Monday, February 3, 2014

Off the Shelf: Max (2002), Touch the Sound (2005) & I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2007)

Noah Taylor and John Cusack in Max
Since we're now in the gloomy month of February, and some of us may feel less inclined to go out to the movies, Shlomo Schwartzberg has decided to draw our attention to some little seen titles we can watch at home, ones that just might shake the winter blues.  

Max, Menno Meyjes's controversial film about Adolf Hitler's early years, is a smart, provocative drama that does the nearly impossible: It gets under the skin of a man we only know as an evil, monstrous lunatic. By the time World War II ended, that appellation was apt, but obviously, Htler couldn't have always been that way. Max centers on that more “innocent” period in 1919, after World War I, when Hitler (Noah Taylor), still recovering from his part in the calamitous battle of Ypres, returns to Germany. He is a bitter, angry man who still harbors dreams of becoming an artist. Enter Max Rothman (John Cusack), a Jewish art dealer, who was also at Ypres and lost an arm in battle. Formerly an aspiring artist but now sidelined by his war injury, Max is seeking out talent he can sell in the marketplace. Hitler is one such candidate, he feels, possessor of an artistic forcefulness – a unique type of kitsch that shows potential. And Hitler is eager for artistic success.

The most fascinating aspect of Max is the unique relationship between Hitler and his Jewish patron. They're a study in contrasts, with the excitable Hitler determined to shake things up and Rothman, deadened to anything but the joy of art, wishing for a quiet, uneventful life. But they're also linked by their war experiences and artistic inclinations. Their interactions, amidst the post-war social turmoil of Germany, are riveting and offer a window into the artistic and political debates of the time, without whitewashing the ugly aspects of Hitler's personality. And Cusack and Taylor are superb in their roles. Max doesn't completely hold together – its ending is a too obvious stab at showing how Hitler's hateful oratory will culminate in the Holocaust – but it's a refreshingly new take on a familiar story.

Evelyn Glennie in Touch the Sound

Musician Evelyn Glennie, who has succeeded in carving out a career despite her profound deafness, is the subject of Touch the Sound, a documentary by Thomas Riedelsheimer (Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time). Like Goldsworthy, Glennie is Scottish. Unlike Goldsworthy, she's not as unique an artist or as interesting a person. Briefly sketching out her history  she became deaf as a child and just as briefly interviewing her, Riedelsheimer is mostly content to follow Glennie around the world as she performs in public or works with fellow musician Fred Frith. Inspirational as Glennie's life journey may be, her observations on her art are only superficially illuminating. Her music, often using found objects, is similarly one-note; Riedelsheimer indulges her with overly lengthy  and tiresome  scenes of her performing. Touch the Sound's virtues lie in his superb direction, expertly using sound and image to show how a deaf person would relate to the world. It's a cinematically masterful portrait even if its subject falls short of expectations.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
With I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, respected Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming-liang shot his first film in his birthplace of Malaysia, and perhaps because so, he allows more emotion into the story than in his previous work (Goodbye, Dragon InnThe River). After Hsiao Kang, a homeless Chinese man (Lee Kang Sheng), is robbed and left for dead on the mean streets of Kuala Lumpur, he wakes up in an abandoned building to find himself being cared for by Rawang (Norman Atun), an immigrant Bengali laborer. Then Chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), a local waitress, turns up, and the three form an odd triangle that doesn't end in the usual romantic/tragic way common to the movies. 

Tsai still indulges his love of long, languid takes, but they're not as annoying or tedious as in the past, probably because Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, makes for a fresher cinematic setting. Moreover, Tsai expertly juxtaposes his fascinating portrait of this industrialized, multiracial metropolis with the people who try to survive within its smog-filled environs. Watching them – wearing face masks to ward off the city's stifling pollution, listening outside the doors of a modern CD shop to the music playing inside – is a powerful image. 

Beautifully and subtly acted, the film, with Lee also playing a man in a coma who is introduced at the film's outset, is full of indelible images like that, none more so than its final shot, where the three lost souls of the film come together in an embrace, set to the lovely strains of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Commissioned for a 2006 festival celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is, like the best of the Maestro's music, a memorable affair.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor.

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