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Alexander Print E-mail
Wednesday, 24 November 2004
ImageThe first hour or so of “Alexander” is engrossing and beautiful, in much the style you’d want in a big-scale telling of the story of Alexander the Great. He was such an astonishing figure in history that it doesn’t require any exaggeration to make him fabulous: he WAS fabulous. By the time he was 32, he had conquered all of the world known to his contemporaries; he’d gone further East—into India—than any other Greek leader. He had conquered all of what’s now Turkey and the Middle East, defeating even the army of the Persians, which greatly outnumbered his own forces. He never lost a battle. He one of the few historical characters worthy of being called “the Great.”

Historians wrote of him even when he was alive, so we actually know a bit more about him than we do other people of his time, more than 300 years before the birth of Jesus, before the rise of the Roman Empire. Perhaps because his story is so epic, needing to be told on such a vast scale, there’s only one other movie about him, the interesting but clumsy “Alexander the Great” of 1956, written and directed by Robert Rossen and starring Richard Burton (in blonde wig and short toga). This was recently released on DVD, and though not really a success, is worth watching.

Unfortunately, this gigantic new epic about Alexander is not worth watching. It begins very well, and is always gorgeous, but becomes increasingly ponderous and wearisome as it winds its way, all too slowly, to the distant end. (Which, at that, is just a return to the beginning, as the movie opens with the death of Alexander, the rest told mostly in flashbacks.) Oliver Stone directed and cowrote the screenplay with Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis. The movie looks scrupulously authentic, at least in terms of costuming and production design. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is stunning and Vangelis’ score is rich and imaginative. The vast cityscape of Babylon is eye-popping in its grandeur and beauty, one of the most gorgeously recreated ancient cities in movie history.

But the movie itself staggers and finally collapses, and the acting is all over the map. Occasionally, Colin Ferrell, as Alexander, is excellent; his speech to his troops before the decisive battle with the Persian army is stirring, arousing, one of the best such speeches in movie history. You want to grab a spear and join the Greek-Macedonian army. But his speech near the end, as the weary army balks at invading India, is disastrous. Windy yet empty, it’s also nearly impossible to follow—and Stone and Ferrell give us no reason to want to follow it.
In many scenes, Ferrell is dramatic and heroic, the very picture of a youth who really could conquer the world. But in others, his face sinks into a petulant pout, like that of a boy whose balloon has just been popped. It’s hard to imagine how this whining adolescent could lead a thirsty horse to water, much less the vast and successful army Alexander commanded.

Stone is to be congratulated for not shying away from depicting the pan-sexuality of Alexander. It’s nearly impossible for our culture to understand the sexuality of the ancient world, particularly of the Greeks. As Alfred Kinsey points out in another movie of this season, human sexuality isn’t polar, but a broad rainbow with homosexual at one end, heterosexual at the other. To say Alexander was gay is as misleading and false as to say he was straight; the terms would only confuse someone of his culture. Historians say he had sex with men and with women, but that his strongest love was felt for lifelong friend Hephaiston (here Jared Leto, in an excellent performance).

The trouble is that Oliver Stone doesn’t know how to deal with this; he seems to be presenting an Alexander who is gay but who chooses to go after women for political reasons. This is very unlikely to have been the truth, but Stone can’t seem to shake off the sexual shackles of his own culture. It’s not that he is denigrating Alexander or any of the other men in his film for being homosexual, but that he doesn’t understand that that concept—homosexuality—was essentially without meaning then. The term wasn’t even invented until the late 19th century.

Stone’s biggest error is trying to EXPLAIN Alexander, to reveal the drives that led him to conquer increasingly far-away lands. Some of this, Stone is saying, lies in his twisted relationship with his calculating mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie), some with his relationship with his conqueror father Philip (Val Kilmer), and some in THEIR stormy relationship. And some also in his yearning for Hephaiston. When Alexander finally chooses a wife, Roxane (Rosario Dawson), she strongly resembles his mother and is even more sensual. Stone is struggling to solve the mystery of Alexander—how could a man who died so young achieve so much?—but he has very little to go on, and he’s trying to do it in the context of a dramatic movie.

Stone’s best movies have been about outsiders, those who moved against the grain of the culture around them. Alexander didn’t do that; he CREATED the culture around him. Stone’s efforts at telling us Alexander was psychologically tortured are all too gabby, and he’s just not the writer for the job in the first place. The movie has an abundance of clunker lines (and a lot of lines in the heat of battle that are unintelligible), though the worst is the last. Anthony Hopkins, playing an elderly Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals (who’s played by Robert Earley as a youth), is telling all this to a scribe in the great library of Alexandria. (One of a dozen or so cities Alexander founded and named for himself.) At the end, we return to him; as he finishes, he describes his long-dead leader as “the greatest Alexander of them all.” Which instantly reduces Alexander to a joke—out of everyone named Alexander, he was the greatest. Wasn’t Stone aware that the line wasn’t praise but contempt?

He struggles to get a grip on Alexander throughout the movie, faring best when simply showing us what Alexander is doing, instead of editorializing about the meaning of his actions. But as the movie wears on—it’s three minutes short of three hours—the editorializing takes over. Stone tries to make Alexander sound like the first modern man, out for freedom, equality and the Greek equivalent of mom’s apple pie. But as with the question of sexuality, this is imposing modern views on an ancient man. It would have been better to simply show us Alexander and his conquests, not to try to make him seem contemporary.

The scale of the movie is immense, even though some of Alexander’s most famous encounters are omitted. Nobody even mentions the Gordian Knot, and Tyre is cited as just another city Alexander conquered. There’s a great scene in which the young Alexander (Connor Plato) takes the fierce horse Bucephalus; we see the big black stallion throughout, and he has a satisfactorily horrible death scene. In the 1956 “Alexander the Great,” which doesn’t mention Bucephalus, the inadequate budget kept the battle scenes small and unexciting. Stone seems to have had enough money, because the battle scenes—there are really only two—are immense and spectacular. The first, against the Persian army, is actually comprehensible, rare in a movie battle scene on this scale. We don’t understand anyone’s dialog, but we, by gum, SEE what’s going on. The battle at the end, against a bunch of warriors mostly mounted on elephants, is chaotic and frightening. Note to parents: It also includes the cruelest image I’ve seen in many years of moviegoing. It’s a very brief moment, a matter of a couple of seconds, but kids will see it, and will be aghast and hurt: a sword slices off an elephant’s trunk. Sure, it’s CGI—no elephants were harmed in the making of this motion picture, I presume—but it’s literally nightmarish, and should not be seen by children who love animals.

The opening credits, in wavering blue, are beautiful; there’s also a scene of an emblematic eagle soaring over the Macedonian and Persian armies that’s exciting and almost sensual. (The eagle is around because Alexander, who likes to identify himself with legendary figures, feels he’s another Prometheus, who brought fire to mankind and was punished for it by an eagle ripping out his liver—every day.) The score works with the big elephant battle in an unusual manner: at one point it hits a single chord and sustains it for several long beats. The score throughout is outstanding.

The acting isn’t. Colin Ferrell was excellent in “Minority Report,” “Phone Booth” and “Daredevil,” in which he was the gleefully murderous Bullseye. In the first half of “Alexander,” he’s terrific, even better than Burton was in the old movie, but in the second half, Alexander falls apart and so does Ferrell’s performance. For reasons undecipherable to me, Stone has cast British actors as the Greeks; this works okay until the introduction of warrior Crateros (Rory McCann), who looks and sounds exactly like a young Sean Connery. I’ll buy Englishmen and Irishmen in Alexander’s army, but not such an obvious Scot; he drew laughter from a preview audience.

They seemed constantly on the verge of laughing at Angelina Jolie as Olympias (she’s only a year older than Farrell). It’s not the actress’ fault, but the director’s: he’s required her to slink around like one of her beloved snakes, leering lustily at her own son, and speaking in an accent that makes her sound like a cross between Chico Marx and Bela Lugosi. Val Kilmer’s Philip is one-eyed, which is evidently historically accurate, and there was room for a good performance here; Kilmer’s best scene is when he takes young Alexander into the catacombs and shows him ancient paintings. (Why are they there?) But much of the rest of the time, he bellows and thunders his hammy way through scene after scene.

“Alexander” begins lightly but becomes painfully ponderous; the movie drags on and on and on, until you’re as bone-weary as his exhausted soldiers. There were rival Alexander projects, this one and Baz Luhrmann’s, to have starred Leonard di Caprio. Stone got his in gear first, which may be a pity; it’s not going to do well at the boxoffice, and will most likely prevent the other film from being made. It’s impossible and unwise to guess as to how good that version might have been, but this one is a real misfire.

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