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The beefcake warrior: Pitt in Troy.

Myth Remaking
By Ann Morrow

Troy
Directed by Wolfgang Peterson

During the excitingly vain-glorious opening of Troy, Wolfgang Peterson’s loose adaptation of the Iliad, Achilles (Brad Pitt) defeats a Thessalian giant with a single sword stroke, delivered from a wing-footed running jump that implies that the Greek champion is indeed a demigod. This is important, since Peterson and screenwriter David Benioff have dispensed with all of Homer’s long-winded gods and goddesses to present a streamlined, battle-laden, sometimes hokey and undeniably rousing epic that substitutes Hollywood glamour for mythos. Pitt’s Achilles is as buff and golden as the statue of Apollo that guards Troy; and though he’s amazing in action, in repose he’s the least convincing character, despite the fact that cinematographer Roger Pratt pays him more slavish attention than a priest at Apollo’s altar.

Pitt’s diction instruction is evident, but not all that necessary: This Achilles is more of an angst-ridden modern antihero than the “savage lion” of Homer. Achilles sulks under his subordinate status to Agamemnon (Brian Cox), the insolent, avaricious King of the Mycenae. Agamemnon is just itching for an excuse to invade Troy, his rival kingdom across the Aegean, and he gets it when Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of his brother, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), runs off with Paris (Orlando Bloom), prince of Troy. That running start in Thessaly comes in handy, hurdling the story over the dud romance. Newcomer Kruger is merely pretty rather than irresistible, with a simpering voice and demeanor that even Bloom in full dewy-eyed ardor can’t ignite. Maybe it’s for the best that their legendary seduction has already occurred; while the brutish Menelaus celebrates his peace treaty with Troy, Helen and Paris reappraise their weeklong affair, with Helen declaring, “Last night was a mistake.” Even so, she sails off to Troy, knowing that Menelaus will follow in enraged pursuit. Since Helen doesn’t seem to be motivated by pride, or even passion, her defection and subsequent whining remain a boring thread in the film’s densely woven narrative.

Yet that narrative, savvily constructed with additional material from the Odyssey and the Aenid, is exhilarating, even lyrical, for the better part of its two hours and 40 minutes. Troy dramatizes the destruction of the noble old city as both a morality tale and a platform for ancient legends to strut their newly burnished stuff. Most noble is Paris’ older brother, Hector (Eric Bana), the greatest warrior alive save Achilles, but one who is tired of endless warfare. Bana is the force behind the film’s most powerful confrontation, between the two pairs of brothers: Hector and Paris and the treacherous Menelaus and Agamemnon (Cox is so unctuously menacing, he breathes fire into lines as lame as “Before me, Greece was nothing”). And Bloom is appealing enough to be sympathetic even when Paris grovels in cowardice.

What the film lacks in classical gravitas, it makes up for in the battle scenes, which are mostly sensational. Achilles deflects an arrow thrown with enough force to spin his shield like a whirligig, Ajax topples a horse and rider with a shove from his massive shoulder, and the swordplay is wincingly convincing. The launch of a thousand ships, seen serenely plowing across the sapphire Aegean, is more than just spectacle: It marks the dawn of large-scale conflict. Unfortunately, Peterson exaggerates Homer’s exaggerations with implausibly large, CGI- bolstered armies. Yet when the Greek foot soldiers march inexorably on the fortress city, accompanied by doom-laden martial music, the effect is close to poetic destiny.

But this is a film at odds with itself even more so than its morally ambivalent combatants. On the one hand, it revels in an alluringly sunbaked, strikingly designed realism, and then mars the effect with clanking modernist flourishes and attitudes: Achilles’ mortal beloved, Patroclus (amateurish Garret Hedland), whose death changes the course of the war, is presented as his cousin to avoid any unseemly loss of machismo. The soundtrack’s evocative, monophonic vocals alternate with distracting, stridently heraldic bombast. Thuddingly inane dialogue from the leads is augmented by moments of touching grandeur from the lesser characters, most notably Peter O’Toole’s Priam, the sage old king of Troy who, in a beautifully written interlude, risks death to retrieve the dishonored body of his son; Rose Byrne’s lovely, feisty Briseis, a spoil of war who tempers Achilles’ hostility; and some vivid minor characters (Greek advisor Nestor, Trojan general Glaucus) played by old pros who show up the young bucks. To the detriment of the plot, a never-better Sean Bean as cagey Odysseus is given short shrift.

But for all its commercialized flaws and weaknesses of character, Troy does get an admirable amount of Homer’s rueful heroics onscreen. The combatants struggle with vanity and pride, knowing full well that their lust for immortality comes at a tragic cost. It’s a struggle worth attending.

Hungarian Rhapsody

Gloomy Sunday
Directed by Rolf Schübel

In Budapest in the late 1930s, there is an elegant little restaurant called Szabo, named for its dedicated owner, Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Król). The hostess, Ilona (Erika Marozsán), is a gorgeous charmer who is good for business. She’s also Laszlo’s free-spirited mistress. The new pianist is András (Stefano Dionisi), lugubrious, talented, and darkly handsome. As does just about every man in the place, András falls in love with Ilona. She fancies him, too, leading to a ménage à trois that strains, but doesn’t embitter, the three-way partnership. András composes a song for Ilona that enchants the patrons with its incomparable sadness. On the evening of its debut, one of the diners is a German traveler, Hans (Ben Becker), an ambitious boor who tries to drown himself in the Danube after failing to impress Ilona.

The restaurant is fictional, but the song, “Gloomy Sunday,” is real, and notorious for being the background music of choice for a rash of suicides. In the German film of the same name, the song, along with a photograph and Laszlo’s signature Magyar roulade, are talismans in a period melodrama of friendship, love, and betrayal. Director Rolf Schübel uses the song’s ability to summon painful emotions as a metaphor for the legacy of Nazism in Hungary. The metaphor is murky at best, yet Schübel’s beautifully evoked construct is moving in the same way as a great torch song.

Gloomy Sunday opens in the present time with an odd prelude: A married couple and their children arrive at Szabo’s for the husband’s 80th birthday. He requests the restaurant’s infamous song, stares at a photo of a beautiful young woman on the piano, and keels over dead. The film then flashes back to the past: Hans takes a picture of Ilona before returning to Germany, Ilona and András become lovers, Laszlo selflessly accommodates them, and András’ composition is recorded and becomes a hit. Three years later, Hans returns. He’s now a bullying Nazi colonel, but even though he knows Laszlo is Jewish, he continues to patronize the restaurant, drawn by Laszlo’s bonhomie, Ilona’s allure, and the “best beef rolls anywhere.” Atrocities are being committed in the street, but inside the restaurant, goodness prevails, served up by the owner’s unflagging refinement.

As the Nazi stranglehold on Hungary tightens, Gloomy Sunday becomes increasingly, well, gloomy. But the lead characters—much like the main ingredients of Laszlo’s beef rolls—complement each other so piquantly that following them to their fates is revealingly sad rather than depressing. Concluding with a dollop of Hitchcock, this bittersweet experience is one to be savored.

—Ann Morrow

In Search of the Lost Father

My Architect
Directed by Nathaniel Kahn

The irony is so meticulous and ghastly, it’s almost proof of divine design—if God has a really mean sense of humor, that is. One of the greatest architects of the 20th century dies in the men’s room of one of the worst buildings of the postwar era, New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Then, because the dead man, Louis I. Kahn, scratched out the address on his passport, his body lies unclaimed in the morgue for a few days. Oh, and, though he may have been a genius, the elderly gent dies with his firm on the verge of bankruptcy.

Filmmaker Nathaniel Khan didn’t know his father, Louis, very well because he was, as they used to say, illegitimate. Louis Kahn’s relationship with Nathaniel’s mom, Harriet Pattison, was carried on, as they also used to say, without benefit of clergy. And in the office, too: Pattison worked at Kahn’s Philadelphia-based architectural firm. Kahn remained married to his first wife, Esther, and had only brief visits with his latest unofficial family. “Latest,” because we also learn that Kahn fathered another out-of-wedlock kid in the early 1950s, a daughter, with another colleague, architect Anne Tyng.

He was a complicated man.

The younger Kahn was only a kid when his father met that ignominious end in 1974. His documentary My Architect is a way of trying to connect with a man he barely knew.

First, he tries Kahn’s colleagues, world-famous fellows like Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei. The cagey old lions aren’t very illuminating. One, because Kahn was hard to know. Two, because they were successful and he was not. Both praise Kahn to they skies as an artist and lament their own compromises, but neither is totally convincing; after all, they’re both rich and lived to ripe old ages, and Kahn didn’t.

Next, he tries Kahn’s family. Some members of the older branches don’t believe he’s really Louis’ son—and don’t think much of Louis’ alleged greatness, either. (There’s nothing like a gruff, hearing-impaired old goat to deflate your hopes; this scene is plenty funny.) He meets with his half-sisters; they have a friendly chat, but don’t bring him any closer to really knowing his father.

The filmmaking is typical post-Ken Burns style, with only minimal camera tricks, portentously titled “chapters” and straightforward narration. It’s unobtrusive, but only occasionally inspiring—with one exception. The film does succeed admirably in its exploration of Kahn’s work.

Not coincidentally, Nathaniel begins to understand Louis through his buildings, too. Sure, there are a few bad structures, but the use of light and space at California’s Salk Institute and the Kimball Art Museum in Texas are truly inspired, and well-presented in the film. The journey ends, appropriately, with Kahn’s greatest achievement, the Capital Complex at Dhaka, Bangladesh. Timeless, monumental but not overpowering, Kahn’s magnum opus captures the spirit of democracy in a way our Greek and Roman temples do not. This deeply personal, even spiritual work brings the director, and audience, closer to Louis Kahn than anything else in the film.

—Shawn Stone


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