My movie thing

I’ve been a movie junkie as long as I can remember. I recall ripping through the TV section of the Peoria Journal Star every Saturday, looking for hopeful signs on the next week’s movie horizon. I couldn’t have been older than 9 or 10, with tastes appropriate to my years — all I needed in life was two hours of Godzilla eating Tokyo or Washington fending off alien invaders.

I watched everything back then — I still remember the first time I saw Slim Pickens riding that A-bomb to his doom in “Doctor Strangelove.” I had no idea it was a comedy.

Oddly enough, the late-show movie most fixed in my memory involved a black guy trapped in a mine while World War III breaks out. He escapes to a world devoid of people and settles into a strange life in a vacant New York City. Then he finds a woman. Things progress until another guy shows up. He’s white. Naturally, the first instinct of the last three people on earth is a racially charged love triangle.

Today my movie habit is enabled almost entirely by, and my deepest lament is that I’ve seen all the good ones (nearly 1200 titles and counting).

Netflix doesn’t stock every film ever produced (they’re not all out on DVD), but it has enough to keep a fiend like me on the hook. I’ve become a huge fan of foreign flicks, mainly because gobs of great movies are out there if you can deal with the subtitles (I’d rather read subtitles than try to watch dubbed movies; the mouth-not-following-the-words is too distracting).

I’ve seen all the best work of Akira Kurosawa, Japan’s legendary film director. His “Seven Samurai,” remade in the U.S. as “The Magnificent Seven,” tells the story of lowly Japanese peasants who become so fed up with marauding bandits that they hire free-lance samurai warriors to a) save their crops; and b) seek revenge. One of the co-stars is Toshiro Mifune, who also starred as a cunning rogue who plays a town’s feuding factions against each other in the classic Yojimbo, remade as “A Fistful of Dollars” in the spaghetti western that turned Clint Eastwood into a huge star.

Speaking of samurai warriors, thanks to Netflix I stumbled across the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, a great French director whose Le samouraï” was one of the great crime movies of the 1960s. Le samouraï features a square-jawed heartthrob who carefully and precisely kills people for a living. Even better is “Le deuxième souffle” (The Second Wind), featuring a scary-tough bad-ass (hard to imagine in a French film, I know) named “Gu” who breaks out of prison and attempts the epic heist that will let him retire in peace.

I could go on, perhaps to my last keystroke, raving about all the great movies and griping about the bad ones. It’s true they don’t make them like they used to. But good ones keep getting made, and forgotten ones keep getting rediscovered.

Fine time to be a film fiend, no doubt about it.

No Country for Old Men, a movie review

Most characters are lucky to make it out of a Coen Brothers film alive. For laughs, the brothers run their co-stars’ dead bodies through wood chippers. For yucks, a guy’s hand gets stuck to a window sill with a sharp knife.

It’s dark humor, lost on the average moviegoer, I suppose, but usually funny to those who enjoy it. I’m one of them, so I try to see whatever Joel and Ethan throw at us. We’re the kind of people who appreciate the comic potential of a 9mm slug between the eyes (look, it’s just a movie, all the actors go home without a scratch).

Alas, the “every slit throat is good for a few chuckles” vibe that gave us “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo” seems dead and buried in “No Country for Old Men.” The Coens seem to have lost their sense of humor in regards to the inevitability of death. There’s no cheating it, they’re telling us, and the harder you try, the more you hurry it along.

Death stalks the scraggly hills of southwest Texas in the human form of Anton Chigurh, a man with one purpose: to return $2 million in drug money to its rightful owners. Killing anybody who gets in his way is just his quirky way of upholding his exacting professional standards.

Somehow a botched drug deal has turned into a border-country bloodbath. One intrepid (though badly shot-up) Mexican drug runner wanders off with a satchel full of hundred-dollar bills, then dies. About a quarter mile behind him are a half-dozen dusty four-wheel-drive pickups full of yet more shot-dead drug traffickers.

A hunter who can’t shoot straight named Llewelyn Moss happens upon the trucks and their deceased occupants first, then tracks down the guy with the case o’ cash. Right here you want those guys from “Mystery Science 3000” wisecracking, “cool, he’s from that parallel universe where things go good for the guy when he decides to keep the money.”

Whatever planet Mr. Moss is from, he does defy the common sense handed down by every novel, movie, short story and soap opera episode from the time of Aesop to future media forms as yet uninvented: Keeping the money ruins your life.

As expected, things get increasingly complicated — and violent — for Llewelyn Moss. Death, that is, Mr. Chigurh, is after him with a vengeance you’d think might better be reserved for whoever cures cancer or AIDS.

As cinema, it’s a solid film with strong performances from Josh Brolin (who looks uncannily like his dad) as Moss and Javier Bardem as Chigurh, who carries the trademark Coen Brothers homicidal smirk throughout.

Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas lawman who should be trying to do something about all the unfolding mayhem, but isn’t. Woody Harrelson is sort of tossed in there for no obvious reason.

The story is based on something by Cormac McCarthy, who writes novels about tough guys who soldier on through ceaseless carnage because, well, soldiering on through ceaseless carnage is just what they do. Against formidable odds — and with a formidable disregard for punctuation — McCarthy’s novels succeed impressively. I’ve read a bunch and liked them all.

His books are usually meditations on the bleak corners of the human character. Not funny, or ironic, or sarcastic. Tough, you might say, like the West itself, where most of his stories unfold.

The Coens, in contrast, make movies about fools and the blood-soaked consequences of their their folly (except for “O Brother Where Art Thou,” which had fools aplenty, but not much blood. It’s my favorite Coen brothers film).

I might need to see the movie again to be sure this coming together of Coens and McCarthy really works. The movie is stylish, beautifully photographed, peppered with authentic-sounding West Texas twang. It has McCarthy’s characteristic rough dudes doing what they must.

For now, though, the movie seems not quite amusing enough for spot in the Coen cannon, and the characters are not quite enduring enough to be authentic McCarthy-esque protagonists.

But if it makes me want to see it twice, “No Country for Old Men” must have something going for it.

(Wow, this pic just won Best Picture).

For you movie buffs

My ol’ pal Whitney is covering Sundance for Entertainment Weekly. At last report she was in major “which movie must I see” mode and going mildly insane. And that was before Day One.

I spent an hour tonight just going over the press screening schedule and crossing out the things I already know I can’t attend, trying to narrow things down a bit. I was listening to some Talking Heads to fend off the OCD-induced insanity and fell into such a scheduling trance that iTunes played me half of the Taylor Hicks album before I noticed what I was listening to and turned it off in horror.

It seems like no rational movie buff would expect to have 13 seconds of fun crammed into Park City, Utah, with a bunch of Hollywood types in their mink coats and hiking shoes that will see dirt only when they’ve been in the Smithsonian for 100 years. Future Whitney insanity available here.

What happens when the storyteller
hates his characters

The other day I caught a movie called "Scarlet Street" on a local
independent station. The movie stars Edward G. Robinson as an invisible nobody
corrupted by the attentions of a beautiful woman. The director is Fritz Lang,
the legendary German auteur who fled Nazi Germany and made a number of interesting
American films over the years. Lang the individual was quite a character —
actually wore a monocle, as I recall, and allegedly was a mean, petty, self-glorifying
head-case who complained that his producers always cut his art to ribbons and
made mush of his attempts at cinematic art.

Scarlet Street seems like a good match for Lang, because it’s one of the rare
films that has no redeeming characters. The cast is the work of a storyteller
who genuinely despises his characters and inflicts one terrible punishment after
another upon them. It’s like "Fargo" for the 1940s, except that it’s
not supposed to be a black comedy. Lang didn’t write the screenplay; it’s based
on a French play whose title translates as "the Bitch."

Here’s the story: Edward G. Robinson is introduced at a party celebrating his
25 years as a bank cashier. When his coworkers yell "speech, speech"
he has nothing interesting to say. After the big boss bails on the party, his
crew crowds around a window to see him getting into a car with a beautiful young
dame — putting evil ideas into the heads of everybody, including Christopher
Cross, Robinson’s cashier.

On his way home from the party, Chris notices a guy roughing up a woman. He
intervenes, knocks the clod out cold and rescues the gorgeous babe — who is
leggy, sexy and the shameless owner of a heart of stone. She calls herself Kitty
and trust me, she’s got claws.

Of course a fling will happen between the corruptible Chris and the corrupting
Kitty, who has a boyfriend named Johnny who is an A Number 1 scoundrel. He was
the one roughing her up; apparently he’s the only guy man enough to secure Kitty’s
tender attentions.

I have to tell the whole story — apologies for the spoilers — to convey
just how much scorn the filmmaker has heaped upon his characters. It goes
like this:

Chris tells Kitty he’s an artist; Kitty assumes he’s one of those rich ones
whose paintings sell for big bucks. She and Johnny angle to milk Chris for all
he’s worth, which isn’t much, but they don’t know that. Chris just paints on
the side and he’s not very good.

Chris is married to a shrewish hag who hates the sight of him and threatens
to throw out all his artworks because she hates the smell of paint. Chris is so defeated by this woman that he’s
shown wearing her flowered apron to do the dishes. Humiliation with
a capital H. Well, Chris is emboldened by Kitty’s attentions and decides he
needs a studio, so he embezzles from the bank and steals from the wife (the
widow of a cop who disappeared trying to rescue a woman from a river) to put
Kitty up in a swank Village pad.

Chris brings his paintings over to the new pad, and without his knowledge,
Johnny shops a few around, first to a fence, then to a sidewalk artist. Both
tell him Chris’s art is crap, but the sidewalk guy volunteers to show a couple
of them to see what happens.

A famous art critic comes along, sees Chris’s paintings, buys both and demands
to see more. Turns out Chris is an artistic genius — either that or the critic
is a complete idiot (I’m siding with the latter). The critic finds his way way
to the Chris/Kitty pad, where Kitty and Johnny are hanging out. Johnny gets
the bright idea to tell the critic that Kitty painted them. Kitty’s a natural
born golddigger so she goes along with the scheme, figuring she’ll deal with
Chris later.

Now Chris wants to dump his wife and marry Kitty, but he needs a way to unload
her. A miracle appears in the shape of his wife’s first husband, who didn’t
die; he faked his death to skip out on some debts. By now Chris has larceny
in his soul so he tricks this lug into reuniting with the hellish wife — the
idea being that if hubby No. 1 didn’t die, Chris isn’t legally married to the
shrew. His fiendish reunion plot works like a charm, so he heads over to Kitty’s

At the swinging pad, Chris finds out about the thing between Kitty and Johnny,
who’ve just had a lover’s spat that caused Johnny to march out in a huff. Kitty
ridicules Chris with such venom that he loses control and stabs her with an
ice pick, then flees the scene.

Johnny shows up minutes later, finds his girl dead and himself the prime suspect
in her murder. Now Johnny is a conniving scumbag who likes to rough up his girl,
but he’s no murderer. Nevertheless, he’s tried (Chris testifies against him),
convicted and sentenced to death. He’s goes to the electric chair wailing that
he didn’t do it.

Chris walks free but the voices of Johnny and Kitty haunt his every footstep.
He tries to hang himself but a couple guys rescue him, robbing him of the chance
to end his misery.

The movie ends with Chris becoming a homeless wanderer who haunts police stations,
trying to convince the cops he’s a killer. They just think he’s just another
crazy bum.

So: Nothing guy meets beautiful but evil bitch, resorts to murder, lets an
innocent man die in his stead and has the voices of his victims in his head
for the rest of his days. Evil bitch is pummeled to death with an ice pick;
no-account boyfriend fries for the murder. Runaway ex-husband gets stuck back
in the clutches of the shrewish wife from hell. Moronic art critic and his gallery cronies celebrate inept artwork. This is one mean movie.

Check it out if you have a low opinion of the human race.

Brando is dead

“I coulda been a contender.”

“Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”


“What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?”

“You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to pick up the bill.”

The guy put some phrases into the langauge that people’ll be saying long after they remember why.

Marlon Brando was one of those impossible artists. Hard to take — only his ego was bigger than his belly — but irreplaceable.

Who else could’ve been Kurtz in “Apocolypse Now”? Why does any actor even bother to audition for the role of Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire”?

Yeah, the guy took some silly roles, like Superman’s dad, and he behaved badly too many times to count.

But when the guy was on, he was on.

Here’s the New York Times obit.

Simply put: In film acting, there is before Brando, and there is after Brando. And they are like different planets.

Oscar night 2004

“Billy Crystal’s welcome to come to New Zealand and make a film any time he wants” — Peter Jackson, director, “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Winner of best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best song, best art direction, costume design, makeup, score, sound mixing, visual effects.

A telling omission: none of the acting awards went to “Rings.”


Best pic has to be “Rings.” How can it walk off w/everything else and not win? Near as I can tell it won in every category it was nominated in.


Best actor: Tough choice. i’m thinking Ben Kingsley. Oops, Sean Penn.
Must be the make-up Oscar for being passed over on “Dead Man Walking.” Classy speech for a reputed bad boy.


Best actress: Charlize Theron gets the nod. God, these women are all hsyterical.
What a tan she has. Charlize, give it up, girl!


Tom Cruise gets to give one away but never gets one himself. Wow, he seems to have shaved for the first time since 1999. Best director: why even name anybody besides Peter Jackson?


Hey, it’s the Tim and Susan show. For some reason I knew it was going to be Sofia Coppola for original screenplay. Any question that the Coppolas are a film dynasty?


The Coppolas. Sofia’s on drugs, I swear. I’m rooting for “American Splendor” for best adapted screenplay but alas, it’s “Rings” again. Peter looks like Belushi with a beard.


Three hours and counting. Lordy.


Cinematography: Might as well give it to “Rings.” Wait, it’s not even nominated. “Master & Commander” takes it. A well-photographed film. The DP sounded a bit blotto.


Charlize: Is she as beautiful as Catherine Zeta-Jones? Melissa gives the nod to Z-J. Best foreign-language film winner: “We’re so thankful Lord of the Rings did not qualify in this category.”


Wow: Jack Black is really short. This “you’re boring” bit is pretty funny — the real “best song.” “Rings” taking another statuette makes me want to gag, though it’s good to see Annie Lennox up there.


Woo-hoo, it’s Mitch and Mickey from “A Mighty Wind.” Won’t win but it should. A rare outbreak of humor from the Academy. The Kiss: A hoot in any language.

Hmm, this French song is pretty entertaining. Those “Cold Mountain” songs are seeming stronger than ever.


“People are moving to New Zealand just to be thanked.”


Editing: A topic dear to my heart. Might as well be “Rings” again. How about we just give all the rest to “Rings” and we can all go home?


Best score: “Rings” again. They’re going have to start thanking people in Papua New Guinea next. Suggestion for future years: Couldn’t they do the thank yous in private? Think how much more meaningful it would be.


Not many categories left. Thank God.


Gregory Peck: From Atticus Finch to Dr. Mengele. RIP.


Best documentary: “Fog of War,” Errol Morris’ first win. Haven’t seen it, wonder if he’s getting it more for his career. “I fear we’re going down a rabbit hole once again.” Billy: “I can’t wait for his tax audit.”


Kate Hepburn. True classic. A great one has to die so they can show some real entertainment on Oscar night.


“It’s official, there’s now nobody left in New Zealand to thank.”


Do I give a flip whose sound mixing was best? Take a guess. I thought it might go to “Master & Commander,” which had wonderful sound. But no: another “Rings” win. This is getting tedious. Now, clue me in: why a separate Oscar for editing and mixing? Hey, Master & Commander wins sound editing — see, I was half right.


Almost two hours in … my butt’s getting tired. circulation in my legs is going. Good thing this laptop is so warm.


Best Makeup: Another “Rings” lock? Well, that was a surprise.


Inspector Clouseau! “That’s a Priceless Steinway.” “Not anymore.” Blake Edwards looks 300 years old. All that hard Hollywood living.


Jennifer Garner’s dress: impressive. Safe bet the stars are all sneaking out for bathroom breaks about now.


Visual effects: Another “Rings” lock. (Note Will & Jada, the odd Hollywood combination of tall man and short woman.)


Three songs in and no crap to be found. Amazing.

Annie Lennox sings the “Rings” song. Not bad, but not the equal of the Krauss songs.

Alison Krauss — haunting voice, haunting tune. Probably too gloomy to win. Wow, two songs from the same movie, Cold Mountain. Nice showcase for Krauss — it’ll be a crime if her songs don’t win.


Liv: Lose those glasses.


Best live-action short: (where’s Danny DeVito?) “Two Soldiers.” Best animated short: “Harvie Krumpet.”
I wonder how many people have seen these movies and if they could fill a city bus. The Starsky/Hutch thing was mildly amusing.


Bob Hope’s best “I didn’t get it” gags: “Or as it’s called around my house.. Passover”; “Or, as it’s called around my house: The Fugitive.” OK, it’s funnier when he says it.


Best supporting actress: Another impossible name… I’m guessing nobody portraying an Iranian will win, though. Ooh, Renee’s back up there again. Kind of an embarrassment to be taking it for best-supporting …. I mean, she’s a major star and everything. But it’s one more Oscar than Tom Cruise has gotten. How’s that for justice?


Costume design: “Rings” again. You’d get one too if you had to find costumes for all those orcs. (Renee: it looks like you’ve had a boob job!).


Best animated feature: “Finding Nemo” is a lock. Robin Williams needs to turn it off for once. The guy telling his wife he loves her in front of a billion people was a nice touch.


Production designer: (Angelina, we can see your nippies!). Goes to “Return of the King.” Pretty much a slam dunk. I was rooting for “Master & Commander,” because it was one of the first movies in which I actually made an effort to find out who the production director was. But the “Rings” stuff is so colossal in scale, no shame in losing out to it.


Best male supporting: (C. Zeta-Jones: too gorgeous for her own good). I hope it goes to somebody whose name I can spell. Tim Robbins! Cool. All the others are better actors, of course. The crowd holds its breath as Tim says, “I’ve got just one more thing to say.” Sighs of relief as he tells abuse survivors to get help.


He’s really going to keep this up for all five best-picture nominees. For once the rich, beautiful people of the movie industry pay the price of fame: no way to avoid Billy’s opening sequence. Please, bring on the awards for technical merit.


Make him stop… Billy’s singing again. He’s got some nerve telling Clint Eastwood not to sing again.


Cool, Michael Moore just got squished.


Naked Billy Crystal. Scary.


Opening sequence: Sean Connery being stentorian.

DVD review: ‘American Splendor’

There’s a scene in “American Splendor,” the story of underground comics hero Harvey Pekar, where Pekar is standing on one of those caged pedestrian bridges high above a big expressway. Pekar’s life and his outlook are so wretched that the first reaction is to think: why doesn’t he just jump? He can’t, of course, because of the chain-link enclosure, which roughly symbolizes his life: Pekar sees a world that should be his, but he can’t get there because he’s stuck behind this fence.

The real Harvey Pekar and his wife, Joyce

Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis as Harvey and Joyce.

Critics and film festival fans gushed over “American Splendor” last year, when the film raked in major prizes at Sundance and Cannes. It’s out on DVD now, which in a way is a much better way to experience the movie because all the DVD extras — the comments track in particular — tell so much more of the story than shows up in the actual movie.

I have my own biases for watching the movie: I wondered if Pekar’s story could shed some light on why people keep buying comic books after, say, age 12. The older I get the more I wonder why a small fraction of the population — geeky, antisocial guys mostly — never outgrows these things.

The movie’s directors, Shari Springer and Berman Robert Pulcini, explain this phenomenon by going straight to the source: part of the movie is the real Harvey Pekar explaining what’s happening in the fictionalized part of the movie, where Paul Giamatti portrays the young Pekar (“He doesn’t look like me,” notes the real Harvey, whose raspy voice bears the burden of a life whiled away in a sterile Veterans Hospital file room). He’s part crank, part genius — a comic voice of authority on the subject he knows best: his own strange self.

The real Pekar lives in Cleveland with no prospects beyond his job as a hospital file clerk. As the movie opens his second wife is leaving him. His throat has a polyp that makes speaking painful. In a hilarious grocery store scene, Pekar has a revelation while waiting in line to pay for his Spaghetti-O’s: It’s time to do something with his life.

Pekar decides to start a comic book about the odd interludes in his life. Problem is: he can’t draw. His life may be a wreck, but he has one good fortune: an old friend is Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), creator of the “Mr. Natural” comic book character. Pekar scribbles his words on pages, illustrates them with stick figures and hands them over to Crumb, who says, “these are good.”

From thus springs the comic book “American Splendor,” which ironically exposes the splendor-free existence of Harvey Pekar. He writes about the everyday annoyances of his life in the hospital file room, and his colorful coworkers. Over time the comic develops a following; one of its fans is Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), a woman working in a comic book shop in Delaware. Her whirlwind romance with Pekar is one of the funniest sequences in the film — she’s just as neurotic as he is, but unlike all the other women he’s known, she won’t toss up her hands and toss Harvey out of her life. As the real Harvey notes, “I met my match in Joyce.”

Another of Pekar’s fans is David Letterman, whose cast of recurring oddballs made his “Late Night” one of the funniest things on TV in the mid- to late ’80s. Dave invites Harry on the show, where his condescending tone comes across as more disturbing than humorous. By this far along in the film we’ve come to identity with Harvey’s endearing weirdness, and it’s obvious that Dave is exploiting it for easy laughs. Later the real Harvey seals the deal: None of the appearances helped his comic book sales; Letterman’s fans weren’t laughing with Harvey, they were laughing at him. Creepy.

In the commentary on the DVD, though, Harvey reveals himself as a far more savvy media player than the movie portrays. He says, sure, he was there for comic relief and he was doing a shtick — which culminates with Harvey unleashing a profanity-laced screed against Letterman and his show’s corporate sponsors. Harvey might’ve seemed like a useful idiot, but he got the last laugh on his last “Late Show” appearance.

I admit I was charmed by how “American Splendor” neatly integrates comic book imagery into scenes, and by how the real Harvey deftly narrates the fake Harvey’s cinematic adventures. And I was amazed at how Giamatti seemed to nail Pekar’s quirks. That stuff brings goodness to the movie, but the greatness comes from Harvey himself. By the end of the DVD, which tacks on accounts of Harvey getting his just due on the film festival circuit, I was thinking of that scene on the pedestrian bridge and how Harry explained what keeps him going: If you hang around long enough, something’ll turn up.

Harry becomes a forgotten American who wins in the end. That spirit of against-all-odds optimism — Harry’s got deep, deep problems but he soldiers on — says something about the splendor in all of us, and not just Americans.

Casting men upon the waters

When I was about 10, I prized war movies above just about anything except the discovery of an unseen rerun of "Star Trek." My test of a worthy war movie was simple: If I saw any girls’ names in the opening credits, it failed.

There are no girls of any consequence in "Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World." This is a movie about men and ships, duty and obsession, combat and killing, luck and leadership — pure guy stuff from stem to stern. Russell Crowe and his cast of unknowns are fighting men (and boys) with two enemies: a seemingly unsinkable French frigate and the always implacable sea. Director Peter Weir of "Truman Show" and "Year of Living Dangerously" fame should have added a third enemy — fear — but this is a tale of gallantry so there isn’t much wallowing in weakness.

"Master and Commander" passed the girl test, but it tested my patience for high seas epics in which:

  • The captain develops an Ahab-like obsession with his foe.
  • The captain’s best friend tries to talk sense into him, and fails.
  • A boy of about 12 performs heroics beyond his years.
  • Storms around the Cape of South America nearly wreck the mission.
  • Calms drive the crew to the point of madness.
  • The captain hatches a clever scheme to outwit his wiley prey.

Let’s face it, the poopdeck of moviedom is worn pretty smooth with these plot devices. Filmmakers return to these elements because they’re trustworthy tools for building a high-seas adventure –the trick is to fashion a movie whose familiarity breeds warm recognition rather than cold contempt. "Master & Commander" pulls this off, for the most part.

It’s not one of those Great Films like "Schindler’s List" or "Jaws" that show you something you’ve never seen before. It does, however, find fresh ways to retell stories you’ve heard a dozen times already. Interior shots bring to mind the cramped, nasty innards of a 19th century warship, and amazing sound and visual effects make the combat about as lifelike as mere moviegoers can stand. When cannon balls hit home, wood splinters rather than explodes. Gunners’ cannons have pet names. Bread at the captain’s dinner table has worms. Much of the credit here rests with a guy you’ve never heard of: production designer William Sandell, who did similarly impressive work on "The Perfect Storm" and "Air Force One." It feels real because he made it that way; the closest comparison I can think of is the banana-draped bulkheads of "Das Boot" (a better movie because it had a better story).

This story begins and ends with Captain Jack Aubrey, a Brit whose mission is to intercept a formidable French frigate off the coast of Brazil. The story, lifted from the first and 10th installments of Patrick O’Brian’s 20 "Master & Commander" novels, goes like this: It’s 1805 and Napoleon has conquered Europe and has his eyes on British Isles. If Britain’s fleet can sink enough French shipping, perhaps Mr. Bonaparte can be kept on his side of the channel. Aubrey’s best friend is Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, who played Crowe’s imaginary roommate in “A Beautiful Mind”), the ship’s surgeon, whose hobby is collecting rare specimens of plant and animal life. Captain Jack is constantly explaining nautical matters to his doctor, who is constantly reminding the captain that he’s pushing the men too hard, pushing the ship too hard, pushing himself too hard. Think Dr. McCoy before the invention of anesthesia.

The captain, the doctor, a one-armed preteen midshipman, (a scene-stealing Max Pirkis) and a scary soothsaying sailor (a crusty George Innes) chase their prey (or are they being chased?) into the South Pacific, where a stop in the Galapagos Islands provides some of nature’s best lessons in defense, deception and adaptation. It’s one of those moments when you realize every period movie is a commentary on the time of its creation as much as the time it is set in. The doctor wonders if these strange species with their amazing adaptations are the work of God alone, or if they help things along. His one-armed apprentice proves an able naturalist. Creationism vs. evolution and an inspiring story of a brave boy overcoming a disability. How 21st Century can you get?

The movie tempers its rip-roaring battles with dollops of humor that humanize the heroic Captain Jack and his crew. He’s a hilarious drunk prone to corny puns and knowing wisecracks. When the doctor’s getting ready to go explore the Galapagos flora and fauna, it’s suggested that a plant be named after Lucky Jack: "Make it something prickly and hard to eradicate," the captain recommends.

"Master & Commander" is a good story, well told. I’m not convinced it soars to the heights some critics are conferring upon it — it’s doesn’t shed much light on the grand mystery of what draws men to the sea — but these days movies have gotten to be so routinely insipid that a good old fashioned sail-and-cannon epic will do in a pinch. Even one with no girls in it.

Get your fanny perpendicular and off to ‘School’

Forget that Jack Black wooed the fat-suit girl in “Shallow Hal.” What you need to know is, can the secret weapon of “High Fidelity” make a movie we’ll remember six seconds after the credits roll?

I’m mean, c’mon, is there a single Jack Black movie besides “Hi-Fi” you would pay to see twice?

Finally, there is because at long last he’s in a movie whose a) subject is Rock ‘n’ Roll; b) director is Richard Linklater (“Dazed & Confused”) and c) supporting cast includes a rockin’ bunch of kids who come within a drumstick’s width of upstaging him.

“School of Rock” stars Black as Dewey Finn, a loser guitarist who gets kicked out of his loser band and is about to lose his crash pad because his old pal who’s put up with no-rent-paying ways now has a gorgeous girlfriend who insists the time for a change is right now.

Ned, the roomate, doesn’t want to blow it with the Queen Bitch of the Universe, who is such a staple of Rock ‘n’ Roll lore — the girlfriend who spoils everything — that I’m surprised they didn’t name her Yoko. So he sides with bitch babe against poor Dewey, who immediately thinks the thing to do is start a new band — which will never happen because he’s totally lame and has the brain of a 10-year-old still living in the moment he first heard “Back in Black.”

But as the script has it, there are several musical 10-year-olds in his future who will prove he’s not such a loser after all, and that Rock ‘n’ Roll can save, well, their souls.

The magic of “School of Rock” is that it gets away with every teen-rock movie cliche from here to “Rock Around the Clock.” Do the kids defy adult authority? Sure. Does an evil meanie try to stand between them and rock destiny? Better believe it. Can a band of kids who have never played a bar chord before produce a catchy, rockin’ tune inside of three weeks? Why the hell not? It’s a movie, OK, and we’re doing this because we can, Linklater, Black and company are saying.

See, the people who made this flick understand that Rock ‘n’ Roll thrives in the heart of a child. “School of Rock” is about the mojo that made the girls go mad for the Beatles — the pure, ecstatic, raving fun of abandoning yourself to a rock tune. Black’s Dewey is a moron who has a doctorate in the Meaning of Rock ‘n’ Roll … it’s so basic that comes perfectly natural to a roomful of bright kids.

Combine this with a rockin’ score heavy on AC/DC and all the greatest hits from Classic Rock that Rocks radio and you’ve got a movie representing the gritty, nasty, silly and soaring firmament of Rock ‘n’ Roll That Matters (and where Huey Lewis, Billy Joel and Journey dare not dwell).

If that firmament matters to you, pony up the obscene ticket price (it’d be a crime not to see this in a theater) and get your butt in a seat. Better yet, if you’ve given up on Rock as hopelessly compromised by the mighty dollar, “School of Rock” might just get you believing again.