• Alpha (2018)

    Going into this movie, I didn't expect much since I have had my share of bad experiences with prehistoric epics like the awful 10,000 BC. Alpha turned out to be a relatively authentic documentary, moving drama and energetic survival adventure movie with many emotional highlights and a creative twist to finish on a high note.

    While other prehistoric epics rely on senseless dialogues and complicated plots, this film goes off the beaten path and is quite charming in its simplicity. A teenager is left for dead after his first hunting trip with his tribe and his father who is their leader. He survives however and gets attacked by a pack of wolves. Injuring one of them, he nurses the wolf back to health, developing what would later on become the friendship between dogs and humans. However, both the injured teenager and the injured wolf must make it back to their respective families in order to survive the harsh winter conditions. They rely on each other and will live many adventurous anecdotes until the dramatic ending.

    Aside the simple plot, I liked the scarcity of dialogues to focus on emotions, gestures and landscapes rather than unnecessary words. The acting performances are authentic and grounded and one can see the protagonist come to age throughout the film. The precise camera work, the epic soundtrack and the stunning settings enhance the movie's epic premise. It's also a film that will please both younger and older audiences because it teaches us about human values such as family, friendship, hope, loss and trust. Another positive point is the lack of overtly flashy special effects, unnecessary side stories and needless flashbacks that makes the film more authentic, credible and intense.

    What I expected to be a mildly entertaining adventure movie turned out being one of the greatest films of the year. No matter of you prefer actions films, documentaries or dramas, Alpha offers something for every taste and is particularly balanced and focused in its genre mixture. Alpha is much deeper than you might expect and is a film you can watch with your parents, friends and even children.

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  • White Boy Rick (2018)

    White Boy Rick might be based upon a true story but it should be mentioned that it is largely based upon subjective claims that cannot be fully verified. The movie tells a story that might or might not be fully or partially true about a teenage boy from a broken neighbourhood in the decrepit city of Detroit, symbol for the downfall of the American Dream, who gets involved in criminal gangs at the tender age of fourteen. He becomes an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation which almost costs him his life. Even after being dropped by the intelligence and security service, the tough protagonist with a soft core remains involved in criminal activities and exposes himself and those around him to great danger.

    On the positive side, the movie oozes with atmosphere and has a quite realistic touch. White Boy Rick efficiently works with contrasts. The decrepit settings of Detroit as opposed to the world of steel and glass in Las Vegas, the poor neighbourhoods as opposed to shiny clubs, the innocent children getting in touch with pitiless gangster bosses and their ruthless associates evoke strong emotions, ideas and images. The film obviously offers some social criticism related to drugs, family and even governmental institutions. The acting performances are brilliant and the story is at times heart-breaking, especially Bel Powley playing the protagonist's drug-addicted runaway sister is very convincing.

    On the negative side, the film's pace is quite plodding. It doesn't help that the story is somewhat unfocused. It starts at a certain point in the protagonist's life, accompanies him for a few years and ends with a boring text about his future fate. With a few more scenes, such as his birth into a broken family and the departure of his mother at the beginning or his release from jail and reunion with his family at the end would have made for a more complete movie.

    If you like dramatic gangster movies that offer some social criticism instead of action sequences, you should give White Boy Rick a try. It has enough redeeming qualities to be one of the better gangster movies in recent memory. However, it could have been even better with a better pace and more precise script.

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  • Papillon (2017)

    There is no question that the original Papillon movie released almost forty-five years ago and starring star actors Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman is an amazing historical period drama and survival adventure movie. Based upon true events, it tells the story of a wrongfully convincted prisoner who tries to escape a French penal colony in French Guiana on three occasions. One has to question why such a movie would be remade in the first place. Even by today's standard, the original film's acting performances are very skilled, the exotic locations are breathtaking and the story about freedom and friendship is profound and timeless. Even though the remake isn't a terrible film, it's completely unnecessary. If you're not familiar with the topic, I would suggest watching the original film. I would even suggest reading Henri Charrière's Papillon and Banco novels which inspired both films. I would even recommend watching a documentary about French penal colonies before watching this remake. Watching this film should be your last option. However, it still remains an option, simply because the story is so good that it deserves to be watched or read or heard.

    A remake should have the ambition to offer a different take on the events of the original movie and to improve it. There are very few of these elements to be found in this film. If compared to the original film, this remake shows us roughly fifteen minutes of the lead character's life before his wrongful conviction. We can see him cracking a safe, attending a party with members of an organized crime gang and spending time with his girlfriend. This exposition also shows a reason why Papillon would be framed for a murder he didn't commit. He kept some of the diamonds he stole for the gang to offer them to his girlfriend and was seen in the process of doing just that.

    One element where the remake nearly matches the original film's quality is the acting. If compared to the unique Steve McQueen and the diversified Dustin Hoffman, Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek are obviously less experienced but they might deliver the best performances of their careers. Their friendship feels stronger and makes even more sense than in the original film. Charlie Hunnam convinces as resilient man who never gives up on his dream of freedom and comes surprisingly close to Steve McQueen's charismatic performance. Rami Malked does a solid job as scared intellectual and has great chemistry with Charlie Hunnam but can't match Dustin Hoffman's natural talent.

    On all other levels, the remake is quite a letdown. The new version is about twenty minutes shorter than the original film but ironically feels much longer than the film released forty-five years ago that already had a few lengths. The events leading to the first escape attempt are stretched and the scenes in solitary confinement are played brilliantly but end up being quite repetitive. On the other side, important scenes have been cut or excluded in the remake. The men's haunting passage at a leper colony was completely cut from the remake. Papillon's life with a native tribe lasts for about five minutes in the remake even though he lived there for a long period of time, got married to two sisters and even impregnated them. The ending is quite abrupt in the remake as the director shows a brief scene of Papillon's return to France decades after his final escape without telling what happened in nearly three decades between both events, making the remake feel less concise and focused than the original film that ended with Papillon's succesful escape.

    One element I would have liked to be mentioned is the fact that Henri Charrière's story was at least partially made up. He clearly wasn't as innocent and sympathetic as portrayed in the movie. Making his character a little bit more sinister would have been an intriguing addition if compared to the rather neutral original film. However, Papillon instead seems to be an even friendlier lead character than in the original film which is somewhat misplaced but goes along with typical Hollywood productions that fabricate heroic protagonists the audience wants to cheer for. In this case, this approach is too simplistic.

    In the end, there are very few reasons to watch this remake. The exposition adds some depth to the lead character and the acting performances exceeded my expectations. However, the movie has more lengths than the original film, important scenes have been cut and the resolution feels misplaced. At the end of the day, this remake was quite unnecessary.

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  • Indian Horse (2017)

    Based upon Richard Wagamese's novel of the same name, Indian Horse tells an authentic, hopeful yet tear-jerking story that too many First Nations people have gone through in Canada over the course of the past two centuries and beyond. 

    The movie tells the story of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway boy from Northwestern Ontario, whose family runs away from white men who are forcing children to go to residential schools where they must assimilate to European culture by any means necessary. Isolated in the wilderness, Saul's brother dies of a disease he caught at school and his parents, who already got assimilated to Christianity, decide to move south to bury their child. Saul stays behind with his old grandmother who gets increasingly sick but his parents never return. His grandmother and Saul decide to join some family members before the harsh winter starts but the weak grandmother dies on the journey. Saul gets discovered by two white men who bring him to a residential school. He witnesses severe mental and physical abuse as First Nations children aren't allowed to speak their mother tongues or live their traditional lifestyles. The only thing that makes Saul's desolate life more joyful is when he discovers ice hockey. He watches games on television with a young priest who also builds a hockey rink and organizes competitive tournaments. Saul's skills get discovered as a teenager and he moves south to the mining town Manitouwadge where he lives in a caring foster family and plays in a local hockey team. He soon becomes a respected star player but also starts facing racism from fans and opponents. A scout then convinces the young adult to move to Toronto where Saul plays for the farm team of the Toronto Maple Leafs and has a promising career ahead of him. Saul however cracks under the increasing pressure of being targeted by racist fans and opponents on an almost daily base and quits hockey to live the life of a nomad, accepting odd jobs between Thunder Bay and Sudbury. He develops a serious addiction to alcohol and is told by a doctor that his next binge drinking could lead to his death. Saul realizes he must face and overcome his demons of the past and find a place called home to save his life.

    There are numerous elements that make this film one of the best dramas in recent memory. First of all, the story that is told here is relevant as it exemplifies the cruel fate of many First Nations members. Secondly, the movie is very emotional, meandering constantly between sadness and hope in all stages of the main character's life. Thirdly, the acting performances are absolutely great as the main character doesn't speak much but tells us so much more about his inner demons through facial expressions. Fourthly, the settings are intriguing and shift from beautiful isolated landscapes over isolated schools to mining towns and big cities. Fifthly, camera, lighting and sound techniques are calm, decent and precise which suits the slightly gloomy mood and slow pace of the movie very well. Sixthly, it's interesting that the movie introduces us to distinct characters and not just racist antagonists but also encouraging coaches, welcoming foster parents and driven team mates. Seventhly, I liked that the movie ended with a minor twist that makes us re-evaluate the scenes we have seen prior to that moment. Indian Horse certainly offers a lot of food for thought.

    Indian Horse is a movie that should be watched in history classes at Canadian high schools as it exemplifies the fate of many First Nations members in that country over the past two centuries and beyond. Indian Horse is authentic, emotional and intellectual all at once which makes it one of the best dramas in recent memory. Anyone who is interested in the history of the New World should watch this film. Those who like ice hockey should also give it a try. Anyone intrigued by Canadian culture should also give it a shot. To keep it short, there isn't any reason to not watch this brilliant movie.

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  • Before I Fall (2017)

    Before I Fall is best described as a contemporary feminist take on Groundhog Day. It tells the story of high school student Samantha who seems to have a quite normal life. She lives with her friendly parents and her good-spirited little sister. She has three best friends that stick together through thick and thin but who can also be quite arrogant and mean. The four girls bully a shy and silent girl with a very strange behavior at school. Samantha has a male childhood friend who is depserately in love with her but she also has a good-looking boyfriend who is quite popular among girls. It's Cupid Day and Samantha's clumsy childhood friend throws a part at his house as he hopes to impress his crush. Samantha is though planning on finally losing her virginity to her boyfriend and is morally supported by her excited friends. Things turn sour when the bullied girl unexpectedly comes to the party and gets into a fight with Samantha's best friend. The shy outsider runs away while Samantha and her friends feel frustrated about the ruined party and decide to drive home. On their way on a dark road, their car hits something and Samantha dies just to wake up in the morning of Cupid Day again. She realizes she has to figure out why she must live the same day over and over again. Samantha tries to organize some changes and experiments in her life to break the time loop.

    There are several great elements about the film but also a few downsides. Let's start with the negative points. The story line is rather unoriginal and the plot development quite flat at times. The movie is at times also overtly sentimental. Since the movie is mostly about Samantha, her three best friends and the strange girl, it's a film that might appeal more to female than male audiences. Witnessing the four girls bitching throughout considerable parts of the movie was quite tiring. I must also say that the male characters are all quite one-dimensional. The only two male characters of interest are a superficial womanizer who wants to sleep with the protagonist and the clumsy childhood friend who nearly stalks the protagonist.

    The movie also has many positive elements. I really like the film's gloomy and mysterious atmosphere that isn't just carried by the plot but by the wild landscapes of the American Northwest, the moody light techniques and the fitting alternative pop score. The protagonist's character development is particularly interesting to follow as she becomes very wise, warm and selfless throughout her fateful journey. The acting performances are great and especially lead actress Zoey Deutch convinces as rebellious teenage girl who rediscovers her good-spirited side. The movie obviously makes you think about your everyday life and daily decisions which gives some food for thought for philosophic discussions.

    In the end, you should watch Before I Fall if you like philosophic teenage dramas with a supernatural touch. I guess the movie might rather strike a chord with female than male audiences as well. While I really like this type of story, I must admit that especially the film's middle part was somewhat plodding. I personally prefered the similar but more vivid Happy Death Day as well as the Life Is Strange video games for a more mysterious coming-of-age experience.

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