By Jennifer Merin
WeNews film critic
Friday, September 9, 2011
September brings a big gust of PBS programming and community screenings that show how girls and women are confronting war, famine and abuse. A documentary about a dolphin who gives inspiration to amputees is also in the mix.
(WOMENSENEWS)--September, it seems, began in retrograde: not one of the films opening on Labor Day weekend was directed by a woman.
Meanwhile the holiday's big femme-centric feature, the French thriller "Love Crime,"has an older and younger woman--formidably portrayed by Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, respectively--pitted against each other in mortal competition. No siree, sisterhood was not this month's starter.
However, September does see the launch of "Women and Girls Lead," a multiyear, multiplatform, global femme-centric cinematic initiative intended to raise consciousness about issues and empower women to take action against gender bias and other social injustice. "Women and Girls Lead" is created by ITVS, the nonprofit that provides much of the content for PBS, and partnering organizations, including the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the Girl Scouts.
The heart of the initiative will be the broadcast of 50 female-empowering documentary features on public television, with a rich variety of interactive online opportunities.
Each film shows women taking action and changing the world for the better in countries wracked by civil war, famine and human rights abuses, including the United States. As part of the initiative, filmmakers Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker and Pamela Hogan are presenting "Women, War and Peace," a series of five films about the roles of women in conflict zones. The films, including the acclaimed "Pray The Devil Back To Hell" and the recently completed "Peace Unveiled," will be screened at community-sponsored events in cities across the United States. (I will be moderating post-screening panel discussions at several events.) If you can't find a screening in your area, you can work with ITVS outreach to sponsor one.
Now, back to movies in the mainstream. Two notable movies come to theaters today, Sept. 9. "Tanner Hall," a first feature written and directed by Tatiana von Furstenberg (Diane's daughter) and Francesca Gregorini (Barbara Bach's daughter, Ringo Starr's step- daughter), is a coming-of-age drama about four teens trying to define themselves and their life goals while attending an exclusive Rhode Island boarding school. The film is a strong ensemble piece, starring Rooney Mara, whose breakout performance here led to her casting for the role of Liz Salander in the upcoming English version of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."
The second opener is Heather Courtney's "Where Soldiers Come From," another coming-of-age story. This one is a documentary about high school buddies from rural Michigan -- from the director's hometown, in fact -- who join the National Guard and are unexpectedly deployed to Afghanistan, where they explode IEDs and are so completely traumatized they can't re-enter civilian life. Courtney chronicles their stories with compassion and insight, capturing their personalities and quirks. These are good kids.
Each is every mother's son. And their disillusionment and anguish are heart wrenching. A must-see! Sept. 16 brings four intriguing openings. My top pick is "Jane's Journey," Lorenz Knauer's captivating documentary about the life and times -- and extraordinary accomplishments --of Jane Goodall, famous for her seminal studies of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Goodall, a prominent but also intensely private person, gives the filmmaker access to her innermost thoughts and concerns, caught in on-camera interviews and voiced narration over a wealth of archival footage. At age 75, Goodall, who works nonstop on environmental causes, is an inspiration to us all.
An older women is at the heart of the story told in "My Afternoons With Margueritte," a charming French film (with English subtitles). Gisele Casadesus plays the title role, a well-read senior citizen who befriends a lonely and illiterate younger man (played by Gerard Depardieu), and they give each other purpose. It's a lovely story and a lovely film fizzing with star chemistry.
In "I Don't Know How She Does It," Sarah Jessica Parker plays a soon-to-be-middle-age wife and mother of two who also works and wants it all. The rom-com, with script by Aline Brosh McKenna, directed by Douglas McGrath and based on Allison Pearson's novel, has its clever and humorous moments, but this is a story that has been told time and again, often more satisfyingly. Parker is, as always, a little too pert, but at least her character's focus here is not entirely on her Manolos.
"Restless" brings us back to teen years again, this time with a poignant tale about a terminally ill girl (sensitively played by Mia Wasikowska) who bonds with Enoch, a rather quirky boy (sensitively played by Henry Hooper). No spoilers here, but bring hankies.
On Sept. 23, two animal-centric films are opening, one directed by a woman and the other co-written by a woman. "A Bird of the Air," is actress Margaret Whitton's directorial debut. It's an improbable rom-com about Lyman (Jackson Hurst), a shy fellow, who finds a conversational parrot, and Fiona (Rachel Nichols), who's seeking Mr. Right. Fiona decides she's going to help locate the priceless parrot's rightful owner, and things develop from there. "Dolphin Tale" is based on the true story of Winter, a dolphin rescued off the Florida coast. Winter's flukes, severely injured by wire, were replaced by a prosthetic tail, a first for dolphins. She is now fully recovered. Living happily at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, she has become an inspiration for amputees. In "Dolphin Tale," co-written by Karen Janzsen, Winter plays herself, starring opposite Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and other humans.
The month wraps up with five openings on Sept. 30. "Connected" is a documentary written, directed by and starring Tiffany Shlain, the accomplished filmmaker named by Newsweek as one of the "Women Shaping the 21st Century." Prompted by the death of her father (the prominent Leonard Shlain), the film presents a grieving daughter's reminiscences and her philosophical musings about the evolution of human interconnectivity in the digital age. When Shlain isn't on camera, questioning the meaning of it all, Peter Coyote provides voiced narration over archival footage and graphics that support her thoughts, premises and perceptions. Overall, the effort is rambling, self-indulgent and sadly unsatisfying.
Of the narrative films, the most anticipated (after several years in the editing room and legal delays) is Kenneth Lonergan's second feature, "Margaret," starring Anna Paquin as a guilt-ridden teenager who feels responsible for causing a deadly accident. Angst kicks into high gear as Margaret grapples with questions of right and wrong, her burgeoning sexuality, parental strife and an affair with her high school teacher (Matt Damon). Not entirely successful, but the film packs a lot of talent into its woes.
Starring as "Janie Jones," Abigail Breslin embodies the sufferings of parental neglect. Her single mom (Elizabeth Shue) is an irresponsible groupie, her dad (Alessandro Nivola) a musician who never even knew about her. A daughter doesn't fit into either of their lives. The plot isn't standout, but the performances are. And so is the music.
"What's Your Number?" is this month's chick-flick comedy. In a script by Jennifer Crittenden and Gabrielle Allan, Anna Faris stars as a dumb-but-wily blonde who believes that if she sleeps with more than 20 men, she'll never get married. So, having reached that limit, she revisits all her former "dates," looking for Mr. Right. Is this funny? Faris is. And so are some of the setups. But the premise and plot are less than buoyant. "Around June" is an indie drama-fantasy about a shy, unfulfilled, beautiful woman (Samaire Armstrong) who toils to take care of her alcoholic father and sweet-but-slow uncle until an unexpected romance with a sweet-but-struggling immigrant worker sets her free. I haven't seen the film, but I'd say give it a go.
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In addition to covering film for Women's eNews, Jennifer Merin writes about documentaries for About.com (http://documentaries.About.com ) and is president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (http://www.AWFJ.org ), a nonprofit organization of the leading women film journalists in the U.S. and Canada. She is also a member of the Broadcast Journalists Association.