Movie Review #41 / 250 : ‘ATTACK THE BLOCK’

Remember how I’d said Videodrome was completely off the wall in both its concept and its execution? Remember how I pretty much labelled it as the most insane screenplay I’ve ever come across? Of course you do. It was only yesterday. No offence to any of you that may or may not be goldfish, obviously.

Attack The Block is probably one of the most original films I’ve seen so far. While I’ve misled you into thinking it’s confusing, it’s far from that – but it is cheerfully mental. The movie focuses around a gang of British teenagers against the gritty urban backdrop of an inner-city tower block, roaming the streets in a pack, generally causing mayhem and chaos. So it’s a social study, right? It’s going to be a no-holds-barred depiction of urban Britain in the 10s, right?

It looks that way, at least until the gang’s mugging of a young nurse is interrupted by the explosive crash landing of a furry white alien with no eyes and lots of teeth.

Bear with me.

Rather than chaos breaking out, however, the gang hunts down and kills the creature without a second breath, and keeps the corpse as a trophy, celebrating the victory as if they’ve just won a game of FIFA. However, it’s not over. As the gang retires into the solace of their weed-growing neighbour atop the tower block, scores more bigger creatures fall from the sky, and seemingly start to hunt down the killers of their original fallen. What snowballs from here is a totally unexpected change in style and pace, as the characters in the block begin to fight for their lives in a scenario not entirely dissimilar to your archetypal zombie flick. This is an urban drama that crashes head-on with a sci-fi twist, and it works brilliantly well.

There’s an absolute bumload of stuff to talk about with Block. It’s a film that’s taken me by surprise in all honesty – and I’ll run through a handful of what I reckon are the more important points. Firstly, what I was genuinely scared of was that I’d be unable to connect to the main characters. As any law-abiding person living in Britain and over a certain age would tell you, characters like Moses’ gang are all too real (and some are nowhere near as sympathetic). Having characters initially portrayed as willing villains of polite society evolve into the protagonists of the movie (and, furthermore, the good guys) is a concept that doesn’t sound amazing on paper.

And yet, it excels on screen. As these characters are so real and believable, their skirmish against the aliens becomes far more enjoyable than if we were given a cookie-cutter set of character types (tough guy, smart guy, sarcastic guy etc), I think I seriously would’ve enjoyed the movie a lot less. The reactions, the decisions and the rationale of these characters, while they’re all flawed in one way or another, feel absolutely natural. It’s this that helps get rid of what could’ve been a heavy coating of sci-fi bumph over the top. But, no. The only information we get about the beasties is the information the characters realise, and of course, what we see. We’re also handed very little awkward character bumph.

That leads me into my favourite scene in the movie, where our perceptions of the gang are first pulled into check – as the kids decide to face the alien onslaught head-on, they choose to storm down the tower block, one by one splitting away to go into their own homes to retrieve weapons. It’s here that we get given brief, but telling snapshots of what sorts of lives each if them leads – and they’re all extremely normal, adjusted, and lacking the broken home scenarios we were all (admit it) expecting. Whether this scene was done for laughs or not, it doesn’t matter – it’s a brilliant piece of cinema, and it totally arrests you to the gang’s side for the rest of the film. The leader, Moses, has quite a different story that gets hinted at later on, though it really doesn’t kill your faith in him.

So, yeah – I’n not going to talk much longer on this. The concept is fantastic, the characters are real and deep enough to carry a story, and the sci fi elements are so low-fi that you’ll barely call this much more than a survival picture. While it’s really not everyone’s cup of tea, and one or two of the characters don’t work brilliantly (pretty much everyone bar the central kids, in all honesty, pales in comparison), this is a real gem buried amongst piles of box office dreck. If you want to see it, I wouldn’t advise hesitation, as it’s a real marvel.

PRO: Amazing concept. Brilliant visuals. Characters that grow on you. Good pacing, and as long as it needs to be. Some great little touches that show care has been taken.

CON: Some of the characters are flat. Themes and style are a bit exclusive. Little more than a survival flick wrapped up in a character study.

9/10. So far, this is the only film I would recommend at all cost. A brilliantly low-budget little film that avoided big bucks at the box office, as a debut for director Joe Cornish, it’s something on the stupendous side. Well worth an hour and a half of your life.

Movie Review #31 / 250 : ‘O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?’

No spoilers.  I’m taking out a new policy on these here reviews from now on – if you don’t wanna be spoiled, HAVE NO FEAR!  Keep reading.  Unless the climax is absolutely detrimental to my recap, I’m not touching them from now on.

Yeah, ok.  The Coen Brothers.  I last came across this pair in January via The Big Lebowski, and suffice to say, I enjoyed myself.  I now have a taste for White Russian, and have started actually using my dressing gown.  The directive Coens seem to be known for quirky, laid-back characters that traipse their way through labyrinths of shaggy dog stories without care or restraint (and I’ll be watching another one of their films, Burn After Reading, later in the year – who knows when?).  And there’s something oddly comforting about that.  Too many of us whittle and worry away about finding a matching pair of socks, while characters like Lebowski’s Dude seem only mildly aggravated that a bounty’s sitting on their heads.  It kinda puts things in perspective.

O Brother is definitely no exception.  It’s a tale of three convicts in depression-era Mississippi who decide to break away from their chain gang in order to go hunting for a revered ‘treasure’ out in the back of beyond.  Along the way, the trio meet a veritable bevy of weird and wonderful kooks, each making their livings and ways in the world while they themselves find distraction, despair, and on at least one occasion, bodily harm.  A striking cast led by George Clooney (I seriously had my doubts on this feller) does well to meander through what’s a real anthology of mishaps and moral stories.

The screenplay is apparently loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic – and like your average epic poem (guys, I had to scurry through the likes of The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost for my undergrad studies), O Brother is no less one story, but several.  Characters like guitarist Tommy (who sold his soul to the Devil), bible salesman Big Dan (Coen favourite John Goodman) and even bank robber George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson drift in and out of the motley crew’s adventure, reappearing to finish their tales off as Clooney et al finish theirs.  It’s pretty well put together.  It’s essentially a modern epic; never straying from the story nor the intentions of the main trio, but incorporating enough madcap elements along the way to bth sidetrack them and help keep things interesting.  A similar technique was used in The Blues Brothers – how short would that film have been had they reformed the band and played the concert without all the diversions?  About twenty minutes, that’s how long.

It’s hard not to like the characters- most of them doe-eyed and upfront, and those that aren’t are the antagonists – who don’t really get revealed as being the ‘baddies’ until the very last minute.  Oh, save for the ever-present but shadowy Sherriff, who trails the escapees right to the finish.  This is also a really musical film – very bluesy, very folky – there’s barely a silent moment when people aren’t speaking. This, and the intentional steel-and-sepia colours that paint the film in its entirety, help root the film in the time and locale in which it’s (I guess) pastiching.  It’s all very nice to look at, and jeez that Clooney can sing.  Unless, of course, he was dubbed.  Correct me if that’s the case!

Onto the nitty gritty, then.  This is, again, a really laid-back picture.  The characters aren’t monstrously deep, the stakes are high – but the egos aren’t, and for the most part, it’s pretty funny.  There’s some great lines scattered throughout, but most of the humour comes from its charm and the sheer unflappable will of the main characters.  The main gripe for me comes from the winding down of the film – the climax whimpers out a little bit (AND I’M NOT SPOILING IT!) in comparison with the great, booming, madcap adventures that make up the majority of the preceding flick.  It’s a complete story, with all threads tied off – but I’m just left a little underwhelmed.  Unsure why, but maybe that’s for the best.  This is a film I really don’t want to be too negative about, as it’s so happy.

PROS: Epic story.   Great visually.  Great cast.  Superb soundtrack.  Classic Coen characterisation.

CONS: The film loses momentum in the last twenty minutes, hitting its climax just before.  The sheer amount of characters and switching focus may annoy some.

SCORE : 7 out of 10.
I’m giving a seven rather than an eight solely for its stumbling momentum towards the end – and it’s not the type of film I’d normally go for whatsoever, but I enjoyed myself.  I’m finding out more and more that I ought to be less cautious in my filmwatching.  Still think I prefer Lebowski, though.  Do you think I mentioned Lebowski enough?  Probably.

Movie Review #27 / 250 : ‘THIS IS SPINAL TAP’

Spoilers, possibly.

Oh, come on.  You’ve all heard of Spinal Tap.  You all know the ‘this goes to eleven’ joke.  You all know the shtick, the false limey accents, blah blah blah blah blah.  I’m guessing you do, anyway.  This film has been a part of comedy film legend for thirty years, one of the unmoveable monoliths (see also Blazing SaddlesAirplaneAnimal House).  While not quite the Star Wars of comic film, its reverence precedes itself.  That is, it’s one of many on my list that’s perpetually acclaimed.  Unlike Paul BlartSpinal Tap is likely to still be hall-of-fame fodder for decades to come.

And why not?  This has to be one of the earliest ‘mockumentary’ (or as Rob Reiner’s character puts it, ‘Rockumentary’) pieces to have been unleashed.  Long ahead of the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ or ‘docusoap’ television staples that would riddle the small screen from the mid-90s onwards, it’s strange to see fiction portrayed as fact so early in time.  The film follows (for anyone still in the dark on what ST is actually about) a touring rock band, the titular Spinal Tap, as they embark on a number of catastrophic gigs, struggle with the release and promotion of their latest album ‘Smell The Glove’, and deal with the quintessential band tiffs, barneys and splits.  It’s got Rob Reiner, the director of the film, playing the director of the fictional documentary.  As confusing as it sounds, this gives it, as mentioned, a fairly unique slant – the characters, the band and the history are all fictional, and are all ridiculous in subtle, but many ways – but we’re being given an insight as if this were an actual documentary.  This style of comedy wouldn’t catch mass wildfire until the late 1990s with the emergence of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s TV projects (The OfficeExtras, Life’s Too Short), and given how it’s no longer a style of storytelling or joke-pulling that’s unique, this perhaps makes Spinal look a wee bit dated.  Certainly, as mockumentary comedies have increased in number, the bar has naturally been raised.

But, still – this is an extremely funny film.  I can’t deny that.  The jokes derive from the band’s utter insistence on the power of their music and their popularity is undying – whereas in reality, they’re anything but mainstream.  The musicians are all, without exception, delusional in their prowess – they can play, credit due – but they can’t pull the crowds.  Their choosing to play ‘Sex Farm’ at a glorified tea dance is an especially funny moment which ultimately leads to lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel leaving the group, before returning upon the news that the aforementioned song is ‘Number Five in Japan’.  The vast majority of the humour is satirical of the music industry, and obviously of the inner workings of the British rock band.  There’s more than a few Beatles and Stones references in here (the ‘Yoko Ono effect’ getting pastiched rather blatantly), and given the stories you hear about some of these bands across the years, Spinal Tap in some ways comes off as far more satirical than it is ridiculous. The humour is constantly playful, verbally slapstick (if that’s a term, if not, I’ve coined it), and never mean-spirited.  It’s a very ‘sunny’ picture.  You really feel for these guys, and despite their protestations and delusions of grandeur, you somehow want them to succeed – but you don’t mind laughing when things go awry.

Despite all this, it is dated.  I can’t avoid that.  It’s a very, very good film that will survive thirty years without a blemish, however – but the impact this had thirty years ago is not one that survives the folly of time.  The humour is also pretty exclusive – if you have less than a passing interest in, or knowledge of the ‘rock band’ as a genre, you’re unlikely to raise more than a chuckle or so.  It’s whimsical enough to appeal to many people – but its satire is its strongest facet.

PROS: Likeable characters.  Clever satire.  Unique style (for the time).

CONS: Very dated now.  Humour may be lost on a wider scale.

7/10 – I liked this.  I don’t think it’s something I’d buy on DVD, or would even watch again within the year – but there’s a lot of clever touches, and stylistically, it was incomparable.  Long may it stand as an epoch-maker, as opposed to a world-beater.