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Wow, what a fun discovery!
Some movies receive the "Big Push" in distribution and advertising and others get shunted aside. On any given weekend across the summer, a big effects movie is suddenly the main focus of a blizzard of advertising, serendipitous newspaper articles and talk show star appearances. As if to remind us which multi-mega corporations own which TV networks, by some strange coincidence "important" news stories suddenly surface to accidentally promote these same big movies.
This Summer had its share of monster fare, with the largely forgettable Super-8 and the wholly forgettable Cowboys & Aliens pretty much wasting our time while hogging thousands of movie screens for weeks. The only title of this sort that really delivered was the Planet of the Apes reboot. Then I heard a recommendation for Sony picture that was showing up here and there but not in any organized way. My quick scan of the L.A. Times movie pages never fell upon an ad for this show that caught my attention, although I'm assured that it played here. Then a stronger recommendation came in from fellow reviewer Sergio Mims, who thought it one of the most entertaining films he'd seen this year.
I'm glad I got the message, for a one-liner description of Attack the Block makes it seem like something that might come out direct to DVD from Gut Bucket Video. It's not. Its truly witty script and cast of rough London street kids are guaranteed to offend hardboiled conservatives. When a species of furry, ferocious and feral alien monsters infests a low-rent London apartment block, Earth's first line of defense turns out to be composed of young teen latch key hoodlums. They're not quite ready for the big leagues of drug dealing, but are fully capable of all kinds of mischief and are eager to do some serious monster fightin'.
Teenaged Moses (John Boyega) and his pack of proto-hoodlums run wild in the streets around their "block", a twenty-story depressed public housing unit called a Council Estate. Crime is so high and security so lax that tenants erect their own steel doors. The local pusher occupies a suite on a top floor, where he has installed an entire drug lab and marijuana nursery, behind formidable security. Just after Moses and his gang mug the defenseless nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), they witness the landing of a meteorite that contains a nasty, grub-like fanged monster. They chase it down and beat it to death, and then take it to the Druglord's apartment, where it can be kept safe while they figure out how to profit from their prowess as monster-killers. Lo and behold, several dozen additional meteorites crash to earth in the same neighborhood. The boys rush down for a whomping good alien-killing party, only to find that the new creatures are all as big as gorillas, move as fast as wild dogs and can rip humans to pieces with their glowing green teeth. The gang tries to escape on their bikes but retreat into the Block for cover -- and the siege begins. When one of their number is trapped in a garbage bin, two pre-teen kiddies denied gang membership decide that their hour of greatness has arrived and arm up for combat. Meanwhile, Moses gets into more trouble when the police nab him for terrorizing and robbing Sam -- and the Druglord decides that Moses is lying with all this B.S. about giant monsters on the prowl. As the film's tagline proclaims, it's "inner city vs. outer space".
After recovering from the excitement and laughs of Attack the Block, the first thing that grabs us is that the show has succeeded in creating a (relatively) low-tech monster threat that's actually scary. Half of this is due to Joe Cornish's polished direction, teasing and withholding the exact nature of the beasties, and part is due to the technique used. The wolf-gorilla-hyena monsters are basically special movement stuntmen-artistes in painful-looking monster costumes, augmented with a brilliant effects idea. Covered with spiky black hair, the monsters are artificially re-colored to be jet black, and come off almost like perfect 2-D animation. Their interaction with their environment belies this assumption. The one salient detail we can see -- glowing baboon-like green teeth, lend the creatures dimension. They're great minimalist terrors. Sure, a good shot from a cheap gun will bring one down, but there's no defense against a half dozen of the things.
Note: if you see a still of Moses in a face-off with a monster that looks identical to the mother insect from Aliens, ignore it ... that's something else, not one of the film's main beasties.
These ghetto kids immediately relate the monsters to what they know -- video games and monster movies. Their street patois is entertaining in itself but becomes hilarious when the boys try to describe what's happening to them in terms of their diminished experience. In the scary Council Estate corridors we hear the aliens described as Harry Potter's Dobbies and as eyeless Gollums, as well as compared to Joe Dante's nasty Gremlins. It's good to know that the classics are being kept alive in the London slums!
Attack the Block reminds me of the wonderful conceptual rush that strikes in a scene from way back, in John Schlesinger's Marathon Man. Bad guy spy William Devane comes across a handful of Puerto Rican street punks, some of which barely look twelve years old, trying to break into a slum apartment. When he tries to shoo them away, all six kids pull heat on him and tell him to back off. It's like seeing a cocky 007 checkmated by a pack of kindergartners armed with flame throwers: the moment seemed exceedingly relevant to the reality of modern violence not being reflected in the movies of the day. Attack the Block sustains the same giddy sense of street-level dangerous tomfoolery, for 88 breathtaking minutes.
The main commercial card Attack the Block can wave is its producers' connection to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Edgar Wright is one of the executive producers and actor Nick Frost has a showy supporting role. But Attack the Block fronts a distinct semi-comic personality quite separate from Wright and Frost's all-out farces. Writer-director Joe Cornish's punks are a thoroughly maladjusted set of hooligans, but they're funny as hell. They truly can't tell the difference between their violent video games and their cruel street crimes. Cornish knows quite well that he's elevating a very antisocial element to an heroic level, an irony that any street punk would recognize. It's a violent fantasy, and one that strikes me as especially funny in relation to the 'suburban kid adventure movies' that began in the 1980s. I long ago rejected movies with a totally false, adult-approved image of childhood, like Goonies. You know which films I'm talking about, the ones where the kids say "cute" swear words, just enough to avoid a dreaded "G" rating. E.T., with its similar crowd of bicycle-riding, authority-defying kids, is in this same category. 1
Producers Park and Wilson helped Joe Cornish find a talented group of young actors. John Boyega immediately reminds viewers of a pubescent Denzel Washington. Alex Esmail's wisecracks and abortive attempts to chat up their new nurse "friend" bring freshness back into the adjective "cheeky". Our first glimpse at Leeon Jones' Jerome, a chubby kid with glasses, makes us worry that the latch key mob is going to go all soft and sentimental on us, like Bill Cosby's animated street gang. No fear, as Jerome turns out to be a stand-up alien fighter with the best of them.
Nick Frost's name is usually listed first even though he's technically not a central character. Jodie Whittaker (Venus) is the film's representative of sanity and decency; thanks to her (and the crisis) Moses comes to realize that he has responsibilities beyond his career as a petty thug. The other 'adult' characters range from a dazed pot-head who spends most of the movie opting out of the fighting 'cause he's too high, to the gangster chieftain that brings Moses into his street sales operation, only to see his crummy crime empire interrupted by an alien invasion. The script does a fine job of suspending the underage street gang in a three-way dilemma. They're accustomed to the cops being on their case, but having the local pusher after them is the kiss of death. Both of those threats are cancelled by the immediate danger represented by the alien monsters. Joe Cornish keeps all involved hopping between crazy, fall-down funny situations. The best gags see the kids dropping by home to stock up their anti-alien weapons of choice -- fireworks, ball bats, Samurai swords, Gurkha knives, whatever. The boys invade an all-girl gathering, hoping that the security gate on that particular apartment will keep the monsters out. One kid desperately phones home to tell his mom that he might become alien chow, and is simply told to stop playing whatever video game he's playing and come home -- right now! Another sincerely tries to express the seriousness of his situation: "This has got nothing to do with drugs, rap music, or violence in video games!"
Attack the Block must be a terrific show to see in a packed theater. It puts the FUN back into monster mayhem movie-going, as opposed to, say, the macabre Third-World lecturing of last year's District 9. Count me in to see whatever this talented Joe Cornish comes up with next.
Sony Blu-ray's Blu-ray of Attack the Block looks spectacular ... the production is admirably scaled to its budget, in that we never feel as if the story is too claustrophobic. Classic films of this kind end up being resolved in some more spectacular way. Keeping the threat local and concentrated maintains the tension, and also relieves the story of the necessity of explaining why the army didn't move in sooner. The kids in the show already know the answer to that one, as society is too busy turning its back on the ghetto to realize that all Hell is breaking loose. The only officials that work there are the cops, and they're too blind to react to anything until it's crawling up their (deleted).
The extras are all in HD. A series of featurettes present the cast and crew as genuinely thrilled to be having so much fun making a monster-crime-inner city thriller, even in freezing temperatures. The young actors are hip to the movie game yet exude a kind of "I got out of school to do this!" exuberance that probably was the factor that got them hired. An extra called Unfilmed Action lets us know that plenty of planned sequences had to be dropped -- the movie doesn't look like it, but its budget only went so far. The disc also carries a pair of commentaries with the director and the cast, for those Anglophiles utterly charmed by this bright mob of London talent.
The 'special effects' featurette was quite an eye opener, as we assumed that the monsters were all CGI in origin (maybe some shots still are). Seeing the cast interacting with the enthusiastic movement artiste Terry Notary shows where the action scenes get their feeling of immediacy and freshness: the cast can react and interact with a monster that's really there, that they can see with their own eyes. It also proves that director Cornish had to do it all on the set, under the pressure of production. Tweaking the monster scenes was not spread out over weeks of coffee and cakes in an effects house, giving instructions to an army of animators. What a concept!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Attack the Block Blu-ray rates:
1. I'm sure that a research looksee at the late 1930s will find articles deploring the anti-social activities of the screen punks The Dead End Kids / The Bowery Boys. Hey, they came from disadvantaged neighborhoods! If Attack the Block were to make its heroes sweet and inoffensive little slum angels, perhaps with a nice white kid leader, it would simply be saying, "invalid show here".
As for critics infuriated that these criminal punks are being treated as heroes, do they really expect the movies to conform to their fantasies of denial? Allow kids to be raised in conditions without hope for advancement and plenty of vice and crime to show them how to live, and they aren't going to turn out like little gentlemen. Attack the Block's little crooks will seem benign to anybody who knows what conditions really are in the poorest sections of any real city, most anywhere.
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T'was Ever Thus.