For the past week, everyone at the 25th annual SXSW Film Festival in Austin has been talking about one film: Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block. The film (which was produced by Cornish’s writing-buddy and friend to all film geeks, Edgar Wright) has been called the “best film of SXSW 2011” since its very first screening, but it’s taken this long for me to find out for myself. And, after catching the last screening of Attack The Block at this year’s festival, I can in fact confirm that Cornish’s film really is the best film at this year’s SXSW. It’s even better than that, though: Attack The Block is one of those films that immediately becomes one of your absolute favorites, a film you’ll judge other, similar films against for years to come. Wanna know more? Read on for our full review:
From the very beginning of this year’s SXSW, people have been saying that Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block was the film to beat at this year’s Festival. Considering all the other truly great films that have premiered at SXSW this year– James Gunn’s Super, James Wan’s Insidious, Evan Glodell’s Bellflower (just to name a few)– those are big words. When I drew up my schedule for this year’s Festival, I had originally planned on seeing Jodie Foster’s The Beaver this evening (no giggling), but after hearing some of the critics I really tend to agree with go on and on about how great Cornish’s debut film is, I had to make an adjustment: since I couldn’t catch either of Attack The Block’s previous screenings, I ditched out on The Beaver to catch its last scheduled screening. I don’t know how good The Beaver is, but I’d bet vital parts of my anatomy that it’s not worth missing Attack The Block for.
And the sad part is, it really would’ve been me “missing” it: Despite the fact that Cornish’s film has reaped a ton of critical praise over the course of its three screenings, it remains without U.S. distribution. Apparently, Hollywood’s concerned that American audiences are going to have trouble with the heavy, south London accents on display in the film. They fear that you– yeah, you— are too stupid to understand a thick British accent, and they think that enough people will be so turned off by the amount of attention the film’s dialogue demands that they won’t make any money on the flick. After seeing how truly great Attack The Block is, I’m dumbfounded by this shortsightedness: yeah, the film’s dialogue can be a little hard to understand from time to time, but it’s not like the characters here are speaking a different language. Why Drafthouse Films– the distribution company founded by the Alamo Drafthouse’s badass-in-chief, Tim League– hasn’t picked up this film is beyond me.
Hopefully, someone will step up to the plate. And when they do, you’ve got one of the best film debuts by a sure-to-be-beloved-by-a-whole-generation-of-film-geeks director I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in some time. This is first-film greatness on the level of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, Duncan Jones’ Moon, and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. You might not be familiar with Cornish by name– he’s spent the bulk of his career working in British television (and writing with Edgar Wright)– but when Attack The Block finally makes its debut on American shores, you’re going to be an instant fanboy. You’re going to be looking forward to Cornish’s films in the same way that you look forward to Guillermo Del Toro’s, Tarantino’s, and the Coen Brothers’, and you’re going to show Attack of The Block to every last one of your friends once you’ve purchased the Blu-ray. Make no mistake: a Cornish Cult is on its way.
Attack The Block is set in south London, where a small gang of pre-teen hoods are wasting their lives selling pot on street corners, roughing up the locals, and heading towards what’ll probably end up being some serious jail time. They’re not violent, but when we meet the crew– headed by Moses (John Boyega)– they’re on the verge of crossing that line. They are, in fact, in the middle of mugging a local woman, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), when an alien literally falls out of the sky and through the roof of a nearby car. Moses investigates, gets scratched by the creature, and tracks it down to a nearby shack…where he immediately kills it. The rest of the gang applaud his courage and drag the creature’s body back through the neighborhood to their dealer’s residence, where we learn that Moses is being primed to become a full-blown drug dealer by Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). And then all hell breaks loose.
Aliens– much bigger, meaner, and creepier than the creature the boys have already come across– start raining out of the sky, and our heroes immediately decide that they’re going to track ’em down and kill ’em before they can overrun the neighborhood. When they do, though, they realize that they aren’t dealing with the same type of creature that they’ve already encountered, and from there on out…well, to say anything more would involve treading into spoiler territory, and anyone who ruins the fun of Attack The Block would be deserving of a righteous ass-whooping. Rest assured that there is much creature-action, a heavy dose of Shaun of The Dead-like humor, and some of the best-looking cinematography this sub-genre’s seen in years (courtesy of newcomer Thomas Towend), and it’s all driven by a razor-sharp script written by Cornish (and scored unbelievably well by Basement Jaxx: if you loved the Tron: Legacy score, you’re going to crap your pants when you hear this one).
The creatures are very, very effective, the best of their kind that I can recall seeing since the original Tremors: they’re believable, threatening, and they’ve even got a few qualities that are wholly unique (their glowing teeth, for instance). It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a balls-out creature-feature movie like this– or one that’s any good, anyway– and I’d forgotten how much I truly love this sub-genre. It’s impossible to tell how much of the creature work here is CGI or practical effects, and when Cornish was asked after one of the SXSW screenings to elaborate on this, he dodged the question, preferring to let the work speak for itself (at least until the film’s in wide release, that is). I’m inclined to believe that most of it was done practically, but if it wasn’t, well, Hollywood needs to start hiring the people that put these monsters together, and fast: it’s some of the best work in the business, just as impressive as Blomkamp’s District 9 creature-work.
Cornish is going for a very particular feel and aesthetic here, and it’s simply astonishing the way he nails it so thoroughly through his script and direction: it’s the kind of debut that– if you didn’t know any better– you’d swear up and down came from someone who’d been doing stuff like this for years. When I spoke to Cornish before seeing the film, he told me that he’d watched Critters, Gremlins, and Tremors before shooting Attack The Block, and DNA strands from all of those films– just the good ones– are clearly on display here. There’s not a single frame of the film that’s a misstep, not a single scene or character that isn’t relevant to the plot (when’s the last time you saw a film like this where most characters weren’t just fodder for the creatures?), not a single joke that doesn’t connect with force. I can imagine other people who have attempted this kind of thing over the course of their careers (Steve Sommers, for instance) watching Attack The Block and just sputtering in astonished awe: “How the hell did he do that? And his first time out of the gate?”
He hasn’t done it alone, though. Cornish hired a cast mostly made up of unknowns, but– like Cornish’s work as a director– you’ll be stunned at how natural and effortless the performances are from these kids. John Boyega– who plays the hero role here– is particularly excellent, and I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of him. The other kids are all equally great, though, and Whittaker does much more with her role than most other actresses might have: she turns a character that could’ve been vaguely one-note and bitchy into a living, breathing, believable woman, and when her character comes back into contact with our pre-teen heroes, the dynamic between this former mugging victim and her muggers moves in some pretty entertaining directions. It’s never obvious, though, and it never feels like any of the relationships are being governed by the script: amazingly, all of the characters seem to be acting like…real people would. Whatta ya know. This is a great, great cast, and Cornish should be just as proud of the performances he got out of them as they should be proud of themselves (and, yes, Nick Frost’s in there, and he’s typically great, but he’s only on-screen for about ten minutes of the film, so don’t go in expecting a Shaun redux).
This is a film that I could very happily sit and write about for pages and pages. When I finally get my grubby mitts on a copy of this film, I’m going to wear it the hell out. Attack The Block is certainly the best film that I saw at this year’s SXSW, but it’s also– immediately, and almost from the first scene– one of my new favorite movies. Pray to the film geek Gods of Hollywood that someone picks this up, and when it releases in your area, make sure you’ve got your schedule clear: you’ve got a date with one of the best sci-fi/comedy/horror/action mash-ups you’re ever going to see.
My Grade? A