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Early Man (2018)

It’s not quite one of their bests but even a mid-level Aardman movie still presents enough pleasures to justify one viewing. Early Man is in that big-eyed, big-toothed stop-motion clay animation style they’re renowned for, so it makes even more visual sense that we’re following cavemen. What I wasn’t expecting was that the entire movie would be a sports film about the cavemen facing the team of elite soccer players of the Bronze Age. Once that realization settled in, I began lowering my expectations, which lowered further from the less imaginative use of comedy. I chuckled here and there but this is a comedy that relies much upon slapstick. It’s at its best when it veers off into strange tangents or really doubles down on its absurdities, like a pig posing as a masseuse or a recording pigeon that acts out its messages. The character work is pretty minimal and relies upon a lot of stock characters, with the supporting players given one trait or less. While lacking in some areas, Early Man is still an amusing story that has its moments of goofy whimsy even amidst the sports clichés. I especially enjoyed Tom Hiddleston’s vocal performance as the ignorant, effete leader of the Bronze Age. It’s no Chicken Run or Pirates: Band of Misfits, but the gentle comic rhythms of an Aardman movie can still be refreshing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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High-Rise (2016)

mv5bmjm3mjm4nzmwml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtq4mjuzode-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Watching High-Rise left me in an agitated state of bafflement. I was desperately trying to fumble for some kind of larger meaning, or at least some kind of narrative foothold from this indie movie about a high-rise apartment complex where the rich reside at the top and the lower classes below. I was holding onto hope that what came across as messy, incoherent, and juvenile would magically coalesce into some sort of work of satiric value. This hope was lost. Director Ben Wheately’s (Kill List) movie is disdainful to audience demands, disdainful to narrative, disdainful to characters that should be more than vague metaphorical figures against the British class system. The social class commentary is so stupidly simple. At one point, the upper floor rich talk about how they have to throw a better party than the lower floor plebs (slobs versus snobs!). The movie lacks any sort of foundation but just keeps going; I would check how much time was left every fifteen minutes and exclaim, “How is there still more left?!” This is a chore to sit through because it’s so resoundingly repetitive and arbitrary. You could rearrange any ten minutes of the movie and make nary a dent in narrative coherence. There are some striking visuals and weird choices that keep things unpredictable; it’s just that I stopped caring far too early for anything to have mattered. Tom Hiddelston plays a doctor in the building and becomes the intermediary between the oblivious rich and the rabble rousing and vengeful poor. I can’t tell you why anything happens in this movie. I can’t say why the characters do what they do, why the events happen, why anything. It’s all just weightless materials for Wheatley’s empty impressionistic canvas. As society breaks down, things get violent and yet the movie is still boring. I was hoping for something along the lines of Snowpiercer but I got more of a pulpy Terence Mallick spiral of self-indulgent nothingness. High-Rise is a highly irritating and exasperating movie and I know it’s destined to be a future favorite of the pretentious. If anyone says it’s one of his or her favorite movies of all time, please kindly walk in the other direction as fast as you are able and then tell an adult.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Woman in Black (2012)

It’s got a decent ending but it’s a long, lumbering walk to get there. This handsomely mounted Hammer throwback involves Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, slowly walking through a spooky old Victorian haunted house. And he slowly peeks around a door. And he slowly holds a candle. And I slowly go to sleep. There’s a 40-minute sequence where I swear only two things are spoken. Radcliffe plays a widowed father who has to investigate a haunted house to make ends meet. The movie has a few genuinely creepy moments, mostly owing to set design, but it gets hooked on jump scares and doesn’t know how to quit. The jump scares, accompanied by what sounds like an eagle screeching as music, happen at near two-minute intervals, like some sort of alarm the movie can’t turn off. Alas, The Woman in Black is a pretty staid ghost story where once again a restless spirit is terrorizing others and somebody takes it upon themselves to help that spirit find closure. The plot is so transparently predictable that it becomes fairly frustrating when the movie takes so long to get to its pre-designated stops. The pessimistic ending is weirdly given the most positive spin imaginable. For fans of this horror sub-genre, there may be enough going on to entertain. I just keep learning that ghosts are never grateful and satisfied even when you help them. Ghosts are jerks.

Nate’s Grade: C

Submarine (2011)

Submarine is the latest coming-of-age story, this time set in 1980s Wales, and while not breaking any new ground, it manages to be witty, stylish, and a completely winning portrait of a unique kid and his unique view of the world.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a 15-eyar-old kid with two life goals. He’s like to romance the rebellious loner Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and, if possible, lose his virginity in the process. Oliver is also on a mission to save his parent’ marriage. Jill Tate (Sally Hawkins) has been drifting from her husband, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), a marine biologist who has been in a depressive funk for years. Jill’s old boyfriend, Graham (Paddy Considine), has moved in next-door and begun to insert himself back in her life.

Submarine is going to be something of an acquired taste. It’s almost drowning in whimsy, following the numerous affectations of its main character. Fans will say that the movie borrows liberally from Wes Anderson’s 1998 film, Rushmore; non-fans will just say the movie cops to outright theft. Like Rushmore, this movie follows the coming-of-age trials and tribulations of an intelligent but lonely outcast, a wiseacre beyond his years. What sets this movie apart is that we taken on the point of view of Oliver. He often refers to his life as if it were a movie, noting dramatic moments that would be accompanied by dramatic music, and a solemn moment that would feature a crane shot rising above the ground but if the budget were low he’d settle for a slow zoom out (the actual movie chooses the slow zoom). “I have turned these moments into the Super-8 footage of memory,” he remarks. Oliver is a student of pop-culture, an early Rob Gordon (High Fidelity), and as such blurs the line between reality and the movies. He will routinely point out film tropes ad then indulge in them. We are each the stars of our own stories. In this manner, Submarine separates itself from the idiosyncratic, miniaturized-doll house world of Anderson’s films or the fanciful magic realism of Jean Piere Jeunet (Amelie). For me, the multitude of quirks were appealing instead of insufferable because we were inside the mind of Oliver, seeing his world through his unique worldview. This brings rationale for the whimsy.

Oliver is both an unreliable narrator and a flawed protagonist, a fantastic development. So often coming-of-age tales are mainly autobiographical (this one is based off a book by Joe Dunthorne), and as such the authors usually portray themselves as individuals whose chief fault is that they are naïve. Some life experience will shatter their innocence, usually a girl, and thus they will grow and learn. With Submarine, Oliver gains our sympathy by being clever but then he tests it with the compromises he makes to fit in. He engages in some very mean bullying all to win over Jordana. He’s trying to seem so mature, using advanced vocabulary to provide the illusion of adulthood, but really Oliver can’t comprehend the subtleties of social cues. Just when Jordana appears to be opening up and looking to him for need, that’s when he botches it, acts kind of awful, and then justifies it in his head, like so many of us will do with our mistakes. Still, I never stopped rooting for this kid. I was rooting for him and Jordana to work out. So hard was I yearning for these two loner oddballs to have their happy ending, I think I pulled something (my dignity?). We can see Jordana through Oliver’s infatuated eyes, but then we can also see deeper, see the vulnerability that comes forward that Oliver might be blithe to. Paige (The Sarah Jane Adventures) is a true breakout star and it’s easy to see why Oliver is so infatuated with the charming lass. She’s bruised but approachable, risky but relatable. We can see the connection building between these two, and we want it to continue (maybe that’s my own high school experience speaking out). The youthful romance is sweet and unconventional without seeming like a coming-of-age folly, something that Oliver is supposed to learn some gallant life lesson.

The other plot development, the rocky relationship between Oliver’s parents, is less resonant but it does provide for some fine moments of humor. The new neighbor, Graham, who practices martial arts and believes himself to be a New Age mystic, healing people by sensing their aura colors, just feels like a leftover Napoleon Dynamite. It provides Considine (In America) a springboard to act goofy, which he’s quite good at. The goofiness of the character, however, cuts into the credibility of being a threat to steal away Jill. She may be caught up in this guy’s tiny bubble of fame, but there’s no way she would leave her husband for this doofus, even if her husband has been suffering from depression for years. Oliver’s attempts to reignite his parents’ marriage are plenty hilarious, but they’re also informed with a sweet, if misguided, earnestness. He loves his parents and wants them to stay together. He doesn’t want a ninja mystic for his new dad. Fortunately, Oliver’s attempts to sabotage Graham are kept to a minimum and restrained enough not to resort to cheap slapstick or gross-out humiliation. Maybe it’s the distinctive point of view steering the narrative, but the potential doom of the marriage never feels as portentous and heartbreaking as Oliver’s hope at wooing Jordana.

Debut director Richard Ayoade, who also adapted the screenplay, utilizes every visual trick in the book to tell this story. If the main character weren’t so amusing, and his plight so interesting, all the visual artifice might be exhausting. Instead it keeps the movie lively, crafty, and constantly wonderful to observe. Ayoade’s also quite a talent when it comes to screenwriting. He smoothly captures the very mannered speaking style of Oliver. Then there are just lines that make you laugh out loud from the sheer absurdity of misplaced teenager awe: “He wasn’t even considered hard until the Watkin twins famously stabbed him in the back with compasses. He said nothing; showed no discomfort as his shirt blossomed with blood poppies. His stoicism reminded me of the brave men who died in the First World War.” Ayoade, best known for his starring role on The IT Crowd, will probably soon have a lot more offers to direct features once people get a gander at Submarine. The man’s a natural storyteller and will be snapped up by Hollywood in no time flat.

Finally, the movie’s lead actor needs to be good, better than good, if this movie is going to rise above the din of precocious, coming-of-age cinema. Roberts (Jane Eyre), hollow eyed and just a little “off” looking, handles the material with ease, never letting his performance transform into a series of tics strewn together. Oliver is straight-laced throughout, letting the peculiarities of his imagination and worldview seem ordinary. Roberts doesn’t get overwhelmed by the material and makes a strong impression as a more literate, less rebellious, more anxious, less despondent Welsh version of Holden Caulfield (okay, so maybe that allusion doesn’t hold).

Submarine is an unfailingly entertaining vehicle full of quirk and humor and surprising heart. Oliver’s relationship with Jordana is sweet and mildly touching. I was surprised at how emotionally invested I was in their romance.  The movie is also refreshingly low in angst, resorting more to Oliver’s comic anxieties and insecurities. It certainly owes a debt to Anderson’s Rushmore, but Submarine is so good, so thrilling in its creative voice, that it can stand outside the mighty shadow of Anderson and his indomitable influence.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Attack the Block (2011)

Attack the Block is the hip new sci-fi comedy/thriller from across the pond. The Brtis know a thing or two about elevating genre movies to an art form. While not rising to the same level of executive producer Edgar Wright’s oeuvre, this is one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in a movie theater all year.

On New Year’s Eve in a South London ghetto, a very different kid of firework is lighting the moonlit sky. An alien race is crashing to Earth as fiery meteorites, which the kids of the neighborhood term “Gollums.” Moses (John Boyega) is the leader of a group of teenage wannabe hoodlums. Their crazy night begins with mugging Sam (Jodie Whitaker), a nurse who lives in the boys’ apartment complex. Moses and his crew later run into Sam and need her help when one of their own is injured. The alien monsters have descended upon their block, scaling the apartment building looking for easy prey. Moses and other block residents band together to battle a common foe, the outer space monsters, which have the misfortune of trying to invade the wrong neighborhood.

Attack the Block is a refreshing spin on a genre that seemingly had covered every ground. But lo, it never covered the modern urban landscape, or, as the tagline succinctly puts it: inner city vs. outer space. It’s not long before you realize that writer/director Joe Cornish (writer of the upcoming Tin Tin flick) is the real deal. The camera angles are lively and inventive, without crossing over into self-infatuation for style’s sake. The cinematography by Thomas Townend is delightful to look at, often making our own home feel like an alien landscape with harsh color tones. The movie has the slick look we associate with music videos and commercials, but never does the movie let the visuals overwhelm the story. The edits are crisp and quick, packing a lot of material into a small 99 minutes and doing well to quicken your pulse during several iterations of the alien attacks. But most of all, the film is completely, unabashedly fun with a capital F. It has a swagger to it, adopting the same cocksure attitude of its main characters. The accents and the breathless jargon take some adjusting, but by the time we’re running from aliens you’re pretty much at the same pace of astonishment with the characters, forgetting the language barrier. I was quickly sucked into the world of this movie, able to enjoy the depth of skill by the invisible technicians. There’s an immense sense of satisfaction watching this crew band together to take out superior numbers of baddies, some of them even Earthlings. Cornish confines his narrative focus to one apartment building over the course of one night, setting up our orientation to the building so that when we have characters running back and forth, and various storylines criss-crossing, we are kept in the loop. As people start becoming monster chow, the stakes get even higher.

The dialogue is regularly clever without having to stoop for self-aware gags. This is not a genre spoof. This is played relatively straight, just with amusing characters (“You’d be better off calling the Ghostbusters, love.”). One of the kids, who is on a pay-as-you-go cell plan, breathlessly says, “I only got one text left. This is just too much madness for one text!” Attack the Block is the right combination of scary and funny, the same fine line that its forebear, Shaun of the Dead, so successfully walked. This is the kind of movie that genre fans tell their pals about in breathless declarations of awesome before falling over dizzy. Nick Frost, star of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, even has a minor roll as the neighborhood pot supplier. While Block doesn’t approach Shaun’s utter genre-spoofing greatness, there is enough of squandered potential in Cornish’s script, particularly how the various pieces ultimately stack together for its standard but effective fist-pumping climax, to keep Block from being crowned an instant genre classic. The characters remain little more than types, distinguishable by the few traits thrown to the actors like meager breadcrumbs (kid with glasses, angrier kid, white kid, etc.). If you’re a fan of Shaun of the Dead, and witty, bloody sci-fi, then you already know that Attack of the Block is destined to beam into your home.

The aliens themselves deserve a special mention since they break away from the traditional mold of cosmic movie monster we’re familiar with. These minimalist aliens look more like giant yeti creatures that run on all fours. They’re all black, like inky black hole light-cannot-penetrate black, which is scary but also a clever way to hide the shortages of a limited budget and the reality of people in suits. The only thing that stands out is a set of fluorescent blue jaws that snap wildly. It’s like the monsters ate a can of glow sticks. This aspect is smartly used at points to pump up suspense. It’s a novel approach that veers away from the H.R. Geiger (Alien) stuff that’s been copied and recopied to death for the last 30 years. These aren’t smart aliens. They’re more like rabid beasts overwhelmed by their biological impulses. These aliens don’t come across as organized as other movie aliens. It seems like they’re just floating around through the void of space waiting to land on the right rock and multiply.

The musical score is greatly enhanced through the talents of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, better known to big beat electronica fans as Basement Jaxx. The musical duo provide a score tinged with their famous electronic mélange of sound, including pieces that sound like retro video game sound effects (Space Invaders?), 1950s sci-fi movie scores thick with Theremin use, and an ongoing sludgy beat that weaves in and out of the picture. Working with Steven Price (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), traditional rousing musical pieces are enhanced with the Basement brothers’ dubsetp influenced bass and drum lines. The score perfectly matches the frenzy of what’s happening onscreen, evoking a fuzzy mood. I have been listening to clips of the Attack the Block score for days. It’s not as integrated and essential to the film as Run Lola Run’s famously kinetic electronica score (the standard bearer of all electronica-enhanced scores), but I was delighted every time it remerged. With the Chemical Brothers score for Hanna and Oscar-winner Trent Reznor’s score for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo later this year, this may be the best time yet for film lovers that enjoy toe tapping to some electronic beats. These kinds of scores age so much better than synth scores, one of the absolute worst things ever to happen in the history of movies (Apocalypse Now is almost unmatchable thanks to its dreadful synth score).

Of course your level of enjoyment is going to severely rest upon whether you want the main characters to survive or get eaten. Attack the Block begins with an empathy deficit, meaning it puts its hoodlums immediately in a hole that they might not get out of. Our first introduction to Moses and the gang is watching them mug Sam. Later on one of the guys says the knife that was bared was just for show, and that the boys were just as scared as she was. I doubt that. When you’re on the receiving end of a weapon, and outnumbered, and surprised, it sure seems like you got it worse. The movie then spends the rest of its running time with these wannabe ruffians, and we do get to know them slightly better but really only slightly. Some of the kids have absentee parenting situations, which isn’t too shocking, and occasionally a character will take a moment to reflect, thinking beyond the situation, blaming the government in a fit of paranoia for being behind the alien nasties. One kid even makes a curt remark when he finds out Sam’s boyfriend helps impoverished kids in Africa. “We don’t got poor kids here that could use some help?” he comments. Well, kid, I wouldn’t dismiss the magnitude of systemic poverty in the African continent, but you could have made your point without seeming like a dick. And these are our characters. They blather a lot; in fact they rarely stop talking. Eventually they do apologize to Sam for mugging her and Moses does take the mantle of hero to redeem himself. However, by that time some audience members may have checked out. Attack of the Block is decidedly less fun if you don’t give a fig for its wannabe thug figures.

Attack the Block is like a delirious head rush, witty, full of energy and style to spare, and an infectious attitude that washes over you. The movie delivers what Super 8 promised, namely the bond of kids coming together to thwart an alien invasion on their home turf. This is a high-energy flick that succeeds as a comedy and a thriller, with a few nasty splashes of gore thrown in for good measure. It has some issues that keep it from the pantheon of genre greatness, but I won’t quibble the movie to death. Not when I get something as deliriously entertaining as Attack the Block.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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