Saturday, March 17, 2012

Alexander (2004) - Disappointing Biopic of Alexander the Great

Alexander film poster
"Alexander" (2004).

Director Oliver Stone has made a career out of controversial films.  "Kennedy" implied that there was a dark conspiracy behind the President's murder and so on. "Alexander" (2004) is not one of his controversial projects.

Alexander battle scene
Lots of spears in "Alexander." A whole lot of spears.

It's difficult, however to stir up much controversy over someone who's been dead for 2000 years and lived about as heroically as possible. Stone makes a few feeble feints in that direction, but gets nowhere. Apparently, in the Stone universe, Alexander the Great was an emotionally unstable child who lucked into all his victories and ultimately over-reached because he had daddy issues. god forbid that some legendary figure from the past actually was heroic and manly! Much better to pull him down and paint a portrait of a petulant overgrown child.

Alexander Rosario Dawson
"Alexander" is lagging, so throw in a pretty face!

That falls into line with the modern view that men are never as competent or heroic as they seem.  Instead, they necessarily are weak and needy behind the scenes.  That sells better, people prefer dirt on their celebrities and to pull them down to their own level.  It makes the losers buying tickets feel better about themselves.  It's a cynical ploy, because the "he was great" thing has been done, right?  And besides, women in the audience prefer to see weak men. Well, whatever, but I don't think anyone much cares either way these days.

Alexander elephant battle scene
Going up against elephants turns out to be a bad idea in "Alexander." For what it's worth, these are probably the best battle scenes involving elephants in film history.

I went into this movie with fairly high hopes. I was favorably impressed by "Troy" and was in the mood for another historical epic. In some ways, this was an interesting movie, but overall, it was a major disappointment. At best, we get some overheated and obviously dramatized visuals such as the one above.  Once the film turns toward actual human relationships, though, it falters badly.

Alexander Oliver Stone Colin Farrell
Director Oliver Stone, making a point. Do this to the real Alexander and get your hand hacked off.

While Colin Farrell clearly put some effort into the title role, pretty much everything else about the movie is a let-down. The prime problem is the screenplay, which is disjointed and lacks coherency in places. At times, the movie tries to be a quasi-documentary a la "The Longest Day" with title cards during battle scenes announcing "Macedonian Left Flank" and "Persian Center" and nonsense like that, but more often it degenerates into a tale of backbiting and "Why doesn't daddy love me" soap opera melodrama.

Alexander Film poster
We get it, there were a lot of spears. Lots and lots of spears.

I will say this, in places the film is very colorful. You get an idea of what it might have been like to actually walk through some fabled towns of the age. There are stunning shots of eagles and jugglers and incidental bits like that. The battle scenes, while utterly confusing from any kind of strategic viewpoint, captured some of the desperation and despair and confusion and sudden elation that perhaps was the case in real life.

Alexander Rosario Dawson
Is this from the same movie?  Who cares! But yes, this is from "Alexander." That's Rosario Dawson as Roxanne.

But then Alexander gets into pissy little shouting matches with his soldiers, we jump from one continent to another with absolutely no continuity, and any kind of momentum is lost. The director Oliver Stone is good at showing Alexander's inner turmoil - hey, he must have had some, everybody does at some point, right? - by having him in extended scenes on frozen mountaintops and the like looking distressed, but then another battle scene pops up and it's time to move on.

Alexander 2004 Rosario Dawson
Rosario Dawson is thrown in for two good reasons

I thought Angelina Jolie was terrible, affecting a "Boris and Natasha" accent that grated against the Irish and English accents of pretty much everyone else in the cast. However, there are some uncomfortable vibes between the mother and daughter. After Alexander grows up and becomes Colin Farrell they argue, their faces get very close, Colin grabs Angelina's face, he kind of leans in, she puckers up.... Whew. Ok, the other supporting actors do fine as well. While Peter O'Toole stole "Troy" out from under Brad Pitt, here Christopher Plummer tries but only manages a weak cameo. Anthony Hopkins just serves as a kind of overwrought museum tour guide. Val Kilmer actually looks alive in a few scenes, but his role is utterly thankless and, given the way it is written, one can only wonder how his character made it to middle age alive, much less became a king. Rosario Dawson pops in and is scrumptious, the best thing about the film. In sum, acting is not a problem with "Alexander," because the cast is excellent.

Alexander 2004 Angelina Jolie
Have you done your homework? Brushed your teeth? Walked the dog?

The problem is that "Alexander" is too long, too disjointed, too dull. If Alexander was gay or at least bisexual, that's wonderful for him I suppose, but he also won a few campaigns that you might spend some time on as well. It would have been nice to learn a little bit about them other than that elephants can be big and scary and that war is hell. Showing a map here and there and highlighting a few triumphant city entrances along with scenes of grumbling underlings does not do the man justice. "Alexander" falls into a trend in the early 2000s of films dwelling on the peculiar sexual proclivities of famous figures, such as "De-Lovely" (life of Cole Porter). If you like that, this is the film for you. However, if you are more interested in the public achievements of these historical figures, which is  the only reason we remember them at all, then the going can get a bit tedious.

If you are history buff "Alexander" might be worth seeing, but otherwise it might be difficult to sit through.


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