Reviews

Alexander the Last

Swanberg continues to explore the perils to young love that lurk around every corner.


Alexander the Last

Director: Joe Swanberg
Cast: Jess Weixler, Justin Rice, Barlow Jacobs, Amy Seimetz, Jane Adams, Josh Hamilton, Jo Schornikow
Rated: Not rated
Studio: IFC Films
Release date: 2010-02-23

Joe Swanberg has built a reputation as a low-budget filmmaker who crafts improvised stories with shoestring budgets. This description is true, but doesn’t accurately describe what makes his films unique. Few directors are willing to showcase the everyday obstacles that can doom promising relationships. With each successive picture, Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends) continues to explore the perils to young love that lurk around every corner.

Alexander the Last is Swanberg’s sixth feature and possibly his most accessible work yet. However, it still focuses on similar issues of love and conflict that occupy his interest. Clocking in at a brisk 72-minutes, the story focuses on a few main characters and pushes the rest to the background. The central figure is Alex (Jess Weixler), an actress married to a musician (Bishop Allen’s Justin Rice). While he’s gone for weeks on tour, she flirts with Jamie, her co-star in a small local theater production. Played by the hulking Barlow Jacobs, he seems pretty dim, but how can Alex resist his laid-back charm?

This film also tackles how actors balance the fake romances of their characters while trying to maintain a separate relationship away from work. Alex and Jamie spend much of the day making out and rehearsing their love scenes, which brings uncomfortable feelings to the surface. Pushing Jamie towards her gorgeous sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz), Alex creates an even more difficult situation. While increasing strains in her marriage, she also damages a close relationship with her sister. The once-playful young women now become competitors aiming for the intentions of a fairly oblivious hunk.

Swanberg offered serious relationship turmoil in the drama Nights and Weekends, but this time he employs a lighter tone to cover similar territory. He shoots lengthy scenes that reveal the changing relationships through body language and subtle glances. One key sequence presents an intriguing counterpoint between a real sexual encounter and the on-stage fakery. Swanberg intercuts sex between Jamie and Hellen with Alex’s staged make-out with him. Though one side shows the real action, it’s not clear that their connection is actually stronger.

In his DVD commentary, Swanberg discusses his lack of interest (and ability) to focus on a film’s narrative structure. His low-key statements reveal a lack of pretension that keeps his films light while tackling heavy issues. A basic outline of the story exists during the production, but the actors help to create the final product. Some of Alexander the Last’s best moments involve Rice and his band-mate (played by the Shivers’ Jo Schornikow) creating music while the story happens around them. With little scripting and lots of random footage, Swanberg crafts a thin story into something more affecting.

The narrative limitations make Alexander the Last a divisive film that completely alienates viewers looking for a more standard romance. The build-up of Alex and Jamie’s chemistry is effective, but the abrupt ending diminishes the earlier scenes. We’ve learned so little about her husband that any reconciliation doesn’t carry much weight. Weixler (Teeth) creates a believable character that’s easily the most interesting in the film. By the end, we’re unsure if she’s reached a new stage of life or is just participating in a circular structure. Will the next Jamie attract Alex and start the process again? These questions don’t need answering, though a few more hints might increase the emotional impact.

This DVD also includes a random collection of deleted scenes that add little to our experience. However, they do offer glimpses at the wide array of footage that Swanberg shot, which could have led to a much-different film. His style conveys a believable environment and lacks the gloss of many studio indie pictures. Alexander the Last raises compelling questions about the roles of actors and how it affects their life away from the stage. There’s a haphazard feeling that limits the impact, though that same mood is what makes Swanberg’s art notable. The results can be inconsistent, but he continues to explore original territory with each new picture.

6

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image