The big push is on, clear through Christmas to the Oscar nominations, and not a moment to draw a breath. Huff-puff....
Alexander. The Great, that is. Not great movie, mind you, just great Alexander. The movie, on the other hand, is a lumbering three-hour uncinematic spectacle that traces the Macedonian conqueror (or uniter, depending upon your politics) from his days as a young lad to the end of his days as a young man -- or more concretely, from a child actor who's a pretty fair look-alike, and even Irish-accented sound-alike, for the star of the show, a bleached-blond Colin Farrell -- while his mother, Angelina Jolie, rolling her r's in some vague Mediterranean tongue, doesn't age a day. Oliver Stone, in quest of another exposé, exposes himself as pretty much a fraud of a filmmaker. Oh, he may shower the hero with rose petals upon his triumphant entry into a computer-generated Babylon, and he may scare up a harem of wriggling and shimmying concubines, and he may marshal some trick photography for the battle scenes: time-tested slow-motion, of course, but also the more modish (post-Private Ryan) sorts of jerky and jumpy motion, and a totally bloodshot screen when the hero takes a spear in the chest. Most of the movie, though, is rudimentary face shots, in talky, speechy, shouty, bellowy scenes that are virtually unstaged, and are not more powerful for the rising volume of the voices. To a human battering ram such as Stone, the liberty to depict the switch-hitting sexual mores of the Ancient Greeks (Jared Leto in eyeliner) might have seemed a worthwhile advance over the mid-Fifties handling of the material (Richard Burton in the hero's sandals), but this smidge of historical pedantry, no less than the general tedium, seems unlikely to rally the moviegoing troops. (Box-office receipts over the opening weekend wound up in sixth place; and the word-of-mouth, on any aspect apart from Rosario Dawson's bosoms, is bound to hurt.) Only the background music of Vangelis, for an authentic Greek flavor, gives the viewer the intermittent illusion that he is watching an epic: clearly the better option than Yanni.
Kinsey. Biography of yet another switch-hitting trailblazer, the controversial American sexologist Alfred Kinsey (not to be confused with Alfred the Great), almost equally as heavy-footed and plodding as the Alexander biography, but only two-thirds as long. That's a definite plus, though it's a minus for the protagonist to pass through three younger incarnations, all of them poor matches for the mature adult, Liam Neeson (suppressing his own Irish accent into something not quite American and not quite British, but adrift somewhere in the ocean between). Writer-director Bill Condon apparently felt it was vital to establish his subject's upbringing under a puritanical father ("Electricity has made possible the degrading picture show"), yet it's unapparent why he needed four actors to establish it: the father (a typecast John Lithgow) doesn't change his tune with any of them. The storyline eventually catches up to the lead actors, or vice versa, in middle age, but not before Neeson and Laura Linney have had to play at being virgins on their wedding night: it would be hard to sort out the strands of embarrassment in that scene. There's an efficient framing device -- right at the outset and at intervals throughout -- of Kinsey submitting to the same sexual- history interview he administered to thousands of others, but even with that, it takes a long time to get him from the study of gall wasps to the study of human sexuality. (The lesson learned from the insects -- the individuality of every creature in the species -- carries over to humans as well, with striking rhetorical effect, particularly in a checkerboard montage of talking heads dotting the U.S. map.) A great deal of chronological ground is gone over, in mostly cursory fashion, and without many signposts as to where exactly we are and what's going on in the world at large. It's clear enough, all the same, that we're in a sexual Dark Age and that Kinsey, notwithstanding his unprepossessing bow tie and crew cut, is our Prometheus (a favorite reference point for Alexander, too, although not as favorite as Achilles). His experimentation on himself ("I punctured my foreskin.... It didn't give me any pleasure"), including a go at homosexuality with one of his assistants (Peter Sarsgaard, dropping his drawers for art), takes him near to mad-scientist territory; and even Kinsey squirms a bit in his interview of a sexual omnivore to whom age presents no barrier. Might he be, after all, more a Pandora than a Prometheus? But the balance of the evidence, most tellingly a momentary crack in the façade of the flinty father and a final testimonial from Lynn Redgrave (a holdover from Condon's Gods and Monsters), amounts to a clarion endorsement. Viewers will have sufficient basis to know what Condon thinks of his subject, if insufficient to know what they themselves think.
Closer. Reekingly urbane Mike Nichols chamber piece, prone to be seen as a long-distance companion to his Carnal Knowledge in its dirty talk and its romantic disillusion. The quartet of players -- two American females, a stripper (but of course) and a portrait photographer, and two British males, an obituarist and a dermatologist -- align and realign over an extended period of time. (The title is presumably to be pronounced with a soft s, synonym of "nearer," not a hard s, synonym of Mariano Rivera.) A lot of important events transpire off-screen -- in between scenes, in the blink of an eye -- and it would not be amiss to say that the most interesting parts of the film are the skips. Nor would it be amiss to point out that these are common devices in theater, where indeed the film originated. While the action has, as they say, been "opened up," the brittle dialogue still echoes of the stage. (Patrick Marber adapted his own play.) Clive Owen, normally a bit of a Gloomy Gus, is surprisingly the liveliest member of the ensemble; and Julia Roberts, hardly less surprisingly, is the most restrained, the most recessed: perhaps the highest praise, or the nearest thing to praise, that I have ever heaped on her. (She nevertheless remains the gracious recipient of the contractually required line: "You're beautiful.") Natalie Portman and Jude Law occupy the middle ground, fighting uphill battles to humanize their porcelain perfection.