Saturday, April 26, 2014



The Las Vegas interlude of American Idyll finished filming yesterday and my cast of young hopefuls is on its way back to Los Angeles for additional training in true diva performance. The water ballet number in the Bellagio fountain went relatively well, although we did have to say good-bye to two more of the girls and their mothers by the end of the show. Little Camille simply could not learn to swim in time, despite her mother's continuous berating and dropping her in the deep end. By the time she had swallowed half the pool, I simply had to intervene and disinvite them from further participation. Besides, the aspiration was totally ruining her voice. I'm told the cough will be gone in a few months. Little Tiffany was the victim of an unfortunate accident. She was slightly out of place when the submarine periscope arose from the waters and Lanie Kazan came whooshing up, colliding smartly with Tiffany's posterior. The resulting impact sent the girl sailing out of the Bellagio, past the Mirage, where she fortunately fell in the Treasure Island lagoon, precluding serious injury. Unfortunately, the pirates were on and she suffered a saber cut to her hamstring which will put her out of dancing commission for some weeks.

We did get some lovely footage of the water ballet, however, and, as a special treat, the remaining six girls also did brief solo spots with Cirque de Soleil. I, of course, was more than happy to put my flying trapeze skills back to work and sailed over their heads in perfect arabesques while singing High Flying, Adored while dressed as Eva Peron. I am, after all, the star and wasn't about to be upstaged. Madame Rose, my publicist, called the moment absolutely brilliant and has suggested a whole new night club act based around famous characters from the American musical theater in circus theme, a sort of Circus of the Star. I think my Mrs. Anna, from The King and I would look simply wonderful being shot out of a cannon.

Before leaving town, I had just enough time to catch a film so I, Normy, and Ms. Hellmann of my law firm, who was in town seeing to the injury waivers for the girls, decided to take in a showing of Troy at the local multiplex. Being a cultured woman of the world, I had read The Iliad and The Aeneid in high school and am somewhat conversant with the source material and thought it would be interesting to see how Hollywood treated this oldest of Western epics and how Brad Pitt would acquit himself in dactylic hexameter.

For those unschooled in classical myth, Troy tells the story of the Trojan war, the classic, legendary conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans which probably took place sometime around 1200 BCE. As the story opens, Agamemnon (Brian Cox), King of Mycenae, is busy uniting the various Greek city states under his rule through naked force and the use of his prodigious warrior, Achilles (Brad Pitt). Meanwhile, his brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), King of Sparta, is entertaining the Trojan Princes Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom). All is going well until Paris decides to elope with Menelaus's lovely wife, Helen (Diane Kruger). Agamemnon seizes upon this insult to honor to launch the fabled thousand ships against Troy, intent on creating Greek hegemony in the Aegean. The Greeks arrive to find Troy impregnable behind her walls under the leadership of old King Priam (Peter O'Toole). Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a captured priestess of Apollo, Briseis (Rose Byrne) leading to dissension in the ranks. It's up to the wily Greek King of Ithaca, Odysseus (Sean Bean), to patch things up and come up with the legendary trick of the Trojan Horse.

The paint by numbers screenplay of David Benioff takes the familiar outlines of the legendary story and proceeds to tweak them to make the themes and results more palatable to mall audiences. Many of the major characters, especially female, of the saga are missing. Hecuba, Cassandra, Iphigenia and Clytemnestra, for instance, are nowhere to be seen. The ten year siege of Troy, which is part of the whole point of the story, showing the futility of war as a means of solving problems, is gone. This version wraps up the entire conflict in under a month. Characters who die in the original, here survive and vice versa. Plot points are telescoped, supposedly to be more cinematic, but the effect becomes one of not trusting the audience to care about the original legend. The gods and goddesses are also conspicuously absent, perhaps because the film makers wished to avoid another Clash of the Titans. Benioff's screenplay, which is full of clunky lines, also has difficulty deciding what it wants to be thematically, moving from a conflict over honor, to one over love, to one over politics and back again with no concern for consistency of tone.

Several of the central performances are somewhat weak. Achilles, in the original legend, is very much a heel. Brad Pitt, in his early scenes plays the jerk quite well and for a while, there is hope that the film makers will be willing to explore an unpleasant character honestly. Unfortunately, as they are selling a film with Brad Pitt at the center, they have to twist Achilles into a hero, even though he doesn't really want to fit. Brad, with his long blond locks and his bronzed buff body, looks lovely in his leather miniskirt and Greek helm. Tom Ford and Donatella Versace would be proud of the drape and flow as leather is so hard to work with. While he looks luscious, and has several peek-a-boo nude scenes, he isn't a strong enough presence to carry the film. The film makers also chastely ignore the homoerotic nature of his relationship with Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund), instead creating an epic love between Achilles and Briseis out of whole cloth. The other central role, that of Hector, also fails. Eric Bana simply doesn't have the screen gravitas and charisma to nail the part. It calls out for Russell Crowe. Orlando Bloom does another variation on empty pretty boy hero, indistinguishable from his part in Pirates of the Caribbean. Diane Kruger, who looks lovely, loses all interest every time she opens her mouth.

All of the interest is generated by the supporting cast, old pros who know how to grab a line or a scene and run with it. Brian Cox is wonderfully vicious as Agamemnon and steals every scene he's in with his thin lips and graying braids. Peter O'Toole brings an elegiac grace to Priam. When he approaches Achilles to reclaim the body of  Hector, your heart melts. Even Sean Bean has fun in his underwritten part, looking for little nuances of character and moment. They've been costumed exquisitely by Bob Ringwood in clothes that look natural and worn and which bring to life all of the figures in Greek vases and mural painting. The sets are also lovely, but smack a little too much of CGI.

Director Wolfgang Petersen has marshaled cast and crew together to create an epic entertainment. Despite a two and three quarter hour running time, the film doesn't drag and the battle scenes are pretty spectacular, if a little overly reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. (The presence of Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom doesn't help this - I half expected a hobbit to pop up out of Apollo's temple at some juncture.) He paces things well, chooses some interesting visuals to get his points across and delivers the Hollywood goods. I have a feeling that he originally had some more interesting intentions but was reined in by suits who wanted to make sure the film played well in Cineplex territory. Film making, like politics, is the art of the possible.

While I can't say that this is the best telling of the tale (and those who want the real story should visit Robert Graves or Edith Hamilton, if not Homer), it could be worse and it's a reasonable introduction to the Greek/Trojan conflict. Besides, if it inspires even one young person to pick up The Iliad or The Odyssey unbidden, it will have been worth it.

Dancing girls. Gratuitous Julie Christie. Stabbed Thessalian giant. Offerings to Apollo. Goodness gracious great balls of fire. Surviving Astynax. Death by spitting. Death by arrow. Death by burning. Death by sword. Chariot dragging. Gratuitous Peek-a-boo Orlando Bloom shot. Aeneas cameo. Fabulous Trojan horse. Absent Lacoon.

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