Friday, September 2, 2011

We Agree: Attack The Block

2011, Joe Cornish

Graig: Before I tell you what Attack the Block is, let me tell you what it isn't. It isn't the best movie ever made, and it's not the best movie released this year. It won't be winning any major awards, and it's not setting records at the box office. But Attack the Block is an exceptional genre film and, point blank, a great film. It is a film that may not find its full audience this year, but will continue to attract more and more fans in the years to come. The film, it has legs. Out of the gate it's a cult film, the kind of film that, five-to-ten years down the line, will receive a big-budget sequel because there will be the support behind it to warrant it.

David: I agree and throwing back to my thoughts as I left the cinema, "This is a perfect movie." For me perfection is not in a movie rising from its genre into a broad spectrum of appeal but in embracing what it is, understanding its audience and being true to those who you expected to like the movie.

I do wonder how well it will do in the US, as it took a few minutes to decipher the various accents the kids used. Deep London mixed with the origins of the kids' parents was a little thick until you got the hang of it. In a land that subtitles its own regional accents, I imagine the movie will be relegated to the Foreign Section of a DVD store... wait, do those even exist anymore?

Graig: Director Joe Cornish makes his cinematic debut behind the lens, but the man is not unfamiliar with the process, coming out of the British TV comedy scene at the turn of the millennium, as well as being the current writing partner with Edgar Wright. If the strong visual element to ATB is any indication, Wright has doubtlessly had an impact on Cornish. Cornish uses shadows and colour in active and remarkable ways throughout this film, betraying its modest budget and helping mask any flaws there may be in the special effects. There are more than a few stunning, extraordinarily well-composed shots in this film that have been etched in my brain, and few movies have ever that kind of visual echo (Scott Pilgrim... and The Assassination of Jesse James... were the last two I can think of to do so).

Yet, it's not just a film with visual flair, it's also got a fun story that's a throwback to the 1980's style of "creature feature" like Critters or Ghoulies, the type that features teenaged heroes facing off against invading hordes of unknown thingies, geared towards a similar-aged audience, yet at an R rating. They're not straight-up horror movies, and they tend to have a sense of humour, but it's more in the characters than ironic. While many creature features of the era are beloved (sometimes earnestly, sometimes ironically), few would be considered classic, so what sets ATB apart is a redemptive character arc which is about the best I've ever seen on screen.

In the opening scene we're introduced to Sam, a nurse, walking home from her job where she's accosted by a quintet of teenaged thugs in a lower-cost tenement neighbourhood, aka "the Block". The thugs are 15-years-old, at best, led by Moses, who's generally short on words but has a face full of meaning. Their mugging is interrupted when a meteorite crashes into a nearby car and Sam runs away. Investigating the crash, Moses is tagged by a mysterious creature, whom the kids chase into a playground castle and pummel to death. What seems for a short while to be an isolated incident turns out to be much more as the kids, asking their local drug maven, Hi-Hatz, to hide the creature's carcass in his weed room, witness a meteorite shower close to their neighbourhood. Full of gusto fresh off their first kill, the gang quickly discovers that these new meteors contain much larger, far more vicious creatures than the first, hulking, 6-foot, pitch black rodents with multiple rows of glowing emerald teeth (a curious but brilliant combination of the Rat Creatures from Jeff Smith's Bone comics and Giger's Alien). The aliens are seemingly attracted to the teens and soon the whole block is under siege, where it turns out Sam actually lives, and she comes back into the lives of these kids who assaulted her, and is stuck helping them out.

David: Emerald? Weren't they blue?

Graig: Nope, must be your color blindness tricking you.

David: I love the comparison to the rat creatures from Bone as I always sort of imagined those things having glowing-almost-plastic eyes. Luckily the monsters in ATB were not as loquacious as our rat creatures. I loved the style he chose for these monsters -- they were simultaneously scary & tough but still mortal, being killed by kids with swords when needed. Typically of me, I started pondering in my head what sort of D&D monsters these things would make. Low level most likely but with a lot of damage capability and a great stealth measure. Its not that they were the toughest monsters to fall from the sky, its just you didn't want them to get the drop on you, in the darkness. Sort of like the kids themselves.

Graig: Moses, whose staunch, hardened-beyond-his-years face is occasionally betrayed by softness, enters the film at a turning point, just as he's being pushed by Hi-Hatz to peddle his wares on the street, pushing him deeper into serious criminal activity that, until recently, was just a juvenile game between his friends. They were playing at being gangsters, but a quick, and brilliantly constructed glimpse into all of their family lives showed that Moses was the only one who had nothing to lose by going deeper, and certainly had no one looking out or caring for him. He was on his own, and therefore capable of taking all the risks, thus appearing to be the bravest or scariest and most impressive of his friends.

For an older audience, this film starts out wanting to trigger the classist and/or racist and/or age-ist tendencies of the audience. Cornish wants you to kind of want these alien creatures to get those punk-ass, annoying, no-good teenagers. But I can also see kids of a certain age somewhat identifying with the teens almost from the get go, so it has its cake and eats it too, because it allows you to at first understand the kids, where they're coming from, what's against them socially (without getting all preachy about it) and then actually begin to like them for their humour and their bravery and, eventually, sympathize with them. It's such an incredible arc, especially for Moses who seems so assured and, well, wicked, that to ultimately find out he's really just scared and alone is brilliant character execution.

David: When I saw the trailers and read the buzz about the movie, I sort of envisioned the rough & tough kids who lived in tenements but were not true criminals. I imagined that their no nonsense nature would lead them to be the heroes. But i was not expecting the more realistic depiction of true thugs in the making. Like the depicted kids in HBO's The Wire, these kids probably didn't have much else left to them in life so ambition attached itself to the local weed baron. But even with a less than stellar life ahead of them, they have a chance to be heroes. And also like The Wire, the redemption arc is given to us to show they can be more than what life has left them with.

Graig: The aliens, their origins, and their tendencies are speculated upon by the characters, the film's closest concession to giving them an origin story, and it's a fairly good one. Some may not find it satisfactory, but ultimately you either buy into the conceit of attacking giant alien rats or you don't. Speculating on their origins and why they were there, though, is part of the film's "take home assignment" and should be part of the fun.

David: I still like to ponder origins of monsters but these kinds are the easiest to imagine. There are no spaceships landing, no invasion force, just floating rocks in space. Where did they come from? Who knows & who cares -- the universe is probably more scary and weird than we can ever imagine. It probably produces stranger life forms than these. But of course, i did envision them as the preceding release to a true invasion force, maybe dropped from orbit by malicious aliens, to cause chaos and even possibly deplete an existing populace. Thanks for the homework Mr. Kent, do I get an A ?

Graig: Yes, that's an "A" worthy prediction, sir.

The acting, especially from John Boyega as Moses, is in part from a talented group of mostly unknown actors (Nick Frost is the only recognizable name among them) but also shows the strong leadership of Cornish to elicit such great performances from them.

Cornish can, assuredly, be added to the top of the list of directors to watch, hopefully doing his own thing, rather than as a work-for-hire in Hollywood. I'm sure if Tin-Tin (which he co-wrote with Wright) is a success he can (literally) write his own ticket for his next project (did I use that euphemism right?)

(click link for the making of the monsters for ATB)