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Crowe Becalmed 

Master and Commander drifts, Carnage delivers

Thursday, Nov 13 2003
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THE SEAFARING ADVENTURE Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World has few 30-foot waves going for it, and very little else that would excite anyone but geeky 12-year-old boys who like to make sailing ships out of matchsticks. The movie, adapted from the popular historical novels by Patrick O’Brian and directed by Peter Weir, is bookended by two hard-working but listless sea battles. In between it plays — astonishingly, for an accredited shock jock like Weir — like an earnest National Geographic mockup striving to give us the flavor of periods and places past. Weir has been known to go high-minded (Dead Poets Society) or silly (Green Card) on us, but it is hard to recognize the inflamed imagination behind Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli or even The Truman Show in this tame early-19th-century buddy movie.

Russell Crowe and British actor Paul Bettany star as intrepid sea captain Jack Aubrey and his brainy ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin, who are charged with bringing honor — though not quite as much honor as the captain craves — to England by taking out one of Napoleon’s men-of-war, which has all but sunk the good ship Surprise early on in the movie. Crowe and Bettany were heaps more fun as a psychotic mathematician and his fantasy toy-boy in A Beautiful Mind than they are as this pair of old biddies. Nag-nagging one another to follow the ethics of their respective callings while playing tasteful duets on string instruments, the two guffaw their way through dinner parties in the officers’ mess, where Aubrey delights his adoring inferiors by dropping terrible puns and, wherever humanly possible, dropping the name of his former boss, Lord Nelson. Though by most reliable accounts, O’Brian’s novels are elegantly written, Weir’s screenplay, co-written with John Collee, is excruciatingly flowery, and Crowe — chubby, seedy and blond — chugs along, bending his Aussie twang into the twitterings of a ranking toff who brags without shame, “With Nelson, you felt your heart glow.”

From time to time a storm rolls in or the ship is attacked again, leaving Aubrey to demonstrate leadership qualities by ordering extra rum rations for his men or scratching his head over whether to save a man overboard. The mechanics of shipboard life are lovingly elaborated, but for an adventure tale there’s little enough action, unless you count copious scenes of hacksaw surgery that suggest an uncommon fondness in the director for amputation. For the rest, Master and Commander takes us on a sedate world tour through ice and rain and tropical heat, finishing up at the Galapagos Islands, where the good doctor, an amateur naturalist, chases cormorants, iguanas and beetles, and debates creationism versus evolutionary theory with a plucky little blue-blooded apprentice (Max Pirkis). One half expects David Attenborough to drop in with some helpful info about the copulatory habits of the giant Galapagos turtle.

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It’s clear that Weir and his extensive crew had scads of fun making their toys sail the stormy seas, and I’d love to be able to say that Master and Commander will fail only because it is a good old-fashioned action-adventure with no whiz-bang special effects. In truth it will fail because it is a dull and boring film, pretty as a Turner landscape and as sweetly becalmed as the glassy Sargasso Sea in which the men of the unfortunately named Surprise find themselves trapped for what felt, to me at least, like weeks on end.

CARNAGE, A VITALLY ASSURED FIRST FEATURE by French director Delphine Gleize, is a story of psychic repair without an ounce of psychology in it. The movie is about people in ordinary trouble, but no “issues” are “worked through” and no oracular figure shows up to deliver the clinching insight. More literally than you might think, Carnage is protein to the alfalfa of most American moviemaking about transformed lives. Far from bringing a eureka moment to the troubled souls in her roundelay ensemble, Gleize sends each of them a care package containing different organs harvested from a massive bull that was slaughtered after goring a novice bullfighter. An epileptic little girl named Winnie receives an outsized bone for her family’s pet, a Great Dane who takes up more than his share of physical and emotional space in her parents’ lives. An obsessive-compulsive struggling actress, played by Chiara Mastroianni, sells Winnie’s parents the bone, and in the process hooks up with a former philosopher who’s trying to kill himself by skating into walls. A woman with a crippling secret of which her daughter, Winnie’s teacher, is unaware, dines on a dish of toro en rioja that was meant for someone else in a restaurant. A scientist, too distracted by work and adultery to notice the suspiciously large bulge in his pregnant wife’s stomach, receives the bull’s eyes. And a mad taxidermist who’s unusually close to his equally batty mother becomes the proud owner of a pair of horns with which he will convey a message to his long-lost father.

The bull’s name, Romero, means rosemary, an herb held by many Spaniards to heal a multitude of ills. But deliverance — or more precisely, opportunity — comes to these benighted sufferers not as soothing balm, but as a resource. Carnage is a film about the violence of living, of finding and keeping a place in the world, and though it’s a work of preternaturally sophisticated philosophy from a director who’s barely out of her 20s, this beautiful, bizarre movie could function quite well without its capable screenplay. Gleize brings to her blazing palette of crimson and hot pink the comedic touch of a burlesque artist, and, by way of Almodóvar and Bunuel, a brutal vision of beauty that equates with life itself. The disemboweling of the huge bull is as lovingly attended to as the little girl’s huge brown eyes, or the livid green light of a copy machine spewing paper over a fornicating couple, or a pile of white rabbits tumbling, unexplained, out of a decrepit trailer. Though Carnage sometimes feels overstuffed — it suffers from the first-time filmmaker’s desire to pack every movie she wants to make into her first — there’s a casually impressionistic logic that links each scene or gesture to the next as the bull’s power spreads through this abject crew, spurring them to confront the sources of their pain or paralysis, and move on, though not always to greater peace. American movie violence often has a patina of naughtiness, as if we’re getting away with something artificial and extraneous to the business of living. In Delphine Gleize’s Dionysian vision, violence is not just part of life, but central to the struggle to slay our dragons and become more than the sum of our inherited selves.

MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD Directed by PETER WEIR | Written by WEIR and JOHN COLLEE, based on the “Aubrey/Maturin” novels by PATRICK O’BRIAN | Produced by SAMUEL GOLDWYN JR., WEIR and DUNCAN HENDERSON | Released by 20th Century Fox, Miramax and Universal | Citywide

CARNAGE | Written and directed by DELPHINE GLEIZE | Produced by JÉRÔME DOPFFER| Released by Wellspring | At the Nuart

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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