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Date: 28 April, 2004


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'This is not Gladiator in naval uniforms, or Pirates of the Caribbean with stricter discipline.'

This month, Steve Couch revisits three high profile mainstream films that met with mixed reviews on their cinematic release, plus 'one absolute gem' that you may well have missed

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Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
Matrix Revolutions
Love Actually
Spirited Away

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
20th Century Fox, certificate 12

What you get from this film will depend to a large extent on what you are expecting. If you are looking for a white-knuckle ride of swashbuckling heroics, you may well be disappointed.

This is not Gladiator in naval uniforms, or Pirates of the Caribbean with stricter discipline. The disappointing box office showing of Peter Weir's adaptation from the novels of Patrick O'Brien owes more to misleading marketing than it does to a flawed film.

Fine form

For those who have never read O'Brien's books, they tell the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey (played here by Russell Crowe in fine form), an officer of the British navy in the Napoleonic wars.

Weir has ignored the first book of O'Brien's series and fast-forwarded ahead to the tenth book, The Far Side of the World. In one of the excellent documentaries on the second disc of extras, Weir reveals that he felt it would be more interesting to explore a long standing friendship than to tell the story of how that friendship started.

And this is a film about friendship. For all the cannons and cutlasses, the rum and the rigging, it is the friendship between Jack Aubrey and his ship's doctor Stephen Maturin (played by Paul Bettany), two very different men with very different perspectives on life, which drives this film.

The film is bookended by a pair of set-piece battles, and there is some ocean-going cat and mouse, but for the most part Weir allows the wide open spaces of the ocean to give his characters room to breathe and develop.

The attention to detail is painstaking, as you would expect from Weir, (director of, among others, The Truman Show). Whatever other criticisms were levelled at the film, nobody has accused it of Hollywood historical revisionism.

Extras

Weir features prominently in the extras package, and this goes a long way to establishing the intelligent, informative tone. You can buy Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in either a one or two disc format, and anyone who opts for the single disc will be missing out on one of the best packages of bonus features seen this side of Middle Earth.

Light is shed on the process of making the film, and Weir's enthusiasm for O'Brien's books, and determination to be true to the spirit of the books without being bound too closely to them shines through. I haven't read any of the books, but the extras made me want to.

This is a fine film, with a collection of extras to match it. Well worth several hours of your time, but it's one to watch from a comfortable sofa rather than the edge of your seat.

Matrix Revolutions
Warner Brothers, certificate 15

I am a man on a mission. The Matrix Revolutions found itself on the wrong end of more critical derision than any decent film in quite some time.

Overblown, overrated and overhyped sums up the general tone of anti-Revolutions reviews. Now that the DVD is out, it's time to reconsider, and I want to suggest that it is well worth another look.

But let me declare an interest. In my life outside of surefish.co.uk, I edited a book on the Matrix trilogy, which means that I could be accused of having to defend the film.

Whether this is true or not, it's an easy defence to make. Although it is true that neither Reloaded or Revolutions comes close to matching the original Matrix film, the same could be said for most of the films that this column has reviewed so far.

And if we stop to think about what made the first film so great, we might see where the critics have been too hard on Revolutions.

Achievement

The Matrix
was a remarkable achievement, a genuine marriage of breathtaking action with high minded philosophy. Revolutions has been dismissed as having lost sight of the concepts and ideas that set its predecessor apart, but how many of us understood The Matrix at the first attempt?

Certainly not me. I had watched it two or three times before I really started to get a handle on what was going on, and I suspect that most other people did too, even if our familiarity with the material has led us to forget that fact.

If the first film needed multiple viewings before revealing itself, it seems reasonable to give the same luxury to the subsequent installments.

So what do you get? More of the same impressive effects and action sequences for a start, with the prolonged battle in Zion's dock and the final confrontation between Neo and Agent Smith glorying in the excesses of the groundbreaking effects team.

Early in the film, it is made clear that Neo can be made vulnerable, thus undoing one of the dramatic weaknesses of Reloaded, where it never seemed that Neo could possibly come to any personal harm.

A wider cast of characters play out the main action than in the previous films, which focused tightly on Neo, Trinity and Morpheus, and although I have seen comments criticising this, these newer characters do much to reinforce the major themes that run through the films.

Conclusion

And then there's the conclusion (which I won't give away here). Not what most of us were expecting, but entirely in keeping with the philosophical basis of the films.

I will admit to wondering how the Wachowski's would pull off something that was dramatically satisfying while also staying true to the philosophical worldview of the films (maybe I should get out more).

I think they succeed, and I suspect that the fans who were disappointed by the finale had a very limited notion of what constitutes a happy ending.

The Christian and Buddhist imagery is still there, now joined by a Hindu strand which reveals itself as arguably the most important religious element in the films. In the end, the Wachowskis are still presenting us with a world where the truth is unknowable and unknown.

There is no such thing as reality, but nevertheless, they find a happy ending that fits. The film argues that our choices provide meaning in a meaningless world. I don't necessarily agree with that, but disagreeing with something is very different from arguing that the film has nothing coherent to say.

This is the same argument that has been developed from the moment Neo's computer screen told him that the matrix had him, all those years ago.

Absence

The extras are good, but the continued absence of the Wachowski's leads to an imbalance between technical insight (of which there is lots) and insight into what it all actually means (of which there is none).

There is a series of stills providing the back story to the film (nothing that will be new to anyone who has seen the previous films and the Animatrix shorts), and it's hard to see who this is for - I don't see many people deciding to make Revolutions their first Matrix experience.

That gripe aside, this is a much better package than the rush-released Reloaded was given, and there is plenty to keep fans of the films happy, particularly if they are technophiles.

This is a very good film, which gets better as you spot more clues and put the pieces together. Not as good as The Matrix, but better than the also underrated Reloaded, and certainly much much better than many critics have painted it.

If you want no-brain action escapism, there are thrills to be had here, but you'll get more bang for your buck elsewhere. If you want some serious thought with your action, and a film that mixes brain with brawn, then give this another try.

In ten years time this film will have been rehabilitated, and the Matrix series will be regarded as a high-water mark in science fiction. Matrix Rehabilitated - that's the sequel I'm waiting for!

Matrix Revelations: A thinking fan's guide to the Matrix Trilogy edited by Steve Couch and published by Damaris Publishing (2003). For more information go to www.damaris.org/matrix.

Love Actually
Universal Pictures, certificate 15

Responsible for two of the top three sitcoms in BBC TV's recent poll, Richard Curtis has every right to feel pleased with himself.

On top of that he is also responsible for romcom hit after hit, with writing credits on Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones to name but three. But he's not content to reign supreme in the writing department, and this is his directorial debut.

The film is an ambitious attempt to interweave several story lines connected only by the titular central theme of the film. We see love in all its forms, and a cast of characters that run from the Prime Minister, to an ageing rock star via a couple of porn actors and many more.

Names

The cast is studded with big names, including Curtis' regular cinematic muse Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Keira Knightly Martin Freeman and the excellent Laura Linney, whose touching performance in the minor role of Sarah provides some emotional depth that is missing in some of the other storylines.

Everyone does their job well, providing the performance required by the script, whether it Alan Rickman in typically sardonic and world-weary form, or Kris Marshall reprising his cheerful idiot role from the BBC's (non-Curtis) sitcom My Family.

Although the different tales are unrelated, the characters form a complex web of relationships which reveals itself as the film unwinds. This is, I think, intended to provide something of a coherent structure to hold the film together, but I'm not sure that it adds anything or is even necessary.

The opening monologue, spoken by Grant sets out the film's agenda - to prove that just like the song says, love actually is all around. With as universal a theme as this, it doesn't matter that the woman in storyline A is the sister of the Prime Minister in storyline B, or that her kids go to the same school as the love struck schoolboy in storyline C.

Enjoyable

If you like Curtis' previous offerings (and I have to say that I do), Love Actually is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Curtis' direction combines the myriad different stories with aplomb, and set pieces such as the wedding and the Christmas hit single are well delivered.

Sadly, Curtis the director can count himself unlucky to be on the receiving end of a rare let down from Curtis the writer. The jokes are great and the writing is good, but with so many strands of storyline some get lost in the mix.

Worse, to a greater or lesser extent all of them are denied enough screen time to really develop to their full potential. This is an enjoyable film, but there could have been four or five much better films from this material. In too many cases here the course of true love actually does run smooth.

Instead of boy meets girl and overcomes apparently insurmountable odds to win her heart we get too much of boy meets girl and lives happily ever after without any of that awkward misunderstanding that actually makes the story interesting.

It would be unfair to say that this is the whole story and there are some touching instances of everything not going according to plan (take a bow, Ms Linney and Ms Thompson). So, an enjoyable watch with good writing, great performances and sound direction, but somehow less would have been a lot more.

Spirited Away
Optimum, certificate PG

And so to our final film, and the only one of this month's quartet not to have had a bashing from any critics that I know of.

It's just a shame that the in spite of that, it is the one which I bet fewest surefish users will have seen. I didn't catch it at the cinema, and watching the DVD I was bowled over at what a great film I'd missed.

Spirited Away is the work of Japanese animator Hiyao Miyazaki. Depending on how much of a purist you are, you can watch it in Japanese with subtitles, or with a dubbed American vocal track.

Mercifully, the latter is sensitively carried off, and anyone worried about the dubbing of 1970's kung fu flicks or the TV series Monkey can relax and enjoy.

The film tells the story of Chihiro, a little girl sulking about her move with her parents to a new town. Suddenly Chihiro finds herself thrown into a strange supernatural world. There she makes new - and old - friends, and sets about the task of getting free from the hold that the witch Yububa now has over her.

A modern fairy tale, with shades of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, Miyazaki fills his strange world with a breathtaking array of spirits and creatures - disembodied bouncing heads, a giant baby, witches and dragons, stink spirits, river spirits and a spider-legged boilerman to name but a few.

Terror

We share Chihiro's terror as she makes her first faltering steps into the spirit world, but at the same time we too find ourselves drawn in and entranced by the sheer wonder and diversity of the directors imagination.

The animation is beautiful. As good as the Pixar boys are, this is in a different league. I love the Toy Story movies, but there is a charm and beauty to the non-computerised visuals here that makes the CGI stuff seem like something a primary school class would knock up on a wet Wednesday afternoon.

Spirited Away is a wonderful, breathtaking delight which offers more with every repeat viewing.

Miyazaki doesn't just provide a feast for our eyes. He tells a proper story and lets it to deliver the moral without hectoring or preaching.

This is simply an enchanting tale allowed to run its course, with a central character who grows in stature so that when it all ends, we can see that nothing and everything has changed.

All this and - if you shun the subtitles - Cliff from Cheers voicing a supporting role. What more could you ask for?

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