Credit: Courtesy of ESPN.
(WOMENSENEWS)--July turns out to be an unexpectedly exceptional month for women's films, thanks in large measure to ESPN, which celebrates Title IX's 40th anniversary with "Nine for IX," a series of femme-helmed documentaries about women in sports.
The series premier is today, July 2, with the broadcast of Ava DuVernay's "Venus VS," about the celebrated tennis sister's persistent and ultimately triumphant game plan for equal pay for female tennis pros. Venus Williams is a winner. So is the film.
Other "Nine for IX" features investigate how sex and "sexiness" come into play in the marketing of female athletes, reveal female sports reporters' struggles for equal access to locker rooms, cover Mary Decker and Zola Budd's career-imploding collision and look at the tragic death of freediver Audrey Mestre. There are also fascinating profiles of skating star and diplomat Katarina Witt, outed super hooper Sheryl Swoopes and other inspiring women in sports. ESPN rolls out the features one per week through August. Make a standing date with your television to see them all.
Now on to July theatrical openers.
Opening July 3
"Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" is a music documentary about the short-lived career and long-standing cult status of the 1980s band Big Star. Co-directed by Olivia Mori, the film uses on-camera rock star testimonials and Big Star's archival footage to present a comprehensive primer about the wildly creative musicians. No animation or other trendy stylistic twists appear in this documentary, but the story is well told and the research is solid. And it does give play to the way the music world spins and the deadening disappointment that the spin can lead to.
"A Girl and a Gun" is an unexpectedly upbeat documentary about a heavy subject: women's relationships to firearms. Filmmaker Cathryne Czubek delves deeply into issues revolving around feminism and firearms by following the stories of several women who've purchased and used guns for self-defense, and others who simply think guns are gorgeous and just love to stroke and shoot them. She includes clips of gun-toting Demi Moore, Jody Foster, Uma Thurman and others in Hollywood to deliver familiar images about how women with firearms are perceived to behave. This is contrasted with women mourning the loss of offspring to gun violence, who recount the callous platitudes they've heard expressed as condolences: "I guess they were in the wrong place at the wrong time," "you can always have more kids" and others. The thoroughly entertaining, well-made film should lead to a healthy -- and necessary -- public debate on the subject of girls and guns.
"Absence" falls into the ubiquitous femme-centric horror genre that portrays women as victims. This time, the core character is a pregnant woman whose nearly-to-term fetus disappears. Suddenly empty, she crumbles. Her husband and brother rise up to champion her against the police who decide to investigate her unusual story as a typical missing child case. An empathetic performance by Erin Way does a lot to uplift the damsel-in-distress plot.
In "Just Like a Woman," two gal pals (Sienna Miller and Golshifteh Farahani), shaken by male infidelity and other marital strife, race off across the country to Santa Fe, N.M., where they take on a new, life-affirming challenge: a belly dancing competition. Just like a woman? Is it really? Although the well-cast gorgeous gals are good foils for each other's problems and soul-searching – and both dance alluringly -- they don't match the stature of "Thelma and Louise." If that's the gal pal trope targeted by co-scripters Joelle Touma and Marion Doussot, they've missed their mark by a very wide angle.
"Pat XO," the second film in ESPN's "Nine for IX" series, is a compelling profile of Pat Summit, the legendary NCAA basketball coach who suddenly retired in April 2013, announcing her diagnosis with early onset Alzheimer's. Interweaving archival footage of seminal moments in Summit's career and on-camera commentaries from dozens of the coach's friends, colleagues, former team members and her son, filmmakers Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters present a stirring biopic and tribute film that shows Summit's impact on basketball and women's opportunities in sport.
"The Hot Flashes," directed by Susan Seidelman, is a feature that puts us back on the basketball court, as former high school teammates (Brooke Shields, Virginia Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Cameron Manheim and Wanda Sykes) regroup to challenge the school's current championship team captained by one of their daughters. They have a cause: to raise money to keep their Texas town's mobile breast cancer screening unit on the road. The film's pink-tinged narrative spins into a full court press with far too many subplots, failed shots and noisome clichés that may make you break into a sweat.
"The Hunt" is a gripping drama in which a troubled young girl's fantasy-based insinuations that her kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelson) touched her inappropriately turn into a witch hunt in a rural Danish town. Thomas Vinterberg's direction is nuanced and sensitive, Charlotte Bruus Christensen's cinematography is beautifully elegant and all of the performances are intensely persuasive. But it is first-time actress Annika Wedderkopp's superb and astonishingly complex portrayal of the girl that drives this brilliant film straight into your heart and psyche.
Stay tuned for late-July ESPN "Nine for IX" premiers and theatrical releases.
In addition to covering film for Women's eNews, Jennifer Merin writes about documentaries for About.com and is president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, a nonprofit organization of the leading female film journalists in the U.S. and Canada. She is also a member of the prestigious Broadcast Film Critics Association.
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