’s, as well as wine from Page Springs may have encouraged attendance as well, but the film certainly merited the attention. It is based on a true story of an immigrant Syrian family which reunites in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Tareq (Ayhan Abou Ammar) is a former medical student whose education was disrupted by conflict in Syria. Despite wanting to resume his studies, he is pressed into service as interpreter to his parents as they rebuild their lives by restarting the chocolate business which had sustained them in their homeland.
Indian food featured also on our dinner menu, courtesy of Blue Apron, a peanut lentil stew with garlic naan.
Friday, February 25, 2022
Today was another great day of film viewing, at 10 am, 1 pm and 4 pm, including two Danish films and two films featuring problematic relationships between older women and younger men.
Margrete: Queen of the North is a 2020 Scandinavian film starring Trine Dyrholm as a monarch who by 1402 has forged an uneasy alliance between Norway, Sweden and Denmark, which threatens to become unravelled. To solidify the throne’s position, she is engineering a marriage between her adopted son King Erik ( Morten Hee Andersen) and an English princess. While the negotiations are underway, a man claiming to be her dead son and true heir appears in court and intrigue roils the tenuous alliance.
Boulevard! A Hollywood Story is a documentary film by Jeffrey Schwartz which tells the story of Gloria Swanson, the unforgettable Norma Desmond of 1950’s Sunset Boulevard and her involvement with a gay couple to make a musical version of the film.
We finished our viewing day with a 2021 Danish film, The Pact, featuring Birthe Neumann as an elderly, imperious Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) domineering and influencing a young poet (Simon Bennebjerg playing Thorkild Bjornvig, based on his best-selling memoir).
We were very late to pick up our Elote takeout, but their kale ceasar salad and enchiladas still tasted great when we ate them later. Episode 3 of the 4th season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and another cozy fire rounded out another delightful evening at home.
Saturday, February 26, 2022
I had to sacrifice a day of the film festival in order to do the Photopills course, but I ended up being glad I had a chance to take it. The program is very full-featured and complicated and I knew we were barely scratching the surface of its possibilities. Steve dropped me off in advance of the 9:30 am start at the Sedona Creative Life Center off Schnebly Hill Road and headed off to his first film, a documentary, After Antarctica.
He also enjoyed his second film, Black White and the Greys, which sounded very timely, taking place during the pandemic in an inter-racial marriage further tested by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Rafael Pons (aka The Bard) is an engineer by training and one of the developers of the Photopills app, which enables one to plan photo shoots by predicting where in the sky the sun will rise or set, the moon’s trajectory, the arc and timing of the appearance of the Milky Way and a host of other celestial events. We’ve used it to help plan eclipse and Milky Way shots but the program has many capabilities which we’ve never tapped into.
Everyone attending the seminar was vaccinated and all were initially masked. Masks were mostly quickly abandoned once it was announced that everyone was vaccinated. But it being only 3 weeks until our departure for Chile, I wasn’t taking any chances, even eating lunch (beef salad) in the sunny courtyard by myself rather than inside.
I caught a ride to the afternoon shoot at Yavapai Vista with John and Tom. It was an easy short 0.5 mile hike up to a nice plateau with a view of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. There was a tiny puddle of water, presumably melted snow left over from the snowfall earlier in the week, which gave me the only workable foreground I saw.
We used what we had learned to verify the height and arc of the Milky Way for the middle of the night shoot planned for 3:30 am. The sky was a clear blue without any interesting clouds, prompting us to descend without staying through golden and blue hours.
John gave me some good ideas for future shoots on the drive back to Sedona (Milky Way between Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte from Courthouse Vista and vertically oriented Milky Way up through the center of Cathedral Rock in August).
I actually beat Steve home, thanks to John dropping me off. He enjoyed his third feature film Our Almost Completely True Story, which was attended by co-producers, writers and stars Mariette Hartley and Jerry Sroka and tells the story of their meeting and marriage.
I tried to go to bed early, as I had to rise at 2:10 am to drive to Yavapai Vista trailhead by 3 am to hike up with the seminar group, by headlamp in the dark. The Milky Way in late February is low in the sky and is visible in the wee hours.
Until around 5:30 am, when the crescent moon peeked over the left shoulder of Bell Rock.
It was cold, in the 30s, but with heated insoles in my boots and in my gloves, the first hour wasn’t too bad. The cold did penetrate with increasingly persistence with time. Most of the group stayed through the blue hour but I don’t think anyone stayed to shoot the sunrise. I was home by 7 am and stayed in my thick down coat for another hour in the warmth of the house.
This was a great, action-packed week of film viewing, interspersed with some snow hiking and photography, capped off by learning some new Photopills capabilities. For a change, Steve saw more films than I did, managing 20 for the week to my 18, out of a possible 36 (9 days of the festival with 4 screenings/day). Our favorites for the week were two French thrillers, Black Box and Tokyo Shaking, although almost all of the films were worthy.Of the films I saw, I gave all but 3 the highest rating of “5”; even those 3 were “4” in my book.
At the week’s end, we were poised on the cusp of starting our new, reduced work status (50% for Steve and 60% for me) on March 1, so maybe next year we can stay for the final Sunday of the next year’s SIFF!