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October Films Offer 'An Education' in Controversy

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

October's movies offer an array of treats, including Drew Barrymore's directorial debut and an investigation into the industry of black hair care led by Chris Rock. For the biggest shot of controversy, watch out for "An Education," opening Oct. 9.

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October's movies offer an array of treats, including Drew Barrymore's directorial debut and an investigation into the industry of black hair care led by Chris Rock. For the biggest shot of controversy, watch out for "An Education," opening Oct. 9.
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(WOMENSENEWS)--October is rich in releases of some sort of special interest to women. In addition to several genuine cinematic treasures made by and about women and some seasonally ghastly flicks in time for Halloween, there are at least a couple of films that promise to stir serious controversy.

At the top of the month, on Oct. 2, four offerings come all at once.

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut "Whip It" stars Ellen Page as a rebellious Texas teenager who rejects the refined realm of beauty pageants to take on skating and the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby. Co-stars Juliette Lewis and Kristen Wiig play butt-kicking teammates and Marcia Gay Hardin rounds out the strong female cast as mom. Shauna Cross wrote this sports-action-dramedy.

Writer Wendy Hammond adapted her stage play for the screen in "A Beautiful Life," which opens only in New York. The drama, featuring Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling and Angela Sarafyan in leading roles, is about a female teen who runs away from her family and forms some unusual friendships.

Pushed back from its original September release, "St. Trinian's" is a girls' school comedy in which an unorthodox headmistress and her unconventional students come up with creative fast-cash schemes to keep their beloved but bankrupt school open. They also thwart bureaucratic efforts to change its liberal ambience. Mischa Barton stars.

In hot competition for the Oct. 2 box office debut is "Zombieland," a hilariously funny shock-and-horror spoof. It includes fabulously feisty performances by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin playing sisters whose wiles and undying loyalty to each other give them a leg up on the undead, as well as on their co-stars Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. Breslin's no-tears take on her character opens a new chapter in her young career.

'An Education' in Controversy

Opening on Oct. 9, "An Education," one of the month's most anticipated femme-centric films, will be seeking box office support from female audiences. Directed by Lone Scherfig, one of Denmark's finest, this teenager's coming-of-age drama is set in 1961 London.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan in a breakout performance) is a beautiful, brilliant 16-year-old who is seduced from her high school studies and fast tracked to Oxford by the well-heeled, suave and persuasive 30-something David (Peter Sarsgaard). He captivates her with concerts, gallery openings, nightlife and weekend getaways, while convincing her ambitious parents that his attentions to their underage daughter are appropriate.

The film is funny and gripping. It's also beautifully shot and edited. And the cast, including Emma Thompson as the concerned headmistress of Jenny's school, is brilliant. But the big buzz film is controversial. Some previewers have found the story--based on Lynn Barber's memoir--exploitive. They complain the relationship between Jenny and David amounts to pedophilia and further complain that the film's take on that relationship isn't sufficiently condemning.

The film will probably spur debate around the issue of older men with much younger leading ladies in the movies. That debate--which is, in general, relevant and urgently needed--is somewhat off focus when it comes to this film. Jenny, encouraged by her curiosity, ambitions and parents' responses, is a willing and knowing player. While it's true that David is taking advantage of her, the real blame in the film is laid at the feet of greed, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

'Good Hair' Could Cause Tangles

Debate may also bonnet "Good Hair," the Jeff Stilson documentary in which the very smart and witty Chris Rock investigates the political, economic and lifestyle issues faced by African Americans, particularly women, when it comes to their hair.

Rock is concerned that his young daughters' future hair traumas could hurt their self-esteem. So he investigates a multibillion dollar hair industry that promotes chemicals and painful processes to transform "nappy" hair into "good hair." That takes him to Atlanta's spectacular hair convention, to India, where hair that's sacrificed in religious ritual is sold for wigs and weaves, and to Harlem, where women would rather have their hair relaxed and styled than eat.

"Good Hair" will resonate with anyone who's ever had a bad hair day. But the degree to which African American women feel it's essential to alter their appearance--to suffer the cost and inconvenience of getting straight hair that can be "flipped sexily" and is more corporately acceptable--is shocking. It's hard to say whether the documentary will be liberating or will create greater pressure on women to conform.

Another documentary, "Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution," concerns anyone who eats. Director Jean-Paul Jaud follows an experiment in a rural French town where the mayor, crusading for better health for local kids, made school lunches organic using locally-grown, chemically-free food. The film is a blueprint for the growing food pure revolution. I include it in the femme movie lineup because, well, women are more often than not the ones who are planning and preparing kids' lunches.

'Trucker,' 'Night of Demons' Share Debut

Two femme-centric narrative features open on Oct. 9. "Trucker" revolves around a freewheeling female driver who enhances her long-hauls with one-night stands and drinking bouts with her good buddy--until she's suddenly saddled with her estranged 11-year-old son while his father is hospitalized. This forces her to reconsider her lifestyle and future plans. "Night of the Demons" is a horror flick set in New Orleans, where three gal pals--played by Shannon Elizabeth, Monica Keena and Diora Baird--throw a Halloween party in a haunted house.

Opening in New York and Los Angeles only, "The Damned United" is a British biopic about soccer coach Brian Clough's brief management of Leeds United. OK, it's set in the male realm of football and there are no female players and few women in the cast. But you've gotta admire those players in their shorts.

"New York, I Love You," opening Oct. 16, is a 12-segment romancedy in which Fatih Akin, Scarlett Johansson, Mira Nair, Natalie Portman and Andrey Zvyaginstev are among the directors who present their unique takes on love in the Big Apple.

Maid, Pilot, Mom

"The Maid," written and directed by Sebastian Silva, is a Chilean femme-centric dramady in which Catalina Saavedra stars as a live-in servant who's worked for an upper class Santiago family for 23 years, and has come to feel like a family member. But, of course, she's not. When the family hires additional servants, she feels she must go to extreme measures to protect her position in the household. The film offers a humorous look at attitudes towards women, family, class and self-realization.

Oct. 23 brings three highly anticipated femme-helmed films.

"Amelia" is directed by Mira Nair, co-written by Anna Hamilton Phelan and stars Hilary Swank as the legendary Amelia Earhart. The flier's story is well-known, but it will be very interesting to see how Nair, Phelan and Swank soar with it.

"Motherhood," written and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, is a comedy that highlights the pluses and minuses of motherhood. Uma Thurman stars as the mother of a 2-year-old- old son who juggles her career, navigates playground politics and realizes what really matters to her in life.

Darkness in the Woods

Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," called a horror thriller by the director, is about a grieving couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who retreat to their own cabin in the woods to overcome their anguish over the accidental death of their son. But instead of healing, harshness and sexual violence ensue.

Gainsbourg won the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for her performance in this film. While she is fascinating on-screen, the character she plays is born of a most misogynist mind. Von Trier, a controversial director with a near-cult following, has admitted to having issues with his mother and his catalogue of female characters is filled with unstable creatures with dubious motives. In "Antichrist," he has written a female part with few--or no--redeeming elements in her character arc. Not only that, the film's title presents the final "t" in "Antichrist" with a circle over it--in other words, the symbol for a woman.

Von Trier's cinematography is magnificent and the images are gripping, but unless you're the kind of movie goer who can divorce form from content, I'd give this film a pass.

"Cirque Du Freak: the Vampire's Assistant," based on Darren Shan's popular book series, is a teen thriller about warring factions of vampires and has little to do with women's concerns. But this is probably our only opportunity to see Salma Hayek as a bearded lady.

Closing out the month, "House of the Devil" stars Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig and Mary Woronov in a satanic thriller just in time for Halloween. In the film, Donahue plays Sam, a cash-strapped college sophomore who takes an unusual babysitting job and finds out that her concerns about it are warranted.

Jennifer Merin is president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ). She edits AWFJ Women On Film (www.awfj.org, awfjinc@gmail.com) and writes about film for About.com (http://documentaries.about.com).

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