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The French "Life is Beautiful" ..., 5 August 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

... also 'spoiled' in the following review. (Warning)

Indeed, "Strange Gardens" is bound to inspire the inevitable comparison as a poignant tragicomedy with WW2 as a backdrop. "Life is Beautiful" was about Guido, literally a guide preserving not only his son's life but his spirit in the worst possible setting: a death camp, using the only weapon he was blessed of : humor, the best of humanity against its worst, fair trade.

"Strange Gardens" is a no-less inspiring version of "Life is Beautiful" for it tells, in a flashback, during the Occupation, the story of Jacques, played by the late French actor with the lovable buffoon's face, Jacques Villeret and the misadventure he lived with his friends André (André Dussolier), Thierry (his no-nonsense partner in "The Dinner", Thierry Lhermitte) and a young resistant, Emile, played by Benoit Magimel. "Life is Beautiful" was narrated in flashback and that it was the son's adult voice didn't leave much for optimism regarding his father's fate. But in "Strange Gardens", we know they lived, but the point isn't about survival, but a life-changing experience.

The storyteller is André who just realized Jacques' son's embarrassment while his father was performing a clown number during a summer village festival. André explains the little boy that his father's vocation has a deeper meaning and the film's poster gives a clue (hopefully, someone will put it on IMDb) it's a red clown nose under a German soldier's helmet, a reminiscent of the Hippie sign and 'Born to Kill' in "Full Metal Jacket". We have the juxtaposition of the necessities of war and those of life, fighting versus laughing, something that divides and something that unites people. Surely, you can't be a soldier and a clown, and any German who'd rather act like a buffoon than a Nazi, is liable to be called a hero.

"Strange Gardens" intelligently puts a new perspective on the hackneyed concept of heroism. In the village of Douai, Jacques and André are two bachelor friends who try to live their life peacefully, but their virile pride is tickled when the local pretty girl Louise (Isabelle Candelier) expresses her admiration toward young men from the Resistance, who risk their life for their country. The two men desperately invoke self-preservation, and realism but they know, deep inside that a man not afraid to die is just too romantic for women's words. So like two bratty kids, they decide to have a little fun, and contribute to the Resistance. They make their bones by throwing a bottle of wine on a German train passing under the bridge and as they hide, they can feel the exhilaration.

So they go for a more ambitious and risky project, probably driven by the enthusiastic pride of having to tell that story to Louise. They sabotage a signal box with explosives, an old French railroad worker is injured, but they manage to run away. But as a common act of vengeance, the Germans pick four villagers as hostages; giving an ultimate chance to the saboteurs to reveal their identities. Ironically, André and Jacques are among the selected prisoners, besides Thierry, the insurance banker and the young Emile. They're all put in a deep clay pit; like the one Poitier and Curtis had to climb up in "The Defiant Ones", but the four men can't as the soil is too watery. They're literally stuck in the hole waiting for … any help.

Some heroes, indeed … who basically tried to be ones for wrong reasons: to impress a girl and then jeopardizing the lives of innocent men who were so honorable they couldn't even believe them when they admitted their guilt. But now, they're in a situation begging for a hero. And the first salvation cord will come from the most unlikely person: a German. Bendt (Bernard Collins) loves France perhaps as much as he loves life and joy and provides the four ill-fated friends a few tastes of sausages, wine, and fun through a slapstick performance, like a last good meal before the execution. They laugh together, brag about their cultural differences as if war never existed and at that point of the film, it hits the same sensitive chord as "Life is Beautiful", and instinctively, we feel there shall be a deadly cost for the four men's lives.

Indeed, the injured worker at the edge of death will volunteer to take the blame in order to save what he thinks are innocent people, but this sacrifice could've been useless as in the same time, German soldiers were already aiming their rifles at the four Frenchmen trying to cover from a certain death. Their life handed on a nick of time, still, enough time for Bendt to keep his rifle low, to disobey the orders and put his clown nose instead, as a last F-you to the whole crappiness of War. Bendt being shot had the same feeling than Guido's off-screen execution, two generous souls dying because they had to hide someone dear from an evil attention. This is what heroism is about, straightforward, disinterested and mercilessly lethal. Both the old worker and Bendt sacrificed themselves; and teach a lesson about the true meaning of heroism.

After the emotional climax, the movie tends to sustain more than the time needed; there had to be a scene where the two men admit their guilt to the worker's widow but their hesitation is rather awkward as you'd think they could at least had the guts to do something that didn't put their lives at stakes. Suzanne Fion, who plays the widow, forgives them with a look begging them to earn these sacrifices. This is why Jacques became a clown and why at the end, the kid finally smiles as he sees his father.

Like Villeret himself, Jacques uses his amicable rotund appearance to remind us that to laugh is the proper of a man, and as long as there are men…

Grease (1978)
Tender Nostalgia of Unlived Times ..., 3 August 2015

At a time that confines now to prehistory, when box-office top-tens weren't made of franchises' appointed reboots or frankly disappointing remakes, of Pixar marvels or Marvels pixilation, two school movies could make it in the Top 3 of the highest-grossing movies of the year. From third to first, it was "Animal House" and "Grease" (for the trivia, "Superman" was the second).

And these two movies -regarded now as classic- worked because they didn't conflict one to another, each one carried its own spirit and did a damn good job at that. John Landis' "Animal House" was set in 1962 but was clearly impregnated by a touch of absurdity and a sense of anarchy, obviously too mature for the very time it depicted, like a raunchy and adult variation of something that was closer tone-wise to George Lucas' 1962 in "American Graffiti". Granted the actors were all baby-boomers who lived the real 1962, but it was their 1978 selves acting there, no doubt.

Things work in reverse for "Grease", it's set only three years earlier, not a huge chronological leap, but it's an obvious over-the-top, fantasized version of the 50's, one that the cast knew as kids or pre-teens and could only re-enact with a tender nostalgia, which is what "Grease" is about. There's no way you can watch that "We Go Together" sequence at the end without feeling some magical sentiment invading your heart. The only proper description I can give (from a guy born four years after the film) is 'paradoxical nostalgia'. Basically, I feel like I lived at the film's time or the release's time, who said Cinema acted rationally anyway?

And the reason, I, and I believe many fans who're from my generation, feel that way is because "Grease" plays the cards straightforwardly and doesn't pretend to be anything else than a good old-fashioned romance and a heart-grabbing musical. Does it sound too reducing? Maybe; but then again, how many romances fail? How many musicals were swept-off by the passing of time? It's not easy, and sometimes, you need two strong protagonists to make it work. In the case of "Grease", directed by Randal Kleiser (because the director deserves some credit) and I apologize in advance to Olivia Newton-John's fans, I think the film works primarily thanks to John Travolta, who plays Danny Zuko, the cool and handsome T Birds leader.

Indeed, if there's anything "Grease" did, is to have proved some skeptical minds that Travolta wasn't a one-hit wonder, the hit being his success in "Saturday Night Fever", the cocky disco dancer staggering down New York was meant to 'stay alive'. He had the looks, the charisma and just as he knew how to be funny even in a dramatic way, in the case of "Grease", he could be serious in a comedic way. Travolta's success wasn't accidental and although he had many ups and downs, he was an actor who could act and move his way out of a good story, so that his persona wouldn't desert the screens forever.

Of course, everyone remembers the names of Olivia Newton-John who played Sandy, the sweet and innocent Australian girl falling in love with the bad-boy, macho man and cool greaser, in another take of "Romeo and Juliet" meets "Beauty and the Beast" myths, as we all remember Stockard Channing as the scene-stealing Pink Sisters' leader Rizzo and … you know, that actress who played Frenchy… it gets tougher, now. I know the rest of the cast includes many nice- looking guys and dolls, 2uko's friend, Kelk.. Kell… never mind, the torrid 'Cha-cha' (whom I just learned from Wikipedia that she passed away) but also a first-class list of supporting players who, by their sole presence, pay a genuine tribute to the old days : Sid Caesar, Joan Blondell, Frankie Avalon and Eve Arden, to name a few…

But it's Travolta's movie nonetheless. And he might have half of Astaire's dancing talent or half of James Dean's iconic appeal, but both halves makes a 'one' that oddly surpasses these two legends. And it doesn't shine only during the romantic moments, because like I said, it took two things to make '"Grease" work: a romance and a musical, and I guess the streak of stinkers Travolta had during the 80's was because each time, something lacked. But even when your plot is predictable, all you need are catchy songs and memorable lyrics. "Grease" has more than needed, and there's never one moment you feel like skipping. From "Summer Nights" to "Sandra Dee" from the sweet "Hopelessly Devoted to You" to the defining "You're the One that I Want" and the final apotheosis of "Go Together", every emotion is rewarded, and the fun is always there.

"Grease" made it in both AFI's Romances and Musical List with "Summer Nights" in the Top 100 Songs ("The One that I Want" was unfairly overlooked). The film was the last musical to throne on the box-office and it is the most successful one in history, and almost forty years later, its appeal is undeniable. It might feel laughable in a sort of juvenile naivety whether the two friends pretending to act macho after a hug, the way one gets knocked down by a car door or the whole 'all's well that ends well' finale but it still works. And as I suspect most viewers in 1978 weren't high school kids in 1959; and thankfully, so they couldn't spot the exaggeration, we love the film now for its timeless quality and tender simplicity; one that made the success a series like "Glee".

That's the power of music, always carrying a personal resonance. Speaking of mine, I remembered spotting during the dance-off the choreography from that Spanish summer hit "Asereje" and using Zucco as my first nickname when I started chatting (good old Caramail days). That among many other things.

Oh yeah; and it was Didi Conn playing Frenchie (thanks, Wikipedia)

The shortest way between two hearts is never a straight line ..., 24 July 2015

Most of the delight provided by Joe Wright's "Pride and Prejudice" is that the late 18th century material of Jane Austen's celebrated novel is handled with a subtle but imperceptible modern touch. It as though as the heroines were not much different from high school girls of two centuries later, not that the movie was modernized in such a way it betrayed Jane Austen's spirit but as if, in its clearly stated intention to target a younger audiences, it found the perfect note and tone to that, much more with the perfect actresses. It's not even a coincidence that all the plot-driving Bennett sisters are played by future A-list actresses: Carey Mulligan, Rosamund Pike and last but not least, Keira Knightley. Today, they gathered more Oscar nominations together than Donald Sutherland, in one of his most charming and endearing roles as a father stricken by the blessing (or the curse) of having only daughters.

Watching these sisters interact during the film reminded of this cliché of teenage girls gossiping, wondering if the school heartthrob said this or that, or how they can approach him without looking too pushy or needy. It's all the same game in "Pride & Prejudice" but it works even better in the film because the stakes are higher than a simple flirt or a date, the film is about marriage and we all know what it meant in the 18th century, for girls as much as men. A man with a profession and a good fortune had to be married, at eighteen, a girl had to find such a man, all she had to do was to be pretty, fertile, other considerations such as wit and personality were more or less important. The point was that anyone with a daughter had to make it a matter of honor to prevent her from being a spinster, Mrs. Bennett (Brenda Betthlyn) had five daughters, so it wasn't a part-time job, she would know no rest before she'd marry the youngest one, and yes, they had to be married in order, in order not to show that one has been passed over.

It's a whole marketing process, but money was at stakes as well as love matters. With five daughters, only a male distant cousin of the Family, the boring Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) would inherit from the Bennett's landowning fortune. There are parameters to be taken into consideration, and urgency is one of them. And the intelligence of the film is not to overdo the 'modernity' card. Indeed, had it ever tried to criticize them indirectly, that would've been too artificially feminist for its own good, but even Lizzie, who is the most free-spirited sister accepts the idea of falling in love and marrying as part of life requirements, because she's also, like any girl of her age, in quest of a true love, and she's not deprived of bad looks. Keira Knightley is perfect with that unique combination of hers of mature wits and speech mannerisms and that cute smile that oddly distorts her lips and shrink her eyes, a sight that melts my heart every time. She's typically the girl any man would fall in lover with, but obviously, she's not for any man. One of the most painful moments is when Cousin Collins, as boring a pastor as vertically challenged, asks her for marriage and she finds the proper words to put him in his place, diplomatic, polite but final.

She does so, because if not her heart, her mind is still invaded by the figure of Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden) a handsome and smoothly dark friend of the more sociable and jovial Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) who just moved next to the Bennetts and seems to have grown a mutual fondness with the older sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike). Jane, as a naturally shy girl doesn't express her excitement enough although she likes Bingley, and at the risk of not appearing needy, she dangerously lets her attitude slide toward a form of cold distance during the crucial ball scene. Meanwhile,, a few exchanges between Lizzie and Darcy showed the obligatory dislike at first sight, but such a peculiar dislike that can't fool us, it's acted in such a way that we can't believe these two persons aren't made for each other. Interestingly, the growing romance between Jane and Bingley makes allow Lizzie and Darcy to meet more regularly despite their official façade of animosity. Of course, the romance won't go without a series of misunderstandings that will undermine the romance, the most memorable involve a dashing young captain named Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend) in contention with Darcy and a domineering aunt, played by Judi Dench, who has other plans for Darcy.

The movie is a powerful illustration that the shortest way between two hearts is never a straight line, to be together, many misunderstanding will have to be cleared, but neither the bitchy aunt or the presumptuous captain are as effective antagonists in the film as the titular pride and prejudice, prejudice hurts one's pride, and when a hurt pride paves the way to prejudice, and most the excitement comes from watching these two hearts trying to get out of that vicious circle. That and seeing Mrs. Bennett desperately praising her daughters' charms and virtues as if she was trying to be the saleswoman of the month.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Seven Reasons to venerate "Seven Samurai"..., 24 July 2015


Seven Samurai, of unequal skills and experience, are hired for a dangerous mission : saving a village from bandits who plan to attack after the harvest. That very premise fathered almost every action movie for the next fifty years, from its remake "The Magnificent Seven" or "The Dirty Dozen" to "Inglourious Basterds" or "The Expendables". Quoting Ebert, the film also introduces the first Samurai Kambei (Takashi Shimura) while he rescues a young boy by disguising as a monk, which foresees the narrative device of introducing the hero through an unrelated mission. Another interesting trivia is that the original script counted on six Samurai, with Toshiro Mifune playing Seiji Myagushi's role as Kyuzo, the taciturn master swordsman. But then Kurosawa had a strike of genius.


Among the six, you have the zealous rookie Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) the amiable although less-skilled Heihachi, played by another recognizable face : Minoru Chiaki (the tallest one), the wise and experienced leader, the stone-faced stoic bad-ass, and other competent lieutenants. That gallery, that was to be reproduced in several films, was incomplete. As interesting and relatable as they were, Kurosawa understood that they would be boring without the obligatory scene-stealer, and how do you steal the thunder of serious and no-nonsense ronin? Simply by playing it in the most exuberant, flamboyant, noisy, showoff, in fact, the Toshiro Mifune way. As Kikuchiyo, Mifune is the spice, the soul of the film, much more with an attitude that never feels gratuitous.


Indeed, not only each of the Samurai is given recognizable traits, but the personalities are revealed through action, never wasted on pointless dialogue. Mifune is obviously desperate to show his skills as a samurai, wearing the most visible armors, the longest spears, overcompensating obviously. It's only later that Kanbei understands he's a farmer's son himself. And he's not the only character to have a secret, the hot-headed farmer Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) holds a terrible one and the young Katsushiro lives a romance with a villager's daughter played by the inevitable Keiko Tsushima. The village becomes the arena of another battle between classes and egos. Ronin, perceived as lustful, dangerous or greedy individuals are feared by villagers even though they're supposed to help them. But as bandits attack the weak, and samurai protect them, villagers have no other chance than trusting the Samurai and getting along with them.


A school-case on that matter : hiring the team, preparing the battle and fighting. The sequences of equal length are handled with methodic and realistic patience. We know the samurai's value for they accept to fight in exchange of hospitality, millet and also some consideration, but it takes more to build sympathy. As it takes time for villagers to learn how to fight, the occasion of a few comedic scenes involving Kikuchyo and the poor cowardly Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari). And there's the battle, an even more heart-pounding sequence because it doesn't happen in once. It's made of preemptive strikes where they discover that the enemies have three muskets, which are like bullets from one-gun movies (Kurosawa's noir- masterpiece "Stray Dog" to name one) each one plays a role, each death is memorable, that's the emotional reward of 'slowness', just as Kambei who takes his time counting the number of bandits killed.


"Seven Samurai" is shot in exterior, not in studio because Kurosawa wanted to give the film the most authentic feel, regardless of the costs or delays in productions, he followed his instinct of a filmmaker. Therefore, the setting plays a pivotal role, Kambei inspects the zone and orders the construction of ditches around the village, later; groups of villagers would welcome any intruding bandit with spears.. The stratagem works as it allows them to capture bandits or kill them one by one. But bandits learns to overcome them and enter the village during a climactic downpour during which water and mud slow down every movement and make the battle more chaotic and the thrills more breathtaking, and the ultimate confrontation more emotionally satisfying.


Kurosawa directed these battle scenes with a remarkable craftsmanship, swinging between large panoramic shots with standard classics like the enemy peering from over a cliff and horsemen riding it down, to more close-ups of swords clinching each other. Watching the film, I was left with the impression that Kurosawa didn't take chances but on the contrary, the most different and awkward angles he could, and thanks to a painstaking dedication to editing, he got this magnificent result. Kurosawa was a great director because he mastered two things : editing and storytelling.


So, if there ever was a center of Cinema's universe, no one could be as influential for modern film-making as the Japanese Master. "Rashomon" was the first movie to use the unreliable narrator device and alternate views of the same reality, and "Hidden Fortress" and "Yojinbo" would later influence two of the most popular movie series : "Star Wars" and Leone's Spaghetti Westerns. But for all they're worth, these legacies are nothing compared to the milestone directed in 1954, that title preceded by its reputation, perhaps the most famous Japanese movie : "Seven Samurai". And there are reasons why "Seven Samurai" is so grandly regarded, at least, seven.

Jack Lemmon vs. The City of New York ..., 24 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Will it matter to know that the director of ''The Out-of-Towners'' is Arthur Hiller, the same who made the highest-grossing movie of the same year ''Love Story'' ? Probably not. Or maybe a little, as there are some touching expressions marital love and understanding (or at least pretensions) between the husband George, played by Jack Lemmon and his wife Glen Kellerman, played by Sandy Dennis. There is also a sort of hidden message lying underneath this series of incredible misadventures that directly puts in equation the kind of life suburbans like George and Gwen wish to commit themselves to, even if it costs George a position as Vice President of Sales in New York City. Literally, the couple will choke on the Big Apple, but maybe for their own good.

George Kellerman is appointed for a job interview at 9 am, a formality as he thinks he's is in a shoo-in for the job, the airplane will arrive at night, before 8 pm so he'll have the time to a fancy dinner with Gwen at the Four Seasons restaurant and then a romantic night in the Waldorf Astoria hotel, everything is planned. But there's a way why Arabs say « If God wills » because naturally, nothing goes as planned. As soon as the plane starts circling around for hours and hours swallowing in the process the Four Seasons dinner, and when it lands to Boston while the luggage with George's medics for ulcer are you know that the film will follow a simple pattern : « whatever can go wrong, will go wrong » you've heard it before, Murphy's law, a feeling of deja vu from a movie you probably watched before that one ''Planes, Trains and Automobiles'', and indeed, the couple is never short of bad luck, one that get to the smallest detail. After George and Gwen wait for two hours to get at the train restaurant, only bread and olives are left, talk about a stretch from the restaurant dinner and even the airplane meal George didn't let his wife had because he still thought he could make it in the Four Seasons.

You can't even label the couple as unlucky for they have that subtle thing we call in my family 'luck in bad luck'. If anything had made him miss the train from Boston, the interview would've been canceled, but they get enough luck to keep moving toward their Holy Grail, just sleeping in the hotel. And the taxi strike didn't make it easier, nor the fact that George forgot to confirm the hotel booking. The power of the film is to avoid a feeling of repetitiveness by toying with the funniest bureaucratic procedures related to transportations and make them the source of excitement in a sort of « what next ? » anticipation.

It feels like a gimmicky movie, but this is a script written by Neil Simon, who made some of the funniest movies from simple situations, ''The Odd Couple'' was one of them. And of course, the performances of Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis elevate the film to another level, because they're not just a couple, but they work like a Laurel and Hardy pair, he's the maniac husband who's trying to prove his wife that he means business and ask every uncooperative worker for his address and name, while she sort of plays it like her mousy Oscar-winning character in « Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf » a devoted wife whose only satisfaction comes from her husband's but whose patience isn't unlimited. We also wait for the moment she won't stand it anymore because that will mean they're in serious trouble and George will finally read the hidden message.

Indeed, something progressively evolves as George get less and less confident and Gwen more and more tired of all these tiresome manifestations of hard luck. The evolution reaches its paroxysm during a beautiful climax where George who finally got the job announces it to Gwen, and she finally lets the most beautiful part of her personality bloom in a tender and serious moment where she questions her husband's decision. Why not taking a lesson from this hard day in New York and get back to their quiet town in Ohio. The look on Jack Lemmon's face is of a hypnotic fascination that foresees more dramatic roles to come, you can tell he loves his wife and knows she's her love life from what she says. And I loved that very scene because it touched a sensitive chord. Lately, I had to go back to Paris for a job interview, I took the train, the subway, went through the crowded streets, the same places I spent almost a third of my life in. And for some reason, I started asking myself if I really wanted to get back to that again, if it was worth it.

Is it worth it? That's the question the film asks, the tone is comical and lighthearted but never underestimate a movie written by Neil Simon, played by the late Lemmon and Dennis, and also by ''Love Story'' director, behind the laughs, it provides many touching moments and powerful insights about commitment whether professional or marital, but it doesn't forget to bring you a little twist at the end. A cocktail of gags and sweetness to savor without moderation !

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"Terminator 2" is to "The Terminator" what T-1000 is to T-800 ..., 24 July 2015

My generation still remembers the impact of James Cameron's "Terminator 2", it was the new touchstone in special effects, with CGI effects that still holds up very well today while "Jurassic Park" dinosaurs make Bruce the Shark look like something from National Geographic. I challenge everybody to spot anything fake in the way T-1000 parts liquefy or turn to a blade. It looks so real and it'd better do, because otherwise, the film wouldn't work.

"The Terminator" had good but no revolutionary special effects, the story and the action wowed audiences. In "Terminator 2", one of a few sequels recognized as better than the original, the story, the action AND the special effects impressed everyone. And that simple statement deserves a second reading, it means that the movie didn't rely on special effects only, it didn't take them for granted, they had to support the story, they had to have a point. Well, they had the better point they could ever have, underlining the villain's dangerousness and invincibility. A great Sci-fi movie must be spectacular, a great thriller must have a terrific villain to allow the heroes to shine. "T2" had both and the villain was so constantly spectacular it made the chases look rather conventional, which is saying a lot. Not just thrilling and invincible, but like Michael Biehn in the first film, Robert Patrick is the 'unknown-yet-reassuring face', even more dangerous with a cop uniform.

T-1000 is not a replica of the former Terminator model, he's more sophisticated, he can take a human form after touching it, and he can turn his arms or other parts of his robotic anatomy into blunt instruments. What does that mean ? That you can burn him, freeze him and blow him to pieces, his molecular structure will slowly reassemble and, paraphrasing Arnie, 'he'll be back' to hunt you. He's programed to kill John Connor, which means that he's determined and you better not cross his path, in the better case, he'll tell you to get out from such a thing as a driving truck or a flying chopper, in the worst, he'll kill you, either with a bullet but more likely in a way you won't have to see coming. The film features countless 'ouch' moments, which are another mark of the film's greatness, its capability not to swim in the same waters than the predecessor by still recycling the same story. "Terminator 2" is to "The Terminator" what T-1000 is to T-800, same program, different technology.

The similar program is the requirement of the story. Good old Skynet victim of its own success caused robots to rebel against humans, but they were defeated by John Connor. They tried to kill his mother, and ironically, allowed his very existence, how about then killing the son directly ? When you think about it, this is an endless loop, if the mission fails again and John Connor at 13 isn't killed, they can try him at 7. As a matter of fact, they could've sent a T-1000 in 1984 right again, but the film handles this issue very cleverly. The good Terminator, T-800, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, will not only be to protect John (Edward Furlong) and eventually kill T-1000 (that's the only way to protect John on the longer term anyway) but also prevent the whole Skynet project from ever existing. "T2" was supposed to be the one that closed the series, I wish it could have remained that way.

So what do we have ? A great villain, a denser and richer story although based on a similar plot, and a great hero. This is another aspect where the film outsmarted its predecessor, the re-casting, so to speak, of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the same role but on the other side of the coin, a robot programmed as a bodyguard, but whose contact with John Connor will teach him a few things about humanity. To have a character like John Connor gives another dimension to the story, while the first was sliding down to a touching romance, Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton had that romantic thing about them, but this time, Sarah Connor changed, she's the bad-ass heroin we left in 1984, too concerned by the future to care for romance, let's make a sort of friendship story.

And Arnie strikes again with a tailor-made role for him, playing the same role but you can tell it's not the same character than in 1984. In fact, you could make a film with the two characters fighting each other without having the feeling it's the same actor. Fittingly, both would be listed in the American Film Institute's Top 50 Heroes and Villains, and I believe T-1000 would have deserved a spot in the villains' list. Arnold, like all the other actors, delivers one of his finest performance, served by unforgettable catchphrases. As if « I'll be back » wasn't catchy enough, "T2" had « No Problemo » and the iconic and immortal « Hasta la vista, Baby ! » The 90's feel so far away when I remember the impact the film had, not just the Sci-fi stuff, or the duel between Arnold and that killer robot trying to get John, there were the relationships, the story, the characters.

"Terminator 2 : Judgement Day" isn't a continuation, it's an improvement of a material that was already great in the first place. The good characters are still there, the new ones are more impressive, the special effects (sweeping all the major Oscar categories) were top notch, and the Pop Culture thing isn't to prove now. The film made it #5 in the American Film Institute's Top 10 Sci-fi movies, an all natural choice because the film is a school case of sequel-making. James Cameron mastering his own directorial talent had already proved it with "Aliens" : a great sequel must remind of the great stuff that was in the original while being a great movie on its own.

Sin City (2005)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Makes Gotham City look like Munchkin Land ..., 24 July 2015

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are of the same generation, but not the same range of talent, there's one element where Tarantino surpasses his friend : writing and storytelling, and in Hollywood, that means a lot. So at the time Rodriguez made himself famous with the 'Mexican' trilogy and the 'Spy kids' series, Tarantino was already a unanimously acclaimed director and the standard-bearer of a cinematic revolution that gave witty dialogs and random Pop Culture references their significances to weird intricate plots. And I must add with style and an appealing overdose of fun and violence.

Honestly, I'm not much a fan of the three last movies directed by Tarantino, I believe he got so wrapped up in his success that he never tried to get out of his comfort zone. However, I believe the "Kill Bill" series to be his last masterpiece, the pinnacle of the Tarantino touch, a vibrant, flamboyant and emotionally engaging, homage to the Martial Arts movies that influenced him. But the film had style too, and style was an area where Robert Rodriguez wasn't just comfortable but capable to outrank his gifted friend. So, it's just as in 2005, he came out with his own "Kill Bill", a no-less dazzling and hypnotic masterpiece named "Sin City", based on Frank Miller's graphic comic-book series. And that one of the best-looking movies of the 2000's never got nominated for Best Cinematography is as sinful as any of the sins in "Sin City".

Dark and gloomy, the titular setting would make Gotham City look like Munchkin land, it's over-the-top film-noir photography reminded me of these Photoshop effects where I playfully augmented the contrast to give an eerie look to the most banal image. Rodriguez, a man of his generation, understood the endless implications of computerized images : basically, you could make miracles with it. And that's what the movie is, a miracle. The black-and-white look like painted with China ink, and colors are highlighted every once in a while in the most visually affecting ways, blood is like red stains soiling the frame, the blonde hair of that Marv's sweetheart is mesmerizing, and sometimes, colors get you to more sickening reactions such as the guts of that gutless Yellow Bastard. Color is like a protagonist in the film, images serve the story as the story serves them, it's like the perfect symbiosis of the form and the content.

And with an extraordinary wizardry, Rodriguez edits the film to create another spellbinding symbiosis with the storytelling. I said Tarantino was superior in storytelling, but Rodriguez conceals his weakness by adapting the comics on-the-nose, straight-forwardly, an image speaking for thousand words but thousand-word monologues feeling like verbal caresses. Structure-wise, the film employs the same circular narrative that made "Pulp Fiction"'s reputation. In "Sin City", characters meet each other, you leave them someplace and find them again in another, they're always part of the same universe like different pieces of chess game that only at the end, reward your patience and give you the whole scope, through its bunch of crooked politicians, corrupt cops, and 'gold-hearted' prostitutes observing a fragile truce with the Police. With all the gangsters, priests, dancers, lawyers, killers and cannibals, "Sin City" is like the matrix of sex and violence in urban Pop Culture, where being good is the exception... no matter to which side of the Law one belongs.

Hell, what do you expect from such a title anyway? You have your share of Gothic sensuality, high-heels and G-strings, women are poetic sexiness in motion and men lustful and justice enforcers (the true justice), there's an odd mix of old-school characterization and modernity, and the whole movie is so dizzyingly good you never have time to analyze, it's a film to enjoy, to be entertained with. And it's a fun movie where you know all the actors had fun playing in it. In a way, "Sin City" is like Rodriguez' revenge on Tarantino, it's his own star-studded movie with Michael Madsen from "Reservoir Dogs", Bruce Willis from "Pulp Fiction" and a female casting instinct that has nothing to envy on Tarantino, from Rosario Dawson as a luscious dominatrix to the unforgettable Carla Gugino who makes quite an entrance in the film. But I must say Mickey Rourke makes the most durable impression, and I have the feeling that his come-back that pinnacled with "The Wrestler" started with "Sin City".

"Sin City" is a gem, one of the best films of the last decade, a masterpiece of Pop Culture, and Rodriguez' most mature and complete movie. He who asked his friend Tarantino to tell a joke in "Desperado" asked him to direct a part in "Sin City", it was the car scene between Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro. I have less to say about that moment than this touching interaction between the two directors, there is something of Lucas and Coppola in them, Coppola was already an established director in 70's yet he always supported Lucas and encouraged him to push the envelope as best he could. In a way, "Sin City" is Rodriguez' "Star Wars".

Fantastic premise, but too much 'bad-Denzel' for the film's own good ..., 24 July 2015

Boy, was Denzel Washington good at being bad ! You almost have the feeling that he had fun portraying Detective Alonzo Harris, the corrupt cop and mentor, during the titular "Training Day" of Jake Hoyt, the rookie played no less convincingly by Ethan Hawke. Both actors would be nominated for the Oscar, but only Washington took it home. This is how persuasively villainous he was. The recognition also came from the American Film Institute that put him #50 of the Top American villains, the last spot but to his defense, he was the most recent entry. Anyway, « Training Day » has been remembered ever since as the « Bad Guy Denzel Movie ».

Washington had fun and it sure shows, he gives a figure that is not that unfamiliar for cop-movies buffs a larger-than-life vibe, he's on the screen for less than twenty seconds that you know you're onto a great creation, a narc cop dressed like a Black Panther or Black Muslim militant, a gangsta goatee and a black beanie, a smile that would make any small-time thug freeze from fear. How come an actor with such a friendly face can get so intimidating, sure part of the merit comes from Washington's performance, but it also owes to Ethan Hawke who, as Jake Hoyt, is the perfect counterpart to Washington's alpha male confidence. And their first exchanges in the restaurant shows with a few words that these men are separated by experience, equaling in such a dirty racket, to an eternity.

Hoyt lives in a modest apartment with his wife and a 9-month daughter, his dream is to climb the social ladder, which in the Police, means he must pass the 'danger' square. The training day is Hoyt's opportunity to make his bones, his career depends on it. That perfectly sets up his character, he's a man determined to succeed and be a good police officer. Part of his learning will consist on discovering that both goals can cancel out one another, yet the film would've been too cynical had it been the culmination of the 'coming-of-age' learning. It's not a movie about the disciple outranking the mentor, but the disciple learning a few ropes from the mentor and still be able to stick to his values. And that's what, in my humble opinion, emerges from the first exchanges, Harris is a static character, Hoyt evolves, and part of the interest relies on Jake's evolution. And that works most of the time.

The problem with « Training Day » is that it gets so wrapped up on that premise of Washington being the villain that it is almost used like a gimmick, and Hoyt's evolution is only limited by the scope of that training day, we never get to know what changed exactly in his view and how that will affect his future. The film takes a conventional turn to a personal face-off between the good and the bad guy, which in the final act, is a bit of a let down compared to the whole 'close to reality' card it played right at the beginning. "Training Day" tries to be many things at the same time, for its own good. Let's get it straight, it never ceases to be entertaining, and this is a good movie, but it could have been so much grander had it chosen not to focus much on Alonzo Harris. In my opinion, he should've been the supporting role, which, technically, he was, as he literally 'supported' the most interesting character's arc.

God, that whole first hour of « Training Day » is a terrific slice of post-September-11 era, these times I couldn't imagine I'd be nostalgic of. Even the casting of Snoop Dogg as one of the informers gives the film a little edge by encapsulating the post-Millennium day where urban violence, rap and money contributed heavily to Pop Culture imagery, where the sight of death wasn't a taboo anymore. In a way, Alonzo Harris is an efficient villain because he's emblematic of his time, being a Cop with a 'C' like in cynical, corrupt and charismatic. Yet, it's with Hoyt that I related, as a Millennium kid who wanted to believe there's a part of goodness to take from society, wishing he wouldn't fall in that trap Harris kept luring him into. I also identified with the relationship between the rookie and his new boss, something I've had enough experience to appreciate the realistic way it was conveyed in the film.

You know these first days at work, where you're being taken by your coach or top manager everywhere and you feel so useless between all these people who know each other. Indeed, that's why the first day is always the worst : each impression you give is the first, and in Hoyt's business, a bad impression is something he can't afford. You're also the most recent newcomer, the one who knows the least people, this is how marginal you are. The wisest thing is to shut up, to listen, to learn. Hoyt has no other choices than listening to Harris, and Harris is no stupid, he takes advantage from it and cunningly toys with Hoyt's eagerness to prove his value, and isn't that the biggest trap you can fall in. And as the day progresses, you can feel the distance widening between Hoyt and Harris, and I hoped the movie could focus on Hoyt because Harris didn't need more screen time to make an impact, it worked from the start.

"Training Day" tried so many things it got convoluted in complicated plot devices and other contrivances, some of them unfortunately, were too blatant to be even taken seriously. While it started as one hell of a character study mixed with police procedural à la "French Connection", it ended like "Scarface". I don't mind a good over-the-top performance but the film could've been remembered for more than being that movie with a bad guy Denzel.

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Fatality and Predestination or when running away can only be a temporary option…, 14 July 2015

Simply said, "The Terminator" is a great film, and even better when you watch it with the mindset of someone discovering it in 1984, a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger's career was still to be consolidated, when James Cameron wasn't yet that billion-ma'King of the world', when "I'll be back" was still a quote that could be heard in any film without being associated to a bad-ass catchphrase with an Austrian accent, when Linda Hamilton still looked like a lovely doll begging for protective hugs.

In 1984, moviegoers went to see an entertaining B-movie starring that Conan-the-Barbarian-guy with an accent that could hardly be taken seriously. Even the producers and director expected a backslash from the critics. Little did they know that they had just made a milestone almost as significant for the Sci-fi genre than "Alien" five years before, and that their humility would be rewarded by a close-to-unanimous praise and a lightning propulsion into Pop- Culture. Arnie became THE ultimate action-movie icon, and the rest is no less legendary.

And the reason the film works is its remarkable simplicity in each aspect. First of all, the plot : an Artificial Intelligence company named Skynet created such technologically advanced robots that they rebelled against humans and provoked a nuclear holocaust until they were almost defeated by the Rebel Chief John Connor. As a robot sent to kill his mother before he'd exist, Schwarzenegger appears at night, completely naked and takes some civilian clothes before tracking Sarah Connor. But we're in a basic Sci-fi movie and the villain calls for a hero, this is where Michael Biehn intervenes, he looks strong but he's not the alpha male muscular type, what makes easier empathizing with him.

His mission is to protect Sarah Connor and kill the Terminator, so running away can only be a temporary option. Yet if anything the villain inspires is not to confront him. The Terminator doesn't know what Sarah Connor looks like, but that's not an issue, any Sarah Connor can potentially be John's mother and is terminated Skynet-style. The murders are straightforward and chilling. At first, the Police don't notice anything odd with that brutal murder, until a second Sarah Connor is gunned down. What kind of serial killer works by the name? Anyway, the most urgent is to protect any Sarah Connor living in L.A., including an adorable waitress, so far from that girl-power archetype from the sequel.

And this is one of the film's beauties, the absolute contrast between the robotic killer and the harmless target. And this is where the casting pays off; Arnold Schwarzenegger was certainly criticized for the limitedness of his acting range, especially at a time where his accent was stronger, but here, he's given a role that only an actor like him could have portrayed perfectly: a cold and implacable killing machine. The Terminator was nominated #22 villain in the American Film Institute, but he's not sadistic, nor vicious, he's just programed that way, which is why he's so scary. He's like a steamroller of brutality that will ignore every obstacle until it gets him to Sarah Connor.

And the film wouldn't have worked had Linda Hamilton looked or played it like Ellen Ripley in "Alien", Obviously, a woman like Sarah Connor needs a protection whether from the cops or from Biehn, and some bits of luck that will prevent her from the fatal encounter. Indeed, when the Terminator realizes he didn't kill the right woman although she lived in Sarah's house, begins a breathtaking, spellbinding cat-and-mouse chase. There are shootouts, there are car chases, but they felt different because this time, the enemy doesn't try to get at them but to kill them, they're means as well as ends. The Terminator is an unstoppable death warrant, guided by fatality. Notice the scene when, for once, Sarah gets the illusion of being finally protected, in a commissariat. The Terminator's "I'll be back", especially when heard for the first time, sums up everything, no matter how far away you try to push him, he'll get back to you.

And this, resonates as the voice of fatality, the omen of an inevitable confrontation, something that neither Biehn, nor Sarah can't avoid, the future has come to haunt them, and if Sarah is really the mother of a future fighter, even she will have to express that 'fighting' part of herself. Whether you look at the half-empty or half-full glass, you'll see "Terminator" as a predestination or fatality movie. And I guess this is why the appellation neo-noir isn't gratuitous. Noir is about people who try to escape from a painful certainty but can't only triumph over it by confronting it, at the cost of something precious such as their innocence, their optimism, their faith on life or humanity.

And 'The Terminator" is mostly set at night, it features characters who hide from these robots that remind them the apocalyptic future they carry on their hands, their own responsibility. Of course, bonds ought to be made and we have some clues that the predestination thing will provide some curious loops that don't quite respect the orthodoxy of time travels. But the film isn't about time travels, it's about a sense of duty and responsibility. And in a way "The Terminator", as a villain, is an inspiration for the heroes, as much as he must kill them no mater what, they have to resist and to defeat him at any costs, the measure of a great antagonist is the degree to which he allows the heroes to overcome their weaknesses.

As a matter of fact, the whole trilogy invites humans to question their condition, from being masters to slaves of the technology, what you can control can control you, it's all up to us to take the control of our lives back. That's what Sarah Connor will do, and this is why she becomes such a great heroine, the perfect match for such a great villain.

Sometimes, it's the darkest hours that allow the brightest souls to shine …, 14 July 2015

I think it is a mistake to categorize "La Traversée de Paris" as a comedy, for despite its light-hearted tone, the casting of two comedic giants, one already established: Bourvil and a newcomer soon to be the King of Comedy: Louis de Funès, despite an extraordinarily smile-inducing performance of a no less colossal actor : Monsieur Jean Gabin, there is more gravity, fatality and ubiquitous sensation of danger in Claude Autant Lara's masterpiece than any archetypal war drama. And never are the laughs triggered by funny situations but funny reactions from rather dramatic situations. We laugh first and think after.

"La Traversée de Paris" was released in 1956, a decade after World War II. Paris hadn't changed much and people still had vivid memories of these dark years that followed the defeat in 1940. When France ceased to belong to French, the country was economically a slave for Germany while morally, French people were entrapped in a never-ending torment: the bitterness of having lost war, freedom, and the faith on a brighter future. It was indeed, as they say now, the 'darkest hours of French history', and it's only fitting that the movie takes place during the night, to accentuate the black-and-white hypnotic photography. Darkness is omnipresent when memories from WWII are revived, from "Night and Fog" to "Army of Shadows".

In fact, darkness is almost a protagonist for during the Occupation, it helped many good people to hide from the Germans or French Police. It was a time where French used their resourcefulness when ration tickets weren't enough. The darkest hours saw the rise of the black market. After all, when the dignity of a whole country was traded for peace, when the government has betrayed the honor of France, many French didn't feel like owing anything to the power, it's less heroism than pragmatism, yet from our perspective these men and women were brave because they jeopardized their lives and could easily say one word too many to a friend of the Germans, a collaborator, as they say.

And the opening sets the tone, Marcel (Bourvil) and Mariette (Jeannette Batti) enter a bar, they learn that a black market partner was arrested because he trusted someone and told him he sold soap, he was then arrested. Speaking of soap, a painter named Grangil (Gabin) comes to the bar and needs to wash his hands, the bartender tells him that there's no soap as if there was enough trouble with it already. Police officers come and ask a client if his hands are dirty, coal has been stolen, Martin's girlfriend understands and discreetly gives Grangil a bar of soap. Everything is put together in that introducing sequence: solidarity, suspicion and betrayal. And if Grangil is brave enough to smuggle coal, maybe he'll make a good replacement to Martin's partner.

Grangil accepts to cross the town with luggage full of pork parts, avoiding Police and Commandantur. The journey starts and there's something so exhilarating in Gabin and Bourvil's performance that we enjoy first the film for what it is, a superb demonstration of what the Golden Age of French cinema was. Gabin who gained a little weight and gray hair was still looking fairly young and he who used to be so restrained and cold is more grandiloquent than Bourvil who's generally the funny guy but here plays the straight man. It's as if Gabin enjoys post-war life again and can finally inject the relief of the peace in his performance and even vent his passion against the cowards in two marvelous scene.

The first one is when he raises the prices of the mission, asking for more and more even though Jambier the butcher says yes from the beginning. Out of his lungs, he screams the name of Jambier, of the street he lives in, and asks for money where a disoriented Bourvil wants to shut him out. The scene is perhaps the noisiest of French cinema. Gabin is noisier than De Funès and funnier than Bourvil but the two stars take the distance with him, at that point, it's Cinema, all the genius of French Cinema finally imploding for laughs and simple laughs. But then right after comes the other powerful moment, with Gabin's rant, and boy, was he great at ranting, toward an old bartender and his clients who wanted to get them out from the bar when they felt something suspicious with two men carrying big luggage.

They were coward enough to denounce them and not to even take a chance and the luggage with an infuriating Gabin delivered one of the most powerful monologues of French cinema incriminating all the little guys who think they're better than the others but don't even make an effort to be decent, he insult their ugliness , physical and moral and conclude his diatribe with an immortal "salauds de pauvres", literally " which would e translated as "you rotten poor". Marcel Aym's script has never sounded so incisive, so politically correct yet so humanly correct at these time were courage was a luxury. This is Gabin show, and he carries the film as confidently and strongly as he does for the luggage, Bourvil and De Funès will have their stars shining in many films to come, but the reason to watch the film is to admire Gabin.

What he stands for in terms of masculinity and principals and moral values. Now, you have a French President claiming "I don't like the rich", which sounds so fake, so popularity-seeking,, so forgettable when a fictional Gabin treated the poor as rotten, it sounds real and eternal. This is how low things has sunk. "La Traversée de Paris" is a reminder that sometimes, it's the darkest hours that allow the brightest souls to shine.

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