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Confounding expectations: ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ ‘Young@Heart,’ ‘Young People Fucking,’ ‘Emotional Arithmetic’


 

There’s some genuine diversity among this weekend’s new releases, which include two Canadian films. I’d love to tell you to ignore the crowd-pleasing Yankee rap and rush out to see our Canadian gems. But in all good conscience, I can’t. The two American crowd-pleasers—Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Young @ Heart—are genuinely pleasing, and better than they have any right to be. The two Canadian options, Emotional Arithmetic and Young People Fucking, are both well-crafted disappointments. Meanwhile Hot Docs, the continent’s most important documentary festival,  launches tonight (April 17) in Toronto. I’ve  been screening stuff in advance and I’ve just scratched the surface, but here are a few strong titles I can recommend: Air India 182, Standard Operating Procedure, Dear Zachary: A Letter to A Son, Dance With a Serial Killer, The Art Star and The Sudanese Twins.  Stay tuned for future blog commentary on Hot Docs. Meanwhile, back to the multiplex. . .

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

As a critic, it’s hard to ignore your own physical reaction to a movie. When watching a serious drama, it’s possible to sit there having a lots of silent thoughts and secret emotions that will eventually get distilled into a critical argument pro or con. But if you find yourself laughing hysterically, or weeping, in a film, it’s difficult to then turn around and say it sucked. Well, to be honest, I’m easily ambushed by sentiment and driven to tears in  g bad Hollywood movies, and resenting it a moment later. But comedies are another story. Laughter, like applause, is a more social act of commitment.

I was quite prepared to dislike Forgetting Sarah Marshall. From the ads and trailers, it looked like a slapdash piece of formula romantic comedy from the Judd Apatow laugh factory, now churning out product at an alarming rate—not to mention an excuse for a bunch of spoiled Hollywood brats to shoot a movie at a luxury resort in Hawaii. And what are you to make of a a bunch of filmmaking geeks who think the funniest thing in the world is male nudity? (Actor/writer Jason Segel has decided to launch his career as a leading man by leading with his dick, which receives four cameos in the film.)

But laughter doesn’t lie. Beyond the gimmickry of the penis gags, this is an romantic comedy with wit and charm to burn. It’s more of a guy movie than a chick flick, no question. But, Segal’s penis notwithstanding, it’s not a gross-out flick. Segal has a sensitive intelligence; he’s like a cooler, more cavalier Albert Brooks. His script is laced with a sharp streak of showbiz satire, driven home by the Apatow repertoire of class clowns who are currently cutting up Tinseltown. And for a comedy that plays on formula, it’s more personal and idiosyncratic than you might expect.

For a more detailed take on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, go to my article in this week’s magazine, Revenge is a dish best served hot.

Young@Heart

Another film I was prepared to hate. Again, it was the trailer that put me off. It made this documentary look like an insufferably cute, patronizing comedy about the irony of very old people belting out rock songs like I Want to Be Sedated. But the trailer gives a skewed impression. Novelty is certainly a big part of the film’s appeal. But the Young @ Heart chorus of seniors is more than a novelty act. What makes the movie sing is that it packs an emotional wallop that the most jaded viewer will find difficult to resist.

I wasn’t crazy about the filmmaking, or the filmmaker (British director Steven Walker), who does tend to patronize his subjects and ask them too many stupid questions. But he has an unbeatable story, even if it has been manufactured specifically for the purpose of the documentary. Putting themselves in Walker’s hands, the Young @ Heart chorus and its longtime director, Bob Cilman agree to tackle a new repertoire of rock songs for a concert in their hometown of Northhampton, Mass. Their six-week rehearsal provides the documentary with its narrative arc; the concert is the climax. But along the way the death of two lead performers in the chorus push the narrative into high drama.

It’s not hard to figure out why this movie has triumphed at film festivals. It’s best seen on the big screen with an audience. Don’t wait for the DVD. For more on Young @ Heart, go to my article in the magazine, A last waltz on walkers and oxygen.

Young People Fucking

I’d rather watch old people rocking than Young People Fucking any day, or at least young people not fucking, because this clever title, which has attracted so much controversy, gives quite the wrong impression of the film. If you spend money on YPF expecting something sexy, erotic, raw or even mildly provocative, I’ve got a dewy patch of unspoiled land in Florida that you might be interested in.

Young People Fucking is nowhere near as dirty as its title. With no genital nudity, and a lot of light comic titillation, it’s no raunchier than an average episode of Sex and the City. This ensemble piece weaves the unlinked escapades of four heterosexual couples and a threesome, following their parallel storylines through the sexual stations of the cross, from foreplay to post-coital reflection. It has a few moments of sweetness and mirth.  Some of the actresses are strong, especially Kristin Booth and Sonja Bennett. It’s nicely shot and everyone’s attractive and, uh, young. But the script is no more than a series of sketches that don’t add up to much. The sexual politics are unsubtle and lopsided (women are smarter, duh). And the situations seem so contrived that, despite the cast’s best efforts, I had trouble believing a moment of it. An ensemble cast and a cool title are not enough. In the end, this ostensibly groovy movie about cutting-edge issues in the bedroom is less convincing and more square than the Hollywood confection of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

First-time director Martin Gero, who co-wrote the script with Aaron Abrams, has done written a lot of TV episodes of Stargate: Atlantis. And YPF‘s view of sexuality seems like another kind of science fiction. You admire the marketing, though. The filmmakers have milked the title for all it’s worth. Around its premiere at the Toronto Internation
al Film Festival, such lofty American outlets as New York magazine headlined its TIFF coverage with a breathless report about the Toronto Star agonizing over whether to bleep the f-word in articles about the film. New York illustrated the item with a shot of sweet-faced Canadian actor Josh Dean grinning between a woman’s parted legs. And more recently, various journalists—notably Mark Steyn in Maclean’s—have awarded the film more publicity by fulminating about Bill C-10, and pointing to YPF as an example of the sort of smut we don’t want see publicly financed. And just this week, YPF was being bandied about in the Senate chambers in the continuing debate over Bill C-10.

Bill-C10—in case you’ve been nodding off in cultural politics class—would allow Ottawa to revoke tax credits for Canadian movies  that federal bureaucrats find offensive, after these movies are made. Although YPF has become a poster child in this controversy, the only thing offensive about this film is its smartly crafted, squeaky-clean mediocrity.

Emotional Arithmetic

Montreal director Paolo Barzman makes his feature directing debut with an elegant, sensitive adaptation of Matt Cohen’s novel about Holocaust survivors. For a small Canadian production ($6.8 million), the film boasts an exceptionally high-pedigree cast, with Susan Sarandon surrounded by male powerhouse that includes Gabriel Byrne, Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Roy Dupuis. And it’s beautifully shot on location Quebec’s Eastern Townships by Luc Montpellier, the cinematographer whose eye for light and landscape was so crucial in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. But Emotional Arithmetic left me feeling baffled, wondering why it was made.

I had a similar response to Fugitive Pieces, which opened the same edition of the Toronto International Film Festival that Emotional Arithmetic closed. Whether by coincidence or design, it did seem odd to begin and end the festival with two Canadian films based on novels about tortured memories of the Holocaust. Both are dignified, reverential dramas about survivors whose emotional centre of gravity is trapped in another time, on another continent—characters who feel unequal to the weight of history. In both cases, the narrative is assembled from refractions of a larger story, an unspeakable horror that is visited in flashbacks. The complexity of such literary fiction—its mille feuilles of amnesia and recollection—doesn’t easily lend itself to cinema, which understands only the moment that’s being created on screen. These are challenging films for the viewer—layered, anti-heroic narratives that keep looking for the story elsewhere. It’s hard to know where to invest your empathy

To Barzman’s credit, he draws arresting performances from both Max Von Sydow and Christopher Plummer, who act as if they’re making themselves at home in a film by Ingmar Bergman. Sarandon’s performance as a woman who is mentally unhinged itself seems unhinged, and a touch too self-satisfied. Incidentally, both Sarandon and Von Sydow left their fingerprints on the script, and persuaded the director to make significant changes to the ending. Barzman complied with their wishes, and felt he put enough of a stamp on the script that he deserved a screenwriting credit. But he lost that claim after a Writers Guild dispute decided that H. Jefferson Lewis (a close friend of the late author Matt Cohen) would be the only credited writer.

Canadian films are tough to make at the best of times, but by the sound of it, this one had a rather tortured gestation. And as these characters unravel their past, there’s a tone of unresolved negotiation to the drama itself, as if they’re still trying to figure out what kind of movie they’re making.


 
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