and Commander: The Far Side of the World
by Peter Weir
Readers of Patrick O’Brian’s Igreatly
admired novels of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic
era will be pleased with Peter Weir’s consummate adaptation,
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. And audiences
who don’t know a bowline from a bowsprit will be equally enthralled.
Set almost entirely onboard a seasoned warship, the film luxuriates
in the historical minutiae of waging war at sea, right down
to the harrowing duties of the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin
(Paul Bettany), who is first seen slipping in a pool of blood
while performing surgery during a cannon scuffle that pitches
the ship like a seesaw.
The ship is the HMS Surprise, a man-of-war prowling
the Pacific under the command of Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell
Crowe). A decorated veteran, the magnetic captain is known
to his crew as Lucky Jack. But during the course of Master
and Commander (which picks up well into the first book
and continues on through the second), Jack’s luck will run
out, testing his leadership abilities and straining his close
friendship with the philosophical Maturin. If the film were
to have a motto, it would be “hold fast,” a dictum that is
tattooed on the knuckles of a feisty old salt. The crew’s
fortitude is tested when Aubrey exceeds his orders and braves
the catastrophic waters of Cape Horn in pursuit of a predatory
French frigate. While the Surprise is outmaneuvered
by its faster and more heavily armed quarry, the crew is unsettled
by a “Jonah” in its midst. Aubrey handles the usual tensions
between close-quartered sailors with stern efficiency (extra
rations of rum as a reward, floggings for punishment), leaving
room for a shivery subplot produced by the crew’s gossipy
Though Master and Commander is resolutely about the
glory and barbarity of naval warfare, its portrait of male
camaraderie provides an unusually satisfying, almost lyrical
subtext. Enriching the deep-seated bond between prideful,
iron-willed Aubrey and the gently intellectual Maturin are
several sketches involving their underlings, from fast friendships
between greenhorn lieutenants to the crusty bonhomie of grizzled
deck hands. It also presents a picture of the onboard class
system, a ruthless meritocracy that overrules lineage. The
crew’s most winsome character is a very young lord (Max Pirkis)
who precociously proves his mettle, losing an arm in the process.
Meanwhile, Crowe proves to be a skillful ensemble player,
keeping his charisma on smolder and using it mostly to demonstrate
the force of personality required to govern the captain’s
unruly kingdom, “this little wooden world.” Crowe’s contrasting,
prickly chemistry with the equally talented Bettany (his costar
in A Beautiful Mind) enlivens the mutual respect between
Aubrey and Maturin, who duet on cello and violin during their
Weir, always an unpredictably individualistic filmmaker (Picnic
at Hanging Rock, The Truman Show) here disregards the
CGI bells and comedic whistles that a lesser director might’ve
been tempted to employ. There’s plenty of humor, but of the
maturely droll variety, and the warship battles, though thunderously
ferocious, do not clobber the viewer with their destructive
force (in fact, the nighttime cannonades are luminously picturesque).
Instead, the director (who co-adapted the novels) holds fast
to the story, building excitement with bracing turns of events
(one of them involves Irish whalers) and a character-heavy
rampage that’s the most absorbing hand-to-hand melee in recent
memory. The heroism of death in battle is followed by an unflinching
sequence of burlap-shrouded corpses being dumped overboard.
Besides being a rip-roaring yarn, Master and Commander
is a marvel of craftsmanship, with a meticulous but never
showy authenticity that extends to sweeping long shots of
the ship making its way across the vast ocean. An interlude
upon the newly discovered Galapagos Islands places the film
in a larger time frame, with Maturin’s naturalist interests
adding texture to all the crashing masts and pounding cannons.
Many of the visual flourishes will be recognized by O’Brian’s
readers: Those demon-eyed goats in the hold, for example,
are symbolic of superstition.
The superlative soundtrack echoes Aubrey’s and Maturin’s chamber
duets (in the novel, they become acquainted during a concert);
the score’s classical strains are evocatively interwoven with
sound effects based on the creak of timbers or the roar of
the surf. But perhaps nothing is quite as rewarding as the
film’s intelligent writing, particularly the dialogue between
Aubrey and Maturin. In this supremely well-told tale, the
conversation is as rousing as clashing cutlasses.
big showdown, one more time: (l-r) Keanu Reeves and
Hugo Weaving in The Matrix Revolutions.
by Andy and Larry Wachowski
At the conclusion of The Matrix Reloaded, the middle
installment of Andy and Larry Wachowski’s sci-fi Götterdämmerung,
Neo (Keanu Reeves) was in a coma. The Matrix Revolutions,
the wearying concluding installment, opens within Neo’s subconscious,
where he has inexplicably been granted Messiahlike powers
in the metaphysical world. He’s jacked in even when he’s out
of it, but in this staggeringly conventional epic it matters
not a whit that his newfound powers are never explained. The
Wachowskis, apparently responding to criticisms of Reloaded’s
impenetrable philosophical labyrinths, have discarded much
of the prophetic mumbo-jumbo to craft a supersized war movie.
That the war is between fragile, freedom-seeking humans and
an entire planet of sentient weaponry does not give the film
any new distinction, although it does lead to a slackly disappointing
ending that ignores the plight of the pod people, those comatose
captives who biofuel the machine world.
While Neo consults with the Oracle (Mary Alice now inhabits
the shell left by the late Gloria Foster, with diminished
effect) in one of the more stupefying examples of hackneyed
dialogue, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne)
and the extraneous Seraph pay a visit to the Merovingian (Lambert
Wilson), who spouts his ludicrously accented derision while
lording over a techno-throbbing domain filled with last decade’s
S&M fashions. Persephone (Monica Belluci), his traitorous
wife, gets just enough screen time for a cleavage close-up.
Which is no help to Neo: Stranded between two dimensions,
he lands in a train terminal where he needlessly encounters
a family of programs (“Are you from the Matrix?” asks the
little-girl program. “Yes. No. I mean, I was,” replies Neo,
in a characteristic dither of banality). He then learns that
he must overcome the megomaniacal Trainman to get onboard.
The most interesting element in this go-nowhere scenario is
that the station master is played by Bruce Spence, the toothy
gyro pilot from The Road Warrior.
And on and on it goes, until gigundo hairballs of tentacled
sentinels crash through the thunderdome of the rebel stronghold
of Zion, where they are met with heroic resistance from several
archetypes lifted out of a discarded Star Wars storyboard.
The onslaught of machinery is seemingly infinite, yet the
rebels hold their ground with machines of their own making—mostly
more complex versions of the four-limbed crane sported by
Sigourney Weaver in Aliens—along with primitive but
somehow massively devastating bombs. Fighting machines with
more machinery soundly defeats the existential mind-bending
of the first Matrix, but by now, it’s hard to care.
Even before the midway point of Reloaded, the trilogy
had lost the chillingly hermetic, asexual and bloodless adherence
to a reality-warping destiny that made the original a cyberpunk
classic for the wireless new millennium.
does not break new ground in special effects, either. There
isn’t a single sequence to rival the highway melee of Reloaded,
let alone the pioneering, stop-motion kung fu of The Matrix—although
a double-jointed karate smackdown by Trinity does recall her
thrillingly gravity-defying entrance at the beginning of the
first film. As for Morpheus, the Zen savant of the ether,
he lost his mythic status way back on the podium of Reloaded,
and is here reduced to an aperçu of his former, divining self.
Since he was the character that drove the Hegelian narrative,
his demotion to extra is a fatal glitch in the trilogy’s continuity.
Not that Fishburne seems to mind; he, Reeves and Moss appear
to be suffering from battle fatigue, although Moss’ steely
efficiency is one of the film’s only pleasures. When Trinity
gets fed up with the Merovingian’s smirky double-talk, she
snarls, “I don’t have time for this shit.” Amen to that.