The North Bend Film Festival opens today and runs through July 18. Online ticketing is available, but is geo-locked to residents of Washington, Oregon or Idaho. In the future, these movies may be available through alternate venues—stay tuned to this website for updates.

Swan Song (dir. Todd Stephens)— Opening night feature Swan Song is the most shamelessly sentimental and fabulous biopic I’ve had the pleasure of watching. My greatest complaint is the by-the-books competence of its actual crafting, but that quiet framework allows Udo Kier to re-enact the heartwarming final days of Pat Pitsenberger, hair stylist for the well-heeled and well-connected country-club set of 1980s Ohio.

Pat’s unabashedly gay mien makes up for Swan Song‘s rote style. We first meet him suffering the tedious indignities of nursing home life. Pat’s daily routine of unfolding and refolding the facility’s paper napkins is interrupted by a lawyer summoning him to ‘do one last favor for an old client: style her hair for her funeral. His journey from living death on Sandusky’s outskirts into the remnants of its underground gay havens is bittersweet, but heavily dosed with witty flamboyance (Pat is surprised when a store clerk recognizes him; she exclaims, “Who could forget ‘the Liberace of Sandusky’?” Pat’s response: “Was I that butch?”).

Swan Song also explores the gay community’s dramatic culture change from forty years ago to the relative openness of today. Watching two dads playing with their kids in the park, Pat observes “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay any more.” Sentimental, perhaps, but proud as well. Much like the glorious queens and queers of days gone by.

Luchadoras (dir. Paola Calvo, Patrick Jasim)—Life in Cuidad Juarez is hard, and even harder for women. The city is home of countless unsolved murders, and a masculine attitude with a mean streak. Luchadoras explores these phenomena through the lens of three “women fighters,” as the title’s translation makes clear. I initially felt this clarification was superfluous. It was only after watching the whole documentary that I realized its necessity. These women fight for everything: their livelihood, family, and self-esteem. That’s what attracts them to the world of luchadora combat: at least on the ring, they fight on their own terms, with their own kind, and for their own satisfaction.

One fighter, Lady Candy, is trying to attain partial custody of her children after they were kidnapped by their abusive father and brought to live in El Paso. Baby Starlight is aging, so her chances of returning to the big leagues in Mexico City are diminishing. Only Mini Sirenita’s story is overtly hopeful, chronicling her efforts to make it to Mexico City as well, but as an up-and-comer. Even when downbeat, humanity and humor burst through the cracks. Starlight’s relationship with her aspiring-luchadora younger sister is touching, and the gallows-comic bit about the appearance of white sheets for bodies at murder scenes elicits a morbid chuckle. (One bystander suggests that perhaps neighbors provide them; a second observer points out that all of her own sheets are floral print and wouldn’t be appropriate.) Luchadoras is harsh, and appropriately so. But it offers hope through the never-say-die attitude of its subjects.

Red Post on Escher Street (Escher dori no akai posuto; dir. Sion Sono)—Dozens of aspiring actresses send out audition applications via the red post box, a ubiquitous Japanese landmark. Sion Sono’s latest film is a deep but breezy outing, a movie about moviemaking; it is a love letter to the thousands of “extras” who flesh out movies. Red Post chronicles several dozen aspiring stars, all desperate to play the lead in the new Tadashi Kobayashi film. Sono tells the story of a gaggle of theater students, a pentad of Kobayashi devotees, a stalwart gang of veteran extras, and sundry interlopers. An actor’s mild-mannered young widow defies her mother to follow her dead husband’s footsteps; her counterpart is a troubled daughter of a recently dead man. Everyone shines throughout.

Sion Sono is a long-winded director, but never wastes time. After each intertitle appears—sometimes single names, often groups of three or more—we witness those characters’ stories. There is a lot of silliness: the Kobayashi super-fans first appear as a marching line of white-clad women, all singing the theme from their favorite Kobayashi movie as they head toward the audition. Like all the aspirants, they are thwarted by a crew of road repairmen, a silly but effective allegory for the many barriers to stardom. The narrative oscillations around the director (Kobayashi, that is) ultimately coalesce into a sensational half-hour finale which combines film-craft’s mundane repetitiveness, along with chaos, violence, and singalongs. Sono’s epic melodrama showcases his capacity to tickle the funny bone and tug the heart strings.

Superior (dir. Erin Vassilopoulos)—Competence, sweet competence—but very little of interest unfolds in this slightly Lynch-y, somewhat melodramatic, definitely 1987-anchored tale of a pair of (dissimilar-looking) twins who envy the other’s life. So I’ll wax lyrical on the two things I actually enjoyed about it…

To a trained eye (read: local), the dimly-lit, muddy snow-scatter in a suburban milieu clearly indicates an Upstate New York setting. Mornings through afternoons blur together in a sloppy sort-of-overcast haze, with sunbeam blasts illuminating the unflattering brown ick peeking  through the grey snow. It’s always wet, because in late winter and early spring, paltry new snow not-quite-replaces the speckled slush that lingers for months, and it’s always bright and cold this far from the sun under a cloudless sky.

Personal nostalgia deepens with the inclusion of a very early Martin Newell track, from his “Cleaners from Venus” phase. As none of you may know, Newell was an almost-big-sensation on the other side of the Atlantic, but was burned by execs early in his career, forcing him into a life of fringe music (and less-fringe poet writing). His early albums were effectively given away, with the hopes that whoever came across the hand-made cassettes (featuring hand-drawn album covers with hand-written liner notes) might send him some cash.

Tailgate (Bumperkleef; dir. Lodewijk Crijns)—Hans wants to leave on time, his daughters don’t want to go, and his wife is not looking forward to the meal of oatmeal soup that awaits them at grandma’s house. As in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the harried family foolishly heads out unprepared: emotionally, anyway. If they’d left on time, maybe Hans would be chill. Unfortunately he’s at peak peevishness during his run-in with Tailgate‘s sociopath antagonist, “Ongedierteverdelger Ed” (performed with icy frankness by the aptly named Willem de Wolf). By tailgating this pest-control technician on the A-1, he wakes the wrong dog; by repeatedly refusing to apologize for his transgression, Hans compels “Ed” to spray down extreme chemical justice on the family.

Tailgate‘s premise has been explored plenty of times before, but the relatability of its car-bound family (the trip is a tense affair even before the run-in with the baddie) and the exterminator’s quiet, Biblical zeal make it well worth the view. The young actresses playing the daughters shine brightly, alternately petulant, charming, funny, and bloody terrified. And a large part of me related to Ed, who only demands respect for himself and the sacrosanct rules of the road. I clicked so completely with this movie that Hans’ pig-headedness nearly made me shout, “Guy, you’re in a violence-revenge thriller; just be obliging!” The next time you’re on the highway, remember to drive friendly. Road rage could be the death of you.

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