Alexander’s Not So Great-Stone’s Horny Hero Is a Bore

Oliver Stone’s Alexander, from a screenplay by Mr. Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, was partly inspired by Alexander the Great, the best-selling 1973 biography written by Robin Lane Fox, who also served as a historical consultant on the film. Curiously, Mr. Stone’s movie is entitled simply Alexander, unlike Robert Rossen’s seemingly forgotten though not entirely uninteresting 1956 film, Alexander the Great, with Richard Burton in the title role and a mostly British supporting cast that included Claire Bloom, Fredric March, Danielle Darrieux, Harry Andrews, Stanley Baker, Barry Jones and Peter Cushing.

That same year, almost half a century ago, American audiences were electrified by Laurence Olivier’s emergence as the most stirring heroic actor of the 20th century in William Shakespeare’s Henry V, which Olivier also directed. I mention Burton and Olivier here because they once played the kind of sexually uncomplicated and noble heroes to which we’ve become accustomed in the genre of epic historical spectacle. Of course, there’s also Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, with the far-ahead-of-its-time sexual ambiguity of its hypnotically blue-eyed hero. But Mr. O’Toole’s Lawrence was a very special case.

At a reported cost of $155 million, Alexander qualifies as a super-spectacle in every respect but one-namely in its neurotic, confused and sexually ambidextrous hero, played by Colin Farrell with a perpetual expression of apprehension because Mommy (Angelina Jolie’s snake-caressing Olympias) and Daddy (Val Kilmer’s one-eyed, tough-loving King Philip of Macedonia) wage an eternal war in Alexander’s damaged and tortured soul.

Unfortunately, the presumed mass of moviegoers needed to recoup the costs of this super-spectacle-which includes thousands of extras and all the digital technology that money can buy-can’t be expected tolerate a hero who needs to be told to either get a life or get a shrink. Don’t get me wrong: As an inhabitant of a capitalist country, I have profound respect for the $155 million that Mr. Stone spent on his venture, what with all the employment it provided for hordes of technicians here and abroad. But it’s foolhardy to challenge red-state prejudices with the blue states’ brand of sexually venturesome entertainments, such as Bill Condon’s Kinsey and Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, targeted toward a narrow art-house audience.

Mr. Stone does his damnedest to bolster his spectacle with an art-gallery erudition that exhaustively documents the transitions from one civilization to the next in Alexander’s relentless, hubris-driven march to the infinitudes of the East. Mr. Stone’s crowning achievement is an extraordinary visual epiphany between a rearing horse and a rearing elephant confronting each other in an ancient Indian jungle (played in the film by modern-day Thailand.) In short, the tumultuous battle sequences spare neither the horses, the elephants nor the warriors.

The fact remains that Alexander would never have been green-lighted if its hero hadn’t been touted in advance-in revisionist terms-as a bisexual man of action. Alexander’s role model, Achilles, seemed to be similarly sexually ambivalent in Homer’s Iliad, though not in Brad Pitt’s “straight” muscular rendering of the character in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. What of Patroclus? He was reduced in Troy to Achilles’ cousin and hence a kinsman, not a lover, to be avenged.

Mr. Stone tries to minimize what many consider the great divide between gay and straight by tricking up the gay love scenes between Alexander and Hephaistion (Jared Leto) with coded eye contact and a preference for fraternal bear-hugs over man-on-man lip-and-tongue action. By contrast, the one out-and-out straight marital-sex scene is jazzed up by a violently jealous Roxane (played by the Puerto Rican-African-Cuban-Irish-American actress Rosario Dawson), who pulls a knife on Alexander after she catches him fondling another man; much of the scene is played with Roxane topless. Ho-hum-so what else is new? Ironically, what was once a puritanical prohibition in Hollywood’s Production Code against the mixing of “races” has become merely a historical footnote to the current homosexual taboo.

The ultimate failing of Alexander, though, is its lack of urgency, tension and suspense-a failing reflected in the long interruptions in the narrative by authority figures like Christopher Plummer’s Aristotle and Anthony Hopkins’ Ptolemy, an aged former general in Alexander’s Macedonian army, to provide some perspective on the events unfolding chaotically in the story. I didn’t mind the History Channel lectures so much, because they at least liberated me, for a time, from the incessantly dismal whining and agonizing of Mr. Farrell’s Alexander.

Still, as a film historian, I respect the length and breadth of Mr. Stone’s serious-minded career sufficiently not to dismiss his current effort with undue haste and flippancy. Subtexts abound in Alexander, with or without its auteur’s conscious intentions. Hence, it’s impossible to contemplate Alexander’s hubris (not simply in conquering foreign lands, but also in absorbing alien cultures into his own) without thinking of our equally hubristic President of the United States, who seeks to impose the “will” of his God on other peoples with other gods.

Curiously, however, Mr. Stone doesn’t seem to avail himself of the alibi that all war movies are actually attacks on war itself, a barbaric activity reflecting the moral failures of supposedly civilized societies. Throughout his career, Mr. Stone has been no stranger to violence or even barbarism onscreen. He is, at least, free from the hypocrisy of pretending to deplore the very violence he’s exploiting to entertain his audiences.

Well, then, is Alexander worth seeing? The best I can say is that though it is very far from the top of my list of end-of-the-year recommendations, it is equally far from the very bottom.

Office Politics, Japanese Style

Alain Corneau’s Fear and Trembling, based on Amélie Northcomb’s autobiographical novel of the same name, turns out to be virtually a one-set movie involving a bizarre conflict of two cultures in the skyscraping offices of a giant, Tokyo-based Japanese corporation. The interplay of cultures here is far from Sofia Coppola’s comic romp Lost in Translation. Instead, Mr. Corneau’s film, like Ms. Northcomb’s novel, evokes the absurdist office routines of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener. However, Ms. Northcomb takes great pains to explain her strange obsession to become completely Japanese, even to the point of the most humiliating submission to one’s superiors-unlike poor Bartleby, who remains something of a mystery in his bizarre defiance of authority and routine.

Sylvie Testud plays Amélie, a Belgian woman who was born in Kobe, Japan, and never recovered from her childhood infatuation with Japanese civilization. When she signs a contract to work for the Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo, she resolves to immerse herself in the Japanese way of doing things. Eager to please her bosses and co-workers, Amélie performs the humblest tasks with diligence and enthusiasm. Her immediate supervisor is Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji), a classically sculpted Japanese beauty whom Amélie deeply admires. But in a series of office missteps, Amélie finds herself relegated to servicing the company bathrooms. Despite this and many other humiliations, she stoically refuses to resign-in Japan, one is seldom fired from a company, and so there are many occasions when employees lose face repeatedly, weeping instead in private.

The movie would be depressingly masochistic if we didn’t know that Amélie would eventually write a best-selling book about her experiences in Japan. But her tale is not simply a revenge story, either. What elevates Amélie’s voluntary self-abasement from an almost incomprehensible pathology is the voluptuous complicity with which she embraces her ordeal. Often, when she looks out the office window at the Tokyo cityscape, she can imagine herself flying high above the city, absorbing its very essence. Her devotion to all things Japanese thus becomes quasi-religious in its spiritual intensity. In what is essentially a two-actress vehicle, Ms. Testud and Ms. Tsuji are letter-perfect in capturing all the shadings of their characters’ passionately perverse relationship. The two also provide a film-ending punch line that perfectly sums up the paradox of their shared office adventure. Fear and Trembling is a must-see for any moviegoer looking for something really different.

Forgotten Lives

Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born into Brothels has deservedly made the Oscar nominations’ short list in the category of feature-length documentaries. The film is concerned with several stunningly charismatic children born to prostitutes in the red-light district of Calcutta, and the efforts of Ms. Briski, a New York–based photographer, to teach them to take photographs, which inspires them to look at their world with new eyes. Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman don’t sentimentalize their subjects, nor discount the long odds they face in finding new lives without an education. The uneducated girls, when they are older, will almost inevitably join their mothers on the streets, and the uneducated boys will face lives of poverty or crime.

Still, in the years that Ms. Briski spent with her subjects, she became a part of their lives. The photos they took of each other introduced an element of artistic permanence into existences that would otherwise have been heartbreakingly transient. The resilience that shines in the faces of these children, both in the photos and in the movie itself, makes one angry once more about the incredible waste of human potential caused by social and economic injustice. For these haunting faces alone, Born into Brothels is on my own short list for best documentary-or, preferably, nonfiction film-of the year.

In the Mood for Wong

Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (1991), his second feature, has come and just about gone from its one-week run at Film Forum, but you still can and should catch this stylistic gem on DVD. “Dreamlike” is a word that comes easily to mind in describing such Wong masterpieces as Ashes of Time and In the Mood for Love. In many ways, Days of Being Wild anticipated the overall pattern of its writer-director-auteur’s haunting career, with this genuinely wild story of casual sexual encounters and obsessions across East Asian locales traversed by rootless characters crammed up in Hong Kong’s dream factories.

Classic Noir

“Essential Noir” is the title of a film series at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110) consisting of 34 classics of American film noir being shown as 17 double features-remember them?-from Nov. 26 through Dec. 23. This truly essential slice of film-genre history opens with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson head the sterling cast of this cat-and-mouse game of crime and detection, with Robinson the cat and Stanwyck and MacMurray the greedy, murderous mice. The cast of Mildred Pierce (1945) is headed by Mildred Pierce herself, Joan Crawford as the long-suffering mother of the bratty Veda (Ann Blyth), who finally draws the line at taking the blame for a murder committed by her terminally spoiled daughter.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), with Tom Neal and Ann Savage, and Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross, with Burt Lancaster, Yvonne de Carlo and Dan Duryea, are more cult items than noir classics, but both have an impressively fatalistic spirit (shown on Monday, Nov. 29).

Abraham Polonksy’s Force of Evil (1948) has John Garfield making and losing a fortune in the numbers racket and an Old Testament brother (played by Thomas Gomez) sacrificed to the mob; Beatrice Pearson is the nice girl who sticks around to pick up the pieces (shown on Tuesday, Nov. 30).

Jules Dassin’s Naked City (1948) is the one dud in the series, but don’t miss Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), with Peggy Cumming and John Dall, and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949), with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. These are two extraordinarily moving love stories in the dark shadows of a gun culture (shown on Wednesday, Dec. 1).