Master and Commander<br></br>Taking Sides<br></br>Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer<br></br>Steal

Man your ropes, boys, we're in for a blow - but not much plot

The studios behind Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (12A) must have banked on the film having just the right compound of cultural gravitas, derring-do, top-ranking thesps, and expensively recreated period settings to be a blockbusting yet Oscar-winning prestige picture. It's got a literary pedigree, having been drawn from Patrick O'Brian's Napoleonic maritime novels. For extra kudos, it stars triple Oscar nominee Russell Crowe as "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise. And, reforming their Beautiful Mind partnership, Paul Bettany plays his best buddy, the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin. Add some cutlasses, cannonballs and exhaustively researched and realised nautical scenery, and you can appreciate why Empire magazine's coverage of the film has the slogan, "It's Gladiator 2! On Water!"

Peter Weir had other plans. Steering his ship well clear of conventional Hollywood button-pushing, the co-writer/ director doesn't shove in any catchphrases, and he doesn't let the music become sweeping or schmaltzy. He offers almost no historical background to help us engage with the characters, and there are no shots of their home lives in Britain. For that matter, there's very little dry land at all. Apart from a brief nature ramble on the Galapagos Islands, the entire film is set aboard the Surprise. And there are no romantic subplots, even if the violin/ cello duets between Aubrey and Maturin may prompt a few assumptions.

Weir makes some severe, uncompromising choices, then, but doing without a plot seems to me to be one too many. It does have its share of activity - there's a storm, some mutinous mutterings about a Jonah, and the friendly-fire wounding of an officer - but none of these discrete incidents advances the story. The film's central conflict is a squabble over whether the doctor gets to go birdwatching. And for all the talk of Aubrey's tactical genius ("That's seamanship, Mr Pullings! By God, that's seamanship!"), I'm sure he borrowed his ultimate scheme for defeating an enemy ship from Captain Pugwash. Master... is less like a historical epic than a few episodes of a TV series stitched together. It's Star Trek on water.

Earlier this year, Ronald Harwood won an Oscar for scripting The Pianist. Now, in Taking Sides (15), he addresses another collision between a great musician and the Third Reich. Although Dr Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgard) was not a member of the Nazi party, he conducted the Berlin Phil throughout Hitler's dominion, and in 1946 an American major (Harvey Keitel) was assigned to evaluate how culpable that made him. The major's inquiry makes for a film that literally asks substantial questions about the power and political significance of art. But Harwood and Isván Szabó, the director, have failed to broaden the writer's original play into a big-screen production. The action comes down to two men arguing in an office, and the impression that we're watching a stagey chamber piece is exacerbated by the few, clumsy exterior scenes that have been crowbarred in.

Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (15) is Nick Broomfield's follow-up to his 1992 documentary about Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who killed seven men. A decade on, her death warrant was signed by the state governor, a Mr Jeb Bush, who happened to be up for re-election. Broomfield's raw, angry film uncovers her horrific childhood, and makes a convincing case for her being insane. His final interview with her chills the blood.

Steal (15) is a B-movie about a gang of bank robbers led by Stephen Dorff. The rollerblading and driving stunts are impressive, but the restive editing leaves no time for characterisation, and you'd suspect from the performances that there was a bad acting competition going on. If there was, Steven Berkoff must have won it.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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