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Today, I was reminded of how some films are just tailor-made for a Fantasia crowd. I can see how that is often understood pejoratively, and usually implicates excess with very little substance, but I believe there are two kinds of these films. The bad “crowd-pleaser” often dabbles in excesses of what genre audiences want to see, while ignoring that there needs to be meat for it to be bleeding. Such films tend to show a limited understanding of their genre’s formula, as well as exhibit a bare-bones simplification of their audience’s desires, while the good “crowd” films usually find a way to masterfully balance premium storytelling with perfect knowledge (and occasional subversion!) of genre tropes, mixed with a healthy dose of bombastic entertainment. ATTACK THE BLOCK and preceding Canadian short film THE LEGEND OF BEAVER DAM are of the latter category, offering perfect contrast with DEADBALL, which was also playing that evening and will be tackled in Part Two of this write-up.
Preceding ATTACK THE BLOCK, which the packed house enthusiasm had me anticipating more and more every minute, Mitch Davis took the mike to introduce his “favorite Canadian short film since TREEVENGE.” Considering Jason Eisener’s TREEVENGE is one of my favorite 15 minutes of entertainment as well, BEAVER DAM had a lot to live up to; And it did not disappoint. Montreal composers/writers Jerome Sable (who also directed) & Eli Batalion’s camp-side musical has a lot to offer, from its rocking soundtrack to its highly satisfying use of slasher motifs. Evocative of Jon Knautz’s JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER or Adam Green’s HATCHET in its practical use of gore FX artistry, atmosphere and spot-on humor, BEAVER DAM stands apart from its neo-slasher counterparts with its great cast of (singing!) children, hysteric crescendo structure and satisfying twist ending, which puts the whole musical gimmick back into perspective and begs the question: will there be more of Stumpy Sam in the future? I don’t know about you, but I’m absolutely fine with that idea.
After an almost incessant barrage of deservedly roaring applause, ATTACK THE BLOCK’s opening credits hit the screen and I was immediately struck by the sweeping cinematography, vibrant color palette and epic score as our ensemble of young London thugs are introduced through a very anti-heroic mugging scene, which is almost immediately interrupted by an alien falling from the sky. Moses, the stone-faced group leader, powerfully interpreted by newcomer John Boyega, has the appropriately stupid impulse to kill the creature, setting the alien invasion into motion. The kids have to defend their block from hordes of other-worldly beasts and what follows is a highly stylized and wildly funny alien flick. Every kid (mostly unknown actors such as Franz Drameh, Simon Howard and Leeon Jones) gets his moment to shine and exhibit street tricks, but Pest (Alex Esmail) is a definitive highlight, as both comedic foil and obligatory firework expert. The film also includes an extended cameo from beloved actor Nick Frost and an amazing soundtrack (Steven Price, backed up by the banging tunes of Basement Jaxx) that will have fans of hip-hop and electro rejoice and nod along. Furthermore, the special effects are stunning, joining practical and CGI seamlessly and intelligently, not turning ATTACK into the digitally enhanced mess it could’ve been.
While the film consistently one-ups itself and succeeds entirely at monstrous entertainment, it somewhat fails at following through with a few of its moral threads. Halfway through, main character Moses realizes, perhaps for the first time in his life, that every action has consequences and that the life he leads at such a young age might be a dead-end. By the end of the film, our hero will have gone through a life-altering journey of sacrifice, somewhat attaining redemption. But while Moses’ arc is hinted at, it’s never quite fulfilled. The rejection of authority and stupidity inherent to the andocentric “gangster” culture the film celebrates remains, and while the appeal of ATTACK THE BLOCK undoubtedly comes from following this gang of badass younglings, the resolution of the hero’s arc comes off as slightly underwhelming, considering the transformation previously hinted at. That said, this is a minor nitpick and the film’s main message of friendship and unity shines through. ATTACK is one hell of a good time and extremely pleasing to the eye. Like many blockbusters nowadays, cinematographer Thomas Townend (who worked on film such as RATCATCHER and PRIDE & PREJUDICE) understands the brain’s response to teal and orange and other complementary colors. Unlike his contemporaries, however, he knows better than to abuse them. Many sources of lighting are used to maximum aesthetic effects (lampposts, fireworks, neon), making ATTACK one of the best-looking big-budget films of the year, rivaled perhaps only by Larry Fong’s work on SUPER 8.
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