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55 Steps – Director, Bille August


55steps_01This was the last film of the week for this reviewer and tied up the whole 10 days very well. Like Three Christs, it explores the issues around how we deal with mental illness based on real events. Three Christs was based on experimental treatments tried in 1959 and this one is based on a key legal case in 1985 that ensured that patient rights respected for those with physical illness to those suffering mental illness. The case focussed on one woman who, in frustration with her treatment, arranged for a lawyer. She lucked into a crusading woman lawyer who made major personal sacrifices to defend her and ultimately win her case. Helena Bonham Carter plays the patient who suffers from a variety of physical illnesses and is mentally disabled but not psychiatrically ill. She is mistakenly diagnosed as schizophrenic and treated brutally in the hospital. Her lawyer is played by Hillary Swank and both Carter and Swank turn in exceptional performances. Over the course of the story the two become friends and learn great respect for one another and ultimately are successful in establishing basic rights for mental patients in the US. I found the film very moving and am certain that Carter is due for an Oscar nomination and maybe a win for her performance. Some critics have been less enthusiastic about the movie because they feel it fails to raise enough anger about how people in the mental health system in the US are treated. We were lucky to have the director, Carter, the writer, and the two actual lawyers who fought the case and are still fighting for patient rights in the US present for a Q and A after the movie. They made it clear that they wanted to tell the story of the friendship between the two leads and in this they were more than successful. It is too bad that the critics in question did not listen to the filmmakers. This is an Oscar worthy film – no question.

Living Proof – Director, Matt Embry


Living ProofThis is a somewhat unusual documentary. It is a very personal protest against the way in which MS is treated and how the pharmaceutical industry and the MS Society actually prey on victims of the disease and those who would help to fight it through charitable donations. MS is a complex and poorly understood illness that is treated with some powerful drugs by many neurologists while others support diet and exercise as alternatives. The director himself has a diagnosis of MS and so far, has done well by avoiding drug treatments and relying on diet and exercise. Sadly there is little long term research on the methods and effectiveness of various approaches. Embry argues in the film that such studies are discouraged by the pharmaceutical industry because evidence that their treatments are not effective in the long term would hurt them financially as would proof of alternative methods. Of course, the other aspect of the illness is its unpredictable prognosis. Some people decline rapidly while others appear to survive for many years with no significant symptoms and with no treatment. The lack of research is a huge problem that could be addressed by charitable associations like the MS Society but… there is another issue. The fact is that the MS Society solicits millions of dollars but spends over 80% on salaries and marketing and only 16% on research. A fact that Embry makes very clear. He has set up an alternative charity – MS Hope – that promotes his alternative approach to care but also does not have much more than anecdotal evidence to support it. I had mixed feelings about this film but it did convince me that charities like the MS Society are compromised, that we really can’t trust the pharmaceutical industry to look out for out best interests and we really need to fund some serious long-term studies on MS and MS treatments. I suspect this movie might have a limited audience unfortunately

Three Christs – Director, Jon Avnet


threechrists_01I confess I chose this movie largely to see Tyrion Lannister in a mental hospital. Well not entirely but that was certainly a factor. The story was intriguing however. The film is based on real events that happened at the Ypsilanti mental hospital in 1959. Treatment of frequently violent paranoid patients was limited to electroshock therapy, sedation and other somewhat horrific methods that were essentially intended to punish and control rather than treat. Gere plays a psychiatrist who wanted to take an alternative and innovative psychotherapy approach. He is resisted but has enough support to start his experimental method. The three men are brought together and the film documents their interactions and the effect they have on one another including Gere who begins to identify with them largely because he comes to respect them and befriend them. The cast is excellent and I totally forgot Tyrion in favour of Dinklage’s new character so a score for him to escape type casting as a dwarf from a mythical kingdom. Gere and the director were there (on a Friday at TIFF!!) to do a Q and A after the film. Gere was very eloquent and articulate about the film and its impact on him as an actor. Since the film was based on real events, the script worked with the actual recordings of the sessions held with the three Christs which added to its power. I found the film very moving in parts and it evoked some leaky eyes including my own. Worth a watch.

The Mountain Between Us – Director, Hany Abu-Assad


The Mountain Between UsOf all the movies I seen this week this is by far the worst. I chose it because I am a big fan of Idris Elba and figured that despite the description it might be very good. Wrong! This is a romance/adventure film but no rom/com this. Two people are stranded on a mountain to in Colorado after a small plane crash. How they get into the situation is somewhat contrived… well totally contrived actually. But all that aside they then have to figure out how to survive and get down along with their faithful dog (another contrivance). They are very different people in background and personality with back stories that are revealed as we go along. Of course, as they struggle with each other and the elements, they fall in love – of course they do. The story of their survival is literally unbelievable and the dog – OMG – survives for 4 weeks with no food and yet maintains his full fledged strength and enthusiasm throughout the ordeal. I kept looking at my watch and wishing it would end. Thank God the audience did not need to suffer through a Q and A. I did see an interview with Idris Elba on the Daily Show prior to going to the movie and that set off alarm bells because he clearly did not take the movie seriously and seemed not to like it very much. Now to be fair people behind my row exclaimed how much they loved the movie at the end and there were others equally enthralled. So I guess if you love romance stories, no matter how absurd, this is a movie for you but if not stay very far away. There are much better ones coming this fall.

Mudbound – Director, Dee Rees


MudboundI had mixed feelings about this movie. It is a powerful film full of stories about many different people. The main focus is on two men who return to their homes in Mississippi after serving over 4 years in the Second World War. One is black and served as a tank commander, the other white and served as a bomber pilot. Both suffer from some form of post traumatic stress. They return to a viciously racist society that they had left behind when they were in Europe. On their return they bond over their previous war experience and the feeling of being cut off and exiled in their country and their homes. But there are several other stories going on in support of these two. All the stories are good and well done but to be honest there is just too much for a movie like this. After a while the movie started to drag and became hard to watch. In the end, and although the ending is not tragic, thank God, I was exhausted. Dee Rees was there for the Q and A and was articulate and helpful in understanding the overall story. She admitted that the story was huge and that she wanted to blend many aspects of life at the time for blacks and the poor white farmers and the omnipresent racist tensions. So… a good movie but sadly flawed by over-reaching.

Darkest Hour – Director, Joe Wright


Darkest hourDarkest Hour is a film about the rise of Churchill as the war with Hitler reached a crisis; Great Britain’s darkest hour. With the German army overwhelming Europe and driving the British Expeditionary Force of 300K men to the beaches of Dunkirk, many politicians wanted to sue for peace and basically hand victory to the Nazi’s. There were however many who opposed that solution and Churchill, who was not the most popular politician, was their chosen leader to replace Neville Chamberlain. Darkest Hour follows this transition and the rescue of the expeditionary force from Dunkirk. Gary Oldman plays Churchill in what has to be an Oscar worthy performance and as Eli Glasner suggests, so should the makeup artist. You will not recognize Oldman except maybe his eyes. The film is done with humour, and modesty and does not overwhelm the audience with chest beating heroism. The script is smart and the rest of the supporting cast are great. Although we all know the outcome the tension of struggle between those wanting to cut a deal with Hitler and Churchill’s unwillingness to surrender is palpable throughout. This movie will be honoured next February and hopefully you will have a chance to see it before then.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Director, Martin McDonagh


Martin McDonagh has done two of my favourite films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Both are thrillers/dramas with a black sense of humour that are totally engaging. Three Billboards lives up to his reputation. The story is more drama than thriller and the focus on character is better than McDonagh’s previous efforts. The black humour however survives. The basic story is about a mother who has lost her daughter to a horrible murder that is as yet unsolved. She decides to take action and force the police to do a better job of finding the killer. As the story unfolds a series of some very improbable and in some cases irrelevant events take place all to develop the characters more so than the plot but this flaw is more than compensated for by the clever writing which draws out humour in the midst of tragedy. The film won the writing award at the Venice film festival and is likely to win several Oscar nominations particularly for the lead Frances McDormand who carries the film and without which this film might well go unnoticed.