Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Hot Man-On-Eunuch Action

Thanks to the lovely Jenn scoring some tickets to a screening of Alexander last night, we have a first here at Judgment Call: I get to a review a movie before it comes out! Well, I guess it came out today, but close enough. WARNING: Many spoilers lie ahead. Not like the movie's not predictable, but just in case.

To give you a sense of what an easy target Alexander is, here are some of the other titles for this post I came up with:
The Gayest Story Ever Told (as long as no one kisses)
Lions and Elephants and Colin Farrell's Ass, Oh My!
(that one's sure to get me some Google hits)
Alexander may be great, but check out the rack on Rosario Dawson!
Maybe Jared Leto's born with it...Maybe it's Maybelline
Alexander: Pee First
I've hidden me Lucky Charms in Maced O'Nia!
Have the eunuchs stopped screaming, Alexander?
"It was said that Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephastion's thighs."


Thank you, I'll be here all week! Try the veal!

That last one is an actual line from the film, and it's pretty indicative of how -- not bad, really, but weird this movie is.

Alexander is a big sprawling mess, as epics like this tend to be. Also typically, it's visually stunning (at least, I think it was -- we got stuck in the 2nd row, and I have to wonder why they even design theaters with seats so close to the screen!), but the script is confusing at best, lugubrious at worst. At times the text, particularly the lengthy (but essential for coherence, I suppose) narration by Anthony Hopkins, reads like a history lesson, but I was still confused. I'm really not up on my ancient history and geography, so as dull and over-long as some of this stuff was, I kind of wanted more. I guess in a nod to the classic epics, there's a mosaic map, with a growing dotted line of tile charting Alexander's course, and as laughable as the graphic is, I wanted it to be on screen longer so I could get my bearings. A caption tells us we're in Macedonia, but the dialogue that follows implies we're in Greece, which has just been conquered by Macedonia. It's a subtle distinction, I suppose, but it doesn't help with clarity if you don't really understand the difference between the two.

Of course, the first caption of the film reads, "Macedonia, June 323 B.C." Not "Summer," "June." Yeah, Oliver? Mr. Historical Accuracy with the real elephants? The Roman calendar didn't exist yet, at least not in Macedonia. Most of the Entertainment Weekly reading audience tittered, and I knew we were at least in for a fun evening.

For all that I'd read about cuts being made to the gay content of the film, I have to say it's pretty damn gay! In some respects I feel like if some of the same scenes had come out in the 50s, it wouldn't be gay at all, but our 21st Century sensibilities read all those cues differently. I'll have to rent Spartacus and compare. Given that they barely touch, the actors (Farrell and Leto) are doing most of the work to gay the place up. But it really is way more than subtext. It's made very clear (and not just from campy lines like the one about his thighs) that Hephastion is the one true love of Alexander's life, that he's also messing around with his eunuch servant, who is in turn incredibly jealous of Hephastion (if you see the movie, look for the eunuch somewhere in every single scene after the one in which he's introduced. It's like shirtless Where's Waldo.). Curiously, men do kiss on the lips in this movie (they are ancient Greeks after all...Macedonians, whatever), but never Alexander and Hephastion. Though the only straight sex we see is an aborted rape of Alexander's mother by his father (issues!), and his scene with Rosario Dawson, which is amazingly unsexy and may just be one of the weirdest scenes in cinema history. The implications and allusions and open shirts of Alexander and Hephastion are hotter than anything else in the movie, and in a way a refreshing throwback to when people actually didn't do it on screen.

Would I have liked to see a proper love scene between Colin and Jared? Duh! But actually I'm more interested in who Hephastion was besides the Prettiest Boy In The Ancient World (a title that apparently comes with a lifetime supply of eyeliner). He's Alexander's most trusted friend and advisor, and we're meant to believe that he's the smartest and most level-headed person in the room most times. But in scenes with Alexander and his generals, Hephastion almost never opens his mouth. Do his love for and blind devotion to Alexander keep him from questioning him as others do? Frankly, Hephastion, with Leto in the lead, would have made a more interesting movie.

That's really my biggest problem with Alexander: It seems unsure of what it wants to be. At times it wants to be a love story, but of course no film this big and expensive can really be that kind of love story, and anyway it's really about war and pillaging and conquering, and sometimes that seems to get in the way of the romance and keep us away from the prettyboy sex scene we all so long for. But mostly the prettyboys just drag down what is, at its heart, an action movie. If it weren't, wouldn't there be more than a passing reference or two to Alexander's cultural accomplishments amid all the stomping and schlepping and fighting? Wouldn't the plot be slightly easier to follow, as if it, um, mattered? I found it very difficult to keep track of who was who, especially as the campaign dragged on and everyone got more facial hair. There was Guy With Scar, Guy Who Grows Up To Be Anthony Hopkins, Guy From Velvet Goldmine, Snarly Guy, Greek With Long Hair Who Looks Just Like Arab Prince From The Last Scene.... And in the battles, forget about knowing who's who. At one point I was positive a major character got trampled by an elephant, only to have him show up unharmed in the next scene.

None of which would matter if Alexander himself weren't kind of a schmuck. As charming as Colin Farrell is, it becomes really really hard to like this man who led so many of his people to death for no reason beyond working out his daddy issues. When Jonathan Rhys-Myers, who always manages to look pretty evil (or pretty, evil) even when the character he's playing isn't, screams "Alexander, be reasonable!" I found it hard to argue.

Near film's end, Alexander launched into a monologue about his plans for the next great conquest (which basically came out sounding like "blah blah blah me blah me me blah blah") while the one great love of his life lay dying, and I could practically hear the entire audience's eyes roll. When he shed a tear near the end of it, we all giggled. When he finally turned around and realized the man he was talking to had died, we guffawed. He seemed more upset than anything that Hephastion had died mid-speech.

That said, I actually really liked it. I mean, I had fun. It's not like we go to these things for high art, we go for spectacle, for pretty costumes and pretty sets and lots and lots of blood. The battles (as far as I could tell from the second row) are amazing and intense. In typical Oliver Stone fashion, they are a confusing jumble of jump cuts, shaky cameras, blurry effects and surround sound. It doesn't help with the plot, but it does give the sequences a sense of terrifying immediacy, with what I can only imagine is the realistic confusion of being in the middle of a massive ancient battle. And there are macabre fun touches too. Watch for the soldier using another man's severed head as a weapon.

I also never felt like I was watching a special effect (except for the ultra-obvious tracking shots of an eagle soaring over the battlefield, but that was only because it would be impossible to film, not because it's a bad effect). Stone has a fondness for making things a little grainy, and the old-fashioned look helps mask that too-perfect look that CGI can get as in, for example, the new Star Wars movies. I assume Babylon was CG, but for all I know it might have been a matte painting, or a miniature, or even an actual set. There were enough real elephants that if they ever switched to fake ones, I couldn't tell. Of course this may also have been another side effect of sitting so close.

The acting is mostly superb. Angelina Jolie is the film's Heather Locklear, vamping around with snakes and a miscellaneous foreign accent. She manages to make the ridiculous lines sound sensible (or at least in character), handles her share of the lengthy exposition with grace, and is the only one who consistently seems to be having fun (of course, she's also the only one who's consistently indoors, pretty, and not covered with sand, mud, or blood). She's entirely the wrong age and entirely non-period, and it simply doesn't matter.

If anything makes the lack of age make-up on Jolie work, it's Farrell, who I completely bought as aging 10 years over the course of the film. Some of this they do with changing facial hair and wigs, of course, but mostly it's the sparkle in his wide eyes as the 18-year-old prince. His facial expression matures, his emotion deepens, and it's all internal. It's lovely to watch.

Val Kilmer chews up the scenery deliciously, though it's a little sad to see how old and pudgy he's become (to be fair, of course, a lot of that's makeup). Rosario Dawson doesn't have much to do except look angry and flash her ample bosom ("like aircraft carriers!" said one patron as we walked out). As I said, the other men all kind of blended together, but there's not a bad actor in the bunch as far as I could tell. I ripped on Hopkins earlier but it's not his fault, and he handles his speechifying gracefully. Leto fares best, I think, but sadly will be the most overlooked. Because they're afraid to market any of the gay content in the film (he's absent from the posters and trailers), I doubt they'll do an Oscar campaign for him or anything. Not that he deserves an Oscar, but you can be sure they'll do one for Farrell.

Oh, and I mentioned the film was weird, right? Okay, so one of my big pet peeves is the film and theatre convention of having people speak English with a foreign accent when in fact they're not really speaking English at all. Unless the character's otherness is relevant, accents drive me nuts. Don't speak with an Italian accent, trust the audience to understand that if we're in Venice, you're actually speaking unaccented Italian, and we're all playing pretend. There's a sense that no one should be American in historical epics, which I don't agree with but I understand it -- the relative newness of America can make our accent jarring. Hal Prince favors something he calls a "Mid-Atlantic" accent, basically how Americans talk on the island of Pretentia.

Anyway, why do I bring this up? Because the Greeks/Macedonians in Alexander are all (wait for it) Irish. Yup. Farrell's Irish, so they're all Irish. I mean, really, why tax the lead with having to learn an accent when we can just have the entire rest of the cast learn one? It was one of the more ridiculous touches that completely endeared me to the movie.

All the press I've read said that Stone has tried to make this movie all his life. It's hard not to wonder how many permutations the screenplay went through in that time, and if that accounts for the mess it wound up being. But when all is said and done, I really enjoyed myself. It's waaaay too long. A half hour less would have been nice. And I think it could have been achieved without missing out on anything besides Stone's tendency towards over-indulgence. The film could be much shorter without cutting a word of dialogue or even any real action. It's mostly engaging enough, but by the last ten minutes (and third false ending -- what is this, A.I.?) I could feel the entire audience getting restless. Yet for all the snark filling the room, everyone seemed walking out around me seemed to feel the same way I did too, generally smiling and happy, even if it was sometimes at the movie's expense. There are far worse ways to spend three hours.

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