Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF), February 2023

Friday, February 17, 2023

In December of 2022, it wasn’t looking good for us to make it out to Sedona for the annual International Film Festival (SIFF) in late February.  Working against us was its coincidence this year with President’s Day on Monday.  It seemed the lure of the slopes and winter break for the parents among our partners led to a record number of requests for that particular week off.

Initially, I was only able to schedule Steve to be off Wednesday and Thursday of that week, which wouldn’t do us much good. Later, we were able to piece together the whole week off for him with random days off.

It looked even worse for me.  Finally, a personal appeal to Kathleen to work the final remaining day (Tuesday) made the final piece fall into place.

Late in December, we received an unusually large bonus.  Part of this was a form of back pay, but feeling momentarily flush, I persuaded Steve to upgrade to Platinum Passes instead of our usual Gold.  Gold entitles one to a ticket to a film in every time slot, as well as early selection.  The problem with four daily screenings (at 10 am, 1 pm, 4 pm and 7 pm) is that there is little time during the day to eat a real meal, much less exercise.  Going Platinum would give us access to the VIP room, serving lunch during the week.  I doubted we’d have the energy to take advantage of the 9 pm parties catered by different restaurants every evening, but they were also a perk of the upgraded pass.

The best laid plans are, as always, subject to the vagaries of fate.  Our friends Miles and Tatiana (she is a bona fide film buff) planned to come for the first half of the week and purchased a ticket package. Their plans were waylaid by Miles having a skiing accident in Jackson in January, leading to an acute disc extrusion and excruciating leg pain. We’d been advising and intervening on his behalf since learning of it while in Death Valley in January and instead of coming to the festival, he’d be having surgery, by the same miracle worker neurosurgeon (Hani Malone) who gave Steve a new lease on walking and life back in 2020 after minimally invasive surgery.

A silver lining was that friends in Phoenix, Cindy and Gerry, were free to come up the days Tatiana and Miles had planned to join us. They have joined us intermittently through the years for the festival.

We planned to drive out after work on Friday as far as Yuma. Steve was determined to make a road trip with our new EV (electric vehicle), a Hyundai Genesis GV60.  A few days before, Doug needed to switch days off, giving Steve Friday off to drive there without me.  No breast imagers were available to take my shift so I bought a plane ticket on Southwest to fly to Phoenix on Friday evening.  Steve would pick me up at the airport in the evening and we’d make it to Sedona late that night, around midnight.

As this was Steve’s first road trip with our EV (and only his second road trip with any EV (he rented a Tesla last year and drove it to Sedona to try it out)), this would give him a chance to really test out the car’s lane keeping and adaptive cruise control features.

This proved to be prescient.  When I spoke to him mid-day, he had barely limped into Yuma , with the car basically on the EV equivalent of Empty.  With 2 miles to a Super Charger, he missed the turn and had to do a U-turn on I-8!  It definitely was for the best that I wasn’t along for this adventure.

He was rather cranky when he picked me up at 9:30 pm.  I had texted him that I had ‘landed” but failed to mention I would be stopping in the restroom before heading out for the 2 hour drive.  My ill-timed restroom run caused him to have to circle around after being waved off by security.  We connected on the second go round.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

We were last here in late October, just before the first of two back to back monthly rentals of the house, another experiment for us.  2022 was chock full of pandemic-postponed trips, keeping us away from Sedona for a 6-month stretch.  When we discovered an HVAC unit had failed and we had a roof leak, we thought maybe the house would be better off with more continuous occupation.  Now we were worried about the converse-would too continuous of occupation be too hard on the house?  There definitely were concerning signs:  new water rings on a wooden night stand, a stain on the arm of the womb chair.  This was on top of the ceramics in strange, scrambled positions and having to put away the generic white Vacasa towels in favor of our more luxurious ones.

We spent the morning restoring order and retrieving clothes from storage.  With a mixture of olive oil and white vinegar, Steve managed to banish the ring stains on the night stand.  We weren’t impressed with Vacasa’s cleaning, finding a stray blueberry, nuts, crumbs and juice stains on the counter when the toaster oven was moved-who doesn’t move small appliances to the side when cleaning a kitchen counter?

Since we were narrative film reviewers for the festival this year, we had a leg up, having already seen a number of the films being screened.

In the 10 am slot was a film we had screened and approved called Trust, in which 3 siblings in a dysfunctional Jewish family duke it out after the death of their mother.

In the 1 pm slot, we had also really liked Dealing with Dad, another sibling film in which the 3 kids of cantankerous Dad converge on the family home when it becomes apparent their father is severely depressed, to the point he barely gets out of bed.  Unfortunately, Dad is so much more pleasant to be around in his depressed state.  I really liked this family comedic drama with a nearly all-Asian cast. I was gratified to learn later, when we ran into our Phoenix friends Jim and Jeanette, that they had also really enjoyed it.

The headliner for the evening, at 7 pm, was at SPAC, a screening of another of our thumb’s up selections: Hilma.  This is based on the life of an artist who took her much delayed place on the world stage with a career retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2019 (a show we missed).  I might have elected to see Hilma again had I realized filmmaker Lasse Hallström and star Lena Olin would be present for the screening and Q & A afterwards.

But our actual evening selection, Lost Transport, was quite absorbing.  John and Joan, our neighbors in San Diego (and former colleagues, now retired), who have attended the festival with us previously, materialized in the same row.  We’d been so busy in the run-up to this year’s SIFF that I hadn’t even had a chance to text and ask if they were coming this year.  A train full of Dutch Jewish refuges is abandoned by their German captors in a small town in Germany when they encounter Russian forces.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Svalbard, the Arctic Circle archipelago north of Norway, is a land of stark beauty.

Our day started at Harkins, a virtual trip to the remote archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, north of Norway, where we celebrated Steve’s 60th birthday with an Arctic wildlife cruise with Nancy and Gerry, Greg, Lauren and Brad and Bob and Debbie. The documentary film The Visitors is set in Longyearbyen, where our journey commenced and follows a Czech anthropologic researcher who interviews the inhabitants in an effort to track the demographic shifts affecting the remote community.  Historically, Longyearbyen consisted of Norwegian men who worked in now shuttered coal mines.  Now, because no visa is required to live in Longyearbyen (one must have a job and be able to find lodging), the population is shifting from majority Norwegian to a more international mix, a shift opposed by the Norwegian and local governments.  Zdenka moves to Svalbard planning to stay for 2 years working on her project and brings her family of 3 young boys and a husband along.  They like it enough to consider staying permanently but find they are not entirely welcome, a rebuff faced by many of the international transplants. Director Veronika Lisková  was heard from in a pre-recorded interview screened afterwards.

Sublime Svalbard panorama: ice, water and sky.

The Visitors was paired with and preceded by a complimentary and very well executed short film called Monumental Divide, written and directed by Brian Olliver. An active young couple into canyoneering and hiking moves to Escalante, Utah after falling in love with canyon country.

I completely understand falling in love with Canyon Country (near Zion, Seth’s secret slot canyon).

They find the community is widely split on either side of a vast divide over the status of Escalante National Monument (created by President Clinton, halved in size by Stump and restored to its original boundaries by President Biden), with long-time residents and ranchers resenting newcomers and encroachment on freedoms (such as the ability to run cattle on public lands) they had formerly enjoyed prior to the Monument’s creation.

At the same time, a film we had screened in the fall and enjoyed was playing, Hard Shell, Soft Shell, a romantic French drama set in the south with an oyster farmer as the protagonist.

We found our 1 pm show, The Marshmallow Mystery Tour amusing, but not enough to compensate for being too long, frenetic and just not funny enough.

We took advantage of our passes to head to Seven Canyons for a late afternoon party.  We commandeered a circular seating area with a spectacular view surrounding a warming fire and were soon joined by John and Joan, John’s sister and her husband, who we had met at a prior festival in 2020, just before the pandemic related shut-downs.  SIFF 2020 was the last fully normal pre-pandemic activity we were to enjoy that year.

Meanwhile, Cindy and Gerry drove up in time for a 4 pm film we had screened in the fall and approved: Long Flat Balls “Broken Promises”, a hilarious Norwegian 2022 comedy with an ongoing cast of non-professional actors, who have appeared in two other films in this series, the title of which is a soccer term.

We decided to bag our plans for a 7 pm showing and headed home, meeting up with our guests for cheese and crackers and wine.

Monday, February 20, 2023

We set off for different theaters in time for the 10 am showings of Farewell Mr. Haffman (Cindy and Gerry) and Girl Gang (us).  Farewell Mr. Haffman was one of our favorite films among those we saw during the selection process. It is a WW II drama set in Paris as the Nazis approach.  Daniel Auteuil plays a jeweler who has to turn his business over to his employee in order to flee the city.

Girl Gang is a 2022 Swiss documentary following a teenage influencer, Leonie, whose parents support her in her efforts to produce content for her avid followers, as well as gain sponsors. The writer and director, Susanne Meures, participated in a pre-recorded Q & A from which we learned she had followed the family over 4 years to make the film.

Between films, we had a quick lunch bite provided by Enchantment at the VIP lounge at Yavapai College of southwestern grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, roasted carrots and a Mediterranean salad.

I almost didn’t schedule us for the 1 pm screening of Pinball-The Man Who Saved the Game, a most enjoyable documentary about Roger Sharpe who in 1970s New York found he could only pursue his passion for pinball at adult movie theaters in Times Square, as pinball had been outlawed for 35 years as a form of gambling. In the end, the New York angle and the fact it was screening in the largest theater (often featuring films with the widest appeal) swayed me and I was glad it did.

Our final film for the day at 4 pm was an accomplished,  very dark academic comedy, Publish or Perish, as a stressed English professor nearing tenure is driven to increasingly desperate acts.  He was very well played by Timothy McCracken, who was present for the Q & A afterwards, along with writer/director David Liban, himself a tenured film & TV professor in Colorado.

The principals behind the very dark academic comedy, Publish or Perish: wrier and director David Liban and star Timothy McCracken, who plays a crazed English professor stressed out about his upcoming tenure review. We weren’t sure if our own tenured English professor sister Susan would find this as funny as we did.

We were supposed to see Hide and Seek in the evening, but hitting the more than 3 films/ day wall, we turned in our tickets and headed home. I rowed and finished watching a BJ Novak film (he wrote, directed and stars in) Vengeance, a contemporary thriller in which a New York writer is lured to Texas by the death of a girl he hooked up with whose death might have the makings of a good podcast. Having recently finished season 2 of Only Murders in the Building, I was instantly drawn in to this film with parallel themes. Meanwhile, Steve pulled together dinner, a Blue Apron baked chicken, rice and broccoli dish.  Cindy and Gerry gave Hide and Seek mixed reviews when we caught up later at home with the fire going.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

We gave our tickets to Under the Influencer to Cindy and Gerry, who drove home afterwards in advance of high winds and rain predicted for later in the day.  This had been one of Steve’s indie favorites from our fall screening duties, a tale of a teenage YouTuber who is aging out of her pull and appeal.

We took advantage of the morning off and the last predicted good weather to hike from the house, a loop up Jordan and down Cibola.

Our first showing of the day, after a quick lunch at Yavapai (Steakhouse 89’s chili, cornbread and salad), was at 1 pm at Harkins.  There was a packed house for The Thief Collector, ably directed by Allison Otto.  Back in 1985, when I was in medical school at the University of Arizona, there was an infamous broad-daylight heist of a valuable Willem de Kooning painting, Woman Ochre, from the University art museum.  As an undergraduate majoring in art history, I spent many hours in the museum from which the painting was cut out of its frame and stolen.  For 32 years, this was an unsolved mystery, as it never surfaced on the art market.  The mystery was finally solved in recent years, when it was found behind the bedroom door after the deaths of a world traveling (but otherwise modestly living) New Mexico couple, Rita and Jerry Alter. The documentary does a great job of weaving together what is known about the couple (his nephew, who was the executor for their estate, is extensively featured), how the investigation by the University and local police and the FBI quickly stalled and how the painting was discovered when it was purchased by a trio of antique dealers in Silver City, NM after the couple’s deaths.

We’d heard good reviews earlier in the week from John and Joan about our 4 pm selection, a Hawaiian language feature called The Wind and the Reckoning. It compellingly tells the story of a family that resists being separated by an 1893 governmental edict (after the Hawaiian kingdom is overthrown by western powers) that all natives afflicted with leprosy be exiled to the island of Moloka’i.  Pi’ilani (on whose memoirs this film is based) is not infected, but her husband Ko’olau (Jason Scott Lee) and son Kalei (Kahiau Perriera) are and Pi’ilani is forbidden to accompany them.  The lovely actress portraying Pi’ilani, Lindsay Marie Anuhea Watson, was present for the Q & A, as was producer Angela Laprete.  The film was relatively low budget (around 1 million) and filmed in a lock-down bubble during the first year of the pandemic.

Steve bowed out of our evening feature at SPAC, Loren & Rose, starring Jacqueline Bisset and Kelly Blatz as an older actress whose career needs reviving and a young director casting his first feature film. Their story is presented as three courses of a series of meals in a Topanga restaurant, from their first meeting (appetizer), 2 years later (entree) and 2 more years later (dessert). Writer, director and co-producer Russell Brown was present for a Q & A afterwards, with Bisset, who was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.  In structure (an extended conversation between two people at a restaurant), the film brought My Dinner with Andre to mind (which I loved but Steve did not).   Bisset was excellent in a role which seemed written for her.

Long-time SIFF director Patrick Schweiss enjoying the Q & A with Loren & Rose star Jacqueline Bisset and writer/director/co-producer Russell Brown.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

We awoke to a light dusting of snow, always a beautiful enhancement to Sedona’s wintertime scenery.  ZeroRes carpet cleaning dominated the morning.  Steve stayed available while I did a morning loop hike, reversing my loop of the prior day, heading up Cibola and down Jordan, with an inadvertent spur onto a portion of the Ant Hill loop.

The documentary film Ranger focuses on a group of Masaii women being trained to be the first female rangers in Kenya, very different option than the traditional roles we saw for women during our 2007 trip.

Cindy had left us fixings for a light lunch of ramen with baby corns and brisket.  We made it to the theater at Harkins in time for an absorbing and illuminating documentary, Ranger, which brought back great memories of our 3 weeks in Kenya 15 years ago (Steve’s 50th birthday trip).  It chronicles the selection and training of the first group of 12 female anti-poaching rangers in East Africa. Most of the women, in their 20s, have children and are effectively single parents.  They underwent an intensive 6 month training program to empower them to be effective in roles much at odds with the options available traditionally to them.  My recollection of what we saw in Kenya was that women were relegated to child-rearing, water and firewood fetching, cooking and hut maintenance, as demonstrated to our photographic group, mudding huts with cow dung. Director Austin Peck was available for a lively discussion afterwards, providing some context and follow-up on the women since finishing their training.


We had only to walk across the street to catch our second documentary of the day, at the Alice Gill-Sheldon theater, an adventure thriller called Savage Seas, highlighting an amazing family of surfers and sailors, the Knights, on a quest to find a mythic wave in the Savage (or is it Salvage) Islands, described in an old sea-faring tome.

Steve bowed out of the evening feature, so I ran him home.  I made it back across town in time for a tide-me-over snack at Yavapai and a screening of a 2010 film White Irish DrinkersIt is set in Brooklyn in 1975 in a working class neighborhood (where the neighborhood bar boots out arrivals wearing Saturday Night Fever-type disco clothes. Two brothers grapple in different ways with their father’s abuse.  Karen Allen is terrific as their long-suffering mother and Stephen Lang was also excellent as their heavy drinking, short-tempered, corporal father. Also present for the showing was Peter Riegert (well known for Local Hero) as a local theater owner who employs the younger brother.

Screening White Irish Drinkers, a 2010 film, reunited writer/director John Gray and wife/co-producer/cinematographer Melissa Jo Peltier with stars Stephen Lang , Karen Allen and Peter Riegert.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Sedona with an evanescent sugar-coating of snow, backyard hike view.

We awoke to another rapidly receding light dusting of additional snow.  I had only scheduled us for 2 afternoon films today and thinking there might be nice winter photography conditions up Oak Creek Canyon, we decided to bag the first film and go to West Fork of Oak Creek, a perennial favorite hike. There was indeed more snow hanging on higher up the Canyon.  Pulling into the parking lot, it was closed.  Too icy?  We’d never encountered it closed, only full.  Steve was underdressed, leading us to decamp to a warm lunch at Indian Gardens, which was so satisfying (my favorite bowl, grains and greens, with a terrific curry butternut squash soup with pepitas).

After charging the car, while continuing to listen to Christopher Moore’s Maui whale tale Fluke with a quick stop at Ace for new air filters and baking soda to try to eradicate the sooty smudges on our Womb chair, we made it to SPAC for the 4 pm showing of Remember This, which is a filmed version of a one-man play, also starring the amazing David Strathairn, based on the life of a WW II hero, Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance who carried eye-witness accounts of the Holocaust’s effects on Poland’s Jews to the West, where he was largely ignored. Strathairn was deservedly honored at SIFF years back for his widely ranging and always interesting work.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Between morning phone calls to Scripps pharmacy and to Leslie, our New York realtor, we worked in a short hike on the Jim Thompson trail.  The sugar-coating of snow on the mountains was diminishing by the hour.

Jeannette had enthusiastically endorsed Ibiza Blue, our 1 pm screening, earlier in the week.  It is set during the pandemic in an unusually tranquil, locked-down Ibiza, as two men and a woman, all grieving deaths of family members, tentatively explore and develop connections.  Jesus Lloveras was present for the Q & A led by Gil, along with Ainara Landon.  Together they produced the film, which Lloveras directed, as well as co-wrote and starred in as Carlos, who comes from Madrid to visit an old friend, Julio.  Both Julio and Carlos develop an interest in Alba (Alicia Lorente), a visitor from Barcelona.  Landon makes a brief appearance at the film’s end. The film involved multiple members of Lloveras’ family, including his niece.

I hadn’t originally scheduled us to see Rally Caps, but Patrick’s enthusiasm swayed me enough to request tickets after our arrival in Sedona. The fact that Judd Hirsch (up for another Academy Award in a few weeks for his role as the crazy Russian uncle in The Fabelmans) was slated to appear was also persuasive. Steve and I saw Hirsch in person many years ago in St. Louis in I‘m Not Rappaport.  What we both most remember is climbing into the rafters towards our seats, thinking “at least we’re not UP THERE, even higher (which, as it turned out, we were)”.  I also remember being amazed the performances could even connect that far.  in Rally Caps, Hirsch plays the grandfather of a traumatized aspiring Little Leaguer in a family of coaches and baseball players. At camp, Jordy is reluctant to play baseball but receives encouragement from new friends, including a pair of deaf siblings, played by Colten and Noelle Pride, the actual children of Curtis Pride, the first deaf major league baseball player, who appears in the film as himself.   Eleven year old Carson Minniear, who plays Jordy, was also present, as was Amy Smart as his mother.  The film is based on a book of the same name, written by a father-daughter team.  Co-author Jodi Michelle Cutler explained at the Q & A that the book was inspired by her son’s deafness and use of a cochlear implant.  One of the memorable characters, Coach Ballgame, was portrayed by an actual coach, James Lowe (who studied acting in college).  Director Lee Cipolla rounded out the abundant representation at the Q & A, at which Judd Hirsch was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The best laid plans…are ripe for change, as we all know.  Steve developed troubling visual flashes yesterday, enough to consult by phone with our ophthalmologist friend Brad. I was up on top of Picnic Rocks (our name for a backyard formation) on a solo exercise hike when my phone rang.

Picnic Rocks, our name for a Sedona backyard hike formation, with surprisingly good phone reception.

It was Steve, saying his symptoms were worse and Brad advised that he needed to be dilated and examined.  Instead of two more days of film watching, we precipitously embarked on driving home. Since the house would be occupied by a monthly renter in a few days, we had work to do to prepare it for cleaning-moving clothes out to the studio, emptying the refrigerator, taking out the garbage, packing the car.  The car also needed to be maximally charged, which meant a trip to Electrify America at Posse Grounds. We grabbed lunch at Wildflower before hitting the road at 2 pm.  We encountered the predicted winter storm outside San Diego, near blizzard conditions.

Sighted on the approach to San Diego: SNOW! A LOT of it!

After 4 stops to charge (not wanting to be stranded in a snow storm, we added an extra charging session), we made it back to San Diego 10 hours later.  I vowed this would be my last EV road trip, with charging adding 2 hours to the already long trip. Instead of seeing Patrick and the Whale as planned in the afternoon, we continued listening to an alternate whale tale, Christopher Moore’s Fluke. Two of the films we recommended for the festival screened today, Schachten and Who Invited Charlie?, a pandemic comedy.

SIFF 2023, by the numbers:

9 festival days, 4 screening slots/day, a very dedicated film-goer could see up to 36 films (not counting shorts).  We attended 7 days, so could have seen 28 films.  What we managed:  13 for Steve, 15 for me, plus we had already enjoyed 11 films that were shown during the festival as screeners during the fall.  All of these films were worth a watch (with the possible exception of Marshmallow).  Those we particularly loved are bolded.  This was going to be our first year to stay through the final day, when awards are given out, but alas…usually, we are traveling back to San Diego on Sunday and never get to partake in the final day festivities.  This was also our first year enjoying the Platinum Pass privileges, naming eating on a more regular basis, thanks to the food provided by local restaurants in the VIP lounge.  Until next year…see you at the movies!


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