Conclusion of Nicolas Winding Refn Month

As the month of April draws to a close, so too does my little project. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, I told my readership at the start of this month that, for the next four weeks, I would watch and review only those films made by Denmark’s most talented director, Nicolas Winding Refn. The reason I decided to do this is that I really really enjoy Winding Refn’s work, and I wanted to share his films with the world so that they might garner greater recognition. If any of you are fans of talented, lesser known artists, and would like me to see their stuff, please tell me their names and I’ll do just that. Anything to help aspiring stars reach their full potential.

Thank you all for reading my blog,

Nathan

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Bronson: So Who Says Prison Can’t Be An Enjoyable Experience?

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

With it’s bizarre visuals, odd, non-linear narrative structure, and hard to pin-point characters, it is very difficult to say for certain what kind of a film Bronson is. It’s about a real person, but it’s not a documentary. It’s main character is an extremely violent individual, and yet very little blood is seen throughout the movie. It’s set up like a morality tale, and yet absolutely no morals are imparted in it. In fact, the film becomes so absurd in some scenes, like the one where the main character kidnaps his art teacher, paints himself black and then puts an apple in the hostage’s mouth, that one starts to wonder if it’s really worth continuing with this rubbish. I will say this, though. For all it’s confusing features, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is still a highly enjoyable, highly original audio-visual experience. I’d heard various critics describe it as “A Clockwork Orange for the 21st century,” and now, having seen it for myself, I can understand why they’d say that.

For those of you who don’t recognize this picture, Bronson is a 2008 fictionalized biographical drama directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring
Tom Hardy. It tells the story of Michael Peterson (aka Charlie Bronson), a convicted felon who has earned a notorious reputation as Britain’s most violent prisoner. I’d never heard of him beforehand, but now, having learned something of his various escapades, I can understand why he might be thought of that way.

The film is set up in a rather unusual manner. It presents several assorted points from Bronson’s life, intercut with him on stage before an audience in several stages of performance make-up, and speaking directly to camera while seemingly behind bars. Like A Clockwork Orange, the film juxtaposes highly intense, violent imagery with gentle, classical-sounding audio. You’re constantly reminded that what you’re watching is a movie, and never led to believe that any of what’s happening is real. In fact, were it not for the tagline, “based on a true story,” and my own research into Charlie Bronson’s existence, I would have sworn to you that this film was pure fiction. And you know what, I actually feel like that worked to the movie’s advantage. Most biopics try extremely hard to make themselves believable, and in so doing, set themselves up for criticism when they inevitably portray events or people inaccurately. Bronson, by contrast, exults in the fact that it is fiction by being extremely outrageous, which is actually quite fitting, since it is telling the story of an extremely outrageous man. Likewise, the movie’s lack of a moral center makes it more enjoyable. With it’s prison setting, violent main character, and classification as “A Clockwork Orange for the 21st century,” one might be led to believe that Bronson is a searing condemnation of society’s attempts to get everyone to conform to a certain behavioral standard by breaking the human spirit. And I will admit, there were several points in the story where I felt as though the movie was going down that path–like the scene where a fellow inmate says, “You’re no more mad than I am, and that scares them,” and the fact that the final shot shows a weak and wounded Bronson standing in a phone-booth sized cell–but the film never falls pray to the “look for the hidden meaning” monster. No one in the film ever tries to “change” Bronson, at least, not in the way that they tried to change Alex in A Clockwork Orange or McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The main character never seems disheartened by his situation. If anything, he seems to rather like it. He declares, numerous times throughout the film, his absolute love for prison, likening it to a hotel room, and even going so far as to strangle a sympathetic asylum inmate in order to ensure his return there. If there is a message to be taken from this film, it is that some people are just crazy, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

So, is Bronson really worth taking the time to watch? Absolutely! From it’s unique cinematography, to it’s enthralling soundtrack, to its self-aware absurdity and odd narrative voice, Bronson is a highly unique audio-visual experience that’s extremely enjoyable. Even if you don’t like prison movies or actors like Tom Hardy, this film is still a triumph, and on many levels. Some other critics might beg to differ, but I would go so far as to give this film an 8 out of 10. Hands down, one of the best pictures I’ve seen this year.

So, Why Is Drive Nicolas Winding Refn’s Most Popular Movie?

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

For years, whenever I heard the name Drive, all I could ask myself was “why?” Why did Nicolas Winding Refn, a director infamous for making morbid movies with ultra-masculine main characters, choose a pretty boy pansy like Ryan Gosling to be his lead? Why was Drive, an incredibly formulaic neo-noir crime thriller, met with such critical acclaim and box office boom? And finally, why was this, out of all of Winding Refn’s projects, the most successful? I mean, seriously, what’s so special about it? What aspect of this film is so daring, so visionary, as to catapult its director from an obscure art-house risk-taker to a Hollywood A-lister? Why didn’t any of Refn’s earlier successes, like Bronson or The Pusher Trilogy, hit it big as well? For that matter, why didn’t Valhalla Rising? I mean, after all, it’s an incredibly well-crafted surrealist nightmare of a movie. Shouldn’t something like that also garner critical recognition?

Well, having finally taken the time to sit down and watch Drive, all I can say in response to those earlier questions is, “because that’s what makes it awesome.” Yes, Drive‘s story is incredibly formulaic, yes, Ryan Gosling is not your typical tough guy, and yes, there are other Winding Refn films that are both more original and more thought provoking. Even so, Drive is still a well-paced, well-acted, visually-striking work of art that’s definitely worth taking the time to watch. A solid 8.5 in my opinion. And you know what’s really weird? Many of the movie’s faults actually worked to its advantage. How? Well, perhaps I should take a step bak and explain a few things.

You see, as hard as each individual might try to keep his or herself free from the chains of classification, everyone inevitably has a niche, something that they’re both good at and interested in. This truth holds particular weight among artists, especially filmmakers. As hard as they might try to keep us, the audience, guessing,we can’t help but notice certain motifs in their work. People who go into an M Night Shyamalan movie, for instance, do so with the expectation of seeing a story with a weird twist ending. Similarly, audiences have since come to accept the lurid bloodshed, 70s style soundtracks, and snappy dialogue of Tarantino pictures to be trademarks. Nicolas Winding Refn is likewise no exception to the directorial rule of niches. Several of his films share a number of strikingly similar characteristics, including a dark, brooding tone, a conspicuous lack of dialogue, a saturated color scheme and, of course, a gratuitous amount of graphic violence. Now, when I say “graphic violence,” I’m not referring to over-the-top, Quentin Tarantino-type cartoonish violence, or even the semi-pornographic stuff you might expect to see in an Eli Roth or Wes Craven film. I’m talking Mads Mikkelsen disemboweling a guy with his bare hands violence. I’m talking Ryan Gosling crushing a dude’s face with the heel of his shoe violence. I’m talking Vithaya Pansringarm impaling a person to a chair with a pair of chopsticks and then gouging out his eyes violence. And yet, despite all the carnage that unfolds before the camera in his films, Nicolas Winding Refn’s pictures are anything but torture porn. Many of his projects possess extremely profound moral or philosophical messages, usually having to do with religion or sexuality, and many more have strong mythological undertones. The characters in his films are less believable, flesh and blood individuals as they are archetypes or embodiments of various concepts he’s trying to get across. Tom Hardy’s character in Bronson, for instance, is a representation of the raw, animalistic impulses and desires that dwell within each of us, while Vithaya Pansringarm in Only God Forgives symbolizes the blind, merciless and unstoppable force of justice.

But what, you might be wondering, does all this talk of niches have to do with the success of Drive? Well, I’ll tell you. Drive is one of the only films which Nicolas Winding Refn chose to do in a manner that was unfamiliar to him. Instead of writing and directing an original screenplay, he chose to adapt a pre-existing novel. Instead of producing a picture with little to no dialogue, he made a movie with lots and lots of it. Instead of casting little known actors whom he felt could convey the themes he wanted, he decided to go with mainstream Hollywood stars. And finally, rather than make an original, thought-provoking movie with an underlying message, he decided to give us a piece of predictable, processed entertainment. Seriously! The whole story boils down to, stuntman-slash-getaway driver tries to help single mother, hyjinx ensues. It’s your basic crook finds redemption by helping others plot that we’ve seen so many times before–with Han Solo in Star Wars, Danny Archer in Blood Diamond, Wikus van der Merwe in District 9–that I’m kind of surprised people still want to watch it. But, back to my original point, when Nicolas Winding Refn decided to direct Drive, he also decided not to make a Nicolas Winding Refn picture. Oh sure, the movie still had some of his fingerprints on it–the main character is highly stoic, there’s a lot of onscreen violence, and most of the images have a surreal color scheme–but the heart of his work wasn’t present. As a result, the movie was more approachable to audiences and more comprehensible to critics. Basically, Drive was successful because it had a recognizable face in the lead, because it was incredibly easy to follow, and because there was nothing profound about it whatsoever, proving, once again, my theory that the principle that governs all American cinema is pulp crap = pure cash.

That’s what I think, anyway. If you disagree, don’t hesitate to say so. Alright, goodbye everybody. I hope you all enjoyed your spring breaks. This is Nathan Liu, signing off.