ATTACK THE BLOCK
starring Jodie Whittaker, John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh
written and directed by Joe Cornish
***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A-
starring Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso
written and directed by J.J. Abrams
by Walter Chaw Joe Cornish's low-budget creature-feature Attack the Block is a charmer, a delight, the kind of rare film--like Jack Sholder's The Hidden, Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, or Steve De Jarnatt's Miracle Mile--that devotees will latch onto, and for good reason, with the fervour afforded genuine cult classics. It has energy to burn, a strange affinity with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and a super-cool monster that looks like a cross between Ira from the "Moonshadow" comic and a grizzly bear. That most of it was carried off with practical effects is a shot in the arm for practical effects and a bearer of the nostalgia banner that seems to be popular lately, what with our dreams and memories fodder again for the celluloid couch. Better still, it introduces a new star into the future pantheon in John Boyega, who has charisma to burn as gang leader-cum-saviour Moses. The movie's tale of a group of street toughs has drawn comparisons to The Warriors, but I think the better analogy is Spielberg's E.T., not just in that alchemy between the fantastic and the absolutely mundane (South England's Lambeth neighbourhood), but also in the crafting of a living youth subculture alive with its own language, ritual, and custom. It's not too much to say that, at its best, Attack the Block makes you feel the way you did when the guys took things into their own hands to deliver the flying, omniscient, omnipotent E.T. to his landing site. It taps into the irrational cool. Which doesn't happen very often.
A curious thing that Cornish's film introduces his aliens as meteorites striking Lambeth during bonfire night, as William Blake had Milton returning to Earth (to Lambeth, as it happens) in a comet in his epic "Milton a Poem" in order to unite Blake, in part, with his cultural antecedents. Not to stretch the comparison too far, Attack the Block is likewise a survey that pulls elements from favourite films and does so in a way very much like Quentin Tarantino's and producer Edgar Wright's exercises in pop-culture revisionism. Cornish has crafted a film that owes a great deal to stuff like Aliens and An American Werewolf in London and trusted it to a group of untested kids who feel absolutely organic to their situation. When they encounter the first beastie in the back of a parked car, they of course follow it into the park to finish it off when cooler heads would have left well enough alone.
There's a racial element, and a socio-economic one represented by the mugging of--and subsequent capitulation with--nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) that is treated with the respect of leaving it in the subtext until an ambiguous coda that's moving and pointed. Best, Cornish gives Sam a moment alone in Moses's flat, allowing us to gain a little foothold into the situation that's led to the creation of this particular hero. He's not unlike The Evil Dead's Ash in some ways, (a non-descript schlub who finds his true calling killing demons and zombies), but with the tantalizing hint that any message there might be about finding oneself is wrapped in a more meaningful redemption. Leaving that aside, Attack the Block is exciting, fun, and puerile in exactly the appropriate way, so that even a cameo by Nick Frost doing what he always does (this time as the assistant to a drug kingpin) can't defuse the liveliness of a kid on a moped getting run down by a grizzly bear with neon teeth.
It's a fabulous debut by Cornish that compares favourably to J.J. Abrams's Spielberg shrine Super 8, which mines the same birth-of-the-blockbuster nostalgia vein so doggedly that you actually wish it was better than it is. Still, what works about it works really well, the best result of it being that it offers a vehicle for young Elle Fanning that should catapult her to the real superstardom Somewhere would have had anyone seen it. She's stunning; every second she's on screen, no matter whether she's sharing the frame with a two-storey monster, it's impossible to look away from her. She's the natural lens-flare Abrams offsets with his trademark visual tick. Fanning's Alice, the daughter of town drunk Louis (Ron Eldard), is enlisted by a pack of Goonies-stratified youngsters to be the female lead in their kitchen-sink zombie flick. The erstwhile director is the Stand By Me chubby one Charles (Riley Griffiths), and along for the ride are the one who pukes (Gabriel Basso) and the one who likes to blow shit up (Ryan Lee). And, yes, there's that scene where the kids throw their stuff over a fence, gather up their bikes, and recreate an entire sequence from the Amblin Entertainment logo that opens the picture.
The focus, though, rests on the wistful one who's lost his mother, Joe (Joel Courtney), son of small-town deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and inheritor, at least on Charles's undead opus, of Dick Smith's makeup legacy. The centre of this live-action remake of The Iron Giant, Joe sort of befriends the It that escapes from a brilliant train crash that happens just outside his tiny burg. Super 8 isn't a boy-and-his-robot story like Tobor the Great (or Terminator 2), but it is a full-hearted attempt to recapture the magic of those early-Eighties summers where every movie seemed to have about it the feeling of youth in amber. The titular film stock represents both the catalyst for the picture's conflict and the medium that conveys the solution of the piece (as well as, in one mawkish sequence, Joe's memories of his mother). I guess what I'm saying is, the cast is brilliant--consistently better than the film itself, which is saying something, because the film isn't bad--and the use of old camera technology suggests a nostalgia not merely for the days when the Walkman heralded the end of western civilization, but for the days when film held the possibility of truth instead of the certainty of trickery. Ironic, perhaps, that Abrams would hark back to the pre-CGI age, given that the monster he sticks into the last half-hour of Super 8 is wholly a phantom (and that the film's tearjerker is a mainframe lightshow). It's a bit of a shame, too, because wouldn't it have been great if the picture, like Ti West's awesome House of the Devil, were almost indistinguishable from the films it's seeking to honour?
Anchoring it all is the complete sweetness and utter believability of Joe's infatuation with Alice and, in one great scene, the pain of Deputy Lamb as he realizes he's failed his son in the immediate aftermath of the loss of his son's mother. The good parts outweigh the bad, the moments nailed--such as Alice's auto-transformation into a zombie and a siege in a converted school bus (they're going to need a bigger bus, n'est-ce pas?)--making up for the picture's carelessness with its ancillary characters and the maddening looseness of its plot. It's better not to ask life-and-death questions, better not to wonder if the It is building a ship (like it was in Carpenter's The Thing) or simply a giant magnet for reasons that will come clean in a way that doesn't entirely feel clean, given that there's no possible reason for the military to be bringing the things It might want to attract with a magnet anywhere near where a magnet may attract it. And, really, don't ask why it is that some metal things are attracted to the is-it-a-magnet and not others. Is it a sentient magnet? I just told you: best not to ask. Super 8 ultimately isn't about sense, it's an exercise in tapping that irrational cool of hanging out with your pals, of being in love with the most beautiful girl you've ever seen (and she drives!), and of making something that feels, for a brief period of time, like the most important thing you're ever going to do. It doesn't sustain those emotions, but it will sometimes remind you of movies that do. Originally published: June 10, 2011.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - SUPER 8
by Bill Chambers M. David Melvin has prepared a batch of first-rate if uniformly overlong featurettes for Paramount's Blu-ray release of Super 8, starting with "The Dream Behind Super 8" (16 mins.), in which writer-director J.J. Abrams makes the unsurprising confession that he wasn't much of an athlete growing up. Abrams's account of his first brush with Steven Spielberg is a gem, and its epilogue--in which Spielberg remembers the encounter years later--supports much anecdotal evidence that His Beardedness has an elephant's memory. Interestingly, Spielberg himself reduces the premise of Super 8 to something that sounds like Blow-up or its many imitators, but he only mentions the Zapruder film as a touchstone. "The Search for New Faces" (18 mins.) is best when the obligatory casting and audition stories give way to B-roll of kids being kids, with star Joel Courtney coming in for a razzing because his stunt double is a girl. In direst need of pruning is "Meet Joel Courtney" (15 mins.), in which the not-yet-interview-savvy Courtney reflects on his good fortune between segments that depict a typical day on set for the young star. I'll be interested to see what Courtney looks like in a few years, given his choice of breakfast here: a hamburger, a donut, and fries.
"Rediscovering Steel Town" (18 mins.) is less about the production than about the saga of Weirton, West Virginia--where most of the film's exteriors were shot--and the crumbling steel mill that once held the town together. Again padded but bizarrely compelling, it's arguably a more sincere salute to Americana than Super 8 proper. "The Visitor Lives" (12 mins.) includes footage of Bruce Greenwood in MoCap dress as the alien, designed and redesigned ad nauseam by Neville Page, who struggled to please both Abrams and Spielberg with a creature that ultimately reeks of compromise. "Scoring Super 8" (5 mins.) has composer Michael Giacchino falling at the feet of John Williams and discussing the order in which he wrote the movie's themes. In "Do You Believe in Magic?" (4 mins.), Fong performs some nifty sleights of hand to the amazement of the young actors and the cynicism of a visiting Tom Cruise. (I love that Melvin treats Cruise's cameo as a non-event.) Lastly, "The 8mm Revolution" (8 mins.) finds Giacchino imparting some important wisdom about the necessity of limitations in remembering how the super8 format forced him, in making his own home movies (excerpted, as Abrams's and DP Larry Fong's were previously), to think twice and be economical. Nowadays, with essentially unlimited stock at their disposal and undo buttons cushioning their every mistake, young filmmakers hardly have a chance to learn discipline. We're also informed that super8 still exists and that when you send it away for processing now, you get it back as a QuickTime file on a flash drive. Is that true? If so, groovy--I'll have to dust off my grandparents' camera.
Presented, like the featurettes, in HD and DD 5.1, fourteen Deleted Scenes (13 mins. in toto) are mostly extensions, and it's hard to tell where the old material ends and new stuff begins. I do wish a moment of what'shisface asking the chubby kid what what'sherface was reading during silent period had survived, as it rings true of male curiosity about the girls they like. (For boys, I think, people are an inventory of things they read, watch, and listen to.) On the other hand, I didn't buy that what'shisface would own the illustrated guide to puberty What's Happening to Me?--an anachronism anyway, since it didn't come out until 1981. "Deconstructing the Train Crash" is a Java-based breakdown of the film's centrepiece sequence featuring script pages, artwork, and soundbites categorized by pre-production, production, and post-production, and it rounds out the video-based extras. Abrams, Fong, and producer Bryan Burk meanwhile team-up for a film-length yakker dominated, unsurprisingly, by Abrams, whose halting delivery begins to grate after a while. Because Spielberg demurs to recording commentaries, Abrams threatens to make him an unwitting participant by texting him questions; I won't spoil the outcome, but suffice it to say there's not much here that can't be gleaned from the aforementioned supplements. Haters should delight in some self-aware joking about lens flares, and I will say that I gained a new appreciation for the contribution of ILM, who did a lot of work that was destined to go unsung without Abrams singling it out for praise.
As for Super 8 itself, this is, hands down, one of the most gorgeous A/V presentations of the year. The film was shot on a mix of 35mm, Super16, super8 (natch), and HiDef RAW video (using the Red One MX), yet the final patchwork is seamless as rendered by this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer, except where otherwise intended. (The Red footage seems to have been equalized with a patina of faux-grain.) Fine detail is absurd but never cloyingly sharp, while even the deepest blacks have a translucence that lends the image a sense of depth. Surprisingly, the D-BOX-encoded 7.1 audio is offered in Dolby TrueHD, a lossless format studios rarely employ anymore--and if there were ever any doubt that TrueHD can go toe to toe with DTS-HD Master Audio, this powerhouse track quashes it. All the big set-pieces sound stunning, chaotic but never noisy. Bass crunches and scrapes bottom while dialogue comes into remarkable relief against the fray. In his review of the disc, Peter S. Hall reports hearing something like laser fire during the train crash; I recall no such inexplicables from my viewing, but I'm happy to have an excuse to audit this mix again. A combination DVD/Digital Copy of the film rounds out the package. Originally published: November 21, 2011.