• 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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  • Jungle (2017)

    I have been familiar with and fascinated by Yossi Ghinsberg's dramatic survival story for many years and have even occasionally given classes about it at school. When I heard that there was a movie about this intriguing journey, it wasn't even a question whether I would purchase the film or not. The blandly titled Jungle fulfils my expectations on many levels. 

    If you haven't heard about Ghinsberg's true story yet, here is a very brief summary. The young Israelian adventurer traveled to South America after his mandatory military service and met an American photographer, Austrian geologist and Swiss teacher. The geologist convinced the three aquaintances to travel into the heart of the Bolivian jungle to discover unknown tribes and gold. Once they were deep inside the jungle, it became obvious that there was neither gold nor tribes to be discovered and that the geologist was actually a wanted criminal with shady objectives. When the Swiss teacher got injured, the group split up into two teams. The geologist and the teacher walked upstream towards the next village which was supposedly about three days away. The Israelian adventurer and the American photographer moved downstream with a raft but got separated in a canyon. Yossi Ghinsberg fought for survival as he tried to find his partner, travel downstream and make it to the next town while the American photographer got rescued by a tribe and tried to convince skeptic local authorities that Ghinsberg was still alive.

    The movie is quite faithful to the true story even though a few anecdotes had to be cut and details had to be shortened. This was a good choice because the movie is quite fluid and neither too short nor too long. It takes about twenty minutes to introduce the four main characters and about another twenty minutes for them to start their journey. The last eighty minutes are dedicated to an intense and solitary survival story.

    The locations are gorgeous yet terrifying as they show the thin line between beauty and horror. What looks like a peaceful river can turn into a deadly canyon within seconds. The seemingly solid ground becomes a treacherous bog. The scary animal becomes a tasty meal that helps you survive. Jungle is an intense experience for all your senses.

    One element that needs to be pointed out is the superb acting. Daniel Radcliffe was obviously very dedicated to his role. He was guided by Yossi Ghinsberg himself and obviously very familiar with the source material as well. You can see a young and naive adventurer from a severe and traditional family who wants to break free but soon realizes that freedom can come with a price as he has to face impossible challenges that will exhaust him mentally and physically. Daniel Radcliffe's progressive transformation is absolutely stunning. When a human being finds itself in the middle of nature, there aren't many human features that remain. Survival knows no rules.

    When the movie came to its conclusion, I was shivering all over my body. This is how bleak, dramatic and intense this film was. You could put me on an isolated arctic island for a year but not in such a jungle for even just a week.

    If you like adventurous survival stories, you can't get around this movie. Jungle is an intense journey to the essence of humanity and nature. The wilderness shows us who we really are.

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  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

    The unusually titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a big cinematic surprise towards the end of the year, receives massive critical acclaim and is even considered a favourite for the upcoming Academy Awards. All these positive reactions are well-deserved.

    The only reason why I don't consider this film excellent is because of the rushed exposition and the aborted resolution. It would have been interesting to get a more detailed introduction instead of being thrown right into events based upon something that happened seven months earlier and which the viewers will have to figure out step by step. The open ending certainly has an intriguing artistic approach but my curiosity was certainly longing for a few more answers.

    Everything that is actually shown on screen is though excellent. The story revolving around a bitter mother coping with the brutal death of her daughter is desperate, infuriating and touching. 

    The characters is in this movie are dynamic and round as they have a lot of depth and smoothly change throughout the movie. Even the side characters such as an abusive ex-husband, a determined black sheriff and a provocative war veteran with a filthy secret are very interesting.

    The acting performances by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are incredibly authentic and powerful. 

    The movie manages to combine tense moments related to classic thrillers, tragic moments inspired by heartfelt dramas and a solid dose of absurd and black humour in a balanced way. Especially the humorous parts make the tragic story more bearable and the characters more human. As a spectator, you are constantly torn between wanting to cry, laugh and yell at the screen. The emotional power of this movie is of the grandest kind.

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the movie you didn't know you have to watch this winter. It's a detailed, emotional and intelligent film with an immersive flow that requests multiple views. This film restores some faith in Hollywood cinema which had been rather unconvincing this year. I certainly hope the movie gets even more recognition and that cinemas around the world keep screening movies like these that take their audience seriously instead of only focusing on shallow sequels and superhero flicks.

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  • A Bag of Marbles / Un sac de billes (2017)

    A Bag of Marbles is yet another novel and movie about the fate of a Jewish family during the Second World War. Don't get me wrong, it's an important topic, a dark part of history that shall never be forgotten and a thematic that is sadly still relevant nowadays. However, so many novels and movies have already explored the exact same approach presented in this film: Au revoir les enfants, Life is Beautiful, The Book Thief, The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler's List are only some movies that immediately come to my mind. Instead of getting another similar scenario, it would have been interesting to follow the torn family of collaborators in this film for example. Another fresh change could have been to finally offer the perspective of young German soldiers manipulated by propaganda and disillusioned by war. Since this is a French movie, it's also a little bit too convenient to simply blame the foreign enemy and would have been much more interesting to investigate the crimes of Marshal Pétain in depth. Why not make a movie about revolting French antisemitism in the Dreyfus Affair? Or a movie about France's own racist attitude in their colonies? Instead of trying out anything new, A Bag of Marbles plays it safe and the fact that the novel and movie are based upon true events doesn't help much. 

    On the positive side, the acting performances by the teenagers incarnating the two brothers are stellar. The changes of locations keep the movie entertaining and give it an epic touch. The addition of numerous quirky side characters who are trying to find ways to hide their fears adds diversity to the film. There are a few memorable scenes such as the father beating up his own son to teach him how to deny his identity, the younger brother stepping up to save a family of collaborators in an act of civic courage and the same character desperately running after his desperate sweetheart whose family just got attacked by an angry mob.

    On the other side, the story doesn't offer anything new, is slightly dull and slow-paced in the middle section and only touches the surface of several interesting characters such as the Jewish doctor or the family of collaborators. Several chapters from the novel aren't included in the cinematic adaptation and a few details are also changed. Instead of showing the brothers endlessly wandering across mountains, the film should have spent more time developing the numerous interesting side characters and giving some additional information about the historic background.

    In the end, A Bag of Marbles is ultimately a good film but suffers from being just another movie about the fate of a Jewish family during the Second World War. The movie itself has its reasons to be, has a quirky and epic approach going for it and convinces with two really good lead actors. However, European cinema has been saturated with movies of this kind over the past three decades and this film fails both to offer anything new and to compete with its numerous competitors. The most authentic, gripping and sinister movie of this kind is the outstanding The Pianist. But if you really want to get an idea of the horrors of the Second World War, you have to visit a former concentration camp which is an absolutely life-changing experience.

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