Seen at the Movies:

Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is a throwback to the sword-and-sandal genre of yesteryear, which has its pluses and minuses. The physical production granted to this loose reworking of the events described in Homer’s The Iliad is immense and impressive (to the tune of about $200 million). While the gods play a minor, offstage role in Petersen and screenwriter David Benioff’s version of the fabled Greek-Trojan War of 1,200 B.C., the scale of the sets, the battles, and the armies of extras both real and digital, on locations in Malta and Mexico, seems engineered by Zeus himself. Which doesn’t mean the film is in poor visual taste. Production designer Nigel Phelps, working from scant research on the era and the fabled city, comes up with a splendid and suitably strange amalgam of Greek, Egyptian, and Eastern influences, and his artfully ramshackle Trojan Horse is both beautiful and persuasive. Bob Ringwood’s costume design, with gritty earth tones for the rough-and-tumble Greeks and shades of blue for the seaside-dwelling Trojans, also calls on many sources, but old Hollywood seems to be pretty far down the list of references. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are cleanly shot and edited, and often thrilling—DP Roger Pratt gives the film a sense of dusty, deglamorized grandeur. The digital work of Framestore CFC and other visual effects houses is only distractingly apparent in the wide shots of the Greek fleet. On the debit side, James Horner’s score, complete with a wailing "ethnic" vocalist, is relentless in its aggressive banality.

Troy Photo: Warner Bros.

There are some wonderful actors on hand, including Peter O’Toole as a frail, benighted Priam, and Brian Cox, who is in delightful rip-roaring mode as Agamemnon. As noble Hector, Eric Bana has the impact he failed to register in The Hulk. On the other hand, Diane Kruger’s Helen is comely enough but doesn’t exactly fit the admittedly tall order of providing a face to launch a thousand ships, and her carrying on with Paris (Orlando Bloom, whose prettiness might better suit him to the role of Helen) comes across as more puppy love than grand passion. As for highly fetishized star Brad Pitt, who plays godlike warrior Achilles in surly, 3,000-year-old rock idol mode: When is the guy going to get locution lessons? The River Styx comes out sound something like "Shtish." And what about his hairstyle, which seems borrowed from Charlize Theron’s blown-back bleach job in Monster? If Achilles’ fatal flaw is his heel, then the movie’s is this Achilles. The role may be impossible to cast, but repeatedly showing off Pitt’s well oiled and tanned butt is not enough to convince anyone but a few gullible teenage girls and gay men that he’s a heroic movie star.

Brazilian director Hector Babenco burst upon the international scene more than 20 years ago with Pixote, a shocking tale of Rio de Janeiro street kids. With Carandiru, he returns to the subject of his country’s often horrific social dysfunction. The title location was a notorious Sao Paulo prison complex where accused criminals were sometimes kept indefinitely awaiting trial, and where more than 100 inmates were massacred during a riot. Babenco tries hard to work up a head of outraged steam in the viewer, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it: the movie is remote, awkwardly staged, and more numbing than incendiary in its depiction of violence and squalor. Art director Clovis Bueno’s recreations of Carandiru’s walls—filthy though colorfully painted by the inmates--in the studio and in the decommissioned prison itself are impressive, and DP Walter Carvalho ably channels Goya and other noted chroniclers of misery in his cinematography.

Carandiru Photo: Marlene Bergamo/Sony Pictures Classics.

Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes is an odd duck of a movie, comprising a series of encounters (some new and some filmed as far back as the 1980s) between hip celebrity figures like Bill Murray, Meg and Jack White, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, and Tom Waits over the substances of the title. Some segments are better than others—Cate Blanchett has a small triumph playing a two way conversation between her posh movie-star self and her resentful downscale cousin—but all are throwaways. The handsome black and white images are provided by Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, Robby Muller, and Tom DiCillo.—John Calhoun

Seen On The Lower East Side: This performance was so far off Broadway it was performed in a parking garage on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Noir, is an interesting one-hour site-specific dance piece by French-Canadian choreographer Noémie Lafrance (who also directed and designed the costumes) evokes a drive-in movie for a 1930s style film noir, thus the title. Presented by Danspace Project’s Out of Space/SITE Series and Sens, as part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Noir features a company of ten dancers who perform primarily in the center area of level four of the garage, with the audience sitting four to a car, with the cars (from a 60s Cadillac to a new Mini Cooper and a bright red pickup truck with a double cab) backed into the parking spaces. The action begins in semi-darkness, with shadowy lighting created by Thomas Dunn, and an ominous soundtrack by Langdon Crawford with the kind of film music that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up then a segue to dance music. The dancers did quite a bit of running around, their movement very furtive, as if they were running from something or someone was following them.

Dancing in a garage on the Lower East Side...

The costumes were quite good with the men in trench coats and fedoras, suits, shirt sleeves, and finally tuxedos, and the women in suits, black cocktail dresses, and white jackets with skirts that billowed beautifully with their dance movements. The props were straight out of a Hollywood prop closet with briefcases, cigars, cigarettes and cigarette lighters, guns, a beaded bag, a dead body, a bicycle, and a cocktail glass. The set design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella was minimal yet included several Venetian blinds that were lowered at one point and the dancers peer out as if from behind a darkened window. The lighting included small lights inside and under some of the cars as well as fixtures hung at each end of the garage floor. Only in a perky ballroom number, with a faux beaded chandelier (made of plastic parts), is the lighting anywhere near what you would call bright. Eventually a few of the dancers get into one of the cars and drive off into the night, putting an end to this parking lot tango.—Ellen Lampert-Gréaux