La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle)

I wasn’t thinking of anything when I rewatched Mulholland Dr. the same week we saw La La Land, another movie with great songs in which a girl follows her dreams to Hollywood. Emma Stone’s Mia eventually becomes the star that Betty only dreams of being, after a casting agent sees her one-woman show. Her man Ryan Gosling sets aside his own dreams of running a jazz club to tour with his friend John Legend’s band Jazzhammer. Everyone acts like this is a tragic move on Ryan’s part, but he was broke, so how was he gonna afford his own club without building up cash from those lucrative Jazzhammer tours? Either way, Emma thinks he’s selling out his dreams, and their jobs mean they have to spend months apart, and there’s a fight, and suddenly it’s five years later and Emma and her husband duck into Ryan’s successful new club for a bittersweet Umbrellas of Cherbourg-style ending (noticed a suspicious Parapluies shop on the studio backlot, too), but not before indulging in a (shared?) musical fantasy of how their relationship might have worked out.

Nice to see a strong musical with dancing and singing and Rebel Without a Cause references on the big scope-letterboxed cinema screen. Katy thinks all couples should always end up together at the end of movies, but otherwise she liked it.

J. Rosenbaum:

If the movie’s opening and closing production numbers are by far the most impressive and powerful, this is because they’re both responses to realities perceived as unbearable — which becomes all the more unbearable in the latter case by being disguised as a phony happy ending … La La Land is far more about the death of cinema and the death of jazz than it is about their rebirth or survival. It’s about boarded-up movie houses, antiquated analog recordings, and artistic aspirations that can only be fulfilled (as well as fueled) by fantasy.

Phantasm V: Ravager (2016, David Hartman)

Reviews of the long, long-awaited new Phantasm sequel are in, and they’re all negative. The digital effects are so bad, you guys. The spheres have no sense of physical reality and move in perfect straight lines. The plot is bizarre, the sets and cameras are cheap, the trailer was better, and so on. These things are true, but I’ll gladly take this Phantasm sequel over no Phantasm sequel.

New characters: Dawn Cody is the hottie who gives Reggie a ride to her house then gets killed, showing up later under a different name. Chuck is an anti-sphere militant short enough to masquerade as one of the robed beastie creatures. Old characters: they bring back the Lady In Lavender from the graveyard in part one, of all the crazy things, and also nunchuck-totin’ Rocky from part three in a cameo. Speaking of cameos, that’s all Jody’s role amounts to – a couple minutes driving the digitally-souped-up Barracuda before it recedes into the sphere-dominated wastelands.

The movie has its fan-service showdowns, apocalyptic hellscapes and bloody sphere-killings, but it’s a proper Phantasm movie, which means it is properly unusual. I don’t think fans were clamoring to see Reggie losing his marbles in a rest home or dying peacefully in a hospital bed. At the end of part one Mike is told that there were no spheres or tall man, that Jody died naturally, and this one doubles up on the reality-questioning, with Reggie flashing between the rest home and different horror/adventure scenarios (along with The Tall Man, Reggie’s rival and/or roommate). The ball implanted in Mike’s head is referenced, Reggie and the others warp between dimensions through the usual portals, plus via mini torture-chamber mind-control portal, plus unwillingly by insanity or chance. None of this gets quite explained in a way that privileges one reality over another, and the parts are shuffled just enough to leave the series on unsteady ground, letting us write our own version of the ending. That’s all you can ask of a series as strange as this one – to take the characters on one more ride, and leave things just as mysterious as they began.

Mountains May Depart (2015, Jia Zhang-ke)

So soon after Moonlight and Certain Women, another movie in three parts. In 1999, Zhao Tao (I Wish I Knew, A Touch of Sin) is friends with sharp-chinned coal miner Liangzi (Jingdong Liang, Tao’s Platform costar) and petulant boss Jinsheng. When the boss decides he wants to marry her, he pulls strings to stay close to her and gets his former friend fired.

2014: Liangzi has health problems and a family in another town, moves back to the city and sees Tao again. Her father dies, and her son Daole visits from Australia for the funeral but barely knows her.

2025: Daole enlists his university English teacher (Sylvia Chang, the boss in Office) to translate conversations with his dad, now a gun dealer, then to Katy’s chagrin, Daole starts sleeping with the teacher. He thinks about visiting his mom, decides not to. Back in China, Mom dances alone in the snow.

N. Bahadur:

Neither man is willing to let Zhao make her own decision, both only desire to possess her. So in this sense Zhao’s sporadic weaving in and out of the narrative reveal both tradition and capitalism stifling femininity.

Lion (2016, Garth Davis)

This had weird similarities with Mountains May Depart, which we watched the night before. It spans about the same amount of time, during which a boy is separated from his mother, moves to Australia and forgets her native language.

This one’s the true story of “Saroo” who gets lost while adventuring with his big brother then accidentally rides a train to Calcutta where he doesn’t speak the language and almost gets captured by a creepy man then ends up in an orphanage from where he’s adopted by Nicole Kidman and the corrupt police chief from Top of the Lake. Years later he is Dev Patel of Slumdog, going to college and dating Rooney Mara when he learns about online satellite-map programs and becomes obsessed with finding his home town, which he’s been mispronouncing all his life, and seeing his real family again.

Besides obviously getting choked up by the climactic family reunion (and the inevitable footage of the real people being dramatized) I got much of the same feeling as Garth’s Top of the Lake – it’s a good-looking prestige pic tackling Important Issues, but when it was over it didn’t reverberate in my head in any meaningful way, just made me wanna go see another movie.

Also: Darth Gavis.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011, Philippe Falardeau)

Emotionally delicate movie focusing first on two young kids who saw their teacher’s classroom suicide, then on Mr. Lazhar from Algeria who lies about his past in order to get a job as substitute teacher. Turns out he was a restaurant manager and his wife the professor (?) was murdered for having unpopular opinions, along with both of their kids in Algeria. So, teacher and class are both grieving, and somewhat help each other along in a less touchy-feely way than one would expect from a plot description.

M. D’Angelo: “I did like that he lies about having smacked one of the kids upside the head, however, and that nothing ever comes of it – just an everyday ass-covering.”

J. Anderson in Cinema Scope:

French-speaking audiences may detect parallels between Lazhar’s story and that of the man who plays him. A popular actor, playwright, and satirist in Algeria, Fellag exiled himself to France after the clampdown on freedom of expression in his homeland manifested itself as a bomb attack on one of his productions. Usually an exuberant performer onstage, the 51-year-old Fellag handles his role here with a quiet precision and a keen sensitivity to his fellow actors that is all the more remarkable when you consider that this could have literally been a one-man show. Indeed, the play on which Falardeau’s film is based — by Québécois playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière — was written for a solo performer.

The Eagle Huntress (2016, Otto Bell)

Kazakh teenager becomes the first female eagle hunter in the region. She tells her dad she wants to eagle-hunt, so he checks with grandpa then takes her to kidnap her own baby eagle, walks her through training then leads her to the competition (where her bird sets a record) and her first wild fox capture. It’s a family-friendly feel-good feminist true story (complete with awful disney-uplift closing pop song) that’s doubly pleasurable for those of us who love birds, sweet fur hats and crisp photography. Lead girl Aisholpan is great fun, and fortunately she has a family who cares more about letting her achieve her own destiny than about what the neighbors might think.

Dukhtar (2014, Afia Nathaniel)

Too-young girl in the Pakistan mountains is going to be married off to her father’s rival as a peace offering, so her mom takes her on the run, getting help from a dreamy guy who drives the world’s most awesome truck. Seriously, I wish we hadn’t watched this on streaming so I could show you this truck. The husband/father’s crew and the rival’s crew both search for them, both of them all pissed off.

Lovely bright colors clearly, brightly photographed. Aside from that and the cultural interest, the plotting and editing and music all seemed highly familiar from genre flicks I watched on cable in the 1990’s.

First Monday in May (2016, Andrew Rossi)

Functional doc following pre-planning through opening night of a Spring 2015 China-inspired fashion show at the Met in NYC. 95% of the interest comes from the fantastic costumes on display and in archive footage and clothing worn by celebrities to the opening ball. 4% comes from watching Wong Kar-Wai as the only Chinese participant on the board (and realizing he does other things with his time besides making movies), and the rest is from anything that anyone has to say.

Nocturnal Animals (2016, Tom Ford)

It was the baby-monitor jump-scare that lost me. Intriguing backstory open before the movie changes directions, centering on Amy Adams (far less electric here than in Arrival, and given much less to do) reading the rape-murder-revenge novel written by her ex Jake Gyllenhaal, visualizing it starring him with Michael Shannon as a dying cop who doesn’t play by the rules. I suppose the ending should be cynically satisfying, as Adams becomes obsessed with the novel, contacts Jake to meet him and talk about it, and gets stood up. By that point though, who could care about Amy and Jake’s old relationship problems (she got an abortion without telling him, and dumped him for Armie Hammer) or his elaborate literature-based revenge plot, when the bulk of the movie has become the novel itself, a grimy, joyless, desert desperation story? And who can say why Adams gets so sucked in, to the point where she starts seeing jump-scare monsters inside her assistant’s baby monitor, a moment that felt so outrageously cheap that I optimistically figured it would be justified later, or at least be the beginning of a series of visions?

Also it opens with naked fat women dancing in slow-motion. And hey, here’s Love star Karl Glusman and Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone, both of them returning from another 2016 movie I found ugly and misguided. Standard dialogue scenes were filmed in a flat and boring manner (and the movie is mostly standard dialogue scenes). Diana Dabrowska in Cinema Scope and David Ehrlich on Letterboxd both compliment the camerawork, so maybe I missed something there. At least Jake G. is very good in his role, and Shannon is always pleasant to watch.