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In Good Company (2004)
Sprightly, Well-Acted Comedy/Drama That Overcomes the Threat of Predictability
Director/scriptwriter Paul Weitz was blessed with a top cast for his comedy/drama "In Good Company." Here's a film that in some ways resembles and is a bit of a genre successor to "The Graduate," that 1960s iconoclastic gem. Even the new songs complement the story in the same way Simon and Garfunkel's lyrics melded with the story line in "The Graduate." Dennis Quaid as Dan Foreman is in his early fifties, a contented manager of a sports mag's ad department. His home life seems almost too good to be true. He loves his wife, Ann (Marg Helgenbergen) and gets on well with his two teenage daughters. The older one, Alex (Scarlett Johansson, in another deep and convincing performance), has a tennis scholarship to a New York State public university where the tuition isn't exactly sky high. But she wants to transfer to New York University in Greenwich Village to study creative writing where the cost is very, very steep.
Almost before you can get into your tub of popcorn Dan is struck with multiple whammies. His magazine is taken over by a mega-corporate raider, Teddy K, and a new ad department honcho, Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), only twenty-six years young, bounces Dan from his executive office while also anointing him as his designated "wingman." Earnest, inexperienced, foppish, supercilious and dangerous in that special way the inept invariably are, he poses a real threat to Dan's future. And Dan is worried about his future because Ann announces she's having a change-of-life baby.
And then Scarlett meets Carter. You need me to tell you what Dan's next mid-life crisis will be? "In Good Company" could have been just a mildly amusing sitcom. The fast-paced acting and the excellence of the cast - especially Quaid and young (she's still a teen) Johansson - kept me glued to the screen for the whole showing. And I admit to being troubled by the issues underlying and scenes showing peremptory firings. There's some ambiguity here - is that the only way for a prosperous corporation to go? Dan's pain at losing long-time co-workers is deeply etched on his face but is he more sentimental and loyal than realistic? I don't know. From the vantage point of a tenured academic with lifetime employment I found myself dragged into questions that I think Weitz meant to raise. Well, he did anyway.
Small roles are well performed by David Paymer as one of Dan's subordinates and Selma Blair who briefly shows up in the beginning as Carter's new wife, Kimberly. I always enjoy seeing this fine actress but her talent is wasted in brief roles.
And Manhattan restaurants where I eat and stores where I shop are all over the well-shot scenes and that always makes me happy.
A very good film.
Somewhat of a Letdown
Bill Murray delivered one of the best performances of his outstanding career in "Lost in Translation" and I was primed for a reputedly even stronger one in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." Instead I found a strong cast in a muddled story that reflects director Wes Anderson's indecision as to whether the film was to be a comedy, a fantasy or a serious look at relationships.
Murray as deep sea explorer Steve Zissou is nearing the end of his long-running global, big celebrity popularity as a faux Cousteau. And there are plenty of references, verbal and physical, to the late, great scientist. There's a Moby Dick element, off center really, to the story as Zissou is bankrolled to find a near mythical shark that devoured his long-time partner and closest friend. "Revenge" is Zissou's one word explanation and justification for hunting down and killing a sea creature. Not PC, of course.
Oh, and Zissou is also a Bob Ballard-type employing technology to search the ocean depths, here a motley mishmash of put-together-in-a-hurry tools. His ship's shop is a caricature rather than a clever send-up of the dependence on advances in extreme ocean-exploring technology that frequently highlight documentaries shown over and over again on cable.
Anjelica Huston is fine as Zissou's still suffering but relentlessly supportive ex-wife. Owen Wilson as Zissou's possibly own son, the product of a long-ago liaison, is an act that straddles the extended adolescent romantic and the second banana buffoon. An actually very pregnant Cate Blanchett is a reporter running away from a bad situation as a married man's girlfriend. She's confused as well she should be. What is she doing with this madcap outfit? Blanchett gives her role her customary all (could she ever do less?) but she's wasted here.
William Dafoe is first-mate, a funny but capable chap who hungers for Zissou's approval. He's funny but his interaction with both Murray and Wilson smacks mainly of a sitcom shtick.
The romantic relationships here aren't interesting or even marginally funny, they're tedious.
Murray has the ability unsurpassed by any other actor to project a knowing weariness at the vicissitudes of life, the central emotional outpouring that made "Lost in Translation" shine. Here the weariness seems to be due to having to deal with rapidly shifting tempi that reflect a confusing and, ultimately, unsatisfying tale.
There are funny moments in "The Life Aquatic..." but the whole never equals the value of its too many discrete parts. Ultimately one word describes the film: camp.
And finally in the end titles, the producer must have belatedly been informed that there's a real Steve Zissou who is acknowledged as a New York lawyer specializing in "complex litigation." Actually he practices criminal law in Queens, New York where there are lots of those cases, few of them complex. But it's never admitted that a Steve Zissou, deceased, a devoted Cousteau protégé, remains a stridently debated character in the annals and journals of ichthyology because of his early Sixties claim to have discovered the upstate New York spawning ground of the gefilte fish.
Murray can do so much better and I hope he will soon.
The Coward (1915)
Give Me That Old Time Civil War Reconciliation Flick
"The Coward," a 1915 silent era Civil War flick, was designed, written and directed to be enjoyable North and South of Messrs. Mason and Dixon's line. Today it's a curiosity piece both as entertainment and as history (I'm showing it in a few weeks in my law school legal history seminar, "Slavery, the Constitution and the Civil War." Our un-hero is a finely turned out Southern lad, popular with the demure lassies and scion to the small but well-kept estate of a former colonel. The fellow lives with his parents and their two devoted slaves, a cook and a sort of valet-butler.
The call to arms, to defend the South (the South was invaded?), comes and the boy heads to the recruiting station where his contemporaries are eagerly lining up to doff formal attire and don uniforms. He chickens out, goes home and confesses to Pa that's he's chicken. No, thunders dad, no member of our family can be a coward. Get thee back and sign up.
He does so but at the first sign of danger, while on picket duty, he deserts and skedaddles home. Mommy embraces him, the slaves try to hide him and Pa has a royal fit when he finds his worthless, gutless offspring gulping down milk and cookies in the kitchen.
Determined to salvage family honor, Pa enlists as a private, replacing his son. Meanwhile, Union officers have occupied the family home and a hiding in the attic deserter overhears their battle plans. Guess how the story develops from there.
A tale of honor cravenly lost and then heroically redeemed, "The Coward" is the kind of satisfying melodrama that early moviegoers loved. The actors magnify their facial expressions to compensate for silently mouthed dialog.
Southerners watching "The Coward" could bask in the family loyalty to the Confederacy and the pliant, loving submission of slaves. Northerners saw an honorable foe whose forces but not spirit could be beaten.
A neat relic from the vaults of the silents.
The Aviator (2004)
A Biopic About a Very Brilliant But Very Disturbed Man
Hollywood loves biopics and, judging from past and recent history, the more whacked-out the subject the more resources go into the film. It doesn't matter if the average moviegoer knows anything about the spotlighted character (as in "A Brilliant Mind," how many knew about that Nobel Prize-winning genius?). Actually it may be an advantage to not sit there comparing recollected reality with silver screen confabulation.
In any event I doubt many people under sixty know much about rich inventor-cum-movie producer and director Howard Hughes. Hughes shifted gears from a fulsome dose of Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to full-blown madness decades before death released him from an affluent but miserable life.
Martin Scorsese is massively fascinated by Hughes and his sprawling film is a testament to the man's brilliance as well as his descent into tragically isolated insanity. Having cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the much overpraised "Gangs of New York," he recruited this versatile actor, who owes his preeminence in Tinseltown to the runaway success of "Titanic," to portray Hughes from his mid-1920s life as producer/director of the uber-over budget World War I aerial combat flick, "Hell's Angels," to the late Forties.
As portrayed by DiCaprio, Hughes was a driven perfectionist. Nothing wrong with that in a surgeon but with a movie production there's a time to wrap it up and Hughes took years to reach that point. His obsession with detail, well reflected by DiCaprio, was simply an early and useful mirror of his increasingly handicapping OCD.
That movie's success brought gorgeous women flocking to his side but the most interesting liaison was with rising star Katharine Hepburn. Cate Blanchett inhabits Hepburn, a risky role when so many both remember the recently deceased icon and were mesmerized by her out-sized, bigger than life personality. Well Blanchett did it - no surprise. She inhaled Hepburn's clipped, staccato speech and her mannerisms, not all of which were always gentle or kind, even to loved ones. An Oscar nomination, I hope, will follow.
Hughes, an experienced but often reckless pilot, germinated ideas for novel aircraft design and he had the sense, the judgment to recruit the best minds to translate his concepts into operational models. Much of "The Aviator" focuses on Hughes's drive to produce the fastest planes and the biggest for the military. DiCaprio's Hughes balances ambitious plans well laid out with the creeping advent of uncontrollable mental illness. Closeups show a Hughes who knows something is going rather wrong but he hasn't the ability to fight it (or the shrinks).
As Hughes's lover Ava Gardner, Kate Beckinsale is very grown up and convincing. She's a versatile actress and she proves it again here.
The denouement of Hughes's public life was a vicious scandal engineered by Pan Am's Juan Trippe (a smooth, venal Alec Baldwin) who controlled Maine's Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (a not as nice as we usually expect him to be Alan Alda). Trippe coveted a monopoly for international flights for Pan Am (anyone see a Pan Am plane lately?) and Hughes's TWA was an obstacle that had to be neutralized by law or acquired by coerced sale.
The Senate hearing is over dramatized but it reflects a dirty world of false accusations and behind the scenes chicanery that, I understand, actually occurs from time to time. Shocking.
Perhaps Hughes's greatest gift to mankind was not his into the air briefly only once, eight-engine Spruce Goose, but his getting Jane Russell in "The Outlaw" to the screen past the censors. Many male libidos owed much to that film's release. But the men who couldn't bare to have Russell's ample cleavage on big screens held up the movie's release for SIX years. Awful!
Jude Law who is in nearly every movie these days shows up as Errol Flynn. A forgettable performance.
DiCaprio, Blanchett, Beckinsale, Alda and Baldwin make a good team with a master director, Scorsese. Wonder what's next?
Good use is made of period newsreels and the score helps keep the dialog moving nicely.
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole: Marvelous Together
"How to Steal a Million" is a mildly original, set in Paris, crime caper. It's very funny and Peter O'Toole as a private detective masquerading as an art thief and Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of an art forger are a wonderful comedic duo.
Hepburn is Nicole and her father is her amoral but loving father, Bonnet (Hugh Griffith). Bonnet paints "great masterpieces," seemingly to order. His fakes have brought him and his daughter enough wealth to allow them to live in a fantasy town house in the heart of Paris.
One of Bonnet's fakes isn't a painting - it's an "ancient" sculpture he has on exhibition and which he doesn't intend to sell. But rack and ruin will visit him if a scheduled technical examination of the piece by an insurance company's expert reveals its recent origin.
Nicole and O'Toole's Simon Dermott co-hatch a silly and improbable scheme to steal the sculpture before it can be unveiled as a forgery. Adding a bit of a side story, a fairly young Eli Wallach is a Donald Trump-sort-of-businessman who covets the work at any price.
It's a madcap adventure with Audrey Hepburn projecting her extraordinarily captivating charm while Peter O'Toole complements her with his own suave demeanor.
Now available on DVD, "How to Steal a Million" is a gem that shows why almost every moviegoer with a heart passionately adored Ms. Hepburn. It's a movie to savor on a cold night but it also will go nicely with tropical torpor.
They don't make lighthearted capers like this any more. They try and some of the films are good but the special innocence and sparkle of a movie like "How to Steal a Million" seems to elude today's directors who use techno-toys in place of wit and sublime acting.
I Dream of Jeanie (1952)
Potted Stephen Foster Biopic Emerges on DVD
Veteran director and producer Allan Dwan, whose huge string of films includes both the utterly forgettable and the recurrently shown (for example, John Wayne in "Sands of Iwo Jima") tried his hand at a big musical with "I Dream of Jeanie." Harnessing a lead cast of singers with little past film experience and, as it turned out, virtually no future, he spun a fictional and in no small part offensive story about the great American songwriter, Stephen Foster.
Bill Shirley is the young, lovestruck Foster whose kindness to slaves includes giving the money saved for an engagement ring to pay the hospital cost for an injured little black boy. His intended is Inez McDowell (Muriel Lawrence) whose pesky younger sister, Jeanie (Eileen Christy), is slowly realizing she's in love with the nearly impecunious song-smith. Foster is in love with Inez who is revolted by the composer's Number 1 on the Levee Hit Parade Tune, "O Susannah." Enter minstrel Edwin P.Christy (Ray Middleton) to help launch the profit-making phase of Foster's career.
This is, by the musical-film standards of the early Fifties, a big production. The sets are lavish in that special Hollywood way that portrayed fakes with all the trimmings. The singers aren't half bad and the Foster songs are almost impossible to ruin.
But this is also a literal whitewash of the antebellum South. The biggest number features black-face for all on stage, an historical anomaly and a contemporary piece of unthinking racism. Were these portrayals of blacks anywhere near reality, the abolitionists would be rightly condemned for interfering with so beneficent an institution.
"I Dream of Jeanie" apparently sank into the studio's vault with barely a death whisper. Now revived by Alpha Video for a mere $4.99 it's a period piece with charming songs and repulsive sentimentalizing about the victims of America's great crime, slavery.
This was what Hollywood was putting out two years before Brown v. Board of Education. Must have warmed the hearts of some moviegoers who wore their bed linen to the theater.
Shi mian mai fu (2004)
Fantasy, Morality, Honor-Classical Chinese Themes Blended Beautifully
Director Yimou Zhang has been around for a while. In 1987 his "Red Sorgum" starring the beautiful Gong Li was a bigger hit in New York than Beijing. With young Ziyi Zhang as the mysterious, alluring and tough as bamboo Mei in "House of Flying Daggers," Zhang may well have a lustrous successor to Gong Li.
Gorgeous scenery taken full advantage of by a skilled director and cinematographer complement the fast-moving action in a story set many centuries ago in a turbulent, unstable China. A guerrilla gang (force, whatever) called The Flying Daggers wishes to terminate with extreme prejudice the existing governmental infrastructure. That's a recurrent them in both current Chinese film and that country's long history of alternating stability and near wholesale civil anarchy. Beijing's party leaders have no trouble with flicks resurrecting stories about past insurrections against tyranny as long as no parallel with the folks who gave us Tianamen Square is deducible.
The cops need to catch the new leader of The Flying Daggers but first they must know who that character is. Mei, a recently acquired denizen of an ornate brothel that seems to offer every pleasure except dim sum, is believed to be a planted Dagger. A police officer goes to the bordello in disguise, gets blind Mei to perform athletically virtuosic dances and then crudely attempts rape.
Mei gets locked up. Mei escapes with the aid of a Chinese Zorro. The undercover cop who tried to have his way with her, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), teams up with her. He's trying to find The Flying Dagger lair. Leo (Andy Lau), his superior, keeps close on the couple's trail, issuing instructions to Jin whenever he can skip away from Mei for an impromptu forest briefing.
This is a martial arts film with depth. All the expected choreography of men, women, arrows, daggers and assorted ad hoc ordnance are skillfully employed. After all, Zhang is still reaping the bounty from his well-praised and now hot selling on DVD film, "Hero." I'm sure the Chinese language also has a maxim, "Nothing succeeds like success." But "House of Flying Daggers" is much more than a kung-fu epic set in a long ago time. The actors' sensitive portrayals reflect human collisions - in this case that big problem, The Romantic Triangle - that are universal. Jin and Mei fall in love despite their concealed motives for being what and who they are. The intense fighting scenes do not eclipse the romantic story.
As with virtually all Chinese film, eroticism is displayed almost solely through taut closeups and warily surrendered stilted expressions of deep feeling. Zhang goes a little further than most directors with having his couple roll passionately in the grass but not even a side glimpse of Mei's bared breast is permitted. Politically Zhang remains safely on the same page as the party cultural satraps who can, even now, advance or screw up his long career.
The nobility of honor, an enduring and often selfless quality with an ancient lineage, is a predominant hallmark of contemporary Chinese and Japanese cinema. The struggle between doing what honor demands or succumbing to human frailty is a theme in most cultures but its outlines are often starkest in non-Western tradition. A timeless and compelling subject, it's very well projected in this movie.
I'm not a martial arts film fan by a long chalk. But when the deadly terpsichore is as well done as is the case here AND when the human story emerges so strongly and affectingly, then I can only say - yeah, I'll buy the DVD when it's released.
The score is excellent, a fusion of traditional Chinese motifs and Western-inflected melodies performed largely on ancient instruments.
Unfortunately and unnecessarily a song in English performed by Kathleen Battle, whose opera career has somewhat plateaued, accompanies the end titles. Leave before her warbling starts-it adds nothing.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Extraordinary, Wonderful, Brilliant (I Liked It a Lot!)
Director Joel Schumacher's film version of the mega-Broadway hit, "The Phantom of the Opera," is the finest movie realization of a stage musical since "My Fair Lady." Elegant, powerful, romantic in a sometimes bizarre but always gripping way and with songs that will ever be a high water mark of musical theater, "Phantom" is a wonder.
Based on Gaston Leroux's nineteenth century novel, composer and script adapter Andrew Lloyd Webber created what he now admits is a runaway hit that he will never be able to duplicate much less exceed.
Who now doesn't know the story line? In the latter half of the nineteenth century a Parisian light opera company presents glittering productions, their star being one Carlotta (Minnie Driver). Mysteriously Carlotta, a high strung diva with an attitude, is rendered song-less, her ultra-pitched normal screeching turning to infernal caterwauling that would embarrass a respectable alley cat.
To the rescue, as a result of the machinations of a slowly emerging denizen of the flooded lower precincts of the opera house, The Phantom (Gerard Butler), comes Christine (Emmy Rossum). Unknown to the house managers, parvenu entrepreneurs with ambition and no taste, The Phantom is engineering Christine's soon-to-be-riotously-acclaimed debut.
A dashing young nobleman, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), the opera company's aristocratic patron, immediately recognizes Christine as a childhood friend. A brief reunion plunges the two into feverish devotion and love. The Phantom, who because of childhood experiences, is somewhat maladjusted can't deal with HIS Christine being wooed by another and worse returning, with interest, amour.
The rest of the story centers on The Phantom's increasingly disturbing, anti-social behavior and Raoul's attempt to keep and then snatch Christine from the, um, ah, homicidal madman's obsessive attentions.
"Phantom" blazingly shows how film can complement a stage production without detracting from the very special experience live performance insures. I attended the Broadway opening of "Phantom" and I've returned several times. The visceral experience of the stage can't be duplicated through film and the show incorporates a host of special effects that virtually descends on theater-goers.
But film allows probing of emotions in ways that can not always be achieved in a theater, at least not for anyone past the first couple of rows. And not for a complex, sprawling production like "Phantom." Film makes the story intimate. The outstanding cinematography creates a kaleidescope of shifting colors closely attuned to the drama being played out. The Phantom's tortured mien in closeup is compelling, perhaps also repelling. Larger sets than can be employed on Broadway do not make the story less intimate - rather they create a fascinating make-belief world (very much as was done in "Moulin Rouge" several years ago).
The real star is quite young but experienced actress and singer, Emmy Rossum. Transcendently beautiful, her deep portrayal of Christine and her marvelous, light but lustrous voice eclipse that of the role's theater originator, Sarah Brightman. And Ms. Rossum keeps her eye on the ball - keeping Raoul whole while dealing with The Phantom - with a depth I didn't see in the first Christine.
Patrick Wilson is a fine Raoul, a nobleman deeply in love. As The Phantom, Gerard is no Michael Crawford when it comes to singing (high notes are an effort for him) but his acting is wonderful. Salaciously, irrefragably evil he also projects a wounded humanity.
Miranda Richardson turns in a fine performance as the theater's amanuensis, the mother superior of chorines. And Minnie Driver is funny - I bet she had a blast playing an over-the-top self-worshiping diva.
"The Phantom of the Opera" has been knocked by some film critics who don't get the fact that central to appreciating any opera (Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner) is the imperative to suspend disbelief. This IS an opera. Leave skepticism and analysis at the ticket booth with this wonderful film and you'll want to see it again and again.
And the soundtrack is terrific-I'm on my third listening.
A Very Long Search for a Loved One
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in the hit, "Amelie," employed scintillating Audrey Tatou, the most expressive young French actress in film today, to portray a whimsical and charming girl-woman in search of love. With her now as a young French rural ingénue searching for years after The Great War (aka World War I or, even better, The War to End All Wars) for a probably killed fiancé, Jeunet crafted a moving, often penetrating story centering on the charnel carnage of trench warfare.
Lame as a single-digit-age child because of polio and living with relatives who took over after her parents were killed in an accident, Mathilde is befriended by Manech (Gasparad Ulliel). Mathilde, a loner separated from her peers by her disability, and Manech become closest friends. Late adolescence brings love and lust, commitment and an engagement.
But in 1917 the French Army needed fresh meat for the bloody maw that was warfare on the almost terminally static Western Front. And off went Manech along with many others who never returned.
Employing the harshest discipline of any Western army in modern history, the French Army (which gave the world the Dreyfus trial and in World War I actually used decimation to punish mutinous regiments and divisions) sentences Manech and four others to be cast into No Man's Land without weapons, without any possibility of being allowed to return but with the macabre requirement that they respond to morning roll call if alive (not a good bet). Their alleged crime was self-mutilation to get out of combat (what we call in the American military, "SIW," Self-Inflicted Wounds).
Mathilde in 1920, steely faithful in a moving and believable way, searches fervently for her fiancé whom she believes "must" be alive somewhere, somehow. Employing artful stratagems and enlisting the willing, the paid and the dragooned, her search takes her to cities and battlefields. With resort to a child's employment of magical thinking she frequently whispers tests about what will happen in immediate, ordinary circumstances with one result "proving" for her that Manech is still alive. Tatou makes this self-deception appealing and infinitely sad.
As Spielberg did in "Saving Private Ryan," Jeunet brings the immediacy of the meat-grinding battlefield to the viewer over and over again through superb if sometimes difficult to watch cinematography. Of course no film truly captures the desperation, the epidemic fatality that gripped and demoralized the French Army after years of immobile, set-piece fighting. One needs to read Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon for that. But Jeunet has brought to the screen the most realistic World War I trench scenes since "All Quiet on the Western Front" (the 1930 original, of course).
Tatou is an acting tsunami here, alternately beguiling and tense and always hopeful while fighting despair. Expect to see her in many fine roles in the future. She's marvelous.
The entire cast is excellent-few are known in the U.S.
A remarkable movie with an ending that will satisfy and disturb at the same time.
Tatou and Jeunet deserve Oscar nominations.
Mar adentro (2004)
A Biopic That Asks Disturbing Questions
Director and co-writer Alejandro Amenabar didn't make things easy for viewers of his taut, a bit overlong but very disturbing story, accurately based on a Spanish man's struggle to obtain assisted suicide. "Mar Adentro" ("The Sea Inside") is gripping and its impact far exceeds the time spent in the theater.
With the award-winning Canadian movie, "The Barbarian Invasions," folks got to see a family along with a coterie of devoted friends address the wish of a beloved albeit irascible man to end his life. In that movie, the center of attention suffered from progressive, incurable cancer and his descent into a terminal stage was fast. Emotional as the scenes were, death was inevitable - the question was how gentle could it be made through solicited intervention.
Ramon Sampedro (brilliantly played by Javier Bardem) is a different story. For well over two decades he's been a quadriplegic because of a diving accident. (Very sharp viewers may detect a terrible irony as to why he ended in that condition because of his improvident dive.) Once a world traveler and lover of beautiful women, he now lies trapped in an immobile body, his every need attended to by a truly devoted family who willingly surrender much of their privacy and time to sustain their beloved relation.
Rosa (Lola Duenas), a single mom of two small boys, enters the Sampedro household out of what might have been mere curiosity to learn about the paralyzed man's plight but she becomes both an emotionally supportive centerpiece for Ramon as well as an amusing but occasionally aggravating presence. A nice performance by Duenas.
The problem, of course, is that Sampedro isn't sick in the normal sense. He may well live for decades more with proper care. So his softly but persistently voiced desire to end his life with "dignity" creates a moral dilemma for friends and relatives who, not surprisingly, react from different ethical and religious perspectives.
Ramon is the poster quad of a group dedicated to changing Spain's laws concerning assisted suicide. "Death with Dignity" is their watchword. Gene (Clara Segura) is a sensitive activist who enlists the aid of pro bono publico counsel, Julia (Belen Rueda). Julia has her own health issues which carry an indefinite but catastrophic prognosis. Happily married to a devoted spouse, she bonds emotionally with her client.
What follows is an acutely sensitive interplay of values and emotions. Ramon lives with his brother and wife, their technophile teenage son, not the intellectual Ramon is, and his aged dad who can't stop grieving over his son's cataclysmic descent into absolute helplessness.
The moral and legal issues are played out through excellent acting and short vignettes including a courtroom scene in which formalism triumphs over any judicial interpretation that might take into account Ramon's feelings and views. It may be Spain but the issues are alive in most countries, including the U.S.
Especially amusing is a shouted, first floor to bedroom, debate between Ramon with a drop-in, lecturing Jesuit priest, also a quadriplegic but one whose hidebound dogma casually masks the absence of a soul.
Special kudos to Mabel Rivera, Ramon's sister-in-law-Manuela, for a wrenchingly authentic portrayal of a strong woman who holds the family together. And the same compliment fulsomely extends to Belen Rueda, Julia, who segues from objective advocate to close friend to a woman hurtling towards a dark fate.
The director imposes no value judgments allowing each character full range to express his or her feelings effectively and, at times, movingly. Like "Dead Man Walking," this movie can support any view about its deadly subject.
No one can stop a person from committing suicide if he/she is determined but the universal tragedy of the world's Ramons is that without assistance, life in a body in which only the heart beats and only the head can move is a sentence no court could pronounce on the most depraved of criminals.
The cinematography is well-matched to the story and the beautiful Galician scenes are an intended contrast to the limited views the once globe-trotting Ramon experiences from his special bed.