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The Tracey Fragments

A movie for teenagers but will teenagers buy it?
I saw The Tracey Fragments at the IFF Boston tonight. I'm a little surprised that it is still on the festival circuit. It seems to have a US distributor but I don't know if it's headed for a theatrical release or is just going to DVD.

The movie is about a teenager and seems pitched at a teenage audience. If it succeeds it will be with that audience. The question is, will kids buy it as a serious movie or will they see it as just another bit of slick MTV fare thrown their way? I have a teenager myself and her idea of a serious movie about kids is American History X or Boys Don't Cry or - Kids.

If there is an issue, it is what my daughter would call the authenticity of the story. The movie makes it clear from the very beginning that it's going to go in a dark direction, and it does. But it does so in a rather mechanical way, and, as sympathetic as the protagonist is, I was never able to put it totally out of my mind that I was just watching a piece of fiction in which what happens to her, however bad it's going to be, is entirely controlled by the writer.

An interesting question is how far my (and maybe others') inability to take the story seriously arises out of the form of the movie. As already seems to be widely known, the film presents its story in a sustained split screen (or more accurately multi-panel) format. I liked it a lot at first and never really got tired of it, though I adjusted to it and after a while only noticed it when something really striking happened. There is also a lot of time dislocation, but I just took that in stride as part and parcel of modern film-making. (Unlike some other reviewers I never found the movie confusing.) The problem is that while these things make for a stronger viewing experience, they do not necessarily strengthen the story itself, and may even undermine it with their cleverness.

All that said, I think the movie is worth watching. Ellen Page is very good, even if she's maybe a tad too attractive and a tad too articulate for the role. The supporting actors are pretty good too, and Julian Richings is especially enjoyable as the shrink.

6 stars plus one for effort.


Nice take on Hansel and Gretel - primitive, dreamlike, sexually charged
Coven is a short film, maybe ten minutes long. I saw it on a website called indie911. I have since heard that it is on youtube under the keyword arden wohl, which is the name of the writer/director.

It's hard to say much about the film without giving the whole thing away. It's a telling of the familiar Hansel and Gretel fairytale. At first it seems to be simply an animated version of the standard story, but it soon shifts to live action and goes off in its own direction. The two children are abandoned in the forest and become lost after birds eat their trail of bread crumbs, but, unlike in the original, they stumble onto some magic berries and consume them. Hansel soon falls by the wayside and Gretel is left to deal with the witch on her own. This she does, but, instead of destroying her, she becomes her disciple and is inducted into her coven, "never to return" to ordinary life. She does, however, go back to her former home to come to terms with her stepmother.

The film contains no dialog but has a voice-over narrative (read by Leelee Sobieski) that runs from the beginning to the end. The animation and live action cinematography are both simple but effective, and the film, especially after the turning point where the children eat the berries, is very dreamlike - in fact, so much so that it is easy to imagine the narration going over to the first person and turning into a recounting of a dream by a girl or young woman that begins "I dreamed I was Gretel in Hansel and Gretel ..." and goes on to describe exactly what you see in the film.

As a modern interpretation of a traditional fairytale Coven reminded me a lot of the sexually charged stories of Angela Carter, except that it's sparser, more primitive, and closer to the Freudian substrate. The theme is clearly female sexuality and particularly a mother's sexuality as perceived by her children. The stepmother is really not a stepmother at all but (as in the original version of H&G) the children's biological mother. Their exile to the forest is her perceived abandonment of them in favor of her sex partner, their father. The witch is, one way or another, also their mother, as seen by them separately from their mother-child relationship.

In the standard H&G the children overcome the, for them, negative aspects of their mother and restore their nuclear family to its pristine state. In Wohl's version things are different. It is hard to say what exactly happens because the key events are communicated via intense but enigmatic symbolism. The boy goes into a hole (very suggestively drawn in the animation) and is eaten by a snake. The girl seeks out her (step)mother and uses her new found witch's power to put her to rest (at least that's one way of describing it) . In the end, however, the real question to be pondered is not what happens, but what is the ultimate fate, good, bad, or simply different from the norm, of the children.

Coven is undeniably an arty film, but it's not at all a pretentious one. It takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, and it's clear, given the obviously very low budget, that the players, all professionals, did the project for fun and for friendship and not for money or prestige. It may end up not being your cup of tea, but it's only ten minutes long and eminently watchable (not least the nude scenes), so what do you have to lose? Just click on the link and play it and then think about it afterwards as much or as little as you want.

I give it an 8 out of 10.


Interesting and worthwhile, deserves a second look
I liked this movie a lot. Yes, it's made for TV and has made for TV production values. Yes the special effects are less grand than they could be. Yes a lot of things its critics say are true. But the story, far from being a botched tweak on the standard Hercules myth, is a totally new take on the myth, and it's a very interesting one.

Think about it. Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the gods. Their names permeate the story from beginning to end. But where are they? They are not played by actors, they are not rendered by CGI. They are not there. True, there is that scene where Hercules tries to destroy himself after he learns he has slain his children, and his dagger is knocked from his hand by lightning and the flames of the pyre put out by rain. These actions certainly could be the work of Zeus, assuming he were around. But they could just as well be the work of Deianeira, who is after all a goddess of nature and was there on the spot at the time. Or they could have been simply nature itself at play at a fateful time.

Another big question. Who was Hercules' father? Of course anyone who knows anything about Hercules will know the answer. It's got to be Zeus. Or does it? What we see in the movie is Alcmene being raped by a powerful man who we later learn to be Antaeus son of the Earth. True, he bears the mark of Zeus, but that is just a cut put on him by Amphitryon, and if it has an effect here it is the only time, for Antaeus is from start to finish a servant of Hera. So who is the father? Is it Zeus acting through Antaeus (makes no sense); is it Hera acting through Antaeus (makes more sense than the first choice); or is it Antaeus himself (the most plausible choice of all)? Or could it be that Antaeus did not actually impregnate Alcmene with his violent act, and that the father of Hercules is Amphitryon after all?

A story that raises such fundamental questions is clearly not a simple retelling of the Hercules myth. So what is it about? I think the answer is pretty obvious. It's about divisions. Divisions between the followers of Zeus and the followers of Hera, divisions between the branches of the house of Perseus, divisions between husband and wife, between parents and children, between siblings. Divisions between noble instincts and base instincts, between societal values and personal values, between conflicting desires. Divisions everywhere, within society, within families, within the individual.

And so what does it say about divisions? Again the answer is pretty obvious. That divisions cause conflict and hurt, that the conflict and hurt will go on as long as the divisions exist, and that the only way to get out of the cycle is to break down the divisions and bring warring sides together and set about healing the wounds they have inflicted on each other. The process requires will and sacrifice and above all open-mindedness. Hercules' speech to the gods, the rising of the people, the (willing or unwilling) sacrifices of Alcmene and Megara, the marriage of Hyllus and Iole are all about this process and its goal.

Paul Telfer said something interesting in one of the interviews he did for the movie: "There is also an idea of these myths becoming so pervasive in culture and lasting so long because they are endlessly re-interpretable. All the problems and dilemmas faced by those characters are universal and outside of history, also part of story telling is to take your story and relate it to today. Our Hercules is very different than the Hercules of ten years ago and 20 years ago, as it should be." In our present age of red states and blue states, conservative and liberal, religious and secular, pro-war and anti-war, and so on and on, I can't think of a Hercules we need more than the one in this movie.

It's great that so many people know the myth well enough to see where the movie departs from it. But the myth is not as fixed as it seems. The version most people know, though clearly based on early sources, is quite late - in fact hundreds of years later the great age of Athens and Sparta. When we go back to that age we find variations that may surprise us. For example, most people know that Hercules performed his labors as a penance for killing his children; and yet, if they look in Euripides' play "Heracles", they will see him quite clearly killing his children after his labors, which were done for a quite different reason. Was Euripides using a different version of the story or did he change the story himself for his own dramatic purposes? All that's certain is that he offered a version that differs significantly from the one we regard as standard today.

We should keep such ancient differences in mind as we look into Charles Pogue's script and see, for example, that Iole's parents have been changed from two outside people to Megara and Eurystheus, and, that Iole herself has been changed from the cause of Hercules' downfall to the symbol of his triumph. The point is that the myth is as fluid today as it was two and half millennia ago. Which, as Telfer says, is the way it should be.

I hope everybody will take another look at the Hallmark "Hercules" when it appears again on TV or DVD and give it a chance to tell the story it is trying to tell. It will still be a TV movie and it will have its faults. But it's an interesting and worthwhile artistic work, flawed as it may be, and deserves a second look.

Filmic Achievement

A totally fun movie
I just saw "Filmic Achievement" at the Boston Independent Film Festival. I loved it. There was one scene in it that was so funny that that I actually went into some kind of traumatic shock from seeing it and pushed it completely out of my conscious mind until I was safely out of the theater.

Written and directed by Kevin Kerwin, the movie is a mockumentary in the classic Christopher Guest style. It follows a class of a dozen or so more or less eager young students as they go through an intensive six-week film-making program at the UNY School of Film, a small, evidently for-profit, institution somewhere in the Big Apple.

The founder and dean of the school is Buck Felty. He also teaches the Screen writing 1 course, based on his own 13-step story structure which he calls "The Hero's Jaunt", and does private tutorials with "selected" (i.e. female) students. He's played to perfection by Matthew Lawlor, who conveys an affable mix of charisma, smugness and sleaze that made me think of Bill Murray in his younger days (esp. the ESP testing scene in "Ghostbusters").

He has most of his students exactly where he wants them - particularly the class hottie, Kelly Rush, played by Janie Brookshire -, but there's one who's clearly not drinking the Kool-Aid. It's Delvo Christian, played by Andrew Benator, who holds back from classroom exercises and mostly just sits silently observing from the back of the room. Always the same, with his woolen cap, his glasses, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, and a sceptical (to say the least) look on his face, he reminded me strangely much of Waldo in a Where's Waldo? Picture (only easier to find).

The film focuses on five students in addition to Delvo and Kelly. They include Mike Pack, a guy who lives with his mother and aspires to be almost as good as Quentin Tarantino, Constance Van Horn, an articulate feminist whose artistic grasp exceeds her reach, Marci Martin, who is seriously inspired by her Beany Babies, Kris Stein, a conscientious young woman who wants to tackle the thorny subject of eating disorders, and Xavier Reynolds, a middle class black kid who seems forever hung up on details.

The culmination of the program – and the movie – is the competition for the $10000 Filmic Achievement Award sponsored by the school. We watch the students put their classroom knowledge to work as they write and direct their own shorts, assisted by volunteer actors and crew, and then get to watch the shorts themselves, or at least the four finalists in the contest. I won't give away who wins. I personally thought it was the best entry, but then I am not a film critic.

"Filmic Achievement" is a totally fun movie. It's warm, and cheery, satirical but not mean, and is filled with funny stuff, including a sprinkling of rather striking sexually oriented sight gags. (For example it's one of the few movies I have ever seen that shows Kleenex being used for what it is used for in real life.) The actors are all great across the board – the faculty, the students, the volunteers in the shorts, and the other random people in the movie. The pacing is good and the climax is lively. If I had to fault anything, it would be the trailer, which spoilingly reveals a key dramatic development in one of the student films.

Laws of Attraction

Pretty poor given who's in it
`Laws of Attraction' is not a turkey but it's pretty poor given the undeniable star power of the two leads. Pierce Brosnan is fine as the frumpy, charming, crazy like a fox country lawyer (well maybe not country but like country). Julianne Moore does her best as the city lawyer who is all business on the outside and all loneliness and insecurity on the inside, but she's not given much to work with, and to me at least she isn't convincing in any of the things she is supposed to be.

The real problem with the movie is the script. Brosnan's character shows no development at all, Moore's develops but in an utterly tired and predictable way. The story line is very awkward, rushing some things and drawing out others practically forever, and including several incidents in which the events, or, if not the events themselves, the characters' reactions to them, simply do not make sense. I don't want to give anything away, but a prime example of what I'm talking about involves Brosnan's character reversing the course of a divorce proceeding by revealing piece of information which he obtained surreptitiously though his relationship with Moore's character and which I am sure he would have been barred from divulging in real life, and Moore's character reacts with a brief show of surprise and confusion and then moves on as if nothing had happened.

On the positive side Brosnan and Moore are both fun to watch, and some of the secondary characters are very amusing, particularly Michael Sheen and Posy Parker as the feuding rock couple. I give `Laws of Attraction' a 5 out of 10.

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