Wednesday, September 7, 2011

E.T. Phone tha Hood

It isn't too often I come across a legitimate limited release film by myself. Usually I need to be told these films are in theaters, or risk missing them completely. Often I learn of them by virtue of award nominations (Rabbit Hole and Barney's Version come to mind), but when the commendations aren't flying a lot of luck is usually involved in me learning of a minor release. Fortunately, I live near an independent cinema that loves showing such movies, and even the multiplex I frequent has one or two "lesser" films sandwiched in between the IMAX screens for people who want to try something different. In that case I'll probably come across these titles when their trailers appear on the big screen, and that's how I've come to know of a few you might have missed (like Win Win). Still, that encompasses some luck as well, and I'm looking in other avenues for news. That's how I came across Attack the Block, the film debut of comedian Joe Cornish about an alien invasion of the slums of South London, and a gang of street rats who go up against them. As many of you know, I do use Twitter, and who should I end up following but Shaun of the Dead and Paul star Nick Frost, who dropped this little birdie into my lap... and that of over three hundred thousand other followers, but they're not nearly as important. The concept behind Attack the Block definitely seemed a good one; I simply had to see it to believe that there was much different between this and a random SyFy original movie.

Them versus blood-sucking aliens? Still not sure where to place my bets...
While people are out on Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Day in England) celebrating by drinking and launching fireworks, a gang of inner city teens is up their usual tricks, mugging pedestrians on the street and breaking into cars for valuables. This night turns far from usual however, as by chance they are present when what seems to be a meteor lands nearby, attracting their attention. To their surprise, an alien creature emerges from the wreckage, attacking the group's leader Moses (John Boyega), resulting in the gang chasing down the creature and ultimately killing it. Realizing that they were dealing with something not of this world, the group takes the carcass back to their block tenement where they hope to reap some benefit from this event. What they fail to realize is that this small creature is the opening act of an alien invasion, and only they and their most recent mugging victim (Jodie Whittaker) are able and willing to fight back against the alien's much larger and more dangerous cousins..

Sorry, no Simon Pegg this time around
As you can expect, this is mostly a "defeat the monster" film, with no room for much extra. Attack the Block does make some minor statements on societal class, but don't expect anything rivaling that of the HBO series The Wire, as only the criminal hierarchy of the block tenement where the film's stars reside is really present in comparison. The film is pretty much all about the alien invasion, with some comedic elements thrown in for a break in the tension. Honestly, I didn't think it was the best mix; not that suspense and humor can't coexist but just in this case the humor should have been worked in a little more evenly. A bit more with Nick Frost would have helped, as Frost is almost wasted in his role as drug dealer Ron, whose "weed room" is considered the film's last holding ground (much like the Winchester Pub in Shaun of the Dead). Ron and his pothead customer Brewis (Luke Treadaway) are presented as the film's main comic foils, though only Brewis is actually important to the story, with Ron being as expendable as your average Red Shirt. He has his moments, but overall he has less than that of two small boys (Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao) who steal the show with their attempts being toughs like the gang.

Yeah, I'll let the guy with the sword go first
As for the monster movie aspect, the effects are actually quite realistic for a small budget title. Without giving too much away, the creatures are simply designed enough so that it doesn't take a lot of effort to realistically show them to the audience. It's true that you don't see too much of the aliens at first, as they are relegated to the shadows, but this is more for creating suspense than having to make up for creation deficiencies. The way they interact with the live characters is also frighteningly realistic, and seeing them tear a head or face off a major character is always a shock. This was somewhat of a surprise, as I fully expected that the weak point would be special effects unable to capture the imagination of the filmmakers and the audience. The amount of violence present was also unexpected, but to be fair if I ever get used to seeing teenagers get torn apart, you might want to get me committed.

Express elevator, going... oh, you're leaving
Unfortunately, the film's cast of characters are mostly forgettable, samey types that won't be remembered in six months time. Most of the street toughs are little more than annoying stereotypes of ghetto caricatures. The main exception is Boyega; as the young actor makes his cinema debut here and really surprises you with his ability to attract your attention and sustain it over the course of a film. I have no idea if this level will be consistent with his future acting career, but he certainly seems to have the brightest future among the young actors present. Whittaker is also solid, though understandably her performance pales in comparison to that of Boyega. As a recent mugging victim, she makes an uneasy ally to the boys, but the characters really get a feeling of eachother by the film's conclusion, and she does a good job as the voice of the audience who wouldn't trust these boys watching their backs. The other standout is Jumayn Hunter as local gangster Hi-Hatz, Ron's boss and ruler of the criminal element in the block. As a secondary villain, Hi-Hatz might not always be rational or even very smart, but it's his tenacity and remarkable habit for self-preservation that make him stand out, and Hunter fills those qualities impeccably.

Apparently bicycles are "street" now
Ultimately, it's the subtle charm of the story and Joe Cornish's natural direction that help win the day when it comes to Attack the Block. It is a surprisingly smart, clever film full of surprises and just enough humor to wash the blood out, and while it may not be the perfect iteration of its genre, it does enough things right for the audience to come out feeling mostly entertained. It could have been funnier and scarier, and a little more Nick Frost might have gone a long way, but in the end those aren't serious complaints. If you can still find it in a theater near you, I heartily recommend it as an alternative to recent horror releases that you're stuck on whether to go and see. I guarantee you'll have more fun seeing this film than you would Apollo 18 or Shark Night 3D.

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