Ancient Tides

Ancient Tides

The fundamental yea-nay on Oliver Stone’s Alexander (Warner Bros., 11.25) will hinge, I’m guessing, on one basic thing.
Has Stone sufficiently channeled the times of Alexander — the beliefs and core values that provided a sense of identity, cohesion and destiny to players in the period from 356 to 334 B.C.? Has Stone sufficiently imbedded his film in the bedrock faiths and realities of that time and culture?

And in so doing (that’s if he’s accomplished this), has Stone resisted inevitable studio pressures that he (a) reimagine Alexander’s life so it unfolds in synch with the attitudes of 2004 youths, and (b) that he adopt a competitive video-game attitude in the shooting of action scenes (i.e., make it play like The Matrix by stuffing in all kinds of inorganic CG crap, like Wolfgang Petersen did here and there in Troy).
In short, if Stone has shown more loyalty to the legend of Alexander than to his own fortunes, the movie will probably satisfy.

I’m thinking this way because I watched the new MGM Home Video DVD of Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great on Tuesday night. There are some vaguely underwhelming or unsatisfying elements in this 1956 film, but it does feel like some kind of realistic visit to a long-gone ancient era, and not just some 1950s Eisenhower-era revamp.
It’s interesting (and perhaps encouraging) that the same basic theme has been used in Stone and Rossen’s films.
The marketing slogan for Alexander is “fortune favors the bold.” Rossen’s film begins with the voice of his Alexander (i.e., Richard Burton) saying, “It is men who endure toil and dare danger who achieve glorious things. And it is a lovely thing to live with courage and to die leaving behind an everlasting renown.”
Rossen delivers a truly riveting scene around the two-thirds mark, following Alexander’s defeat of the Persian forces led by Darius.
Knowing they’ve been beaten and not wanting to be executed, a few top-level Persian officers kill Darius as a kind of warped tribute to the victor. A few hours later Alexander arrives and finds the slain body of Darius. He assembles some captured Persian officers and stands before them. Here’s how the scene plays from here on:

Alexander: Let the man who slew my enemy come forward, for I seek to honor him.
No response.
Alexander: Let him fear not, for I swear by the gods and by the life of my mother Olympias that I will make him renowned and exalted over my troops.
A Persian general clops forward a step or two on horseback.
Alexander: Why did you betray, make prisoner and finally murder Darius?
Persian general: I did not act alone! We all agreed that such an act would win favor in your eyes.
Alexander: And the crown of Persia which you had the arrogance to place upon your head. You won hatred and death.
Persian general: You swore falsely!
Alexander: No. You. For he was both your lord and your kinsman, and you swore loyalty to him. I repeat my oath. You will be exalted above my troops. Impaled upon a stake and there be left for all men to see and remember that only a king may slay a king.

Ben Agonistes

I’ve been feeling sorry for Ben Affleck for a while now. And now he’s gone from being a guy in need of career corrections to a man sinking in quicksand.
After the indisputable triumph of his Changing Lanes performance two and half years ago, the impression (if not the actual economic reality) is that Affleck has been in one thud-like film after another — Gigli, Daredevil, The Sum of All Fears, Paycheck, Jersey Girl.
And God help him, but he may never get that Jennifer Lopez relationship skunk-smell off his clothes. It’ll take ten years for people to forgive him for that…if ever.

And now there’s Surviving Christmas (DreamWorks, 10.22), which has the earmarks of another wipe-out.
I missed the screening earlier this week, but a respected Los Angeles critic who didn’t told me yesterday that it’s close to being a total failure.
The printed reviews so far haven’t been Gigli-level, but they’re in the vicinity.
Village Voice critic Jessica Winter is calling it “a horror show….a ghastly comedy [emitting] the subliminal whine of a sucking chest wound,” adding that “the sorriest sight is Affleck himself, who helplessly yelps, mugs, and bugs his eyes, his face frozen in a panicked rictus as if J.Lo were screaming at him from off-camera to bring her cuticle cream.”
And Cinema Blend’s Michael Brody has called it “an offensive, unfunny lump of coal masquerading as a charming stocking-stuffer.”
Affleck plays a well-off guy who tries to reconnect with old Xmas memories by paying a family occupying his former childhood home $250,000 to let him stay with them during the holidays.
I know all about this. That’s partly why I don’t want to see Surviving Christmas. We all want what we used to feel about Christmas when we were nine years old. The answer to this is “bah, humbug.” Get in touch with your inner Scrooge McDuck and ignore those f***ing sleighbells. It’s the only way. I look at Xmas the way I look at Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
The only good thing Affleck has done in a long while was play political commentator on MSNBC and CNN in Boston during last summer’s Democratic National Convention. He was fantastic in that guise. It almost felt like a rebirth.

I’m totally serious in suggesting that Affleck run for President ten or fifteen years from now. By the time he’s in his mid 40s the country will be ready. If Reagan can do it, so can Ben, and he’s got a few million more brain cells than Reagan ever had. He should run in either 2016 or 2020.
There is one hopeful Hollywood sign on the horizon right now. Affleck’s next feature is Man About Town, about a Hollywood talent agent whose groove comes undone when he discovers his wife is cheating on him and that his journal has been swiped by a reporter out to trash him.
I’m encouraged for two reasons. One, it sounds like there’s a Changing Lanes dynamic in this (i.e., a chance to play another yuppie prick suffering a life crisis). And two, the writer-director is Mike Binder, whose most recent film, The Upside of Anger (New Line, early ’05), is well thought of.

Sputtering

My car — a 1991 Nissan 240 SX — has seen better days. It’s lately become a metaphor for my daily Hollywood Elsewhere routine. It has a cool-looking hot-car facade with a sputtering engine desperately in need of a good mechanic. Better yet, I need a visit from the makeover artists with MTV’s Pimp My Ride. Yeah, I know…they only upgrade beaters belonging to under-25s.
My car starts up decisively and has a fair amount of power, but it needs a lot of valve work. The timing is off. You should hear it try to impress the other cars when we’re sitting at a light…impress them by not stalling out, I mean. But the black paint job looks moderately cool and presentable as I’m rolling down Beverly Boulevard.
Sometime later today (Wednesday, 10.20) I have to transcribe a hotel-room interview I did yesterday with Laura Linney, and then a couple of audio-taped interviews I did with the Sideways crew up in Santa Barbara a few weeks back.

Sideways finally opens this Friday, but I think I should leave this alone. I’m kind of Sideways-ed out at this stage. If I say one more time it’s one of the year’s finest films and an absolute must-see, somebody out there might get resentful and some kind of ripple effect could kick in.
All right, here’s my last Sideways plug.
It’s possible to resent a film without having seen it. I feel this way about Peter Jackson’s King Kong and it’s only three or four weeks into shooting.
I wanted to vent my suspicions about this film with a column called “Kong Watch,” but I was strong-armed into submission by Jackson goons who told me bluntly that if I ran “Kong Watch” I would suffer greatly. Jackson can put out those online video reports about the progress of filming down in New Zealand all he wants, but a contrary view from me and it’s off to the rack.
I will not be silent. Beware this film. Beware the body-suit acting of Andy Serkis. Beware Jack Black’s balls-to-the-wall Carl Denham. Beware any director of a Kong remake who’s said he wanted to give the line “it was Beauty who killed the beast” to the late Fay Wray. Beware these things and more.

That Sinking Feeling

“Grow some cojones about the election, will ya? Jeez, every week you get all weak-sister about how `Oh, my, the election is over. The Dems are losing it,’ etc. The one losing it is you.
“Here are three things to consider to help you grow some hair on your balls, for fuck’s sake:
“(1) Yes, undecideds/swing voters tend to break for the challenger.
“(2) A recent electoral tally put it at 175 Kerry, 169 Bush, and each getting 63 from states said to be leaning towards one or the other. Then comes the 16 battleground states, where in recent polls Kerry has been on top in 13 of them.
“(3) This year will set a record for newly registered voters, millions from two very key groups, youth and minorities, that historically get missed in polls. Think Minnesota ’98. Mark my words, come Nov. 3rd you’re gonna see a helluva lot of new stories that everybody should have looked more closely at this.” — Kenny NotG.
“Relax, Jeffrey. All is well. Go to electoral-vote.com. Our boy is in fine shape. This is shaping up to be the exact inverse of 2000, in that Bush may win the popular vote and lose the electoral college, in one of the greatest cosmic fuck-you’s of all time. We’re going to prevail. Good always triumphs over evil…c’mon. Don’t you believe in the pictures anymore?” — David Koepp, director-screenwriter (War of the Worlds, Secret Window).

Trip North

Apologies to Mark Fishkin, executive director of the Mill Valley Film festival, but the story I was going to run in today’s column about my visit there last weekend will have to wait until Friday. The guy you told me to e-mail about photos never got back to me.
Here’s a shot taken Sunday afternoon of my rental car parked on the side of Route 25. I was on my way back to Los Angeles when I was suddenly hit with a massive urge to pull over and go to sleep. I did just that and conked out for 45 minutes.
The other two pastoral shots are of crop fields a couple miles east of San Juan Batista. The final one was taken at the corner of Larabee and Sunset on Sunday evening, about an hour after I returned.

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