The 21st Sedona International Film Festival – Sand Castles and Weekend Features

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After an almost dizzying though undeniably fun week of movie watching, the closing weekend for the 21st Sedona International Film Festival has arrived, though rather than thinking of it as a festival winding down, consider today and tomorrow your chance to catch-up with some of the best of the best, films you may have missed, or perhaps a couple you’d like to revisit.

Water picIn addition to the festival’s week-long salute to the life and work of Orson Welles with a 3pm Saturday afternoon showing of Citizen Kane on the big screen, look out for a not-to-be-missed closing night live performance from engaging raconteur, John Walters in his one-man show, This Filthy World.

Also, check listings for showings of feature films and documentaries previously mentioned in this column, including repeat performances of documentaries such as The Immigration Paradox and The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, plus narrative features such as Girl on the Edge, Frank vs. God and the film that has already garnered several awards from previous film festivals around the country, Sand Castles.

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Sand Castles poster

Set in rural Indiana, Sand Castles tells of the impoverished Daly family continually haunted by a tragedy that occurred more than a decade ago.  It’s a nightmare that never ends.  After a family trip to the beach, little Lauren Daly mysteriously disappeared, snatched by a stranger.

The devastation felt by the remaining family members understandably causes their lives to spiral down, out of control, resulting with dad taking his life while mom (an outstanding Saxon Trainor) drowns in a world of cigarettes and booze, leaving their son Noah (Jordon Hodges) to basically fend for himself.

Then, a decade later, the unimaginable occurs.  “There’s no easy way to say this,” a cop tells the family.  “We found Lauren.”

Somehow, the little girl, now a teenager, has escaped from the confines of wherever she was held captive, but the trauma of the past ten years or so has resulted in a complete shutdown: she doesn’t speak.  The only potential clue to what might have happened to her is a well-worn copy of the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations.  The significance of the novel and why the young girl appears to read and re-read the book is later revealed, but to the frustration of the social worker assigned to the case, Alison Paige (Daniella Grace), Lauren refuses to allow anyone to touch her dog-eared copy.  In an attempt to break through the young girl’s silence and hopefully open up a channel of communication with her, Alison buys her own copy of the book and even takes both Lauren and Noah to a local community theatre production of the novel.

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Sand Castles –  a title referring not only to that fateful day at the beach but also the fragility of an existence that can be swept away by a single wave in one, brief, unexpected moment – is an impressive debut from Jordon Hodges, who here does triple duty as actor, writer and co-producer.  There’s little wonder as to why the film has already collected a number of festival awards; Sand Castles has its flaws, but the overall impression you’re left with as you leave the theatre is one of immense satisfaction, the result of witnessing an ambitious story well told and the introduction to a new talent; Jordon Hodges.

As writer, Hodges uses only slight reveals to illustrate important key moments.  It’s up to us, the audience, to recognize the clues.  Imagine trying to fit pieces of a jig-saw into place but without the aid of the picture on the box.  Flashbacks occur, but they’re brief; they flash on the screen in the same way a thought may suddenly spring to mind, lasting just a few seconds, often shorter.  With an economy of dialog, feelings are often illustrated by the briefest of glances or an accusatory look.  When ex-cop and close family member, Tommy Daly (Randy Spence) buys Lauren her own, small fridge – the kind a student may have for convenience in the dorm – the young girl unexpectedly runs forward and hugs her uncle, burying her head in his chest.  It’s a touching and genuinely heartfelt family moment made all the more effective due to the simple absence of dialog.  But occasionally there are the few odd missteps.

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The scene where Tommy’s ex-partner, now detective (Scott Jemison) angrily berates Lauren out of frustration for her continual silence develops into something unnecessarily overwrought and not particularly well-played, plus the sudden romance between Noah and the attractive social worker occurs completely out of nowhere.  The moment when Alison suddenly kisses Noah is meant to surprise, which it certainly does, but up until that moment there has been no indication whatsoever of the social worker’s attraction to Lauren’s big brother.  The romance needs to happen in order for later events to occur, but somehow that initial moment feels both wrong and unnatural.  There’s also the appearance of an important, extra scene that runs in the middle of the closing credits.  It’s not an add-on; it’s an integral part of the mystery and needs to be seen earlier rather than at the conclusion of the cast list.

However, backed by an outstanding, atmospheric score from musician Todd Maki and solid performances from Hodges, Trainer and Spence, plus an effective appearance from Clint Howard whose somewhat creepy presence only adds to the overall mystery of Lauren’s kidnapper, director Clenet Verdi-Rose has delivered a feature that needs to venture further than the confines of the festival circuit.  More importantly, it introduces us to Jordon Hodges.  Remember the name.

You can enjoy a repeat performance of Sand Castles tonight (Saturday) at 9:10, plus make sure you catch the outstanding twenty minute proceeding short, Unspoken.  It’s an extremely well made film from writer/director Eric Otten exploring the effects of Alzheimer’s.  The setup needs no explanation.  See it for yourself.

Posted in Sedona International Film Festival Reports

The 21st International Sedona Film Festival : 1,000 Times Goodnight and The Immigration Paradox

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The 21st Sedona International Film Festival continues into Friday with a look at two very different films;   one a narrative feature, the other a documentary.  Both are powerful, though in their way, both are also flawed.

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During the chilling, opening moments of the new drama 1,000 Times Good Night, it’s difficult to tell what’s happening.  In the darkness of the widescreen, a thin shard of light pierces through a round hole.  Within that shard bounces red and brown dust indicating, what?  A dusty room?  A basement?  Maybe not.  The sound we start to hear indicates movement from outside.  Nevertheless, it remains difficult to get a handle on where we are.   Then, more thin shards of light pierce through.  Suddenly a door rises up and we realize we’re inside the back of a van.  From the look of the temporarily blinding image through that small door, we can also tell we’re somewhere in the middle of a foreign desert.

Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) is a photojournalist who continually puts herself in harm’s way in war zones around the world in order to capture those sights and images we might find published in Time Magazine or other news publications.  Here she’s hidden in the back of a rickety vehicle, taken to a secret location for her next shoot.  A young, female suicide bomber is strapped with explosives ready to detonate and Rebecca has permission to record the event.  What follows is a disastrous episode resulting with a premature explosion, several dead bodies in the street and Rebecca forcefully flung through the air, her camera bouncing on the dusty ground, its lens covered in a mixture of desert dust and blood.

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It’s rare that we ever think of the danger photojournalists put themselves through in order to get that picture or the toll it takes on their lives or the lives of loved ones back home on the other side of the world, but in 1,000 Times Good Night an all too real sense of what is required is captured.

Your mum is made of very tough stuff,” explains family friend Theresa (Maria Doyle Kennedy) to Rebecca’s two young daughters in their Dublin home.  “She always makes it through.”  But the two young girls are not entirely convinced, particularly when their mother returns home yet again looking fragile, gaunt and somewhat shell-shocked and in urgent need of rest.  “Why do you put yourself in harm’s way?” asks Rebecca’s husband, Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in a desperate attempt to understand.  “What were you doing out there?”

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The subject matter alone is enough to grab your attention, but the power behind the events is made all the more compelling by Binoche as the photojournalist whose passion for her job continually puts herself at odds with her family life.  We can understand her drive but it also comes with a feeling of annoyance that keeps Rebecca at arms-length.  Witnessing her home life and the pain her family suffer, never quite knowing if mummy will ever return makes it difficult for us to fully comprehend her compulsion.

The film is often a difficult watch, particularly when our own emotions are being continually yanked in all directions.  The film can never quite repeat the power of that opening ten minutes in the war zone when Rebecca chronicles the ritual of a suicide bomber, but it comes close, later when oldest daughter Steph (a terrific Lauren  Canny) angrily points Rebecca’s camera directly at her mother, its lens almost touching the woman’s face while the shutter repeatedly clicks, sounding like the rapid burst of enemy gunfire while Rebecca silently, slowly crumbles into tears before her daughter with each shot.

The film had a limited release late last year and can be seen in a repeat festival performance tonight (Friday) at 9pm.

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Imm poster

In an introductory voice-over during the pre-credit opening sequence of the new documentary The Immigration Paradox, writer/director Lourdes Lee Vasquez states, “I wanted to know how we as a society continued to allow injustices to happen time and time.”  The point she was making was in regard to injustices of the past, such as slavery, Native American slaughter, even the Holocaust.  “I often wonder what happened to past generations,” she states.  “Did they not see it as an injustice, were they not well informed, or did they just close their eyes and pretend it wasn’t happening?”

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It’s this point of being fully informed, how our opinions are shaped and how the ‘facts’ can be presented in different ways, depending on what side of the fence that factual information is coming from, that becomes the centerpiece to the explosive issue of immigration.  It was when director Vasquez encountered a desperate immigrant crossing the harsh Arizona desert in order to find a new and better life for him that the filmmaker decided to make a film exploring the question, why would anyone risk their lives under such appalling life or death conditions to come to America?

With interviews conducted on both sides of the argument, Vasquez straddles a fine line of trying to appear in the middle of the debate, not necessarily taking sides but carefully trying to understand how those often passionate opinions are formed and where the people presenting their opinions find their information.

Early in the film, it’s the media that becomes the focus of attention.  Several interviewees reflect on how many get their information from a sound-bite or a thirty second story resulting with a distorted look at things and a somewhat ill-informed opinion on what is really a severely complex issue.

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Shots of protesting crowds in the streets of Phoenix illustrate the angry divide by the signs painted on boards and placards.  Pro-immigration supporters show pictures of Governor Jan Brewer accompanied by the phrase Hitler’s Daughter painted in black letters under the image while anti-immigration supporters wave banners declaring We Support Sheriff Joe, or We Love You Joe Arpaio.  Even filmmaker Vasquez becomes a victim of verbal abuse while filming the protesters.  “Go home,” screams one woman in the crowd directly at Vasquez, “And take your camera with you!”

Technically, the film is extremely well shot , plus the interviews from both sides of the issue often sound well thought and occasionally persuasive, but whether the film is one of the most important films of the century, as the marketing hype suggests, might be embellishing things.  Nevertheless, by filming contributions from people hailing from all areas of our society, Vasquez succeeds in making us take perhaps a second look at our own thoughts on the issue and questioning what it is that shapes our opinions and where that information comes from.   As one interviewee states, “The terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers came to the country on legal visas, so the biggest threat to the country’s security came from those who entered legally.”

A repeat showing of The Immigration Paradox can be seen tomorrow, Saturday at 9am.

For a complete look at the 21st Sedona International Film Festival schedule grid, CLICK HERE

Posted in Film

The 21st Sedona International Film Festival: The Short Film – February

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Feb poster

Scattered among the many narrative features and documentaries screened at a film festival is the short; that specialized, creative area of movie-making where a story is usually told within a ten to fifteen minute time frame; sometimes even less.  One such short currently showing at the 21st Sedona International Film Festival is February, a fourteen minute narrative telling the story of a boy who walks into a school with a rifle, enters the class room and fires, killing a student.

The film was written and directed by Jessi Shutleworth, who also stars in February in addition to co-producing the project with her sister, Ciara.    Both sisters are currently in Sedona to promote and talk about the making of the film, which they did with a brief Q&A after a late-evening showing on Wednesday.

Yesterday morning, once the sisters had returned from an early morning trip to see the Grand Canyon – they actually left Sedona at four in the morning and returned by ten – I had the chance to talk to both about the making of their film and what the future holds for the short.  I began by asking about the inspiration for the subject.

Why a school shooting?

Jessie

Jessi:  February springs from an experience my brother had.  It was in 1996, in our home town of Moses Lake, Washington, where one of the first middle school shootings happened, and our brother, who was thirteen at the time, was in the adjacent classroom, and when the shots rang out he was the only student self-possessed enough in the horror of that moment to help the teacher barricade the doors shut.  Even though eighteen years have passed, our brother, like everyone who was there, is very much impacted by what he saw and heard that day.  As horrific as the actual event was, I think in many ways the silence that followed was also horrendous.  In writing February I really wanted to explore the lives of those who were left behind in the wreckage and how that single fracture of time forever impacted their lives.

Was there more to the script than we see in the film?

Jessi:  You know, this particular script was always short but I have a feature length of February – it’s already written – so obviously, you know, when you see the short you’re just getting a glimpse of these characters, but in the feature they’re so much bigger.  The Ethan Phillips character has a much bigger role in the feature and that whole backstory of the father, what was lost, and that relationship, as well as Sam and Police Chief Pierce and their connection.

Was the film ever longer than fourteen minutes?

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Jessi:  I think from the very beginning we were kind of shooting for that sweet spot, you know, the thirteen or fourteen minute short for the festival format, but I wrote this script exactly as I wanted it.  I really didn’t compromise on anything and whether that’s to my detriment or not (laughs).  I guess… no, we really didn’t edit anything out.  If anything I wish there was more in it.  There’s so much more to the story.

Ciara: Visually there’s a lot more.  We had so much ‘B’ reel.  Michael Swaigen, our director of photography, was phenomenal.  We had so much ‘B’ reel that we spent hours upon hours, days upon days, just going through the footage.

Jessi:  We had several takes where we had to see whether we liked this take or that take.

Did the finished film turn out as you originally conceived?

Jessi:   I think so.  For the format that it’s in I’m very proud of what we were able to put out there.  I had an amazing crew and a really wonderful cast, and it was such a treat.  I get emotional about it but it was such a treat to have my words, to have my story that is so personal to the two of us, to our family, brought to life.  It’s really exciting.

Star Trek: Voyager fans will recognize one certain face.  How did Ethan Phillips become involved?

Ethan

Jessi:  Ethan, or as we call him, Johnnie Phillips, erm…   I’ve known him since I was five.  For Ciara, it was twelve.  Our father is a playwright and writer and he met Johnnie at Sundance of 1990.

Ciara:  It might have even been ’89.

Jessi:   It was ’89 or ’90, and they just connected.  Phyllis Somerville who is in February was also there and the three of them just connected and bonded over a workshop. Johnnie came into our lives in, I think, 1991 –

Ciara:  Literally just walked into our lives, through the front door.  It was just my older sister and I at home, and it was like, “Hi, I’m Johnnie Phillips.  Can I come in?  I know your dad.”

Jessi:   I was riding a school bus home and my mom flagged it down and pulled me off, and we pulled up to the house in her car and Johnnie’s been to our fridge, and he comes out with baby carrots in one hand and a drum stick in the other hand and he says to my mom with open arms, “Honey, you’re home.”

Ciara:  He’s such a riot.

Feb 4

Jessi:   When I wrote this script I was really protective of it because of the subject matter and because for so long there was a real silence that cloaked the event, not only in the town but also in our family.  I don’t know if it was a sort of protection of our brother to not talk about it, but it was never spoken of.  So when I wrote it, I was sort of incredibly protective of the scripts.  The first person who read it was my mom, who is also an incredibly talented, bright, well spoken, well-read woman, and she read it, waited, like, an hour, and she called me back.  She was just going over the script and she gets to the final character of this father in the crowd scene and she said that it’s such an important part.  She said when she read it, all she could think of was Johnnie, you know, Ethan Phillips in the crowd with that face, that intensity.  And she said, you have to pitch it to him.  I said, no, he’s never gonna go for it.  But he did, and that’s how he’s in the film.

You wear several hats.  You wrote, produced, directed and starred in this film.  What comes first? 

Jessi:   Hmm, that’s a tough one.  I like them all differently.  I would say maybe… screenwriter?  Like I said before, our father is a writer.  We grew up in a house where storytelling was literally a genetic predisposition, we couldn’t help ourselves.

Ciara:  We had no television.

Jessi:   We lived out in the country.  One of my first memories was sitting around our stove in Nebraska –

Ciara:  Dead of winter.

Jessi:   Dead of winter, sitting around the stove, listening to my siblings try to out-storytell each other, so that was really the seedling of my writing, and at this point it’s become – what does Sam Shephard say? – it’s a disease of my personality; it’s a compulsion; I can’t help myself.

Ciara:  Also, it’s true.  All four of us, all four Shuttleworth kids, we write.  Our brother is a published poet, I write poetry as well, and our older sister, she’s a lawyer and she does more of the technical writing, but she actually has some non-fiction writing or memoir type writing that is beautifully done and I wish she would work more on that.  So it’s just something we do.

When writing for a short, does the same rule of a three act script apply?

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Jessi:   I think it’s a completely different beast.  I try not to think about formats and technical stuff when I’m writing.  I try to just write.  But short films, I think you’re really going for a story that has the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time.  February certainly does that.  But I think it definitely varies from feature work and it varies from how I approach the two formats, for sure.  Feature films are beastly.

And the full-length feature?

Jessi:   It’s being work-shopped right now.   I’m approaching actors that I want onboard, approaching executive producers – we’re still looking for more executive producers if there’s anyone out there – and locations; we want it filmed entirely in Washington State.  We grew up on writers like Cormac McCarthy,  Arthur Miller and Robert D Kaplan, Jim Harrison and Sam Shephard, and to me what all of those writers seem to have in common is that sense of place, that environment.  It’s really important.  It’s an additional character, and in February the place was very important to me.  That’s gonna be a key part of the feature, filming in Washington state.

And the future of the short?

Jessi:  Right now we’re submitted in over a hundred film festivals all across the country.  So, fingers crossed, we’re hoping on some New York acceptances in the spring and maybe a couple of Academy Award qualifiers, that would be fun.

February can be seen at a repeat performance this afternoon (Friday) at noon as part of the Shorts Program 1.

To find out more about February and other productions from Scabland Productions CLICK HERE

Posted in Sedona International Film Festival Reports

The 21st Sedona International Film Festival: A Twist of Lemmon, The Patent Wars and The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

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It’s day 6 at the 21st International Sedona Film Festival.  Unlike the beginning of the week, the sun has broken through, and this morning, festival goers are waking up after an evening of some outstanding entertainment that came not necessarily from the big screen but from the stage.

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Four years in the making, Chris Lemmon presented his acclaimed one-man musical show performed in the voice of his beloved father, Jack Lemmon in A Twist of Lemmon, staged at the Sedona Performing Arts Center to a packed and hugely receptive festival audience.   Incorporating voices from the Golden Age of Hollywood, behind-the-scenes stories from the entertainment industry, plus some sublime music from Gershwin, Chris Lemmon endeavored to answer the one question that has been asked of him all of his life: What was it like to be Jack Lemmon’s son?

Earlier in the day, Chris dropped by the festival’s Media Room to talk about his father, the show, and what it was like growing up in Arizona while attending Sedona’s Verde Valley School.   “I majored in skinny dipping at Oak Creek and minored in falling off horses,” he joked, looking and sounding uncannily like his father.  When questioned about his father’s love for music and playing the piano, Chris remarked, “His dream was to become a musician, but his passion was acting.

Chris Lemmon

The stories from the show were funny, sad, touching and, more importantly, revealing.  As Chris said with regards to the question that has followed him all of life, he said, “I’m not even the best person to answer it.  After all, I was just a kid.  No, there was someone who had a much clearer view of the impact of that one little question on my formative years: my father, Jack Lemmon.”

The reason behind the show and the book was one of catharsis after Jack Lemmon died.  Chris admits that in earlier days the parent/child relationship was mostly adversarial.  “But,” he added, “If that’s the same with you and your parent, heal it.”

Affording a glimpse into the life of both Chris and his famous father was a memorable treat and a genuine privilege to watch.

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Look out for two outstanding documentaries that have already played once at the festival but have yet to have their second showing.   The Outrageous Sophie Tucker and The Patent Wars could not be more different in content yet both fascinate in unexpected ways.

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At first glance, the idea of making a documentary about patents hardly appears like a compelling subject for a full length documentary, yet as soon as writer/director Hannah Leonie Prinzler tells us in a voice over, “In America, patents have been taken out on human genes,” you suddenly pay attention.    “A patent on human genes?” she asks.  Prinzler goes on to tell us that corporations have registered for patents on human cells, broccoli, yoga positions, even sandwiches, but for what purpose?   For the following eighty minutes, the documentarian travels the globe, hopping from Geneva, Germany, England, India, Spain and even to Phoenix, Arizona in search of answers.   What she discovers is not necessarily what you want to hear.

A patent is something easy to explain: it gives inventors a temporary monopoly on their invention.  It protects their idea.  Enter Lisbeth Ceriani and Myriad Genetics.  Lisbeth is a cancer patient in urgent need of tests, yet to her horror she discovers that Myriad Genetics have placed a patent on the gene in question.  The result?  No one other than Myriad can conduct the test.  The monopoly is theirs.  In order for Lisbeth to get the treatment she requires she would have to pay Myriad at least $4000, an outrageous amount considering that the test required is a straight-forward blood test.  In other words, Myriad Genetics owns Lisbeth’s gene and no one, not even Lisbeth, has the legal right to draw any blood or run any tests on it.  The company can then charge anything it wants.  The documentary asks, if they (Myriad) can patent a gene, who says they won’t patent an embryo, or maybe sometime in the future, people?  The real shocker – besides the enormous amount of money Lisbeth would have to pay for her life-saving though simple blood test – is that Myriad is doing no research on the gene to develop cures.  No one else can, either.

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With statements from patent experts, lawyers, inventors and ultimately suffering victims, The Patent Wars is an unexpectedly astonishing and shocking investigation into the murky world of patents exploring how exceptionally high prices can be charged for products, many of which should never be patented in the first place.  As Prinzler tells us at the conclusion of the film, “The complicated rules of the patent have a far more reaching effect on our lives than one could ever imagine.”   Who knew?

The Patent Wars, written, directed and narrated by Hannah Leonie Prinzler, can be seen again Friday morning at 9:20.   Stand in line.

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Sophie poster

If you’ve ever had the opportunity of seeing Bette Midler perform live you were probably treated to a skit revolving around a larger than life character called Soph along with her boyfriend, Ernie.  Soph was based on Sophie Tucker, a Ukranian born, American comedian, singer and actress who at the turn of the last century went on to become one of the most famous entertainers of vaudeville.  In the new and exceptionally entertaining documentary The Outrageous Sophie Tucker we get to see just how outrageous she was.

Known as The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, the bold and brassy Sophie Tucker was truly larger than life, both figuratively and literally.  In fact, her weight became an integral part of her act, often referring to herself as being simply fat and proud of it.

During the film’s introduction we learn that Sophie lived through eleven presidents and knew eight personally.  She was also a friend to both J.Edgar Hoover and Al Capone, plus she was the first performer to market herself in a way that today has become the norm but unknown during Sophie’s time, such as book signings and endorsing products.

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Told through archival footage and pictures, The Outrageous SophieTucker was produced by husband and wife team, Lloyd and Susan Ecker, both of whom discovered that every photograph, every newspaper clipping and every piece of paper that had passed through Sophie’s hands were kept in scrapbooks; 400 of them, each painting a picture of a fascinating life.  Between the years 1906 to 1966, when Sophie died of a lung ailment and kidney failure, everything that ever happened to Sophie was kept in those scrapbooks.   In one, telling, laugh-out-loud moment, we learn how J. Edgar Hoover asked Sophie after a show, “By the way.  When you’re done with that dress, could I have it?”

Sophie was married three times but none lasted more than five years.  In Sophie’s own words, “What man would want to go through life known as Mr. Sophie Tucker?”

For followers of the history of showbiz, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is a true joy.  You can catch a repeat performance of the documentary on Saturday at 3:20 pm.

For a complete look at the festival schedule grid CLICK HERE.

Posted in Sedona International Film Festival Reports

The 21st Sedona International Film Festival: A Conversation with Jeffrey Lyons

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If you’re throwing a dinner party and you’re looking for that special someone who can engage everyone in the room with an immediate showbiz anecdote full of recognizable names and a guaranteed punch-line, here’s a suggestion:  Send the invite to television film critic Jeffrey Lyons.  Believe me, you can’t go wrong.   In the Media Room at the 21st Sedona International Film Festival yesterday afternoon, Jeffrey Lyons delighted a room full of reporters and cameramen with stories that could fill volumes.

Jeffrey Lyons

Ruth Gordon told me to be careful before I poop on someone else’s work,” he said, referring to the early days of his career as a film critic.  He then added, “She didn’t say ‘poop’ either.”

The New York based film critic is in Sedona at the film festival to co-host and to answer questions on the 1966 Orson Welles classic Chimes At Midnight with Beatrice Welles.  “I’ve known Beatrice all her life,” he said and followed through with a story of how, at the age of seven, Beatrice learned to dance the Flamenco in Spain.   “She said that the thing about Flamenco is you have to hate the floor.”

After the press completed its questions, I had the opportunity of talking to Jeffrey Lyons away from the crowd.  The subject?  Film criticism.

The late film critic Gene Siskel once said that the only people who should vote on the Best Picture award at the Oscars are critics because they’re the ones who have actually seen all the films.  Was he right?            That’s an interesting point and a valid point.  That’s why there’s the Critic’s Awards, so I vote for that.

With so many movie-goers writing their man-in-the-street opinions on-line, is the role of the professional movie critic becoming diminished?          There aren’t many of us left on TV.  I think people, though, still want to get their information and opinions and spend their hard earned money on someone they trust.   To rely on a blogger and not know what they’ve liked in the past, their history, what their background is and how knowledgeable they are, I think it’s risky.  It’s a lazy way to get an opinion before you see a movie.  And I think that’s why people who have been around for awhile – I’ve certainly reviewed more movies than anybody, I’ll wager  –  but other people who’ve been around eight, ten, twelve years, those are people you can get a handle on and you can trust their opinion.

Movie studios are even quoting some of those comments on their ads.           I  know, I know.  It’s not right.  And when they do put your name in the ads you need a microscope to see it, but, you know, let people know where it’s coming from.

In his book ‘Hatchet Job’ British film critic Mark Kermode talks of how it’s his negative reviews that create more attention than his positive. Do you find that to be true with you?          There’s an old news director’s mantra, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.  TV news is negative news.  It all depends.  I think it depends on the film.  Sometimes, some films beg to be slaughtered and, you know, I sometimes feel sorry for the actors who have to appear in films like those.

Can you recall when your review was more of a rant than anything else?             No.  I’ve thought about what Ruth Gordon told me, think twice before you knock someone else’s work.  Never done that.  I did see a movie called Sweet Savior about Charles Manson and I met Sharon Tate, I felt offended by that.  I saw a movie about Patty Hearst  in which she’s raped by six men and a snake,  or something, and that you can rant about.  I saw a movie called… oh, what’s it called, a Pasolini film that one pompous critic  who wrote for a national magazine loved and called it ‘X for Excellent.’ We called it ‘X for Excrement.’  So, sometimes you see things that offend you.  There was a movie earlier this year called Jupiter Ascending.  I love Mila Kunis, but she’s hit by a lead pipe.  I don’t like movies like that.  I don’t like movies where women are hit.  I don’t like movies set in men’s rooms where the guys are urinating, I don’t like that, either.  It’s just gross.  I mean, must we?   Fifty Shades of Grey I just loathed.   First of all, he has all the depth of the underwear model he used to be, and she deserves better than that.  There’s nothing glamourous and there’s nothing sexy, nothing erotic about people who whip people.  I mean, those people need a team of psychiatrists.  There’s nothing at all fancy about that.  It’s … it’s sad.

And there are two more to come.           I know.  That’s the biggest pain I felt, knowing there’s more to come.

Have you found yourself on the receiving end of those who vehemently disagree with something you’ve said or written?              Oh, a lot of people.  Oh, yeah, I mean there was one… this creepy guy who wrote about my son Ben who did this TV show for a year and the guy would tape the show and he would write out the dialog of the show and under every line he’d write something else, something negative, and my son finally confronted him and said, “You’re a good writer.  Why do you waste your time doing this?”  The guy was taken aback.  He was shocked at that.  I mean, get a life.  Anything you do, there are going to be naysayers.  You just have to take those.

How about the benefit of hindsight?  Have you ever wanted to go back and change a review?             The only one that comes to mind is The Front, the Woody Allen movie.  I was wrong about that.   I was ill-informed.  There was some humor during the blacklist, but at the time I didn’t see it.

How do you feel about the profane-laced modern American comedy where the f-bomb in a script is used in lieu of a punch-line?            If you take out the f-bomb from those films then the film would last twenty minutes.  I’m not offended by that, not at all – that’s the way many speak – but after a while it’s a lazy way to fill up a page.

When did that particular trend start?            The first time that language was used , to my memory, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, but that was a work of art.  And that was shocking and provocative, and it’s still something amazing.

There was also Barbara Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat, but it was a real punch-line with a great set up.         Yeah.  That’s exactly right.  Funny.   But the studios right now are more concerned with money than they are with art.  We live in a country where – and I know I’m baying at the moon – but we live in a country where more people know who Snookie is rather than Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  That’s the sad part about it.

Speaking of trends, are there any current movie trends – maybe the found footage genre or 3D – that you feel need to move on?           Dan Rather said, “I know what’s on my desk today.”  I don’t really look at trends, but there are the usual sequels.  At the end of the movie sometimes they don’t kill the bad guy off when you expect them to and you go, “Oh-oh, there’s going to be a sequel.”  That kind of thing annoys me.  I don’t necessarily need to see more of something.  You know, I’m so glad I never have to see another Lord of the Rings again, thank you very much.  Enough already.  No matter how good they were, enough already.   The Twilight movies; enough already.  Hours closer to the grave and what have I got for it?

How about genres of the past?  Do you miss the musical or maybe the western?             Very much.  I’m a big western fan.  I mean, I grew up loving westerns.  The Big Country I can see fifty times. Shane and Gunfight at the OK Coral, and Winchester 73 and Pony Express.  I love those movies.  Not the Lone Ranger movie; factually incorrect.  The most recent one was outrageous.  First of all, only Apaches get up on the right side of the horse.  The Lone Ranger mounts his horse on the right side.  And it was set in the 1860’s and he’s using a Colt Peacemaker that didn’t hit the frontier until the 1870’s.  That kind of stuff annoys me, like seeing Apache’s with vaccination marks.  I saw that in a Gregory Peck movie once.

How The West Was Won?           Wasn’t Eli Wallach great in that movie?  Oh, that’s one of the great films about the west.

Do you miss the TV style of film debate that you did on Sneak Previews, then later with Lyons and Bailes Reel Talk?              Very much so.  Very much so, and I’m looking for a sponsor.  If a sponsor wants to come on board we can do the show cheaply; it costs twenty thousand dollars an episode.   We beat every show in our time slot for four years at NBC on a hundred and fifty-four stations.  So, what happened?  A)  It was the depth of the recession; B) they were going to be taken over by Comcast, and C) they had a general manager who told me he hadn’t seen a film in ten years and didn’t care about Broadway, and he’s back now in Texas where he belongs.

And finally, influences.  I’ve always enjoyed Pauline Kael’s work even though her opinions would sometimes drive me crazy, but her writing was always compelling.  Who do you revisit from time to time?               Mine was Judith Crist.  Yeah, Judith Crist was … I knew her when I first started.  I started in 1970 and I was not allowed to join the New York Film Critics.  I said to her, why?  I’m on a major station, and she said it’s because you people don’t keep your jobs very long.  I worked for the channel for twenty-one years; I worked at PBS for twelve seasons; I worked at NBC for thirteen seasons.  I would say that’s a long time.  The print critics thought of the TV critics as, you know, late-comers, so did Judith Crist, but I loved Judith Crist.  When I dated I would always go by a Judith Crist review.   I always told her that, and she was someone I really respected.  I miss her.

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Jeffrey Lyons will co-host Chimes at Midnight this afternoon with Beatrice Welles at 3:10 pm.

 

For a complete look at the schedule grid for the 21st Sedona International Film Festival CLICK HERE

 

Posted in Sedona International Film Festival Reports

The 2015 Annual Sedona Internation Film Festival – Frank Vs. God: Special Report

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It’s Wednesday at the 2015 Sedona International Film Festival with another packed day of programming that includes a further tribute to Orson Welles with a special showing of the classic Chimes at Midnight, hosted by film critic Jeffrey Lyons, Ray Kelly and Beatrice Wells at 3:10 p.m.

Look also for a live production this evening at 6 p.m. called A Twist of Lemmon.  It’s a one man performance from Chris Lemmon saluting the life and career of his father, Jack Lemmon.

Among the documentaries and the live presentations pay attention to a new comedy this evening with a showing at 9 p.m.

Frank v GodBack in 2001 there was an amiable Australian comedy called The Man Who Sued God, the story of an ex-lawyer whose property was destroyed by a sudden burst of Mother Nature.  The insurance company refused to pay up insisting that it was an ‘Act of God.’  So, instead of suing the insurance company for his money the ex-lawyer, played by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, did exactly what the title suggests; he took God to court.  The film was a hit on its own turf, less so in Europe, and virtually unknown in America, which is a major plus to this new and somewhat gentle comedy from director Stewart Schill.

Frank Vs. God is an American take on a similar premise and just like its Aussie counterpart, the film stars another Scot as its lead.  Henry Ian Cusick (TV’s Lost) plays ex-lawyer David Frank who stuns the religious establishment in Florida by suing the Almighty when the insurance company refuses to pay for the destruction of his tornado damaged home.  “If God destroyed my house, then God should pay for it,” Frank insists.  The idea was always a good one, but the problem the writers face is the same as the Australian film; how do you end a situation like this?  The outcome is the audience divider.  In a film with a religious premise but reality based, the white light, spiritual sequence feels at odds with the down-to-earth tone of the rest of the film.

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Schill, who also wrote the screenplay, treads carefully and presents his issue with light humor and a degree of restraint, unlike the Australian comedy that dropped f-bombs and veered considerably into black humor with an aggressive protagonist.  It may sound potentially outrageous, but here with its overall mildness, no one, except maybe the two Jehovah’s Witnesses who are chased from Frank’s front door at gun point, should be offended.  “So, if I followed the Koran,” the lawyer suggests to Imam al Bakri (Ted Sod), “God would’ve saved my house?”  The Imam smiles and gives a shrug.  “Couldn’t hurt,” he replies.

Frank Vs. God can bee seen this evening at 9 p.m. with a second showing this Saturday, February 28 at 6 p.m.

For more regarding times and dates CLICK HERE for the official 2015 Annual Sedona International Film Festival schedule grid.

Posted in Sedona International Film Festival Reports