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Volume 5, Number 46

This Week's Reviews:  Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, My Life Without Me.

This Week's Omissions:  Bubba Ho-Tep, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, The Station Agent, Sylvia, Tupac Resurrection.

Peter Weir

Russell Crowe
Paul Bettany
James D'Arcy
Edward Woodall
Chris Larkin
Max Pirkis

Release: 14 Nov. 03

Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World


Financed by three American studios (Universal, Miramax, and 20th Century Fox), directed by and starring an Australian, and telling the story of the British Navy, thereís a level of Anglophilia going on in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Throw in the fact that the villains are the French and you begin to imagine the war pangs: a coalition of the willing, the preemptive strike.

But as timely as this might seem, the overall feel of The Far Side of the World (Iím supposing that the first title will be carried in all the sequels -- keep in mind there are 19 more books in the series) isnít one of nationalism and politics. This is simple, unabashed entertainment of the nth level. A David Lean production built into a Douglas Fairbanks tale. Swashbuckling hasnít seemed this enjoyable since Peter OíToole did it so horribly in My Favorite Year.

The main quality of The Far Side of the World that works so splendidly is that it never leaves the simplicity of its precursors. By all accounts, the novels by the late Patrick OíBrian, are much more meticulous in nature, fixating on every facet of the ship and the shipmen. Thanks to impressive production values (great credit must be given to production designer William Sandell), the aura of such a setting remains true. But the adventure is never broken by it or lost amid descriptions of hulls and knots.

The protagonist, Jack Aubrey (Crowe), is the type of minor Ahab that is integral to selling a story like this. Built into his ribald view of Her Majesty and Her Dominion, however, is a conscience. He thinks as much about the world he exists in -- and the meaning of his actions, many of which can end with men dying -- as he fights.

He also has a personified conscience in Stephen Maturin (Bettany), a scientist who serves as the doctor for the ship. The two share a camaraderie built on noble loves (music, Britannia), while their own ideals (naturalism vs. action) often clash. Their conversations, although not particularly useful in selling a movie to audiences through trailers, are often the best parts of the film. Although The Far Side of the World lasts 138 minutes, none of this seems burdensome, built particularly on the well edited action and the engrossing exposition.

Directed by Peter Weir with the satisfaction of someone truly enjoying their job, The Far Side of the World comes alive without turning into senseless, mindless material. Considering that this year also featured comic chases on the high seas with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, one must reflect on the rarity with which audiences are treated to two variations of classical Hollywood cinema and its love of swashbuckling action fifty years ago.

Audiences today are often deadened by quickly edited gut busters sold to them through loud explosions and semi-humorous quips. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl harken back to time when adventure was still built on the brains and the brawn of the individuals on the screen. Whatever I may say in adoration of the production of The Far Side of the World, the crux of adulation comes from the way it made me feel. It was like returning to bygone days watching T.E. Lawrence ride across Arabia and Spartacus multiply into martyrdom. These movies reminded me of a time when movies were part amusement, part technical achievement. I am more than grateful for the reminder.

©2003, David Perry,, 14 November 2003

Isabel Coixet

Sarah Polley
Scott Speedman
Mark Ruffalo
Deborah Harry
Leonor Watling
Amanda Plummer

Release: 26 Sep. 03

My Life Without Me


When Hollywood approaches death, it must feel like a lobbyist for Kleenex giving an unending stream of box office statistics for the most egregious weepies of film history. Independent cinema is meant to be the freedom from the special interest cinema of the studios -- grassroots filmmaking that speaks to the Howard Dean supporter instead of the John Kerry supporter.

So what is a person to make when the independent filmmakers choose to create a circular firing squad out of the supposed non-contrivance storytelling they are to employ? My Life Without Me is a sobering reminder of what the final product of such a scenario is, and the diagnosis is devastating.

While Isabel Coixet isnít quite making her own version of The Turning Point, My Life Without Me still never clicks with the vivacity of most of these groundbreaking independent films. Even the Polish brothers, with their grossly overrated Twin Falls, Idaho, captured the essence of mortality without turning it into a gummy campaign for Hollywood cry-and-console filmmaking.

The film, which is a Canadian production, stars Sarah Polley as Ann, a blue collar mother of two who learns that she has two months to live. Polley is one of the most heartbreakingly reserved actresses working today, having already given one of the strongest performances of the last decade in Atom Egoyanís The Sweet Hereafter six years ago. Although hiring Polley is never a great mistake, here Coixet has the misfortune to automatically connect her film to the Egoyan feature, reminding the audience that such melodrama can be made seamlessly without ever exploiting the audience or the characters.

Worse yet, the film is written in such a way that, despite whatever Polley may be able to do with the role, most of Annís actions are unpardonable. I find it easy to buy into the idea that, with approaching death comes selfishness and deceptiveness, but Annís to-do list is filled with the type of actions that would normally paint a character as cruel and unlikable.

First, she wants to cheat on her husband Don (Speedman), who she married at age 17 because of an early pregnancy. He is shown as such an affable guy that, not only does the audience hate Ann for such adultery, but one also feels hurt that he will one day learn that she was unwilling to let him in on the bereavement process.

Second, she wants to make someone fall in love with her. Thus enters Lee (Ruffalo), a sad-sacked drifter who has evidently come to this small Canadian burg to get some reading time done. The film seems too willing to brush away his emotions in an attempt to make Annís personal movement into ill-fated womanhood seem paramount. He does fall in love with her, and is destined to have his heart broken. Simultaneously, Ann falls out of the audienceís graces.

Third, and possibly more disturbingly, she seems unwilling to let life take its course after her. Recording birthday messages for her two little girls, she does something equally touching and disturbing. These are children who will forever connect childhood birthday parties to the voice of the deceased mother telling them to always remember her. At the same time, sheís trying to setup a new wife for Don and make amends with her parents: a mother (Harry) obsessed with Joan Crawford melodramas and a father (Molina; in a masterful, understated cameo) incarcerated.

My Life Without Me wants to be vital, a remembrance of life before we shuffle off this mortal coil. By the end, though, Iíd be hard-pressed to give a reason why Ann ever deserved to have these people to leave behind.

©2003, David Perry,, 7 November 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry