Attack the Block: an Enthusiastic Recommendation from Steve

I love this movie! Should you see it? Do you love all things British, including strong British accents? Do you love alien/monster/sci fi movies, especially those that make you jump out of your socks once in a while? Did you like Shaun of the Dead? How about District 9? Are you o.k. with a bit of gore, not bucket-loads, but a few quick, bloody scenes? Are you o.k. with “drug content and pervasive language”? Do you like movies that give you an opportunity to experience life in a place you have never been? Finally, are you willing to give characters who at first seem appalling a chance to develop? If you answered yes to those questions, then this movie is for you. If not, then maybe you better stick with this year’s other alien invasion movies, Super 8 and Cowboys and Aliens. But, you’ll be losing out, because this movie is so much better than those.

Since Attack the Block was produced by the creators of Shaun of the Dead, that is a good place to start for comparison purposes. Block isn’t as funny as Shaun, but it was more fun. In part, it is a comedy, but it is so much more. I laughed louder to parts of this than I have to anything else this year. I thought the writing was brilliant, but you will have to listen closely. I’ve read complaints that the accents are so strong that the movie should have subtitles. The accents are strong and they are not simply British. They are black/Jamaican/gang British. I missed a few lines, but I found the language a delight to listen to. That use of language is part of what transports you to another place/culture, in this case the Block, a housing project in South London. The movie begins with a young white women getting mugged by a street gang. The rest of the movie follows this gang as they defend the Block from an alien invasion. Some people complain that they couldn’t get past the fact that these boys were muggers, even going so far as to say that they hoped all the gang members would be killed by the aliens. However, the movie does not glorify the actions of the gang. In fact, one of the key points of the movie is taking responsibility for one’s actions. It is no surprise that the gang and their victim cross paths again. Following a cliche in this genre, they not only cross paths, but must join forces to survive. The brilliance of the writing here is seen in the way this alliance is presented. It is not easy. They don’t want to be together, but they learn about life from each other. I appreciated how the lives of these characters were opened up for us, helping us to understand at least a little bit why they were like they were, but again not in order to justify their actions. There is a wonderful scene where Moses, the leader of the gang, tells Sam, their victim, that they wouldn’t have mugged her if they had known she was from the Block. She doesn’t let him off the hook, pointing out that his apology indicates that he still thinks it would be alright to mug someone who wasn’t from the Block. Scenes like that make this so much more than a simple comedy or parody of the alien/sci fi genre. I actually thought the social commentary here was stronger than in The Help.

I won’t describe the aliens for you. You can discover that for yourself. But I will say that they are not intelligent beings. They are nasty, vicious critters. Although the reason for their arrival on earth remains a mystery (which leads to a funny scene as the characters wonder why aliens would decide to attack a housing project in South London), the movie does a great job of explaining just enough. One of the keys for sci fi and other movies where strange things happen is for the movie to follow its own internal logic. This movie succeeds in that. A tip of the hat to Joe Cornish who wrote and directed this wonderful film. Quite an effort for a first time director! The cast is also quite strong. The only one you might recognize is Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Paul, Hot Fuzz, Pirate Radio) as a drug dealer, but this movie belongs to the young actors who do a marvelous job of bringing their characters to life. I certainly didn’t expect it, but there is better character development in this movie than in most that I have seen this year. This low budget project shows that you don’t get a great movie just by throwing money around. It takes a clever script, creative directing, heartfelt acting, suspense, and a good sense of humor. Attack the Block has all of that and more. Can you tell that I loved it? Believe!

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A Look Way Back: Steve Ranks the 2009 Best Picture Nominees

I have finally seen all of the 2009 Oscar nominees for the Best Picture, so I’ll add my ranking to our blog.  However, in working on this blog, I’ve become even more aware of two distinct ways in which movies are rated.  There is the consideration of artistic merit, which includes both style and storytelling.  Generally, this is what so-called “critics” focus on.  Then, there is simply reflection on whether a movie provides a fulfilling experience.  This is what “fans” seem to base their ratings on and also points to which films are likely to be watched more than once.  I find myself thinking about movies in both ways, so I’m going to rate them both ways.

2009 Best Oscar-nominated Pictures by Artistic Merit

1. Inglourious Basterds – The strongest combination of style and storytelling of the ten.  However, Taratino’s style definitely isn’t for everyone, even though this is actually less violent than much of his work.  Also, some find his themes of revenge troublesome, not to mention the rewriting of history, but this movie does raise the interesting question of what would be an appropriate action if one had the opportunity to rid the world of Hitler.  This is dazzling filmmaking.  Style with substance, I say.

2. The Hurt Locker – Not a terrible choice for best picture, but I didn’t find it to be nearly as strong as Basterds.  Whereas Taratino was clearly rewriting history, The Hurt Locker was presented as realism, but too much of it rang false for me.  Still a great movie, though.

3. District 9 – This is a love it or hate it movie and I loved it.  I love the mishmash of styles, beginning as a cheesey documentary and then passing through the territories of drama, thriller, horror, all with a strong undercurrent of social commentary.  That is where it blows away the next movie on this list.  It makes you think deeply about not simply apartheid, but prejudice in its many forms.

4. Avatar – This movie ranks this high simply for style.  Yes, it’s a good looking movie (although I think the floating mountains are simply ridiculous!), but it’s severely lacking on the storytelling side of the equation.  Think deeply?  Nope, this is a James Cameron movie.  In too many ways this is Dancing with Wolves in Outer Space.  Given all that, I’m surprised I’m putting this at no. 4, but that’s how good it looks.

5. Precious – I hesitated for over a year before seeing this because I thought it would be too depressing.  It is a sickeningly sad story…poverty, rape, incest, abuse…but it is well done.  I place it here mostly for the strength of the acting.  I also liked the directing for the most part, especially her flights into imagination to escape the torment of her world.  I wish the ending had a bit more of the hope of that imagination in it.

6. A Serious Man – Being a Coen Brothers film, you’d expect this one to gain a few more style points, but this is one of their most reserved and subtle movies.  However, as with most of their work, this one grows on you with repeated viewings (see the list below).  It is a marvelous modern telling of the Job story.

7. Up in the Air – I wanted to love this movie.  George Clooney!  Jason Reitman!  I didn’t love it.  It was an interesting examination of our culture and the loss of deep relationships, but that is also where it failed for me.  I didn’t like the way the affair was handled.  Alex gets mad when Ryan nearly exposes their affair to her husband.  I’m sorry, Alex, you were in an affair.  Affairs hurt people, destroy relationships and this one detracted from the movie for me.

8. An Education – Hmm, if affairs are bad, how about an older man preying on a young girl and nearly ruining her life?  This movie explores what a person will do to escape what they think is a dull life and the wrong turns we can take in trying to find a meaningful relationship.  It is well done, but I found the character of David to be such a creep and it turns out I was right.

9. Up – Many people love this.  Not me.  It was o.k., actually quite good in spots, but I thought they added too many elements.  It felt disjointed to me.  I don’t think it was even the best animated film of 2009.  I’d give that honor to The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

10. The Blind Side – Style? Sappy!  Storytelling? Clichéd!  Does it deserve to be considered for Best Picture?  Of course not!  But, I cried my eyes out and enjoyed nearly every minute of it.  This is the kind of movie that has me wondering what I mean, what anyone means, when they say a movie is good.  And look where it is on the other list!

2009 Best Oscar-nominated Pictures by Desire for Multiple Viewings

1. Inglourious Basterds

2. A Serious Man

3. District 9

4. The Blind Side

5. Avatar

6. The Hurt Locker

7. Up

8. Up in the Air

9.  Precious

10. An Education