Monday 10 April 2017

The Current Cinema - Rod Bishop finds Gus Van Sant's THE SEA OF TREES at last coming up for air

By any standards, Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees (2015) is both a critical and box office disaster. The Palme d’Or winning director teamed up with Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts and debuted the film in competition at Cannes in 2015. It was “loudly booed and laughed at by an audience of critics” before disappearing from view for the next 15 months.

Most likely, they are the same Cannes critics who tried to critically destroy Xavier Dolan’s exceptional It’s Only The End of the World last year. That tale of a successful playwright returning home to inform his dysfunctional family of his coming death was derided as “insufferable”. Vanity Fair, for instance, proclaimed it “the most disappointing film at Cannes…pointless yelling and shoddy character work…I could go on about what this film gets wrong…but I think it’s better to put this mess behind us…” The Telegraph (UK) called it a “shouting match…the experience is frequently infuriating…[Dolan] will get rotten looks up and down the Croisette…” And The Hollywood Reporter found it “stagy” with “stylized dialogue” and “characters who aren’t very interesting”, the histrionics “cold and deeply unsatisfying”.

I’ve only sat through these Cannes press screenings at one Festival and that was 34 years ago, but it’s a tough gig. Scheduling included early morning and late night screenings, probably the result of deadlines or Festival convenience or both. At a ridiculously late press screening of Ermanno Olmi’s Cammina, Cammina, I fought hard to follow the film through the loud snores around me, astonished at the end of the film when the snoring critics woke up muttering “one of his best” and “pity it’s not in Competition, it should win the Palme d’Or”.

But back to Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees. This story of a moderately successful science teacher, who decides to suicide in a forest at the foot of Mt Fuji while grieving over his wife’s death, finally opened in two cinemas in the US taking $1877 on the opening weekend and $3,276 for the week. Undaunted, the film went wide in the second week to 101 cinemas, only to be pulled after 21 days and a $20,444 domestic gross. The budget was reportedly $25 million.

At Cannes, Xavier Dolan’s film did get some good reviews and even controversially won the Grand Prix, but it seems nobody liked The Sea of Trees (except one brave soul at the LA Times).  Variety proclaimed it “dramatically stillborn”, suggesting “one way to pass the time – preferably during one of Matthew McConaughey’s interminable misty-eyed monologues” was to try guessing at how many bad films the above-the-line talent managed to squeeze into the storyline. Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter - “utter banality” and “woefully sentimental and maudlin”. And Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian - “fantastically annoying and dishonest” “evasive and fatuous” and “exasperatingly shallow”.

The New York Times eventually warned readers that parents are “strongly cautioned” for content that includes “Cancer, corpses and cultural condescension”.
Even the bloggers had their day: “If there were any justice in the world…the film would have been chained to a radiator in a basement somewhere, trapped for eternity”.

Are these reviews more entertaining than the film? Almost certainly and my favourite came from Donald Clarke at The Irish Times, who sat through the Cannes press screening in 2015. Some excerpts from his review:
Audiences do, in this place, have a lamentable habit of booing films they don’t care for. It’s a horrible business. But…there are certain films that deserve to play to the sounds of the abattoir…
…What would possess the man who directed Drugstore Cowboy to score a scene in which a character receives grim medical news to wimpy hipster folk by some awful band I can’t be bothered to look up?...
…When Matt and Naomi press their faces together they look, for all the world, like the stock-shot models you find staring at you when you buy a picture frame…
…Poor, poor Matthew McConaughey. He must have felt that it was safe to star in a film whose title referenced things made from wood. Sadly, this is not the case. His Texan solidity in the core story gives off worrying scents of the other McConaughey who spent a decade climbing up the balcony to rescue Jennifer Lopez from snobbier boyfriends with straying hands…

…To be fair to the crowd in the Debussy Theatre, nobody made any rude noises until they were provoked. As this truly awful film – among the worst to compete for the Palme d’Or in the last decade – ground to a halt, a faint smattering of applause broke out. The Italian journalist beside me who had been crying with laughter for the closing 15 minutes wasn’t having that. Boo! Boo! I didn’t join in. But I can’t say I disapproved either. Boo! Boo!

Naomi Watts, Matthew McConaughey, The Sea of Trees

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