Friday, August 5, 2011

Attack the Block is the best summer movie you've never heard of

Moses is chuffed that he can see his flat from here.
Edgar Wright is a filmmaker whose film and TV work I've enjoyed so much that if the Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director tells me to jump off a bridge, I'll happily do it, but with a bungee cord tied around me. Or if Wright tells me during Doug Loves Movies or on Twitter to see a movie he co-executive-produced like Attack the Block, I'll go see it, even if it's only playing in eight theaters across the country, and I have to hop on a couple of planes, a train and an automobile to get to one of those theaters (luckily, that theater is the Metreon in San Francisco, so I didn't have to go very far).

I first heard about Attack the Block during a Doug Loves Movies episode recorded at SXSW with last-minute guest Simon Pegg (who showed up without his frequent collaborator Wright by his side but busted out a dead-on impression of his absent friend). At SXSW, Attack the Block was so well-received that Sony Pictures' Screen Gems division acquired it for distribution in America, and since its release last week, everyone from Wright himself to author Nelson George has taken to Twitter to urge everyone to see this little film that Screen Gems has barely advertised on TV. Attack the Block contains a wonderful premise that's never been done before (in a South London ghetto, both a predominantly black teenage gang and the white female nurse they mugged are pitted against extraterrestrial monsters) in a genre that's been done to death (the alien invasion genre--between the Steven Spielberg-produced TNT drama Falling Skies and three other Spielberg productions, Super 8, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Cowboys & Aliens, aliens have had a busy summer). The directorial debut of British comedian Joe Cornish (who also wrote the screenplay), the low-budget actioner has no familiar faces in the cast, aside from Venus star Jodie Whittaker and Wright regular Nick Frost in a comedic bit part as a weed dealer, and most of the stars speak in lower-class British accents as thick as Dizzee Rascal's (for folks like me who are familiar with artists like Dizzee or The Streets, that kind of accent isn't too difficult to decipher, but for the rest of the moviegoing audience in America, it's like Klingon). So no wonder Screen Gems is giving Attack the Block a limited release and cautiously unveiling it to an audience that prefers their alien-invasion flicks to be bigger-budgeted, smoother-accented and well, let's face it, dumber.

Okay, Attack the Block isn't quite Shakespeare, but it has a certain inventiveness and vitality that's missing from all those aforementioned Spielberg-produced 2011 alien-invasion projects that aren't Super 8, although the treacly Falling Skies is redeemed by the presence of Colin Cunningham's not-so-treacly biker character Pope. Cornish's film takes its cues less from Spielberg and more from both Frost's previous film Shaun of the Dead and early John Carpenter, particularly one of my favorite Carpenter movies, the original Assault on Precinct 13, from its ghetto backdrop to its unconventional choice of a hero, a black wannabe thug who's like a mash-up of Precinct 13's two leads, Austin Stoker's untested black cop and Darwin Joston's antiheroic white convict. (Voice actor Yuri Lowenthal of Ben 10 fame calls Attack the Block "the best John Carpenter movie that John Carpenter never made.") Unknown John Boyega is a star in the making in his charismatic debut as Moses (when a mugging victim escapes from him and his gang, dig the way Boyega's laconic character simply commands his gang in his thick accent to "allow it," which must be his favorite phrase). Attack the Block is also like what would have happened if the showrunners of Falling Skies realized it was a mistake to make Noah Wyle's rather blandly written history professor character Mason the lead of the show and decided to shift the focus to Pope. At the start of Attack the Block, Moses is first seen doing something very Pope-like and not-so-heroic--he and his gang are mugging Whittaker's nurse character Sam--when he spots a meteorite crash-landing in his hood, and Moses, distracted by the meteorite and the dog-like creature it carried, runs off to kill the monster, not realizing that his killing of the beastie will ignite an alien invasion.

The nebbishy Ben Stiller and the even more nebbishy Matthew Broderick in the Tower Heist trailer are much more intimidating robbers than these kids.
Moses' trajectory from irresponsible thug to adult who decides to own up to his mistakes and clean up the mess he started when he killed the monster is believable and compelling, thanks to Boyega. He has a couple of intriguing little moments where the badass and authoritative gang leader façade disappears, and with some great acting by Boyega with just his eyes, we see a scared kid who's in over his head and whom the film later reveals--in one of its best scenes--to be much younger than he appears to be.

Another Carpenter-esque element is newcomer Steven Price's effective score, which evokes both instrumental hip-hop and Carpenter's synthesizer scores from his Precinct 13/Halloween heyday. The electronica duo Basement Jaxx brings some star power to the score, which Jaxx co-wrote with Price. (Selections from the Attack the Block score will be added to the Fistful of Soundtracks blocks "Assorted Fistful," "New Cue Revue" and "The Street" in the near future.)

Tia (Danielle Vitalis, second from left) is in love with Moses and is a fan of jeggings. Somewhere, a hipster douche is looking at this photo and wondering where he can find these awesome jeans these girls are wearing.
Attack the Block has four (or five or six or seven or eight) less screenwriters than Cowboys & Aliens and was made at a budget that's 10 times less than C&A's, and yet it has a smarter and better-constructed story. One of the cleverest touches in Cornish's script is the symmetry of Moses gaining a better understanding of the grizzly bear-like aliens (and why they're attacking him and everyone around him)(*) with Sam gaining a better understanding of her mugger Moses, who's basically an alien to her. Attack the Block is also about the "aliens" in our own neighborhoods due to racial and class divisions. Forced to turn to Sam for help when one of his cohorts gets injured during an alien attack, Moses realizes the stupidity of picking on good citizens like Sam, while Sam, along with the audience, discovers Moses' kind and vulnerable side, which Tia (Danielle Vitalis), a female friend of the gang's, already sees in Moses, whom Tia has an unspoken crush on. (Here's another reason to dig Attack the Block: it would probably cause that racist dickcheese Lou Dobbs to get his panties in a bunch over the kinds of characters it chooses to sympathize with.) Of course, by the film's climax, Sam and Moses no longer hate each other (enemies who are forced to put aside their differences to fight alien invaders is a thread that also appears in C&A), but Attack the Block wisely avoids the "Mookie and Sal hug and become friends and sing 'We Are the World'" ending that Paramount forced on Spike Lee when he pitched Do the Right Thing to them. Attack the Block is smarter and more ambiguous than that.

(*) I like Attack the Block's version of those pipe-smoking scientist characters in sci-fi B-movies who spout nothing but exposition and were memorably parodied by Pierce Brosnan in Mars Attacks! Instead of regular tobacco, Luke Treadaway's dorky white trust-fund kid Brewis prefers weed--and the sounds of KRS-One on his iPod--and is a zoology student who's watched enough National Geographic specials while baked to figure out why the aliens are invading the block and how to defeat them.

Moses prepares to go all Ghost Dog on an alien dog.
What also makes Attack the Block stand out from this year's batch of alien-invasion flicks is the absence of CGI (I'm not vehemently against CGI--I'm just against it when it's done poorly, which is way too often). All the creature effects in Cornish's film are practical. The alien attacks are fast and brutal, and this is a case where the fast-cutting that so many critics complain about when they see present-day action movies is absolutely necessary because here, it prevents us from noticing how cheap-looking the monsters are--they're essentially just guys running around in eyeless and coal-black bear suits outfitted with ginormous blue neon teeth. But because the Attack the Block aliens aren't CG, there's a realness and formidability to them that's missing from the CG creatures in films like Ang Lee's Hulk and Louis Leterrier's Incredible Hulk reboot, which both contain monster battles I've failed to get invested in and have found to be a chore to watch because the CGI in those sequences is as fake-looking as the cel-animated flying sequences in the '40s live-action Superman serials.

I'm not so worried about the fate of Attack the Block during its theatrical release here in America (though it played to a largely empty theater when I saw it, Screen Gems will expand its release to six more cities on August 19) because like other recent cult films that didn't attract huge crowds during their initial release, it'll eventually find a much bigger audience on Blu-ray and DVD. For now, it's a best-kept secret among us fans of little films that outshine most of the better-known and somewhat similar blockbusters they're competing against at the box office.

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