Beau Travail (1999)
★ / ★★★★
This movie about French soldiers stationed in Djibouti left a big question mark in my head. At first I thought Claire Denis, the director, was trying to establish the characters via showing us the ennui of military life: from ironing clothes, making the perfect creases to the every day physical and mental training the soldiers had to endure. But half-way through the picture, nothing much changed and I felt myself becoming more and more frustrated with it. I wanted to know more about what made the characters tick. Instead, by the end of the picture, I couldn’t tell them apart (especially since they all have the same haircuts but that’s beside the point), I didn’t know anything about their motivations, and I didn’t know anything about their lives outside of the military. In a nutshell, it felt very one-dimensional. That feeling of detachment made me not care and watching the film was like pulling teeth. I’ve read some summaries from other reviews and they somehow found a story that the film tried to tell. Upon reading those reviews, I really felt like I watched a completely different movie because none of those descriptions matched what I saw (which was pretty much half-naked guys runnning around all over the desert). Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy movies that are stripped down with minimal dialogue but they have to have sort of emotional resonance. I didn’t find that in this picture despite my best efforts to look underneath the surface. The only scene that I genuinely enjoyed was the last when Denis Lavant broke into a dance. It felt like a huge sigh of relief because the rest of the movie felt so controlled, cold and tough. If they had more scenes like that, this train-wreck would’ve been saved. Unfortunately, it was too little too late.
New in Town (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
This is another one of those chick flicks where a seemingly cold business-minded character (Renée Zellweger) gets assigned to a small town and realizes that it’s not as bad as she initially thinks because the people (led by the hilarious Siobhan Fallon, followed closely by J.K. Simmons) are warm-hearted despite their many quirks. She also happens to fall for a handsome nature-loving guy (Harry Connick Jr.) with a sad past, which of course she initially has to dislike due to the embarrassment of mistaken identities over dinner. It’s all been done before and “New in Town,” directed by Jonas Elmer, unfortunately, does not have anything new to offer. It’s a shame because he has very talented actors under his belt but he failed to inject a certain edginess to the story. I think if the characters were a bit more unlikable, this would’ve been a completely different (and more interesting) picture. I felt like there were only two jokes in this movie: Zellweger’s reaction and adjustment to small town life and the quirky townspeople with funny accents. At first I thought it was cute but it quickly went downhill after thirty minutes because I kept hoping that another joke would come along. The factor that saved this movie was Zellweger’s acting. Even though her character somewhat reminded me of Bridget Jones, it was nice seeing her here because she’s completely aware of the fact that she’s not going to get nominated for an Oscar. Therefore, there’s a certain relaxed feeling about her character that I instantly liked even though she’s the kind of woman who is ambitious and not afraid to put people under the bus to get what she wants (initially). But like I said before, it would’ve been better if she remained that way or changed for the better only a little bit but not sugary and sweet as she was during the last ten minutes. If one is up for a film with gentle laughs and contains no inappropriate or offensive jokes, this is the one to see. However, for those who are looking for something a bit daring and multi-dimensional, I can’t quite recommend it.
★★★ / ★★★★
Snow is everywhere in pretty much every scene and it made me feel cold just watching it. Half-way through the picture, I realized that the weather is not just a tool to establish a mood. When I look back on it, it’s really neat how much influence the ice has over the characters. I also liked that it took its time to establish the main characters and the fact there’s no archetype villain in the film. As a result, the characters are that much more complex and interesting. They’re just being themselves but their interests happen to collide and that’s when the conflict starts. The show-stopper here is Emily Mortimer. Like in most of her movies, she’s a seemingly timid woman who possesses a silent power which helps to carry her through with whatever is thrown at her. One minute she’s having fun and the next minute she’s totally mortified with what’s going on. And that observation reflected this film. Brad Anderson, who also directed “The Machinist,” has a talent with shifting the mood from one side of the spectrum to another in a matter of seconds. Not only does it make the picture thrilling, it also makes it unpredictable. Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, and Eduardo Noriega are pretty good in their roles but I thought they were a bit underdeveloped, especially the latter two. But maybe the point is to know as little about them because the film makes a commentary regarding strangers in a different country where one does not speak the language. But the one actor that arguably matched Mortimer is Ben Kingsley. He’s such a mystery from the first scene to the last and I craved to know more about him. His methods are highly questionable, every word of Russian he speaks sounded like a threat, and the way he would look at Mortimer suggests he knows more than he’s letting on. For a film that’s almost two hours long, I was glad that there’s a lot of dynamics at work but at the same time I feel like some characters were not explored enough. I think we could do without the little stops of the train during the first forty minutes, but that’s a really minor complaint. Otherwise, pretty much everything about this thriller worked for me because it made me think not only while it was playing but after as well.