January 19, 2011
Action, Adventure, Drama, Epic/Historical, Film
Acheron, Bach, Boccherini, Christopher Gordon, Film, film music, Gladiator, HMS Surprise, Iva Davies, Jack Aubrey, Jack Sparrow, Master and Commander, movies, Mozart, Oscars, Patrick O'Brian, Paul Bettany, Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock, picture, Pirates of the Caribbean, poster, review, Richard Tognetti, Russell Crowe, score, soundtrack, Stephen Maturin, The Far Side of the World, The Truman Show, Vaughan Williams
Released a mere three months after the other great sea-bound movie of 2003, “Master and Commander” could not be further in spirit, gravitas and demeanour from the swashbucklery and general nonsense of its cousin “Pirates of the Caribbean.” That is in all but the first name of their protagonists. Scallywags be warned, the world of Jack Aubrey and his adventures in the Napoleonic wars is gritty, dangerous and above all, deadly serious. And while Jack Sparrow instilled a genre long dead with a new, drunken swagger, director Peter Weir and actor Russell Crowe too were sailing into waters uncharted for decades, the high seas notorious for the storms they can wreak on filmmakers. But in reality, the adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s popular novels provides the sort of material that both the director and star love to get their teeth into.
Combining plots and ideas from several O’Brian stories, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” tells the story of “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and his crew of the HMS Surprise, playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with French enemy vessel The Acheron, a ship with larger sails and more guns. Central to the plot is Aubrey’s relationship with the ship’s surgeon and amateur naturalist Stephen Maturin played by Paul Bettany. One a man of war, the other of science, their love for music connects them as their philosophies separate them. For Weir, always ready to take up challenging material – think of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or “The Truman Show” – this duality in nature of the plot allows him to stage life on a 19th Century marine vessel in a manner of realism that has never been achieved on screen before. On the one hand, the thrills and deadly blasts of cannons, chase and sea battles, on the other, the monotony, strict routine and tragic deaths that regularly occurred. For Crowe, “Master and Commander” provides yet another opportunity to hone the sort of thinking-man action-hero skills he’s been polishing since “Gladiator.” An equally on-form Bettany makes a good compliment, trying to see some sense amongst the carnage.
It will be easy to approach “Master and Commander” with the wrong expectations and feel let down at its close. The sense of fun and daring adventure we have come to expect from similar picture has been all but sunk and the extended interludes between action pieces may well have you bored to death. At times it is hard to maintain interest and it becomes blindingly obvious that Bettany’s character is used repeatedly as a plot function simply to ask silly questions of the hierarchy aboard. That and to ask for explanations of the plethora of nautical terms scattered very liberally around the place. To dismiss the film on these grounds however would be to misunderstand the talents of Peter Weir and while the different elements don’t always gel, the film still provides very solid entertainment and reflection for its more patient viewers who will be duly rewarded. In any case the look of the picture, the cinematography, production design and visual effects are simply stunning and deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination or two.
To complement the large number of classical and traditional pieces of music featured live on screen as Crowe and Bettany play the violin and the cello respectively, three composers were hired to write original score, namely Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti. How it took three composers to come up with such a small amount of score is beyond comprehension, however what the trio achieved is an unobtrusive score that fits exceptionally well around the source music. In the film the score goes mostly unnoticed but on album, combined with music by Bach, Mozart, Boccherini and Vaughan Wiliams, it is a highly enjoyable listen. The score highlight is the opening track “The Far Side of the World” but it is still placed in the shadow by the classical music which is what listeners will also recall from watching the film. For the score alone, this soundtrack is not recommendable.
How much you will enjoy “Master and Commander” will depend on how much longevity in drawn out sequences you are willing to tolerate. For a throwback to stirring entertainment of a more serious nature (as well as for fans of the books actually), it will represent over two hours of great filmmaking with Peter Weir stretching back to the glory of his 80s and 90s success. And even though it is possible to enjoy both films equally, for most of those swept away by the slick “Pirates,” this will represent the most unimaginable bore.
Music heard on Album
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September 6, 2010
Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Film
20th Century Fox, A New Hope, Avril Lavigne, Christopher Paolini, Djimon Hounsou, Ed Speelers, Eragon, Film, film music, Garret Hedlund, Guillory, Henry V, ILM, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Johnny English, Joss Stone, Kenneth Branagh, Lord of the Rings, Master and Commander, movies, Patrick Doyle, Peter Buchman, Peter Jackson, picture, Rachel Weisz, review, Robert Carlyle, score, Sienna, Star Wars, Stefen Fangmeier, Troy
Watching “Eragon” leaves you a little lost for words, pure disbelief and shock at what you have just witnessed, quite possibly gasping for breath as the credits roll. Unfortunately, not in a good way. Your disbelief will not stem from marvelling at the visual experience of a great fantasy spectacle but rather you will wonder how this ever, ever, got off Hollywood production lines or why exactly respected actors like Jeremy Irons signed up for the project. On paper of course it’s exactly what the 20th Century Fox studio execs would have wanted: epic fantasy adapted from best-selling novel in a revitalised genre, certain to tickle the taste-buds of those fans that recently moved from Naboo to Middle Earth. In addition Fox appointed first time director Stefen Fangmeier to the project, an ILM visual effects guru who had worked on projects such as “Master and Commander”, someone then who could be trusted with large set-pieces, talking dragons, sprawling battles and the like. As an added bonus they gave him $100 million to play with. The end product however, is so mediocre it was laughed out of the theatres by audiences and critics alike.
Mentioning “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” earlier was no coincidence for the novel, written and self-published by Christopher Paolini when he was 16, is quite clearly a blend of the two, the characters and plot borrowed, no, blatantly stolen from “A New Hope”. There’s a poor farm boy (Ed Speelers) living with his uncle in a land exploited by an evil empire who is touched by fate and special powers (talking dragon and ‘magic’ for the force). With the aid of elderly story teller Brom (Jeremy Irons alias Ben Kenobi) he sets out to rescue an elven princess held prisoner by the evil if not asthmatic shade Durza (Robert Carlyle) under the command of King Galbatorix (John Malkovich). Oh my, oh my! To be fair to Paolini, the novel is exciting and he has made it his own with the sequels but this does not translate into the film. The screenplay as written by Peter Buchman is quite simply terrible, every scene vying for it’s place among the gallery of best clunky lines ever. Some plot points from the novel have been discarded (such as a trip to the city of Gil’ead) but that only makes it look even more like Star Wars. Pity Han Solo never shows up to lighten things a bit. Although top scripts need to be approved by the studio one can not but wonder how fast asleep the board at Fox were when crackers like “The thing is the word. Know the word, and you control the thing” or “I suffer without my stone” were being written?
Naturally, having something as bad as that as source material, actors won’t be able to do much with it. It’s impossible to tell whether Speelers in the title role is actually a good actor or not, so cringingly embarrassing is the stuff he’s asked for, but there’s not really a lot of emotion for the audience to latch on to. Irons and Carlyle can just about keep things together but neither of them really wants to be there. Clearly the paycheque was considerable or else they wouldn’t be. Many other characters simply pass us by: Sienna Guillory as Arya and Djimon Hounsou as rebel leader Ajihad are little more than ornament while the voice-work of Rachel Weisz as the dragon sounds like it’s been phoned in. Joss Stone who has a cameo as fortune-teller Angela is another hopeless availing of the actor/singer exchange program. Oh and anyone who has seen Malkovich in “Johnny English” will most likely be laughing throughout all of his scenes, the characters aren’t all that dissimilar. The only character of note is the embittered Murtagh. Garret Hedlund who showed such promise in “Troy” does his level best but neither the script nor direction allow him the breathing space required to flesh out an interesting role.
Well ok, you might think, so the storyline and characters aren’t exactly very deep but that’s the case in many a movie these days. At worst it’s going to be a brainless action picture with lots of CG to drool at, right? How wrong you’d be. Fangmeier’s disregard for his picture seems complete: As rich as the production design might be, you’ll never notice because it’s all so rushed. The cinematography allows no space for delving into an environment, we never see Carvahall or Farthen-Dur properly, something Peter Jackson managed to do so well with Middle Earth, there we feel like we’re part of that world. The action also; battles and the crucial flying scenes lack imagination. We’ve seen all this before, time and time again. Even worse, the CG doesn’t look photo-real. Saphira is just about fine on the eyes but everything else is an afterthought. Fangmeier just doesn’t seem to care. It might be worth your money to take a bet on how soon he will be directing a major Hollywood motion picture again.
The task of writing music to accompany this mess fell to British veteran Patrick Doyle, best known for his collaborations with Kenneth Branagh on Shakespeare adaptions such as “Henry V”. Fresh off his success on the fourth Harry Potter, Doyle very much extends that epic style to suit this fantasy. Mostly Major-key and triumphant, what we get is an appropriately large orchestral score. Fans of his previous work will most likely enjoy this one as well. Just ignore the horrible Avril Lavigne song thrown in at the end.
Predictable fantasy fare all round with a horrific script that falls into golden raspberry territory. Watch “Star Wars” instead. About this film, all that’s left to say is $100 million well spent!
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