Category Archives: 2004 Movies

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda almost didn’t get off the ground. You see, veteran supporting actor Don Cheadle is a favorite actor for directors but he’s not exactly box-office gold. Initial producers of Hotel Rwanda wanted none other than Will Smith to star. I don’t know about you good people but a sobering, challenging movie shedding light on the Rwandan genocide would lose some credibility if Smith was the above-the-title star. Producers also wanted Denzel Washington as a candidate; a better choice but still not right. The true-life portrayal of Paul Ruseabagina needed to be done by an actor that didn’t look like he could kick your ass. Paul was an ordinary man that didn’t ask to be a hero, not a hero looking for a fight. Cheadle was the perfect man for Hotel Rwanda. It just took a while for it to happen.

Back in 1994, Rwanda underwent a tumultuous civil war. In Rwanda, there are two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the minority Tutsis. Though the two look indistinguishable, there is an underlying tension because way back when Rwanda was under Belgian colonial control, the Belgians separated the Rwandan people by arbitrary rules like nose size, skin tone, etc. There is a rising tide of Tutsi resentment (radio propaganda refers to them as “cockroaches” needing to be exterminated). The Rwandan president has been assassinated and Hutu radio broadcasts are already pointing the finger at Tutsis.

Paul Ruseabagina (Cheadle) is a Rwandan hotel manager that stocks up favors by scratching the backs of the right people. The wheels of Rwandan authority need to be constantly greased, and Paul knows when to deploy a well-timed gift, joke, or bribe. Paul?s wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), a Tutsi as well as their children, is concerned when she starts seeing neighbors taken away at night. Paul assures her that their Tutsi relatives will be safe. Hutu rebels begin to start corralling neighborhoods to root out any Tutsis. Paul and his family retreat back to the hotel. As the violence increases more refugees arrive at the hotel for sanctuary, but Paul must keep the illusion that the hotel is still operational to ward off violence.

The United Nations promises to do something, but they remain only peacekeepers and not peace enforcers. The commanding officer (Nick Nolte) laments that he has only a handful of U.N. peacekeepers in charge of the whole nation. The United Nations and the West does do something: they evacuate all the white people. Citizens of Western nations are escorted out of the conflict, while they leave the rest of Rwanda to its own devices. Paul?s clinging hopes for Western involvement get bleak, and he assumes the responsibility for saving as many lives as he can, Hutu or Tutsi.

Cheadle gives one of the best performances of the year and he’s been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. The strength of his character’s power lies in Paul’s ordinariness. He’s not a figure of intimidation, nor is he some kind of altruistic saint. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List. Like Schindler, Paul is a man reluctantly pulled into risking his life for others and by the end he becomes consumed with saving as many lives as he can. Cheadle is so commanding that he can make you wince just by watching the weariness in his eyes.

There’s a moment late in Hotel Rwanda, where Paul is stalking the hallways trying to find his wife and children. And in an instant he suddenly remembers careful instructions he gave to his wife. Paul nearly bowls over with the sudden pang of terror but keeps his stride. It’s a sharp and powerful moment where the audience thinks alongside Paul and experiences the same awful gasp. In that moment, as well as countless others, Cheadle has worked his way so deep into his character that the two are one in the same. Cheadle has long been one of the most underrated actors, and now with Hotel Rwanda there is no doubt that Cheadle is one of the greatest living actors we have.

But Hotel Rwanda is not just a one-man show. Sophie Okonedo also garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Okonedo is no pushover and she does more than needle Paul when it comes to the well being of their family. She’s a strong, caring, thoughtful woman. What makes her even more impressive is that, as a Tutsi, she could be murdered at any time. She gives an equally powerful performance of a woman finding strength amongst her own fear.

Writer/director Terry George keeps the emotion high by smartly relying on restraint when telling his portrait of horror. The events of the Rwandan genocide are so appalling, that it would have been so easy, and even understandable, had George loaded his film with scene after scene of graphic violence to jar the viewer. However, George refrains from numbing an audience with violent depictions, and instead chooses quieter, more somber moments that turn out to be far more terrifying than just seeing blunt violence. Hearing an aid worker recount witnessing a massacre of children to wipe out the next generation of Tutsis will chill you to the bone. There are some disturbing moments, like when Paul takes a very bumpy ride in the mists, but George refuses to numb an audience and works our emotions to a breaking point.

Hotel Rwanda is sobering and very emotional, but you will also leave the theater with an overwhelming feeling of shame. It’s easy to watch films about dated atrocities like depictions of the Holocaust. You can say, “Well, I wasn’t alive. If I was, and people like me, surely we would not sit back and let such actions take place under our watch.” Not this time. Not with Hotel Rwanda. Everyone seeing Hotel Rwanda more than likely was alive in 1994, and we did exactly as a character warned: we watched what was happening on TV and went back to eating our dinners. Nolte’s U.N. rep tells Paul that the West refuses to see him and Rwandans as valuable (“You’re worse than a n****r [to them]; you’re an Af-ri-can.”). You?ll feel many emotions while viewing Hotel Rwanda and the deepest and longest lasting may be shame.

The film is clearly in the genre of “outrage cinema,” normally a genre that overpowers a viewer’s emotions. In lesser hands Hotel Rwanda would have been unrelenting to maintain a level of shock. George allows an audience to feel for the story’s characters before he lets the horrors loose. The result is that an audience attaches itself to characters because of who they are, not just because of the anguish they endure. As the intensity of the situation mounts we feel stronger ties to the people of Hotel Rwanda. That is good cinema.

Hotel Rwanda is an emotionally gripping portrait of the dignity found during our darkest days. George has skillfully created a sobering movie. Cheadle and Okonedo deliver wrenching performances as the faces of good amongst ongoing genocide. This isn’t like Black Hawk Down where the faces of screaming, angry black people merge into one black form the audience uneasily grows to hate. In Hotel Rwanda, the heroes are everyday Africans, the bad guys are everyday Africans, and the West is the apathetic referee unwilling to act. Hopefully after George’s film, it’ll be hard to hear about a million massacred and go back to eating your dinner.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Primer (2004)

I was intrigued about Primer because I had been told it was classy, smart sci-fi that’s so often missing in today’s entertainment line-up (see: Sci-Fi channel’s Mansquito). It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and the critical reviews had been generally very positive. So my expectations were high for a well wrought, high brow film analyzing time travel. What I got was one long, pretentious, incomprehensible, poorly paced and shot techno lecture. Oh it got bad. Oh did it get bad.

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) run a team of inventors out of their garage. Their newest invention seems promising but they’re still confused about what it does. Aaron and Abe’s more commercially minded partners want to patent it and sell it. Aaron and Abe inspect their invention further and discover it has the ability to distort time. They invent larger versions and time travel themselves and thus create all kinds of paradoxes and loops and confusion for themselves and a viewing audience.

Watching Primer is like reading an instruction manual. The movie is practically crushed to death by techno terminology and all kinds of geek speak. The only people that will be able to follow along are those well-versed in quantum physics and engineering. Indeed, Primer has been called an attempt to make a “realistic time-travel movie,” which means no cars that can go 88 miles per hour. That’s fine and dandy but it makes for one awfully boring movie.

Primer would rather confound an audience than entertain them. There is a distinct difference between being complicated and being hard to follow. You’d need a couple volumes of Cliff Notes just to follow along Primer‘s talky and convoluted plot. I was so monumentally bored by Primer that I had to eject the DVD after 30 minutes. I have never in my life started a film at home and then turned it off, especially one I paid good money to rent, but after so many minutes of watching people talk above my head in a different language (techno jargon) I had reached my breaking point. Primer will frustrate most viewers because most will not be able to follow what is going on, and a normal human being can reasonably only sit for so long in the dark.

I did restart Primer and watched it to its completion, a scant 75 minutes long. The last 20 minutes is easier to grasp because it does finally deal with time travel and re-staging events. It’s a very long time to get to anything comprehensible. I probably should watch Primer again in all fairness but I have the suspicion that if I did my body would completely shut down on me in defense. Some people will love this and call it visionary, but those will be a very select group. It’s not just that Primer is incomprehensible but the film is also horrifically paced. When you don’t know what’s being said and what’s going on then scenes tend to drag because there is no connection. This movie is soooooo slow and it’s made all the worse by characters that are merely figureheads, dialogue that’s confusing and wooden, and a story that would rather spew ideas than a plot.

Writer/director/star Shane Carruth seems to have high ambitions but he has no empathy for an audience. Films can be dense and thought-provoking but they need to be accessible. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is a sci-fi mind bender but it’s also an accessible, relatable, enjoyable movie that’s become a cult favorite. Carruth also seems to think that shooting half the movie out of focus is a good idea.

I’m not against a smart movie, nor am I against science fiction that attempts to explore profound concepts and ideals. What I am against, however, is wasting my time with a tech lecture disguised as quality entertainment. Primer is obtuse, slow, convoluted, frustrating and pretentiously impenetrable. After finally finishing Primer I scanned the DVD spine and noticed it said, “Thriller.” I laughed so hard I almost fell over. The only way Primer could be a thriller is because you’ll be racing the clock for it to finish.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Closer (2004)

A funny thing happened to me when I sat in a theater to see Closer. It was packed, surely due to the film’s heavy star power. As the film played out I began to notice that my audience was laughing consistently, at moments that weren’t necessarily meant for humor. I don’t think they were laughing at the film, instead I think it was a defense. You see, I’m sure the majority of those couples read Closer to be a much different film than it is. They saw the pretty faces of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts. They were expecting something, let’s say, lighter than the cruel savagery of Closer. When America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts compares the taste of two men’s semen, you know this isn’t any Gary Marshall movie (forgetting Exit to Eden, and please do).

Dan (Jude Law) is an obituary writer planning to pen a novel one of these days. He locks his eyes on Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper from the States, while walking one day. She gets hit by a car and Dan takes her to a hospital. Flash forward and Dan and Alice are dating but his eyes are already wandering. During a photography session with Anna (Julia Roberts) he kisses her but is spurned. He takes his revenge on some soul in cyberspace, pretending to be Anna and arranging a meeting. That sap turns out to be Larry (Clive Owen), and they actually do start dating. Then things get messy. Couples leave one another, get back together, swap lovers, and come crawling and begging for forgiveness or punishment. The rest of Closer is like a long game of relationship Red Rover.

Director Mike Nichols has a definite affinity for his four actors (they are the only ones in the film with speaking parts). He shoots Closer as an actor’s showcase, with constant close-ups and no handheld camerawork. He places the emphasis on his actors. The results are more familiar to Nichols’ early films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. However, Closer isn’t as insightful as it thinks it is. It presents cruel characters doing dastardly acts, but this is stuff that wouldn’t impress Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men). There is intelligence to the film?s dialogue but it’s wasted on a ramshackle story.

The acting of Closer both helps and hurts the film. It seems that the two primarily wronged characters (Larry, Alice) give the better performances.

Owen is the standout performer of the ensemble. Playing the Dan role onstage has given him an intimate feel for the story’s characters. He’s the most decent of all four until the weight of circumstances finally pushes him to the limit. He’s the character the audience sees themselves in, so it helps that Owen gives a great performance of quiet dignity and slow self-destruction. He expresses more emotional turmoil in his eyes than most actors do with their whole body. Portman is having a breakthrough year for herself. First she showed pluck and grace in Garden State, and now with Closer she has graduated to the adult table. She radiates a fragility that makes you want to hug her. Portman will probably always look like a little doll (which works for her role as a stripper).

The beauty of Roberts and Law hurts the ugliness of their characters. I make no bones about my general dislike of Roberts as an actress. Her acting in Closer is like a soft-spoken, pouty child. She jumps from man to man, looking sullen or pensive, but comes off more petulant. Law is better, but his handsome devil is not in the details. Dan is a womanizing cad but we never get any understanding for why he acts as he does. Law can be hypnotizing, but like Roberts, his pretty facade takes away from the impact of Dan’s ugly behavior.

Despite the title, you get no closer to getting to know or understand the characters. It’s really almost a stretch to call them characters because they’re more accurately different positions in an argument. The only characterization Closer has to offer is suffering and inflicting suffering. Closer really has one voice coming out of the mouths of different pretty actors.

The film has the annoying habit of skipping ahead in time and not telling the audience. We’re left to catch verbal asides that time has passed. After a while you’ll get the hang of it simply by assuming that the beginning of every new scene is the start of a new date in time. Closer is nothing but a string of uncollected scenes, usually involving people leaving a lover or starting a new fling. The actors come on, do their part, then they leave and we move on to a different scene. This is not staged as a movie.

The trouble with Closer is that it never really feels like it’s going anywhere. There’s no progression. Sure, couples swap, people get revenge, but the connection of sequences is lacking. The way it is, Closer could have gone on forever. It’s a series of scenes smashed together, not a story that rises and falls and builds to a climax.

Closer is an exploration into the darkness of human behavior starring some of the prettiest actors Hollywood can spare. The story goes nowhere, the ending doesn’t accomplish much, the characters lack convincing depth, but some of the acting is good and there is a ray of intelligence to the film. Fans of the above-the-title actors should enter Closer with caution. It’s a dark film with little to feel good about. Closer is brooding, moody, and probably the first and last time we?ll hear Julia Roberts talk about the taste of semen. Unless, of course, Gary Marshall starts pre-production on Exit to Eden 2: Rosie O’Donnell’s Bondage Boogaloo.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby, much like its fledgling female boxing character, has come out of nowhere and made a considerable deal of noise. This little homespun film directed by Clint Eastwood didn’t have the glitz and sheen of other awards friendly movies, but now it seems that Eastwood?s own baby may clean up come Oscar time. Can Million Dollar Baby tackle the enormous hype surrounding it? Yes and no.

]Frankie (Eastwood) is a hardened boxing trainer too concerned for his fighters’ welfare to allow them to fight in championship bouts. He’s the kind of cynical old man that enjoys pestering a priest and causing him to unleash an F-bomb. Frankie and his longtime friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman) run a rundown gym and talk un-sentimentally about their older days as prize fighters. Then along comes Maggie (Hilary Swank), a 32-year old waitress who’s got nothing to believe in except her possibility as a boxer. She wants Frank to train her into the champ she knows she can be. He refuses saying he doesn’t train girls. She’s so determined she won’t take no for an answer. Frank finally agrees, especially after some help from Scrap, and starts to teach Maggie everything she needs to know to be a star pugilist. The two begin to open up to each other emotionally and Maggie seems destined to become a force in the ring.

Million Dollar Baby‘s greasiest attribute is its trio of knockout performances. Swank owns every second of this movie. She’s unremittingly perky, conscientious but also dogged, stubborn, and irresistibly lovable. Swank embodies the role with a startling muscular physique and a million dollar smile. Her performance is equal parts charming and heartbreaking. Maggie’s the heart of Million Dollar Baby and Swank doesn’t let you forget it for a millisecond. Come Oscar time, I’m sure she will be walking onstage to grab her second Best Actress Oscar in five years.

No one does grizzled better than Eastwood, and maybe no other actor has made as much of an acting mark by squinting a lot. Million Dollar Baby is probably his best performance to date, though for a good while it sounds like Frank has something lodged in his throat (pride?). Frank has the greatest transformation, and Eastwood brilliantly understates each stop on the journey until landing in a vulnerable, emotionally needy place.

Freeman once again serves as a film’s gentle narrator. There isn’t a movie that can’t be made better by a Morgan Freeman performance. His give-and-take with Frank feels natural and casual to the point that it seems improvised on the spot. Freeman unloads some great monologues like he’s relishing every syllable, chief among them about how he lost his eye. It’s wonderful to watch such a great actor sink his teeth into ripe material and deliver a performance that may net him a long-awaited Oscar (I think he’s due, and likely so will the Academy).

For whatever reason, Eastwood is hitting a directing groove in his twilight years. First came Mystic River, an ordinary police whodunnit made exceptional by incredible acting. Now Eastwood follows up with Baby, an ordinary sports film made extraordinary by incredible acting. Hmmm, a pattern is forming. The cinematography is crisp and makes great use of light and shadow to convey emotion. Eastwood’s score is also appropriately delicate and somber. The boxing sequences are brief but efficient.

Million Dollar Baby is a very traditional story that is at times surprisingly ordinary. Maggie’s the scrappy underdog that just needs a chance, Frank’s the old timer that needs to find personal redemption, and Scrap?s the wise old black man. Once again, an old curmudgeon takes on a rookie and in the process has their tough facade melt away as the inevitable victories pile up. Million Dollar Baby is a very familiar story but then again most boxing tales are fairly the same in scope.

What eventually separates Million Dollar Baby from the pack is its third act twist. You think you know where Eastwood’s film is headed, especially given the well-worn terrain, but you have no clue where this story will wind up. The plot turn deepens the characters and their relationships to each other in very surprising ways. You may be flat-out shocked how much you’ve found yourself caring for the people onscreen. It almost seems like Eastwood and company have used the familiar rags-to-riches underdog drama to sucker punch an audience into Million Dollar Baby‘s final 30 minutes. We’re transported into an uncomfortable and challenging position, and Eastwood won’t let an audience turn away.

Million Dollar Baby is not the colossal masterpiece that critics have been drooling over. For one thing, the group of antagonists is not nearly as textured as our trio of leads. They’re actually more stock roles that further enforce the ordinary story of Million Dollar Baby. Maggie’s trailer trash family is lazy unsupportive batch of stereotypes. The evil female boxing champ just happens to be a German who doesn’t mind playing dirty. One of the boxers at Frank’s gym is an arrogant showboat just waiting to be nasty while the teacher’s back is turned. Million Dollar Baby excels at showing depth and humanity with its lead trio, yet it seems if you aren’t in that circle you’re doomed to wade in the shallow end.

Eastwood shows that great acting and great characters you love can elevate a common framework. The package may be similar to a lot of films before about scrappy underdogs, but Million Dollar Baby lacks comparison in its genre when it comes to its enthralling acting and characters. The father-daughter bond between Frank and Maggie is heartwarming. The final reveal of what her Gaelic boxing name means may just bring tears to your eyes. The results are a very fulfilling movie going experience, albeit one that regrettably may not live up to such hype.

Million Dollar Baby has been showered with heapings of praise and become a formidable Oscar contender. The story treads familiar waters but its outstanding acting and deep and humane characters elevate the material. The film can’t match the hyperbole of critics but Million Dollar Baby is an ordinary but greatly satisfying ride led by compelling acting. The film hums with professionalism and seems to just glide when everything comes together magnificently, particularly in that last 30 minutes. Eastwood is hitting an artistic stride and it’s actually exciting to see what Clint will do next. Million Dollar Baby may not be a first round knockout but it definitely wins by decision.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Beyond the Sea (2004)

I really don’t think a lot of people know Bobby Darren. It seems that today most people would recognize him from singing “Beyond the Sea” over the closing credits of Finding Nemo. He wasn’t supposed to live past 17 but went on and wrote 400 plus songs including “Mack the Knife,” “Splish Splash,” and “Dream Lover.” Seems like there could be some interesting ground for a biopic. Kevin Spacey is one of our most celebrated actors and earned two very well deserved Oscars. Spacey has a strong passion for Darren and has been dreaming of portraying his life story for years. Passion is good for a role, right? Sam Raimi had passion for Spider-Man and look how those movies turned out. Well, with Beyond the Sea it seems that Spacey is less passionate about Bobby Darren and more passionate about his love of Kevin Spacey.

The film opens with the 37-year-old Darren (Spacey) reliving his life via a biographical movie he’s filming (yes, it’s a movie-within-a-movie). With the help of a younger movie self as a guide, Darren traces his rise from the streets of Brooklyn to headlining the Cococabana club. As a young child, doctors feared that Darren wouldn’t outlive his teens with his weak heart. Bedridden often, he found inspiration in music with his flamboyant yet supportive mother (Brenda Blethyn). Darren is driven to succeed and soon lands on top of the charts with a string of hits. Next he?s starring in movies with Rock Hudson and Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), a chickadee that Darren is just as determined to succeed with. They marry, have a child, but Darren doesn’t feel fulfilled. He needs to push his music further whether or not it alienates everyone around him.

If you thought Beyond the Sea was the story of Bobby Darren, you’d be pitifully wrong. It’s really the story of Kevin Spacey, actor/writer/director/singer/dancer. That’s why we get to see flashy, superfluous dance numbers, that’s why we get to watch Spacey sing 12-15 times, and that’s why Spacey went to the trouble of re-recording all of Darren’s songs so that?s it?s Spacey belting out the tunes. Because, remember, this is a film about Spacey, not Bobby Darren.

Spacey is also much too old to be playing Darren, who died suddenly at age 37. He comes off lechery, especially during his courtship with the young Sandra Dee. Spacey isn’t unaware of this problem because in the opening minutes of Beyond the Sea someone accuses Bobby Darren of being to old to play himself in his movie. The response: “He was born to play this part!” There you go folks, case closed.

The acting in Beyond the Sea isn’t really an issue. Spacey has a genuine bounce to his song renditions and proves to be a capable dancer. John Goodman plays yet another gruff but lovable sidekick. It’s always good to see Bob Hoskins onscreen, no matter what the role may be. Bosworth comes away the best as she shifts from stars-in-the-eyes naiveté to a harder edge (you may rethink that whole song from Grease).

The dialogue is played so straight that it’s often hilarious: “Memories are like moonbeams, we do with them what we like.” With all due respect, what the hell does that mean?! I think I get the idea but what can anyone really do with moonbeams? If this line isn’t bad enough it becomes a central idea for Beyond the Sea which Spacey/Darren uses to excuse his flagrant gaps in time and fact.

Beyond the Sea gets so caught up in the Kevin Spacey Variety Hour that it fails to tell its audience why they should even care about Darren. Was he an inspiration because he outlived doctor expectations? Did he liven up old songs? Was he a remarkably versatile talent? Who knows? You’re on your own. Spacey’s too busy singing and dancing to explain the relevancy of Bobby Darren or why this movie should even exist.

There must be some interesting facts about Darren. I did not know that he wrote “Splish Splash” let alone that he wrote the whole song in 20 minutes. I didn’t know Darren required a toupee at such a young age. That stuff is interesting. It’s too bad it all takes a back seat because Spacey wants to emphasize his singing. Seriously, I get it; you can sing, Kevin Spacey. Can I see more of Bobby Darren and less of Spacey now?

Beyond the Sea portrays Darren so single-mindedly. He’s always focused on his music and nothing else, whether that be a budding acting career (he was nominated for an Oscar), the advice of his friends, or the love of his family. Darren kind of comes across as a self-centered jerk a lot of the time in Beyond the Sea.

I don’t know which is worse, Spacey the director or Spacey the writer. It’s not that he’s inept at either end but he just makes decisions that kill the material. There has to be a better framing device than having Darren star in a movie about his life. There have to be better transitional ideas than having New York City explode into choreographed dances. To top it off, when the movie reaches its very protracted climax, we see the adult Bobby Darren in a tap duet with his younger self. Beyond the Sea loses whatever earnest intentions it had and melts away into one strange metaphysical song and dance revue.

Beyond the Sea has been a pet project for Kevin Spacey for so long that the focus has shifted from Bobby Darren to Spacey himself. This movie exists so that Spacey can celebrate himself. To say Beyond the Sea is a showcase of megalomania would be an understatement. Many scenes exist for no reason other than to give Spacey another opportunity to dance or sing. Re-dubbing all of Darrens songs seems a tad unnecessary and a whole lot about ego. Die-hard fans of Darren or Spacey may enjoy Beyond the Sea, but most people will grow tired of seeing Spacey congratulate himself for being an autuer. This is a self-indulgent nightclub act posing as a film. Memories are like moonbeams, and I’m forgetting this movie as fast as possible.

Nate’s Grade: D

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Deep in the heart of WWI trenches, we begin this sprawling tale by narrowing in on five French soldiers. Each man has been accused of self-inflicting a wound to escape service, and each man is sentenced to spend the rest of their likely short lives in No Man’s Land, the stretch of bare land between the two trenches. One of these men is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a young country boy engaged to the charming Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). When she learns his fated punishment and fails to hear word from Manech, she steps out to launch her own investigation into the possible whereabouts of Manech or the possible details of her fiancé’s demise. She enlists her family, solicits strangers, and puts ads in newspapers to unravel the truth. Along the way she hears various stories from all sorts of people and attempts to form them into a clear picture of what went on in that trench, good or bad.

A Very Long Engagement could be flippantly described as “Rashomon in a trench,” but from the get-go it grabs you by the lapels and will not let go. Once again, Jeunet tells his story in a criss-crossing narrative. Front and center we learn about each doomed man’s life in snapshot, and while the device has a slight eulogy feel, it’s a fantastic way to show the depth of characters in such brevity. A Very Long Engagement is an immeasurably rich film where each detail is threaded into the film to create a magnificent artistic tapestry beyond compare. The tiniest details in the film like Mathilde’s tuba playing (the only instrument whose sound mimics a distress call), to the mail carrier choosing to slide his bike over gravel just further enhance the vibrant, animated world of Jeunet.

Jeunet is quite possibly the most visually gifted director working today (he turned down Harry Potter 5). He couldn’t film an ugly shot composition if he tried with all his French might. As expected, A Very Long Engagement is gorgeous to look at. The production design is massively intricate, the cinematography, while computer assisted, has a shimmering radiance to it. This is simply the best looking film of all 2004, Hero be damned. You could pause any second in this film and use it as a glossy postcard. Jeunet has the technical credentials to fasten together complex and beautiful worlds. A Very Long Engagement is a technical marvel and gorgeous to experience.

Tautou, also as expected, is wonderful once more. She’s the anchor of the film and the audience feels every heartbreak and glimmer of hope this talented actress explores. The supporting cast is full of familiar Jeunet players and each performance adds to the richness of the film. They feel like characters and not stock roles or cliches.

There is some difficulty with following the storyline. There are so many subplots built upon other subplots that the film’s momentum takes a bit of a dive in the second act. A Very Long Engagement can also get very confusing when it comes to remembering so many names. There are maybe 30 characters to keep track of and as the subplots mount new characters are added to the pile, including a widow played by a surprisingly fluent Jodie Foster. It’s best to employ some kind of memory trick to keep the many colorful characters of Jeunet’s world straightened.

The focus of A Very Long Engagement is on Mathilde’s investigation into what really happened in that trench. She wants to know what happened to her beloved, and as her search picks up steam we get further glimpses of her relationship with Manech. One of my biggest problems I had with 2003’s Cold Mountain was that Jude Law was travailing through hell and back to get back to his beloved Nicole Kidman even though their relationship pre-war lasted as long as a Super Bowl commercial. It’s not that I disbelieve the overpowering nature of love, but I need more from my characters than shifty glances and a quick ejaculation of love (get your mind out of the gutter). Now, in A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet opens by showing the measures Manech will endure to return to his beloved, however, as the film goes on we also see enough peeks into the depths of their relationship beforehand, which dates all the way back to when they were children

A Very Long Engagement forges such a grand and sweeping love story that the audience gets just as immersed as Mathilde about the search for her man. There are so many lovely, intelligent moments between Mathilde and Manech, like their first sexual encounter. Every time Manech lights a new match Mathilde removes an article of clothing until, under the soft light of the newly lit match, she’s nude and blows the match out herself. The characters’ overriding love also taps into small truisms like when Mathilde makes arbitrary games for herself to ensure her love’s safety. (“If I can count to ten before that car passes, then he is alive.”) Mathilde’s faith and devotion are driving her investigation and the audience is behind her 100% of the way, fully invested in this mystery. When we reach our conclusion, I don’t mind telling you I was bawling like a baby.

The film has a merry whimsical tone during its origami-like narrative, but when it hits the trenches the film gets down and dirty. Jeunet shows a fascinating view into the hardships of everyday trench life as well as the machinery of death. Storming the other side’s trench, or “going over the top” as it was called, is seen in all its sordid features. There are hearty splashes of blood and gore that can be jarring.

There’s one terrifying scene in A Very Long Engagement involving the explosion of a makeshift hospital. The hospital is inside a hangar for zeppelins (hydrogen gas) and a missile has crashed into the roof with its nose sticking inside. One of the zeppelins becomes loose and slowly floats to the missile nose with unforgivable certainty. People are running around trying to shield themselves from the inevitable, but it does nothing. The moment is played so agonizingly slow that we become overwhelmed with terror. This was the life of WWI warfare.

Having said this, the stark war violence doesn’t exactly gel exceedingly well with the whimsical romantic elements. For some, A Very Long Engagement will seem like two very tonally different movies butting heads and intruding upon the other (perhaps Amelie Goes to War?). Sometimes it does take a while to adjust to one tone after spending time with the other. I feel that the emotional investment in the characters and the anticipation of unraveling the mystery serves as thematic glue over the disproportionate tones. Some will feel chaffed by the two stark tones, but I think the power of the love story will conquer most hearts into experiencing the bloodshed of war to earn the shedding of tears by the film’s romance.

Jeunet has re-teamed with Tautou and created another masterpiece. A Very Long Engagement took hold of me from the start and mesmerized me with its beauty, grace, cruelty, excitement, and warmth. This is a great mystery and a great love story with great visuals and great characters. The opposing tones (whimsy vs. violence) won’t work for everyone, and the film takes one too many divergent paths in the middle, but A Very Long Engagement is a film of such startling originality and feeling that it should be treasured. I was floored by what Jeunet had to offer and deeply moved by the time I had to leave the theater. They don’t make them like this much anymore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.

Nate’s Grade: A

Ocean’s 12 (2004)

In 2001, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven was a giant surprise. It was a blast of fun with an impressive collection of Hollywood royalty. It had clever dialogue, fun characters, and a gala of amusing plot twists. It was one of the breeziest, most entertaining movies in years. Now, come late 2004, Ocean’s Twelve is released with the entire cast returning, including the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones in tow. Expectations are high for another glitzy romp, but what you’re left with in Ocean’s Twelve is all glitz and no romp.

It’s been three years after the gang robbed ruthless casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of 160 million dollars. Benedict tracks down each member of Ocean’s Eleven and gives them the same ultimatum: either pay back what they stole, with interest, in two weeks or they’ll be killed. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) leaves his attempts at normal home life with Tess (Julia Roberts) and reassembles the team, many of whom have burned through their shares of the millions. Danny and his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt) figure they’re too hot stateside so they’ll need to travel overseas if they’re to steal their fortunes. Linus (Matt Damon) also wants to have a greater role in the heist this time around.

In Europe, Ocean is challenged by a French playboy (Vincent Cassel) who moonlights as the notorious thief, the Night Fox. The challenge is to see who can steal a priceless Faberge egg, and if bested the Night Fox promises to pay all of Ocean’s debts to Benedict. Hot on the heels of both thieves is Isabel (Zeta-Jones), an expert police officer that also happens to be the former girlfriend to Rusty.

Ocean’s Twelve does not work as a heist picture. For starters, the audience has no idea what’s going on for most of it. A general heist movie bylaw is to explain what the heist will entail, and then we watch the team hit it step by step. Forget that. In Ocean’s Twelve we’re never told how they are going to do their heist, and as they commence with their plan it’s not surprising to an audience, only confusing. I had to wait until the very end for some character to go into a monologue to explain how they accomplished their heist, and let me say, it was not worth two hours of waiting and scratching my head. The result seems to push away an audience instead of involving them in the fun of the scheme.

The story doesn’t utilize the talents of the assembled members. There’s a reason you hire a demolitions expert or a pick pocket, and that’s to let them work their skill. Well in Ocean’s Twelve we get none of that. Most of the cast’s skills are not ever put to use, which further gunks up a heist movie. The movie really errs by putting many of its eleven on ice for long stretches of the film. Around the second act almost everyone gets arrested. Pity poor Bernie Mac, who is in jail for near the whole movie. It seems that Soderbergh doesn’t know what to do with all his characters, and the new additions, so he stashes them away for long stages of time hoping an audience won’t notice.

Soderbergh is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. His usual narrative flourishes are present, including jumps in time and perspective; however, they don’t add up to much except unnecessary showmanship. The nonlinear leaps and shell game of information do not add to the film. Soderbergh keeps his audience in the dark for too long and then cheats us with the ending. Ocean’s Twelve is a good looking film (the vistas look beautiful), but it’s a good looking movie with nowhere to go. What’s even more frustrating is the ending to Ocean’s Twelve. You see, in the end we find out that the last hour plus of the movie was unnecessary. Yes, the movie actually makes a reveal that nullifies over half of the film. It’s cheap and unappreciated. Ocean’s Twelve, there’s a difference between tricking an audience and conning them. Maybe some day you’ll realize this.

The new storylines never really develop. Zeta-Jones doesn’t add much besides another authority figure to chase after Ocean and the boys. Her subplot involving finding her master thief father is abrupt and easy. The best new addition to Ocean’s Twelve was the prospect of a rival, but again nothing really happens with our French thief. He’s more of a catalyst for the plot than anything else, and it’s a shame, because he could have opened the door for a great film pitting two competitive teams of thieves against each other.

Ocean’s Twelve is too satisfied with itself to be that entertaining. It’s now actually reminiscent of the 1960 original film (my grandmother swears it’s wonderful, take that for what you will), starring the Rat Pack. Plot and logic are secondary to a bunch of cool characters having fun. I really enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven (the 2001 film, not my grandmother’s preferred version), but this new sequel lacks any charm and verve. I can’t even say there were many good scenes, just some good ideas that they didn’t fully actualize, like stowing Yen in baggage and then losing their luggage (nothing comes of this). There’s a fun scene involving Topher Grace spoofing his own micro-celebrity, but beyond that many of the scenes and ideas don’t seem developed. The best moment of Ocean’s Twelve, for me, was when I saw Eddie Izzard, the funniest man on the face of the Earth and then some, chat with Hollywood’s A-list on screen. God bless you Eddie Izzard.

Ocean’s Twelve wilts in comparison to its witty, effervescent predecessor. Ocean’s Eleven was fun and hip but didn’t need to coast on star appeal. It had a believable heist, engaging personalities, and it was fun because we knew what was going on and it mattered! I’m sure the cast of Ocean’s Twelve had a blast making the movie together, and their friendly camaraderie shows, but when I left the theater I felt like I had been stuck with the bill for someone else?s good time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Michael Moore Hates America (2004)

Mike Wilson is an ordinary guy. He saw some of Michael Moore’s documentaries, listened to some of his interview bits, and didn’t appreciate what he saw and heard. But unlike the rest of us, Wilson grabbed a camera and did something. He spent the next couple years scouring the country trying to score an interview with Moore and reevaluate some of his assertions. Wilson’s final product is Michael Moore Hates America, a small but potent documentary that’s far sweeter than the title may have you believe.

With camera in hand, Wilson travels around the country to find out what ordinary Americans have to say about Moore’s viewpoints. He visits Flint Michigan, Moore’s self-proclaimed hometown (his real hometown is a middle class suburb) and finds success stories. Wilson interviews various figures from Moore’s films, like bank workers in the opening of Bowling for Columbine and an amputated soldier shown in Fahrenheit 9/11 without his knowledge. Wilson also speaks with some of Moore’s fans who chillingly declare not to care if Moore misleads or makes up facts, because to them the end justifies the means. All the while Wilson hunts for his interview with Moore but is rebuffed at every pass. Moore even goes on air saying Wilson and his movie do not exist at all.

Wilson weaves three subjects into his film: 1) an analysis of Moore’s filmmaking tactics and statements, 2) a look at what America means to people, and 3) Wilson?s own hunt for an interview with Moore. Wilson’s interview pursuit resembles Moore’s own dogged pursuit of an interview with General Motors CEO Roger Smith in 1989’s Roger and Me.

Michael Moore Hates America is the best of the rebuttal films because Wilson smartly refrains from preaching. He doesn’t stick to party rhetoric or unleash baseless claims without supporting evidence. The name may seem mean spirited and spiteful, but Wilson’s film may be one of the most fairly balanced looks at politics and film in recent years. This is an attempt to understand why Moore does what he does, and if his actions are honest. Wilson is tackling more than Moore’s questionable tactics; he’s examining the nature of documentary film itself. Is it even possible to be objective when it comes to documentaries? Wilson interviews, among others, legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter) and Penn Jilette (of Penn and Teller fame) and gets insights into the troubles of objective editing, context, and overriding agendas.

Michael Moore Hates America is pleasantly well made and articulated. This isn’t some ribald shout-fest. It isn’t some home movie made in someone’s basement either. Wilson’s pacing is tight and he knows when to use humor to assist his points. An animated game show called “Six Degrees of Conspiracy Theory” is a fun way to deflate Moore’s contention about why Disney dropped Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s a shame Wilson doesn’t go back to this segment again. There’s also a funny montage of Moore backing unsuccessful political candidates, topped off by him predicting George Bush senior would eat Bill Clinton alive. It’s a fun sequence but it also proves Wilson’s point that Moore isn’t necessarily mirroring the views of America despite his claims. There is an actual thematic reason for its inclusion in Wilson’s film.

The most frustrating thing about Moore, as Wilson’s film agrees, is the needless sleight-of-hand when it comes to the facts. It’s not too difficult to make President Bush look foolish; just give him enough rope to hang himself. Nor is it too difficult to make a convincing argument that the war in Iraq was misguided (All you’d have to do is quote the 9/11 Commission’s report). But Moore has the maddening habit of putting two images together, or separate pieces of information, and creating meaning when there was none before.

Take for instance Heston’s post-Columbine speech in Bowling for Columbine. In Moore’s film, we see harrowing security camera footage of the school massacre, and then Heston pops onscreen, rifle in non-cold, non-dead hand, proclaiming defiance. Moore narrates that Heston and the NRA came to Denver shortly after the tragedy as a shameless PR ploy. Not so fast. As Wilson’s film illustrates, Moore has cut and pasted different speeches into one false, defiant statement. The image of Heston clenching the rifle comes from a NRA gathering a whole year after Columbine. The NRA had a Denver gathering scheduled a week after Columbine and was legally obligated to hold the gathering because there wasn’t enough time to contact its millions of members and reschedule. Events in Bowling for Columbine seem a tad different when the harsh light of truth shines upon them. Wilson questions why Moore needs to fudge facts so egregiously to deliver his message.

While watching Michael Moore Hates America, one gets the distinct impression that Moore cannot take criticism of any kind. One subject calls it Moore’s Achilles’ heel. Wilson attends a Moore speaking engagement at the University of Minnesota. He steps up to the mic, requests a brief interview, tells the name of his film, and Moore shouts him down, talks over him, and then cuts Wilson with 7,000 people cheering. Afterwards, some fans do come up to Wilson to comment on his courage or disapprove of how Moore refused to listen to differing points of view. Moore’s die-hard fans seem to refuse to entertain any notion that Moore’s films could be anything but gospel truth, and it’s a shame they’ll likely never view Michael Moore Hates America.

Wilson even finds himself in some sticky ethical situations. He gets an interview from the mayor of Moore’s hometown by disingenuously telling him that he?s making a film about the appeal of small town America. Wilson prods the mayor for any info on local celebrities. Later, Wilson feels so guilty about misinforming the mayor that he sends him an e-mail apologizing and being upfront about his true intentions. The scene is both surprising and slightly amazing to witness, because it speaks volumes to the brevity of Wilson’s ego. It’s quite something that Wilson actually went through with the apology, but it’s even more impressive that he put the whole incident in his own movie. You think Moore ever sent an e-mail to the people he’s misinformed in his films? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Michael Moore Hates America does have some non-authoritative talking heads. Quotes about the violence in Canada and the resurgence of Flint are not necessarily all encompassing, but I think Wilson is just trying to show different sides of an argument and not the end of an argument.

Ultimately, Mike Wilson has created a good-natured rebuttal. Michael Moore Hates America may be a visceral title, but the movie is a balanced, intelligent, above average examination on Moore and the nature of the documentary film field. Wilson doesn’t rely on misinformation and emotional appeals; he’s looking at all the evidence and instructing us to judge for ourselves. Moore?s fans and enemies would be equally entertained to see what Wilson has captured on film.

Nate’s Grade: B-

National Treasure (2004)

The premise for National Treasure, the newest Jerry Bruckheimer action film, is something of a mess. According to the film, during the Crusades a magnificent treasure was found. The Knights Templar swore to protect it, and the Masonic order carried the vow through the ages. The founding fathers of the Unites States were among this Masonic order, and they went about hiding the fabulous riches and set up a series of elaborate clues to discover its whereabouts. These clues include symbols on the back of our currency and, get this, a secret invisible message on… the back of the Declaration of Independence. Yes, the Declaration of Independence is a treasure map. The silly premise for National Treasure equates the Declaration of Independence with a Denny’s place mat. Can something this outlandish make for a good movie? Well, it depends on your working definition of “good.”

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is somewhat of a laughing stock amongst his peers. His family name is cursed with the crazy belief in some long lost treasure hidden by the founding fathers. His father (Jon Voight) rues the family name being attached to such foolish theories. Of course such foolish theories in Hollywood are always right, no matter how stupid (did I mention the Declaration of Independence is a treasure map?). Ben and his treasure hunting partner Ian Howe (Sean Bean) find a definitive clue, but then Ian double-crosses on Ben and, gasp, wants the treasure for himself. This turns into a race to see who can steal the Declaration of Independence, though Ben wishes to steal it to protect the document and the treasure. Along the way, Ben teams up with a techno-nerd (Justin Bartha) and a hot government official (Diane Kruger) to crisscross historical monuments and sites to unravel the clues before Ian can.

National Treasure is dumb. Little to absolutely nothing makes sense in this film. This is an obvious, embarrassing attempt to ride the popular coattails of The Da Vinci Code and Americanize the quest. Except that National Treasure really comes across as some half-baked movie version of a kid’s educational game show.

There are so many holes, so where do I begin? First off, why would the founding fathers make it so pointlessly, hopelessly elaborate to find this stockpile of treasure? I’m talking crazy complicated, like having one clue involve finding a ship buried in the Arctic Circle. Yes, the Arctic Circle. Supposedly, the founding fathers decided to hide the treasure because they didn’t want the British to get their grubby, nice-fitting gloves all over it. Something tells me that the founding fathers had more important things going on, like, oh I don’t know, a war! It’s purely absurd to have Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and all the rest more interested in hiding some treasure than breaking from England and building an independent nation based on their ideals.

There are some other head-smackers, like the fact that an assembly of clues has been left entirely undisturbed in 200 plus years, like a single special brick. And, for that matter, how does Cage cut through mortar so easily with just a pocket knife? If there’s a gigantic catacomb under D.C., then what’s holding up the city? How come 200 year old oil still burns as well? Wouldn’t that have dried out by now?

Cage reverts back to his manic show-offy character behavior. In Bruckheimer movies, Cage seems to have theoretic spurts here and there, like he keeps sticking some extremity in an off-screen light socket. He’s generally likeable but his character comes across more like some social studies teacher’s daydream. Bartha and Kruger add less-than-snappy one-liners, but their presence never becomes grating. Bean seems to be playing the stock bad guy role he always is, whether it be GoldenEye, Don’t Say a Word, or Patriot Games.

Sure, even the Indiana Jones films had plot holes (how does closing your eyes guard you from the wrath of God?) but their thrilling adventures overcame any quibbles. National Treasure, on the other hand, is an adventure lacking anything thrilling. This is the first action film to put me to sleep. I can forgive an action/adventure flick being dumb but being boring is a capital offense.

The action sequences in National Treasure are never fully thought out; they usually involve Cage and his cronies outrunning Sean Bean’s group of thugs (repeat). The film’s best moment is the actual theft of the Declaration of Independence. This is the lone sequence in the film that feels like thought was put into drawing out suspense, thinking of natural and interesting complications, and, surprisingly, having the sequence not be overcome by idiocy. After this scene, National Treasure descends into ill-conceived chase scenes strung between crazy elaborate clue hunting. By the time the film reaches its anticlimactic ending, you may have rustled through your change, eyeing the backs of quarters and dimes to ensure there’s no hidden message about a sequel.

National Treasure is a ridiculously stupid, inexcusably boring, ineptly plotted historical adventure for people who get their history solely from movies. Bruckheimer and Cage have an up-and-down partnership, but National Treasure starts with the worst film premise of the year and can?t go much further. Fans of clue-hunting adventure tales may excuse the gaping plot holes, and National Treasure has found a sizeable audience willing to go along for the ride, but the movie doesn’t contain much thrills, entertainment, or anything historically resonant. National Treasure should have stayed buried.

Nate’s Grade: C

Alexander (2004)

I was standing in a theater weeks ago and saw a large banner for Oliver Stone’s epic about Alexander the Great. I listed the names; Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto. This had to be perhaps the greatest assembly of pretty actors ever in a motion picture. There’s a whole lot of sex appeal there, and Anthony Hopkins, as the film’s reflective narrator, isn’t too shabby looking himself for a man his age. After having seen Alexander, it’s safe to say the actors sure are pretty but the movie is far from it.

Alexander (Farrell) is one of the greatest historical figures. He rose to become a Macedonian king, dominated much of the known world before he was 30, and then died mysteriously at a young age. In flashes to his youth, we see Olympias (Jolie) coaching young Alexander on his future glory. Standing in her way is one-eyed King Phillip (Kilmer), Olympias’ husband though not the father to Alexander. She frets that he will sire a direct heir to the throne, and upon Phillip’s assassination, Alexander reaches new heights. He travels to Babylon with the purpose of avenging his father’s death, rumored to be paid for by Persian gold.

Alexander keeps traveling east conquering new lands but returning kings to their rule and assimilating “barbarians” into his armies. His generals begin to question Alexander’s actions, especially his surprise marriage to an Asian peasant woman (Dawson). He is unable to sire a male heir with her. Hephaistion (Leto), Alexander’s childhood friend and lifelong lover, worries that Alexander has become power hungry and distrustful of those around him. Many of his men only want to see home after seven years of battle. After defeat in India, Alexander decides to turn back but he never sees home again.

photo_27For such a lavish biopic, Alexander seems fairly remote. We don’t really get to know much about the psychology of Alexander. He’s a historical figure with equal parts good and bad ready for debate, but whenever Alexander does hit some of its star’s less-than-stellar moments, it seems to gloss right over them. Hopkins will narrate about some town that resisted, then we’ll see a quick image of it burning, and then we move on. Or we’ll see a slew of dead army officials and Hopkins will say, “He slaughtered all he felt were responsible for mutiny, but I’d expect any general to do the same.” There are several moments where we’ll hear Alexander massacred a town, or sold people into slavery, and then we get the next scene. It’s quite comical, almost as if Hopkins is a tour guide at a museum saying things like, “And then Alexander ate all of the first born babies. Moving on now…”

There are just so many awful laugh-out-loud, loopy moments in Alexander. It’s not enough that Jolie speaks in some bizarre accent; to make sure the audience understands that she’s duplicitous she has a snake wrapped around her in every scene. I’m not kidding; every scene that Jolie is in she has snakes coiled around her.

There’s a moment late in the film that is so hilariously dreadful, it’s hard to believe what you’re seeing. Hephaistion has caught ill and is on his death bed. Alexander is wrought with emotion but then strolls over to a window and begins another huge speech that ends up being all about his glory. What makes the scene go from bad to I-cannot-believe-they’re-doing-this bad is that Hephaistion, in the background, is convulsing and dying. You see his body tense up, twitch, leap into the air, and practically do some kind of triple axle, all while Alexander speechifies blithely unaware. I challenge anyone not to laugh.

Stone needlessly complicates his film with flashbacks, giant leaps forward in chronology skipping Alexander’s rise to respected leader, and skittish hallucinations. Stone is accustomed to breaking up the chronology of his films, but Alexander is too long and too campy to play around with for effect.

The acting of Alexander is set to overkill. Farrell seems miscast and doesn’t have the weight to carry such a historically meaty role. He looks pretty, and he can snarl like a pro, but the only thing worse than his overblown performance is his terrible blonde hair. This just wasn’t the right role for this talented actor. Jolie is so naturally seductive that she could have played her role mute and been effective, maybe more so. Kilmer seems to be working some kind of Irish accent but he comes off the best of the three. Leto gets overshadowed by his bangs.

Alexander also seems to speed over its star’s bisexuality. It wasn’t uncommon for men to bed both sexes, but the movie seems terrified of portraying anything beyond longing glances. Alexander and Hephaistion are reduced to some whispers here and there, but the limit of their physical affection stops at hugs. It actually is kind of funny the amount of times they hug, which I think is over five. You can tell the filmmakers wanted more but then were like, “Eh, let them hug again.” In some weird turn, it seems the film shows more depth with Alexander’s relationship with his horse than with his lifelong lover.

For a three hour movie about a military man who conquered much of the known world, there’s a shocking lack of action. Alexander has two action set-pieces and then that’s it. The first set-piece is a battle between Alexander and the vastly numbered forces of the King of Persia. The battle lasts twenty minutes and is disjointed, bloody, and perfectly indicative of the confusion of war. Stone cuts back and forth between majestic aerial shots showing the progress of battle and hand-to-hand combat amid the sand and dust clouds. Stone also labels certain sections of the armies, which gives a greater understanding of the battle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this battle is the highlight of Alexander.

The only other action set-piece comes very late in the movie. Alexander’s forces have marched all the way into India. Warriors on the backs of monstrous elephants stampede onward to intercept Alexander’s armies. This battle is also chaotic, and Stone utilizes a lot of quick point-of-view shots like people getting squashed by pachyderms. The action is satisfying if a bit over the top (a warrior gets impaled on a slow-moving elephant’s tusks), that is until Stone goes off the deep end. Alexander gets wounded in battle and suddenly the film switches tints, bathing everything in reddish and bright neon hues. Everything has a tin outline. It’s rather ridiculous and unfortunately reminds me of Ralph Bakshi’s misguided animated Lord of the Rings.

photo125gkThat’s all you get for action, so I hope you like speeches rich with superfluous historical name-drops, because that’s what Alexander is all about. I’d bet money that nearly an hour of this three-hour opus involves people delivering speeches. Alexander rallies his men, Phillip talks about the Greek tragedies, Olympias strokes Alexander’s greatness and need for kingship, his generals talk about his decisions, and then we get endless moments of Alexander talking about a new world, bringing people together, and respecting other cultures. Alexander seems to go dead as soon as some character pulls out a soapbox. Worst of all, many speeches involve lots of historical references that an audience cannot be expected to keep up with. The overall effect is like listening to an unwanted party guest drone on. Alexander may be trying to talk to death his enemy.

What makes all of this worse is that the dialogue and the drama are so melodramatic. The center of Alexander’s creaky psychology is a domineering mother and a scornful father who scream at each other a lot. Whenever someone has a disagreement in Alexander they resort to over emotive screaming. You may start tuning the actors out after awhile. Much of the dialogue is terrible, but there is the occasional howler line like, “It is said that the only defeat Alexander suffered was Hephaistion’s thighs.” You may concur with Alexander’s men and want to return to your family as soon as possible after watching this.

I was trying to think how something like this, so misguided and off the rails, could chug along without a peep from someone saying, “Hey, maybe this isn’t working.” Then I got it. You see, Alexander is Oliver Stone. Both men are revered for previous victories, both men are generals that take full control of their armies, and both men are fiercely stubborn. If someone questioned Alexander’s decisions, chances are they could be killed. Now I’m fairly certain Stone wouldn’t go that far (there may be many graves dug over the grumblings over U-Turn), but I can see how difficult voicing dissension might have been.

Stone’s long in the waiting Alexander epic is bloody, ponderous, exaggerated, talky, sumptuous and off-the-charts loony. This is a giant mess only a visionary director could amass. Only historical junkies might be entertained by Alexander, and the rest of us will just be glazed over. We never get to really know Alexander, nor do we even get our money’s worth for action, so unless you click your heels to the thought of hours of speeches, skip Alexander. Trust me, it’s far from great.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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