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Posts Tagged ‘Joe Cornish’

Sometimes one can’t help but come to the conclusion that being a film director is a grotesquely over-remunerated job. There are, admittedly, some people who never seem to stop, and have multiple films coming out every year – you know what I mean, your Ridley Scotts and Steven Soderberghs. But for every one of them you seem to have several people who make a film (not even an especially big or successful one), then apparently vanish off the face of the Earth for years at a time. Just what kind of money are they making?

I am moved to reflect on this by the career of Joe Cornish, who started off, film-wise, as a friend of Edgar Wright: he was a zombie extra in Shaun of the Dead and together they co-wrote some of the early drafts of Ant-Man, along with the Spielberg Tintin movie. In 2011 he released his directorial debut, Attack the Block, a film which was nice enough but one of those that everyone else seemed to like much more than me; subsequent developments have not really inclined me to want to revisit and reassess it. And since then? Nothing much, so far as I can tell – at least, not until late last year when the first trailers for his new film The Kid Who Would Be King started to appear.

I know, I know: I am late to the party on this one. For a long while I was doubtful about seeing it at all – I first saw the trailer in front of Johnny English 3, along with that for Robin Hood, and I believe my comment to my companion was ‘Just how many classic English myths can you screw up in one set of trailers?’ But the reviews, to be fair, have been quite positive, and there are people on this film whose work I usually enjoy, so I decided to give it a chance.

The title, as any fule kno, is a riff on Rudyard Kipling rather than anything actually Arthurian, which should tell you everything you need to know about the script’s cafeteria-style approach to this particular myth cycle. A rather nicely animated opening sequence fills in the back-story for today’s under-educated youngsters, although it does the usual thing of conflating the Sword in the Stone with Excalibur and also writes Mordred out of the story. Soon enough we find ourselves in contemporary London, capital, apparently, of a ‘divided, lost, leaderless’ nation (can’t really argue with that, alas). Twelve-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis – yes, it’s Son of Gollum) is having a tough time, facing bullying and harassment at school and trying to cope with the absence of his father (who’s presumably off doing the mo-capping on Shazam! or another big effects movie).

Everything changes, of course, when Alex stumbles into a building site while being chased by his tormentors and finds a sword stuck into a block of concrete. Naturally, he draws it forth and discovers it to be the fabled Excalibur, magic weapon of the true High King of Britain, Arthur. Soon enough Merlin (Angus Imrie, mostly) has also popped up, mostly to do the exposition, and reveals that an imminent eclipse will mark the moment when the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will attempt to conquer the world with an army of undead hell-knights. It’s up to Alex to gather a new set of Knights of the Round Table and see off this terrible menace! Assuming they can get the time off school, anyway.

I have no idea about Joe Cornish’s personal situation, but this has something of a Time Bandits feel to it: you know, that moment in someone’s career when they realise they want to do something that their kids can watch and enjoy. Certainly this is much more family-friendly than Attack the Block, for all that it is recognisably the work of the same creative sensibility. It works hard to shoot for the same kind of audience that made both the Harry Potter franchise and Lord of the Rings such substantial successes, particularly in terms of its visual style: probably the most impressive thing about it is Cornish’s deft handling of big CGI action sequences – there is nothing much wrong with these at all, and one wonders why Cornish hasn’t been in more demand for a big studio project.

Given Cornish’s background as a comedian, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movie also contains some very good jokes – for instance, Merlin needs magic potions containing all kinds of foul ingredients to revivify himself, but finds modern-day fast food a more than adequate substitute. When the film is moving along, it is fun, exhilarating stuff, but the problem is that it seldom stays in motion for very long – Cornish conscientiously includes a big learning-and-growing character arc for the benefit of the young audience’s moral development, but in addition to being slightly predictable this is kind of applied with a trowel, when a lighter touch would have been much preferable. This does slow the film down a bit, and it feels distinctly stretched as a result: at one point, it looks like everything has been satisfactorily resolved, but then there’s a plot twist and the film continues on for another twenty minutes.

Oh well. I am pleased to report the child acting is mostly acceptable, and Denise Gough supports well as Alex’s mother. I am trying to think of a way of commenting on Angus Imrie’s performance as Merlin which does not feel gratuitously cruel, but it is certainly fair to say that he has received the bummest deal of anyone on this movie: he plays Merlin in his disguise as a teenager (supposedly; Imrie does look a bit too old for this), but for key moments the wizard assumes a more traditional form and is played by Patrick Stewart. Stewart, needless to say, acts everyone else off the screen without even seeming to try that hard, but they can only afford to use him in a handful of scenes. Still, better than nothing.

In the end I found myself quite enjoying The Kid Who Would Be King, and feeling rather indulgent towards it: it is overlong, and it is really best not to think too hard about certain aspects of the plot, but in other ways this is a clever and imaginative movie that tells its story well. It seems, however, that the well of classic English mythology has been fouled by the likes of last year’s Robin Hood and the year before’s Guy Ritchie King Arthur film, for this new film has been a bit of a flop despite being much better than either of those. A shame: this is a fun, family-friendly film, and one hopes Joe Cornish will get another chance to show what he can do in the near future.

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Okay, we may as well get this out of the way before we go any further: most people’s point of reference for Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block is going to be Shaun of the Dead. It’s not as if the film even shies away from this much: ‘from the producers of…’ features prominently on the poster, Edgar Wright is involved, Nick Frost has a hefty cameo role and the film is, essentially, a similar kind of stylistic mash-up. But, and I’m being up front about this, if you go in expecting a film as deft and witty and smart as Shaun then you won’t be doing yourself, or Attack the Block, any favours, because where the 2004 movie felt like a brilliant discovery, this is more some sort of bizarre oddity.

The film opens with Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse, walking home one Bonfire Night. She lives in a tower block on a desolate London council estate and soon finds herself facing a fairly grim scenario as she is surrounded and mugged at knifepoint by a gang of youths. Then things become somewhat less predictable and rather more surprising as a ball of fire falls from the sky and disgorges a slavering, clawed, ferocious creature.

Sam runs and in a slightly queasy narrative lurch the gang of muggers become the protagonists, as they kill the thing and carry away its remains as a trophy. But it soon becomes apparent that the fireball was only the first of many, and more – containing considerably more dangerous luminously-toothed gorilla-wolves – are landing all over the neighbourhood. The gang aren’t about to let any bunch of extraterrestrial monsters muscle in on their turf and quickly tool themselves up as the aliens prepare to attack the block they live in…

Quite by chance I caught a showing of this movie with subtitles, and in retrospect this may have been a good thing as nearly all the characters are a generation younger than me and speak in a street patois I am not particularly fluent in. I have no way of being sure, but it certainly seemed to me that the movie was doing a good job of giving an authentic impression of the dead-end culture the main characters have grown up within. Having said that, this is clearly the work of someone quite well-versed in the SF genre – the gang reside in Wyndham Tower, overlooking Ballard Street (amongst others), and while the movie doesn’t directly reference either writer (except perhaps Ballard’s High Rise, and then only tangentially) it was a nice reference.

But most importantly, Joe Cornish definitely seems to have chops as a film director. I was startled, years ago, to hear he and Edgar Wright had been retained to write a script for Marvel Studios, but on the strength of this they should snap him up as a solo act – he has a sure eye for the kind of cinematic flourish that really makes Attack the Block look like it belongs on the big screen. Rather in the way that Richard Ayoade seems to have assimilated the sensibility of American indie and produced his own version of it, so Cornish has done the same with a more mainstream, action-oriented style.

Given Cornish’s background as a performer – not to mention the presence in this film of Nick Frost, who demonstrates his usual monumental ability to steal scenes – you might expect this to be a rather broader comedy than it is. There are a few laughs along the way, to be sure, but this is really a…

Uh, well, I may have to get back to you on that one, because… well, if this movie is primarily intended as an action movie, it has a serious problem practically from the first scene. This is because most of the main characters are initially introduced as violent muggers and as a result almost impossible to sympathise with or root for (for me, anyway). It may be the idea that as time goes by we’re intended to forget how we first met the gang, or that the circumstances of the alien incursion are sufficiently serious to justify our overlooking the fact they’re vicious thugs – but the film never quite pulls this trick off.

And I get the impression Cornish is aware of this and it’s something he’s done deliberately, almost as a challenge to the audience. It would, after all, be easy enough to have started the film differently, omitted the mugging, and avoided this whole problem. If it’s not deliberate then it’s a major mis-step on his part.

I suspect it was a calculated move, as when it’s not being a rather 2000AD-ish action movie Attack the Block seems to want to say serious things about gang culture and wasted young lives in British inner-cities. But exactly what these things are I couldn’t quite make out, beyond a few very obvious points hammered home without a great deal of subtlety – ‘Actions have consequences,’ someone says at one point, rather labouring the issue.

When it comes to youth gang members – ‘hoodies’, as we rather charmingly used to refer to them – most films either mindlessly glamourise them, reflexively demonise them, or treat them much more thoughtfully as damaged, broken people, the product of their environment. At various points Attack the Block does all three, which is a neat trick. Whether it serves the story or not is another matter.

John Boyega does a bang-up job of portraying Moses, leader of the gang, and does succeed in giving him depth as a character (some of the other young performers are ever so slightly am-dram). But you don’t go to a knockabout action movie about aliens to get soul-searching and social comment, just as you don’t go to see a drama about the awful lives of dead-end kids on council estates looking for action sequences with CGI nasties (if there’s a social metaphor involved in the alien incursion storyline, I can’t discern what it is). Cornish has succeeded in fusing together two genres with absolutely nothing in common in terms of tone or audience expectations.

Once again, it’s a neat trick, but I’m not sure who exactly is going to find this movie a completely satisfying experience. It’s an extremely well-made and well-directed film, and a major calling card for Joe Cornish, but to completely enjoy it I think you would have to identify with the central characters to a degree of which I’m simply not capable: and while that’s partly a simple issue of fact, it’s also a result of the script. I’m loath to describe any film as being too clever for its own good, but Attack the Block may be just that.

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