The Sea Inside and Being Julia
  • Javier in Bed
  • Annette in Hysterics
  • Proof that I'll Watch Anything Nominated for an Oscar

Directed by Artistic Merit

"Man, Warren. Maybe all of that time off wasn't good for your looks!"
I've Got Oscar Fever! (Seriously, I'm Starting to Get Sick of This)

The Sea Inside

I take issue with some of the stances in Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside. The films tackles euthanasia, a subject that sparks multiple feelings about life, the Church, politics, and morality. Personally, I see this as an issue where the state should supersede when someone is acting contrary to the intent of the person to be euthanized Other than that, it should not something where the government should be involved. In this country, we have a standard that works to a certain degree: The Supreme Court says that someone in a "persistent vegetative state" can have the plug pulled if there's "clear and convincing evidence" of the person's wishes. (Editor's Plug: For an account about euthanasia better than either film out right now is lawyer KU Law Professor William Colby's The Long Goodbye: The Deaths of Nancy Cruzan. Colby was the lawyer on the groundbreaking case that stemmed from Southwest Missouri. It's a great, heartbreaking account of a fascinating case. You can buy it at your local book store or at Amazon) Most social films - particularly social/political films that have come out this year - start filming with a simplistic take on the issues they address, replete with the opinions the filmmaker wants the audience to have. Vera Drake wants you to side with a woman who performs abortions just as likely to kill the mother as the fetus. The Passion of the Christ presumes that because Jesus had a horrific death, you should believe in him and his teachings. Fahrenheit 9-11 presumes that no other administration would have botched up national security, although presidents of the past should share some blame. (Nice work in Afghanistan, Papi Reagan or nice work distracting Congress, Clinton!!) You get the point. But The Sea Inside presents a challenging issue and does nothing to sugarcoat the proceedings. The "hero" of the film is disabled, but has full capacity of his mental resources. He's no vegetable; he simply does not want to live anymore. There are people who love him, don't want to see him die, and he treats them like a doormat. The film ultimately believes that, in order to die with dignity, the government has to approve. All of this presents challenging predicaments for the audience. How do you root for a guy who just wants to commit suicide and who's a complete asshole anyway? Is euthanasia all right when the person has full comprehension? The great thing about The Sea Inside is that the answers to these questions do not matter. The film's presentation of these issues is dense and complex; with plenty of material for people to agree and dissent.

The film recounts the last days of Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem), a Spanish mechanic who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident. After decades of being confined to a bed in his brother's and sister-in-law's (Celso Bugallo and Mabel Riverea) house, Ramon decides he wants to commit suicide and "die with dignity". But, in order to commit suicide, he's gotta have assistance. Ya know, he can't use his arms. Anyone who assists him could be accused of murder, although the film points out that no one in Spain has ever been prosecuted for such a crime. The Sea Inside focuses on Ramon's attempt to fight the court system, the Catholic Church, and his own family in order to achieve this "internal peace." But he is not alone in these efforts. The film focuses on Ramon's relationship with two women during this battle. Julia (Belen Rueda) is a lawyer prepping Ramon's argument before the Court of Appeals. Suffering from an ailment, she finds herself slowly creeping into a paralysis as well. Watching Ramon make his choices influences her as well and they become kindred spirits. Also on hand is Rosa (Lola Duenas), a neighbor girl with ul motives: She approaches Ramon with the hope that she can change his mind. Big mistake. He castigates her for judging him in his own home and taking him on as a project to mask her own insecurities. The next time she visits, Rosa takes a less-harsh tack. She begins to fall in love with the doomed Ramon. And, despite his temperament and general philosophy on life, one can understand why. As portrayed by Bardem, Ramon is a witty and passionate man who uses words to express feelings that takes most people their whole bodies. He smiles and laughs because "that's easier than crying." He so eloquently argues his position for death that he almost becomes his own worst evidence. In his debate with the wheelchair-bound Padre Francisco (Jose Maria Pou), Ramon's selfishness comes blazing through. At the same time, watching Ramon battle with the memories of his youth fleshes out his psychological distress. Since Bardem aged around twenty years for the role, he does double duty as the young man who endured a physical death at the bottom of a shallow sea. If the Church believes that the body is only a vessel for the soul, then how does their argument hold up with Ramon's predicament? It's messy, and by the end the audience can't decide whether they should root for Ramon's success, hope that a detractor intervenes, or lament for the people he's leaving behind if he triumphs.

The Sea Inside does not pretend to make any of this accessible. In fact, that's the film's great strength. The issue of euthanasia is presented as a necessary end, but Ramon's condition muddles the issue. A lot of films would treat a character like Ramon with saintly gloves. His nasty behavior is believable and humanizes him. The Sea Inside is a probing, thought-provoking flick that expands upon, rather than shrinking from, its harsh material. This is also the subject secretly tackled by another Oscar-nominated film whose name I dare not speak. But that film had to put an hour and a half of sports cliches before it reaches the film's point. And then, with little time left, the filmmakers simplify that topic in order to neatly wrap up the film. With that other movie's ending, I somewhat agreed with the conclusion. They just failed to make me care about anything that happened before it. The Sea Inside made me sweat and bleed for their conclusion and, whether I agree or not, that made the difference.

Being Julia

Every Oscar season ushers in a film that aspires to be literary and artistically dense - whether it actually accomplishes either - that gets nomination(s) based on a superficial rationale ranging from star wattage to fancy art direction. Last year it was Girl with a Pearl Earring, a film whose main legacy is a few technical nominations. Remember An Affair of the Necklace? Probably not, but the costume designer got a nod despite had the unenviable task of making Hillary Swank look sleek and classic .Check out Gosford Park, a non-apparel titled piece that gained multiple accolades for Robert Altman in 2001 that rarely gets referenced now outside of "Did they really nominate that?" conversations. This year, the general public was left scratching their heads by Annette Bening's Best Actress nomination. This has nothing to do with Bening's titular performance in Istvan Szabo's Being Julia. Due to its art-house status, most people in the U.S. don't live within 50 miles of a theater playing the film. For anyone who has seen it, they may consider re-locating somewhere with fewer art houses. Being Julia has one big idea that frames a premise stretched to the limit by the film's running time. The characters are well-conceived (most of them anyway) but are given preposterous decision-making skills by the screenplay that lead them and the overall story down a muddled and convoluted road of misguided motivation and a drama-less resolution. But...those sets and costumes are really pretty! And Bening is very ,very okay. Did she deserve a nomination over Julie Delpy in Before Sunset? Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Volume Two? Naomi Watts in We Don't Live Here Anymore? Audrey Tautou in A Very Long Engagement? No, but this is definitely friendlier to award voters thanks to Bening's on-the-dot reading of Ronald Harwood's literal script adapting W. Somerset Maugham's underwhelming novella.

Julia Lambert (Bening) is the golden queen of London's West End in 1938. She shrewdly chooses roles and maintains a dominance over the production thanks to her estranged producer/husband Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons). The film introduces Julia as a raving prima donna. This is an overplayed role for sure, but Bening seems to have her teeth fully dug into its skin. Irons feeds off her radiance and she bounces gloriously off his droll presence. The film begins to derail almost immediately with the arrival of Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), an American with a strangely vague connection to the couple. He begins to woo Julia but he is clearly a phony. Too "gee-golly" in his presentation and too sneaky with his intent, the audience waits in anticipation for Julia to ambush this creepy leech. But instead, she falls for him and his "boyish charms." Before you know it, she's buying him gifts and boinking his brains out. How could a woman rise to such a successful level in such a ruthless business be so blinded by such an obvious dunce? Tom could have a 12-inch unit, but there's no clear evidence of this. And sure enough, he starts going around and making the sex with other women. Tom's main affection is a young actress named Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch), whom Tom promises a role in Julia's next play. Once again, Julia agrees to this despite what her character's natural instinct would suggest. Michael begins to carry on an affair with Avice once rehearsals begin and slowly expands her part in the show. But Julia lurches in the wings. She is being coached to seek revenge by the ghost of Jimmy Langton (Michael Gambon), her acting coach. From the climax to its ending, Being Julia treats this dilemma as something Julia has planned all along to get back at these people dead-set on ruining her career. That would be dramatic and biting, if anything in the story beforehand had corroborated such a conclusion. Of course, there was not but that does not stop the film. Conclusions like this normally work because there's purpose behind them. Maybe the purpose came sometime after the credits.

Being Julia has one idea going through its pretty, little head: For a performer, real life occurs on the stage. With a script, everything has its place, can easily be predicted, and makes sense to its inhabitants. The world away from the stage is a made-up fantasy full of outrageous fortune and brazen rage. This is not a bad idea; indeed Jimmy Langton's coaching of Julia on how to make life more dramatic is the best material in the film. But, director Szabo and screenwriter Harwood don't know how to get from Point A to Point B without ludicrous vehicles. First of all, why does Julia fall for Tom? As played by Evans, there's nothing appealing about the guy. Disingenuous at best and ardently irritating at worst, Tom simply comes off as a boring and bland Chris O'Donnell. Any credibility Bening gains by making Julia shrewd and calculating at any other moment in the film is ruined by this development. Secondly, why does she get so furious at Michael for cheating on her with Avice? The marriage is clearly estranged and she's been screwing Tom way before this. One could argue that she had a subconscious response to her husband crying on with a woman that he stole from the guy she's been carrying on with, but that requires too much heavy lifting. That would explain why Julia take most of her rage out on Avice, but that explanation is a bit misogynistic.She shouldn't ruin this girl's career and then let the guys who used both of them get away unscathed. Shimes and I hypothesized that Bening was offering self-criticism of her maneuvering of Warren Beatty for personal and professional gain back in the early stages of her career. That too requires quite a bit of heavy lifting. And finally, why did Julia even consider starting an affair with Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood)? The film clearly telegraphed this character's "relevant traits" from his introduction. Once again, not shrewd and not calculated. Since these characters act irrationally and unbelievably, Being Julia loses all credibility and dramatic weight. These characters suffer at the mercy of the script's conventions and nothing revelatory or fresh happens as a result. Harwood is determined to make the character's lives as crazy as possible to drive the point home. The script is so faithful to this idea that the film falls apart because of its implausibility. Harwood also mistakes sophomoric sex humor for bawdy and naughty material. Men joke about their "diddles" and women talk about men's "diddles" and the audience is expected to squirm with delight like Jon Lovitz on SNL's "Masterpiece Theater" skit. Unless one counts the NPR-obsessed, Johnson County-residing Desperate Housewife behind me in the auditorium, nobody did. But if she got off on it that I say good for her.

The script certainly is not saved or aided by Szabo's directing. This guy - an IMDb verified veteran of British cinema that I've never caught- loves filming images in the most literal ways possible. From Julia scraping off her make-up after a fight with Tom to Julia's use of an stage swing in the film's climax, Szabo has no interest in exploring any possible meaning of an image other than what's on the surface. This certainly fails to service the material or classic actors like Irons, Gambon, Rosemary Harris, or Miriam Margoyles. But this does help to further drown Evans and Punch already over their heads. The only person who walks away with any shred of grace is Bening, a veteran of period pieces (Bugsy) and a survivor of misguided character studies (What Planet Are You From?). Her skill with this larger-than-life character matches her surroundings and her outfits. Bening didn't write this junk and she does fine with the words and the motivation provided. Who can blame her for taking such a show-boat role that allows her to dominate every scene, even if the dominance makes little to no sense. Her nomination still seems unfair considering who was left off that list. It certainly is not surprising. This is one of those safe, British imports that wraps the audience with familiar characters and worn-in situations. Things are seemingly made even more palpable by a bankable, American actress and some dirty comedy bits. This is the same thing we see every year at awards time and they will always get nominated. Bening may not be a million dollar baby, but she's good enough for the Academy and for me.


The Pitch for The Sea Inside
2 The Long Good-Bye: The Deaths of Nancy Cruzan+ 2 Timothy Leary's = 4 The Sea Inside
The Pitch for Being Julia
1 Gosford Park + 1 Carrie= 2 Being Julia
See Them For:
On top of everything else, Ramon discovers he's the Baby's Daddy.