Monday, June 22, 2009

Pusher trilogy (Danish)

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In the 1990's a new era in the history of Danish cinema began with movies such as NATTEVAGTEN, DE STØRSTE HELTE, PORTLAND and most importantly PUSHER. Nicolas Winding Refn was only 26 years old when he co-wrote/directed this art-house masterpiece debut. I first saw this gem when I was 12 years old. I remember being immediately stunned. It had the stylishness and brutality of Martin Scorsese's GOODFELLAS or MEAN STREETS, the realism and hand-held camera-style of John Cassevettes' THE KILLING OF A Chinese BOOKIE and the cool pop-culture referential dialog of Quentin Tarantino's PULP FICTION, although it easily exceeds being just another post-modernistic Tarantino rip-off. It portrays the milieu and characters in such a realistic and dramatic way that it feels voyeuristic. PUSHER is a docu-drama in the truest sense of the word.

Storyline: Frank (Kim Bodnia) is a intelligent, ill-tempered, young drug-dealer who can deliver just the drug for your purposes - hash, heroin, cocaine etc. Frank's everyday life consists of selling drugs with his partner-in-crime/best friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) in Copenhagen's underworld, and hanging out with his girlfriend, the prostitute Vic (Laura Drasbæk) in the evening. They are three drug-addicts themselves. One day two police-men interrupt Frank in a big-time heroin-deal with a Swedish customer. Frank outruns the police-men down to Søerne, where he empties the heroin-bag into the water. Frank is arrested, but the police are forced to release him 24 hours later, since they didn't get the evidence. But now our protagonist has a much greater problem, as he owes away 230.000 Danish kroner for the eliminated heroin to Milo, one of the most dangerous drug-dealers in Copenhagen's underworld.

PUSHER portrays a bunch of lost people in the drug milieu of Copenhagen (the capitol of Denmark). Nicolas Winding Refn doesn't care about the drugs or the crimes, he's interested in the humans behind them. Therefore PUSHER feels very real and heart-wrenching. In a very brutal scene Frank locates Tonny at a bar, grabs a baseball bat under the counter, and smashes Tonny to pieces, because the police have informed Frank that Tonny has agreed to witness against Frank. In another scene Frank visits his mother, which he apparently rarely does, in a desperate attempt to loan money. We discover that Frank, unlike most of the lost souls in the crime world, actually comes from a normal danish middle-class family without any negative social heritage. Combining these two scenes illustrates greatly that Frank is a three-dimensional character, because he comes from a socially positive home, and still he's cynical enough to beat up his best friend with a baseball bat. What in Frank's life made him so cold? Hatred for his parents? Boredom? Depression? The answer isn't apparent, and that's what makes it so great.

Kim Bodnia (Frank) delivers one of the best performances ever seen in a Danish movie. In fact he's often been compared to Robert De Niro, although I think that image has changed since. Mads Mikkelsen (Tonny) shows much promise in his debut role. Today he's one of the highest regarded actors in Denmark, and in 2004 he continued the Tonny character in PUSHER 2. But the biggest cast surprise is Zlatko Buric (Milo) - an actor you have to see to believe. Many of his dialog improvisations in PUSHER have become popular catch-phrases in Danish youth culture. For example: Du er min veeen, Franke" or "Så du er blevet bustet, huh?" and many more. This is something that you can't pre-invent in any manuscript. Zlatko Buric is a natural!

The PUSHER soundtrack consists of amazing 80's-style glam-rock and heavy metal by Peter Peter (ex-member of legendary danish rock group Sort Sol). The hand-held camera work and semi-expressionistic cinematography by Morten Søborg was very innovative for its time, and matched the movie perfectly. The aforementioned cast is great, but also the small cameo-roles played by Lars Bom (Cop), Thomas Bo Larsen (Junkie) and Jesper Lohmann (Mikkel) must receive credits. If you enjoy raw semi-realistic gangster-movies such as THE KILLING OF A CHINEESE BOOKIE or MEAN STREETS, you have to give this a chance. Don't forget its two sequels which, amazingly enough, are even better. 9/10

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Nicolas Winding Refn's Pusher 1-3 is my favorite trilogy of danish film history. Pusher II (2004) is the best part of it. I have been a follower of Refn's work ever-since I saw his directional debut Pusher (1996) the first time. It had a great dynamic, it was brutally honest and it had a documentary-style (hand-held camera, great method-acting etc.) that gave it an authentic feeling.

The story-line: Small-time gangster Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) is released from prison, but quickly returns to the criminal underworld and gets hired by his father "Smeden" (Leif Sylvester): a big-time gangster highly respected in the underworld. But Tonny has a hard time earning his father's respect, and on top of that, he discovers that Charlotte (Anne Sørensen): a girl he once had sex with, has given birth to his child. Tonny has a hard time making the right decisions, and one day he agrees to help his friend Kusse-Kurt (Kurt Nielsen) purchase heroin worth of 80.000 danish kroner from big-time pusher Milo (Zlatko Buric), but since they are high off cocaine and paranoid they accidentally throw the heroin in the toilet, as they think a police-man enters the room. Now they have a big problem. They have to get 80.000 kroner very quickly...

In 2004 Nicolas Winding Refn almost went bankrupt, because his previous film Fear X (2002) which was shot on a big-budget in Canada, did horribly in the theaters and at box-office. Refn knew that a sequel for Pusher would do very well (Pusher 1 was the most engrossing debut film ever of Denmark) and the universe of the film had lots of artistic possibilities - therefore he decided on making it a trilogy. And Refn very much proofed that it is possible to make artistically interesting films out of rather commercial interests.

It could be argued that Pusher 1 glamorized the gangster/drug underworld at times. This is NOT the case in Pusher II. Although Pusher 1 did show the decay of a cold man in a cold milieu, we never really got into his feelings. In Pusher II we get to feel the pain and coldness (even when Tonny himself doesn't). Pusher II is a docu-drama based on realism (like Pusher 1), and only three characters are real actors. The rest of the cast consists of people off the street, and this very much adds to its authenticity. They do a great job! The second half of the film has a few very beautiful artistic scenes (almost dream-like) that almost pauses the film and gives its audience time for reflecting. In the scenes we see very dominant red colors and the music is almost ambient-like. A great idea that works very well - even in such a realistic film.

Mads Mikkelsen, Leif Sylvester and Zlatko Buric do terrific jobs. They are (as usual) very professional and passionate actors. But the real surprise is the untrained street-actors. They add SO much to the realism and rawness of the film. Pusher II is shot on DV-camera with a hand-held style, but it's far from Dogme. Many scenes look terrific, and the playing with distinctive colors red and green works well. I also have to give credit to Peterpeter's great rock/80's synthesizer soundtrack. It really under-builds the scenes in a scary way.

I highly recommend Pusher II (and the rest of the trilogy) to everyone! A perfect example of an artistic film that actually works for all audiences! 9/10

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Storyline: 10 years have passed since the first PUSHER movie. Big-time drug dealer Milo (Zlatko Buric) is stressed. Milo attempts to quit heroin by attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a shipment supposed to contain brown heroin turns out to contain 10.000 ecstasy-pills, and it's his daughter Milena's (Marinela Dekic) 25th birthday, and Milo has promised to cook food for her 50 guests. Little Muhammed (Ilyas Agac) leaves with the ecstasy-pills to sell them for Milo, but soon Milo can't find him, and the Albanian-Danish gangsters who smuggled the ecstasy-pills into Denmark are stressing Milo for their money. Conidentially Milo meets Kusse-Kurt (Kurt Nielsen) who slips him a small amount of heroin. Soon Milo's finds himself in a spiral of bad decisions smoking heroin, sniffing speed and murdering gangsters. Is Milo's drug empire finally crumbling?

Each installment of Nicolas Winding Refn's docu-drama trilogy tells a story from Copenhagen's underworld, but from three completely different protagonists' POV's. PUSHER tells the story of middle-level pusher Frank (Kim Bodnia), PUSHER 2 tells the story of low-level criminal Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), and PUSHER 3 tells the story of high-level pusher Milo (Zlatko Buric). The clear message of the trilogy is: you live by the sword, you die by the sword. All three movies end on very ambivalent notes. Frank gets killed... or perhaps he doesn't. Tonny breaks loose of his dead-end lifestyle... or perhaps he doesn't. And Milo's drug empire crumbles... or perhaps it doesn't. That's how life is. It doesn't just stop. Each movie keeps evolving in your head even after they've ended, similar to John Cassavetes' movies or Danny Boyles' 1996 masterpiece TRAINSPOTTING. It's certainly something one doesnn't experience in braindead Hollywood blockbusters nowadays.

Nicolas Winding Refn's PUSHER trilogy is obviously inspired by John Cassevetes' movie-making style as they are more instinctive than intellectual, because the audience goes through the same turbulent emotions as Milo, whether it's melancholy, joy or bitterness. It's not a very fast-paced movie (except for a few breath-taking scenes), but Refn manages to maintain an uneasy tension that keeps the audience on the edge of the seats. It reflects Refn's love for his (three-dimensional) characters. Refn's 95% non-Danish dialog (the cast mainly consists of immigrants) is somewhere in-between Quentin Tarantino and John Cassavetes: very self-conscious, yet also natural and realistic. The foreign languages only adds to the mysteriousness and danger of these immigrant gangsters.

The cast primarily consists of unprofessional actors, some even with semi-criminal backgrounds, and, naturally the great Zlatko Buric whom Refn has called "the new Dirch Passer". Buric brilliantly brings out Milo's two-face ambivalence and vulnerability of an aging man in a constantly changing milieu. Refn gets performances from the unprofessional cast that range from acceptable to great -- they all add to the realness and authenticity. Many of them, of course, more or less play their real life-themselves. Many of the PUSHER characters keep re-occurring throughout the trilogy. For example: Milo (Zlatko Buric) has a supporting-role in PUSHER, a cameo-role in PUSHER 2 and the main-role in PUSHER 3. Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) has a supporting-role in PUSHER and the main-role in PUSHER 2. Kusse-Kurt (Kurt Nielsen) has a supporting-role in PUSHER 2 and a cameo-role in PUSHER 3. This provides a feeling of continuity to the trilogy's milieu.

Peter Peter (ex-member of the legendary Danish rock-group Sort Sol) has again composed the music in collaboration with Kyed. Although I preferred the 80's-synth-inspired score in PUSHER 2, this time it's effective, bleak and minimal. For example: When Kusse-Kurt slips Milo a small amount of heroin in the grill-bar, shortly after a disturbing, noisy, distorted guitar-riff begins clashing repeatedly with 4 second intervals. It underlines Milo's desperate mind-state. One minute later Milo walks into the restroom to smoke the heroin, where the clashing guitar sound slowly transforms into a beautiful, melancholic piano-tune to underline the heroin's effect on Milo. It's a good example of subtle use of music as a movie-language.

Refn's love for so-called trashy genre-flicks shows through-out his work. Although his movies (the PUSHER trilogy, BLEEDER and FEAR X) are more art-house than genre-pieces, they are loaded with references to his favorite obscure movies, most noticeably in BLEEDER. But also PUSHER 3 contains a subtle reference, probably not known to most audiences. The climax-scene in-which Radovan (Slavko Labovic) slices up the body hanging form the ceiling is an obvious homage to one of Refn's favorite-movies Paul Morrissey's FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN from 1973 starring Udo Kier. FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN is a an original twist on the Frankenstein franchise with necrophiliac undertones. Refn borrows his climax from the climax of FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN: the music, the chains slowly pulling the body up, the depraved depiction of human-flesh etc. As they say, the best directors borrow from their favorite-directors.

Although all three installment are semi-masterpieces I personally prefer PUSHER 3 by a few inches. It's more honest, more disturbing, and more experimental. I have experienced the first-mentioned first-hand, as I spend years in the drug milieu. Refn's PUSHER trilogy is a street-level counterpart to Martin Scorsese's gangster trilogy (consisting of MEAN STREETS from 1973, GOODFELLAS from 1990, and CASINO from 1995), because both trilogies portray the crime underworld from low-level, middle-level and high-level gangsters' POV's. I highly recommend PUSHER 3 especially if you enjoyed its successors, although, the re-occurring characters aside, it's not completely necessary to watch the prequels before experiencing this gem, but I recommend doing so. Watch it! 9/10