Thursday, August 4, 2011

Attack the Block - Theatrical Review


Release Date: July 29, 2011

We had three major Hollywood blockbusters this year dealing with aliens invading our planet. One of them was dead on arrival, another barely registered a pulse and the third was fun but still lacking. So leave it to the Brits to give us what I now believe to not only be the best but more importantly the most fun movie this year dealing with those little green men.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Arclight Theaters Hollywood
Time: 11:40 pm July 30, 2011
Projector Type: Film

Loves: Originality, cliches given a new spin, Nick Frost
Likes: Alien invasion movies, practical special effects
Neutral: The overly thick British accents sometimes
Hates: Nothing
From: The guys who brought you Shaun of the Dead & Hot Fuzz

I went into this movie completely blind to any sort of expectations besides the buzz circulating the Internet about it. I had caught snippets here and there of many different critics that I trusted throwing praise upon it without hesitation. All I knew was that it was made by people that worked on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, that it had something to do with aliens and that it was from the UK. Going into any movie like that can either set you up for extreme disappointment or prepare you for a miraculous discovery. I first saw Shaun of the Dead under these exact same circumstances with little to no expectations other than going out with some friends to an advance screening for something that apparently had zombies in it and look how that turned out. While I can't rightly claim at this time whether or not Attack the Block is on the same level as that now horror/comedy classic but I can say without a doubt that it is one of the best films of its kind I have seen in a very long time.

It is just another night in South London as we follow a lone woman, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), traversing the barren streets trying to make her way home when she comes across a local gang of inner city thugs led by a kid called Moses (John Boyega). As they begin to torment and mug her there is a flash in the sky and a sudden explosion as something crash lands right next to them in the middle of the street. Moses investigates the crash site where he is promptly attacked by a creature of some sort just before it runs off. With the help of his friends Biggz (Simon Howard), Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Dennis (Franz Drameh) they hunt the creature down and eventually end up killing it. As they begin to celebrate by taking their kill to the local drug king pin of their block Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) for safe keeping other objects begin falling from the sky all around them. Soon they find themselves surrounded by an unknown number of creatures that have only one thing on their kill and the only people they can count on is are themselves.

Here are the saviors of our planet.

The first thing that grabbed me was this old school Sci-Fi vibe I got from the mixture of the bizarrely infectious musical score by Steven Price and the way everything unfolded in the narrative. I was instantly reminded of those older more campy horror movies from my youth but with a much bigger budget and a much better cast. This film was not striving to be some sort of epic masterpiece, it was clearly setting itself up to be a much more intimate affair with this small group of young hoodlums and a few other miscellaneous tenants from their block. I think it was a smart move on director Joe Cornish's part to have the movie take place in such a confined space, it not only helped keep it focused on a small group of characters we grow to like as opposed to a large number of people we could really give two shits about but it also helped mask any sort of budgetary concerns there may have been.

Make no mistake about it, this is a small scale alien invasion movie with only this one part of South London becoming infested with these alien creatures. While that may sound limiting at first it quickly becomes apparent that any such limitations are quickly discarded once the action kicks into gear. The idea of having our core group of characters being this young group of criminals (they are all around the age of 15) was a genius move because it brings in a whole slew of different scenarios that are not usually associated with this type of film. Their age combined with their criminal tendencies made certain parts of the movie feel like a cross between The Monster Squad and a Boyz N the Hood. When the kids started getting geared up to go kick some alien ass by picking up samurai swords, baseball bats, a machete and even a super soaker squirt gun filled with gasoline, I was instantly on board for whatever lied ahead.

I will give anything a chance with Nick Frost in it.

And Attack the Block nails the one aspect that seems to elude many other films of this nature which are the aliens themselves. I don't need a full back story on where they came from, what they want or even in some instances what they even look like. All I ask for is a touch of originality in their design, either make it clear that these are vicious creatures and then let them loose on some unsuspecting victims or that they are friendly and want to be friends with maybe a dash of unpredictability thrown in as well. Populating your movie about aliens invading our planet with some cookie cutter aliens straight off the assembly line is not the way to get people invested in the story you are telling. So it was with a sigh of relief when the little beasties made their first appearance here and they weren't only some nasty looking little critters but they were also unlike any other alien design I have ever seen. As cool as these aliens are though they wouldn't be nearly as effective if we didn't have people in peril that we cared about.

Like most horror/monster movies the main ingredient that many filmmakers seem to forget with a genre like this is to have characters that either resonate with the audience or are at the very least are memorable. Here we are lucky enough to get both. By making our main characters crooks puts a fresh spin on why they must deal with their unfortunate predicament on their own. Usually when someone is being maliciously chased through a city by a creature from another planet they might try and get some help. But when you are wanted by the police for murder you have to turn to other sources for sanctuary which in this case ranges from the local drug lord lackey Ron (Nick Frost), the woman they mugged earlier who also just so happens to be a resident of the same apartment complex Moses and his gang live in, two grade school kids that call themselves Probs & Mayhem and a group of teenage girls who all find out very soon that these kids aren't making shit up.  

Sam is in need of some explanations.

The main gang of kids are made up of varying personalities but all have a case of acting much older than they really are. When things first start out fairly simple for them it isn't too hard for all of them to act tough but when the shit hits the fan later they turn tail and run just like any other kid would...well at least most of them do. Their leader Moses is made of much sterner stuff and comes from what I am guessing is a life plagued by being roughed up by police and other much bigger thugs. So when he comes face to face with the creatures chasing them he stands his ground like a pro. He definitely has more going on with him than meets the eye and his gang, while being responsible for the more entertaining comments made during the film "How can I possibly explain all this madness in a single text!", are mostly just there in the background.

The only other person that stood out amongst all of these more broad caricatures is Sam, the woman the kids mugged at the outset of the film. When we first meet her she is understandably weary of walking home each night and her from the hip reactions are instantly relatable. But when she finds herself mixed up in this fight against this alien menace, she and Moses have some revelations about each other that adds a lot more depth to both their characters than I was expecting. And where the two eventually end up both physically and mentally when everything is said and done made perfect sense as well as carrying along with it a message about how everyone views one another simply based on their surroundings. I don't think the movie is quite as thought provoking as I am making it out to be but rest assured that you will most likely find yourself reflecting on the part every character played and just how well thought out the movie actually was in regards to each character's motivations.

Moses doesn't like what he sees.

It's not all serious though, up to this point I have neglected to even mention the tone of the film which lands somewhere in between horror and comedy with a bit more emphasis put on the horror side of things. This movie is pretty brutal at times and while it isn't quite in your face with the gore when a head pops off or a kid is dragged away bloody and screaming it is effectively disturbing. Those more horrific moments are balanced by a fairly witty script and some inspired casting most notably Nick Frost as a low level drug peddler and his drug buddy who moonlights as a wildlife expert. I can't say there were any real laugh out loud moments but the personality of the kids along with the increasingly absurd situations they find themselves in were enough to keep me smiling through the whole film.

Lastly I would like to make a special mention to the effects used in the film. Words cannot express my gratitude towards the filmmakers for making their creature effects in a practical way instead of going the more popular CGI route. The design of the creatures is even more ingenious when you take into consideration that their unique look also helped in making them an actual physical presence on screen. There are a few shots scattered about here and there when some CGI was used but the money shots were all done practical. When you see a horde of these creatures peering through a high rise window or chasing a poor soul down a hallway they are much more of an intimidating force than anything that could have been created in a computer.

Attack of the potheads!

I can't go this long without bringing up some problems I had with it though. This is not so much a knock on the film itself as much it is a lack of understanding on my part but there were more than a few occasions where I found myself straining to understand what was being said due to the thick accents and foreign slang used by the kids. By about 20 minutes into it though I was able to adjust to their particular speech patterns but it was still a little annoying at first. Actual problems with the film itself though are slim and petty but must be mentioned. I thought it was quite strange that for such a huge apartment building (it looked to be about 10 stories tall) it felt awfully vacant with only the key cast members being shown. It would have been nice to have had a few other random bodies running around the building to help give it a more authentic feel. And then there is the structure of the film itself, this is not a "last stand" sort of movie where our heroes stand their ground and fight back. Everyone is literally running away from these creatures from beginning to end and while that didn't bother me too much I know there are those out there that have a yearning to see us humans kick some alien ass. Well you better skip this one then if that's what your looking for cause it isn't about kicking ass but more about saving that ass.

That's it though really. The movie is short and sweet at just under 90 minutes long and has no dull moments that I could recall. It might not be for everyone given that it is a film that pretty much requires you to be partial to the alien invasion genre and unfortunately it doesn't quite carry the same sort of mass appeal that helped something like Shaun of the Dead transcend any of the stereotypes people often label such genre pieces with. But for anyone out there that loves to watch our planet come under attack by strange alien creatures then Attack the Block will be right up your alley. It's movies like this that keep me optimistic about the cinematic world and keep me hopeful when every time I sit down in that darkened theater that maybe, just maybe I am in store for something special. With a more than capable cast of mostly unknowns, some pretty cool aliens and a relentless pace that doesn't let up until the credits role this is a great bit of fun that I recommend everyone out there should...




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