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Monday, August 22, 2005

DVD Review: Alexander, Director's Cut

It's kind of funny how popular entertainment works. All I remember hearing about Oliver Stone's "Alexander" is that it was a horribly acted, poorly constructed shambles of a movie. I can't say these sentiments made me stay away from the theater, because it doesn't take me much to stay away - my home theater is better than 50% of the movie theaters out there. Scanning the torrent of vituperative scorn heaped upon this film will give you an idea of the climate at the time of its release. Needless to say, I was dubious. Any movie that scores lower than Dukes of Hazzard must be an abomination, right?

However, I am a Stone fan, and was inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt. I loved JFK, Nixon and Natural Born Killers, and enjoyed Any Given Sunday and The Doors. I think Stone is the type of director who naturally inspires these sorts of reviews - almost every film of his tops out at over 3 hours, which nets the "bloated" tag from jaded reviewers, and his stories are often extremely ambitions, which often nets the "convoluted" moniker. But for the most part, these knocks aren't valid, or they don't really describe the essence of Stone's best. At his best, Stone excels at getting truly absorbing character portraits up on the screen, and setting them against an expansive backdrop which captures the essence of the period.

Alexander, starring Collin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Jared Leto and Christopher Plummer, both succeeds and fails in these categories. Some of the characters are endlessly fascinating, some are rather threadbare. Certain aspects of the period are wonderfully represented, and some are sort of left up to the viewer to fill in the blanks. Some performances are pitch perfect, others, while enjoyable, are painfully weird and outof place. All said, Alexander is probably Stone's weakest film.

So why did I enjoy it so much?

Looking at the above-listed stars, it's easy to see that Stone has assembled a particularly good ensemble cast. The weakest of the bunch are Farrell and Jolie. However, each actor does an admirable job of creating a character, Farrell and Jolie included. If anything, Jolie's performance is hampered only by her youth (she is only one year Farrell's senior, yet plays his mother), and her wretched accent (somewhere between Eartha Kitt and Austin Powers' Frau Farbissina). Farrell's performance is just a bit shallow - he looks somewhat heroic and manly, but doesn't do much beyond that. He knots his brow and emotes, but doesn't make us empathize.

The rest of the cast, however, inclduing the lesser-known supporting players in Alexander's army, are uniformly terrific. Particularly good are Plummer as Aristotle, Kilmer as a drunken King Philip, Hopkins as an aged Ptolemy, and Jared Leto as Alexander's male lover, Hephaistion. Rosario Dawson plays Alexander's asian bride Roxane, though beyond her pendulous naked breasts and dancing ability, I can't say I got much out of it (Dawson really shines in 2005's Sin City, though). To me, though, the performance that makes the movie what it is is by Connor Paolo, as a young Alexander. This 14 year-old actor absolutely nails the protrayal of a young, idealistic prince with adolescent dreams of grandeur. This portrayal really lends a depth to the later plot, acted by Farrell, which Farrell himself really doesn't provide.

But any Stone movie review eventually comes down to Stone himself. How well did he construct the story, and how well did he execute it and edit it together?

My main gripe with the story of Alexander is its naivete. I really have to wonder how historically accurate it is to portray Alexander as an idealistic dreamer who longed to unite the world in a Pax Romana-esque explosion of culture and personal improvement. Certainly, all of these things may have been present in the man, and they may have been ancillary effects of his conquest, but it is pretty tough to swallow as Farrell dreamily describes his vision of a great society to his male lover Leto. The story functions much better when Alexander is instead portrayed as a conqueror impelled by his family demons to push across the globe for something he knows not what.

The film is truly wondrous at times in its evocation of ancient times and places - Babylon is a singular cinematic achievement - utilizing CGI nearly seamlessly to truly give them impression of a "wonder of the world." Similarly teriffic cinematography and compisition are achieved in portrayals of India, Egypt and the steppes of the Himalayas.

On the other hand, the film truly fails to portray Macedonia, Greece, and any of the Alexandria cities. The Alexandrias in particular are a notable absence - they are referenced numerous times in expository dialogue, but never seen. This is a huge mistake in my book, as they would have communicated a sense of what Alexander's conquests actually achieved in a socio-historical sense. Instead, we are stuck with a travelogue (enjoyable though it may be) of Alexander's adventures with his army, and no context to ground it in. As far as Macedonia and Greece, these scenes are limited to a palace interior, a few columns by which Aristotle teaches young nobles, a wrestling pit, and a performance arena. And while they are all well done sets (I particularly appreciated the use of "illuminated" wooden sculpture, a very accurate portrayal of the times), they do little to communicate the scope of the Hellenistic world from which the principal actors sprang. It seems as if Stone's powerful cinematic vision is reserved more for the sweeping vistas of Asia - regrettable in terms of context, though as I said, still enjoyable to watch.

I for one really liked the way the so-called "gay" element of the movie was handled - watching Alexander provides one of the better explications of the homosexual "lover-beloved" relationships that were present in Hellenistic noble circles. Again, this concept was grounded by scenes of the young Alexander and Hephaiston being taught by Aristotle about the idealistic virtues of manly love - scenes which brought into sharp focus what could have seemed gratuitous homoerotic later scenes between Leto, Farrell, and a few others.

A technical note on the DVD - I rented the "Director's Cut," which was presented on one disc. I noticed some compression artifacts and edge enhancement which really detracted from an otherwise spectacular pallate. I have read that the theatrical cut is spread over two discs, and is 15 minutes or so longer. Apparently, Stone cut the flashbacks in a different order for the Director's cut. I look forward to renting the theatrical cut and comparing them in terms of quality and effectiveness.

Alexander is an enigmatic movie. It fails at so much, but only because it tried for so much. I was completely absorbed and never bored once during the 3 hours plus running time. I felt transported to the world it created, and my emotions were stirred in a simplistic way by the scenes of glory and adventure on the screen. This might be the best way to describe it - a fourteen year-old might think this was the greatest movie ever. It functions the way the best comic books or video games might - putting forward a simple story of heroism and adventure with tremendous elan and gusto.

Ptolemy (played by Hopkins) utters a line which might serve as the movie's epitaph: "His failures were grander than others' successes." So true of Stone. He wears his ambition on his sleeve, is rarely if ever subtle, and draws a lot of critical fire for this. Yet the explosion of creativity which results, whether it succeeds or fails, is never boring. I recommend Alexander for this reason alone. 7 of 10.

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