russell crowe

Is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In January, Russell Crowe responded to some guy on Twitter who said Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was a powerful sleep aid. The guy tagged Crowe, which led to Crowe telling him it was an “adults movie” and praising it as a story about “fidelity to Empire.” Everyone yelled at the original guy, a few sites picked it up as a funny story, and that was that.

I’d never seen it, despite a friend of mine saying it was his favorite movie. Part of this series is that I’ll watch anything anyone suggests, so this is for Ryan, who loves this movie as much as Russell Crowe.

A lot of the modern discourse about Master and Commander (we’ll shorten it to that from here on out) is about how it disappointed. This was the year of the last Lord of the Rings movie and it was the same era as the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The world was primed for a bunch of movies to follow Master and Commander and the books that provide the basis would allow for just that. It never happened. This was the only one, and director Peter Weir only made one more movie in the next two decades.

What happened? Master and Commander got clobbered at the Oscars by The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Nominated for 10 awards, it won only for cinematography and sound editing. It made money, but not as much as you’d expect. Russell Crowe wasn’t even nominated for Best Actor. It’s pretty weird, especially given the niche that Master and Commander has carved over the years since. It’s not uncommon to see it on lists of best films of the era and it looks worlds, universes, whatever, better in retrospect than Johnny Depp’s boat franchise from the era.

The narrative that seems to have sprung up is that it was too boring. It’s a long movie that almost never leaves a single ship and most of the cast does their best to sell the time they have, but no one really sticks with you. It’s beautiful, thus the cinematography Oscar, but it’s a very long story about how important it is to sail for England and to fight for country. It’s a tough thing to ask audiences to sink their teeth into, which the team behind the movie seemed to realize when they changed the adversary from the books to make sure Russell Crowe wasn’t fighting American ships.

It’s perfectly stitched together. We open on fighting and then learn why. We find out the other ship is evil and never meet anyone involved, even in distance. We find out our guys are the good guys and Russell Crowe tells Paul Bettany about the power of leadership and the importance of country. There are a few scenes where they all but turn to camera to explain their positions, these old friends who represent the importance of scientific doubt and military dedication. Their opposition is interesting, but it’s also unwavering and a little predictable.

Russell Crowe is the beating heart, which is what makes the lack of an Oscar nomination so interesting. He’s the only good thing about Gladiator, another movie that people have rethought and seem to love now despite some very big swings, and he was just off the success of A Beautiful Mind. This is all part of peak Russell Crowe, which should have spelled success.

I really think it’s the ensemble cast that does it in. There are memorable little moments, but most of the cast walks in, does something, and walks out. That’s a fine thing to do, but it begins to feel like you’ve met thirty interchangeable characters by the end of the movie. I offer this only as a means to finding why people didn’t connect with it at the time, but it does feel especially empty when one character very memorably sacrifices themselves to save the ship but you begin to wonder if this is someone you should feel for or not. Russell Crowe’s character even seems a little conflicted.

The heroics are writ large and the triumphs are great. It’s a feel-good movie, to a certain degree, and I definitely had a good time with it. I’d shake off the “sleepy” angle that our intrepid Twitter user tried to sell. There’s a lot of fighting and even a lot of the natural, slowed-down-to-show-you-the-boredom ship stuff works to move the pacing along. If you asked me if it’s a beautiful movie, I’d have to say yes. Is it well-made? Obviously. It crushed my expectations as I sat down expecting to struggle through an overly long trip to sea. Russell Crowe is right.

I will say this, though, that Russell Crowe is also right about the second part of what he said. His character gets in an argument with Paul Bettany’s character about corporal punishment and leadership that turns into a summit of Big Ideas and Truths. Bettany says that a light touch is important and Crowe says you have to lead with strength. There’s an opportunity here to say something, but Weir seems content to let Bettany offering a road not taken be the extent of it.

We never spend any time with the French at all. Crowe’s character gives a rousing speech to say that the ship literally is England, just in case you might miss it, and demands overwhelming, unquestioning military support. These are the politics of a captain and his mates, so I’m not asking for this to have some Battleship Potemkin moment or anything, I just was surprised to see a moment or two where someone says “maybe you’re wrong” to Crowe and then to follow a plot that insisted he isn’t, never could be, and any questioning of him will be rebutted with immediate displays of how he’s right.

The hero does heroic stuff, barks at people who challenge him, and wins constantly. Contrast this with dozens of movies that Master and Commander brings to mind, nearly all of them with more internal strife or more development. It doesn’t matter here for what’s on screen and the broad sense of beauty and craft, which is why this won what it did, but also might be why some people find it hard to connect with. This is one of the all-time versions of good guys telling you they’re good and then showing you that, which is a fine thing to be, but I kept thinking about what might be possible with a captain who is famously lucky that gives leadership advice all the time. It’s great that he thinks he’s a genius, but it’s a little less interesting if he actually is.

It’s absolutely not fair to talk only about what it “could” be, because what it is an extremely entertaining voyage where the good guys fight the bad guys. Weir’s choice to never show us the enemy until the very end, and even then not really, lets us root for our team and get wrapped up in the life of sailors in the era. It’s a period piece that really just wants to hold the camera on these people and show us their lives, then leave. Crowe says it’s about sticking to your guns and he’s absolutely right. He knows exactly what he made and it’s good enough for him, so it should be good enough for all of us.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I liked it a great deal more than Uncut Gems. Crowe is the center of almost every scene, just like Sandler is, and the energy is exactly reversed. There’s never a moment in Master and Commander where Crowe’s character is anything less than confident and charismatic. It’s just a movie that doesn’t ask you to work very hard to at least like it, even if you don’t connect directly with the message.

Is it the best movie of all time? I am sticking with In the Mood for Love. I get Master and Commander now and I feel like I’m being a little reductive in trying to find this angle where this movie most people liked and a lot of people love didn’t connect with people. There really is this narrative, though, and a ton of people seem to spend a ton of time trying to figure out why this didn’t take the world by storm. I stand by my criticism, which is almost zero percent about what’s on screen and more about what’s not there, which is that a super charismatic character that everyone likes who wins all the time can only be so interesting. Crowe nails it, front to back, but I’m not sure there’s enough space for us to think about what we want him to be. It’s only a problem in comparison and even then, it feels like I’m grasping at straws, but that’s because the paint on the canvas is all so perfectly where it’s supposed to go.

You can watch Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on Amazon ($3.99) or YouTube ($3.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Worst Best Picture: Is A Beautiful Mind Better or Worse Than Crash?

a beautiful mind

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2001 winner A Beautiful Mind. Is it better than Crash?

I didn’t see A Beautiful Mind when it first came out in 2001, and I somehow also missed every single thing about it. My understanding was basically “brilliant math professor is also a strange guy” which is pretty clearly reductive, but it’s also astounding to me that I was OK leaving it at that. I just had no interest in finding out if this one had anything for me.

It’s the highly fictionalized “true” story of John Nash (Russell Crowe), the “brilliant math professor” (close, OK?) who is, for sure, “a strange guy.” I wasn’t that far off. Nash believes himself to be a code specialist who is working undercover to break Soviet codes, but in actuality he’s a paranoid schizophrenic who has created an important life for himself. I hate to tip that right at the top, because the reveal of “none of this is real” is one of the better parts of the movie, but you can’t really talk about A Beautiful Mind without it.

Nash creates three figures in his life: a literature student roommate named Charles Herman during his time at Princeton, a young girl named Marcee, and his contact in the military named William Parcher. All of them are played extremely real, and we don’t find out that they don’t exist until Nash’s wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly, who won Best Supporting Actress for the role) has to visit him in the hospital. It’s not supposed to be a mystery or anything, but it does shift the movie from the espionage thriller that Nash thinks his life is to the much sadder reality of a mental illness drama.

A movie like Rain Man couldn’t show you the other perspective, but seeing the world through Nash’s eyes really helps. It’s much easier to understand him as a tragic figure when we can see how real the hallucinations seem to him. He develops coping mechanisms and slowly begins to accept that these three people have never existed, but the sadness of not just losing a lifelong friend, but finding out he never existed… that’s real sadness. That loss is powerful, but it’s also skillfully diluted with the reveal that Nash was never a codebreaker. He has to accept that, despite a superior intellect, he’s living an ordinary, not-all-that-exciting life.

The real John Nash is different than Russell Crowe’s John Nash, and most of the criticism of the film centers around inaccuracy. I’m not all that bothered by it in this case, but that’s probably because I don’t know all that much about the real John Nash. It’s not like they messed up something I already have a working knowledge of, so it’s hard for me to judge. As a film, it’s an interesting, sad look at one part of the world of mental illness. It shows how delusions, even ones you can’t help but have, can ruin your life and the lives of the people you love. It’s heartbreaking, and if that’s what you want, it’s one of the better ways to get there.

The Best Part: Poor Jennifer Connelly! One of the great strengths of A Beautiful Mind is the ability to constantly remind you that both Nash and his wife are in their own prisons. Nash can’t fight his delusions without medicine but he can’t “be a genius” with them. Connelly can’t live a safe, happy life with her husband and her child without her husband taking his medicine. It’s a debate that comes up a lot with regard to medication and mental health, and it’s covered pretty well in A Beautiful Mind.

The Worst Part: A lot of the “John Nash is a genius” scenes are really damn pretentious. Towards the end he goes back to Princeton to haunt the library and be around smart people, and a scene between him and a young student drives right up to the cliff before stopping. It’s not quite terrible, but man, it’s rough.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? This will never be one of my favorite movies, but it’s a well-told story and a surprisingly nuanced piece of art. There are good discussions to be had about the “stand by your man” problem of Connelly’s character and the selfishness of Crowe’s, and I just don’t think there’s anything like that worth discussing in Crash. I walked away from A Beautiful Mind hating John Nash (or at least this John Nash) but I understood him, to some degree. Most of the characters I hated after watching Crash I hated because they behaved nonsensically. A Beautiful Mind has a lot of problems, and I wouldn’t blame you if the problems were too much for you, but Crash is irredeemable. Neither should be your favorite on the list, but Crash is absolutely worse.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Gladiator Better or Worse Than Crash?

Russell-Crowe-in-Gladiato-001

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2000 winner Gladiator. Is it better than Crash?

Gladiator may be the only Best Picture winner that has absolutely nothing to say. There are worse movies, to be sure, but there aren’t any that attempt to do less. You probably saw it — we all saw it — but do you remember it? Is there even anything to remember?

I committed myself to rewatching every Best Picture winner for this project. I’ve seen some of them so many times that it doesn’t seem necessary — American Beauty and Annie Hall are among my favorite movies — but I want to give every single movie the same chance to be worse than Crash. I want all 86 movies to get the same treatment. As I see more and more of Hollywood’s most anointed, I am definitely noticing some trends.

People talk about “Oscar bait” a lot. People define the term differently, but they usually mean something that was clearly made just to win an Oscar. Maybe it’s the flash (The Last Emperor is an enormous movie, even if that’s all it is) and maybe it’s the message (The King’s Speech and Rain Man both take on challenging themes, though your mileage about if that is ‘bait’ or not will vary) but people think better of a movie that was clearly made just to tell a great story.

Gladiator was definitely not made to do that. Gladiator was made to put butts in seats. It’s a “popcorn movie” through-and-through. It’s the story of the Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) who is betrayed and cast into slavery by the murderous Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus has to get out of slavery by winning his freedom as a gladiator. If you haven’t seen it, well, you’re caught up.

There are other characters, but it’s really hard to call them that. No one exists for any reason other than to further Maximus’ stoic goodness or Commodus’ relentless evil. Both characters are dull cartoons of morality. There’s just about no attempt made to establish either of them, either. Just: Commodus is a bad guy and Maximus is a good guy. You know this because this is a story about the good guy. Characters are for movies that don’t have lions! Look at the lions!

To call Gladiator a stupid movie is to stop short of the truth. Nothing at all matters in this movie. What even is the moral? “Don’t be an unceasing asshole all the time?” or “Do try to be a good guy and don’t murder anyone unless they try to murder you with a trident first?” OK, got it. Real groundbreaking stuff here, Russell Crowe.

People are dismissive of Gladiator because it’s ambitious only in scope. It does feel like Rome. It feels “epic” at times. That said, it’s just not a movie about anything. If you want a story about a hero’s journey down to nothing and back up, you can watch any other movie. And you should.

The Best Part: The closest Gladiator comes to an interesting character is Proximo (Oliver Reed). He’s a former gladiator who now makes a living selling out current gladiators for fights. That should set him up for some interesting commentary on the duality of the sold sometimes becoming the sellers, but it doesn’t. Proximo does offer a little bit of complexity in that he can’t decide if he wants to help or not. That’s enough praise for this.

The Worst Part: Can I say everything? The worst part is that this won the same award The Godfather won. It’s not an interesting story and it offers no challenges along the way. The fact that the villain’s motivation is essentially “being evil” makes Gladiator a little less complicated morally than some Disney movies.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Gladiator isn’t a worse movie, but it’s certainly a less interesting one. I hate the message of Crash, but it has one. There’s nothing worth gleaning from Gladiator. It’s just a long series of events that offer no commentary on human existence. Crash is worse because it’s bad, but damned if Gladiator isn’t about as close to zero without going under as it gets.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: The Guardian