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 * * * *

Underseen Movie: Harry Brown in Which Michael Caine Gets His Own Version of Death Wish

Back in 2010, I was trying to remember the last time I saw Sir Michael Caine play the lead in a motion picture. Looking back, I think it was “The Quiet American” in which he gave what he thought, and I agree with him, was one of his very best performances ever. Since then, he has been the supporting actor of choice in movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” The big joke around Hollywood was if you can’t get Morgan Freeman for your movie, get Caine. Those two guys are in just about every other movie being made. Still, we need a reminder every so often of how truly great an actor Caine is. There are a number of good reasons why his career has lasted several decades after having survived critical disasters like “Jaws: The Revenge.”

But in 2009, Caine did get indeed get the lead in a movie many still have not seen, “Harry Brown.” I saw it as a double feature at the New Beverly Cinema along with a classic movie Caine starred in called “Get Carter.” Both these films have him playing characters where violence plays or has played a big part in their lives. With “Get Carter,” he played a professional killer who was almost completely amoral, and yet you couldn’t help but like him. It’s almost tempting to look at “Harry Brown” as kind of a sequel to “Get Carter” as it makes you wonder what Jack Carter would have been like had he grown up long enough to become a senior citizen. Even if he managed to put his past behind him, it is always bound to catch up with him as only so many bad deeds go unpunished.

From its trailer, “Harry Brown” certainly does look like the British version of “Death Wish,” one of the most unforgettable movies about vigilante justice. But you could also look at it as being to Caine what “Gran Torino” was to Clint Eastwood. Each movie involves a character so uncomfortable with the changes going on around them, and they are resistant, as is everyone, to any kind of change. There’s even a good dose of Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” thrown in for good measure as you wonder how deeply Harry was shaped by his experiences as a military officer.

Either way you look at it, “Harry Brown” takes the overused concept of a regular person who loses someone close to them, forcing them to take matters into their own hands when the police fail to help, and turns it into a very effective thriller which is truly unrelenting in the intensity it generates. Seriously, this is a very bleak movie which puts you into the main character’s mindset and never lets you go. It also takes place in a an environment which is all too real to those who live in it, and the consequences hit you like a swift kick to the gut. You may look at Brown’s surroundings and say to yourself no one could pay me enough to live in this environment, but we are stuck there for 103 minutes, and there’s no easy way out.

Caine plays the title character, a widowed North Ireland military veteran who finds his training coming back to him as he comes to confront those who murdered his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley) in such a cold and callous way. Following this, it becomes clear to Harry his days of being indifferent to the horrible goings on now are at an end, and he threatens to become even more lethal than those gang members he stealthily pursues. In the process, his training as a soldier is reawakened, and he uses it to his advantage. The way Harry sees it, he and his men fought for something important, but these kids today are instead fighting for their own depressing amusement.

Caine continues to make screen acting look effortless for him, and even the moments where he doesn’t speak a single word speaks volumes of what is going through his mind. We feel Harry’s pain over becoming so lonely without a soul to rely on, and we experience his state of mind completely thanks to Caine’s incredible performance. We have seen this kind of character a lot in movies, but Caine imbues Harry with a wounded humanity which keeps him for becoming completely cold blooded. Even as he descends into violent acts of raw vengeance, we can’t help but sympathize with Harry as we come to wonder what we would do if we unlucky enough to be in this situation. We never catch Caine playing on the clichés other actors would likely fall into, and it makes you wonder if there is another actor who could have played this role as well as him.

“Harry Brown” marks the feature length directorial debut of Daniel Barber whose only other project was the Oscar nominated short film “The Tonto Woman.” Filming at a council estate in South London, he creates an unrelentingly bleak atmosphere which feels even darker than anything David Fincher came up with in “Alien 3” or “Seven.” Just taking in the atmosphere which surrounds Harry and his fellow neighbors drains the soul pretty quick. Instead of prettying anything up, Barber captures the hopelessness of a people stuck in a crime ridden area so far out of their control, and of the frustration which drives the main character into action.

It is clear from the start that this will not be your average Hollywood vigilante flick, and the violence featured here is very brutal. The movie’s opening sequence features a very realistically staged gang initiation sequence where a new recruit is made to do drugs and then gets beaten up to within an inch of his life. This is later followed up by a highly unnerving scene where two gang members are riding along on a motorbike while filming their escapades, and one of them ends up shooting a young mother while she is pushing her baby in a stroller. From that point on, you never feel safe while watching this movie. You feel the gunshots when they go off here, and it all becomes a race to see how much longer Harry can stay alive.

Barber also proves to be masterful in setting up highly suspenseful scenes which are brimming over with excruciating tension. The best example of this comes when Harry meets with two young men to buy a gun, and both are clearly high on their own supply to where they are hopelessly paranoid. You feel like things could explode at any second, and I have to give a lot of credit to the two actors, Sean Harris and Joseph Gilgun, here as they make their drugged-up characters all the more frightening than they already were in the screenplay. Seriously, the scene between them and Caine is one of the most unnerving I have seen in a long time, and I will never be able to shake it.

There is also a very nice supporting performance here from the lovely Emily Mortimer who previously stole my heart in “Lars and the Real Girl” opposite Ryan Gosling. She plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton who is at times empathetic to the suffering around her, and at other times very serious about the work she does. It’s not your typical tough as nails cop on display here, and I found this to be quite interesting. Frampton almost looks out of her league, but she quickly shows us how she keeps an open mind and considers every possibility without singling out anything based on preconceptions or stereotypes. Of course, being the smartest cop in the movie, no one listens to or takes her seriously enough. Then again, if they had, the running length of this film would be equivalent to that of “The Tonto Woman.”

“Harry Brown” is truly one of the bleakest movies I have ever seen, and while the trailers make you think we are traveling into familiar “Death Wish” territory, this is not the case in the slightest. All these years later, I still can’t get it out of my head as it affected me more than I anticipated. I was expecting a solid B-movie at most, but there was much more to the story than what I saw at first glance. It marks a very impressive debut for Barber, and it allows Caine to give us yet another great character and unforgettable performance to a resume which is overflowing with them.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ Features Tilda Swinton at Her Most Devastating

We Need to Talk Kevin poster 4

I think “We Need to Talk About Kevin” would make an interesting double feature with “Rosemary’s Baby” as both prove to be cautionary tales for prospective parents. But unlike Polanski’s classic film which dealt with the occult and supernatural, the horrors of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” are rooted in real life. Stories of kids going on murderous rampages at their schools have gotten far more media coverage than they deserve, but Lynne Ramsay’s film is not out to exploit this subject but to explore what could have triggered such a massacre.

Acting goddess Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian (good luck trying to pronounce that last name), a successful travel writer who is picking up the pieces of her life after a tragic event people have come to blame her for. The movie shifts back and forth in time as we see Eva finding happiness with her husband Franklin (the always great John C. Reilly) to becoming pregnant with her first child, and then back to present day where she tries to make sense of the crimes her son committed. We see her as a pariah of the community, and everyone constantly stares at her as if to say, “How do you live with yourself?”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character look less forward to motherhood in a movie before this one. Eva’s face of happiness is wiped away almost permanently by her new role in life, and while her husband is thrilled at being a parent, she just looks on despondently as if her life just came to a shocking end. Without words, you immediately get the impression she has no interest in being a parent, and she never really forms an affectionate bond with Kevin. Eventually, Eva sees the parts of herself she doesn’t like in Kevin’s cold, dark eyes as he glares at her as if to say she resembles everything wrong in the world.

Swinton has never been an actress content to fall victim to overly emotive acting or chewing the scenery for an Oscar moment. She inhabits her characters more than plays them, and her performance as Eva ranks among the very best of her career. She creates such an unforgettably human portrait of a mother whose superficial behavior towards her son isn’t fooling anyone, especially him. But at the same time, Swinton makes you feel deeply for Eva as she forces you to confront what you would do if you were in this unimaginable situation.

While we see Eva losing her temper at Kevin when he does bad things, we also see she’s the only person who realizes something is seriously wrong with him. Franklin, on the other hand, is either completely oblivious to his son’s nastiness or just doesn’t want to see the truth of how troubled he is. To everyone else, Kevin is just a boy doing boyish things, and this leaves Eva feeling even more isolated as she feels completely helpless in her attempts to repair the fractured relationship she has with him.

Kevin is played by three actors at different parts of his life: Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller. All do great work in making Kevin the kind of child none of us ever hope to have, and each manages to perfect the wicked glare Kevin gives off to where you would think they were auditioning for a Stanley Kubrick movie, hoping to outdo Vincent D’Onofrio’s piercing glare in “Full Metal Jacket.” But of those three actors, the one who deserves the most praise is Miller as he makes Kevin into one of the scariest sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Damien from “The Omen” has got nothing on this guy, and it’s tempting to think he could give Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” a run for his money. Miller never portrays Kevin as a simple one-dimensional villain, but as one whose meaning in life has been corrupted to where he doesn’t see much good in anything.

Director Ramsay previously made “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar,” and her work behind the camera has been justly acclaimed. With “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” she shares in Swinton’s fearlessness in delving into subject matter many would choose to avoid if they could. Not once does she judge the characters here, and she leaves their actions up for us to judge. She is not out to provide answers to a situation like this because none are ever easy to come by.

The movie’s opening shot has Eva participating with dozens of people in some Italian tomato festival to where it looks like they are all bathing in blood, and it symbolizes what will eventually become of her life. Ramsay makes great use of the color red throughout as it acts as a stain on Eva’s conscience which cannot be washed away. The movie is beautifully shot to where the sterile setting Eva and her family lives in is just asking to be forever dirtied, and the film score by Jonny Greenwood, who composed the score for “There Will Be Blood,” illustrates the violence just underneath the surface that will eventually explode for all to see.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” could easily have been an exploitive feature, but it never falls victim to that. There’s actually very little violence shown as Ramsay is far more interested in the aftermath of what has happened, and the movie ends on a surprising note of possible redemption for some of the main characters. Having seen it, I can now safely say Tilda Swinton was most definitely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her performance here. What she does is truly astounding as well as completely brave. Not many actors would easily venture into a topic which hits too close to home, but Swinton is never one to back down from a challenge.

Coming out of this bruising film experience, I kept thinking about this line of dialogue said by Augustus Hill on the HBO series “OZ:”

“One of the last things Jesus did on Earth was to invite a prisoner to join him in heaven. He loved that criminal. I say he loved that criminal as much as he loved anyone. Jesus knew in his heart it takes a lot to love a sinner. But the sinner, he needs it all the more…”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Attack the Block’ Features John Boyega in a Terrific Debut Performance

Attack the Block movie poster

Attack the Block” is a highly entertaining combination of action and sci-fi genres which deals with humans defending themselves against a swarm of unfriendly extra-terrestrials. It follows a street gang of young kids who, in the process of robbing a female nurse, get greeted by an alien who lands with a loud thud on someone’s car (here’s hoping they have auto insurance). It marks the beginning of an attack by an alien race which immediately tears apart anything in its path, and it’s up this gang of delinquents to save the day.

The majority of “Attack the Block” takes place in a council estate, a location which houses the financially challenged of England’s residents, and it is generally overrun by a nasty criminal element. This setting has been used to great effect in “Fish Tank” and “Harry Brown,” movies which effectively showed how isolating it can be to live there. The characters presented feel very true to life, and it makes what could be seen by many as another B-movie far more effective as a result.

Leading this street gang is Moses (John Boyega), a 15-year-old who is older than his age would suggest. Moses and his mates spend their time robbing those walking through the terrace they live in. But when the aliens enter into their territory, they find antagonists that are completely unwilling to give up their valuables (assuming they have any), and the threat they pose to this gang make their struggles in daily life a cakewalk in comparison.

“Attack the Block” was directed by Joe Cornish, an English comedian, television and radio presenter, director, writer and actor. This marks his directorial debut as he has previously helmed several behind the scenes documentaries like “The Fuzzball Rally” featured on the “Hot Fuzz” DVD and Blu-ray. Cornish’s work here is very assured, and he does an excellent job of combining elements of horror and comedy to great effect, something never easy to pull off. He also generates highly suspenseful moments which really get the audience on edge, and they make for a surprisingly unpredictable motion picture.

Of all the performances, the most impressive comes from John Boyega as Moses. This is his film debut, but he looks and acts like he’s been acting for ages as his eyes reveal a battle over how far he will go and of all the bad things he has seen in life. As the fight against the aliens goes on, it offers his character a chance for redemption and to be a hero, and Boyega makes Moses earn those honors long before the film’s conclusion.

Also impressive is Jodie Whittaker as Sam, a hospital nurse faced with an impossible situation where she has to work with the same gang of kids who mugged her in order to survive. Whittaker convincingly takes her character from being a frightened woman to one who holds her own alongside these kids, and she is not your typical horror victim screaming her way throughout the entire movie.

It’s also great to see Nick Frost here as the drug dealer, Ron. Frost brings an ever so dry humor to the proceedings, and all the other actors work off of him to great effect. In each movie he does, Frost is brilliant at sneaking the occasional joke in when you least expect it, and you can always count on him to leaving on the floor laughing.

“Attack the Block” was made for only $13 million, and the visual effects the filmmakers came up with are very impressive considering the budget. Having less money forces directors to be more creative, and Cornish succeeded in making this film look like it cost a lot more. The aliens themselves are minimal in their design, but they feel far more threatening than the ones you might remember from “Cowboys & Aliens.” Their pitch-black fur is highlighted by neon-like eyes and teeth, and their horrendously loud shriek is certain to make audiences jump out of their seats more often than not.

The action is also highlighted by a super cool electronic score by Basement Jaxx which really puts you in the right frame of mind. I definitely recommend buying the soundtrack once you have watched this movie. I myself didn’t even hesitate in purchasing a copy. That’s how much I like this kind of film music.

The summer 2011 movie season was mostly disappointing due to a lack of creativity and inspiration as many of the blockbusters were cynically made by studios with the intention of making money while giving audiences what they thought they wanted. Watching “Attack the Block” though is a great reminder of how much fun it can be to go to the movies, and it was one of the best action movies to come out that year. This is a must see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *