I was a big fan of the 2008 independent comedy Baghead, which was my introduction to the style known as "mumblecore". As per Wikipedia, a mumblecore film is a microbudget indie, usually focusing on relationships, written mostly through improvisation. I'm no expert on the subject (I mean, I'm linking Wikipedia), but it seems like the the four biggest directors in this movement would be Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, the Duplass brothers (technically two, but they work as a team), and Joe Swanberg. Swanberg's previous efforts include the films Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, which I haven't seen, but if Alexander the Last is an indication of what his oeuvre is like, I think I need less emphasis on the mumble, and a little more on the core than he's willing to provide.
Alexander the Last takes a look at the tumultuous relationship between two sisters, and the men in each of their lives. On one side, we have Alex (Peter and Vandy's Jess Weixler), an up-and-coming theater actress working on a romantic play with a flighty director (Jane Adams) and a frustrated writer (Josh Hamilton). Her co-star, Jamie (Barlow Jacobs) is currently couch-hopping, and since he's often at her apartment late going over the lines, Alex allows him to stay at her place. Unfortunately, the line between fact and fiction starts to blur, and Alex begins to sense feelings for Jamie, despite the fact that she's married Eliott (Justin Rice), a musician currently away on tour.
The article also says most of them include non-professional actors, but as evidenced by performers like the wonderful Greta Gerwig (soon to be seen alongside Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach's upcoming Greeberg), the mumblecore movement has generated its own set of professonals. Weixler seems to be flitting around the edges of this style, but she seems as if she might be a bit out of her depth here. Her characterization of Alex is undoubtedly different from her performances in the other two movies I've seen her in, but you never really get a concrete bead on what her feelings are, sending the movie adrift in emotional waters. When her impulsive sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz) infringes on Alex's half-repressed interest in Jamie by taking him for herself, the viewer only has half the picture to work with. We know that Alex likes Jamie, but was she really thinking about making a move? Alex tells her husband that Jamie will be staying via voicemail, and Eliott tries to call back, but we don't know how he really feels, since Eliott shows up halfway through the movie and barely acknowledges Jamie's existence.
At the same time, Swanberg also doesn't give us much to go on when it comes to Jamie or Hellen, who are rarely seen when not interacting with Alex. Was Jamie even interested in Alex? He seems rather faceless, barely even reacting when the play director implies that she's ramping up the play's explicit content from "implied sex" to "full frontal nudity". In one particularly agonizing, lengthy sequence, he stands in the background, center frame, with a completely blank expression as the two sisters sing a song together in the foreground about how they can't always get along. Talk about hitting the nail on the head.
I understand that the idea of the mumblecore movement is to capture something a little more authentic, a film that's rough around the edges. Nonetheless, you'd think during all the improvising and free-form acting, the director would still eventually settle on a core idea, whittling away the excess until all that's left is a loose, natural movie with enough of a through-line that the audience can believe the filmmakers were planning it all along. Swanberg, unforutnately, feels too resistant to nailing his movie down, and the film seems like a 72 minute tangent rather than a feature-length motion picture. It reminds me of the student film in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World -- not anywhere near as pointlessly, hilariously disjointed, mind you, but still instilling that same sinking feeling that the director is just throwing crap at the wall, and seeing what's art.
Alexander the Last is given a respectable treatment in the packaging department, with an understated, nicely arranged layout of fonts and images, the only nitpick being the misidentification of Weixler as "Jesse" on the back cover. I also like the look of the transparent Amaray cases -- they're always eye-catching -- although, sadly, there isn't anything printed on the inside of the cover, making it sort of pointless. There is no insert.
The Video and Audio
IFC's 1.78:1 presentation looks to be a faithful recreation of a decidedly low-res digital source, so there's motion blur, roughe dges, harsh colors and lighting, and other flaws, all of which would be inherent to the production.
Dolby Digital 2.0 sounds a tad muffled, even when things like the opening title song are playing, although maybe it's just the track in question, and any other muffling problems are again inherent to the quality of the original elements. In either case, the dialoge is clear, if not entirely crisp. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles have also been provided.
Clicking on "Deleted Scenes" (13:17) leads to a short introduction from Swanberg about his "trim bin". Since Alexander the Last is significantly improvised, these edits are more interesting than the normal cuts from a Hollywood movie in that some of them are wildly experimental. Personally, I was most interested to see that almost every single one of these scenes proves that Jacobs' character did in fact have a personality at some point, which I'd have liked to see more of in the finished product.
Noted on the packaging but hidden in the setup menu is a feature-length commentary by director Joe Swanberg. Truth be told, I didn't have the time to listen to the whole track, but even in his brief introduction to the deleted scenes, I liked Swanberg's personality, and skipping around, I picked up quite a bit of interesting information and didn't notice any gaps of silence (even through to the very end of the credits), so I imagine fans will appreciate the track's inclusion.
Trailers for Nights and Weekends, Medicine for Melancholy, In a Day, In the Loop, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men all play before the main menu. The original theatrical trailer for Alexander the Last is also included.
I'm still on board with the idea of mumblecore, but Swanberg's execution of Alexander the Last is a little too loose for my taste. If you liked his other films, a rental is probably a safe bet, but I'd probably tell everyone else to check out Baghead instead.
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