Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Russell Crowe wonders where the grog has gone off to.

(2003) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Billy Boyd, Jack Randall, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby, Richard Pates, Robert Pugh, Richard McCabe, Ian Mercer, David Threlfall . Directed by Peter Weir

 

After years of fan clamoring, Patrick O’Brian’s revered Master and Commander saga finally made it to the big screen, and was given the royal treatment in Hollywood as befitted the beginning of a potential major franchise. It didn’t quite make it there but was that because the movie wasn’t up to snuff?

Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe), master of the HMS Surprize, is given orders by the admiralty to track down the French warship Acheron in the waters off of the Americas and track it as far as Brazil, with the orders to take her if possible, and sink her if not. He commands a crew including the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Bettany), who is an amateur naturalist as well as Aubrey’s best friend. The two often end their evenings by playing duets on violin and cello.

The Acheron proves to be a superior ship in size, firepower and speed, and creates havoc for the Surprize, which barely escapes sinking in battle. Aubrey must use all his wits to outwit his clever adversary, but also wrestles with his own motivations; does he chase the Acheron out of loyalty, duty or pride? And what price will he pay to find the answer to that question?

The Master and Commander books are very well researched. The 20-novel series features detailed accounts of life in the British Navy in the Napoleonic era, as well as battle tactics, the political climate of the times and life in general at the dawn of the 19th century.

That a movie was to be made of it was met not only by the anticipation I mentioned but also a healthy amount of skepticism as well. Fans of the series (and they are a rabid lot) were concerned that the careful, meticulous research O’Brian put into the novels might be washed away in a storm of Hollywood clichés and shortcuts.

Well, there was reason to celebrate (and reason for dirges — more in a moment). Although Russell Crowe is perhaps too Hollywood-handsome for the role of Aubrey (he is described in the books as being a bit on the pudgy side and Crowe’s casting in the role made purists howl), he carries the charisma of a leader of men. His performance is such that you believe he is the kind of man you yourself would follow without hesitation to the gates of Hell and back. In that sense, he caught the essence of the character if not the physical embodiment.

The movie also captures the brutal and cramped conditions in which swabbies of the British Navy lived and worked. Better still, the raw courage it took to fight a naval battle is noted, as cannon fire obliterates hulls and decks, causing wood to splinter in a thousand directions, acting as lethal darts. Rarely are the cannonballs themselves seen by the naked eye, but the damage they inflict to vessel and flesh is well in evidence. The battle scenes are absolutely terrifying to behold.

The movie is well-cast even down to the extras who possess faces that have the look of the 19th century; most bear scars of battle, or the more insidious scars of years of toil on a tiny vessel in the midst of the unforgiving ocean, imperiled by both the elements and merciless foes. Whether those scars were put there by make-up or were there to begin with, they go a long way in establishing the film’s authenticity, which I have to say overall seemed pretty believable to my admittedly inexpert eye.

Aubrey is a decent sort but a stern taskmaster as captain; he knows the crew’s ability to perform amid hellish cannon fire and terrible storms will mean the difference between returning home or taking a long nap in Davey Jones’ locker. The discipline was by necessity brutal and if anything is understated here.

Weir filmed on the Galapagos Islands, one of the most remote and fascinating places on earth. It is where Charles Darwin was motivated to formulate his Theory of Evolution, and remains today, due to preservationist efforts, nearly pristine. The scenes with Maturin on the island are priceless and are among the movie’s highlights.

But there are a few marks against the film. In the novels, the American Navy was Aubrey’s adversary. Here, perhaps so that the American audience isn’t offended, Aubrey fights the French. Also, some of the expository scenes drag, leading to the audience shifting in its seats uncomfortably during the two and a half hour movie. Audiences are more ADHD than ever these days; I can’t imagine one sitting through this without whipping out cell phones to check for messages and texts at least once.

Crowe is in my opinion one of the most compelling stars in Hollywood; at this point in his career he’d hit his stride not only as an actor but as a screen presence, the very definition of stardom. The movie is much better when he’s onscreen than when he’s offscreen. Also, his chemistry with Paul Bettany as Maturin is undeniable; they bicker, but they are still the closest of friends, and the two play well off each other.

Weir walks a tightrope over a pool of hungry sharks just in making this movie and I think he does as good a job as it’s possible to do under the circumstances. The ship’s interior is made to feel cramped without making the audience too claustrophobic. The emptiness of the ocean and the isolation of the English vessel on it is noted but not overdone. And while he did compress some of the action, eliminate scenes and beloved novel characters, he makes the movie lively for most of the running time.

Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is an epic piece of filmmaking in every sense of the word. While the storyline may not be new, it is well-told. It is a combination action movie, adventure flick and history lesson all rolled into one neat package. Students of history will love this one, as much if not more so than lovers of action. It’s a shame that this franchise never made it past the first movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Epic battle sequences. Crowe at the top of his game. Combination action movie/adventure/history lesson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: About half an hour too long. Drags in places. Differs in critical places from the book.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the battle sequences are intense and gruesome. There are a few bad words now and then.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first movie ever to film in the Galapagos Islands.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The two-disc DVD Collector’s Edition has a wealth of features including a look at the historical accuracy of the books and the film’s endeavors to follow as closely as possible in accuracy, including getting authentic period props. This is oddly missing from the Blu-Ray edition, which does have a trivia track and a map overlay which shows you the positions of the Suprize and the Archeron at various points in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $212.0M on a $150M production budget; the movie wasn’t financially successful.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Horatio Hornblower, RN

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Expendables 2

The Pirates! Band of Misfits


The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The Pirate Captain is ready to get you shivered, timber-wise.

(2012) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, Al Roker, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen. Directed by Peter Lord

 

Pirates tend to be a churlish, loutish lot with bad tempers and bad teeth. Hey, you would be too if you spent most of your time on disease-ridden ships the size of a city bus or smaller with a bunch of evil-smelling, wretched men who are as like to cut your throat as they are to have your back – that is if they aren’t stabbing you in it. Pirates are notoriously unreliable (just ask Cap’n Jack Sparrow).

The Pirate Captain (Grant) is not quite such a bad guy but he’s all pirate. How do you know? He’s got the fattest parrot (okay, just big boned) on the high seas, a shiny cutlass and a luxuriant beard. He’s also got gleaming white teeth, a British accent, a love for shiny booty (no wisecracks) and an even greater love for ham.

What he really longs for is the recognition that comes from the Pirate of the Year award. He has thrown his bullet-holed hat in the ring for it year after year and come up short, usually losing to Black Bellamy (Piven), who knows how to make an entrance. He also has to compete with such fine black-hearted seadogs as Cutlass Liz (Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Henry). Still, with the encouragement of his right arm, the Pirate with a Scarf (Freeman) – note that the pirates on the Pirate Captain’s ship don’t get names – he thinks he has more than a fighting chance until he compares his measly pile of booty next to the mountains of shiny trinkets the others bring in.

Determined to win the prize at last, the Captain takes his crew back out for some intense pirating but with a spectacular lack of success the Pirate Captain begins to lose hope. Urged on by his number two, the Captain makes one final attempt at piracy – on what turns out to be the HMS Beagle, returning from the Galapagos with its passenger Charles Darwin (Tennant) who immediately recognizes the Captain’s parrot Polly for what she really is.

Faced with a new way to acquire the booty he needs the Pirate Captain must sail into the most dangerous waters of all – London, where Queen Victoria (Staunton) with her blind, unreasoning hatred of all things pirate, awaits. It will take all of the Captain’s skill to navigate these perilous seas and come back with the award that he so desperately wants.

Aardman studios, the madmen behind the Wallace and Gromit shorts (some of the funniest animated shorts of the past twenty years) and such features as Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas have returned to the stop motion Claymation animation style they’ve championed for years. There is a certain charm to that particular style, with the jerky movements and Aardman’s trademark toothy smiles that are more square than anything else.

Aardman movies have a distinctly British sense of humor that shares the same roots as Monty Python and the Goons, not to mention more recent varieties such as Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand. There is a quirkiness that is utterly endearing and if there are any references that only Brits would get, they’ve been excised from the American version (oddly, a couple of voice actors were replaced with Americans but the vast majority are the same).

If you didn’t know that was Hugh Grant’s voice you probably wouldn’t believe it. Gone are the trademark stammer (except in one instance) and for the most part Grant affects a deeper, more resonant voice for the Pirate Captain. Staunton does her best to make Queen Victoria sound like an annoyed man but wounds up sounding a bit like Helena Bonham Carter as Belliatrix from the Harry Potter movies. Perhaps that’s intentional.

There are some transitional animations that show the pirate ship on an animated map where they are batted around by a codgerish Neptune and blown off-course by playful cherubs. They also release red discs in the water which show up on the map, in an amusing turn (it looks funnier than it sounds). It’s little details like this that make the film stand out.

And while the silent monkey butler (with flash cards for dialogue) might come off as a bit like pandering to the younger set, the monkey – better known as Mr. Bobo, he’s still no more objectionable than the slugs in Flushed Away who were to my mind some of the best parts of that film. I would have, in fact, liked to have seen more of him.

Gideon Defoe wrote the script based on his own books The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling. The upside of this is that he knows his characters best and adapts them to the screen nicely. If there’s a downside it’s that he must have found it hard to edit himself – the movie is a little bit scattershot and seems to be going in several different directions at once. As a result, the story feels a bit rushed and non-organic at times as it gets pinballed much like the ship does on the map.

However the movie is going to appeal to adults very nicely; surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have captured the imagination of kids at least here in the States which is kind of odd – pirates usually are a big draw for them. I don’t know if it’s just that Claymation is an acquired taste in this age of CGI, but it’s kind of sad that this isn’t pulling numbers that are consistent with CGI features. Hopefully it will nab itself an Oscar nomination come next year; it’ll have some competition with Brave but quite frankly it compares favorably with the rest of the animated films out there.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky humor we’ve come to expect from Aardman. Plenty of clever recurring jokes (the monkey butler, the animated map).

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit all over the map.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence here (they’re pirates after all), a couple of naughty words and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film is animated with stop motion, but computers were used for some of the backgrounds, particularly sea and sky.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yellowbeard

CHARLES DARWIN LOVERS: Although the character is pictured as a young man, thanks to some convenient foam there is a shot of him resembling his more iconic old man visage.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Where Do We Go Now?