Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Movies: Master and Commander

A beautiful and expensive set piece is useless if empty of equally compelling plot and/or characters. Master and Commander, therefore, is nothing other than an exquisite waste of money, a too-long advertisement for the Weather Channel (know before you go!), in which sheets of driving rain and bucketfulls of seawater drown out the little dialogue there is between a cast of one hundred men and boys all wearing the same clothes. The only distinguishable figures are, of course, the inexorable Russell Crowe as, yes, the master and commander of the ship, and his right hand man and philosophical foil, the ship's surgeon and lone thinking man. Everyone else—young or old, thin or fat, with hair long or cropped—is ultimately interchangeable, and we only know to feel sorrow for the drowning of one or the shooting of another by musical cues: plangent strings, for the most part.

Not only does this film offer little in the way of plot or character development; it lacks even mere points of interest, excepting a brief excursion onto the Galapagos islands, where we see a few giant turtles. This is, in fact, the only moment during which any genuine emotion springs up; otherwise, Weir depends on hackneyed visual clues (a letter and a tiny photograph; a native woman with inviting eyes) and musical cues (Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, sullied by its use in commercials hawking everything from car insurance to vanilla yogurt, fits the cliche requirement nicely) to ensure that the audience emotes at the necessary junctures. With so much gray water washing across the screen, I barely noticed that a likable character had just drowned to his death. Luckily, the strings, screeching across Crowe's furrowed brow, confirmed that this was a moment for sorrow. Similarly, blue skies and a rousing round of plucked strings confirmed that troubles had blown by, and that Crowe had come out on top. Unfortunately, we had known that he would from the film's first few minutes, rendering the entire "adventure" unnecessary. Next time, I'll just spend two hours on my sit 'n spin.

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