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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the first DVD I've ever seen that should be accompanied by a warning label. "Warning! If you play this DVD, it might take a long time to eliminate the stench this movie will leave inside your player!". I read all these rave reviews about "One of the top ten films of 2009!", "A masterpiece!", "The crowning achievement of Swanberg's direction..." Did I get the wrong DVD inside the Netflix envelope. I date back to movies and theatre back to the early 60's...having graduated at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and private study with Uta Hagen, Harold Clurman, Stella Adler, and the incomparable Lee Strasberg at Actors Studio. I love heavy drama and improvisational theatre, but this movie...well, in the Bonus selections, the director explains that the first week's shooting was almost deleted completely as they didn't know what direction or tone to direct this story in. So he kept a total of 72 minutes to complete his 'masterpiece'. I defy anyone to explain which direction they landed. This is really not a spoiler, but in the first two minutes, we meet two beautiful blonde lesbians performing a private commitment ceremony...'til death do us part'...then they next 65 minutes they proceed to have sex with any greasy, extremely ugly men...probably the only actors willing to take part in this piece of expletive. There's some nudity for no reason at all except to make the film 'daring'...finally, it ends...well rather, the movie seems to stop in mid-scene for, again, nor reason. Josh Hamilton plays a small role as a screenwriter...he looked almost as embarrassed as I felt watching it. This is one of those prime examples of the Emperor's new clothes. EVERYBODY bragged on the completed film and no one was brave enough to say it was crudely made with no plot or especially a reason for making this in the first place. The score was cheered by some critics. An electric piano, a guitar, and a female singer who sounded more like a cat in heat. I remember when Andy Warhol painted his famous tomato soup can and everyone raved. I had an entire shelf of Campbell's soup in my cupboard which I'd paid LESS than one dollar (back in 1960). But this movie was like unveiling the soup can without the label, just a naked tin can. Was it art? Who's to say? Is this film an art film? I, for one, say, except for the two lead females, this film has NOTHING to offer. Not only does the can not have a label, the can is totally empty inside.
I do not have a lot of experience in this genre of the independent film
movement. But, in our search for the next John Cassavetes, we have to
ask if Joe Swanberg is one to watch.
Low budget, improvised dialog (just about everyone in the film gets a writing credit), and a look at the lives of twenty-somethings, is part of the genre called "mumblecore" or " bedhead cinema" or "Slackavetes" in an homage to Cassavetes. My only previous experience has been Mark and Jay Duplass' film The Puffy Chair.
The film is about relationships, real and imaginary and how the two blend. Jess Weixler, who I loved in Teeth, is a stage actress in a way off Broadway production. She is married to Eliott (Justin Rice), a travelling musician. She brings Jaime (Barlow Jacobs - Shotgun Stories) home after rehearsal, as he has no where else to go. She tries to hook him up with her sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz - Wristcutters: A Love Story). The problem is that the lovemaking on stage is moving off stage. The imaginary is becoming real. No big surprise there as the stage sex is pretty real.
Of course, Hellen starts becoming jealous and accusatory, so her relationship with Alex (Weixler) deteriorates. The real starts to affect the imaginary as the stage relationship is strained.
The film had it's World Premiere last weekend at the SXSW.
Joe Swanberg has previously used the plot device of a woman torn
between two competing romantic prospects in his shamefully weak 2007
film 'Hannah Takes The Stairs'. It's a theme that has been used in
drama and literature for centuries, but 'Alexander The Last' provides a
fresh perspective on the old double-backed beast, and also reveals an
exponential growth in the director's film-making sophistication since
his earlier project. The film opens with a pair of attractive sisters
making vows of life-long loyalty to one another. One of them is Alex, a
young married actress who has just been hired for a fringe drama
production, while her musician husband prepares to depart on a tour.
When the theater rehearsals commence, Alex becomes friendly with Jamie,
an actor who is playing the part of her stage lover. Jamie is from out
of town, so Alex invites him to sleep on the sofa at her apartment.
Later, with ambivalent motives, she decides to hook him up with her
sister, just as the two actors begin work on an intimate love-scene for
their play. By the time her husband returns from his tour, Alex is
completely disoriented, unable to separate her stage character's issues
from her own.
Jess Weixler depicts Alex's inner turmoil with her customary sensitivity and skill, as this sympathetic young woman becomes increasingly confused by a heady cocktail of lust, jealousy and guilt. When her repressed conflict does flare up for a brief moment, its effect is shockingly intense due to the film's casually naturalistic style. Just as dramatic artifice had provoked his actress heroine's earlier bewilderment, Swanberg neatly utilizes the same method to resolve matters at the film's conclusion. It's a rewarding experience to see an artist mature before one's eyes - and 'Alexander The Last' leaves one eagerly anticipating Swanberg's next project.
I've watched more than half of Joe Swanberg's filmography for the last
year or so and have had positive remarks to make and directorial
choices on his part that I've defended for each particular film in some
way. Usually, my criticism would be pretty limited and I'd focus on
reviewing or praising things from a thematic standpoint, analyzing and
diving into the characters' ideology or musings on the world around
With Alexander the Last, my glide through Swanberg's films has hit noticeable turbulence - I simply didn't care for this project. At seventy-two minutes, it almost feels twice as long as it chronicles the lives of Alex (Jess Weixler) and her sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz). Alex is a married actress, while her sister is enjoying life single, but both enjoy discussing their sexual freedoms at liberty, a common trait amongst Swanberg films. Alex's husband is a musician named Elliot (Justin Rice), and while he is nice and charming, Alex begins to realize that perhaps she rushed into things at too young of an age and should be directing her sights on a more lax, less formal life. This only begins to be more noticeable to her when she lands a new role in a play and begins to fall in lust with Jamie (Barlow Jacobs) while rehearsing for the project.
It's often difficult to say why I don't care for a film of the mumblecore subgenre in cinema. Swanberg's simplistic directorial style is present and on par with his other films, the acting - if we can call it that - is fine, the dialog is often recited in a natural manner, and the whole thing doesn't feel like a total waste of time, with its length being so short.
Alexander the Last's issue is it doesn't have characters I care about. You very well might, but even as someone who can invest in himself in several films of the mumblecore genre, I did not. Scarcely did the characters her offer any particular opinion or stance on a subject that I found stimulating or something worth discussing. Because of this, Alexander the Last doesn't seem to bear any compelling themes, and with every previous effort Swanberg, there has been an enticing exploration on certain themes.
Here, there seems to be a void, something preventing these characters from talking or saying anything of considerable interest. I have no doubt a film utilizing these actors and their specific characters could be made and made compelling (in my view, of course - I already have a strong fondness for Weixler and several of her works). However, in some ways, Swanberg almost feels like he's contradicting himself by making this film and treading closely to self-parody with Alexander the Last.
Starring: Jess Weixler, Amy Seimetz, and Barlow Jacobs. Directed by: Joe Swanberg.
After having slogged through Joe Swanberg's unwatchable "Hannah Takes
the Stairs" a couple of years back, you can probably imagine I was not
that thrilled when I saw his name at the start of this film. I decided
to keep an open mind and sallied forth anyway. The results were,
unfortunately, about what I expected.
As with "Hannah", this is a largely improvised movie that seemingly goes nowhereat ten miles an hour at that. The plot involves the characters working on a play with tribulations that spill over into their real lives but it's about as interesting as watching an actual play rehearsal. The movie has very little actual story and I simply could not get involved with this at all.
Maybe it's me; maybe I don't get the whole "Mumblecore" genre of films about twenty-somethings but at just an hour and a quarter, it was an ordeal to sit through, even on TV at home. How does one do a movie with improvised dialog? Watch "A Mighty Wind", "Waiting for Guffman" or any one of the Christopher Guest-directed movies. That's how you do it, folks.
Mr. Swanberg, this is the last film of yours I will be wasting my time with. I applaud young filmmakers willing to take chances but you've got to engage your audience if you want to keep them awake and coming back for more.
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