Saturday, November 27, 2010

Alexander Revisited

I'll try not to make this super-long.  Just some general thoughts.

Alexander Revisited is the "Final Cut" of Oliver Stone's 2004 (somewhat) controversial epic on The Great conquerer starring Colin Farrell in the titular role.  I saw it when it came out and bombed in the US market (overall it made money worldwide however), and these were my thoughts back then.  It was a very mixed reaction at the time, a film that had a lot going for it with its epic scope and (mostly) interesting cast of new and regulars to a Stone picture.  Its faults were in some part structural, and just in a reaction to what was at the time negative.  I didn't join the wagon of people who trashed the movie outright altogether, and certainly didn't go with those who claimed it was "gay".  Clearly, it isn't.  Indeed there is a distinct moment in the movie that sets it apart as not.  But I'll get to that in a moment.

So, six years go by, and in that time Stone puts out a slightly shorter director's cut, and a "Final Cut" that is about a half an hour longer than the theatrical one.  I didn't pay attention to either, given that it was to my opinion from years gone by that it was a mediocre attempt at epic filmmaking... but then a friend mentioned a few times that among the few big-sprawling sword-n-sandal epics from the period it came out in (Troy, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) this was his favorite and that he had only seen the Final Cut(!)  How can this be?  Open my eyes, maybe I'd see.  So I finally buckled down and, thankfully, in the midst of a minor Oliver Stone resurgence of interest I've had in the past several weeks while reading James Riordan's biography from the 90's and seeing a couple of his movies again (chiefly JFK, which I did a paper on for a grad school class).

The Final Cut turns out to be... better than the original theatrical version, to the best that I could recall after six years.  It's surprising how much of Stone's film did stick with me, in some part for what I found irksome about it (what was, at the time, an overlong opening pontification by Anthony Hopkins' Old Ptolomy, who becomes the film's narrator, plus over-symbolism with that weird eagle, and with a couple of the performances), and what did work became enhanced this time.  The film's epic scope is enhanced with its Final Cut status, as it's got an intermission (official pee break!) and some of the scenes have been extended and a key battle sequence has been put closer to the start of the story (the one in the desert, blanking on the name, where the Macedonians fight the Persians and win even as they're outnumbered 5 to 1, baby one in five).

That especially, the change of the battle nearer to the beginning, gives the narrative a little more clear of a focus.  Stone's trajectory is telling one linear story and then a flashback story that in its own way is linear to how its juxtaposed with the other, so that when it comes time for the "back in the day" segments to come to its close, it wraps back around to the start of the main plotline.  We see Alexander's basic rise to power, after the untimely murder of his father, Philip, and how Alexander's ambition was built up over time by a life-long egging-on of his greatness by his calculating snake-goddess mother Olympia and by a sorta challenge from his mentor, Aristotle (Christopher Plummer, given all of one very good scene in).  He wants to conquer the world, pure and simple, or at least to the edge of the ocean that was taught in Aristotle's class that once one could reach then one could wrap back around the ocean and up the nile and back to Macedonia.  Fool-proof!

I think what struck me as clearer, and more interesting, this time around was Stone's handling of Alexander as a conflicted hero, and his status was already controversial in his own time.  His army is respectful and loves him- at least most do, some defect and as the years and battles go on he faces more in-house enemies- but finds a little more than odd that he takes a 'barbarian' wife (Rosario Dawson) without perhaps giving thought that it might have a little more to do with who his mother was (a not-quite Macedonian herself, similar accents they have btw).  He also doesn't want to make all slaves of the people he conquers, but has it in mind to want to bring peoples together, to unite Europe and Asia, and build bigger and bigger armies and state-holds because of it.  He has an Obama-like "Yes We Can!(TM)" attitude towards things, even in the face of the biggest odds like, say, fighting an Indian army made up mostly of large fucking elephants.

It's an interesting movie, as Stone has done over time, politically, and it's good to be able to see, perhaps now in retrospect of the past three theatrically released fiction films he's made (WTC, W, Wall Street 2) something he really is passionate about.  So the handling of the character and the status of mythology and what one places as heroism is really all about.  And so I actually gravitated more to Farrell this time with his acting; most startling was to see him do better than originally in heavy dramatic scenes or ones that have a lot of emotional heft.  He only really suffers when in really trying scenes with other actors who don't always make the cut that he's at.  But on that in a moment...

Also, the battles are very well staged and shot and edited.  Maybe this, too, is in a retrospect observation, or in thinking back to how Ridley Scott's battle scenes, while competent and with their own manic energy, are too choppy in comparison.  Stone loves himself some gore to be sure- in this "unrated" cut there are enough dismemberments and blood to make both battle scenes as gory as that in Kill Bill Vol. 1- but I could always tell what the action was going on (save for the still unnecessary red-tint that goes on in the big Indian battle), and, perhaps more-so on a widescreen TV than in a theater, it felt riveting and sharp and kind of exciting in that classical-blockbuster way.  Oh, and for those wondering about the 'Gay' thing, the most graphic sex scene in the running time involves a very hot and dangerously-passionate charged sex scene between Farrell and a very naked Rosario Dawson (scroll down, PARENTAL ADVISORY, for the video for proof you wankers).

So, what still doesn't work? Well, a few things.  For one, the aforementioned performances that don't work: Jared Leto and Angelina Jolie.  It's not that you don't see them trying, to be sure they're in an Oliver Stone movie and at the least every actor (even the bad turns by good actors, looking at YOU Darryl Hannah in Wall Street and Nicolas Cage in WTC) gives it their all.  But Jolie is just so over the top in her wicked-but-loving mother thing that it goes into camp mode - that she doesn't know she's doing camp is one of the big problems though.  And Leto... well, the eyeliner doesn't help, and yet it's really more of a general tone problem, being the character who has to exchange the forlorn looks of love (though it's *brotherly* love, not so much the homosexual kind - Alexander leaves that to his stable-boy or whoever, who is even WORSE of an actor), and without the intensity he can bring to parts like Requiem for a Dream or Panic Room.  He's relegated here to a thankless supporting role.

Val Kilmer does better in a role where he can play it BIG and does like he did in The Doors, and has fun with it.  Anthony Hopkins is fun too, though perhaps in such a droll way as to be like the grandfather who doesn't know he's rambling on.  But really, it's Farrell's show, and somehow in this Final Cut he's able to hold up the show better than I remembered he did.  Again, this is in large part to the story being better told and some clearer things.  But the other flaw that I should mention, one that has greater or lessor debilitation on the movie depending on the scene, is symbolism.  Oh Oli loves his symbols and BIG moments where things just get ridiculous.  One might recall Willem Dafoe holding up his arms in the "Jesus" pose as he's shot in Platoon.  Subtle.  Actually it *is* subtle when compared to the image (one may have seen in the trailer) where Alexander charges one of the Elephant fighters, and there is a massive two-shot of the Horse and the Elephant facing each other in upright poses.  That had me laughing for a good five minutes.  And then there's the Eagle.... yeah, just remember the Indian from The Doors, that too is relatively calm as a motif by comparison.

But, in closing (guess this is longer than "some general thoughts"), Alexander Revisited's virtues mostly outweigh its faults.  Its director is in love with this material and it shows, and has a passion for the spectacle and wide vistas of locations and bloody stretches of battles.  There's even some ironic symbolism to be had with the shots of many, many spears the soldiers have wagging in the wind above their heads (or as part of George Carlin's Bigger-Dick-Foreign-Policy-Theory at work).  And it entertains with some smart writing and some sometimes enjoyable rousing-type drama.  It's an old-school 50's historical epic given some extra 21st century varnishing, and the effort is appreciated.

and now...

(flash ahead to 5:15 in)

no good? Ok, here ya go:

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