Alexander: Director's Cut (HK - DVD)
A movie about the life of Alexander the Great should be exactly that - great. So how does Oliver Stone's take on such a legen...
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Alexander is one of the greatest legends. In his all too brief time on the planet he achieved more than almost anybody else in history, embodying the concept of the candle that burns twice as bright burning half as long. Alexander burned oh so bright. Fighting his way across vast, unexplored continents, he conquered most of the known world by his mid-twenties. Although often regarded as a tyrant – despite his desire to unify more than destroy – he was first and foremost a warrior and master tactician, taking on seemingly insurmountable foes using superior skills, strategy and determination. He also had the kind of vision that makes a great leader, a king of kings.
Oliver Stone’s eagerly anticipated labour of love paints a very different picture indeed. His Alexander does nothing to warrant such laud, coming across as a spoiled child whose enemies scuttle away like cowards and who – after just one tiny battle – appears to conquer the vast Persian Empire. Through the worst use of flashback ever, it takes two whole hours for us even to learn how he became King – something which audiences should have felt he was destined to be rather than think that he merely stumbled into it. Stone’s take on this particular hero is a jumbled affair at best and I have not even started on his liberal misrepresentation of Alexander’s controversial sexuality.
I think that Stone’s first major problem was the vastness of source material. I have real the three great Massimo Manfredi novels on Alexander which Stone used as the basic framework for his epic. Unfortunately he did his own script and understandably was forced to condense the many milestones of Alexander’s eventful life into only about half a dozen turning points. However this simply isn’t enough. Even at three hours in length, Stone does not use his time judiciously enough to capture the moments that made this man great. Perhaps if made as a lavish ten-part mini-series, they would have had the time to paint a much broader, more convincing epic story. We could have seen more of his earlier conflicts, before becoming King, more of his battles with ongoing arch-rival Darius - the King of Persia and one of the biggest threats to both Phillip and Alexander himself. Instead, Stone’s interpretation skips all of the important conflicts, practically jumping straight from his childhood to his state as King and our first glance of Darius – painted as nothing more than a figurehead – is when he runs from a battle! I could almost forgive Stone’s poor selection of landmark events in Alexander’s great life if he had at least painted the battles well, but even the few – basically two – sequences we get here are disappointing and confused, often looking more like muddled brawls than examples of masterful tactics and strategy.
Similarly (and now we get onto the Big One), Stone’s abridged version of this character completely misrepresents his sexuality. In as much as you can know about a semi-fictional character of myths and legends, Alexander was – by all accounts – bisexual. But the source material paints it in a way that suggest he was a man who was more interested in the concept of love, irrespective of who he sought it from. During long battles he found refuge in the companionship of one of his closest friends, Hephaistion, but much of his life he spent in the company of a servant girl, Leptune, and later with his several loves and eventually his wife. Stone’s Alexander appears, first and foremost, homosexual – obsessed not only with Hephaistion but also with any androgynous boy he comes across. Even his servant is now male. In fact, he goes on to openly admit that he only wants a wife so that he can beget a son. Although I, unlike many I suspect, can genuinely believe Alexander’s desperation to find true love and his love-with-no-boundaries regard to both sexes; I also think Stone slants the story on purpose in order to provoke an unnecessary reaction. You see Stone loves controversy and often it is this that gets the better of his scripts and stories – mainly because he simply takes it too far.
As if this was not all enough to ruin a production, Stone’s next big problem – or flat-out mistake – was in his choice of lead. Now I think that Colin Farrell is quite a good actor but I don’t think that he is convincing as a visionary warrior and conqueror – a contender for one of the greatest men in history. Small movies like Tigerland and Phone Booth have given him just enough room to show off his skills without raising expectations too high. Here he just seems to be out of his depth. It is not the first time that a mistake in casting has seriously affected the quality of a historical epic - both Troy and Kingdom of Heaven foolishly relied on Orlando Bloom’s consistently wooden acting skills and Clive Owen’s King Arthur was disappointing to say the least. Here we needed Russell Crowe’s Gladiator or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Perhaps they were too old, and perhaps they both set the bar too high in rousing speeches, heroes you can root for and epic battles, but choosing Farrell was a big mistake.
Unfortunately the problem with choosing Farrell also had the secondary effect of changing the natural accents of several other cast members. You see, rather than make him adopt another accent – something which I would have assumed an actor worthy of this role would have been more than capable of – instead Stone gave most of the central cast Irish lilts which seem much less convincing. After all this, Stone’s choice of other cast members – whilst on the face of it seeming initially promising – is also quite disappointing mainly due to the aforementioned butchering of the original story. The stunning Angelina Jolie is woefully underused but nonetheless solid as Alexander’s venomous and dominant mother Olympias. Christopher Plummer seems slightly miscast as Alexander’s tutor and mentor, the great philosopher Aristotle – a part which clearly should have gone to Anthony Hopkins, who instead bookends the film rather awkwardly as an older version of Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s Generals and close friends. Rosario Dawson scowls her way through her part as Alexander’s token barbarian wife but comes across as all bark and no bite. Possibly the only other sensible choice after Angelina Jolie was Val Kilmer as the father and King, Phillip of Macedon. Kilmer, who previously worked with Stone on The Doors, was the original first choice for the lead here but time ran out on him and he became too old for the role; as it did for other leading actors who were up for the part including Tom Cruise. Kilmer recently pulled off a solid performance in the vastly underrated thriller, Spartan, but has since taken relatively minor roles in pointless movies like Mindhunters. Unfortunately he simply does not get enough screen time as Phillip and through the misuse of flashback that I previously highlighted, even his character is painted as minor, simply disappearing for the best part of the movie with just a monologue by Anthony Hopkins to initially explain what had happened.
It is all such a great shame. This is one of the biggest missed cinematic opportunities in recent time. Although you can probably take a dozen screenshots that would showcase Stone’s amazing visionary eye, this movie as a whole fails to capture the spirit, vision and simple destiny of Alexander. Ironically, as I personally never rated Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese’s The Aviator paints a picture of a flawed visionary in a much more convincing way than this movie could ever hope to achieve. If you want to really get to know the real Alexander, you are probably better off reading the books or even watching the Japanese animated series Reign: The Conqueror. Either way, you are probably better off avoiding this interpretation. Sure it has its enjoyable moments, and the scenery is often breathtaking, but it just does not do Alexander the Great any justice at all.
This version of the movie is the director’s cut but, to be honest, very little is noticeably different from the theatrical cut. Both are nearly three hours in length and all of the sequences that were reported to have been cut (it was rumoured that the ‘kiss’ between Alexander and Hephaistion was removed but that was nonsense) still appear intact. The film still starts with an overlong speech by Anthony Hopkins, the battles are still confusing and the movie is still disappointing. It is possible that Stone trimmed a few seconds here and there but his changes are largely ineffectual. That said, although I did not enjoy the Director’s Cut any more that the theatrical one, it certainly did not feel like a worse film for whatever alterations were made. But if I had to choose between a longer or shorter cut of an epic movie about a person with so much history I would always choose the longer cut, irrespective of whether or not that was the Director’s vision.
This version of Alexander is presented in a rather odd 1.85:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. It is odd because the movie was filmed in 2.40:1 and many of the other releases respect that aspect whereas this one effectively trims and pans the wider frame. Nevertheless the detail remains remarkably good, with little edge enhancement or other digital artefacting and no noticeable softness either. There are some scenes with a light sheen of grain but largely the print remains spotless, with no other defects like dust or scratches. The colour scheme – as you would expect from Stone’s wild eye – is very broad and vividly represented at all times, with the varying locations and climates giving way to different tints for different scenes: glowing warm gold and browns, icy cold whites and greys, and luscious greens and reds. It is a reasonable transfer marred mainly by the use of the wrong aspect ratio.
There is one main track, a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that provides the dialogue at the forefront but is not lacking in any other respect. Unfortunately, as has been reported in other reviews, there are noticeable lip-synch issues with this track which can often be ignored or forgotten but sometimes become glaringly apparent. There is keen observation of environmental sounds like bands playing and crickets chirping, along with the great battle effects of swords swiping and clashing. The score, by Vangelis, is a bit of a jumbled mess – sometimes it is simply perfect for the scene and occasionally it seems like the most out of place thing, made worse by its swamping of the dialogue. That said, it always comes through powerfully from all around and is the biggest example of surround-sound use on offer here. So similar to the video transfer, an otherwise good track’s one caveat is the lip-synch issue which is potentially quite damaging to your enjoyment of the movie.
There are only a few extras on the second disc. First up we get a fifty-minute behind the scenes documentary. This is a rather strange affair because it starts off by showing us a collection of important scenes ripped straight from the movie. There does not seem to be any kind of rational thinking behind doing this, other than to taunt us with the original theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio formatting that the main transfer was missing all along. After fifteen wasted minutes of this, we get a selection of interview clips with the main cast including Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer and Rosario Dawson – all talking about the characters, the story and working with one another and of course Oliver Stone. Oddly, each interview is snipped into very brief soundbites which make for slightly awkward listening, but it is still nice to have so many contributions of which Kilmer’s is probably the most interesting and thoughtful and Leto’s is the least well-expressed. Funnily enough, all of them also showcase the lip-synch problems that are prevalent in the main feature. Stone himself talks a little bit the history of Alexander and the type of movie he wanted to create, noting how great his cast choices were in their parts. Two of the producers also have their brief say, along with the composer Vangelis, who did the phenomenal score for Blade Runner. Finally we get fifteen minutes of B-roll footage depicting some of the key scenes being filmed. Watching Stone interact with the cast is often quite revealing, but it is too little too late in what is a very muddled documentary. There is quite a bit of good stuff in here, but the way it has been presented makes it almost not worth watching.
Next up there is a two minute interview with Oliver Stone, apologising for not being at the premiere and personally thanking some of the Thai people involved in making the production for their help. I’m sure it will be a nice memento for the few dozen people he is actually talking to but to the rest of the world it seems thoroughly pointless. We also get three brief thirty-second TV spots with voiceover man working overtime in both English and Thai! The two ninety-second theatrical trailers seem to be identical but the second one has forced Thai subtitles. Both show all of the best clips from the movie but still manage to avoid giving away quite what is going on in them – also painting the movie as much better than it really is.
Alexander is a muddled movie. It had so much potential, largely squandered by a bad choice of lead – a problem only compounded by the decision to change everybody else’s accent in the movie rather than his. The battles sequences are disappointing and brief considering the length of this account and the injudicious decisions over content remain irrespective of the new cut we receive. The framing makes the video transfer disappointing and the lip-synch makes an otherwise powerful soundtrack irritating. The second disc of extras is so jumbled that it is almost worth avoiding. It is all such a shame; with the promise of being Oliver Stone’s dream production, it cannot help but disappoint. Still, if you go into it expecting problems then you can still learn a great deal about a figure in history worth knowing more about and enjoy some moments of glory.
You can purchase this title for $13.99 from top retailer Yes Asia.
Review by Casimir Harlow
Release Date: 3rd June 2005
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Thai
Subtitles: English and Thai
Extras: Behind the Scenes Documentary, Interviews, TV Spots and Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Brian Blessed
Length: 168 minutes