Underseen Movie: ‘Fish Tank’ – 2009 Jury Prize Winner at Cannes

Here’s a little British independent feature which came out at the beginning of 2010 in America after being named the Jury Prize Winner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, however, it barely registered in movie theaters, so here’s hoping it finds an audience on physical media and/or cable. “Fish Tank” is a raw and unsentimental character study that pulls no punches in its portrayal of a tough and troubled teenage girl growing up in an East London council estate. It was directed by Andrea Arnold, an actress turned filmmaker who previously directed “Red Road,” and it stars Katie Jarvis as Mia, the teenage girl you may figure is up to no good just by looking at her. There is no Hollywood gloss on display here, and the environment this young woman inhabits feels both real and rundown, just like the other characters who are stuck there with her.

Now council estates are to England what public housing or “the projects” are to cities all over the United States; rundown buildings designed for the economically challenged that carry a stigma of poverty and endless crime. Now whether this is true or not, this is usually the impression people have of these places. It is clear from the start that Mia, along with her mother and younger sister Tyler, have lived in this place for a long time, and it has shaped them into the people they are today. There is seemingly no room for much in the way of respect or gratitude towards neighbors or strangers.

Mia appears to have it the roughest compared as she has been kicked out of school and seemingly wanders around the estate aimlessly. We see her putting up a seriously tough front for some girls whose dancing moves she bluntly criticizes as sucking big time, and this leads to her head-butting a girl in the face which shows how quick she is to defend herself. At home in one of the many far too cramped apartments in the council estate, her mother continually treats her like dirt and appears more interested in partying and getting drunk rather than being a parent. The only real tender moment between them comes at the end of the film, and you will know it when you see it. As for Mia’s younger sister Tyler, she has a vocabulary which Chloe Grace Moretz’s character from “Kick Ass” sound PG rated in comparison.

Being the loner she is, Mia’s only escape is practicing her dance moves in an abandoned apartment near where she lives. This proves to be her only real outlet for the frustration and aggravation which has consumed her life to this point. She is shy in revealing this part of herself to just about anyone as vulnerabilities are easily spotted and exploited for all the humiliation which can be derived from them. No one is ever quick to show any weakness in this kind of environment.

Into this environment enters her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor, a security guard at a nearby hardware store played by Michael Fassbender. Mia is never quick to warm up to others she doesn’t know well, but she quickly develops an interest in Connor who becomes the father figure she lacks. From the moment we see Mia help him catch a fish in the lake with his bare hands (it’s possible), he inspires her to try new things and open herself up to possibilities which previously seemed beyond her reach.

This leads to a great deal of tension in “Fish Tank” as we cannot help but wonder if this relationship is going to end up crossing any boundaries. There are moments captured where the chemistry between Mia and Connor is so strong, you fear the possible and destructive ways this relationship can go to. Words are not needed to illustrate the bond they have, be it when Mia films Connor with a video camera while he’s getting dressed for work, or when Connor gives Mia a piggy back ride out of the river after she injures herself. Their growing discoveries of one another and what they are capable of is impossible to ignore, and we can see the positives of this even while the negatives are never far off.

Arnold films the movie in a way where nothing feels staged, and every character and location feels authentic to what it must be like in reality. I’m not sure a movie like this could have been filmed any other way and have the same effect. She also captures the suffocating environment of being in these big government buildings which are treated more like dumps for the lowest on the economic ladder. The apartments themselves are ridiculously tiny, and there is no privacy for any family member who has to live there. Places like these must feel like prisons to those who inhabit them, and Arnold captures this mindset clearly to where you feel as helpless as these characters do.

As bleak as “Fish Tank” is though, its ending offers hope that anyone can escape such a confining environment if they have the means and the foresight to change their lives for the better. Some are too far gone to be saved, but Mia still has a chance to move forward, and her relationship with Connor makes this clear to her.

Katie Jarvis who plays Mia in had no real acting experience before she got cast in this movie. It turns out she got an audition after one of the casting assistants saw her arguing with her boyfriend quite loudly outside a train station. Indeed, this role not only requires an actress who comes off as tough, but one who inhabits a role more than play it. While a lot of struggling actors out there may hate the fact Jarvis got one of the luckiest breaks ever, it makes a lot of sense Arnold would cast someone who came from this environment.

The role Jarvis plays is not an easy one to portray. Mia has to be tough yet show just enough vulnerability to let the audience look past the defenses she has built up. She also has to be shy but angry, curious without spelling it out for the audience, and her character needs to evolve from the person we see at the start of the movie. This makes her performance all the more revelatory because you come out thinking she has been acting all her life. She successfully captures all the subtle nuances of Mia to bring out the complexities which makes her more than just any other angry young person. Truly, it’s a daunting role for even the most experienced actor, and Jarvis comes out of the picture looking like a pro.

The other key performance comes from Michael Fassbender as Connor. Fassbender has been in movies like Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” and he stole a number of scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” As Connor, he comes across as a generous human being, and it’s commendable that he would want to try and be a father figure to someone else’s children. This is something most people would NOT want to do. But her also gives Connor an enigmatic nature which makes him hard to pin down and figure out. Like Mia, you want to more about this guy than what he is telling everyone around him.

The only real problem I had with “Fish Tank” involved one character’s revelation in the last half. It’s hard to talk about it without giving anything away, but it was one of the few times where I have watched a movie and left it begging for more answers. Mysteries which stay after a movie ends can be fascinating, but others are not so lucky. Some movies need and demand closure, and this one could have used more of one. Either that, or I completely missed something…

I meant to see this film when it briefly played in theaters back in January 2010, but I never got around to it. When I did, it was playing at New Beverly Cinema in a double feature with “An Education.” That film featured another breakout performance from Carey Mulligan, another actress who seemingly came out of nowhere. Having seen both, it was clear why the New Beverly put them together; they are both about the same thing. Each is about a young British girl who feels trapped in an environment they desperately want to escape. Just when they think they have found a way out, reality rears its ugly head and takes any possibilities for an exciting life away from them rather cruelly. Still, both women rise above the pain inflicted on them and find a way to move on in spite of what they were forced to endure.

For those of you with a hankering for dramas with raw emotion and non-manufactured realism, “Fish Tank” is definitely a movie I recommend for you to see. As I write this, the Criterion Collection has released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray. It features a digital transfer of the film, some short films by Arnold, and interviews with the actors, one of which is with Fassbender. In a time where the local cinema is getting overrun by blockbuster movies and immortal franchises, movies like this demand to be seen, and this is one of them.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The Ultimate Rabbit’s Favorite Christmas Gifts From 2008

Photo by Tammy Kenber

WRITER’S NOTE: As the title indicates, this article was written back in 2008.

“WAKE UP UNCLE BEN! I GOT A GUITAR! COME SEE!”

Those words were spoken to me by my niece who had bounded into my room in the morning. Only on Christmas Day does anyone dare to wake me up so early. I just hope they got a good night’s sleep. I remember finding it impossible to fall asleep the night before Christmas. These days, this holiday is more for the kids who wait in anticipation (and impatiently so) to open all the presents they got. Houses don’t get livelier than on Christmas it seems with my young niece galloping along my mom and dad’s infinitely varnished hardwood floor as she goes from one end of the house to the other in seconds’ flat. Do you remember when you had this much energy?

One thing I do have to say is as you get older, the number of presents you get decreases. Of all my immediate family members, I am more than convinced I got the least number of gifts this season, and I can’t quite get the feeling of jealousy and greed out of my head. It makes me miss being four and a half. But I certainly don’t want to appear ungrateful because I did submit a Christmas wish list to my family to give them an idea of what I was begging for, just to make shopping easier for them. In the end, I am very happy I got some of the things I asked for. So let us take a look at the best of the bunch, or maybe we can just look at the whole bunch of presents I got because they all are pretty cool.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” on Blu-Ray Disc

Alright! One of the best comedies of this past year now joins my every growing DVD/Blu-ray library. This made me laugh harder than just about any other comedy I saw this past year with the exception of “Tropic Thunder.” Looking at all the bonus features on the disc makes me all the more excited as it is filled with them. It is also a reminder of how I really need to check out the BD LIVE Center where I can download even more bonus features. With the last couple of Blu-ray discs I received or purchased, I get so caught up in the sharpness of the image that I watch the movies endlessly until I get sick of them, and it takes me forever to get sick of them. A year later, I will watch the disc again, and I might actually bother to watch the bonus features since I neglected to view some of them previously.

Anyway, the Blu-ray for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has got a visual commentary with the filmmakers and cast which should be fun to watch. This special feature seems to be an ever-growing function on many Blu-ray discs as it was featured on “Casino Royale” and also “Risky Business.” There is also picture in picture footage which plays throughout the movie with interviews, rehearsals and behind the scenes stuff. And, of course, there is a digital copy of the movie which you can download on to your iPod, iPad or whatever devices you use to watch motion pictures. Now I am just waiting for that 18-hour airline ride where all the inflight movies are crap and I will at least have this to watch, assuming I didn’t stupidly forget my damn iPod at home.

When it comes to making of documentaries about movies, the one for this film makes me especially interested because I don’t see many for comedies, and I would love to see how these filmmakers put up with the stress of making a comedy. Don’t ever let anyone convince you comedy is easy to do, because it is not!

The Criterion Collection edition of David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” on DVD

I got to see this earlier this year at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles where it was playing on a David Cronenberg double bill with “eXistenZ.” This DVD set is one I am really looking forward to checking out because I am curious to see how much Cronenberg’s movie resembles the actual book written by William S. Burrough’s. I haven’t actually read the book “Naked Lunch,” but I have heard it is one which is considered unfilmable. Watching the movie version of it, I am convinced Cronenberg is probably the only one who could have brought to the big screen at all.

What I really love about the Criterion Collection is they really do their research, and they always give you more than enough reason as to why they selected this movie for their special treatment. It features a London Weekend Television documentary about the film’s making, an illustrated essay about the special effects, and there is even an audio recording of Burroughs reading from the book as well. Criterion certainly paved the way for all these DVD special editions with audio commentaries and special features, and they still do them better than anyone else.

“Naked Lunch” is a movie I wanted to know more about ever since I saw it at the New Beverly, so you can only imagine how excited I am to check this DVD set out. I jokingly invited my niece to watch it with me, and she said:

“NO!!”

Very smart response for a young girl who is almost 5 years old (my how time flies).

A Calvin Klein black leather jacket

YES!! I have been meaning to get one of these for the longest time, but they always seem to be out of my spending range (and that’s even when I see them at Costco). Putting on the jacket, I suddenly felt a rather bizarre change of character as I walked around like I suddenly owned the world or something. When I first saw the big white box it was packaged in, I had a pretty strong feeling of what it was. This is probably the coolest of all the presents I got this Christmas. Hopefully the ladies will take notice.

Seriously, I always wanted a black leather jacket. My parents think I look like Brando in it. I’m pretty sure they are not talking about Brando in the later stages of his life. Maybe this jacket is giving me an over inflated ego, but let me dream for a while, okay?

$100 Macy’s gift card

Nothing says get some new clothes now more than a gift card from my parents to Macy’s. I just hope their prices are a bit lower than the last time I shopped there. Of course, in the sorry economic state this country is currently in, they will probably invite me to name my own price for whatever they are selling. I could use some new shirts for work since they won’t let me wear my “Evil Dead” or “Office Space” t-shirts there on a regular basis. Plus, it is getting scarier to witness how the colors on my shirts continue fading so quickly. Time to get some new shirts so I can witness how long it will take for the colors to fade on them.

Oh yeah, I could use some new socks as well. I once told my parents that socks are a pathetic gift to give anyone for Christmas, so you can imagine how they gleefully responded to this. But since they didn’t come through this year, it’s time for me to catch up in that department. Come to think of it, I could use a new belt too…

So, Christmas 2008 has come and gone, and the next one will be here before we know it. But the biggest gift I really should say I got was being with my family. I’m not sure how to say that without sounding annoyingly corny, but there you go. Seeing my parents react with excitement over the gifts I gave them was great. Watching my sister-in-law almost break into tears when she realized her dear husband gave her the iPhone she so wanted was quite the sight. Then there were my nieces, both excited about the dozens and dozens of presents they were getting, and both desperately trying to find one of the few gifts meant for me. Seeing my youngest niece jump up and down in sheer excitement over getting the things she ever so wanted brought a lot of contagious laughter to the household.

Of course, nothing could compare to the sweater my brother got my dad, and me silently pointing out to my brother how he forgot to take the price tag off of it. To his credit, my brother did snatch it away before dad noticed.

My niece also said she wanted to marry me. Without getting into a lot of detail, I politely informed her why this was not going to happen.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Underseen Movie: Safe – Directed by Todd Haynes and Starring Julianne Moore

I am thankful I live near New Beverly Cinema as it has long since proven to be a great film school for movie buffs like me, and it has allowed me to watch movies I might otherwise not have bothered to watch when they were first released. Case in point is the 1995 movie “Safe” which marked a huge breakthrough for its director Todd Haynes and lead actress Julianne Moore. I do remember when it was first released and of film critics like Roger Ebert singing its praises, and it came out during a time when movies like these played in cities far from where I lived, and getting out to see them was impossible. Even with a driver’s license, certain cinematic events were too far away for me to attend.

Anyway, Moore plays Carol White, a suburban homemaker who is comfortably married to Greg (Xander Berkeley), and she spends her days either doing things around the house, going to her local aerobics class, or having lunch with friends. But one day after driving down Olympic Boulevard, she finds herself coughing uncontrollably after traveling behind a big rig truck whose exhaust seeps right into her air conditioning system. This marks the beginning of an acute sensitivity to just about every chemical known to the human race, and things just get worse and worse for her from there. In addition to coughing uncontrollably, she later finds herself suffering from nose bleeds, she develops asthma-like symptoms, and she ends up convulsing at the local dry cleaners.

Carol is said to have developed multiple chemical sensitivity, otherwise known as MCS or the “Twentieth-Century Disease.” This is still seen as a very controversial diagnosis which remains unrecognized by the American Medical Association. “Safe,” however, is not out to prove if MCS is a real threat to us all or not. Instead, it looks at how a disease can forever change the way we look at ourselves and of how we view the world around us.

“Safe” also gets deep into that anxiety-ridden place in our psyche which goes haywire when our safety zone gets violated by forces beyond our control. We feel Carol’s agony throughout because we all collectively fear getting a disease which has no clear diagnosis or an immediate cure. When you end up going through lord only knows how many doctor’s appointments where it feels like nothing’s working, it really wears you and your loved ones down to the point of sheer desperation.

Things get even more horrifying from there when Carol travels to a resort in the New Mexico desert called Wrenwood. Designed to help those afflicted with MCS, it really seems more like a cult. Instead of finding ways to deal with this condition to where people can function normally in their daily lives, its leader Peter Dunning (the excellent Peter Friedman) subtly enforces his fear of the chemical world on his dutiful followers. Peter comes in the guise of a very friendly person with the best of intentions, but we all know where good intentions lead.

Haynes, working with a minimal budget, makes “Safe” feel all the more real as he portrays suburban life in the San Fernando Valley in ways which never come across as corny or the least bit campy. All the characters are complex and the kind we recognize from our own lives, and the agitation they experience feels unnervingly vivid. Adding to this sense of dread is an excellent ambient score by Ed Tomney which deftly illustrates the growing anxiety of the film’s main character. Haynes brings out the best in each of the actors, and he lets them become their characters instead of just playing them.

Moore’s performance in “Safe” proved to be a revelation as she sucks us right into her character’s dilemma, and we can never take our eyes off her as Carol turns further inward and isolates herself from the world at large. The whole movie rests on her shoulders, and she shows no vanity in her portrayal of Carol. She literally becomes the character before our very eyes to where she looks frighteningly emaciated and close to being completely incapacitated. It’s a deeply affecting performance which made me want to reach out and hug her, and I say this even though it would probably not be enough to save her character.

“Safe” ends on an ambiguous note, leaving it up to the audience to guess what will become of Carol White. This will drive a lot of the mainstream audience members crazy as they demand to have things explained in full detail, but a movie like this cannot and should not offer easy solutions. How can it? I got so caught up in Carol’s ordeal to where I felt I was in her shoes. Personally, I hope she finds a way to overcome her circumstances, but that may just be wishful thinking.

I am really glad I finally got to see “Safe,” and I hope more people take the time to check it out. It stays with you in a way few movies do. It also leaves us with a haunting image of a certain character seen from a distance, completely covered with clothing to where they are hiding every part of their body from the world at large. Arcade Fire may sing about the body being a cage, but what happens when we put another cage over it? This all reminds me of a lyric from a song by Peter Gabriel:

“The more we are protected, the more we’re trapped within.”

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: When I first saw “Safe” at New Beverly Cinema, it had been out of print on DVD and VHS for several years. The Criterion Collection, however, has since released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray, and I could not recommend it more highly. Click here to find out more about this special edition.