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Moving pictures 2019, #32

An interesting selection of films in this post, even if I say so myself: a giallo, a contemporary German comedy that demonstrates the country has a much better approach to refugees than almost all other European nations, a US movie from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, a well-meaning but turgid biopic by a celebrated US director, and a brand-new Swedish science fiction film based on an epic poem from 1956 by a Swedish Nobel laureate. You won’t find that in an issue of Empire magazine.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Dario Argento (1972, Italy). Yet more giallo. I seem to have been on a bit of a run of giallo. Thanks to Shameless. It’s been fun, although gialli are not exactly known for making much sense. In this one, the drummer of a rock group is attacked by a stranger and accidentally stabs him to death. A mysterious man in a mask photographs the incident. But then it turns out the attacker is not dead, and he and the man in the mask blackmail the drummer. And then there’s a dream in which the drummer dreams he is being decapitated in an arena. And it’s all to do with someone who was committed to an insane asylum years before and now appears to be stalking the drummer with the intention of murdering him. But that somehow means just about every other character in the film has to be murdered first. Or something. The title refers to an image photographed from one of the victim’s retinas, which is supposed to be of the last thing they see, but which is of course complete and utter nonsense. I can’t remember what the “four flies on grey velvet” prove to be, but they’re instrumental in the drummer realising who the homicidal maniac is. Argento has made better films than this, although some of them made as little sense as this one. But, I think, is  part of the appeal. Of course, it doesn’t always gel, and I don’t think it does here. Everything in gialli is pretty much broad brushstroke, but parts of Four Flies on Grey Velvet felt cartoonish. One for fans.

Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns, Simon Verhoeven (2016, Germany). The refugee/immigration question is one that has vexed many minds these last few years, and provided the foundation for several scumbag politicians’ careers. I have a simple philosophy: I cannot begrudge people wanting to improve their lives and I’m grateful that opportunities through immigration are possible – and I say that as an immigrant myself – but I also think that when you bomb people’s homes you can’t really complain about them moving into other countries. Germany has decided to interrogate immigration through its literature, films and television – to a much greater extent, it seems, than the UK, where it’s left in the realms of racist polemic. In Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns the titular family want to do something for a local refugee centre that is under threat and are persuaded to take in Diallo, a Nigerian. Diallo is a wide-eyed innocent, wise beyond his years, and the whole thing is played as a gentle comedy that plays as much on Diallo’s perception of German character as it does on the interactions between the Hartmanns and their friends and acquaintances. The father is a surgeon who refuses to admit he is ageing, the daughter is a perpetual student in search of love, and the son is a workaholic involved in some project in Shanghai which has resulted in him neglecting his young son. Diallo, of course, brings the family back together, helps the daughter find love, and the son reconnect with his son. This is feel-good family comedy/drama, but it’s also about a topic important to Europe and it handles that subject well. worth seeing.

Slacker*, Richard Linklater (1990, USA). Whenever film-makers turn their cameras on real people, they hit a problem. Real people are boring. That’s why most films are implausible narratives. Because they make for entertaining stories. Of course, the people in Slacker are actors – but they’re not playing characters so much as they’re playing archetypes. I can understand the artistic impulse that led to Linklater turning his camera away from a structured narrative based on characters with arcs and clear motivations, but the end result is depressingly dull. I also suspect time has not been all that kind to Slacker, as the characters he trails across the screen have since turned into stereotypes and clichés, and I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t stereotypes and clichés when the film was made. I’m not sure why the film was included on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the list is US-heavy and Slacker is a good candidate for the chop so it can be replaced by a better non-Anglophone movie. But at least I can now cross it off the list.

Kundun, Martin Scorsese (1997, USA). I had not thought it possible until watching this film, and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact it was by Martin Scorsese, but how do you make a biopic of the Dalai Lama that is boring? Actually, I don’t need to know how – because Kundun is it. The film hits the main points of the life up to 19097 of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama – his reincarnation in a village near the Chinese border, the test given him to confirm his identity, his removal to Lhasa, his installation as Dalai Lama, the Chinese occupation, and the Dalai Lama’s eventual flight to India for safety. It’s all very episodic, which is hardly surprising given it’s a gallop through a person’s life from 1937 to 1959. And while the movie looks really nice, with some impressive cinematography, it wasn’t filmed on location in Tibet – for obvious reasons – and Morocco isn’t an entirely convincing stand-in. I’ve seen Kundun on some variations of the 1001 Movies list – if not that actual list in one of its yearly incarnations, then a rival list – but I don’t think it deserves a place. Scorsese has made better movies, and while Kundun tells an important story, it doesn’t tell it particularly well.

Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). A spacecraft en route to Mars on a relatively routine voyage is knocked off course and its passengers and crew attempt to adapt to a voyage that may be years longer than the weeks originally planned. The movie is based on an epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinsson, originally published in 1956, so we’re not talking about your usual source material. I’ve heard some people complain the film borrows its visual aesthetic from movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. It shows the titular spacecraft as entirely ordinary, more like a hotel/shopping mall than a spacecraft, but that’s hardly an original idea – the RMS Titanic famously shared its interior decor, for the non-steerage passengers at least, with the Hotel Adelphi in Liverpool – and if there’s any style present in the production design in Aniara then’s a sort of generic Scandinavian style, which perhaps echoes the clean lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s production design if not the Soviet modernism of Tarkovsky’s film. Aniara does, however, share a bleakness of vision with Solaris. First, the crew hide the true situation from the passengers. Then, as the ship’s systems begins to break down, so does the ship’s society. There is a brief respite when an alien object appears, and they work together to capture it, in the hope it contains fuel they can use to return to their course. There have been a couple of sf films like Aniara recently – well, maybe only Claire Denis’s High Life, and Amat Escalante’s The Untamed – art-house science fiction films that are as unlike tentpole genre movies as it s possible to be. I didn’t think High Life entirely successful, but it’s hard to tell with directors quite how immersed in genre they were prior to making the film in question. No matter. Aniara is excellent and is like to make my best of the year list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942