Friday, December 02, 2005

REV: Alexander (2004)

Alexander (2004) (dir. Oliver Stone)

I come to know this film based on the director's cut dvd (with stunningly scant special features save for a commentary track). I'm not sure i have the stomach to watch this again with the commentary track, though i'd like to hear some explanations.

I guess there might be a million reasons to lambast this thing (and dude, it has been lambasted into the last millennium), but in my mind it come down to a couple of simple issues -- it is mind-numbing and it is way too long. One or the other of those reasons begets the other.

I can't fathom why Oliver Stone, a masterful storyteller i think, can never quite get to the story in this one. It wants to just tell and tell and tell without ever getting us anywhere. And it becomes achingly confusing, so much so that it numbs, and then it's just pretty pictures after that -- lots of flesh, lots of mountains, lots of ridiculous CG blood. And so every time it seems to end, it's just a coded way of saying "wait, there's another mountain up ahead."

I watched the whole thing, but sheesh, what happened i couldn't tell you. And i doubt i could if i were to ever watch it again.

It was certainly epic, and the photography was very nice, especially when it strayed from the danged rotten CG backgrounds (i know those save a lot of money, but crap, either make them look real or give us something less epic). The technique of speeding up film in battle scenes for effect and to cover errors was all too obvious and distracting as well.

It was full of bright young stars full of very confusing accents -- an Irish Macedonian brogue? Please! Either make it understandable in flat English so we're not distracted, or give everyone accents based on location that are not recognizable.

And then ask the actors to speak up -- some of this was simply incomprehensible. Some, to their credit were simply unrecognizable -- especially Val Kilmer as Philip.

Having said that there were some excellent performances (if you can pluck the actors from their surroundings). These i think stand out -- Jared Leto as Hephaistion, Jonathan Rhys-Myers as Cassander, Connor Paolo as young Alexander, Gary Stretch as Cleitus. Unfortunately the women tended to be inconsequential, cartoonish, or merely objects.

Before we get to a string of biospoilers, i have an new film technique complaint about something i can't remember encountering before in quite this way.

Repeatedly, especially from mid film to the final battle vs the elephantry, the camera does a shake associated with events it's showing. The first time or two this happened i thought it was error, that it was real shake imparted on the camera and they were stuck with an edit of the best particular cut and had to use it despite that "rumble" but then it got more frequent and regular. So i guess it was intended all along.

The idea was that any even that shook the ground would be represented by the camera -- hordes of soldiers marching, fighting, people hitting the ground, thundering horses, charging elephants.

Let me take this detour first -- i make films, or at least aspire to -- so i am not immune to trying new things, taking creative risks. But i look at filmmaking the way i look at writing -- the object is to tell a story, and anything that gets in the way, anything that causes the reader (audience) to stop and remove themselves from the story is at least a momentary defeat of your objective.

Back to the movie -- why then did this technique cause a problem? Because it jarred me from the story.

If it had been that the story was always being told from the viewpoint of a single person, that one individual would then feel those jolts and they could be represented by the camera as such, well then okay, i could buy that, and perhaps might not be removed from the scene. But the movie is told in omniscient third person -- the camera is your eye/our eye watching the scenes. And because we are watching from afar, then, it makes no sense that we feel the effects of the event. Now i can imagine someone thought that if they drew us into the scene successfully then it would be as though we were there. Quasi-novel idea, except that they failed in bringing me at least so fully into the story, and when the jarring began all i could think about was the jarring of the camera -- and of course there were no cameras then. Had this been a documentary or cinema verite look at Vietnam, well then it's possible to accept the jarring the camera.

Enough said?

Issues: Many.

One simple anachronism first (in addition to the jarred camera rant above). Early in the film i caught a portion of a statue in the background that looks very much like a copy of Michelangelo's David. I suspect it was partially obscured so it wouldn't look like David, but it was enough. Of course the film predates that work by about 1830 years.

While horses can live 30+ years on occasion (and i've had one that lived 27 years), the useful life of one is more like 17 years -- from about age 3 to 20 and that might be stretching it a bit. In terms of using at full gallop in raging battles the lifespan ought to be considered shorter. Now from a historical standpoint i have no idea what we really know about Alexander's horse but, based on the dating of the film, and his apparent early age and known age of death, i'd say he rides this horse about 20 years or so, and it's obviously a quite mature horse when he forces his dad's hand into buying it. Impossible? No. But it seemed a bit of stretch.

The best horse in the film though is the white one painted to look like a zebra -- in a scene that contains a real lion. Why not a real zebra? They're available.

The more egregious biospoilers involved snakes -- three particular instances. One, considering how much conquering and discovering was yet to occur, it was odd that the initial snake used in the film with young Alexander was a Ball Python, a species found only in central and west Africa, in territories hardly know at the time, though trade is a mitigating consideration.

The second involves the albinos and the masses of yellow-brown snakes on the palace floors -- these were all Corn Snakes, species native only to North America.

And lastly, in India a soldier is bitten by a python (non-venomous) and dies within seconds. The snake-healer was too late, and not smart enough to say "get up ya pretender, twas only a pith-on".

Then there was the CG eagle, cobbled together apparently from film of a real eagle and some CG visionary. Besides the standard wrong voice, it included the wrong tail, wrong wing motion, and the now standard moving too fast for the scenery CG specialty. There is little worse in the CG world than inventing birds and faking fire -- luckily this film had no explosions.


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