Friday, May 7, 2004

It’s Thursday, so here I’m posting my video reviews column from this week’s newspaper:

‘Master And Commander:
The Far Side Of The World’

“Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World’s” mouthful of a title and all-male cast proudly trumpet its vision. This is a manly movie, but not in the sense of loud, splashy entertainment for overgrown boys.
It’s about real men making hard decisions, fighting brutal battles and still having time at the end of the day for a glass of wine with a friend.
While billed as a rousing action film, “Master” is much more of a historical drama punctuated by bursts of combat. Director Peter Weir (“Dead Poets Society,” “Witness,” “The Truman Show”) has made his share of fine movies, and many are characterized by a fixation on honor and friendship.
Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) commands the HMS Surprise for the British Navy, circa the year 1800. With his crew, Aubrey is patrolling the Atlantic Ocean for French privateers — pirates by any other name. But when his ship is ambushed, Aubrey is driven by the desire for revenge — even if it takes him to “the far side of the world.”
A globetrotting tale of war and life at sea, “Master” is like the more realistic side of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Crowe steps right into Aubrey’s boots, giving a masterful portrait of a dashing man both blessed and burdened by the power of command. It’s another award-worthy performance by Crowe, who thoroughly sinks into Aubrey’s character. He even learned to play the violin for this role.
As ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin, Paul Bettany ably backs Crowe, playing the “Mr. Spock” to Crowe’s “Captain Kirk” on the Surprise. It’s with Maturin’s gentle character, and his love for the natural wonders found at sea, that some of the most human moments of “Master” come.
“Master” feels like it was made firmly for fans of author Patrick O’Brian, whose best-selling series of 20 novels it’s based on. It isn’t always accessible to novices, and could bore those with short attention spans. I found its rhythms sucked me in, but those expecting wall-to-wall action may want to grab a lifeboat.
The battle scenes are all shot with gritty reality and intensity, but a few are poorly presented. A stormy sea crossing is particularly hard to follow — the dialogue is inaudible and the sea tactics incomprehensible if you’re not a naval expert. At one point, a character is killed, and from the murky way it was shot, I’m still not sure who it was.
Another curious move is to de-personalize the French villains so thoroughly that they remain faceless.
“Master’s” finest achievement is its sturdy sense of place. Weir truly makes you feel like you’re on board a ship 200 years ago, from the creaks of the sails to the cramped quarters below decks. For any man who ever wanted to be a sailor, “Master” offers a vivid taste of it.
While the action is gripping, it’s the character moments that linger in “Master And Commander,” and what ultimately make it a successful voyage.
*** of ****

‘The Matrix Revolutions’
And so it ends — not with a bang or a whimper, but a little bit of both.
Consider the “Matrix” trilogy a classic portrait in high expectations crashing to earth.
For the conclusion, “The Matrix Revolutions,” we pick right up where “The Matrix Reloaded” left off. Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his girlfriend Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are part of a ragtag army of humans left in a computer-dominated future. The war between man and machines is finally here, and humanity appears lost — unless Neo can fulfill his destiny as “The One,” the man who will defeat the enemy once and for all.
“Revolutions” is a pretty disappointing ending to the trilogy no matter how you slice it. There’s a lot of computer-generated bombast, but precious little to move you. We get battles galore, but the climax is very unfulfilling and drawn out until it’s ludicrous. Attempts to draw emotion bring rolled eyes instead.
There’s a battle scene that literally lasts an hour, and it pummels the viewer into submission. It’s impressive for 15 minutes, but after a while how much of machines shooting machines can you watch?
Poor Neo, given a lunkheaded kind of heart and soul by Reeves in parts one and two, is just left out in the cold here. He feels like a supporting player in his own story, and you just don’t care at the end when he finally gets his moment in the sun.
On a second viewing, the maligned “Matrix Reloaded” actually improved some to me, despite the pseudo-intellectual pomposity of it all. The plot seemed to be going somewhere. But “Revolutions” is all tease and little payoff.
In all the “Matrix” movies, the transitions between the lighting-fast action and the slow, ponderous talk by people with geeky names like “Merovingian” and “Architect” have been so clumsy, you can feel the lurch. You can have smart action — take a look at the “Lord of The Rings” movies for a seamless blend of thought and butt-kicking — but the “Matrix” makers can’t manage that mix.
There’s still some moments in “Revolutions” that evoke what made the first “Matrix” soar. I particularly enjoyed Neo’s final face-off with the devilish Agent Smith, a rain-soaked smackdown that may be one of the best “superhero” battles ever filmed.
But it doesn’t add up to enough to cover “Revolutions” numerous defects. Has there ever been a movie trilogy with so much hype that fell so far from part one? Even the disdained new “Star Wars” trilogy manages a clearer vision than this muddled misfire. I think the director and writer Wachowski brothers made the movie they wanted to make, but it’s not the movie America wanted to see.
Perhaps it might have just been better off to leave “The Matrix” at one movie. The first was a smart, stylish ride that flowed smoothly, unlike its self-impressed sequels.
Write your own ending to Neo’s saga. It’s hard to see how it could be much more deflating than this one.

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