A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant, 2015)

For a movie that attempts a "feel-good" ending, The Sea of Trees sure does spend a lot of time making you feel bad, from the moment its grim-faced protagonist, Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), arrives in Japan. He plans to kill himself in the "Suicide Forest" near Mount Fuji. But then he tries to help Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a man he meets there, find his way out of the forest, and encounters all manner of hardships and injuries. There are also flashbacks to Arthur's troubled marriage and the death of his wife, Joan (Naomi Watts). We are plunged into one misery after another before a twist into fantasy convinces Arthur not only that life is worth living but also that love persists after death. Yet the misery dominates the tone of the film, despite three excellent actors and a well-regarded director, Gus Van Sant. Some of the blame must fall on the screenwriter, Chris Sparling, but mostly it seems to be a failure to leaven the material with anything that gives us a sense that the promise of its ending has been earned. Imagine Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1990) without Whoopi Goldberg and instead two hours of moping around by Demi Moore recalling life with Patrick Swayze, and you'll have a sense of the overall effect of The Sea of Trees. One major problem, I think, is in the miscasting of McConaughey as the lead. He's a very good film actor, as his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013), his scene-stealing bit in The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013), and his work on the first season of the series True Detective (2014) amply demonstrates. But he is, I think, a character lead, terrific in roles full of wit and sass and energy, whereas what's called for in films like The Sea of Trees is a conventional romantic leading man. As hard as he works to make it plausible, his character in this film never rings true. But then not much else in the film does, either.