NORTH BEND FILM FEST: Sirens (2022)

Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi are the lead guitarists and co-founders of the Middle East’s first all-female thrash metal band, Slave to Sirens. The Lebanese society they were born into is perhaps not the most open-minded one, especially for women who want to play as hard as the guys. And Lebanon may not have much of a metal scene, but certainly no other female-led bands.

Director, writer and cinematographer Rita Baghdadi has created a documentary that takes you into their lives, a place where they’re still learning and exploring their lives, all while making what they do seem as vital and needed as if you were playing alongside them.

According to Revolver, “In the 1990s, Christian religious institutions turned against metal culture, linking it to the suicide of a teenage boy and calling for a ban on all metal music.” The Christian and Muslim communities that live side by side can easily damn metal musicians and fans as outright Satanists — no different than American, but perhaps more dangerous, despite Lebanon being more culturally inclusive than other countries surrounding it.

Bechara and Mayassi met at an anti-government protest in 2015, so they certainly don’t shy about confronting the world around them in their music. Along with drummer Tatyana Boughab, bassist Alma Doumani and singer Maya Khairallah, Sirens follows the band as they struggle to exist and create art.

Behind all of this, Bechara and Mayassi once shared a secret romance before Mayassi met a Syrian woman and broke off the relationship. In the tradition of bands keeping going in the face of heartbreak and unresolved relationships, they remain friends and bandmates, even if things aren’t the same. Over the three years the movie covers, we see everything from them playing a sparsely attended Glastonbury gig to recording a new album, working their day jobs and even the Port of Beirut explosion, which leads to Mayassi pondering afterward, “Home doesn’t feel safe. Friendship doesn’t feel safe. Love doesn’t feel safe.”

As the band blasts riffs into the night, defying rolling blackouts and suburban bombs, perhaps the strife between the women who formed the band can be forgotten. If you’ve been in a band, you’ll recognize the times when the bad times are all worth it, the quick seconds that occur when a harmony is perfect, when a riff is discovered or the crowd — no matter how small — is with you ever beat, every word.

Sirens is playing North Bend Film Fest right now. You can learn more about the movie on the festival homepage or on the movie’s official Facebook page.

Leathanach Deiridh (expected release 2023)

I was sent a short called Leathanach Deiridh this week that’s really interesting. Based on true events, as a young woman tells her life story, starting with her birth at a mother and baby home to spending the rest of her existence wondering about her lost family.

Directed by Michael Antonio Keane, who has mainly worked in short films, and co-written by Keane and Saorlaith Ní Shuibhne, this film is in Irish Gaelic, a language that I haven’t watched many movies within. It’s just ten minutes long, but there’s such drama between its leads, with Veronica Henley as Dr. Aine, who listens to the tale of the film and Deirbhile Lee as Dearbhla, the young woman whose life must seem so much longer — and painful — than it should be.

Keane has taken a confined location, two characters and ten minutes and emerges with something worth watching several times.

Bring Him Back Dead (2022)

A violent gang of crooks gets the word that after a botched heist that they must find and eliminate the man who betrayed them and stole the money.

Louis Mandylor plays Trent, the leader of the gang, Daniel Baldwin is the shady man known as Boothe and Gary Daniels — yes, the direct to video action star! — is as close to a hero — well, maybe not — as this movie gets as Alex, the wheel man upset that a diamond heist has ended up with dead innocent people.

Now the hot-headed Killian (Ryan M. Shaw), the injured Geoff (LeJon Woods), Alex, Zarina (Zhuzha Akova) and Hayden (Chris Torem) head to get their money, but things go even worse from there.

Directed by Mark Savage — who made Painkiller last year — from a script by Ben Demaree and a story by Jeff Miller, this movie takes its low budget and reminds you of the crime and martial arts movies we rented when we could still go to a physical store and get five movies for five dollars.

I’m all for more Gary Daniels. I’ve been a fan since Fist of the North Star.

Bring Him Back Dead is now available on DVD and digital from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Dawn (2022)

I live in the literal boondocks of Western Pennsylvania, so I have no need ever for a rideshare — I can walk to most of the places that I go to in my neighborhood — and if this movie is anything what it’s really like, I’ll keep on moving.

Directed by Nicholas Ryan — this is his first film — and written by Ruder Doupe, Dawson Doupé and Todd Tapper, Dawn is about what happens when Dawn (Jackie Moore) shows up to take Oliver (Jared Cohn) and Anna (Sarah French) somewhere. The real story is that she’s had a plan for the two all along. Once Oliver snaps at her early, you won’t care what happens to him.

As part of my pact with the devil for web traffic, I must watch every Eric Roberts movie, so I was pleased that he was in this and I would continue keeping my soul from the dark one for one more day, while having Michael Paré show up was icing on the infernal cake.

This film is filled with neon hues and takes advantage of the strange distance between driver and rider, as well as the tight quarters of being inside a stranger’s vehicle. The next time I’m tired from walking up the big hills around my house, I’ll just remember that things can be so much scarier. This film is a teachable moment for me.

You can find Dawn on digital from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Nope (2022)

There was a time, however briefly, when blockbusters were made by the same directors of the New Hollywood and weren’t just product placement intended to get toys into Target for a 6 week cycle, but actual movies that stirred up emotions and made us look into the unknown with wonder or terror. With just three films — Get Out and Us precede this — Jordan Peele has started to take the journey that others before him — M. Night Shyamalan is just one example — have tried and failed to navigate. Can filmmakers create challenging movies that appeal to audiences while having sometimes difficult to follow narratives and not underline and telegraph every single point they are trying to get across?

In case you’re wondering, “Just how big is this movie going to get?” the answer comes with a Biblical verse that fills the screen:  “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle.” — Nahum 3:6.

The seventh in order of the minor prophets, Nahum was known as the “comforter,” despite his words mainly concerning the downfall of Assyria. They’re strong words; indeed, translator Rev. John Owen said that “No one of the minor Prophets seems to equal the sublimity, the vehemence and the boldness of Nahum.” His main message was that God will protect his faithful people and by doing so, will also destroy all of the violent human empires. You can consider his words a stiff rebuke against militarism and arrogance.

From here on our…spoilers abound.

After this, we see our first glimpse of Gordy’s Home, a 1998 sitcom about a chimp living with a human family. If the first message of Nope is right out there in writing before the movie even begins — spectacle is what human beings crave and they’ll destroy themselves for it — the second message takes time to come to light. It’s also quite simple: you can’t make deals with a predator. You can only change your behavior and slightly influence their own to survive alongside them, which is basically how animal training works.

Predators can’t be tamed. At all.

But before we get to the tragedy of Gordy the chimp, we need to get to the tragedy at the heart — tragedies — of Nope.

Ranch owner Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) is the owner of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses Ranch, which has provided live horses to Hollywood productions since, well, before movies even existed. The Haywoods claim that the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion was their great-great (maybe just great) grandfather, a black man whose identity is lost in time while the white man who made the movie is remembered forever. As Otis and his son OJ (Otis Jr., played by Daniel Kaluuya) ready horses for a shoot, a rain of metal falls to the Earth with a nickel hitting the elder Haywood directly in the eye, killing him.

The next time we see OJ, he’s becoming withdrawn, taking a horse to the set of a commercial that will be shot by cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, Top Dollar from The Crow;  he’s also in CurtainsRobin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Strange Days amongst many other great roles) and directed by an Flynn Bachman, played by Osgood Perkins (Norman’s son and the director of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House).

OJ’s sister Emerald (one-time Nickelodeon star Keke Palmer) arrives late and she’s his opposite; while he’s hard-working he has no idea how to act around human beings. She’s able to get an entire room of hardened Hollywood industry vets — look for Donna Mills, she of The Eyes Have It and seeing as how important vision becomes later, that can’t be an accident — on her side near instantly. Then, one of the horses freaks out when a crew member doesn’t listen to how important the boundaries of an animal are. The Haywoods are fired; they’ll just replace the animal with CGI, just like Gordy is throughout the film.

Emerald catches a ride with OJ, as she has things back at the house that she wants. She’s a free-spirit where OJ often remarks on all of the mouths that he has to feed. Emerald has inherited the show business side of their father (right before the final plan comes together, she watches a video of him giving his pitch; this speech is word for word what she said on the commercial shoot) while OJ has the quiet put in the work side. As for their mother, it seems as if she died young and the kids ended up raising one another as much as their father raised them.

On the way back to the ranch, Em encourages OJ to stop selling horses one at a time and to sell the entire ranch to their neighbor Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), who by no small twist of fate he’s the former star of Gordy’s Home who has taken his fame in some strange pathways. His new ranch, Jupiter’s Claim, is based on the movie Kid Sheriff that he made after Gordy’s rampage. Now the star of reality TV with his family, he has a hidden room filled with mementos of the show, including the bloody shoe that somehow stands perfectly upright after Gordy maims and kills his TV family, the Houstons (played by Sophia Coto as Mary Jo Elliott, Andrew Patrick Ralston as Tom Bogan and Jennifer Lafleur as Phyllis Mayberry). This part of the movie gets to the spectacle; in our world, I doubt very much that Saturday Night Live and Mad Magazine would outright make such satire of such a tragedy during which at least two people died. Yet Jupe repeats the sketch and keeps laughing about just how great Chris Kattan was in it (it’s to the credit of Peele’s love of comedy that everyone in this sketch is period accurate). However, throughout the film, we see young Jupe terrorized by Gordy, who had been frightened by a popping balloon, and now is covered in blood, demanding a fist bump and signing, “Where is family?” He’s gotten over it in the way that only a Hollywood person can, by exploiting the tragedy. And he’s not done yet.

By the way — in a cool twist of real life fate, the land of Jupiter’s Claim once belonged to civil engineer William Mulholland and the farmhouse land was at one point owned by director Howard Hawks.

Why would Emerald want to sell her past? She feels no connection since her father broke his promise to teach her how to train her own horse — Jean Jacket — and spent that time with OJ instead.

And now, a significant period of time into the film, we get our first ideas of what the plot is all about: there’s something in the sky eating organic material and spitting out the metal. OJ and Emerald decide to capture footage of it — thereby creating something on film — an “Oprah shot” — that their name can be remembered by, unlike their great-great grandfather, and this takes them to Fry’s Electronics, where Angel (Brandon Perea) installs their surveillance equipment and near-immediately figures out that they’re looking for a UFO. After all, he saw them on TV.

They’re also no longer UFOs. They’re Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, a name the government has given to them once everybody figures it all out. Interestingly, the idea of organic UAP or animals in the sky is not new; tentacles creatures, strange lines and even thunderbirds — according to History Daily, the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper dated April 26, 1890 reported that two local ranchers killed an enormous and mysterious winged monster with a body nearly 90 feet long with a wingspan of 160 feet — have been reported as aerial phenomena for decades.

At the same time, Jupe has been planning a show called the Star Lasso Experience and it proves that he learned nothing from the night that Gordy went wild. He has been feeding the Haywood horses he’d bought — horses trained over many years with specialized skills that are fed like they mean nothing — to the alien that he calls “The Visitor.” He’s planned a special show — there are many empty seats as for now — and even invited Mary Jo, his fellow survivor and forever scarred first crush, to see the aliens in action. Well, everyone gets more than a front row seat.

The deaths during this show finally convince the cinematographer Holst to visit the ranch and use his handcranked camera, tube man props and a wild plan to get the best imagery of a UFO ever taken. Hoist is seeking an impossible shot, one that he’s looked for his entire life, one that will cost him his life, but not before he intones a scratch-throated, eerie version of Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater.”

Angel, OJ and Emerald barely survive the return of the creature — sitting inside a never moving cloud, ready to reduce man’s electronic innovations to dead machines — but they still get off luckier than the TMZ journalist — and Akira motorcycle rider — named Ryder Muybridge (Devon Graye, the writer of I See You and the Trickster on The Flash). They do learn that the creature — which now looks like another anime reference, one of the angels from Neon Genesis Evangelion — can be harmed when it eats inorganic matter that appears organic. OJ also learns that he must use what he always had — his convictions, his ability to protect others, knowing not to look a predator in the eye or deal with it in human terms — to save everyone.

He also runs the track in the same way that the black jockey in Muybridge’s film once did, but now he’s not just a man on a horse. He’s a strong black man with agency, a heroic figure played by someone whose name — Daniel Kaluuya — we won’t forget. It’s no accident that one of the posters on the walls in the Haywood home is for Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut Buck and the Preacher, one of the first movies to show black cowboys, even if a quarter of all real life cowboys were black.

Also, Jupe and Mary Jo — mostly Mary Jo, what with her ruined face and prosthetic hand — have been eaten up and spit back up by Hollywood. And yet here they are, demanding another time through the spectacle, even if they have to make a deal with potentially a devil to engender one of those bad miracles.

Jupe grew up around an animal and his life was defined by how he distanced himself from the tragedy in his life only to make money from it and propegated the suffering of the horses and the audience that he near willingly fed into a meat grinder. He didn’t learn the lessons that OJ did — you must respect that animal while never looking it right in the eye, never thinking you’re on the same level that it is.

Kind of like, you know, Hollywood.

And isn’t it a nice bow that gets wrapped up as the balloon that caused Gordy’s meltdown is echoed by Jupe’s Kid Sheriff balloon being what blows up the big bad?

Beyond all that, this movie looks incredible, with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shooting this with large-format IMAX cameras that deliver colors, tones and images we haven’t seen on big screens in years. It looks like a blockbuster should because, well, it is one. Hoytema has made the sky as menacing as the ocean was in Jaws, all while being able to use Kaluuya’s weary eyes to even bigger effect within much smaller shots.

There are so many moments to love in this film — one of my favorites is when the brother and sister quickly touch on his job as being the only important one and she remarks that his life is just her side hustle — and you can read so much into it. For the last few years, we’ve watched the spectacle of reality hosts becoming leaders, of horrific moments that we can only process by describing them with ideas cribbed from TV shows, trapped inside while the world rains blood down on our homes — not as literally as it happens in this film, using an oil-based blood solution originally created for There Will Be Blood and oh boy, there sure is. Isn’t it strange that it takes a summertime blockbuster on the big screen to help us process it?

FANTASIA FEST: Popran (2022)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joseph Perry writes for the film websites Gruesome Magazine, The Scariest Things, Horror Fuel and Diabolique Magazine; for the film magazines Phantom of the Movies’ VideoScope and Drive-In Asylum; and for the pop culture websites When It Was Cool and Uphill Both Ways. He is also one of the hosts of When It Was Cool’s exclusive Uphill Both Ways podcast and can occasionally be heard as a cohost on Gruesome Magazine’s Decades of Horror: The Classic Era podcast.

If you hear that the very basic description of the new Japanese fantasy/comedy Popran is “a man’s penis disappears, flies around as fast as 200 kph, and he has six days to capture it or will lose it forever,” and are expecting merely 96 minutes of humor that ranges only from the sophomoric to the Rabelaisian, chances are you haven’t seen writer/director Shin’ichirô Ueda’s previous films One Cut of the Dead and Special Actors. Like those films, his latest effort starts out with a zany premise and finds warmth and poignancy in its protagonist’s journey.

What sets Popran apart from Ueda’s two aforementioned films is that it arguably follows a clearer path and focuses less on big reveals than its predecessors. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t offer its share of surprises, though.

Tatsuya Tagami (Yoji Minagawa) is the head of a profit-motivated manga app that eschews original work in favor of sticking to tried and true favorites. To get to where he is, he burned several bridges, including with his ex-wife and their child, his parents, and an ex–business-partner.

Tagami wakes up one morning to find that his penis has vanished, and he is left only with a small hole for urination. By chance, he learns about a group of men who have suffered the same fate, and that their penises and testicles have become “Poprans” — flying objects that roam freely in the skies of Japan. He’ll have to do some soul searching while looking high and low for his genitals.

Ueda takes the Hero’s Journey concept and runs with it, adding a large dash of dramedy dealing with regret, and humor that includes the uncomfortable and the whimsical. The director follows his own unique path in his work, and Popran is another fine flight of fancy from a highly imaginative and original cinematic voice.

Popran screens as part of Fantasia, which takes place in Montreal from July 14–August 3, 2022. For more information, visit https://fantasiafestival.com/en/

Out In the Ring (2022)

With segments on everyone from Chyna, Effy, Lisa Marie Varon and Nyla Rose to Chris Colt, Chris Kanyon, Pat Patterson, Valerie Wyndham, Dani Jordyn, Cassandro, Charlie Morgan, Sandy Parker, Sonny Kiss, Pollo Del Mar, Sue Green, Wade Keller and so many more, Out In the Ring explores the lives of LGBTQ professional wrestlers past and present, as well as the history of LGBTQ representation in professional wrestling.

By using the traditional modern talking head doc style of archival footage and interviews, this does a great job not only showing where pro wrestling was but where it’s going. I was really excited to see luchador and wrestling historian Vandal Drummond show up in this, as well as to see info on wrestlers of the past like “Exotic” Adrian Street and Austin Idol, as well as how the hypermasculine ideal of pro wrestling — hello, Road Warriors being Tom of Finland dreamboats — containing more than just CIS sexuality.

This is the first feature from director Ryan Bruce Levey, who has a huge subject to tackle in a short time. Wrestling in all ways has come so far — just look at the Raw segments with Lawler saying all sorts of anti-gay rhetoric and guys still lead these chants on shows I’ve been on — but still has so far to come, much like the rest of the world.

As someone who has wrestled independently since 1995, it’s been interesting to be a part of the way wrestling shifts and changes. Even in my own way, I’ve had to change, as while we used to do a podcast that made fun of homoerotic moments in wrestling’s past, I wonder now if people knew that we were doing that to make fun of the way that so much of wrestling pretends that it could never be queer? Regardless, I’m happy that people are finding a home within an entertainment genre that I love so much.

The only thing that makes me sad about this is that it places Sonny Kiss and Nyla Rose’s AEW success as a major step forward and now…neither gets hardly any TV time. Let’s change that too.

You can learn more on the official Facebook page.

Six Years Gone (2022)

Six years after her daughter was abducted, Carrie Dawson’s (Veronica Jean Trickett) life has hit rock bottom. But what if her daughter is still alive? That’s the story of director and writer Warren Dudley’s film.

Carrie was once the single mother of Lolly, living in a gorgeous house in Brighton paid for by her ex-husband Dan. She’s started dating again and her mother Mary (Sarah Priddy) is taking care of Lolly, but when her dementia gets worse and she forgets to pick her up from school, Lolly is never found.

Six years later, Carrie lives in a small apartment and can barely make ends meet as she struggles to care for her mother. Her only hope comes with a Facebook page for missing kids that she runs. And to make ends meet, she finds herself doing sex work. But one day, she finds the clues that may point to Lolly still being alive all these years later.

This is an emotionally fraught movie with true darkness — and hope still — inside it.

You can watch this on Tubi.

Infrared (2022)

Directors and writers Robert Livings and Randy Nundlall Jr. have gone back to the found footage well for a movie about a show also called Infrared which has a paranormal investigator and his production crew searching for ghosts at the Lincoln School, an abandoned and possibly haunted place scheduled to be razed.

Wes (Jesse Janzen) is the exorcist. His sister Izzy (Leah Finity) is a medium. Randy (Randy Nundlall Jr.) is the producer. Austin (Austin Blank) and Rob (Robert Livings) are here on sound and camera. They’re ready to make a paranormal TV show but searching for the kind of content that will break through what’s on basic cable.

As they roll past the school, Wes becomes obsessed and convinces the caretaker (Greg Sestero from The Room) to let them inside. Years ago, a gas leak killed several students and a teacher and the place really is haunted, all while Wes and Izzy fight as they had a falling out years ago and never expected to work together again.

Honestly, I could never see another found footage movie again and be happy. This at least has a solid performance by Sestero and a pretty frightening last ten minutes, but getting there is filled with so much talking and enough shaky cam to make me nauseated. Even I have my limits.

Infrared is available on digital now and will be on the Terror Films horror movie youtubeon July 29. If you click here, you can sign up to watch. It will also be on Kings of Horror on August. For more information, visit their website.

Forgiving God (2022)

Aaron Dunbar, the co-director (with Jason Campbell) and writer of this film asked me to check this out but said, “It’s a faith-based film,” as if that would make me immediately look at it in a different light. If anything, it made me want to watch it more, as his A Wish for Giants somehow combined Christian faith and cryptozoology into one narrative and I was there for all of that.

Forgiving God grabbed me from the first moment, as two teens play with a spirit board and conjure up someone trapped in hell, a moment so upsetting that it causes Jon Moore (Matthew Utley) to slash his wrists and nearly die.

Is this where I confess and say that I have an entire Ouija-film-related Letterboxd list and page of this site?

Jon’s had a rough life. He’d begged his father to stop at a tourist stop when he was just nine years old and while in the bathroom, a gunman killed his entire family. Raised in an abusive foster system, he has no need for the church that his new foster parents want him to attend. He also does repeated hair flips when he’s angry, like all nascent goths should.

Yet Jon finds a friend in the woods — a Native American girl named Isaka (Alexandria Sertik, who was in A Wish for Giants) — who protects him not just from a bear — literally one of my favorite scenes in any movie in 2022 — but teaches him that faith extends beyond the church pew — Dean Cain plays the pastor — and can be part of your real life and authentic self. That said — she has a tragedy of her own to share with him before the movie ends.

There’s also a moment where a rock concert and a song that literally speaks about forgiving God inspires Jon to be saved. Isaka’s words are something he will remember long after he grows old: “Everything happens for a reason, even those things which are detestable. They shape us into who we’re meant to be.”

Made in Armstrong and Indiana Counties in PA — Pennsylvania filmmakers can encompass Romero’s zombies and a Suburban Sasquatch while Shane Black, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Rusty Cundieff and Rowdy Herrington are from Pittsburgh, Steven E. de Souza and M. Night Shyamalan are from Philly, the Farrelly brothers are from Phoenixville, Joseph L. Mankiewicz was from Wilkes-Barre — this is a low budget but high concept film that doesn’t shy at all away from its message. It never feels like it’s pushing you or screaming in your face about God, which makes it that much more effective.

Lord knows I struggle with whatever reality is, but that doesn’t mean that I should look down on this movie for being faith-based. Instead, I really enjoyed its earnestness and found that it’s a fine follow-up to A Wish for Giants.

To learn more, visit the official Facebook page for Forgiving God.