Wednesday, March 17, 2010

DVD Roundup: Bronson

Nicholas Winding Refn made his name as a director in his native Denmark with the Pusher trilogy, naturalistic crime films examining Copehagen's drug-dealing underbelly. The Pusher protagonists are a decidedly unglamorous bunch living hand-to-mouth on the surprisingly meager proceeds of their pathetic drug operations, looking no farther ahead than the next day's pay-off. Refn's most recent film, Bronson, deals with an entirely different sort of criminal. Michael "Charles Bronson" Peterson, a real-life figure often labelled Britain's most dangerous prisoner, is a post-modern criminal, someone whose acts of violence (mostly committed against guards and fellow prisoners) are designed to procure maximum notoriety. With a subject who treats violence as performance art, Refn ditches the Pusher trilogy's gritty handheld look in favor of meticulously controlled framing counterpointed by a swelling orchestral score and lush pop tunes. Comparisons to A Clockwork Orange are inevitable and accurate, but Bronson never feels derivative because the choices Refn makes are so perfectly tuned to twisted but fascinating main character. These choices are crucial in shaping a movie that is one of the most interesting portrayals of a criminal psyche ever committed to film. Also crucial is the fact that "Charlie Bronson" happens to be one of the most interesting criminals to be the subject of a movie in the first place.

Bronson joins movies like John Boorman's The General, Andrew Dominik's Chopper and Peter Medak's The Krays, all part of a very specific sub-genre I like to call "Biopics of criminals from the British Commonwealth." Those other films tended towards kitchen sink realism and a studied remove from their characters; a necessary condition when dealing with a class of people who tend to intentionally deflect scrutiny. On that score, Refn is blessed with a subject whose violent criminality seems less driven by economic necessity or even pathology than an all-consuming desire for fame. As such, Bronson has spent a good portion of his thirty-some-odd years in prison (most of it in solitary confinement) writing books of poetry, memoirs and exercise manuals. That gives Refn and company a wealth of insights into what makes a seemingly psychotic creature like Charlie Bronson tick. As Charlie, whose bombastic monologues give the episodic film a spine, points out early on, he is not a product of his environment. His parents were solid middle class folk from Luton. He beats up classmates, cops and, once he's finally thrown in prison for robbing a post office, inmates and guards, out of boredom and a failure of imagination. Like many people, young Mickey Peterson yearns for the validation of fame, but lacks an outlet. In the cloistered environment of prison, he finds that outsized acts of violence are the fastest way to notoriety, and that said notoriety provides him with an artistic project. His life becomes a series of theatrically staged outbursts, each designed to send the message to his fellow inmates, prison officials, the general public and Queen Elizabeth herself, that Charlie Bronson is a man not to be fucked with. Bronson's prison fame grows, but since it only extends to the prison population, he's got to stay inside in order to enjoy it. That's easy to do when you keep caving guy's heads in all day long. One of the most intriguing threads in the film is the idea that Bronson seems to have fallen into his violence-as-art routine by accident, and would probably rather not spend thirty years in prison, but is too bullheaded and self-aggrandizing to admit it to himself.

All of Refn's well-crafted shots and the gleeful profanity wouldn't amount to much without Tom Hardy's lead performance. Hardy's Bronson is ferocious and menacing, but also childlike and calculating. His volcanic rage is wholly terrifying, but Hardy manages to convey a sense of the character's bifurcated nature. He's ruined his life with blind aggression, but he's done so deliberately, with artistic flair and methodical stagecraft. Hardy's grasp of the character coupled with Refn's mastery of film elements make for the most vivid and insightful investigation of a criminal mind in recent memory.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

James Cameron is, in fact, King of the World.

Because I hate life, I read US Weekly. Recently, Linda Hamilton, one of James Cameron's innumerable ex-wives, quoted him as saying the following during their marriage: "anyone can be a father or a husband. There are only five people in the world who can do what I do." Now, at first blush, this seems like the ravings of a cartoonish egomaniac, exactly the sort of uber-douche whose tyrannical behavior on his film sets has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that, if anything, Cameron is actually being modest in that quote.

As far as I can tell, there is exactly one person on earth who can do what James Cameron does, and that's him. What does Cameron do, exactly? He conceives, from story to screenplay to storyboard to every aspect of technical filmmaking to post-production, movies that make obscene amounts of money and grab the zeitgeist with both hands. Nobody else, that's who. All other possible claimants fail at least one critical test. Spielberg? The man doesn't write his own screenplays. Peter Jackson? Lord of the Rings was an amazing accomplishment, but he had a huge built-in fanbase created by the Tolkien books to work with. George Lucas is really the only other contender, and he hasn't had an idea that didn't involve midichlorians or gay Jamaican lizards since 1984. For all his reliance on cliche story elements, Cameron finds a way to make those cliches resonate with millions and millions of people. Not just enough to get people to shell out billions of dollars to see his movies (he wrote, produced and directed the two highest grossing films OF ALL TIME!), but enough to make the characters, dialogue and iconography of those movies indelible fixtures of the pop culture landscape. All from shit that he just made up. I mean, the dude invented a new kind of camera in order to shoot Avatar. Even if his screenplays are weak, there's no denying the power of his images and his ability to hit the sweet spot of audience appeal, and I care a lot more about what he comes up with next than whether or not he remembers Suzy Amis' birthday.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Shutter Island

Somewhere along the way, Leonardo DiCaprio went from being a fetal man-child to a legitimate leading man specializing in angst-ridden tough guys. Looking back at his soft little nubbin of a face in Titanic, this seems like an impossible transformation, but some time in the past decade he developed a dramatic, vertical worry-line between his eyes, and that makes all the difference. With a smooth brow, DiCaprio was Robert Pattinson with better acting chops. But with that angry little wrinkle exploding like the crack of doom between his eyes, he exudes a the raw pain of a wounded animal. Leo's perma-furrow works overtime in Shutter Island, expressing the inner torment of haunted WWII vet, widower and U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels. DiCaprio, along with new partner Mark Ruffalo travel to a remote mental hospital on an island in Boston harbor to hunt down an escaped female prisoner. Along the way, DiCaprio struggles with the memories of Dachau and his dead wife (Michele Williams) as well as the mysterious goings-on at a facility that has connections to U.S. Intelligence circles and HUAC, and which may well be hiding dark, very cinematic secrets.

Shutter Island doesn't have much in the way of conventional plot momentum or effective suspense. It's mostly two hours of DiCaprio scuttling around the smoke-wreathed corridors of the musty old booby hatch. Along the way, director Martin Scorsese flits between rock-ribbed film noir pastiche and hallucinatory flashbacks pitched just shy of hysteria. Like the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, Shutter Island is a neo-noir film most interested in exploring the pscyho-historical roots of the genre. The Red Scare, the Holocaust, the looming specter of nuclear annihilation, all contribute to DiCaprio's bone-deep sense of unease and dislocation. DiCaprio is a stand-in for the generation that first confronted the prospect of "megadeath" in death camp ovens and mushroom clouds, and Scorsese emphasizes the psychic toll of such awareness by repeatedly filling the frame with a succession of floating particles; paper, ashes, snow, rain, all swirling around DiCaprio. He's a man finding himself in a world with nothing solid to hang on to, and the only available mechanism for dealing with the trauma is the alienating and antiseptic tool of modern psychotherapy.

The thematics are richly layered, if not exactly groundbreaking, and the plot basically stagnates until a third act twist that will probably end up annoying people who haven't read the original Dennis Lehane novel, but the reason to see Shutter Island is Robert Richardson's cinematography. Pretty much any random shot from this movie is suitable for framing. With lush, rich colors that reflect DiCaprio's fevered mindset and a note-perfect replication of noir's iconic interplay between light and shadows, this might be Scorsese's most visually stunning work. The operatic pitch and violent colors call to mind Scorsese's Cape Fear and, like Cape Fear, Shutter Island suffers from an overdose of homage without a strong point of view to give the noir trappings weight. Shutter Island certainly isn't a heartfelt film, but it has a mad grandeur that captivates, even if it doesn't tread any particularly novel ground.