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

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

2017 #138
Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | New Zealand & USA / English & German | 15 / R

What We Do in the Shadows

There’s no two ways about it: I’m late to the party with What We Do in the Shadows. After rave reviews at film festivals and when it was released in some countries (including the UK) in 2014, its acclaim as a cult comedy seemed to reach a focal point in early 2015 when a Kickstarter campaign to give it a wider US release attracted over 7,000 backers and the best part of half-a-million dollars. I recall preordering the Blu-ray in the wake of the slow-burning fuss I kept hearing about it. That came out in April 2015, and swiftly ended up on one of my many unwatched piles… until now!

For the sake of those who are even later to it than me, it’s a mockumentary about a group of housemates in Wellington, New Zealand, who are vampires. With each of them being hundreds of years old, they’re thoroughly out of touch with the modern world — until they make some new, younger friends…

This juxtaposition allows the film two rich strands of humour. Firstly, it riffs off vampire movie clichés and references — there are bits about sleeping in coffins, turning into a bat, and so on. In a similar vein, each of the housemates is a version of a classic movie vampire: there’s a silent Nosferatu-ish one; a violent womanising Dracula-ish one; an effeminate dandyish one; and so on. There are also various scenes that play on vampires’ familiar abilities by featuring a neat and often surprising use of special effects — the film’s so low-budget and so naturalistically staged, you’re not expecting any outright fantastical stuff. That element of unexpectedness makes such moments all the more effective.

Night life

In the second strand, it embraces mundanity — putting these supernatural creatures in the same dull suburban lifestyles that we all know, like struggling to get into the good nightclubs, or a supposedly grand ball taking place in a rundown community centre. Perhaps best of all are bits which straddle the two stools — the practicalities of being a vampire; like how do you get dressed up to go out if you can’t see your reflection, or having to clean up the mess after drinking someone’s blood. The film plays these various comic facets with a great deal of wit and cleverness, but it’s also suitably silly, which allows the humour to function at various levels. What’s even more surprising is that, as it goes on and we build up a connection to these characters, it becomes actually quite touching at times.

Apparently writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi wrote more than 150 pages of screenplay for the film, then didn’t actually show it to any of the cast so they would improvise scenes and be surprised by plot developments. That resulted in over 125 hours of footage, which took almost a year to edit down to just an hour and a half. (No wonder the Blu-ray includes piles of deleted, extended, and additional footage.) On the one hand, perhaps that helps explain why the film is so funny — they were able to really cherrypick the best bits. On the other other, it makes the final result all the more impressive — that they were able to hone storylines and character arcs from that immense supply of material. And it still clocks in at just 86 minutes! Hollywood moviemakers who let their part-improvised comedies sprawl to baggy two-hours-plus running times might learn a thing or two here.

Drinking blood

Perhaps the more familiar you are with vampire fiction the more you’ll get out of What We Do in the Shadows’ humour, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to enjoying it — I should think knowing the basics of vampire mythology is enough to get laughs from the majority of the movie without feeling like you’re missing anything. And in the end, the most important thing is that it’s incredibly funny. Or, as the poster accurately puts it, “hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious.”

5 out of 5

What We Do in the Shadows is available on iPlayer until 28th November.

It placed 12th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The UK TV premiere of Taika Waititi’s previous film, Boy, is on Film4 tonight at 10:50pm.
His new film,
Thor: Ragnarok, is out everywhere now and is reviewed here.

Beyond the Pole (2009)

2011 #91
David L. Williams | 87 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

Beyond the PoleAdapted from a cult Radio 4 series, Beyond the Pole is a British mockumentary about “the first carbon neutral, vegetarian and organic expedition ever to attempt the North Pole”, starring Stephen Mangan Off Green Wing and other recognisable faces.

In case it wasn’t clear, this is a comedy. Unfortunately it’s only mildly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious. Worse still, it’s occasionally a bit thumb-twiddly as the inevitable plot points inevitably happen. In fact, it goes a bit OTT with implausibility for my liking. The pair of polar ‘explorers’ are attempting this with no training at all? Their UK base/contact is a caravan in a field with some satellite dishes on top? The performances and shooting style are too grounded to sell this kind of thing to me. Most of the film is asking you to believe that this is, while clearly a comedy, still plausible, but some of these points don’t quite gel.

Even after that, it still goes a bit awry as the story heads into the third act. Events get too serious for the farcical comedy it started out as. I believe it’s possible to make that transition from comedy to meaningful, serious drama — often making the dramatic section all the more effective because it surprises you — but Beyond the Pole doesn’t manage it at all well.

On the bright side, it doesn’t go on about the green agenda too much, which I’d presumed would be half the point. While I’m all for informing people and reminding them Something Must Be Done, battering viewers round the head with it when they’re expecting to enjoy a nice comedy is perhaps not the best way to go about it.

Phone pole... see what I did there?It’s also impressively realised. Its apparent low budget led me to assume we’d, a) see very little of the actual trip, and b) what we did see would be all inside-a-tent and green-screened. But no, it was really shot on floating sea ice off the coast of Greenland, and it makes for a highly effective polar landscape. Good work, filmmakers.

Sadly, being impressed they managed to get some good locations and a recognisable cast (Mark Benton! Helen Baxendale! Alexander Skarsgård! (Random.) Lots of newsreaders from the BBC, Newsnight, Sky — clearly someone had favours to call in) does not make up for the lack of serious laughs in a comedy. Oh well.

2 out of 5

Beyond the Pole featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2011, which can be read in full here.

Best in Show (2000)

2008 #15
Christopher Guest | 87 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Best in ShowMockumentary from some of the team behind the perennially popular This is Spinal Tap. The target this time is the Competition Documentary, a genre of which the best comparable example I can recall is the excellent Spellbound (not the 1945 Hitchcock one). In this case, the film follows five sets of dog owners as they enter a prestigious dog show — an American Crufts, if you will.

The script, acting and direction always err just this side of believability, meaning if you came to this cold (and managed to not recognise any actors) you might be fooled into believing it was genuine. That doesn’t mean it’s short on laughs however — quite the opposite — and much of the comedy comes from the various recognisable character types. Not all of it mind, as many of the best moments are courtesy of a pair of commentators, who are always a good source for laughs (the first example that springs to mind is Dodgeball). Fred Willard does an excellent job as the poorly chosen sports commentator, and even his British straight man (in the ‘comedy double act’ sense), Jim Piddock, manages to grab a few laughs.

I reviewed This is Spinal Tap back at the start of last year, and while I enjoyed it (enough to award four stars) I found it often underwhelming and perhaps a victim of its own hype. No such issues with Best in Show. While it may not manage laugh-a-minute, its hit rate is above average, and what passes in between the gags is a surprisingly decent comedy-drama.

4 out of 5

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004)

2007 #79
Kevin Willmott | 89 mins | DVD | 12

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of AmericaMockumentary about the history of America had the South won the civil war.

While an intriguing idea, in practice it’s disappointing. Apparently such a victory would have led to everything the nation did since being in order to maintain slavery. There are some neat ideas (a Cold War with Canada) and some genuinely amusing or cleverly satirical bits, but the focus is too narrow and, consequently, unbelievable and sometimes dull. It also seems unable to break away from reality far too often: Wall Street still crashes, JFK becomes President and is assassinated, etc.

The acting is frequently dodgy and it all has a very amateurish feel. To top it off, considering it’s pretending to be a British documentary, the style is too like cheap American TV documentaries.

All in all, a disappointment.

2 out of 5

C.S.A. featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2007, which can be read in full here.

Confetti (2006)

2007 #75
Debbie Isitt | 96 mins | TV | 15 / R

ConfettiLargely improvised Britcom, shot in a documentary style, about three couples trying to win a most original wedding competition.

It starts out quite poorly, with unlikable characters and an irritating style, but things do improve and a number of the characters do grow on you (some, deliberately, remain horrid). My favourites are the pair of camp wedding planners — you don’t get much more stereotypical, but they’re lovable and amusing from the off.

Fittingly, the weddings at the end are probably the best bits.

3 out of 5

Confetti is on BBC Two tonight, Monday 25th August 2014, at 11pm.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

This is Spinal Tap2007 #15
Rob Reiner | 80 mins | DVD | 15 / R

I think my viewing of Spinal Tap may have suffered from years of hype. In some ways it was exactly what I’d expected; in others, not. There are plenty of funny moments, and the odd hilarious one (Stonehenge), but there were times when I felt a little underwhelmed by it.

Maybe you had to be there; maybe it is indeed a victim of hype.

4 out of 5

This is Spinal Tap is on ITV4 tonight, Thursday 18th June 2015, at 1am.