NOW PLAYING: Master & Commander / School of Rock

Posted: Monday, November 17, 2003

Living where we do, we have come to accept the fact that we don't always get the best movies as soon as they come out. Sometimes we do, but with only five screens to serve most of the Peninsula, sometimes we miss out, though getting them a little late is better than never. This weekend we saw examples of both types of release, new and late. And both films, though vastly different in nearly every way, are also examples of a great weekend out at the movies.

Master & Commander, the new Russell Crowe epic high-seas adventure, is generating more than just positive reviews, it is creating genuine Oscar buzz. The scale of the film is massive, though the story remains somewhat more intimate. Crowe plays Captain Jack Aubrey, Lucky Jack as he's affectionately labeled by his men. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Aubrey and his ship, the HMS Surprise, have been ordered to find and destroy a dangerous French warship that has been troubling the Royal Navy. Lucky Jack and his intrepid crew, including a slew of very young officers and a naturalist/ship's doctor played very well by Paul Bettany, feel they are more than up to the task until, in a surprise attack, the French ship nearly destroys them in the opening scenes of the film. What follows is a rousing adventure where the hunter becomes the hunted and back again, and the reality of long months at sea are laid bare. This film is both a popcorn rollercoaster ride, and a thoughtful examination of life in the eighteenth century British Navy. What else could we expect from director Peter Weir?

If the name isn't familiar to you, Weir is the man who brought us films like Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, and more recently The Truman Show. This Australian director is especially well known for making serious, thought provoking films masked as big budget Hollywood fare. Which brings me to the only real down note of the film, it's potential. Master & Commander more than lives up to the expectations brought on by its trailer. It looks great, it's fun, it's dramatic. However, there is little more to it than that. Weir's films are special to me because they always give me a new outlook, a new way to think about the world. Until now. Master & Commander is a fun and interesting piece of historical drama, but has very little subtext. There is an interesting sideline dealing with the captain's pride as compared to duty - a sort of "why do we do the things we do" vibe going for a a little while, but it's dropped all to quickly. This shortcoming will not harm most people's enjoyment of the movie, but it left me wanting a little. The full title of the film is Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, but I found myself wishing we could have gone just a little farther. Grade: B+


Robert Tsai, Joey Gaydos Jr., Jack Black, Kevin Clark and Rebecca Brown in Paramount's The School of Rock - 2003

Rated: PG-13

Photo Copyright Paramount Pictures

On the far side of the spectrum is the other film I saw this weekend, the wonderful School of Rock. Jack Black, playing a fraudulent substitute teacher, is carving a fine niche for himself, but his performance here still feels fresh. Dewey Finn is in a rock band, but when they kick him out (basically for being too enthusiastic) he stoops to temping, as he calls it, to make the rent. He has no idea, however, that what he assumes will be a cakewalk three-week gig presiding over recess, is actually going to turn out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Turns out that the rich kids at prestigious Horace Green Prep are all musically talented, and soon Dewey is forming the band of his dreams. School of Rock, directed by Texas phenom Richard Linklater, is definitely a formula movie, but plays exactly right. Somehow the mix of sentiment to cynicism, of slapstick to highbrow, of cuteness to coolness is achieved flawlessly. The movie is hilarious, the kids are adorable without being insipid, and Jack Black is a crazed ringmaster presiding over the whole circus.

One thing that made this film such fun to watch was the genuine affection that the screenwriter, director, and star seem to have for Rock music. This is no mean spirited lambasting. There are no silly cameos of David Lee Roth in that stupid captain's hat, and they don't parade the few surviving members of Blue Oyster Cult onstage for a few easy laughs. They take rock seriously, and that seriousness translates to real joy for the audience. Yes, they make fun of the lyrics, but all rock lyrics sound ridiculous out of context - it's the nature of the beast. But by the end of the film, you're singing right along with 'em. Jack Black and crew prove that there is a little Led Zeppelin in all of us. To those of School of Rock, we salute you. Grade: A

School of Rock and Master & Commander are each rated PG-13, one for a little crude humor and language, and the other for high seas peril and violence.

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