Friday, June 13, 2014

Alexander: The Ultimate Cut Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Alexander is based on the true story of one of history's most luminous and influential leaders; a man who had conquered 90% of the known world by the age of 25. The film chronicles Alexander's path to becoming a living legend, from a youth fuelled by dreams of myth, glory and adventure, to his intense bonds with his closest companions, to his lonely death as a ruler of a vast empire. The film stars Colin Farrell as Alexander, Angelina Jolie as Queen Olympias, Val Kilmer as King Philip II, Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy, Jared Leto as Hephaistion, Rosario Dawson as Roxana, Christopher Plummer as Aristotle, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Cassander. Stone's Ultimate Cut represents the director's fourth version of the film, which, at 206-minutes, is actually shorter than the previously released 213-minute Final Cut.

Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
I can't think of any other filmmaker who has been given the chance to revisit and re-cut his film more than Oliver Stone has with Alexander, other than perhaps George Lucas. There's now four versions of Alexander; the original theatrical cut that ran 2 hours and 55 minutes, then the Director's Cut at 2 hours and 47 minutes, then the Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut at about 3 hours and 34 minutes long, and now for the tenth anniversary of the film's release, this new Ultimate Cut runs 8 minutes shorter at 3 hours and 28 minutes long with an intermission. As someone who bought the Director's Cut and then the Final Cut, I have to admit that I was peeved at the sight of each new release. And now we have supposedly the last effort by Stone to shape Alexander into the film he always wanted but was unable to deliver before due to the film's rushed release and the violence and sexuality that troubled some of the movie-going public.

As Oliver Stone later said, "Originally, I did my best to deliver a thrilling movie on a very brief post production schedule, but was frustrated in the end because I wanted the material to tell Alexander’s story with greater nuance and complexity." So with this new Ultimate Cut, Stone went back to the outline of his original script which he feels reflects his vision of the film. According to Stone, “I’ve tried throughout this process to achieve what I believe is the appropriate balance between the inner and outer journeys undertaken by this extraordinary man. Free from earlier constraints, I’ve continued to pursue this great story, and I think I have at last achieved a film that tells a story as it has never been told.” To achieve that goal, Stone has added and deleted scenes and rearranged the structure of the film into something entirely new.

The overall story of Alexander doesn't change that much in this latest version, as the core story remains the same as it tells the tale of the rise and downfall of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell), who conquered Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia, and was in the process of obtaining India when it all unravelled. The previous versions of the film were presented in a fairly chronological order from Alexander's youth spent in a tug of war between his two parents, King Phillip (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie), to his days as a conquering hero. In this Ultimate Cut however, Stone starts the film with the Battle of Guagamela instead of leaving it as the end of the first act like before which throws the viewer right into the action which I really liked. I've always liked movies that that kick off in the middle of the something exciting like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars did. It's a much better choice that to watch a young Alexander mope around for a half hour before anything happens.

From that point on, the film goes back and forth in time as the rest of Alexander's story is filled in. Although this version is just eight minutes shy of having the longest running time of the four different cuts, it seemed to move the quickest. By cross-cutting the past with the future, Stone keeps the film moving a lot more in this version and it's a welcome change. I didn't feel that the jumping around hurt the film or made it less understandable. From his youth spent learning from Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) along with his best friend Hephaistion (first Patrick Carroll and later Jared Leto), to his assimilation of most of the known world in his adulthood, it all made sense and was framed well by comments from Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) throughout the film. What none of the versions have done well though is to give us a reason to care about Alexander or to understand why he felt he needed to take over the world and rename each city Alexandria. Was it simply megalomania or something more such as the emotional baggage he carried from his adversarial parents?

It doesn't help that Colin Farrell is badly miscast as Alexander. Farrell is a good actor when given good material, but in this film he never really seems to grasp his character. Part of the blame falls to the script that does nothing to make Alexander less like a cypher to the audience. Farrell put his all into the role but it just wasn't enough. The supporting cast fares much better but all of them are only briefly on screen. Jolie and Kilmer are great as the parents, Hopkins does his usual awesome job as the narrator, and Jared Leto, Johnathan Rhys Meyers, and Christopher Plummer do the best they can with the small roles that they've been given. Rosario Dawson gives a fierce performance as the barbarian woman Roxane who Alexander marries, but she is quickly phased out of the movie.

There's just so much that Stone wants to include in this movie (both events and characters) that the movie has a hard time balancing them all. This would have made a much better miniseries on HBO than as a movie. It's a shame because it's obvious that this is Stone's dream project and there's many fantastic scenes where he actually nails it and you can see what he was going for. It's unfortunate however, that's there's also scenes that don't reach those artistic heights despite everyone's concerted efforts. Like Alexander himself, the one thing that this film doesn't lack is ambition and even if it doesn't fully work, it's still an admirable effort from a master filmmaker.
Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Both of these 1080p (2.40:1) transfers offer an excellent picture full of bright bold colors and fine detail. Both the Theatrical Cut and the Ultimate Cut share the same quality as both seem to have been assembled from the same source. Detail is very focused and fine with even the smallest points of interest shown in perfect clarity. Colors are also are presented in all of their glory especially with all of the pageantry on display. Black levels are solid and inky and even scenes in a dark cave are easy to discern. There's also no sign of wear and tear on this print as it looks pristine with no digital defects to mar its appearance. 
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
Both of Alexander's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes also very impressively deliver their sonic power across all of the channels. The front channel does a nice job conveying the clean sounding dialogue while the rear channels provide the real power with all of the sounds of battle and mayhem as well as the quieter moments too. They deliver an accurate surround field that envelops the viewer and surrounds them with both atmosphere and sound effects. The score by Vangelis also comes across very well without overshadowing the dialogue or the effects. This is a very good lossless mix that fans of the movie(s) will be pleased to hear on Blu-ray. 
Extras (5 out of 5 stars)
Since Warners was kind enough to include both this new Ultimate Cut and the Original Theatrical Cut (which has never been released on Blu-ray before), I'll cover the extras on both discs.

Disc 1: The Ultimate Cut -
  • Commentary with Oliver Stone - I really enjoyed listening to Oliver Stone's commentary for this movie as I found him to be candid about the film's shortcomings and the aspects of the film that he was immensely proud of. He makes no secret at how important it was for him to bring Alexander and his world to life. His thoughts and comments about the film also helped me to appreciate the film more as did the other extras that showed just how much effort was put into this movie. 
  • The Real Alexander and the World He Made This thirty minute discussion involves Oliver Stone, his second unit director and military advisor Dale Dye, and a collection of scholars and historians who talk about Alexander and his importance to the modern world. 
  • Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone's Alexander - At an hour and sixteen minutes long, this is the one extra that you need to see if you only want to see one. This is an excellent documentary from Oliver Stone's son Sean, who filmed the behind the scenes challenges and triumphs that his father faced while making the film. We hear from just about everyone involved in the making of the movie from the cast to the crew and it's a fantastic look into the film. This is the same extra that was also included in the previous release of Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut.

Disc 2: The Theatrical Cut -

These extras have been ported over from the previous Theatrical Cut that was released on DVD and some of these even appeared on the Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut version too. 
  • Commentary with Oliver Stone and Robin Lane Fox - Oliver Stone and Robin Lane Fox talk about the film from different viewpoints. Stone of course is focused on the film itself while Fox shares his expertise as an historian of ancient Greece from Oxford University and who also was the film's historical advisor. It was interesting to hear how both men viewed the discrepancies in history's record of Alexander's life and what they though was the appropriate way to fill in those gaps.
  • Featurettes - The theatrical cut includes several featurettes from the earlier release including: "Resurrecting Alexander", "Perfect is the Enemy of Good", "The Death of Alexander", and "Vangelis Scores Alexander". All of these are in standard definition and run around thirty minutes each except for the Vangelis one which is under five minutes long. These are made up of behind the scenes footage shot by Oliver Stone's son Sean and they are all fascinating to watch. We see the struggles that Stone faced in making the movie and just how direct and profane he could be. It's refreshing to see a director tell it how it is and even more impressive to see it be actually included in the extras.
  • The Art of Alexander - We also get a book that's filled with storyboards, pictures from the production, and some behind-the-scenes pictures as well.
  • Correspondence - As part of this set, we get to see copies of letters written by Oliver Stone to the cast and one from Anthony Hopkins to Stone. .
  • Stone's Alexander: A Scholar's Perspective - A look at the film from Ivana Petrovic, Senior Lecturer in Greek Lecturer at Durham University.
  • Trailers 
  • Ultraviolet copy of the film
Summary (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Alexander may have overreached and fallen short in some ways, but I'd prefer to watch a film that had too much ambition that one that plays it safe and ends up being formulaic and a waste of time. The overall cast is great in their roles, but I do believe Colin Farrell wasn't quite right for this role. This Blu-ray marks the fourth release by Warners and Stone and I believe it's the best version of the bunch. The video and audio are fantastic and the extras are just as good. I especially liked the documentaries by Sean Stone that really delivered the making of the film as if you were there struggling along with them. 

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