… only one colossus: alexander revisited (2007)

Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004, is an easy movie to mock, let alone hate—it’s long, it’s about some king dude who lived, uh, lived a long time ago and like killed a bunch of people or something, and all of the actors talk in funny accents that aren’t American.  Oh, and the lead dude, he’s gay.  I think.  In fact, the whole movie is about gay people.  And that loudmouthed liberal Oliver Stone made it.  It’s stupid.  How do I know?  Well, I’ve never actually seen it.

A lot of people in the U.S. never saw it.  Before the movie plopped into theaters, rumors had already leaked that it was bad in that special way only bloated self-indulgent Hollywood studio projects can be.  There were also plenty of outraged citizens that were upset because Stone was going to portray the mighty Alexander as bisexual, which he was, and then a whole other group was mad because he wasn’t going to be bisexual enough.  It was also supposed to be boring, the worst cinematic sin of them all.  I’d initially wanted to see it, especially on the big screen, but I chickened out.  I’d wait for it to come out on DVD.  Also, at that time, I didn’t particularly like Colin Farrell or Angelina Jolie.  I still don’t care for La Jolie, although I’ve changed my mind about Farrell after he appeared in Terrence Malick’s The New World.  That lad’s got some acting chops after all.

I never did see the theatrical version of Alexander on DVD.  I took the leap sometime later when the second version of the film, the “director’s cut,” was released on disc.  You can scrupulously check Wikipedia if I’m right, but I think Stone lopped off 20 minutes from the theatrical version then added ten new minutes of footage or so.  I wanted to like it and approached it with an open mind, but so much of it felt off.  The varying acting styles were jarring, the pacing lead-footed, and the Freudian psychoanalyzing simplistic.  I was impressed with its scope, its grandness, and with Stone’s ambition in presenting his subject in such complex, deeply flawed terms.  But it just wasn’t very good, was it?

For some reason I checked the movie out again when Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut was released on DVD in 2007.  This was the longer, “road show” version of the movie, which added 30 minutes of new footage.  But more importantly, the movie was significantly re-edited and restructured.  This third, radically altered version was like watching an entirely different movie in many ways.  I sort of loved it, albeit the love one has for a crazy friend or ex-lover.  It’s not particular healthy, but what can I do?  I’m sort of a loose one when it comes to historical epics.  I realize that for an otherwise respectable, educated middle-aged American male, that’s akin to admitting you still like heavy metal or the band Rush.  Some would argue, that’s it’s just a step up from still living in your parents’ basement or storing your urine in large water cooler bottles and hiding it in your closet.  But I can’t take it back now, can I?  I dig epics, particularly set in ancient times.

Is there any cinematic genre more stylistically cumbersome or old fashioned than the historical epic?  It’s a genre steeped in the past, rooted in images of military might, and even in the best productions, despite grandiose scenes of well-staged battles and carnage, there are moments padded with sometimes excruciating sequences of old white guys standing around pontificating about the death of empire or conspiring to wage war against other nations.  That’s a huge generalization, of course, and perhaps unfair since there are a whole lot of movies of this ilk—I’m thinking of the Italian peplum genre from the 1960s, usually focusing on the heroic exploits of Hercules or Machiste or Samson—whose production values were so piss poor they couldn’t even pull off convincing action sequences, although they were still entertaining in many ways.  But at its best, the genre could do wonders, cinematically speaking.  I’m thinking here of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and El Cid; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, and Ran; William Wyler’s Ben-Hur; The 300 Spartans; the Taylor and Burton fiasco Cleopatra, that nevertheless has many extraordinary moments; and on and on.  And then there are the neo-epics, like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, and the like.  None of the latter ones are brilliant, but all of them have moments of great emotional power and melodramatic allure.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut may be the best of the newer crop.  I can feel you running away from your computer, if you haven’t already, but it’s true.  It’s still flawed, although many of the missteps of the earlier versions have now been corrected—pacing most of all—and despite its longer running time, it flows much easier, and dare I say, it’s even relaxed.  For me, there are always going to be campy excesses that simply don’t appeal—Jolie’s performance, for example.  However, a certain level of kitsch and melodrama are simply things one must put up with when watching historical epics of this kind.  It’s part of the territory, at least in the productions coming from the West.  As a fan, you learn to ignore it or revel in it.

Stone’s aggressively muscular style and penchant for hallucinatory visuals makes him perfectly suited for this genre.  I’m surprised it took him so long to embrace it.  But he embraced it with his characteristic gusto.  And while it’s not great cinema, it is a fascinating and intelligent failure that is far more interesting to me than any number of slick, impersonal Hollywood productions from the last decade.  Alexander Revisited may come wrapped in the guise of big budget entertainment, but it’s as personal as any so-called mumblecore toss-off and as politically resonant as any of the many anti-Bush documentaries that came out over the last decade.  While it’s certainly debatable whether one should glorify a butcher, however charismatic they perhaps were, as Stone does here, I do appreciate his (along with his fellow co-screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis) intricate and sometimes contradictory appraisal of Alexander.  The movie is about the myth-making of Alexander as much as it is about the conqueror himself.  Also, Stone, quite simply, has the guts to risk playing the fool.  And I can’t help but admire that in a filmmaker.

So what’s with all the rambling about a movie much of the American critical establishment didn’t get and that audiences over here rejected outright?[1] Because I’m not alone in my appreciation of the movie.  Earlier this week I came across a blog post–written back in March–by Dennis Cozzalio at the nifty Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on Alexander Revisited‘s first theatrical screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.  Cozzalio also conducted an interview with director Oliver Stone, which offers plenty to ponder.  I don’t always link to other blogs here, but it was a nice surprise to see this movie given some proper attention after its initial beat down.  It’s a movie worthy of reappraisal and hopefully that theatrical screening won’t be the first and last we see of it.

[1] It did well overseas and on video, hence the multiple versions released.

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in the walls: bad ronald (1974)

Based on a thriller novel by Jack Vance, who is better known for his science fiction and fantasy tales, Bad Ronald found its way to the screen via the glass teat on the ABC network’s Movie of the Week program.  Yes, the major networks once made movies.  Hard to believe, I realize, in this day of “reality” programming and the like, but it’s true.  Most of the movies produced for ABC–as well as for NBC and CBS–were garbage, fondly remembered now for their camp value and little else.

Every once in awhile, though, something strange and memorable for the right reasons would air–Brian’s Song (1971), Duel (1971), The Point! (1971), The Night Stalker (1972), The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Trilogy of Terror (1975).  And this little curiosity… Bad Ronald (1974).

It’s not a “great” movie by any means, though it sure did make an impact on me when I first saw it as a wee lad.  I have no idea if I saw it when it originally aired in 1974 (I would’ve been five) or when it was possibly rerun not long after.  Whenever it was, I was young and impressionable.

It marked me.

Bad Ronald‘s twisted set-up–a misunderstood teenage boy in the Norman Bates mold kills a neighborhood girl after she taunts him and his domineering mother hides him from the cops within a secret room within the house–gripped me and haunted me for years.  I told friends about this movie whenever I could, but I never met anyone who had ever seen it.  And I suspect many thought I was making it up.

It had been issued on VHS at some point… but I only caught up with it again when it was shown on cable in the late-1980s.  I was disappointed.  Its power had faded.  Like many of the films that make the biggest impact on you when you’re a child, they fail to live up to the significance you’ve given them when you view them as an adult.  You hyped it too much over the years… falling in love with how your skull cinema screened it nightly rather than the less impressive reality.

Nevertheless, after the disappointment of watching it again, I still talked about it to anyone who’d listen.  The premise was just too warped to shelve away.  And the actors involved–Scott Jacoby, the excellent Kim Hunter, a brief straight turn by future comedic bumbler Dabney Coleman, and a young Lisa Eilbacher–all made it impossible for me to dismiss.  It was schlock to be sure.

But it was my schlock.

While the flame of fond memories had dimmed, I looked forward to the day when one of the genre specialist video companies like Anchor Bay or Synapse Films issued a proper DVD of it.  In 2009, Warner Brothers released the movie as part of their worthy Archive Collection.  Like the majority of the discs in this series, the quality isn’t great… we’re talking burned-on-demand discs here… but it’s hard to complain since a movie like this is probably never going to see a remastered release.

Earlier this week I finally showed Bad Ronald to my partner in crime.  It was the first time I’d seen it since the late-1980s.  Surprisingly, I liked it much better this time around.  Sure, on a technical level the movie is unimaginative and symptomatic of the drab, no fuss camera set-ups and lighting schemes so popular at the time in television movies and sitcoms.

But Bad Ronald gets under my skin.  While watching it this week, I was shocked by how vivid many of the scenes, especially the one below with the girl on the bicycle, were to me.

It was like no time had passed….

Not so bad.  Just misunderstood.

Mother sees him with different eyes.

Hopefully, his date will view him differently too.

See the talented young man beneath the awkwardness.

But the “date” goes wrong and Ronald is humiliated.

Best to just take a short cut and get back home…

Unfortunately that short cut intersects with her lifeline…

Triggering a chain of events…

changing the both of them forever.

In time he’ll reflect that it should have ended at that moment.

On the bricks…

His head splattered, his life ended.

Less trouble that way.

But at this moment, not knowing what awaits them in the coming seconds…

Both are grateful to be alive.

Maybe not.

One doesn’t seem thankful at all.

One… only grows angrier…

While one grows tired of the role he’s being forced to play.

How come she doesn’t see his uniqueness?

But she’s not buying it.

He’s just a creep.

What he’ll always be.

The sooner he drops dead… the better.

“Take it back!”

She can’t.

It’s escalated too far for that.

He knows it.

She certainly does.

Now.

Maybe she should have been grateful after all.

Left it at that.

Learned to say “thank you” and bowed out…

Without hurting any feelings.

No one likes to have their feelings hurt.

It hurts more than you can imagine…

It feels like the pain will never end…

Even though it’s been only seconds.

It feels like you’re free-falling…

It feels like you’re being smashed into a million little pieces…

It feels like you’ll never get out of this misery…

It feels so final.

Like your life has just ended.

On the bricks.

But maybe mother can help.

She’s always seen you with different eyes.

Love won’t make it all go away though.

Love doesn’t make problems disappear.

Especially since murder has a way of complicating things.

“We’ll have to hide you.”

Prison will offer no mercy for such a talented young man.

At least all is forgiven.

Maybe in time… others will forget all about it.

They’ll learn to forgive too.

You’ll be able to live in decency and cleanliness!”

There will be plenty of room.

No one will find you.

“It’s the perfect illusion!”

“You must learn to be quiet.”

It’s the only way to survive.

After awhile… couple of months…

People will forget.

Everything will be fine…

“I must be the only one who knows you’re here.”

“Two knocks for danger… four for safety…”

It’s a matter of survival.

There’s nothing to be afraid of…

You’ll leave one day…

One day.

Until then…

It’s best to keep up appearances.

Pretend that this has never happened.

Ronald just never came home.

He could be anywhere.