Lily Collins in /
Lily Collins in “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.”

Credit: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

(WOMENSENEWS)–Several intriguing femme-centric narrative features add luster to late August premieres. But some– a few directed by women, but more by men – represent women in an appallingly unappealing light. Some of them feature marvelous actresses who deserve fairer fare.

“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” which just opened Aug. 21, is a fantasy about a New York teenager (Lily Collins) endowed with magical superhuman powers. She joins forces with others of her ilk to battle the demons who hide among us and to save humanity from extinction. Based on Cassandra Clare’s popular eponymous young adult novel, Jessica Postigo’s screenplay exalts girl power. The effects-filled film is poised to become a series rivals to “Twilight,” but without the vamp-ing, sappy treacle and sudsy soap opera elements. If you’re a fantasy fan, get in on chapter one of “Mortal Instruments.”

Best seen on IMAX.

Aug. 23 Openings

“Savannah,” directed and co-written by Annette Haywood-Carter, is a truth-based period drama and buddy picture about Ward Allen (Jim Caviezel), a charmingly hardheaded Southern blue blood who eschewed his inherited privilege to live as a renegade duck hunter, always accompanied by his best friend, Christmas Moultrie (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freed slave. Moultrie, the last child born – on Christmas Day — into slavery at Mulberry Grove plantation, recounts their adventures to Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford), who records them as “Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter,” the basis for this fine-storied film, with great characters, a great cast and stunningly beautiful scenic cinematography.

“Therese” stars Audrey Tautou as a 1920s French provincial housewife trapped in a marriage resplendent with luxuries but lacking love. Her husband is arrogant and cruel. When time and circumstances bring her to the brink of rebellion, she sets about liberating herself from her tyrannical husband and his oppressive family. Tautou’s quiet and intensely compelling performance sustains a level of inner turmoil that will keep you on the edge of your seat. This fine femme-centric period drama is adapted from François Mauriac’s 1927 novel. Sadly, “Therese” is the last film from director Claude Miller, who died last year, a month before the film’s premiere at Cannes Film Festival.

“Paradise: Faith” is the second film in Austrian auteur director Ulrich Seidl’s femme-centric “Paradise” trilogy, with each film focusing on one of three related women seeking personal fulfillment. The first, “Paradise: Love,” is a sardonic and distasteful comedy about middle-aged Teresa’s sexual tourism foray into Kenya. In the second, “Faith,” Teresa’s sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter), a devout Catholic who is physically and emotionally obsessive about Jesus, makes daily pilgrimages through Vienna, trying to restore sinning Austrians to the path of virtue. Her mission is disrupted when her husband, a wheelchair-bound Muslim, returns after a long absence and lays marital demands on his wife. “Faith” is fiercely offensive in the way in which it caricatures its lead characters. The third film in this trilogy, “Paradise: Hope,” already released in Europe, has Teresa’s daughter sent off to teenage fat camp, where she obsesses about food and her crush on the camp’s physician, 40 years her senior.

In the three films, co-scripted by Veronica Franz (Seidl’s wife), repulsively crass and unsympathetic female characters undermine personal quests with which some female audiences might otherwise identify. No matter whether the trilogy is Seidl’s stab at satire, his cynical commentary on our troubled times, or an expression of his basic misogyny, the films are quite disagreeable. No feminist kudos to be awarded here.

Aug. 30

“Afternoon Delight” is writer-director Jill Soloway’s debut feature. It’s a contrived and superficial story about a bored and spoiled stay-at-home mom (Kathryn Hahn) who seeks to rekindle her sex life by dragging her disinterested husband to a strip club. There she meets a young stripper-hooker (Juno Temple) and hires her to be her own child’s live-in nanny, so she can push the woman toward a better life. Oh, sure. The film is neither affecting nor funny. “Afternoon Delight” brought Soloway a directing award at Sundance 2013, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why. The film doesn’t warrant its title. Use your afternoon elsewise.

“The Lifeguard,” another first feature, is writer-director Liz W. Garcia’s dramady about Leigh (Kristen Bell), who copes with her angst about turning 30 by fleeing her flailing life in New York City to return to her parents’ abode in Connecticut. There she resumes a lifeguard job she had while attending high school. Leigh’s presence and behavior create emotional havoc for family and friends. They, in turn, challenge her to grow up. The film is thoughtful, and it features superb performances by Bell, Mamie Gummer (as best friend) and Amy Madigan (as Mom).

“Passion” is a femme-centric crime thriller in which writer-director Brian De Palma pits two powerful, intensely ambitious and fundamentally evil women against each other in a corporate setting. Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace are gorgeously decked out as the women who compete in sinister ways on all fronts, including office politics and bedroom games. Sleek style seems to be the primary asset of this smarmy cinematic representation of women. Don’t expect much substance.

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