Weekly Video Picks

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Director Peter Weir brings the sea-faring heroes of Patrick O'Brian's intelligent, thrilling historical novels to the screen in a film as masterful and commanding as the novels themselves.

Russell Crowe is effortlessly commanding as Captain Jack Aubrey while Paul Bettany projects erudite intelligence and sophistication as his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin. From the creak of the timbers to the bare feet of the men on the rigging, from the shattering course of a cannonball to the wincing exigencies of naval field surgery, Master and Commander is utterly persuasive.

Anachronistic attitudes and behavior are de rigeur in period films these days; slavish obeisance to focus groups and marketing strategy aims for the broadest, shallowest possible appeal and dumbed-down moral conflicts spell out what the audience should think. But this film charts a different course.

Weir hones the story of an extended naval engagement with a larger, more powerful enemy ship to laser-like intensity but also develops the story's moral and existential dimensions, inviting the viewer to ponder the issues.

A notable part of the historical context is the film's matter-of-fact Christian milieu. Aubrey is Anglican, Maturin Catholic and, though neither is devout, their Christian heritage remains part of who they are.

Content advisory: Bloody scenes of battle violence and field surgery; a suicide; somewhat profane language, a couple of rude jokes and brief obscenity.

Places in the Heart (1984)

Robert Benton's earnest, well-crafted Depression-era drama, set in a small Texas town where the director's family has lived for generations, contains few key plot points that haven't been clichés in a dozen other films. Yet in Benton's hands they have an immediacy and authority that makes them feel like the reality behind the clichés before they became clichés — as if this is the way things really were.

Sally Field stars as Edna Spalding, a wife and mother of two whose life is shattered by a sudden, pointless tragedy.

In the aftermath, she is confronted by a bewildering array of issues and crises she would never have imagined having to deal with. She must rise to the challenge of facing a condescending banker, a possibly shifty black drifter (Danny Glover) and an unwanted and ungrateful boarder (John Malkovich), all of whom are eventually somehow touched by grace.

There's also a realistic treatment of an adulterous affair involving Edna's sister's husband (Ed Harris), but unfortunately this never ties into the main story.

A coda depicting a Baptist-style communion service involves a surprising touch of magical realism suggesting the possibility of redemption and spiritual unity. This is a touching, thoughtful film.

Content advisory: A few disturbing scenes, including an accidental death, a vigilante murder and a scene of racist menace and violence; an adulterous affair (no sex or nudity).