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Victory at Sea

By Ann Morrow

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Directed 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 superstitions.

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 downtime.

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.

Prophet Loss

The big showdown, one more time: (l-r) Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in The Matrix Revolutions.

The Matrix Revolutions
Directed 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.

Revolutions 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.

—Ann Morrow

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