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The 25th Silver Anniversary Sedona International Film Festival: Part 2 (of 2) Special Report

In this second of two reports on the 25th Silver Anniversary Sedona International Film Festival, Valley Screen & Stage takes a look at a selection of notable feature-length narrative films and documentaries that can be seen throughout the nine-day event.

It’s a special year for the film festival. This year marks the festival’s 25th Anniversary, and to help Sedona celebrate, special celebratory guests this year include Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, Diane Ladd, Mackenzie Phillips, Lin Shaye, Billy Zane, and Mariel Hemingway, plus there’s always the possibility of more to be announced.

The festival begins screenings Saturday, February 23 and will continue until Sunday, March 3. To find out more regarding times, dates and tickets for the festival’s Silver Anniversary Celebration, go to https://sedonafilmfestival.com 


Toxic Puzzle: Hunt for the Hidden Killer

Before seeing this urgent, sobering eighty-three minute documentary from director/writer Bo Landin, there’s a couple of things to know in advance that helps. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in both the brain and the spinal cord. It’s literally no muscle nourishment. It’s also more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Then there’s something called BMAA, a neurotoxin produced by blue-green algae that, as this documentary will show, can be found almost everywhere. And here’s where ALS and BMAA become important. From titles used at the beginning of the film, the number of ALS cases are on the increase. Scientists believe a substance in our environment could be the culprit. It’s those blue-green algae called BMAA. At the beginning of time, it helped give life to our atmosphere. Today, fed by pollution and environmental change, it’s become the world’s hidden killer. It’s as if nature is seeking revenge and its victims are you and me.

On a journey that will take him around the world, from Kuwait, Australia, Japan, France, to America, Swedish documentarian Bo Landin follows scientist Paul Cox and his team on a quest to find that hidden killer. It’s a detective story where Cox is looking for clues, akin to putting the pieces of a puzzle together but with no picture on the box to guide. Paul Cox is a different kind of scientist. He’s an ethnobotanist. Finding links between ALS and Alzheimers, Cox tells us that since 1993 there have been no drugs discovered to help fight the diseases. But he’s working on it.

The facts that Toxic Puzzle uncover are startling, as are the stark realities of what happens when you contract ALS. Throughout the documentary, Cox and filmmaker Landin return to Ellie O’Connell, a woman with ALS who relates what she feels. There’s no pain, she states. She doesn’t feel sick. Her mind is as active as ever. She just can’t move her body from the neck down. “You lose everything slowly, so it’s not like a shock,” Ellie explains. “It’s horrible, but it’s a slow horrible.

Narrated in a slow, somber voice-over by actor Harrison Ford, the film asks is it worth playing Russian Roulette with our lives, and proceeds to explain exactly what that means. “The alarm bell has definitely been rung,” Ford informs. Toxic Puzzle: Hunt for the Hidden Killer js a Sedona Festival must-see.

Tuesday, February 26 at 4 pm – Harkins 1

Friday, March 1 at 10 am – Mary D. Fisher


To Dust

In the new sardonically humored film from writer/director Shawn Snyder, To Dust, a wife passes away, and her husband, a Hasidic Jew from an Upstate New York Orthodox community becomes obsessed with her decomposition. It stretches the boundaries of something that at its base is quite absurd and most certainly morbid, yet within minutes of realizing where the film is heading there’s something about the plight of cantor Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) that develops into what can only be best described as endearing. And it’s funny.

That dry sense of Jewish gallows humor is established early. Shmuel cannot accept the death of his wife. Plus, he can’t tear a piece of his clothing, an expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one, the ancient practice of Kriah. His mother (Janet Sarno) hands him a small pair of scissors to help start the tear, but he still can’t seem to make it work.

The problem for Shmuel is he’s plagued by a nightmare. He can’t get the image of a graphically decomposing toe out of his head. The need to know the process of a body’s decomposition possesses the man to the point where he’s willing to step outside the circle of his faith and ask for advice elsewhere.

The cantor and father of two eventually turns for help from a man of science; he goes to the local community college where Albert (Matthew Broderick) teaches. “I feel her soul is suffering,” the tormented Shmuel explains to the professor. “What’s to become of her body?” Albert tries to be polite in answering what is in truth a bizarre question. He even goes so far as to show the cantor a video of a piglet whose body was filmed at high-speed decomposing, explaining that while the film may be that of an animal, the process for the man’s wife should be just the same.

The film runs 92 minutes but feels shorter. The pacing is intentionally slow and the humor, deadpan. And even though the subject sounds unsavory, and the sight of decaying bodies and graphically displayed nightmares of skin peeling back down to the bone is, frankly, gross, To Dust continually engages, particularly because of the comical pairing of Hungarian actor Rohrig as the Hasidic widower and Matthew Broderick as the hapless Gentile community college professor. Together they play like a minimalist Bialystock and Bloom whose act is forever in slow motion.

Tuesday, February 26 at 4:15 pm – Sedona Performing Arts Center


The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man

Director Tommy Avallone is on a mission. Like Bigfoot, there have been sightings of comic actor Bill Murray all over the place, but unlike that mythical Sasquatch who briefly appears then vanishes, Murray seems to like hanging around for a while and having fun. No joke.

He’ll randomly turn up at some guy’s house party and be found cleaning the dishes in the kitchen, or he’ll be behind a bar serving the drinks. He might crash a couple’s wedding picture, or play tambourine with a live band in someone’s home. There’s even a story that he walked into the bathroom at a nightclub, approached a guy from behind, put his hands over the guy’s face while the guy was peeing, and whispered in his ear, “No one will ever believe you.” It all happened. There are pictures and cell phone videos to prove it. Documentary filmmaker Avallone wants to know why. Why would this world famous celebrity insert himself into those ordinary situations?

The Bill Murray Stories sends Avallone to confirm what he’s heard or what he’s read on the Internet. The best place to start is with the actor himself, but reaching the man through regular channels is not as easy as you’d think. As the young documentarian discovers, Murray doesn’t have ‘people.’ There’s no entourage, no business manager, no agent. He doesn’t operate like that. He doesn’t even have a phone. All he has is a 1-800 number, and there’s no guarantee he’ll answer, but it’s a start. As Avallone explains, through a friend of a friend of a friend, he gets that toll free number and films himself trying to make contact, but all the director can do is a leave a message. Several of them.

But even though Avallone can’t get Bill, he does get a few other names to go on camera and help him understand what’s going on. Sofia Coppola who directed Murray in Lost in Translation tells Avallone that when she tried to contact the actor, all she could do was leave messages on that 1-800 number to see if he would commit to making a film with her in Japan. It took a year’s worth of calls and leaving her number until he replied, and even then she wasn’t sure if he was going to do the film or not.

Director Peter Farrelly who worked with Murray in Kingpin has a simple theory. When Bill Murray turns up at a party, he’s not there to take over. He’s just there to be a part of the fun and help others have fun. As one guy tells the director who was at such a party when Bill Murray unexpectedly walked in, “It makes me happy just thinking about it.” And that’s the key.

As a film, the seventy-minute documentary breaks no new ground. With eye-witness accounts, pictures, and some blurry cell phone video footage, The Bill Murray Stories comes across more as an exercise in cut and paste, made all the more evident by the fact that the elusive actor himself never participates. But the director shows good comic invention with a sequence at the beginning of the film where actors tell their friends at a coffee shop, at a bar, and even around a campfire of the night when a mythical urban legend became a reality… the night the one, the only, Bill Murray arrived. Plus, and this is, after all, what director Avallone is really going for, the film is great entertainment, and very, very funny.

Friday, March 1 at 4:15 pm – Sedona Arts Center


In This Gray Place

How did you come to be in this gray place?” asks a female voice at the beginning of the film.

A man stumbles into a public bathroom at a rest stop. He locks the door behind him. He’s out of breath, sweating, panting. There’s blood on his coat. He’s clearly wounded. He’s also carrying a sackful of jewels. It doesn’t take long to find out that Aaron (Aleksander Ristic) has been part of a robbery, and the whole thing has somehow gone horribly wrong.

In This Gray Place is a tense drama of a man barricaded in a windowless restroom who instinctively knows that nothing is going to end well. The police are outside. They want to talk to him, but Aaron’s not interested. Not yet. Right now he needs to figure how to hide the jewels he’s stolen in a room with no hiding place. And he needs the support of his girlfriend, Laura (voiced by Angela Nordeng). With only a cell phone on his possession, Aaron makes a series of desperate calls as he tries to figure out his next move. As the film progresses, slow reveals allow us to piece together the events that lead to where Aaron is right now, right there, in his gray place.

Told in a series of chapter stops with titled cards on-screen reading Chapter One: Space, or Chapter 4: Water, with a running time of 101 minutes, In This Gray Place doesn’t always hold attention and could have used a trim to help the narrative feel tighter. Plus, while Naeem Seirafi’s cinematography is eye-catchingly impressive, using a widescreen instead of a more standard screen ratio somehow lessens the impression of a claustrophobic atmosphere. The walls never feel as though they’re closing in on Aaron. There’s too much room.

But what ultimately makes In This Gray Place such an interesting festival watch is knowing how writer/director R.D. Womack II put things together. It’s a perfect example of independent filmmaking and how to make a low-budget project look like something considerably more. With the exception of certain brief moments of flashback that expands the setting and takes us out into the open, most of the film takes place in the graffiti-filled public restroom, a set built in the director’s garage. It looks authentic.

Throughout most of the filming, there were only three people on that set; the director, the actor, and cinematographer Seirafi, who did his own lighting while both operating and pulling focus. And in the true tradition of what it takes to get an independent film made, even though all the phone conversations with the filtered sound were recorded once the principal photography in the director’s garage was done, Angela Nordeng, who voices Laura, was, at her insistence, present, reading her lines on set in order help the authenticity of Ristic’s responses to the conversations and to aid the actor flesh a more convincing performance. It worked.

Sunday, February 24 at 7:20 pm – Harkins 6

Tuesday, February 26 at 4:15 pm – Harkins 5

Posted in 2019 Sedona International Film Festival

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