Film reviews

Not so great
Alexander, dir. Oliver Stone.

When the director himself has conducted the post-mortem and declared the body not just dead but mutilated, what’s left for a mere reviewer? To question Oliver Stone’s judgment? Tempting—though not about this film.

Audiences clearly agree with him. On the night I went, the suburban multiplex had the beached atmosphere of Apocalypse Now, complete with bad music piped out of Limbo. Of the audience of five, one left after half an hour.

Yes, Alexander is a dud. Fifty years on from Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great (with Richard Burton, Fredric March and Claire Bloom), Oliver Stone has learned nothing from the earlier director’s mistakes. Some he simply repeats, even while he squanders money enough to rebuild Babylon. The script is as bad, the direction and casting worse. Burton could handle rhetoric, but even he couldn’t do much with the likes of ‘It’s a lovely thing to live with courage and die leaving behind an everlasting renown’. Colin Farrell repeats those lines (and many worse ones) with all the élan of George W. Bush.
 


Perhaps it is as an index to 21st-century pathologies and informed ignorance that the film is most interesting. Darius, the Persian leader, has Osama bin Laden’s pointed beard and full frontal stare. Why? Coincidence? Alexander’s bisexuality (ignored in Rossen’s film) is here alternately mawkish and witlessly violent. Christopher Plummer as Aristotle gives us a tutorial on virtuous manly affection so we can cope when Alexander hugs his smudgy-eyed Hephaistion (did Macedonian men wear kohl?) but why are we subjected to a knife-wielding quasi rape scene when Alexander beds Roxana? Which focus group was that directed to? The credits have transliterated Greek behind them. Oliver Stone is Greek? The Macedonian warriors sound like IRA veterans or leftovers from Braveheart. Why? Can’t America do war?

And why let Freud in? Some of the script could seam effortlessly into a bad Woody Allen movie so anxious is Stone to explain Alexander’s psyche. Oh for the dynamic understatement of a Norse saga! Or an actor with Peter O’Toole’s range so we might see both bloodlust and remorse embodied, not merely gestured at, talked into being or got up with red filters.

Some good things: Angelina Jolie has a wild time as Alexander’s snakey mum, Olympias, though you do wonder why she bothers. Val Kilmer is a lusty Philip but he is killed off too early and flashbacked in too late. The epic battle at Guagemela makes sense, courtesy bird’s-eye cameras (if you like that sort of thing), and Anthony Hopkins keeps a manful straight face as he goes through the motions as fill-in-the-gaps narrator Ptolemy. It’s entertaining watching a great actor milk the pauses to preserve himself from ignominy. Hopkins is now old enough to have memory lapses, so the pity is that this was cinema, not stage. On stage he might have been prompted by the gods into Shakespeare: ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame …’

Morag Fraser

Elusive images
Closer, dir. Mike Nichols.

Like much of his previous work, veteran director Mike Nichols’s latest film, Closer, is an adaptation (in this case of a stage play by Patrick Marber). Superficially, it seems to betray its stage origins in its emphasis on dialogue and performance—which are indeed highly effective in the film. The performances (by Jude Law, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts) are uniformly strong, and the dialogue is dynamic, muscular and often spectacularly obscene. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of this film as a staged play, since its central formal and thematic concern is nothing other than the image itself—and cinema is nothing if not the world of images in themselves.

The film (which is in no sense a romance) offers us a condensation of betrayal, infidelity and emotional brutality that turns, precisely, on the dialectic of intimacy and separation inherent in the image as such. The film begins with, and turns on, love at first sight—which is nothing but love of the image, like Narcissus at the pool in love with the image he cannot touch, and cannot recognise as himself. Each of its characters lives and works in the world of the image: Roberts is a photographer, Portman a stripper, Owen a dermatologist (beauty is only skin deep, after all), and Law an aspiring novelist who steals the lives around him for his words, his images. Indeed they are all drawn to, and by, images that are unreachable—the coarsely seductive woman on the other side of the computer screen (who turns out to be a man); the stripper who peels herself bare at your command, but is untouchable; the lover who demands to know all the details of his lover’s infidelity, to see the (ob)scene before his eyes; the gap between desire and love, separation and intimacy.

The emblematic scene of the film takes place at an exhibition of photographs taken by Roberts’s character. The four leads circulate among massively blown-up photographs of each other, talking, seducing, betraying each other, in search of that elusive closeness on offer in the images around them. This, of course, is the irony of all images, of all cinema, which reveals itself to you like a lover (like the close-up on the screen before you), but remains untouchable, distant, pure intimacy and pure separation all at once. One can get closer, but never close enough.

Allan James Thomas

Midlife crises

Sideways, dir. Alexander Payne.

It would be easy to write off a film about two self-indulgent, middle-class men on a wine tour as, well, self-indulgent and middle-class. But that would only serve the two per cent of cinemagoers who have no soul. For everyone else, it is a tale of true-to-life men undergoing true-to-life crises. Sideways allows you to feel their quiet desperation in your guts.

Miles (Paul Giamatti), unpublished author and high school English teacher, takes actor buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a road trip punctuated by California vineyards and restaurants. In a few days Jack is getting married. This is their last hurrah. At least, that’s how it starts.

Miles is a depressed divorcée who can’t get his work published. Jack is a duplicitous husband-to-be who can’t keep it in his pants. As Jack and Miles move through California landscapes to the sounds of chinking wine glasses, getting their respective hearts and noses broken, they bond and unbond with a subtle charm.

The ‘loser’ varietal of American cinema is drawing big crowds right now, as the Western world comes to terms with how, in the face of globalisation, we each have the total potency of an ant in a snowstorm. Regrettably, many of these stories rely on the redemptive power of love in the context of the fairy tale—blonde supermodels fall for these middle-aged losers and, lo and behold, they’re losers no more. But in Alexander Payne’s films (Election and About Schmidt) the characters are, refreshingly, subject to a whole lot more reality.

Combined hilarity and beauty is Payne’s specialty, so when Miles is confronted by the sight of two fat people having sex, you can settle into your seat knowing that Miles’s redemption won’t be the automated, drive-thru kind. He’s not going to be handed a sexy 20-something and live happily ever after.

Paul Giamatti, following his success as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, proves once again that he plays the flawed man flawlessly. It’s a performance where you forget that somebody’s acting. Likewise, Thomas Haden Church’s Jack, whose womanising, egomaniacal journey is a stark contrast to Miles’s. Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, playing the two women who entangle themselves in the men’s small adventures, prove that you don’t have to be a teenager to be sexy or a man to do some serious damage to another man. And Payne’s direction is cinematic without being flashy, providing a buffet of information in every cut.

And of course there is the wine. Yes, Miles is a snob, but only in the sense that everyone’s a snob on the subject of their passion. His witty discussions of the vino, and how it informs his life, mean you don’t need to be a buff to understand. It’s an authority that is true of everyone. We each have our obsession, and in one perfect moment towards the end of this film, Sideways, if nothing else, will tell you something about that.

Zane Lovitt

Love hurts

Million Dollar Baby, dir. Clint Eastwood.

Movies that use sport, and more particularly boxing, as a metaphor for a life of struggle are nothing new, but in the hands of a master they can weave sublime emotion and physical reality into a kind of visceral poetry. And at his best, Clint Eastwood is nothing short of a masterly filmmaker. He has done for boxing what The Unforgiven (arguably his finest directorial effort) did for the western. That is, change the way we imagine a cultural standard, without abandoning its fundamental structures.

Frankie (Clint Eastwood) has a special gift for patching up fighters. He can stop the bleeding and keep a fighter in the ring. And he has one rule for his boxers (and himself)—always protect yourself. In the ring it works as a physical tactic, but out of the ring it throws something of a shadow over Frankie’s life. A shadow he tries to shake by attending church on a regular basis—every day for the past 23 years, in fact. Admirably pious his attendance may be, but with Frankie’s very particular personality, it’s enough to drive the local priest to curt religious explanations and creative expletives.

Whatever the demons are that Frankie harbours, they haunt him in a place that no one can reach, not even God. A painful estrangement from his daughter and a hard-bitten life have drained him, or at least subdued his desire to risk any part of his head or heart.

When Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) speedbags her way into Frankie’s gym, he is forced to reassess everything. Maggie needs to box, and she needs someone to believe. She needs Frankie. And with the daily church routine not providing any answers for Frankie, he needs her.

Million Dollar Baby is in turns inspiring and devastating. And in the hands of your regular Hollywood taleteller, it might have been a dog. But Eastwood has grace aplenty. He turns boxing into familial love and understands how brutal both can be.

The performances are all flawless. Eastwood works with an unnerving slowness. And while this may be nothing new for him, it still surprises. Swank draws Maggie hard and giddy, turning white trash into breathing reality. And Morgan Freeman, the film’s narrator, and Frankie’s only friend, transforms voice-over into a rich soundscape.

Million Dollar Baby is not about boxing or a woman’s right to be in the ring. It is a love story. A brutal, honest, devastating love story.

Siobhan Jackson

 

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