Killing Gunther (2017)

2018 #83
Taran Killam | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English, German & Spanish | 15 / R

Killing Gunther

Do you ever have that feeling where you want to watch a film but you don’t want it to be anything too demanding or important? I do. I’ve watched (and subsequently reviewed) plenty of films with that underlying motivation. Killing Gunther is the latest that absolutely fits that bill. I had paid it absolutely no heed whatsoever until I happened to see a trailer that looked moderately amusing. Bolstered by a Rotten Tomatoes pullquote that described it as “a very affectionate take on the [hitman action] genre, so it’s much easier to overlook its shortcomings if that happens to be a genre that you’re a fan of,” I decided it was worth a punt.

Framed as a mockumentary, it’s the story of a hitman (Taran Killam) who sets out to kill the world’s greatest hitman, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and assembles a team of oddball fellow hitman to do so. Unfortunately for them, Gunther is so damn good that he’s always several steps ahead.

As a comedy, I thought it was funny. Not always super original or absolutely hilarious, but ticking enough. As an action movie, some of the single-take assassination scenes are done quite well. It was clearly produced on a low budget, so the action sequences don’t really fulfil on an adrenaline-junkie level, but they work decently in context.

Gunther vs... that other guy

For Arnie fans, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t actually turn up until over an hour into the movie. Put another way, he’s not in 72% of the film. Really, it’s just an extended cameo. It would’ve been a neat surprise if his appearance was a secret, but the whole marketing campaign is based around him (which makes sense, but still).

If you hate mockumentaries, or indie comedies with more ambition than budget, or are coming just to see plenty of Arnie, then Killing Gunther is one to skip. If the concept and style appeals, however, it’s a decent 90 minutes for a lazy evening.

3 out of 5

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The Accountant (2016)

2017 #73
Gavin O’Connor | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Accountant

In this action-thriller from the director of the overrated Warrior, Ben Affleck stars as Chris Wolff, an autistic accountant who excels at auditing complex financial records. No, wait! I did say action-thriller, because Chris’ clients are mostly criminal organisations, and he uses the martial arts training his father instilled as a child to double up as a hitman. See, it’s exciting really.

When Chris is called to audit a robotics company (run by John Lithgow) who have found irregularities in their books (why this criminal accountant is called to work for a legit company I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was explained in the film), he unexpectedly bonds with Dana (Anna Kendrick), the company accountant who spotted the problem. After his audit unearths evidence of embezzlement, both Chris and Dana find themselves the target of bad people (led by Jon Bernthal) who want to keep the company’s secrets. Meanwhile, a couple of FBI agents (J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are on the trail of the mysterious criminal known primarily as “the Accountant”…

Maths!

The Accountant has lots of moving bits and pieces — I’ve not even alluded to all of them in that summary — but to call it a complicated film would be either too generous or a disservice, depending on your point of view. There’s a clarity to it all that keeps it easy to follow but suitably engaging, even as it plays out multiple storylines in a couple of time periods (there are flashbacks aplenty to Chris’ childhood training). And if you’re thinking, “finally a film that makes accounting exciting!”, I’m sorry to disappoint you but Chris’ maths skills are really just a MacGuffin to get the ball rolling. What it does deliver is a decent thriller plot, with a couple of twists to keep things lively. It’s also a pretty satisfying narrative — I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie that so thoroughly tied up everything into nice neat little bows. I suppose that’s at least kind of appropriate given the hero’s condition.

The action element is mainly reserved for the second half, when Chris has to deal with the people out to get him. This isn’t one for adrenaline junkies — it’s not a nonstop fight-fest like, say, a Bourne movie — but there’s a suitably violent climax nonetheless.

Shooting!

In some respects The Accountant shouldn’t be a good movie. It treats autism as a superpower, which is both inaccurate and turning into a cliché; but it doesn’t do it so egregiously that it feels entirely tacky. The whole side story with the FBI also feels kind of clunky, though at least eventually goes somewhere — whether that somewhere is relevant and clever, or pointless and daft for the sake of a twist, is up to your own judgement. Same goes for the other major final-act reveal.

Yet, for all that, it’s kind of fun. Not in the obvious jokey way that, say, Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, but in the way that it provides decent characters, decent thrills, decent action, and a thorough set of conclusions that put pins in everything, including things you didn’t even think needed tying up. There may be points in the middle when you come close to rolling your eyes and almost wanting to give up on it, but by the end it’s all pretty satisfying.

4 out of 5

The Accountant is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Kill List (2011)

2016 #51
Ben Wheatley | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

I appear to be coming at director Ben Wheatley’s films in reverse order (having covered A Field in England in 2013 and Sightseers in 2014), and now I reach, not his feature debut (that’ll be ‘next time’, I guess), but certainly the film that brought him wider attention.

To describe too much of the plot of Kill List, or to even name its genres, is to give away some of its mystery. It’s a problem for reviewers, and has been since it came out — I read an interview with Wheatley where he said he didn’t envy their job, trying to accurately assess and ‘sell’ the film without actually telling people why they should watch it! The marketing people go a little way towards that for us, though, billing it as a horror movie when it seems to be nothing of the sort for a very long time.

It begins in that classic British tradition, the “kitchen sink” drama. Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife (MyAnna Buring) argue about the fact he’s not got a job and the money’s run out. It becomes clear something happened in Jay’s recent past to spook him out of work. Then his mate Gal (Michael Smiley) comes round with a new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), for one of moviedom’s more uncomfortable dinner parties. Gal talks Jay into joining him on a new job (there’s some criticism of the film for being a “one last job” movie, but I don’t recall it being presented as that — Gal talks him back into work, not for a definitively final go-round. Maybe I missed something); elsewhere, Fiona’s actions hint at something more… unusual going on.

Kill List mixes in its genre elements — and they’re elements from a couple of different genres at that — so gradually that, as I said, it’s hard to discuss them without spoiling the film. (Much like the film itself, this review is getting progressively more revealing, so jump off when you’ve had enough.) It’s kind of a compilation of traditional British movie genres: we begin with kitchen sink, then discover we’re actually watching a crime film, before the final act swerves (though not without foreshadowing) into folk horror. The skill of Wheatley, and his co-writer Amy Jump, is in not making these transitions too implausible. That’s not to say they’re not surprising, but the doom-laden music, inexplicable proclamations by some characters, and a couple of very strange events should all clue the viewer in to the film not being a common-or-garden hitman flick.

Even as the latter, it is, again, very “low-key British”. It follows through on its domestic setup, presenting the mundanities of the profession — it’s the kind of film where the dealmaking and mission-giving are dealt with in a dialogue-free montage, but we do see characters discussing how they’ll get out of the hotel lobby without an injury being noticed, who’s going to clean up the blood in the sink, and the quality of the hotel’s free toiletries. The biggest threat the characters initially face is their credit card being declined, which might, potentially, later, draw attention to them.

The final act is naturally where the film reveals its overarching purpose… or rather doesn’t reveal, because there are a shortage of answers here. It’s a lot more straightforward than A Field in England, but it still offers few (or, some would say, no) explanations for what’s occurred. According to Wheatley, the screenplay was more explicit about what was happening and why, and so was some of what they shot, but he cut back on the exposition to leave it up to audience interpretation. This isn’t a film to passively watch and have everything explained, but even viewers prepared to do a little work for themselves may find it frustrating.

Nonetheless, there is striking, unnerving imagery to be found during the movie’s climax, Wheatley and regular DP Laurie Rose using the pitch-black nighttime setting to create dread rather than merely accidentally hide things, as so many under-lit movies seem to nowadays. The handheld camerawork and jumpy cutting that earlier in the film was just a little New Wave-y comes into its own here, aligning us with Jay’s disorientation and confusion. While the ultimate result is arguably predictable, to get too caught up in the minutiae of whether it’s a twist or not is to miss the point. What the point is… well, that’s debatable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a twist for the sake of a twist. (Others disagree.)

The odd mash-up of domestic drama, mundane crime, and folk horror by all rights shouldn’t work, so credit is definitely due for the movie’s flow. Memorable sequences keep it ticking over throughout — and so they should: taking inspiration from the likes of Kubrick and Stephen King, Wheatley started from specific images and worked backwards to a plot. Here, I think that method has been effective. The abstruse ending won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the journey there is worth experiencing.

4 out of 5

It’s Ben Wheatley Night on Film4 this evening, beginning with Kill List at 10:45pm, followed by Sightseers at 12:35am and A Field in England at 2:15am.

Wheatley’s new movie, High-Rise, is currently showing in scattered preview screenings around the UK (mainly in London, because of course), and is on general release from next Friday, March 18th.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

2015 #39
George Ermitage | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Grosse Pointe BlankAction comedy starring John Cusack as a hitman who has to face the life he left behind when he’s assigned a job in his hometown on the same weekend as his high school reunion.

In particular, he has to face the girl he abandoned on prom night. She’s played by Minnie Driver, when she was still kinda cute and indie rather than annoying and kinda diva-ish (see also: Good Will Hunting). Other delights: a hilarious supporting cast, including Dan Akroyd, Hank Azaria and Alan Arkin, and a fantastic ’80s-derived soundtrack.

Immensely entertaining, I was this close to giving full marks.

4 out of 5

Grosse Pointe Blank placed 18th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Violet & Daisy (2011)

2015 #34
Geoffrey Fletcher | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Violet and DaisyAfter winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Precious, Geoffrey Fletcher wrote and directed this zany hit-women movie. Or possibly he wrote it “in 1996, when everybody and their brother and their sister and their cousin twice-removed was trying to be Quentin Tarantino,” as Matt Zoller Seitz put it in his review for RogerEbert.com.

Indeed, the end result — which concerns two girl-ish assassins, played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan, in a chaptered narrative that’s mainly about their confrontation with a mark, played by James Gandolfini, who actually wants them to kill him — plays like Tarantino with a metric tonne of Quirk slathered over it. On the bright side, it’s sort of entertaining, albeit fundamentally derivative with a sheen of left-field try-hard wacky-uniqueness.

There are good performances from Gandolfini (in particular) and Ronan, who manage to pull some genuine empathy out of the oddness. Unfortunately, this aspect of character drama comes too late — the early part of the film trains us to expect a stylised genre movie, then suddenly shifts into a meditation on loneliness and death. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t gel. I’m all for tonal dissonance, but it needs to be handled correctly. Sleepy cellHere, Fletcher either needs to settle on one or the other, or clearly signal his intentions earlier.

Violet & Daisy is a bit of a mess, but one that at least offers a worthwhile performance or two and some entertaining, inventive, if derivative, moments. The sheer scale of its self-conscious kookiness will just grate for some viewers, though.

3 out of 5

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

2015 #3
Jim Jarmusch | 111 mins | TV | 16:9 | France, Germany, USA & Japan / English & French | 15 / R

Ghost Dog: The Way of the SamuraiWhen it comes to hitman movies, I’d’ve said there’s Léon and then there’s everything else. Now, I’d happily slot Ghost Dog in that gap.

This idiosyncratic drama-thriller sees reclusive samurai-inspired mob assassin Forest Whitaker hunted by his employers after a hit goes wrong (through no fault of his own). A sometimes funny, sometimes contemplative, sometimes innovatively violent movie, there are parallels with Léon, especially when Whitaker befriends a young girl, but it remains its own beast.

A somewhat meditative pace will kill enjoyment for some, but, for me, it’s perfectly balanced on the line between indie drama and crime actioner.

5 out of 5

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

What price a ‘Definitive Cut’?

Provoked by, of all things, the Blu-ray release of The Wolfman (this started out as the opening paragraph of my review of that — oh how it grew), I’ve once again been musing on one of my ‘favourite’ topics. No, not “what’s TV and what’s film these days?”, but “which version of a film is definitive these days?”

I apologise if I’ve written extensively on this before; I think I’ve only had the odd random muse in a review, at most. So, much as I got the TV thing out of my system (a bit) in that editorial, here’s an attempt at the “definitive cut” one:

The age of DVD has managed to throw up all kinds of questions about what is the definitive version of a film. Never mind issues of incorrect aspect ratios, fiddled colour timing, or excessive digital processing — these are all potentially problems, yes, but usually quite easy to see where the correct version lies. The question of a ‘definitive version’ comes in the multitude of Director’s Cuts, Extended Cuts, Harder Cuts, Extreme Cuts — whatever label the marketing boys & girls slap on them, Longer Versions You Didn’t See In The Cinema is what they are. But are they better? Or more definitive? Does it matter?

So many consumers hold off for the DVD these days, especially with the added quality offered by Blu-ray, that the old answer of “what was released in the cinema” doesn’t necessarily hold true any more. Filmmakers know some will be waiting for the DVD, so are less concerned with releasing a studio-mandated, shorter, mass audience friendly cut into cinemas when their fuller vision can be found on DVD. Equally, the PR people know that “longer cut!” and “not seen in cinemas!” and other such slogans can help sell DVDs, and so may be forcing needless and unwelcome extensions onto filmmakers. Then there’s all those older directors who think they’re doing a good thing finally getting to tamper with their film 30 years on, who may well be misguided.

Some make it nice and clear for us. Ridley Scott, for example, is particularly good at this: Blade Runner has taken decades to get right, but The Final Cut is quite obviously the last word on this; he was well known to be unhappy with the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven, and was vindicated when the aptly-titled (for once) Director’s Cut received much improved reviews; conversely, he’s been very clear that the Director’s Cut of Alien and Extended Cut of Gladiator are not his preferred versions, just interesting alternate/longer edits.

On the other hand, Oliver Stone has now churned out three versions of Alexander [2015 edit: now four], each with significantly differing structures and content. None have received particularly good reviews. Is one the definitive cut? Or is it just a very public example of the editing process; what difference inclusions, exclusions, and structural overhauls can (or, perhaps, can’t) make?

The issue is somewhat brushed aside by two things, I think. Firstly, most stuff that suffers this treatment is tosh. Who cares which version of Max Payne or Hitman or Beowulf or either AvP or any number of teen-focused comedies is ‘definitive’ — no one liked them in the first place and they’ll be all but forgotten within a decade or two, at most (well, not AvP, sadly — its connection to two major franchises will see to that).

Secondly, more often than not both versions are available. Coppola may have vowed never to release the pre-Redux Apocalypse Now ever again, but the most recent DVDs [and, later, Blu-rays] include both cuts — listen to him or go with the original theatrical cut, it’s your choice. The same goes for Terminator 2, or indeed a good deal of the rubbish listed above. Rare is the film that doesn’t fit into one of these two camps, or the third “it’s been made clear” one.

So, with all that said, does it even matter? If we can choose which version we prefer, is that the right way to have things? Because, having gone through the options and examples I can think of, it’s not often that there’s not an easy way to resolve it — by which I mean, if the film is good enough to want the clarity of “which version is final”, we tend to have a way of knowing; and if the film’s tosh, well, what does it matter which we choose? There’s every chance no one involved in the production cares anyway.

There remains one argument for clarity, I think. How does one guarantee that, in the future, the ‘correct’ version remains accessible? With new formats always coming along, there’s no assurance that every cut of a film will be released; with TV showings, there’s no assurance the preferred version will always be the one shown (though there’s another argument for how much the latter matters considering they already mess around with aspect ratios and edits for violence/swearing/sex/etc.) But then, even if a filmmaker makes it clear that their preferred version is the one that only came out on DVD/Blu-ray, what chance is there that unscrupulous disc / download / unknown-future-format producers or TV schedulers won’t just revert to the theatrical version by default?

Sometimes one longs for the simpler age of a film hitting cinemas and that being that. We wouldn’t have had to suffer Lucas’ Star Wars fiddles, for one thing. But then nor would Ridley Scott have been able to redeem some of his films, or Zack Snyder treat fans to an improved Watchmen, or Peter Jackson truly complete The Lord of the Rings. If some level of uncertainty is the price we have to pay for these things, then it’s one even my obsessive nature is willing to pay.

There are 20 different films featured in this post’s header image.
Anyone who can name them all wins special bragging rights.

My Quantum of Solace Film Season

In case you’ve somehow failed to notice, Quantum of Solace, the 22nd official James Bond film, hits UK cinemas this Friday. I’m more than a tad excited (and considerably annoyed that I won’t be able to make it to the first screening in my area thanks to a seminar), and to celebrate I’m having myself a sort-of mini-ish film season-thing. Which I have dubbed My Quantum of Solace Film Season. You might’ve guessed that from the post’s title.

The selection process is quite simple: one film a day, each representing a different key member of QoS’s cast, plus one for director Marc Forster; and, to comply with this blog’s normal rules, all films I’ve never seen before. Well, that was the idea, but as with any good plan some changes have had to be made — there’s no film for Judi Dench, for example (well, other than a certain already-seen previous entry in the franchise), and I initially forgot Daniel Craig. Ha! Luckily I could switch him in for Jeffrey Wright by virtue of the fact they both appeared in The Invasion. Then there’s a double bill to try to get (almost) everyone in, and a film I’ve seen before too. “Oops.” (It was also entirely unintentional that all but the first and last films are from 2007.) Naturally, things come to a close with QoS itself on Friday, so thanks to only having thought of this plan yesterday my time to watch things is rather limited.

Anyway, you don’t really care about all that. Here’s the schedule:

  • Sunday 26th October: The Director
    Marc Forster’s Stay.

  • Monday 27th October: The Villain
    Mathieu Amalric (‘Dominic Greene’) stars in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

  • Tuesday 28th October: The Girls
    A double bill for Bond’s two new women. Gemma Arterton (‘Agent Fields’) stars in St. Trinian’s, followed by Olga Kurylenko (‘Camille’) in Hitman.

  • Wednesday 29th October: The Spies
    Daniel Craig (‘James Bond’, donchaknow) stars — with support from Jeffrey Wright (‘Felix Leiter’) — in The Invasion.

  • Thursday 30th October: The First Part
    As has been (very) widely reported, QoS is the first Bond-sequel, starting within an hour of Casino Royale’s climax. As such, it seems only appropriate to watch the preceding film the night before. (I’ve seen CR several times but will be reviewing it anyway, in light of having seen QoS, if that makes any difference.)

  • Friday 31st October: The Point
    Ba-da, dum… ba-da, dum… ba-da ba-da-da! Phonetic renderings of iconic theme tunes aside, Bond is back! Hurray!
  • The exact order is subject to change depending on how readily I can get hold of the films (I only own two of the six), but that’s the plan. Last time I tried to watch a film a day I failed miserably, so we’ll see how this goes. (Incidentally, reviews won’t appear on the said days, or even follow shortly behind — check out my ‘coming soon’ page to see how backed up I am with reviews.)