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...Which brought ten thousand pains to the Achaeans"

And if you substitute "the audience" for "the Achaeans", well then. TROY. Wow. I cannot remember another movie I have seen that lost its audience so quickly and so thoroughly.

To be honest, I went to the movie with few expectations. I knew it wasn't faithful, I read some reviews of what changes to expect, so I was braced for that and didn't have the big "WTF???" reaction that someone familiar with the story and who cares about it might have had at certain points. I was totally up front about it: I was excited to see it because of Sean Bean playing Odysseus. First, because amongst all the asshole characters of The Iliad, the only one that has ever interested me is Odysseus (glad to see the rest killed, frankly; except maybe Hector). And second, because Sean Bean works for me in much the same way that Brad Pitt works for many people, such as that_cad and my_tallest, and I was simply overjoyed to see him, [a] in skimpy Greek tunics, and [b] NOT DYING AT THE END. (I refuse to treat that as a spoiler, either.)

So we (the group also included telepresence) had dinner at the estimable Jacob Wirth Restaurant, for which suggestion I am still grateful to Brant, because I have been meaning to get there for years, but I always forget about it, and I'm not downtown that often, and I had not really placed it on my mental map of Boston quite as close to the Common as it is. The reason I've wanted to go there for years is: it's the oldest operating restaurant in Boston, and, it's a brauhaus. And I loves me my draught dunkelweissbier and big plates of wurst and sauerkraut. Mmmm! (Nice decor, too, although, fewer animal heads than you would expect for a place that's essentially trying to be Bavarian.)

So in a happily-stuffed and tipsy frame of mind, we made our way back to the theatre. We'd already figured out that being sloshed might be a good way to see this movie. Not sloshed enough, I can tell you that.

The opening bit wasn't too bad, with Agamemnon taking his army to conquer Thessaly. This bit introduced Achilles, and pretty much summed up his attitude and his prowess. I kind of liked the mild, almost avuncular way that Brian Cox chose to play Agamemnon in the earlier scenes -- I thought it was effective. As I discussed with Len later, I also didn't mind Brad Pitt as Achilles -- given the script he had to work with, and the movie's attempt to make him the hero, he worked for me.

The first inklings of WTF? came during the next scenes, set obviously while Hector and Paris are visiting the Spartans so that Paris can make off with Helen. The...lush, rich, luxurious, fun-loving, bellydancer-deploying...Spartans.

Say, what's a word in the English language that means the opposite of "luxurious"? Would that word be, "spartan"? Do you suppose that's because we took it from a people whose ascetic lifestyle became axiomatic? NEVERMIND! Onward! Onward!

Later, Len and I agreed that a big early moment for you to lose the audience comes during the scene where Hector, against all common sense (and sense of preservation, and loyalty to his father's wishes, etc.), doesn't turn that ship right the heck around, and take Helen back before it's too late. And to be honest, there was nothing in that scene that really explained to *me* why he doesn't. It's already clear that Paris is a self-centered nitwit (poor, poor Orlando Bloom; the most thankless role in the film). And they didn't make as much out of Helen-as-victim as I expected them to (i.e. deploy the old "we're really saving her from her tyrant of a husband, plus it's already too late and if we try to return her now, he will kill her, plus he'll still be mad at us" argument). I felt that they sort of gestured to it, especially with Paris saying he'd go back with her. (Hint, Hector: tie the idiot to the mast, and then gag him, until you get home.)

Also felt that Helen was just way too passive. Helen is also a thankless role; it's difficult to tell this story and have her be all that sympathetic, especially once the killing starts and you begin to wonder if it would *really* have been that terrible for her to stay with Menelaus (hilariously pronounced "menny-LOUSE") -- especially when he was kind of old, and given the times they were living in, it's entirely possible that she would have been nicely widowed sometime in the near future. Yes, she got dramatic pronouncements about how every day she was married to him, she wanted to walk into the sea and drown, but the movie just didn't do enough to show why being married to Menelaus was so awful. Later, you got a sense of him as possibly a bully with violence simmering below the surface. But no more good motivation for being so desperate to leave him. Yes, fine, she didn't marry him for love, as Andromache clearly did with Hector, but you have to figure that Hector's relationship with Andromache was pretty unusual.

Basically, I really feel that Helen is the crux of the story. It's not just enough for her to be a beautiful prize, so that you can believe that she's a face that could launch a thousand ships. I think you also have to believe that it's so important for her to be free of Menelaus that the stand that she and Paris take is worthy of what comes after. Well, no, it's never worthy, and that's at the root of the tragedy of the story, but I wanted to understand more about how smart and honorable men like Hector and Priam could put the indulgence of Paris ahead of the welfare and lives of their people. I got to a certain point in the movie where the appearence of Helen on-screen made me think, yes, why *are* all these people dying for you? Not only had Paris been shown to be a coward (in his fight with Menelaus), but there was something basically cowardly and unqueenly about Helen leaving Sparta in the first place, and consigning kingdoms to war because of it.

But then, the movie tries to make clear that the theft of Helen was a mere excuse for the wily Agamemnon. I don't really have a problem with that. In theory, even back on the ship was too late for Hector to turn back and make things right. The war was never about Helen, so why blame her, or Paris? (Because when you live in the tinderbox that is the Hellenic Aegean, it's really, really irresponsible to give a potential enemy motivation on a platter.)

I have to agree with others who've said that, apart from the basic challenges of the story, the movie did itself few favors. Its pace was plodding at times, and for an action flick, it didn't have nearly enough spectacular action. The people were pretty, but the script was fairly atrocious. So I'm going to come down on the side of saying that TROY fails because of its script and its director.

Obviously, I couldn't help but compare this film to two others: Gladiator, which everyone mentions because it's another sword-and-sandal epic, and The Lord of the Rings, which serves as an example of a recent epic with a tendency towards fairly self-important pronouncements, and big battles.

What struck me about TROY, in contrast, was that it never achieved the energy that the other two had, and that it seemed not to have faith or conviction in its material, which I put down to the director. Much has been made of Peter Jackson's labor of love, but what he made was a film that tended to sweep its audience up into it. TROY failed to sweep. And not just with me -- it failed to sweep an entire sell-out audience (fairly well-mixed between men and women), which tended to laugh at the high-points pretty much all the way through. The only genuine moment of emotional rapport between the audience and the movie that I witnessed last night was the moment with Briseis killed Agamemnon (for followers of the story's actual tradition, another big WTF?, but I have to agree that it made more dramatic sense and was more dramatically satisfying, in a movie that contained no Cassandra and no Clytemnestra anyway). The audience actually, spontaneously, cheered at that moment. But that was it. Otherwise, it was laughing any time Paris opened his mouth, and laughing during the "tense dramatic moments" when Achilles is calling for Hector before the gate of Troy.

It did keep quiet during Priam's visit to Achilles' tent to beg for Hector's body to be returned -- complete props to Peter O'Toole, both for that scene and his performance in general. He was there to be the Obligatory Old British Actor of Stature Who's Slumming, but, he gave it his all, and aquitted himself with dignity.

I liked Eric Bana's Hector well enough. I liked Brian Cox's take on Agamemnon, in the earlier scenes, before he started doing his "8.9 on the Brian Blessed Scale" of ranting and showing all his teeth and chewing the scenery. Brad Pitt's Achilles was fine, for what he was. I liked Rose Byrne as Briseis, who became the big Conflicted Love Interest for Achilles (underscoring the decision of the film to insist, "We're straight, we're straight, WE'RE ALL EXTREMELY HETEROSEXUAL, yup" -- which was to be expected, but it still felt cowardly to me).

And as for what I came for? Yes, Sean Bean was pretty much everything I wanted to see him be as Odysseus, the only intelligent man in the story, poor guy. I loved what he did with his opening scene, in which he convinces Achilles to come to the war. I loved the way they defined him as, not a supporter of Agamemnon, not a loyal follower, but the king of a very small kingdom who cannot afford defiance. I loved the way he caught Achilles' eye and snickered at the spectacle of Agamemnon receiving the praise for a victory led by Achilles that Agamemnon hadn't even fought in. I loved that he was willing to be reasonable and compassionate. (There was a big laugh at the bit right after Patroclus is killed, in which Odysseus and Hector basically say to each other, "I think we should knock it off for the rest of the day", "Yeah, I think you're right".) It was still startling to see him be alive at the end, but gratifying. (And yeah, I thought he looked great, too.)

Of course, the end voice-over was a bit silly. "If anyone ever writes my story..." is just one of those eye-rolling deliberate ironies that has all the subtlety of an anvil, and I found it to be a further irony that he was again going on about how the names of those who died would be remembered forever. And all I could think was, yeah, we do still know all the names. But only one of them became so famous that it is in common use today in our language as a noun. Agamemnon is not a household name, frankly; Ajax is an American brand of kitchen-cleaner; but the concept of an odyssey is familiar to everyone. We sort of remember the tragic bravery of Hector, certainly we remember the beauty of Helen, and what that beauty could motivate. Achilles is now more famous, I would say, for his fatal weakness, than for his invincibility. But right now people are bitching about a computer-virus that's called a Trojan because of an idea ascribed to Odysseus by Virgil's Aeneid, and he, of course, is the one who survived to go on to the sequel.

Finally, I did like a couple of the cinematic choices made in the movie. The sequence of the night attack by the Trojans on the Greek ships was, I thought, gorgeous -- the shot of the endless sparks of fire-arrows flying across the black sky. That was one of those scenes that I love in the movies -- the art of the movies being used to create such a vivid image of something that I cannot otherwise see (or certainly hope never to see).

I also really liked the decision to keep the Greek camp down on the beach, beside the ships, right up against the breakers of the ocean. It made the sea and the breaking waves an intimate part of a number of the scenes, and as I watched, I thought of it as something truly unusual and interesting. It had to have been a bitch, for the sound people if nothing else, to make sure that the mics would pick up the actors without the surf drowning them out. I thought it was a bold decision, that really worked. The conventional approach would have left the ships pulled up on the beach but then put the Greek camp up on the plateau above the dunes, where shots could still have had the ocean in the background, but where it would not have intruded so forcefully on the scenes. So, chalk that up as something that I thought was effective that I outright admired about the film.

As a movie-going experience, I didn't hate it. I didn't think it was a good film, but it had things in it that I liked.

And, it was even kind of fun to bitch about afterwards, which I am willing to consider a good part of the entertainment that I got out of the experience.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 15th, 2004 11:05 am (UTC)
I think you should set up a website for movie reviews. Of course, then you'd probably have to watch more movies.
May. 15th, 2004 11:52 am (UTC)
I was totally turned off from this film because it has Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom in it. o_O I have this bias about "name" actors in films, because I can't ever forget THAT'S BRAD PITT. I can never immerse myself in the story. LotR was great because I had no idea who most of the actors were (I had never heard of Orlando Bloom before then). But if I were to see Troy, I'd keep thinking BRAD PITT and ORLANDO BLOOM and it would just never work for me.

I'd really like to see a Troy done with real Greeks.
May. 16th, 2004 08:03 am (UTC)
I think Pitt did okay, considering I think he was fundamentally miscast and the script calls for Achilles to be..something Achilles wasn't.

It's not so much that I can't get past Brad Pitt's sheer Brad Pitness. It's that Brad Pitt is one of those actors who inescapably strikes me as a modern person. In his appearance, his body language, his speech, he's just a modern man.

I feel this way about a variety of actors who I like for one reason or another (and I like Pitt fine). Don't stick them on period dramas, you might as well have them check their digital watches on screen.
May. 18th, 2004 02:34 pm (UTC)
Okay... I read it. Damit... I did want to see Troy. Guess I'll have to wait till video.
May. 19th, 2004 02:20 pm (UTC)
Seeing it on video is not a bad idea, just because, then you can feel free to make all the snarky comments you want as loud as you want.

Of course, if you go to see it in the theatre, you can always thrill to that joing movie-going experience of listening to everybody else laugh at the movie too.

I'm sure when it comes out on DVD I will want to see it, maybe even own it if I can find a cheap copy, just for the Sean Bean bits. I'd watch it with you.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )