Films I loved in January 2019

24 January 2019
Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade presents the inner world of 13-year-old Kayla as she attempts to navigate the confusing world of boys, friends, parents, social media and sex. A lot of this film is funny, some of it is uncomfortable, some scenes are incredibly touching and there are many moments that may induce an anxiety attack. It covers very familiar teen-film material, and yet the way it presents the awkward phase of being caught between childhood and adulthood is incredibly refreshing and something to celebrate.

minding the gap

Kiere Johnson in Minding the Gap

In Minding the Gap filmmaker Bing Liu turns the camera on himself and two childhood friends who were brought together through a mutual love of skateboarding, but are now confronting the challenges of adulthood. The resulting documentary is an intimate and sometimes alarming portrait of the way three young men are examining their identities, confronting past trauma, questioning their own behaviour and making decisions to gravitate towards or move away from destructive aspects of masculinity.

how to train your dragon the hidden world

Toothless and Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World delivers an exciting, spectacular and emotionally satisfying finale to the impressive DreamWorks Animation trilogy about the village of Vikings who have learned to co-exists with dragons. It concludes the coming-of-age narrative for both protagonist Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and the community he now leads where the path to adulthood is not just defined by the acceptance of responsibility, but also by the development of empathy.

the kid who would be king

Louis Ashbourne Serkis as Alex Elliot in The Kid Who Would Be King

King Arthur mythology meets contemporary England in The Kid Who Would Be King when 12-year-old Alex and his fellow teenage knights are sent on a quest to prevent the return of Morgana. The talent that writer/director Joe Cornish displayed in Attack the Block for delivering exciting action scenes with plenty of humour and strong characterisation is once more evident in this family film, which also delivers a timely message of the power of unity and recognising that the future belongs to the young.

Glass

James McAvoy as The Horde and Bruce Willis as David Dunn in Glass

Glass is possibly M Night Shyamalan’s trickiest sleight of hand yet. By bringing together characters and plot threads from his 2000 film Unbreakable and his 2016 film Split, some viewers might expect a spectacle driven The Avengers-style team-up epic. Instead, Glass is a densely plotted, highly self-aware and low budget film about characters who are made to doubt their sanity and superhuman abilities. Both parody and pastiche, it’s an anti-comic book film that’s equally fascinated and cynical about superhero stories.

free solo

Alex Honnold in Free Solo

Free Solo documents American rock climber Alex Honnold’s preparation and execution of his record breaking free solo (no safety gear or harnesses) climb of the 900metre El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park. Honnold is a curious subject as he’s not traditionally charismatic, and a strength of the film is how it attempts to understand his motivation and method, as well as examining the logistics and ethics of filming him. The finale – the climb itself – is exhilarating, overwhelming and completely cinematic.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

Film review – Attack the Block (2011)

29 November 2011
Attack the Block: Moses (John Boyega), Sam (Jodie Whittaker) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)

Moses (John Boyega), Sam (Jodie Whittaker) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)

Somewhere on a council estate in South London, hostile aliens have fallen from the sky. A local teenage gang take it upon themselves to fight off the unwanted visitors, but quickly discover they are outnumbered by the pitch-black, bear-like creatures with glowing, razor sharp teeth. Set to a distinctively British electronica soundtrack, courtesy of Basement Jaxx, Attack the Block is a fast-paced and inventive action/science-fiction film with an unconventional set of heroes. Making his feature film directorial début, writer/director Joe Cornish does a remarkable job cutting straight to the excitement and keeping it constant while ensuring that character and narrative development occurs simultaneously. It’s also a film with plenty to say about perceptions and attitudes towards class in England, but the message is contained within the chase and fight scenes.

The gang of teenagers are not the type of characters often seen as the heroic protagonists in action films. Kids like the ones featured in Attack the Block usually feature in social-realist films such as Fish Tank and many of the films of Ken Loach, or far worse, in utterly uncommendable films such as Harry Brown where they are portrayed unquestionably as animalistic villains who deserve to be murdered. Attack the Block doesn’t pretend the kids are saints or defend them as simply being misunderstood or troubled. In fact, they are introduced mugging Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse and their neighbour, to establish that they aren’t loveable misfits. They are also the initial aggressors towards the creatures and a major theme of the film is that all actions have consequences.

Attack the Block: Ron (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)

Ron (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)

However, Attack the Block is never preachy or didactic and there aren’t any easy explanations on offer for why the kids are out mugging innocent people. They are never explicitly redeemed or excused, but through the victim/aggressor dynamic that the film explores the boys are certainly humanised to have identities beyond that of criminals. The later experiences shared by gang leader Moses (John Boyega) and Sam while fighting off the invaders facilitate mutual awareness and empathy that goes beyond the first perceptions that the film deliberately offers in the opening sequences. Attack the Block overtly sets itself a challenge by making its protagonists unsympathetic at the beginning and a major part of the film’s skill is in endearing them to the audience without resorting to trite social messages.

The secondary characters of course aren’t as fleshed out as Sam and Moses, but they are still appealing and recognisable social types. Drug dealer Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) desperately wants to be an American gangsta, his deputy dealer Ron (Nick Frost) is a loveable stoner and buyer Brewis (Luke Treadaway) is an awkward middle-class kid caught up in the chaos. The closest the film gets to direct class critique is through the Brewis character who is affectionately mocked for wanting to selectively appropriate aspects of the estate culture – the drugs and music – while being terrified of other aspects – the poverty and crime. Cornish is never cruel about the way Brewis is depicted, continuing the film’s non-judgemental approach towards its characters. Cornish is possibly also mindful that while Sam or Moses are the characters most audiences will lean towards identifying with, large segments of them probably have a lot more in common with Brewis.

Attack the Block

Visually Attack the Block is effective on a number of levels. Cornish uses the apartment block’s corridors, stairwells, elevators and small rooms to create several thrilling sequences. The film offers more shocks than real scares, but the creatures look suitably menacing and mysterious. The film is also very atmospherically lit to create lots of suspenseful glows in the distance. This visual style along with the film’s fully rounded characters, energetic music, unpredictability, subtle social commentary and integration of exposition within action makes Attack the Block an extremely strong feature film début for Cornish. It’s also breathtakingly good fun.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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