It’s not often that we have three very good Canadian movies at once. But here they are: Brother, with multiple Canadian Screen Award nominations, Riceboy Sleeps, which won in a recent competition, and Tenzin, set in Toronto’s Tibetan community.
What I don’t have today is Shazaam, which is expected to be big this weekend. A media preview that I was invited to and went to did not take place. The theater couldn’t find the movie, or something like that.
I have these…
Chess History: 4 Stars
Boston Strangler: 3 ½
CHESS HISTORY: To be prepared. This is one of the most intense movies you’ll see this year. It is haunting but also fascinating and with tremendous performances by the cast that you definitely need to see. If you can take it. It is an adaptation of a famous novel by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig but with so many changes that it seems more based on an earlier adaptation from 1961 called brain Wash That title would also fit this version because of what is done to the main character.
Both films were made in Germany and were set in Vienna in 1938, the time of the Nazi takeover. A notary (brilliantly played by Oliver Masucci) wants to run away but is stopped by the Gestapo because he has information about secret bank accounts. An officer (Albrecht Schuch) with a flattering superficial act wants to get it out of him and assigns him to “special treatment” at a hotel. That amounts to solitary confinement escalating to psychological pressure that feels like torture. But he has a life line; a book that he takes from a pile destined to be burned. It is about chess and he keeps his mind in order by studying it, even memorizing various games.
The movie repeatedly switches between timelines and it’s hard to tell what happens and when. That is deliberate, not a failure. We see him and his wife board a ship to America; he wins a game of chess against a world master, and the guards throw him back into his newly emptied and secured hotel room. Is all, or part of it, an illusion? You will have time to find out. Director Philipp Stölzl adds some pro-Nazi rallies, crowds and anti-Jewish scenes abroad to support Zweig’s message. (Art and essay theaters such as the VIFF Center) 4 out of 5
BOSTON STRANGLER: True crime stories are big on TV and streamers these days and you can add this one. It’s a good example, recreating a time period (early 1960s) and telling you more than you’ve probably heard so far about the notorious case. And it does so through the work of a couple of brave reporters who went ahead of the police to find out.
Loretta McLaughlin (deftly played by Keira Knightley) was the first to see a connection in a string of murders that eventually grew to 13 or more. But she had to fight to write about them because she was assigned to the lifestyle desk. She was allowed to, however, when she was paired with a more experienced reporter (played by Carrie Coon) and through them we see the hard work of investigative journalism. Like following a lead by calling every Sullivan in the phone book. We see broader problems as well. Undervalued women reporters. The newspaper reluctant to criticize the police. A renowned lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, arranges a confession that was actually designed to protect the suspect. And there was only one murderer? Many suspect there were copycats, and the film, written and directed by Matt Ruskin, who grew up in Boston, seems to back up that theory. You will be more than absorbed. (Disney+) 3 ½ of 5
BROTHER: This movie has 14 nominations at next month’s Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Picture. It deserves the nods. It is that which implies a drama about race, identity, youth and growth. We see two brothers at various times in their lives. They are climbing a hydraulic tower at the beginning. Francis, the older drivers; Michael, follows him and clearly reveres him. We revisit that escalation several times as their relationship unfolds through scenes when they were younger, later times with a fearful but testy mother, and life in a gang-controlled neighborhood that keeps outsiders out.
They are immigrants from Jamaica who now live in Scarborough, on the eastern side of Toronto. The crime rate is high and the police are not friendly. That is what David Chariandy wrote in the novel on which he is based. He is from there and now lives in Vancouver. His characters have to deal with racism, news on TV about blacks robbing a store, and teachers who suspect they are being underestimated and channeled into shop classes. Clement Virgo, the director, gets very good performances from the brothers and perfectly establishes their world view. Aaron Pierre as Francis shows both leadership and frustration; Lamar Johnson as Michael shows innocence and admiration. That bond will be broken. The film is dramatic and moving and an authentic insight into that culture. (In theaters) 4 of 5
RICEBOY SLEEP: This is one of the most authentic representations of the immigrant experience I have seen. And finally it goes beyond its festival dates and plays in regular theaters. It’s not about a culture per se, but the film’s representations are universal. You get the big meaningful events, learning a language, finding a job, doing well at work, but also the small day-to-day difficulties. The Korean boy in this story does not find an answer in class, he has a name that the other children find strange and he has to choose one that is easier to understand. In an archetypal scene, the other children tease him about the strange food his mother has sent him for lunch. Gimbap, it’s called. Writer-director Anthony Shim has drawn from his own life in Korea and Vancouver for the reality he depicts. It earned him an award at the Toronto Film Festival recognizing “bold directorial visions” and other nods from critics’ circles.
In the film, Choi Seung-yoon plays a single mother from Korea who now lives near Vancouver with her son. She has been played by Dohyun Noel Hwang when she was a child and later by Ethan Hwang as a teenager. Adorable as a young man, he is rebellious, determined to fit in with the other children when he is a teenager. He dyes his hair blonde, smokes pot with his best friend (played by the director), and asks embarrassing questions like why she doesn’t have a father. That’s a touchy story back home in Korea. Joins a medical history here in Canada and mom decides her upstart son needs to connect with her past. She takes him to Korea to meet her grandparents. Emotional outbursts before they go away; heritage connections there, and you have a very satisfying film. (Theaters in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Windsor, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Sudbury, Calgary, Edmonton) 4 out of 5
TENZIN: This film also illuminates a specific culture in Canada, that of immigrants from Tibet. It’s not a large group, but their political undertones and ongoing struggle boil down to a strong story that anyone can relate to. It’s about brothers again. One was set on fire as part of a protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The other struggles to understand why and what his friends now expect of him.
There is Tibetan culture filmed in Toronto. There is a relic called phurba which is holy and can block curses. There is also everyday life to live. The remaining brother (Tenzin Kelsang) works for a tow truck driver who is often cheated and underpaid. “Everybody takes advantage of you and you don’t do anything about it,” he tells her. That call to do something is present throughout this film.
His brother did something. should he? Maybe about that other tow truck driver claiming territory just for himself. The film connects those two tensions: the old politics and the need to fight back on other issues. It is the first film in Tibetan made in Canada; it was written collaboratively by its lead actors, all members of the community, and was directed by Michael LeBlanc and Joshua Reichmann. It’s an interesting and energetic look inside. (In theaters in Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa and soon in Vancouver) 3 out of 5