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‘Sirens’ Review: The All-Female Middle-Eastern Thrash Metal Documentary We Need | Sundance 2022

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‘Sirens’ Review: The All-Female Middle-Eastern Thrash Metal Documentary We Need | Sundance 2022

What kind of leader would you be in a fractured world, one disinterested in honoring your authenticity? Rita Baghdadi’s documentary Sirens explores this question through 23-year-old musician Lilas Mayassi, who wrestles with friendship, sexuality, and destruction as the leader of the Middle East’s first all-female thrash metal band Slave to Sirens – a Beirut, Lebanon-based group pursuing dreams of rock star fame.

Set against the backdrop of a country on the brink of collapse, and haunted by the shadow of their parents’ civil war, Lilas, her co-founder Shery Bechara, and their bandmates Maya Khairallah, Alma Doumani, and Tatyana Boughaba are Slave to Sirens, a cathartically raucous, thrash metal band, seeking fame and fortune. Their dreams seem well-within reach as they accept an invitation to play Glastonbury in the UK, having been spotted in a major music magazine feature. The show, though, is not the life-changer they anticipate, and once they return to Lebanon, seismic cracks begin rippling out within the group, originating in an incredibly frustrated Lilas.

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By day, Lilas teaches music to kids. Living with her mother and younger brother outside of Beirut, it’s only at night that she truly comes alive. Whether she is escaping into musical collaboration and seemingly inevitable conflict with her bandmates, online courting the woman she’s secretly romancing across the border in Syria, or out partying until all hours at the club, Lilas is desperate to express herself. The real her. Lilas is just what Baghdadi intended, a young woman just, “like everyone else: full of dreams and fueled by desire.”

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What attracted Baghdadi to this project was her own experience growing up between Maryland and Morocco in a post 9/11 America. She writes, “I was deeply affected by the way Arab characters were treated in the films I saw. They were demonized and belittled, and I couldn’t find a girl like me anywhere.” Meeting Slave to Sirens, she saw an opportunity to tell the kind of story she’d always yearned to see. One positioning Arab women as its stars. Arab women who defy stereotypes, who “curse, scream, thrash and talk openly about sexuality without being sexualized.” Baghdadi achieves this by way of the astounding courage she’s able to capture amongst these young women. Shery, the freest spirit of the bunch, and with whom Lilas shares a hushed past, challenges her bandmate Lilas to confront their truth, to confront her own repression, and to question how her behavior is tearing this band apart. Understanding the larger context of this story set in a country imminently tearing in two, the stakes of Lilas’s awakening both sexually, as a band leader, and as a friend feel terrifying and thrilling; a bold rebellion clearly of thrash metal proportions.


As Slave to Sirens, Lilas, Shery, Maya, Alma, and Tatyana breathe new, silly, compassionate life into the historically masculine thrash metal genre. Mind you, on stage, they all out rage. A tidal wave of oppression, instability, and fear rocking out through their respective instruments. Yet behind the scenes, their dynamic is soft, playful, and delightfully innocent. While these women are very much still unraveling their identities, both collectively and individually, the most compelling moments throughout this documentary are those of togetherness and love. It very much seems like without the security of this love they have for one another, creating a unique cohort of safety amidst the chaos of an impending crumbling, complex Lebanon, the courage to take the stage with such gusto and raw fury would never exist. Through the Sirens, we bear witness to the kind of community possible when women connect with one another and rise up together, wielding sound as a weapon in the war for female empowerment.

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With that outside world their fighting to change in mind, the extent to which Lilas and Shery in particular let the cameras capture their painfully imperfect personal lives, with the looming backdrop of a less-than-understanding culture lording over them – shows the extraordinary difference their hoping to inspire in the Middle East and elsewhere in the World where being authentic is not always encouraged. Baghdadi finds ominous ways throughout this film to temper the raw optimism of this thrash metal sisterhood with the bitter reality of conflict and contempt surrounding them. Whether that’s with imagery of protests enveloping the women’s otherwise mundane moments, or intimate conversations with family members who are less than enthused by the paths these women have chosen to walk, the threats throughout are very real. Even so, Baghdadi makes sure to find diversity in the band’s external influences, painting a portrait of Lebanese culture that is not a one-noted blanket of oppression. We see a Lebanon deeply divided – skewing conservative in some ways and progressive in others. And this division is not dormant. There is a palpable yearning to hear one another, to be heard – to convince others that yours is the right way forward for a better Lebanon. The freedom of self-expression through music becomes one layer within that larger conversation.


As in any good music documentary, sound is key. Interwoven amidst Slave to Sirens’ original music, Jean-Baptiste de Laubier aka Para One’s soundtrack is an active participant in this film’s drama. Much like his original soundtrack composition on Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Para One regularly reaches for tools like dissonance and silence, orchestrating a catharsis that often mirrors the trauma of living in a country disinterested in honoring all of who you are. As the friendships in front of us begin cracking under the pressures of a world regulated against celebrating a group of women like this – ready to bare their souls on stage, the one small corner of truth they’ve managed to carve out for themselves – it’s not music, but sound that overwhelms us. Impossible to comprehend other than as violent disruption. It’s in these moments that Baghdadi’s vision, through the Sirens’ story, grants us access into the struggle of finding your identity in a world largely disinterested in celebrating, embracing, or even acknowledging all of who you are. Crushed under raw tone, the weight of this struggle becomes undeniable. Almost as deafening as the moments of silence.


A beautifully balanced portrait of young women, screaming to be heard within their deafeningly oppressive culture, Sirens succeeds in delivering the one thing every revolution needs most, hope. Defining oneself is never easy, but within this courageous story of five young women, rocking their ways toward a better life, there is remarkable resilience. A compelling reminder that music can be a powerful catalyst in the fight for freedom.

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Rating: A


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Bullet Train Review: A Wickedly Funny, High-Octane Thrill Ride

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Bullet Train Review: A Wickedly Funny, High-Octane Thrill Ride

Brad Pitt leads a wickedly funny ensemble in a high-octane actioner loaded with twists. Adapted from the 2010 Japanese novel by Kōtarō Isaka, Bullet Train has a bevy of disparate assassins manipulated by a mysterious criminal mastermind. Stuntman turned action director, David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde), stays true to form with unrelenting bloody and flamboyant violence. The codenamed characters get downright verbose before beating, stabbing, and shooting each other to bits. The loquacious banter tends to run long, but the narrative always bounces back with sharp reveals. Strap in for a helluva ride.

Ladybug (Pitt) boards the overnight bullet train to Tokyo with a newfound sense of self. He’s chock-full of philosophy after recovering from a near fatal ambush. Ladybug ignores his unseen handler’s advice to take a gun. Surely any issues can be resolved peacefully. The job seems straightforward enough. Steal a briefcase with a sticker and exit at the next stop.

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Also on board are Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), ruthless “twins” known for their brutal methods. Lemon is obsessed with the British children’s show “Thomas & Friends”. He reads people by comparing them to the anthropomorphized trains. The twins are escorting the previously kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) of a powerful gangster, the White Death (Michael Shannon).

None of the hired guns are aware of the Father, aka Yuichi Kimura’s (Andrew Koji), mission. He’s out for vengeance but foolishly runs into a deceptive figure. The Prince (Joey King) has a score to settle with the White Death. Meanwhile, the Wolf (Bad Bunny) joins the fray after his truly horrific Mexican wedding. He’s also ready for serious comeuppance. Ladybug quickly realizes they’re all unwitting pawns in a dangerous game. Someone has packed the train with killers for an unknown purpose. He desperately wants to get off but can’t seem to escape the carnage.


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Cast of Bullet Train

Bullet Train introduces the cast with splashy entrances that flashes back to their dark pasts. The murderous montages are informative but don’t fill in every gap. The script doles out more critical information as the bodies pile up. Alliances bounce back and forth as everyone wonders who’s actually pulling the strings. The whodunit element works well as the audience becomes embroiled in a series of betrayals. You don’t have a sense of the plot’s true trajectory until the third act. The film builds to a showdown that delivers a huge action payoff.

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Bullet Train has complex characters that each contribute slices of devilish humor. Brad Pitt preaching self-help and understanding is an effective gag throughout. Brian Tyree Henry’s constant comparisons to Thomas & Friends aren’t as comical but play an important role in the story. There are a lot of moving parts. Leitch, who worked as Pitt’s stunt double for years, is clearly fond of his players. He gives everyone a chance to babble incessantly. I would have trimmed the dialogue to be more incisive.


The action scenes are worth the price of admission. Leitch has a great eye for mixing stylized set pieces with intimate fights. He knows when to go big and small. You never feel let down by his pacing. There’s always the right amount of adrenaline to keep your pulse pumping. Bullet Train is another feather in a skilled filmmaker’s cap. Watch out for A-list cameos and a mid-credits scene.

Bullet Train is a production of Columbia Pictures, Fuqua Films, and 87North Productions. It will be released theatrically on August 5th from Sony Pictures.

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Bullet Train Review: Brad Pitt Has A Blast In The Silly And Badass Action Comedy

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Bullet Train Review: Brad Pitt Has A Blast In The Silly And Badass Action Comedy

If orchestrated properly, with adjusted stakes, tone, and atmosphere, there can be a beautiful, symbiotic relationship between intense action and comedy. A hero pulling off a rapid and vicious series of blows against an opponent can be savage and dramatic in one context, but it can also be so deliriously awesome that an audience’s first reaction is to laugh. Fast paced martial arts can be used for wonderful physical humor (see: the legendary career of Jackie Chan), and the best examples provide dual layers of entertainment: you marvel at the skill in all the ass-kicking, and cackle at the creativity in the choreography.

This is a sweet spot that filmmaker David Leitch knows well. After peppering funny moments in John Wick and Atomic Blonde at the start of his directorial career, he brilliantly utilized the action/comedy weapon that is Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool 2, and crafted some excellent physicality with the unique styles of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. His latest, Bullet Train, is another effort that takes aim at that particular tonal target, this time with his most expansive ensemble yet, and it’s another success. With a sensibility that could be described as early Guy Ritchie with more specific action focus, it’s a movie that is both silly and skilled and inspires its primary star in particular to do energetic and engaging work.

Based on the novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka, the film weaves multiple narrative threads through the cars of the titular bullet train as it speeds through the country of Japan – all of the protagonists being killers with their own particular reason and motivation for being aboard. Ladybug (Brad Pitt), for example, is a hired gun who has been tasked by his handler (Sandra Bullock) to perform what sounds like a simple job: find a briefcase marked with a train sticker and steal it. What he doesn’t know, though, is that said briefcase belongs to a pair of British hit men named Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and that the contents include the recovered ransom for the kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) of a powerful crime lord known as The White Death.

Meanwhile, Kimura a.k.a. The Father (Andrew Koji) is on the bullet train because he is on a mission of vengeance – hunting down the person responsible for nearly killing his son by pushing the boy off of a building. What he doesn’t expect is that the individual he is looking for is a young woman identified as The Prince (Joey King), and that she has purposefully gotten him on the high speed rail with the intention of forcing him to execute an assassination attempt.

And while five killers sharing the space would be enough for most movies, Bullet Train actually has even more that pop in and surprise throughout the film’s runtime – and their roles are worth keeping as a secret pre-release.

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Bullet Train has a chaotic storyline, but the pieces properly connect as a fun puzzle.

Narratively speaking, Bullet Train is a messy movie to put together, as focus briskly ping-pongs between the different players, but everything stays in harmony as the film persistently finds ways to build on each protagonist’s arc. This is particularly cool later in the movie as different characters are drawn together from individual angles and instant conflict is generated from their simple interaction.

The film is at its best when it keeps things simple, but it does let things go off the rails at times (if you’ll pardon the pun). This is especially true as it gets into the third act and it tries to pull off stunts like one of the leads leaping from a platform on to the back of the train as it leaves a station; it’s both a problem for the “rules” of the universe and in its strained use of visual effects. The movie also frequently tries to get a bit too cute and Tarantino-esque with what are admittedly familiar-but-not-quite-stock characters – the most prominent example being an ongoing and quickly tiresome gag with Lemon explaining that he understands people through the lens of Thomas The Tank Engine.

Primarily, though, it’s a movie that is able to generate its entertainment with engaging and quippy dynamics between the members of the ensemble, both when they are talking out their issues and trying to kill one another.

David Leitch puts a lot of exciting and weird fights in a confined space, and is at its best when working with a “less is more” philosophy.

Coming from a stunt background, both as a performer and a coordinator, David Leitch’s bread and butter remains deftly and specifically choreographed action sequences, and Bullet Train proves to be a terrific challenge and opportunity for his skills. Regardless of where you are in the titular transport, space is not a luxury, and the best fights in the movie are those that are being fought only between the characters, but against the limitations provided by the location.

There are guns, knives and explosives in the mix, but Bullet Train also has some terrific “found item” moments that add spice and humor to the various showdowns, whether it’s a pocketed cell phone saving a character’s life from a blade, a laptop making for a solid cudgel, a water bottle making for a useful projectile, or a venomous snake showing up at a perfect moment.

Once again we see David Leitch work a special magic turning dramatic and comedic actors into badasses with slick and stylish moves, and while everyone shows off some terrific skills, it’s very much the Brad Pitt show at the end of the day.

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Brad Pitt’s joy in the role of Ladybug is palpable.

At the nexus of everything good in Bullet Train is Brad Pitt, who very clearly had a blast reuniting with David Leitch (who performed the actor’s stunts in films including Fight Club, The Mexican, Mr. And Mrs. Smith and Troy). He’s a joy to watch in action not just because of the talented craft he demonstrates in his physicality, but how he channels the psychology of the character. As we meet him, Ladybug is reluctantly getting back into his business following a number of important breakthroughs with his therapist, and Pitt does a fantastic job conveying that he doesn’t ever want to choose violence as a first answer – both via verbal pleas and defense-heavy moves. Action/comedy is a genre he should revisit a lot more often.

Bullet Train doesn’t aim to revolutionize hitman movies, but instead plays with a tongue-in-cheek vibe that lets you recognize the tropes and appreciate how the film plays with them. It’s a slick/goofy action movie that is both contained and wild, and a satisfying late summer release.

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Luck Review: A Spectacular Debut Film from Skydance Animation

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Luck Review: A Spectacular Debut Film from Skydance Animation

The world’s unluckiest woman enters a magical land to change the fortunes of a fellow orphan. Luck will make you smile and possibly shed a few tears. The big-budget, CGI animated fantasy shines a spotlight on needy children while telling a truly original story. An assortment of lucky critters and creatures dazzle in a spectacular setting. The highly imaginative narrative gives age-old superstitions a dynamic new spin. Luck is a brilliant first film from Skydance Animation.

Sam Greenfield (Eva Noblezada) reaches her eighteenth birthday with trepidation. She’s finally aged out of the foster care system. Sam never found her “forever family”. She spent her entire life living in orphanages. It doesn’t help that Sam has the worst luck. Everything she does or touches ends in abject disaster. Her only thoughts are for young Hazel (Adelynn Spoon), Sam’s roommate at the girls home. Sam has been set up with a job and tiny apartment. She has to stay in school and employed to remain housed.

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Sam’s first day at Marv’s (Lil Rel Howery) floral shop goes exactly as expected. She sadly eats dinner sitting on a sidewalk. Sam learns that Hazel’s weekend trip with a foster family was canceled. She gives half of her sandwich to a curious black cat. It scampers away but leaves a strange penny behind.

The following day is a revelation. Sam’s lucky penny changes everything. Her ecstatic mood sours when she loses the penny in spectacular fashion. Stewing on the sidewalk, Sam’s surprised when the black cat returns. She’s astonished when Bob (Simon Pegg) asks for his penny. The “travel penny” is the only way a creature from the Land of the Luck stays safe in the human world. She follows an unnerved Bob back through the portal to the Land of Luck. Sam has to find another lucky penny to help Hazel. Bob reluctantly agrees, but they have to be careful. Misdeeds end up in banishment to Bad Luck.

Related: Bullet Train Review: A Wickedly Funny, High-Octaine Thrill Ride

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The Land of Luck

The Land of Luck is an absolute joy to behold. Leprechauns, cats, pigs, and rabbits, lucky creatures, are the bureaucrats tasked with spreading good fortune. Bringing Sam in such a place is a recipe for absolute chaos. Bob, and his leprechaun assistant Gerry’s (Colin O’Donoghue), efforts to contain Sam’s bad luck will have audiences in stitches. I’m still chuckling at Sam’s “Latvian leprechaun” disguise; their harebrained excuse for why she’s so much bigger than everyone else.

Luck’s serious themes are artfully addressed. Sam’s lonely childhood, and her desperate efforts to change Hazel’s, brings a melancholic touch to the narrative. The film reminds us to not take love and family for granted. Every kid deserves care, nurturing, and a safe place to grow. It shouldn’t take luck or chance for a child to find a “forever home”.

Insert sigh here. Recent headlines concerning John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars) will undoubtedly cloud this film’s release. The genius storyteller and animator behind Pixar’s success left to head Skydance Animation after awful “Me Too” allegations. He’s brought his incredible talent to Luck, and it shows. This wonderful film deserves to be judged on its own merits. Sometimes we must divorce ourselves from art and the personality of the artist.

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Luck is a production of Skydance Animation and Apple Original Films. It will have an exclusive Apple TV+ premiere on August 5th.

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