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15 Years Later: ‘Master and Commander’ Veered Off the Adaptation Chart

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Film adaptations of novels, short stories, and epic poetry have consistently provided generations of audiences with ammunition to bemoan that “the book was better,” but it’s hard to perfectly translate anything — especially when it involves readers’ imaginations. That problem is multiplied when it’s a series being adapted, but for 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, scriptwriters Peter Weir (who also directed) and John Collee took a different tack. Titled after two of the twenty books in Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring Aubrey/Maturin series (and pulling plot ideas from several others), Master and Commander eschews retelling a popular story in order to piece together its own. Instead of distilling a voluminous symphony into a few representative notes, the filmmakers create their own variation — a focused interpretation of the joyous spirit of adventure the saga is known for. The result is not only a unique adaptation, but a great movie.

For those unfamiliar, the novels depict the actions of fictional members of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and cover a time span from roughly 1800-1815. “Lucky” Jack Aubrey is the handsome, dashing captain, born to the sea, a devoted admirer of Lord Horatio Nelson and naval tradition. A good-natured Tory who enjoys a hearty meal and the pleasures of port (both kinds), he is a man that many women like and many men would like to be. His shipmate and particular friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, is a former Irish revolutionary now turned British naval physician and spy. Outwardly he is less desirable, with his slight build, fickle temper, pale-eyed reptilian glares, progressive politics, and intellectual pursuits offering a stark contrast to his more agreeable counterpart. Initially brought together by their love of music, the unlikely bond between the two is what forms the backbone of the series, and serves as the perfect device for offering different perspectives to navigate readers through the high-seas adventure.

Adapting even one of the twenty books would have been difficult, to say the least; the plots tend to meander, often ignoring typical story beats in favor of going where the wind takes them. Yet, lurking just below the rippling surface are numerous complexities, brewing storms of political and romantic machinations. Instead of trying to cram those elements — along with the rich character development the series is beloved for — into 138 minutes of screen time that would inevitably lead to a disappointed passionate fan base and confused newcomers, Weir and his co-writer decided to distill the series to its essence, resulting in two distinct emphases: immersion into an authentic-feeling, turn-of-the-century British Navy, and the philosophical relationship between two men in the age of reason.

The story presented in Master and Commander is as bare-bones as they come: there’s an enemy ship in the neighborhood (off the coast of South America), and the orders for His Majesty’s Ship Surprise are to burn or take her as a prize. There are detours with an insecure midshipman, an accident involving a musket, and an excursion to the Galapagos Islands, but these seem more like asides than plot points, and have little to do with the matter at hand. And again, while these scenarios are inspired by moments in different books, none plays out exactly how it was originally written, and so still feels fresh to those well versed. The simple-yet-effective main idea is delivered via some opening text, which allows Weir to then turn his attention to what really matters: having the people populating this floating community deliver lines that develop personalities and ideologies instead of merely explaining minutiae.

Character is what’s important in the Aubrey/Maturin series, and Weir does a commendable job conveying at least the basic traits of men that have evolved over twenty novels. From Jack’s enthusiastic appreciation of a bad pun to naturalist Stephen’s desperate climb in the pursuit of scientific avian discovery, the script and the actors do a wonderful job crafting distinct moments. The pair debate the politics of naval life — arguments that stand for larger philosophical arguments on the nature of authority — and both present logical sides. Their deep friendship, so in-depth and key to the books, is less on display here, but enough time is set aside to scratch at the surface of this lasting bond to establish the right impression. Music sessions show both men at ease, adept at their instruments and simply enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company, and Jack’s decision later on choosing friendship over duty mirrors the man many readers know.

So far, this may not sound like typical swashbuckling entertainment (and it’s not), but wait until you see dueling men-of-war blasting away, delivering full broadsides on an epically destructive scale, followed by dueling men of war firing shots of their own, volleying conflicting ideas on governance and the corruption of power. Action at sea comes in furious squalls, and the action in Master and Commander is no different, as any moment holds the potential for danger. Cannonballs shatter hulls, producing massive splinters that pierce like knives, while murderous brutes line opponents’ decks, armed with only the worst sorts of weaponry — and all the while, the ocean reserves the right to claim its own. Like with many of his other films (Picnic at Hanging Rock and Witness, for example), Weir never lets the audience forget nature’s role in all of this, and the sea itself is a looming character. Much like the novels’ author, Patrick O’Brien, he presents the violence with great force and beauty, sparing no brutality, but also simply accepting it as natural requirements of the service.

However, despite the roars of guns and smoke so thick one can smell the powder, the movie wisely also does not ignore the monotony of the sailor’s daily life. The striking of bells, the changing of the watch, holystoning the deck, salted pork and hard tack, twenty-eight inches to sling a cot, etc. These are all important elements of what makes Master and Commander — both film and novel — so engrossing. The painstaking detail contributes to an atmosphere that is intoxicating, and along with the roll of the ocean, the creaking of the planks, the knotting of rope, and the fluttering sounds of sails, helps fulfill one of the main objectives of this adaptation: to transport the audience into another place and time. While the books are filled with yarns, readers know that the little things are what make them so memorable. Plot in the Aubrey/Maturin series exists as a vehicle for character interactions, for a glimpse into naval life, and so Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World follows suit.

An unfamiliar-yet-familiar approach like this is risky, as any misstep is likely to detract from the tone and lead to the doldrums. With no safe plot to cling to, characters must be spot-on (Barret Bonden may be the only real misstep), and efficiency is of the utmost necessity; there’s not a moment to lose, no word to be wasted in this kind of tribute. Unlike adaptations that aim to offer themselves as a possible replacement to the original rendition, Master and Commander instead hopes to provide a complementary experience, a unique taste that incites a craving for the whole meal, spotted dog pudding and all. Without it, I personally would have missed out on the most rewarding series of books I’ve had the pleasure to read, and that is what an adaptation is supposed to do: inspire.

Of course, there are always those who will claim that “books are better,” but it’s difficult to judge this film in direct comparison — and that’s the beauty of this freestyle type of adaptation. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World succeeds fantastically at telling its own story of beloved characters; what makes it special is that it also goes a step further, urging the audience to seek out more of this world, to discover the entire richer experience just beyond the horizon. Adaptations are not perfect, and never will be; so many try to recreate the source material as exactly as possible within a two-hour time limit, only to end up at best as merely pale imitations of a rich tapestry, or at worst a choppy narrative butchered of its vital spirit. In the service of the British Royal Navy one must always choose the lesser of two weevils, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World does this, opting for a uniquely faithful adaptation that sacrifices story for soul.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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TIFF 2019: Benson and Moorhead Bend Time in the Psychedelic ‘Synchronic’

Trippy visuals and historical context ground this ambitious science fiction film.

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Synchronic

Bringing together trippy science fiction and the grit of New Orleans, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead continue their streak of grounded genre-fare with Synchronic. With another exploration into concepts of time and reality, Synchronic plays out like a cross between Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead and Shane Carruth’s Primer. Though not as nuanced in its characters as previous entires in their filmography, Benson and Moorhead provide another delight for genre fans, and a compelling idea that never gets too far out of their grasp, despite its ambitiousness.

Focused on two paramedics, Synchronic finds Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) driving through New Orleans and stumbling upon several drug overdoses in the city. The only connection between the overdoses is that all of the victims took a new designer drug called Synchronic. As the incidents start piling up, the two become entangled in the mystery of the drug’s effects after Dennis’ teenage daughter (Ally Ioannides) takes it and goes missing. While Dennis tries to find his daughter, Steve takes it upon himself to learn what exactly Synchronic does to the user, which ultimately leads to the film’s surreal and genre-bending narrative.

Tensions between the two escalate as Dennis contends with his failing marriage, which is only made worse when their daughter disappears, while Steve hides a terminal illness that leads him to experiment with Synchronic. As an isolated alcoholic who is dying, Mackie is probably the best he’s ever been in a role that doesn’t really offer him much in terms of character development but still puts him in situations where his charisma brings magnitudes. Hefty amounts of emotional baggage are dropped on him, and he does a significant job elevating the material. Meanwhile, Dornan continues to be bland, and his chemistry with Mackie feels forced every time they banter. In fact, almost all of the emotion in Synchronic comes up short because of this lack of chemistry and Dornan’s poor acting.

Despite that, Synchronic is enjoyable because of where its science fiction concept is willing to reach. The visuals are otherworldly as different time periods blend into each other, and Benson and Moorhead continue to show what can be done on a modest budget. While the film’s trippy concept is explored thoroughly enough, there are facets that desire extrapolation, such as the personal ramifications of taking the drug — which isn’t explored, despite drugs with hallucinatory and psychedelic effects tending to take the user into account. Instead the drug here has the same effect on everyone, with any deviations dictated by external factors. However, the film casually explores Steve’s character within the guise of this, making for a riveting — but not all that deep — look at the past to see how much better things are now.

Synchronic doesn’t quite live up to the neat package that The Endless was, but Benson and Moorhead pare down the scope of the film in order to keep it neater and more controllable. Otherwise, not only would it have been a messy venture, but the dull characters would deny any thrills. Thankfully, Mackie does wonders in a very subdued emotional performance that complements the visually arresting imagery. Synchronic is a solid genre flick that will keep Benson and Moorhead on the rise in the genre community, and will satisfy fans of a psychedelic premise rooted in the real world.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Uncut Gems’ Sends Adam Sandler Through the Ringer

The Safdie Brothers have crafted a hectic, abrasive crime thriller that revels in its misery.

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Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by an perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness.

Evading debt collectors throughout New York City, Howard (Sandler) runs a jewelry shop in the Diamond District where he sells to many high-profile celebrities. When a new opal arrives at his shop from Ethiopia, he can’t help but show it off to Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (who stars as himself in a fun role that never feels out-of-place), who becomes obsessed with the rock and borrows it with the hope of eventually convincing Howard to let him buy it. Of course, Howard has other plans, as the rock is allegedly worth a million dollars if sold at an auction in which he has already purchased a spot. When Garnett doesn’t return the stone, everything starts going horribly awry in Howard’s life as he juggles a failing marriage, his Jewish family ties, and keeping the loan sharks at bay.

Right out of the gate, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) hits the ground hard with a score that carries the cosmic and reverberating effects of the titular uncut gems. When Garnett stares into the opal, he sees exactly what Howard tells him he’s supposed to see: the universe. In that, Lopatin provides a sonicscape so expansive and yet violently singular in its aesthetic that it provides much of Uncut Gems with a mystical aura. Drenched in gritty camerawork that gets up close to show the blemishes of everyone, there’s no denying the film’s mean and potent intensity.

Where Uncut Gems often stumbles is in its narrative threads. While the Garnett storyline weaves in and out, providing a lot of fun as well as hectic tension, it’s a piece of stunt casting that works, while also highlighting one that very clearly doesn’t involving R&B singer The Weekend. Why he is in the movie is baffling, other than perhaps because he evokes a further sense that Howard is in a very upscale world — something we already know by his clientele, multiple properties, and the wealth he actually wears. The Weekend ends up as a weird diversion that can take viewers out of the experience, even if his presence does lead to a further escalation in problems for Howard.

That all being said, Uncut Gems also brings Adam Sandler back into the fold as an actor who can do more than the drivel he has churned out over the decades. More evocative of his performance in Punch-Drunk Love than The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler gives a comedic and sympathetic performance to a character for whom everything suddenly goes wrong. Living a manic, fast-paced lifestyle, Howard is impatient, aggressive, and greedy, but Sandler makes it possible to get on board with his plight at least partially (there is no way to be on his side completely). His vices are many, but the performance keeps him down to Earth even when it feels like everything is flying off the hinges.

There will likely be many that can’t get past how dirty this movie feels, as it treats many criminal activities as both simply the way things are and they way they always will be. Beyond that, however, the Safdie Brothers provide a nuanced look at Jewish culture, utilizing one of Hollywood’s most prolific Jewish actors, and treat it is as matter-of-fact. Uncut Gems is a frenetic crime film from a Jewish perspective, and delivers on its promise of being a wild ride with a phenomenal Sandler performance. Just don’t expect there to be much hope present, as the Safdies revel in the misery as much as humanly possible, only using hope as a torture device to make the anguish all the more painful.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘To the Ends of the Earth’ Is a Compelling Study on Loneliness

Kiyoshi Kurosawa steers clear of thriller and horror territory with this lovely film about a Japanese woman adrift in a foreign land.

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To the Ends of the Earth

It’s de rigeur at this point to mention in a review whenever the Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is working in a genre other than horror, but it’s a strange trend. Kurosawa certainly made a name for himself with his chilling and elegant horror films, most famously Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), but he didn’t make any horror films between 2006’s Retribution and 2016’s Creepy, and he hasn’t made any since then. Perhaps hardcore horror fans are fickle enough to simply pass over the half of his output that isn’t explicitly scary, but it would be an utter shame to do so, especially when he’s still working at the top of his game. His newest, To the Ends of the Earth, finds him working in a quieter mode than usual, but it’s one of his most heartfelt and engaging movies.

The Japanese pop singer Atsuko Maeda stars in To the Ends of the Earth as Yoko, a news-magazine reporter who is visiting Uzbekistan to film an episode for a travel series. (Kurosawa was approached in 2016 about making a film to commemorate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, though there’s nothing celebratory about this film.) She’s joined by a small camera crew, as well as their invaluable translator, Temur (Adiz Rajabov). Most of the things she has to film would only appeal to your grandparents, like when she visits a large, man-made lake in search of a mythical fish that almost certainly doesn’t exist. Other trips take her to a bustling bazaar and an amusement park where she has to ride a nausea-inducing attraction multiple times in order to get enough usable footage.

To the Ends of the Earth

Yoko displays a bubbly personality when on camera, but as soon as the light goes off, her face begins to droop. The beaming smile collapses and dips at the corners, and her eyes become dark and stormy. Though she’s an integral part of the production, the camera crew — especially the chilly director, Yoshioka (Shôta Sometani) — often dismiss her opinions or don’t even ask in the first place. They send her into the lake in waders, even though there’s a hole in them that renders the pants useless at keeping out water. They send her up again and again on the amusement ride, even though a single ride is all the cameraman is willing to take. The culturally conservative men in Uzbekistan don’t help either. Their guide in search of the mythical fish tells the men that they’re having no luck because the fish can smell women. Whether she’s surrounded by foreigners or even by men she knows well, Yoko is always alone on her trip, and the loneliness starts to eat away at her.

To the Ends of the Earth lives and dies by Maeda’s performance, and luckily it’s a mesmerizing one. There’s a simplicity to her acting that avoids many of the traditional signifiers of ‘quality’ acting — a short-hand of unrealistic tropes that even the best actors regularly use. I wouldn’t have known that she wasn’t really a reporter until the movie briefly turns into a musical toward the end, in a welcome break from reality. Maeda movingly conveys the disappointment of being undervalued by all the men around her, but she also shows off her ability to display overwhelming dread when she fears something terrible may have happened to a loved one back in Tokyo. Kurosawa uses a more static camera here than usual, but it helps to not distract from Maeda’s performance. Those looking for more plot and drama like some of Kurosawa’s older thrillers may be disappointed by To the Ends of the Earth, but it stands among his best and most moving works.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: Steven Soderbergh Explores International Corruption in ‘The Laundromat’

Steven Soderbergh’s newest film is an exploration (and explanation) of the 2015 Panama Papers leak that revealed unimaginable global corruption.

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The Laundromat

It seems like it was only yesterday that Steven Soderbergh announced he be taking a directing sabbatical to focus on painting. Since then, he’s directed three full seasons of television and three feature-length films, in addition to dalliances with the theatre. But his break from film seems to have done the famously restless filmmaker a world of good, even if it didn’t last long. His last batch of films have seen him return to also serving in the cinematographer and editor positions, and his experiments shooting with an iPhone have proven that he’s still light on his feet. Soderbergh’s newest feature, The Laundromat, doesn’t feature any iPhone acrobatics, but it is one of his most playful films ever.

Written by Soderbergh’s longtime collaborator, Scott Z. Burns, The Laundromat attempts to both explain the complicated workings of the 2015 Panama Papers leak as well as put a human face to the unethical behavior described within. The story opens with its two devilish narrators, Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), as they break the fourth wall and go all the way back to the invention of money to explain exactly how oligarchs around the world can make, hide, and steal money across the globe. These scenes are relatively funny, though they tip-toe dangerously close to the kind of simplistic explanation that pollutes recent Adam McKay films. Oldman and Banderas are also part of the film proper as the wealthy owners of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, from which the massive leak came. The firm was primarily used by clients to set up shell companies in island nations with favorable tax policies, sometimes for totally legal tax avoidance, but often for illegal tax evasion and fraudulent activities.

The Laundromat

The human face of this greed comes from Meryl Streep, playing Ellen Martin, a retiree whose husband is killed in an accident while on vacation. He has a life insurance policy, but she’s expecting a seven-figure settlement from the tour company. However, the company’s insurance was sold to them by a fraudster operating shell companies, which sends Ellen on a quest to find exactly who is responsible for paying for her husband’s death. Along the way there are heartbreaking failures, like when she flies to the Caribbean Island of Nevis only to find out that the company’s address is actually just a post office box. And mixed in with her quest for the truth are vignettes describing some of the corruption mentioned in the papers.

Aside from a murder subplot, Soderbergh and Burns keep the film light and comic, as if the only response to corruption on such a massive scale is to laugh. The director keeps his camera on the move, and he lights many of the scenes to either have the cool glow of office fluorescent lighting or the washed-out glare of tropical settings. It’s not the most soothing or attractive look, but Soderbergh has often favored lighting that suits the film’s mood and setting, even if he occasionally turns on the glitz and glamour for something like his Ocean’s films.

It’s clear that Streep had a great time working with Soderbergh on The Laundromat, their first collaboration. In addition to playing Ellen, she has a second role that eagle-eyed viewers will spot underneath pounds of makeup and padding, but she also strips down all the makeup to reveal what looks like her true self — Meryl, not Ellen. It’s for a surprisingly passionate speech in an otherwise cynical film that will briefly make audiences think that something can be done to stop all this corruption. Whether that’s true or not is another issue.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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