Thursday 5 April 2018


Written, directed by and starring long time Saturday Night Live star Taran Killam, this mockumentary sees a camera crew follow Blake (Killam), a contract killer out for revenge against his old rival Gunther (and the deadliest assassin of them all) for stealing his girlfriend.

Hiring the camera crew so that he will have proof that he bettered his longtime rival, Blake spends a large amount of time trying to track down the mysterious Gunther, only to be constantly taunted and toyed with by him. If you don't want to know who plays the titular assassin I'm not going to spoil that for you here..... jokes, it's obviously Arnold Schwarzenegger, taking up the entire frame of the poster you've already scrolled past, featuring prominently in the trailer and (no disrespect to Taran Killam's fans) is most likely the only reason why you'd be interested in seeing Killing Gunther.

There's a long history of comedy classics released by former and current stars of the long running topical sketch show, Saturday Night Live. The Blues Brothers and Wayne's World started life as sketches on the show, whereas Tina Fey's Mean Girls showed that post 2000, it was still a fertile breeding ground for talent eager to make the leap to the big screen. The high benchmark for films released this millennium by the SNL alumni is, of course, Hot Rod, starring Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and directed by Akiva Schaffer. They hit the comedy jackpot by imbuing its central character with a charming but idiotic innocence and surrounding him with an array of colourful supporting roles. Killam tries to replicate that formula here, but only with a modicum of success.

Killam's character is pitched somewhere between Dan Aykroyd in Grosse Point Blank and Jon Hamm in Mad Men, dressed to the nines in some sharp suits but also clearly a tad unhinged. He veers between clueless buffoon to unrelenting fanboy of his prey, Gunther, just like the apparent relationship between Killam and the Austrian Oak. Despite his quest for revenge, Blake is clearly in awe of Gunther (even going to the lengths of hiring the crew to document it for posterity), and is happy to be on his radar if not too happy to be in his crosshairs.

Surrounding Killam's main schemer is fellow SNL alum Bobby Moynihan as an explosives expert and New Girl's Hannah Simone as a legacy assassin out to prove her independence to her father. There's also a fleeting but crucial appearance from Killam's real life wife Cobie Smulders as the cause of all this fighting. They're fun additions to the band of mercenaries, along with a professional poisoner and a man with a bionic arm, just to hammer home the Roger Moore Bond level of realism the film is pitched at. As you would expect from an action comedy there's stunts and explosions aplenty, although it's clear that budgetary restrictions can only buy you a certain quality of digital fire and blood, and that it should be used sparingly.

The major problem with Killing Gunther is that, despite what the trailer would have you believe, Arnie isn't in it very much at all. In fact, "Gunther" is quite obviously played by some large-framed stuntmen until the last half hour of the film. This is very much a case of creative filmmaking to accommodate the big reveal of one of the most famous action movie stars there has ever been, but then their efforts nullified by the necessity to put him front and centre of the marketing in order to sell the film to people. To be honest, I would struggle to believe anyone would sit down to watch Killing Gunther without knowing that it features Arnie (most probably as the distinctly Germanic sounding Gunther), and I say that as someone who would have sought this out for its SNL pedigree alone.

On the plus side, once Arnie eventually does turn up he's having an absolute whale of a time bouncing off this talented cast of comic actors, and his appearance raises the film in the way you would expect a star of his stature would. His extended cameo, which sees a tittering Arnie show why Gunther is a master manipulator and the best assassin of them all, is by far the most enjoyable part of the film and delivers more laughs than were present in the preceding hour. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that if you gamble the relative success of your action comedy on the weight of expectation for the appearance of a big, big, movie star, don't complain if you get crushed by a 200 pound Austrian Oak.

Is Killing Gunther going to become a well-loved comedy classic? No, probably not. But thanks to Arnie it ends on a bizarre, giggle-worthy high, and if you can allow yourself to get swept up in the overall silliness of it all, there's fun to be had.


Tuesday 3 April 2018


Screened as part of the BFI FLARE LGBTQ+ Film Festival, Lena Hall stars as musical Becks, returning home after a break up to reacquaint herself with her past and her mother.

Returning to your childhood home may be an indie movie staple at this point (Garden State perhaps the most obvious example), but for Becks (Lena Hall) there's an added element. Away from the judgement and conflicted feelings of her mother, Becks has been allowed to live her life as she wishes without having to justify herself. Moving back home, both to recuperate after her separation from girlfriend Lucy (Hayley Kiyoko) and because she's broke, she's once again under the roof and the watchful eye of her mother (Christine Lahti).

Feeling creatively stifled, she takes her friend Dave (Dan Fogler) up on his offer to perform live music at his local bar Perfectos, where she meets bored housewife Elyse (Mena Suvari). Agreeing to help tutor her on guitar, soon the chemistry between Becks and Elyse leads to a complicated romance. As a veteran of the LA dating scene Becks is well aware that Elyse may just be a bored housewife, using her to fulfil a longstanding lesbian fantasy, but soon starts to feel a real connection with her, despite their wildly different lives. Whereas Becks has struggled to live as a touring musician, Elyse has a huge house, close friends and a seemingly ideal relationship with husband Mitch (Darren Ritchie). Basically, as straight and white as their picket fences.

I wasn't familiar with Lena Hall before this film, but she's quite a multi-talented presence. It's a compelling performance that makes you wish for Becks to come out on top, even when she's less than likeable. The film is peppered with musical performances from Hall, bringing to mind the emotional heft of other musical films like John Carney's Once. It's quite clear the filmmakers know that it's best to just put the camera on Hall and let her do her thing.

Of the supporting cast, Becks has an interesting friendship with Dan Fogler's Dave, a former teenage flame who sees Becks potential but is also aware of her ability to sabotage herself. It's not a huge role for Fogler, but he and Hall have great interplay in all of their scenes. Top of the supporting cast is Christine Lahti as Becks' mother. It would have been quite easy to play her as a one note, judgemental religious stereotype, but Lahti sees the layers in her character and the conflicts she has between her beliefs and her love for her daughter.

But at the core of the film is the relationship between Becks and Elyse. Mena Suvari, looking like an all American girl cliche doesn't at first appear to have too much depth to her, but she does keep you guessing as to what her long term intentions are. Is she conflicted about her sexuality? Is she using Becks as a way of escaping her unhappy marriage? In what direction does she want her life to go? There is real chemistry between Mena and Lena, although their liaisons do lead to what might be the films only real mis-step, in a sex scene that although admirably frank, tips over into the kind of 'comedy of embarrassment' scenario that would be more suited to the American Pie series.

Although Becks might be walking a well-trodden indie film path, it does it well enough to be a standout. There's a sweet, endearing romance at the centre of the film, but it's the performance of Hall, whether behind a microphone or not, that makes this one worth seeking out.