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DVD Review: Alexander/Gladiator

By Glenn Abel

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photo "Newly inspired, faster paced, more action packed!" shouts the DVD cover of Oliver Stone's "Alexander: Director's Cut."

That new inspiration came the hard way: from the lashing "Alexander" took from legions of critics and from the $150 million film's humiliation at U.S. boxoffices.

Director Stone took the opportunity to re-edit key scenes, lengthening here and shortening there. A pair of flashbacks from Alexander the Great's youth now appear later in the film, shaking up the third act and making the epic less linear. But not necessarily better.

A "beautiful and so tender scene" between the king and his male lover hits the floor as Stone tones down the bisexual content. "I can't tell you how many 'real guys' are turned off to this shit," Stone explains.

"Alexander II" loses only eight minutes from the original three-hour running time, though, and the elements that inspired all that hooting and cackling remain: Colin Farrell's goofy blond locks, Alexander's Irish brogue, the odd casting of Angelina Jolie as his mother, Jolie's Natasha the cartoon spy accent, and so on.

Those drawn to the DVD by the promise of an improved and intensified film won't have an experience differing all that much from the one in theaters. But, as Stone has pointed out, they won't be subject to the herd mentality of a cinema audience.

Expecting little -- and equipped with pause buttons -- many first-time viewers will wonder what the fuss was over regarding this offbeat and mostly entertaining biopic -- probably best approached as an overgrown sword-and-sandal movie, a guilty pleasure.

"We operated in that Cecil B. DeMille-William Wyler-David Lean tradition," Stone says. "It's wonderful to have that (to follow)."

Warner Home Video has released "Alexander" in two double-disc sets: Stone's new cut and the original theatrical. Both retail for $29.95. The two versions are not available in one package, unfortunately, and fans springing for both sets will be disappointed to find nearly identical extras. Images are widescreen (about 2.40:1) with brilliant colors and steely sharpness when it is called for. The 5.1 audio deploys the battle scenes with efficiency (no DTS).

Stone works solo on the director's cut commentary. He points out the new changes and offers brief explanations for making them. The goal, basically, was "to keep it moving." Much of Stone's talk is repeated on the theatrical DVD's commentary, which patches in observations from historical adviser Robin Lane Fox. Stone does a good job, but the commentary with Fox is stronger and listeners can learn a lot about Alexander and his times.

Fox, an academic from Oxford, spent 30 years tracking Alexander the Great and is the author of a major biography. He devoted three years to Stone's film. Surprisingly, Fox seems delighted with some of the director's rewrites of the historical record. Some scenes are "pure imagination" while others are "absolutely spot on," he says cheerfully.

Here's Fox putting into perspective the arrival of Alexander's "sheep herder" troops in Babylon: "It's as if people from Sudan had suddenly overrun New York."

Stone has done his homework, as usual, and digs into such historical detail as the weaknesses of the Persian army and Alexander's drinking life. Comparisons of the film's Alexander and George Bush were merely "revisionist," he says. Of the chaotic and sometimes hard-to-follow battle scenes, Stone allows, "Some people get it and some people don't."

The director has almost nothing to say about the film's boxoffice woes or its critics. He offers no mea culpas. Of the much-questioned casting of Jolie as Alexander's snake-charmer mother, he says, "I never felt that problem (of Jolie and Farrell being the same age). She is really older in spirit than Colin."

Disc 2 features an hour-and-a-half documentary directed in ragged but effective style by Stone's son Sean. His total access resulted in an unusually candid portrait of a production working through a swarm of problems in lands such as Morocco, Thailand and India.

Stone often shoots his father emerging from shadows, Kurtz-like -- whispering, mumbling, talking in circles as he ponders his film and his fortunes.

"Who can tell us exactly how things were (in the ancient world)," he intones. "We read the stories, pottery, fragments, bones, pictures ... but we don't know."

The director seems surprised his epic was ever financed. "(The press) thought my career was finished. ... Colin Farrell was regarded by many as a joke -- let's be honest." Funding ultimately came from about 20 sources, mostly foreign buyers.

Sean Stone's docu makes the rounds of the major actors, but its tone is far from promotional. "I love being in drag," tough-guy Farrell says. "I can be in drag and my sexuality isn't questioned." How does the actor pick his roles? "I go for the cash."

Vangelis pretends to be scoring the film in a brief extra. The movie's frenzied teaser and trailer are included, both are faster paced and action packed.

photo "Gladiator," conqueror of the Oscars, seemed to make almost everyone happy back at the turn of the century. The Russell Crowe starrer returns for another ovation Aug. 23 in an "extended edition" three-disc set.

Crowe makes his debut as a DVD commentator, looking back at the globe-trotting production with his pal and director Ridley Scott. Their talk is spirited and informative, light on the Roman history and heavy on production anecdotes. The men seem to be having a great time, especially when busting on co-star "Joaq" Phoenix, a nervous Nellie during filming.

Crowe rides Scott about his late-in-the-game decision to have the hero killed off: "It's cost us hundreds of millions of dollars. Great idea, mate! We could have been on 'Gladiator 10' by now."

Scott points out some of the new scenes, which add 17 minutes to the film. "People who have enjoyed this movie in its short form, they're going to like the hell out of this."

The new-to-DVD extras sprawl across discs 2 and 3. Among the best is a new documentary that, unbelievably, rarely drags over its three-hour running time. A must-see chapter is "The Heat of the Battle," about staging the warfare. It captures Scott making battlefield decisions: "I need something really brutal. Chop his fucking head off."

A 25-minute segment covers the curious tale of Oliver Reed, who died three weeks before the end of production. The visual effects team shows how their digital resurrection of the actor averted $26 million in reshoots. Reed talks about the film on-set, looking hardy and engaged.

The DreamWorks set (retail $39.99) includes the theatrical version (MM A.D.) and the new extended cut (MMV A.D.). Widescreen visuals on a test disc were first-rate, as they were on the first DVD, released in 2000. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1. Alas, the generous audio options on the original disc, such as DTS ES, have been reduced to a Dolby Digital 5.1 track.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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