From Prison

Refn’s Bronson is a Surreal Character Study of Lonely Violence

Bronson. 2008. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Brock Norman Brock & Refn.
Starring Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton, Kelly Adams, Juliet Oldfield, Jonathan Phillips, Mark Powley, Hugh Ross, Joe Tucker, Gordon Brown, & Charlie Whyman. Str8jacket Creations/Vertigo Films/Aramid Entertainment Fund.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Biography/Crime/Drama

★★★★1/2
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Time and again I say it: Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the directors working today whose mix of influences bleed into his talent in the perfect shade, making him a passionate artist forging his own path while still showing love for those who came before him, and above everything an uncompromising auteur. Lots of so called fans only came on after Drive became a big, unexpected hit. It’s a great flick. Not his best, though, despite being so awesome. There are a bunch of other amazing pieces of cinema that came before it, such as the Pusher trilogy, BleederFear X, and certainly this whopper of arthouse film, Bronson.
What’s lovely about Refn is that, though his style is singular and always apparent each of his movies takes on a vastly different type of world and story. That makes his electronic-score driven, gorgeously framed, dark style almost perfectly suited for the story of the world’s most infamous prisoner, Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy) a.k.a Michael Gordon Peterson. This is a true story. Well, sort of. Refn is able to provide the surrealist atmosphere for the plot to play out in the right sense. We’re never quite sure if what’s occurring in front of our eyes is truthful, a part of Bronson’s built up and enhanced self image, or if Charlie’s actually full-on mad. The screenplay from Refn and Brock Norman Brock lets us escape into the mind of a man who defines ‘product of the system’ in a way that’s never before been allowed with other prison films. And for all Refn’s excellency as director, Bronson is so effective due to the tornado force performance out of Hardy. He is a revelation and one worthy of every bit of hype the media gives him. Hardy and Refn together with the foundation of a character like Bronson, an unbelievably real man, makes for one of my favourite films post-2000.
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Something I love about this story is what Roger Ebert echoed in his review of the film. The fact Refn and Brock make no attempts to explain away the behaviour of Bronson is exactly what makes the movie enjoyable. At his core, Peterson – who took the name Charlie Bronson as a fighting name – is a horrid sort. You can’t always use that label I previously mentioned, product of the system, as a way to rationalise the actions of bad people. Sure, Peterson was likely changed into who he ultimately became because of his incarceration and the time he spent institutionalised. However, I truly feel that in his heart Peterson has the seed of evil. Maybe not full-on evil, but certainly of badness. He’s not a relentless murderer. Yet a dangerous individual no less. His incessant fighting and rage is a plague, on him, as well as more importantly on everyone around him. So I find there’s a fine line drawn between making an excuse for someone who’s a ward of the system, essentially, and someone who could very well just have on real conscience or concern for growing as a person, other than in the sense of physical growth in order to be the best fighter possible.
In turn, Hardy makes the central performance vibe well with the intentions of the overall story and its themes. He gets the character right in terms of the swagger, the mentality and the outright madness. He is physically intimidating, he’s also funny and charming in a brash way. There’s a ton of different feelings you get about Charlie throughout the runtime of the movie, and Hardy is always pushing you. There are moments you don’t think you’re meant to laugh, but you do. There are moments that you’re not sure if fear is the appropriate response; it is, very much. And most of that is Hardy bending the screenplay to his will. Making the character memorable and fierce. There’s not a single shot where Hardy isn’t making you think or compelling you further into the personality of Bronson. Whether that’s a good thing, you be the judge.
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Another aspect that’s interesting to me is the idea of celebrity and persona. Peterson becoming the alter-ego of Charles Bronson is the first shift in his identity where we see that he’s to become a celebrity. Or more so that he’s to become famous, or infamous is the best way to describe it. The surrealism of the script, jumping from one mad scene to the next, is what brings everything out, as the larger than life persona is represented admirably via the stage play moments. As Bronson recounts to us his life he becomes the circus ring leader, the lead performer – at once he’s the star of the show, the next he’s a different character with lipstick and manicured nails and drawn on hair to boot.
These scenes allow us to look into the confused identity that is Bronson, the man formerly known as Michael Peterson. “You cant tie that up in a nice little pink bow,” an art instructor tells Charlie about the picture he’s drawing, a perfectly poignant commentary on the man himself: “Nah you cant pin me down, mate,” replies Bronson. Best of all, those stage play scenes give us a window into the soul of Charlie, as we fully understand how lonely the man is and what drives him: he needs, and wants, an audience. After so much time alone stuck in cells and having only time inside his own head, that stage is both an escape from this life, and it’s also a cry for help, the want for an audience. Maybe that’s all he ever needed; not incarceration, but rather attention, care, kindness. We’ll never know, though, and this is part of why I love the film. Refn gives us plenty upon which to ruminate. He never proposes any answers, nor does he make it seem like that’s his aim. His objective here is to fall into the headspace of the truly veritable headcase that is Charlie Bronson.
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This one is at the top of my Refn list. I’m a fan of every last bit of his work. He is a very interesting director and writer. His style is tons of fun, it is vibrant and always compels you to keep you watching, if only to figure out what’s about to happen next, and how it’s going to be expressed. Bronson is one of his more surreal efforts, in line at times visually with Valhalla Rising in its strange beauty. Tom Hardy can get into the skin of any character. He relishes every moment as Bronson, putting his heart and soul and limbs into each scene. Not many actors are willing to get naked and pain themselves, have their ass greased with butter (and by another man), to fully commit themselves to the insanity of a role such as that of Charlie; Tom is one of those few actors that can go to the lengths required. There are many times you’ll wonder where exactly the plot is moving. Let’s just say it never goes far. But not every story has a plot that moves in the typical fashion from Point A to B to C through to a nicely wrapped finale. Bronson is a series of scenes that accurately depict the loneliness, brutality, and all around uncontrollable personality of a man you’d never in a million years believe to be real, if he weren’t so well known. Along the way you’ll laugh, you will cringe. All appropriate reactions. This is a character study which pulls you along on the tails of music (from the atypical Refn electronics to popular classical pieces) and violence featuring one of the greatest performances you’re likely to ever witness.

Down the Social Rabbit Hole with The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment. 2015. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Screenplay by Tim Talbott.
Starring Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun, Gaius Charles, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Ezra Miller, Logan Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, James Wolk, Nelsan Ellis, and Olivia Thirlby. Coup d’Etat Films/Sandbar Pictures/Abandon Pictures.
Rated 14A. 122 minutes.
Biography/Drama/History

★★★★★
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There’ve been two other films based on the real Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo, at least that I know of – the German film Das Experiment and the semi-remake of that starring Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker, The Experiment. Many will tell you the former is the best. Certainly none will say the latter. But I’ll go ahead and give you my opinion: The Stanford Prison Experiment is the best of the trio. It is the most raw, real, honest version compared with true events. It showcases best the real results of the experiment Zimbardo setup. Here, we see the worst of the human condition, what people are capable of given power and the ability to judge as they see fit.
As opposed to the other two films, Kyle Patrick Alvarez doesn’t try to add anything extra to the story. Or better put, screenwriter Tim Talbott sticks mostly to the practical facts of the original experiment. Instead of getting too flowery, attempting to intensify themes, Talbott’s script brings out the moral dilemmas inherent in Zimbardo’s supposed experiment. We are thrown directly in the hot seat, both with the people behind the glass and the inmates on the other side. This film focuses best on the human aspect of what really happened, rather than ratcheting up the violence, the threat of rape, or any number of things. Not saying every last bit of this is completely factual. More that it attempts to stick with reality. And things get very raw. For someone who traffics in a lot of horror, many disturbing pieces of cinema, this can actually be tough to watch; it isn’t even graphic. The psychological torture of the men in this experiment bleeds through the screen.
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Dr. Philip Zombardo (Billy Crudup) conducts an experiment at Stanford University in the early 1970s. Twenty four men were recruited. They were broken into groups of guards and prisoners. This experiment sees how both groups act under the guidelines of a prison environment in the basement of the university.
Except things start to get a little out of hand. The guards aren’t allowed to physically hurt the prisoners. But they do everything else possible. They psychologically torture the young men playing prisoners. Some of them rebel. Others comply completely. Allowed to leave at any time, a couple do, or at least try to. For Zombardo’s part he tries to keep people there, going beyond acceptable limits; certainly beyond ethical scientific limits. As some of the guards go a little wilder than others, the Stanford Prison Experiment gets further out of hand than even Zombardo could have predicted.
They had two weeks allotted to conduct the experiment. It didn’t even last one.
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Many times we see Zombardo lose it. One key moment is when a member of the research/experiment team has to leave, due to a death in the family, and Philip doesn’t lose it, but the lack of care for his colleague’s dead family member is evident. We can see how Zombardo doesn’t care about anything else, anybody else. Nothing other than his precious experiment. So, in subtle scenes like that we see the fabric of his personality wearing away. He meets an older man, either a former mentor or an older colleague, who asks about variables in his experiment; Phil dismisses him in a mix between anger, resentment, and perhaps a small dose of doubt, guilt, too. The character is a loaded one and full of many complexities. We watch as the guy’s mind tears, right alongside many of the inmates and some of the guards in the experiment. Hard to tell sometimes exactly who is slipping most.
Then there’s Michael Angarano. He is a great actor, one I’ve enjoyed plenty on Cinemax’s The Knick. Here he plays the “John Wayne” guard, Christopher Archer. Watching him progress from the first scene where we see him, to the Napoleonic character he becomes later in the film, it truly is impressive. Some may get annoyed by his fake Southern accent – part of the character itself, imitating a character from Cool Hand Luke, and poorly (on purpose). However, I find Angarano excellent here. He plays a young man who is fairly despicable, just as bad as Zombardo, and certainly one of the worst of all the men playing guards. His youthfulness comes in handy because he portrays a guy who, in real life, went too far and thought it was all justifiable, as if being a terrible human being at the drop of a hat, as he was during the experiment, were a situation anybody would find themselves in. His character helps to call into question the individual moral dilemma of such an experiment, and displays exactly the type of behaviour any person in their right mind would be ashamed of if it were them. A few other good performances here, including Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan plus more. Although, Angarano and Crudup clearly shine. That could also have much to do with their characters’ respective importance to the events in question. Still, they both do an amazing job pulling their share of the weight along the way.
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This a dark and raw 5-star film based on true events. In the final fifteen minutes, The Stanford Prison Experiment devolves to madness and presents us with the regression of humanity, all represented in these men posing as the guards. The moment where Crudup’s Zombardo breaks is quietly intense, but it hits you hard. I do not admire anything about Zombardo. This moment just rocked me – especially with the line by Angarano afterward. There’s a despicable quality to the ending, and it lingered with me, yet above all a sense of relief. This film is a visceral one at times, it will get under your skin. Deep; if you let it. The bare human qualities of this movie made it one of my favourites from 2015.

Jack O’Connell Gets STARRED UP

Starred Up. 2014. Dir. David Mackenzie.
Starring Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Raphael Sowole, Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Rupert Friend, and Sam Spruell. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Not Rated. 106 minutes.
Drama

★★★★★
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Starred Up (the slang prison term for a criminal who is transferred early from an institution for young offenders to an adult correctional facility) is the story of Eric Love (O’Connell) – a young offender starred up to the big house. An angry young man, Eric ends up in a rough prison where he quickly butts heads with the prison officials from guards to the Deputy Governor of the entire facility. To make matters even worse, Eric has been housed in the exact prison where his deadbeat father Neville Love (Mendelsohn) is currently serving, what we assume to be, a life sentence. A prison counsellor (Friend) who runs a group helping offenders with their anger issues tries to extend a helping hand to Eric. At first the young man is highly resistant. However, after some time passes, Eric realizes this may be one of the only keys to ever having a normal life again. Faced with more and more to push him towards breaking, the discovery that his father has become homosexual due to his extended stay in prison, and almost everyone around him expecting him to fail, Eric must try and overcome his own issues to break free from the rage which consumes him and maybe someday eventually walk out of prison a free man.
starred-up-bg-4-620x413The majority of prison films often take on the same sort of plot. Starred Up might seem similar to certain earlier works like Bad Boys or even a bit of Scum, however, it is an excellent prison drama in its own right. One of the obviously excellent things about the movie is Jack O’Connell. His performance is a knock out. I absolutely think this will be one of the most overlooked performances of last year. I’ve seen plenty of praise for O’Connell in this film, but not enough awards will be heaped upon him. Though, awards do not matter, it’s always fun to see a young actor get recognized for really spectacular work. I think he’ll definitely benefit from this performance going forward.
Starred-Up-Image-1-600x400One of my favourite actors in recent years has come to be Ben Mendelsohn. His performance as Neville Love is brilliant work. There are a lot of prison hard men portrayed in movies, and I think Neville is definitely near the top of the list in regards to which ones are truly tough guys. Part of this comes from the relationship between him and his son Eric. He and O’Connell play well off one another, but truly it’s the father-son relationship and how everything plays out between them which is the most exciting part of the movie. The tension between Eric and Neville after the son finds out his father has become gay in prison is truly wonderful drama. I thought the scene where Eric discovers this part of Neville’s prison identity was absolutely marvelous – really subtle and perfect acting from both parties.
unnamed-2Another significant aspect about Starred Up is also what it has to say overall about youth offenders, or offenders in general, who cannot be conformed to easy living in prison. Better yet, it demonstrates how willingly prison officials often are to simply snuff out a problem than truly deal with it and rehabilitate prisoners, or at the very least try to anyways. Eric Love is a very difficult, angry, violent young man. His story shows us how these types are usually dealt with violently, as opposed to being given therapy – like one counsellor (played by Rupert Friend) tries to give him. In the end, without spoiling anything, luckily Eric still has people watching over him, who care for him, and do not want to see the worst happen. I also think the fact Starred Up ended on a positive note helped the film not play into all the trappings of regular prison films. Often there are grim endings, or endings which come off too bittersweet. As the end here does come off positive, it still isn’t totally optimistic, as Eric is still in jail, as well as his father. Regardless, I think the finale played a lot less typically than other similar movies, and I enjoyed the last moments – very real, very touching.
Starredup_0609This is absolutely a flawless prison film. In a sea of very generic prison movies, from drama to action, Starred Up is one of the great modern works of this sub-genre. The performances really helped to elevate an already enjoyable script. O’Connell and Mendelsohn together are really something. Not to mention the supporting cast were also on point. I really thought all the actors who played characters in the support group with Eric were pretty damn good. There were great and tense emotional scenes involving these characters. The script is the best part of this movie, though, because it really does more than work as a drama set in prison – as I said before, it attempts, and successfully in my mind, to tackle issues involving the rehabilitation of prisoners. One of the messages lingers on until the end – some of these guys just need a chance. Not all, maybe not many, can be legitimately rehabilitated, but some just need the chance. Eric Love got his. Luckily for him, being incarcerated with your father in the same prison can be productive for the mental health because he suffers from issues surrounding his father. This a great story about redemption, love, and male bonding. Stellar film. One of my top from 2014.

Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands – One Criminal & a Baby

Refn's sequel to his 1st PUSHER film is another bleak trip to Copenhagen's underworld.

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