July turns out to be a good month for Jennifer Merin, president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, to start her monthly WeNews cinema preview. There’s a lot to see, starting with the U.S. premiere of Agnes Varda’s documentary about her life.

Jennifer Merin

(WOMENSENEWS)–July kicks off with a big winner in the U.S. premiere of "The Beaches of Agnes" (Les Plages d’Agnes).

This is a remarkable autobiographical documentary of Agnes Varda, the French filmmaker known for "Cleo from Nine to Five" and "The Gleaners," among other classics. In Beaches, she revisits her childhood, the start of her career, her relationships with fellow New Wave artists–a group of French filmmakers from the late 1950s and 1960s–and glitterati, her eventual marriage and motherhood, and brings us up to the present. Mme Varda is now 80 years old and going strong. Very strong. See for yourself. Opening at the IFC Center in New York City on July 1, it’s a must see.

Nia Vardalos, whose 2002 blockbuster "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" forged the hope of new possibilities for women in Hollywood, is the driving force behind two feature films this summer. "I Hate Valentine’s Day" debuts in July, on the heels of her June release, currently in theaters, called "My Life in Ruins." Valentine’s Day is a romantic comedy written and directed by Vardalos, in which she again co-stars with John Corbett. The film’s set up is remarkably similar to what established her as a star in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

Will we also heart "I Hate Valentine’s Day" when it opens on July 3 in limited release? Chances are slim. I’ve not yet seen this film, but it sounds like Vardalos is again playing her strong suite–as a charming, quirky, perky gal who’s ripe for love and manages to find it, just as she did in "Wedding" and "My Life in Ruins." It sounds like more of the same, nothing new.

While Vardalos neither wrote nor directed "My Life in Ruins," she did show her clout by getting the project approved and helping to win permission to film at the Acropolis for the first time. Generally panned by members of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, "Ruins" is a predictable romp that may mildly please if you’re in need of ultra lightweight distraction, but it certainly doesn’t show Vardalos–one of Hollywood’s female forces–at her strongest.

"Lion’s Den" Has Teeth

Also opening on July 3: "Lion’s Den" ("Leonera"), an Argentinean film that does have teeth. Directed by Pablo Trapero, it focuses on Julia (Martina Guzman), a woman who is charged with killing her lover and is sent to prison. There she discovers she’s pregnant and delivers a son, who becomes her life’s sole preoccupation.

Julia’s relationship with her son, supported by her prison friend but opposed by her mother, explores the problems of mothers behind bars. The film was shot in a real prison and prison inmates appear as extras. "Lion’s Den" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, and this is one you should turn out for on its opening weekend–or, at least, see it before it leaves the art houses.

Look to "Humpday," director Lynn Shelton’s new film, on July 10, a prize winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. "Humpday" is a humorous "bromance" in which two heterosexual young men decide it would be ‘radical’ if they made a porn film about having sex with each other.

Shelton, who produced and directed–and also appears as a lesbian seductress to complicate sexual matters–the film, stretches the knowingly silly premise into a genuinely entertaining and thought-provoking exploration of sexual curiosity, stereotyping and ambiguities. This is a sweet little film, and most assuredly deserves first weekend support.

Also opening July 10 is "Soul Power," a documentary about the all-star rock concert that accompanied the famous 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight championship boxing match between Mohammad Ali and George Forman in Zaire. "Soul Power" presents plenty of James Brown, B.B. King and other male artists, but you should really go see it for the divas, Celia Cruz and Miriam Makeba.

On July 15, mothers, in particular, might be tempted by the blockbuster "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth cinematic installment in the series of novels author J.K. Rowling began writing as entertainment for her daughter.

"Homecoming," opening July 17, deserves a mention because it was written by Katie L. Fetting, who penned "Method," which was released by Warner Bros. in 2004. This is her second film–and I’m always ready to look for more.

Highlighting War-Related Rapes

"A Women in Berlin" ("Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin"), by contrast, is entirely femme-centric. Based on a woman’s diary, the film is a compelling drama about survival and sexual abuse in post-WW II Berlin, where conquering Soviet soldiers rampantly raped German women. It’s a harrowing tale that resonates with current reports of war-related rapes in conflict zones around the globe.

Also on July 17 is the debut of "Orphan," a horror drama about a little girl who is adopted, but has some fearsome problems. Nice that they made the central character a little girl, but is she a girl or a monster? And, if she is a monster, is her condition objectionably attributable to her gender? I haven’t yet seen the film, so I will have to wait to find out.

"The Ugly Truth," opening on July 24, is a Robert Luketic (he directed "Legally Blonde") chick flick, cleverly penned by Nicole Eastman and Karen McCullah Lutz. It’s about a TV producer (Katherine Heigl) who gets involved with a chauvinistic reporter (Gerard Butler) and, well, you know, things happen.

"Lorna’s Silence" Likely Controversial

On July 31, look for "Lorna’s Silence," written and directed by the brothers Dardenne (Jean-Pierre and Luc). This dark, brutal psychological drama won the prestigious "prix du scenario" at the Cannes Film Festival.

It revolves around an Albanian refugee in Belgium who gets caught in a web of illegalities to stay in her new homeland. The subject of immigration may be of particular interest in our homeland these days and, if European reviews are any indication, it’s sure to be controversial–which is the norm for the Dardennes.

A woman also plays a key role in "The Cove," a tremendously compelling documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan. The film was shot by a team of animal activists who risked their lives to secretly–often under cover of night with infrared cameras–document the killings and expose the evils to the world. One of the animal activists involved is the amazing Diving Hall of Famer Mandy-Rae Cruikshank This is a must-see film.

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).

For more information:

Alliance of Women Film Journalists

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