Sunday, July 15, 2012

Retro Review: Alexander (Oliver Stone, 2004)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.  This particular Retro Review is being released to coincide with the recently released Savages, the latest film from Oliver Stone.

Oliver Stone has always been a director just on the verge of camp.  Not camp in the way that Warhol or John Waters are camp, but in a more pretentious manner - like his films are so visually and technically perfect, it doesn't really matter about integrity or truth or a sense of kinship with his audience.   Stone is an especially audacious über-director full of grandiose ideas and a hyper-sensitive intellectuality, as well as an ability to create moments in cinema that seem simultaneously off-putting and deceptively genius, yet Stone is also a director who has yet to create a truly great film.   A director, like De Palma and Schrader, and Michael Moore to a less dignified manner, who certainly knows how to push his viewer's buttons, but also a director who is gestured away with nary a second thought - even with three Oscars to his credit.

Stone's earlier films (Platoon, Salvador, Wall Street, Talk Radio) were showy promises of an as-yet-unseen greatness - a greatness that he has come close to in his best - but also most pretentious, and most controversial, to date - work, JFK.  And even though his more recent work continues his penchant for serious subject matter, films such as Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday, though both extremely entertaining in their own individual ways, dangle precariously close to that proverbial edge of reason and/or taste. Not that any of this is a bad thing of course.  As I stated earlier, Stone has yet to create a truly great film, but to clarify said statement, Stone has also yet to create a bad film either - and his latest epic years-in-the-making death-defying opus, Alexander does not change that status quo one tiny bit.   Or at least I do not think it does.  Let us wait until the end of the review to make that judgment.  But it does  certainly edge him all that much closer to the greatly absurd - and I mean that in the most complimentary way one can mean such a thing.

Visually stunning, yet systematically unengaging enough to not be considered the great feat that it may just be.  Many claim it to be not even a good feat, at least not without some firmly held reservations. Most critics have panned Alexander for not being the grand epic that Stone promised to everyone - an early Christmas present that is non-returnable. What most critics have missed though, is the pure unadulterated guilty-pleasured enjoyment in watching this camp-filled homo-erotic pageant of frilled warriors prancing about like the fourth century bc drama queens they are. If you don't attempt to take this film seriously at all, there is some great joy to be found in its three hour long queerness. Playing like an unedited episode of Queer Eye for the Greek Guy, something that Stone has taken much undeserved harassment for, Alexander rides along with the breakneck speed of an antelope - albeit a rather frantic, possibly meth-addled antelope being chased by predators. Alexander's meandering breakneck pace (not many directors can accomplish that duel feat!) does not do much for the average movie-goer, but watching these warriors elite metomorphosize into some sort of Ancient Greek version of a Bon Jovi cover band - complete with garishly blonde wigs - is still a treat dammit!!

Not much in the way of proper story (not necessarily a bad thing by the way), most of the young King's triumphs are only spoken of after the so-called fact by a bewildered looking Ptolemy, played with equal bewilderment by Sir Anthony Hopkins, and we are left with mostly back-court bickering and longing glances from boy toy Jared Leto, looking less like a warrior and more like an androgynous Persian prostitute, lounging about beneath the long lost Hanging Gardens of Babylon - garbed in silk robes and more eyeliner than Alice Cooper wears.   Alexander like most of Stone's films, is a visual masterpiece that more resembles a great film than actually is a great film.  Only one scene actually - the ten minute red-hazed elephant battle sequence - is worth noting as genuinely great and/or mighty.  But the film, though not great, has much in common with those grandiose Biblical epics of the 1950's (the giddy, campy joys of DeMille's Samson and Delilah or Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs) and is, like those aforementioned epics, still a great experience to behold.

As for the acting (truly an incidental creature in a motion picture such as this) is to be commended.  Colin Farrell, a much more talented actor than usually given credit for being, is a kick and a half as Alexander the Great, even though his Irish brogue falling in and out of time during the movie does distract at times, and Val Kilmer, as Alexander's brutish father, Philip of Macedon, is a one-note one-eyed drunken scream - but whole-heartedly so.  But then it is Angelina Jolie as Alexander's Mother who steals the show from everyone else on screen.  Part gypsy queen, part snake-charmer, part erotically charged vixen, full of wild energy and the mysterious motherly pangs of Jocosta, Jolie goes so far over the top that she may no longer exist, but it is such a delicious over-the-topness, you can't help but love it - if you are willing to let yourself go and remember that Oliver Stone should be seen as a great painter, with great artistic flair and a great eye toward colour and stroke, but who just happens to have no sense of great depth to his works of art.   Then again, who needs great depth when working in such a genre as this?

Granted, Stone's film may be far from great, though never going near far enough in its rendition of an openly bisexual society (even if those damned red-staters say otherwise in the crinkly criticisms), and is probably on its way to a critical Elysian Fields of sorts, but even so, Alexander, the not-so great, but the greatly enjoyable, is still pure camp joy for all, as well as an embarrassingly fun ride to take.   I suppose when all is said and done, flaws and all, Alexander ain't half bad.  In fact, once the smoke and mirrors clear themselves from all the pomp(ous) and circumstance of Stone's moviemaking audacity, his bongo-beating bravura if you will, it may end up being the downright great film we all hoped it would be and were afraid it was not.   Imagine that. 

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 07/25/04] 

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