Think of Judge William Lee as the ugly sister you never had.
Sometimes commitment requires a little creativity.
Fiercely independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Nights and Weekends) writes, directs, produces, shoots and edits a lovely, intimate portrait of sisterly love and young marriage. Alexander the Last doesn't have a long running time, but it may be a slog for impatient viewers. Likewise, if you can't suffer artsy indie films, read no further. However, you'll be missing a chance to discover a fresh and unique filmmaker.
Facts of the Case
Nobody knows Alex (Jesse Weixler) like Hellen (Amy Seimetz) does; no one understands Hellen like Alex does. They're sisters, after all. Alex is an actress; Hellen is a photographer. Alex is married to a musician; Hellen, single, is impulsive and she has a tendency to get involved with guys who aren't right for her—anyway, that's what Alex thinks. Their relationship gets complicated when Alex introduces her sister to Jamie (Barlow Jacobs), her co-star in a play. While she hopes Jamie and Hellen will hit it off, Alex is confused by her own feelings for her on-stage lover.
Alexander the Last observes two situations as experienced by one character: Alex's relationship with her sister and the extramarital temptation presented by Jamie. Filmmaker Joe Swanberg tells her story in a sometimes stagy but often poetic fashion. Since Alex is rehearsing for a new play, theatricality and performance is a main theme in this movie. Similarly, scenes that take place away from the theater stage also display a degree of artifice. That's what gives this movie its unusual atmosphere of seeming slightly unreal while simultaneously feeling more intimate and revelatory than a strictly realistic presentation.
Consider the opening scene wherein Alex and Hellen exchange mock marriage vows. This is a flashback, yet it has none of the standard cues to establish itself as such. In a conventional movie this scene would be done with child actors in the roles performing this innocent, sisterly promise to be there for each other. Instead, the scene with actors Weixler and Seimetz is so much more mysterious and resonant. Alex and Hellen may have exchanged their vows, either in the past or present, or the moment may exist merely in their minds. It doesn't matter that the physical details of what we see on screen isn't a perfect fit with our expectations of a realistic moment. The power of the scene comes through: their sisterly bond, felt in childhood and framed in adult terms, expressed in a timeless moment that could exist in the past but also holds true in the present. It's a beautifully acted, lovely moment.
Swanberg finds inventive ways to stage scenes and Alexander contains one of the most original sex scenes in years. As Alex and Jamie practice their on-stage sex scene with input from the director of the play, the moment is inter-cut with Hellen and Jamie sharing an intimate moment at the apartment. The editing lets the two moments run parallel while the dialogue from one comments on the other. The scene manages to be sensual, comedic and quite witty all at once.
As Alex, Weixler does a fine job as a woman who is confused about her feelings and can't quite hide the fact. Perhaps the most realistic aspect of the film, Alex denies what she is feeling (save for one quiet confession to her director) even though her body language and facial expressions often betray her. It is a very natural performance of a believable character.
MPI has delivered a very good presentation of the film. It was shot on video and the image transfer to DVD is gorgeous. The clean image exhibits no digital defects, colors are strong and natural, detail is sharply rendered and plenty of fine texture is captured across the frame. Aside from a little grain in a handful of dimly lit scenes, the picture is nearly flawless. The audio quality doesn't quite match the video but it works fine for the film. In a few early scenes, there is a hollowness to the dialogue as though the actors are too distant from the microphone. It becomes less distracting as the movie progresses and the dialogue is generally easy to hear. The uncomplicated sound mix is suitable for the mood of the movie even though the cute, folksy-sweet music performed by Justin Rice and Jo Schornikow isn't my thing.
Joe Swanberg provides a revealing commentary to accompany the movie. It's a worthwhile listen especially for those interested in acting or directing actors. Swanberg shares a lot of information about his intentions for specific scenes, improvisation with the actors and even admits to his weakness when it comes to crafting narrative.
Other extras include the film's trailer and a 12-minute montage of deleted scenes introduced by the director. The clips of improvised moments are worth checking out as they feel like a further glimpse into the lives of these characters.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Alex is the central character in the story and we see enough shades of her personality to make her feel real. However, two other important characters get shortchanged. Hellen, so important in this tale of sisters, is a little vague. Her personality takes a while to establish so during the early stages of the movie it can be hard to recognize which sister you're seeing. Treated worst by the script, Jamie is reduced to being a mannequin with brawny, country boy looks. If he's getting something out of his relationship to the sisters, aside from the chance to make out with both of them, it's left unsaid. Though he's the male lead in the stage production, it's unclear if he's actually a good actor.
This is the first of Swanberg's films that I've seen and based on the positive points of Alexander I'm going to check out his earlier works. His style is unconventional and low-tech but it's witty, creative and fresh. Viewers who insist on realism in their films may be turned off and some key characters aren't fully realized in the storytelling. Still, the moments of quietly observed honesty and cinematic poetry are enough to warrant a recommendation.
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