A much better movie is Sideways, a road movie, of sorts, in which two guys, seeking a respite of male bonding before the marriage of one of them, head to California wine country. Sideways was a much-talked-about hit at the recent Toronto International Film Festival and it’s worth seeing. Paul Giamatti is Miles, a hapless middle school English teacher whose marriage has failed, whose novel may or may not be published, and whose life is only a tad better than that of a sad sack. His pal Jack, Thomas Haden Church, is a television actor who now does mostly commercial voiceovers and he’s soon to be married. Jack decides that a jaunt into wine country with his best bud is what both of them need, and he has high hopes that he can get Miles laid. And that’s the movie as directed by Alexander Payne and co-written by Payne and Jim Taylor from the novel by Rex Pickett. The fellows meet some women (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh), learn a lot about wine (as does the audience), and learn something about themselves. Sideways is sweet, gentle, lightly comic, and one of the best films of the year and highly recommended.

Wine also flows in Alexander, the week’s mega-opening, and it’s unfortunate that the movie doesn’t flow as well. I’ve always admired director Oliver Stone’s work and salute his obvious courage in taking on big issues. He has a storyteller’s gift for melding action and ideas. So it’s unfortunate that I have to report that Alexander is less than the sum of its parts. It’s not a complete success, but it is ambitious and risky. Stone has long been fascinated by Alexander The Great, a young cub who conquered the known world, carving out an empire from Greece to India. The director has things he urgently wants to say about Alexander, but this eagerness outshines the film’s muddled narrative. There are provocative ideas and moderately successful set-pieces, but the movie seems less than a complete draft. The film doesn't feel comfortable with itself. It says a lot, and yet there’s a lot left unspoken. Stone’s personal passion for the subject isn’t captured on screen.

The biggest problem is that in spite of a nearly three hour running time, this sincere movie fails to find a focus for its elusive subject. Stone seems primarily fascinated by two aspects of Alexander’s life: his nationalism and his sexuality. He shows him trying to unite many tribes under a single rule – his. He seems to believe in a One World point-of-view. And we get hints of his willingness to have sex with men. But Stone – obviously forced by the studio – tones done much of the relationship between Alexander and his closest friend Hephaistion, a strikingly beautiful lad, played by the strikingly beautiful Jared Leto, who is always lurking in the shadows, ready to hug and be hugged, but the two are never shown passionately kissing. It’s a cop-out Stone should have stopped in its tracks. In Alexander’s time, men bedded men and nobody cared.

We never really get a fix on whether or not Alexander has united the people his armies have overrun. The movie delivers little depth here. Do those he conquered like Alexander, welcome his rule, care about anything? In fact, they seem like mystery people – crowds of extras without substance. The movie is shockingly void of details. Oh, there’s all the typical pomp and circumstance, but what’s really going on with all the murkiness involving the gay sex, with Alexander’s relationship with his “barbarian” bride with the weird kinship with his angry mother, played with slinky feline undertones by a wildly beautiful Angelina Jolie, who looks like she could eat Alexander and his armies for breakfast? Jolie’s performance revs up the classic 1950s sword and sandal campiness. As for the narration from the character of Ptolemy, it goes on and on and on and is filled with so much detail that you practically fear a pop quiz at the end of the movie. As for Anthony Hopkins’ acting as Ptolemy, well, phoning it in doesn’t begin to describe what Hopkins yawns his way through.

The facts are quickly summarized. Alexander, weakly played by a very miscast and dreadfully uninteresting Colin Farrell. is the son of Philip of Macedonia (a blustery Val Kilmer) and Queen Olympias (Jolie). As a boy, Alexander sees his drunken father virtually rape his mother, who for her part insists the kid’s actual father is Zeus, but she doesn’t fill in the details. Nothing like a little delusion to keep everyone guessing. Little Alexander impresses his father by taming a wild horse, but both mother and son are banished from the kingdom, Olympias advises her son to seize the throne before Philip has him murdered. As things work out, Philip is murdered, and Alexander rules Macedonia. Told by Aristotle (a furry Christopher Plummer) where the known world ends, Alexander discovers in his bloody travels that the world keeps on going and he keeps on conquering. He defeats the Greek city states, the Persians, and all the other folks he encounters until he is finally defeated in India. He dies at age 32. The battle sequence in India with the charging elephants is stunning. The earlier battle sequence at Gaugamela is a bore. It’s blurred by so much dust and sand that it never jells into anything spectacular.

In Stone’s version, Alexander seems incredibly open-minded for a tyrant. There are many, many scenes in which he argues goals and strategy with members of his army. He marries an Asian instead of choosing a Greek girl. He spends eight years in battle, taking with him his army, their families and lovers, their servants and households, in a sort of traveling sideshow of an empire. And always waiting in the shadows is Hephaistion. We are told by Ptolemy that in ancient times, powerful men often took males as their lovers, reserving women for childbearing and acting the accessory – sort of like human jewelry. Alexander seems to be following that tradition to the extent that the studio will permit it. Hephaistion doesn’t even go through the motions of taking a wife; he is always there for Alexander, but for what? They often have the look what might lead into a love scene before it fades out. The rest of the time, they do all that hugging.

As for Alexander's sex life with Roxane (Rosario Dawson), it shouldn’t surprise you that we see a great deal more of her body than Hephaistion’s. Alexander and Roxane have one fiery sex scene that begins with her fighting him off and ends with them engaged in the kind of feral passion where you fear somebody might get bloodied. So basically, they have great sex – at least once. Then we learn that three years pass, and she provides no male heir, although for how little we see of them together, the fault may belong to the Gods.

It's clear enough that Alexander loves Hephaistion and has married Roxane as a political gesture. In that case, it’s a serious miscalculation on Stone’s part to make Hephaistion into an alluring sideline figure who specializes in significant glances – you know, those glances - the significance of which the movie really doesn’t explore. Stone doesn’t have the courage to make Hephaiston as erotic a character as Roxane; therefore, he’s not really following the trail of the story. And then there’s that wacky nonsensical flashback literally tossed into the middle of the narrative involving Philip that doesn’t seem like a flashback at all, but more like material switched from its place in the chronology and inserted later to clarify what Stone’s thinks we might have misunderstood. It sticks out like a badly edited sore thumb. I even quietly commented on it to my seat partner.

As it nears its conclusion, Alexander slows down and peters out. There’s old Ptolemy pontificating about something or other and tying up very loose ends. At this point at the screening I attended, the audience was already starting to head for the exits. Ultimately, the movie is too long for what it delivers, which really isn’t all that much. It’s glossy, but shallow. Stone and company opted to temper the emotional with superficiality. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

The holiday movie season is here. Some folks might want to see the flaccid sequel silliness of Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason or take in the failed Indiana Jones/Da Vinci Code rip-off that is National Treasure. Neither of these films offer much in the way of satisfaction. Bridget Jones undercuts the very reason the hefty, guy-shy Bridget was interesting in the first movie by allowing her to have a beau in the second, thus negating her charm and deadening her reason for being. National Treasure is equally silly in that gung-ho adventure method that producer Jerry Bruckheimer does so well. The movie isn’t so much a coherent whole, but rather a plate of cinematic action spaghetti tossed against the wall to see what car chase or breathless discovery will stick. Bridget skiing isn’t funny because it’s done just to fill time. A secret code written on the back of the Declaration Of Independence in National Treasure is a clever idea, but there isn’t any originality connected to it.