Chick Flicks: Summer 2008

The biggest news this summer is that older women (in Hollywood anyone who's over 35!) are going back to the movies, and that they are going in groups, leaving their boyfriends, husbands, and male friends behind.

Defying Summer's Typical Genres

That this phenomenon has happened in the summer is all the more striking, because the summer is a season known for the release of Hollywood's big-budgets, star-driven, special effects pictures, largely sequels and comic-hero adaptations, like “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and the sequels to “Indiana Jones” and “Mummy” pictures.

The second genre that usually dominates the summer is the rude, crude, raunchy comedy, the kind of fare that is produced by Judd Apatow, who is currently the industry's King of Comedy. Needless to say, most of these comedies are male-centered, being about men and by men. The dope comedy-adventure “Pineapple Express” and Ben Stiller's satire of Hollywood war-action movies “Tropic Thunder,” R-rated, foul-language, and politically incorrect, are the most recent examples.

Yet, at least four movies about women, by women, and for women have been released with levels of success that have largely exceeded expectations. They are known as chick flicks, and this season they are made for each and every demographic segment of the populace. “Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl,” made for young girls, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” for high-schoolers and the twentysomething crowd, “Sex and the City” made for middle-aged women, and “Mamma Mia!” a two generational musical extravaganza.

Art or Mass Entertainment

Like their male counterparts, the new women pictures are as much about art as about marketing and mass entertainmentthey are really feel-good movies. It's no accident that both “Mamma Mia!” and major sequences in the “Sisterhood” movies are set in the Greek Islands, a gorgeous place where women can go and relax, dropping society's rigid mores back home.

Make no mistakes. Each of the chick flicks is star-driven or boasts a name cast. Abigail Breslin, Hollywood's busiest child-actress and Oscar nominee for the indie comedy hit “Little Miss Sunshine,” plays the title role in “Kitt Kittredge.” “Mamma Mia” flaunts Meryl Streep in a song-and-dance part, alongside Christine Baranksi and Julie Walters.

Three of these pictures are directed by women. The Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema, better known for “I Hear the Mermaids Singing” and the literary adaptation “Mansfield Park,” helmed “Kitt Kittredge.” The producers of the Abba musical have decided to hire stage director Phyllida Lloyd, even though she has no film experience (which shows). While the first “Sisterhood” movie was directed by a male, the sequel, which just opened with solid numbers, was helmed by a woman, Sanaa Hamri.

All of these women have tried to imbue their films with a distinctly female, if not overtly political feminist, perspective. In “Kit Kittredge,” the first feature based on the hugely popular American Girl book series, Breslin plays a plucky, highly resourceful girl whose bravery, compassion and determination help her solve a mystery that saves her family's home during the Great Depression. As directed by Patricia Rozema, from a screenplay by Ann Peacock (“Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”), “Kit Kittredge” is an old-fashioned tale in the positive sense of the term, representing the kind of fare Hollywood used to make during the Golden Age, thus appealing to young girls seeking positive role models.

Breslin is a natural performer who doesn't look or behave like a child-star, which means that young girls had no problems empathizing with her. Blessed with a likeable appearance and considerable range, Breslin is set for a lengthy career. As was evident in previous works, Rozema is a feminist director attracted to stories and struggles of strong heroines. And in this movie, she has cast Julia Ormond as Kitt's mother, Jane Krakowski as a vivacious dance instructor on the prowl for a husband, and Joan Cusack (IN and Out”) as a zany librarian.

Sex and the City

“Sex and the City” broke records domestically and internationally, grossing in the U.S. alone over $150 million. The movie divided critics: According to Rotten Tomatoes, which polls about 150 critics, the comedy scored below average, but it didn't matter. Made four years after the hit TV show ended its run, viewers were eager to see what has happened to the four friends. Word-of-mouth, that mysterious institution, was far more important the reviews.

Four years have passed since the hit show ended–too long for the fans to wait. The women are now a decade older than they were when the show began, in 1998.

It was good to see the Fab Four–the charming Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte–together again, parading their Louis Vuitton handbags, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and bigger bags of emotional and sexual problems. As conceived and directed by Michael Patrick King, the creative force behind the TV show, this version hovered between TV and movie land.

For six seasons, HBO brought to life Candace Bushnell's provocative bestselling book, “Sex and the City,” turning the show into an upscale, trend-setting phenomenon, popular all over the world. It was HBO's most popular and critically acclaimed prime time show. The movie appealed to the show's core fans–younger and older women, and urbanites gay men.

Exit polls showed that women were more enthusiastic than men, especially those who were 25 and over, a group which amounted to 70% of the U.S. audience. There were little differences in the ratings of females 25 and over versus females under 25, all rating the film well above the norm. Older males also posted excellent ratings that exceeded the norm; least enthusiastic were men under 25.

The non-Caucasian audience was slightly more likely to rate the film excellent when compared to Caucasians; the African-American members of these audiences were most likely to assign positive ratings. It might have been a good, shrewd idea to add a woman of color, Jennifer Holliday (Oscar winner for “Dreamgirls”) to the largely white clique of women.

Mamma Mia!

The screen version of the stage musical, which has been seen by more than 30 million people in 170 cities and 8 different languages, has just crossed the $100 million mark in the U.S. and continues to perform strongly internationally. Despite a young central couple, this is a largely chick flick for mature and older viewers, not least because the leads are all actors of a certain age, including Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. Joining this duo are vet character actors Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgaard, Julie Walters, and Chritsine Baranski.

Hailing from the theater and opera worlds, helmer Phyllida Lloyd decided to take the easy way out, approaching the highly popular music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Ulvaeus as a celebration of joy and love, a fodder for a narrative about a seemingly generation gap between mothers and daughters and the men in their lives.

It's not surprising that the film is produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman's company, which is also responsible for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a movie with which “Mamma Mia!” shares similarities in theme and sensibility, both being broad romantic comedies that pander to the audience with simple entertainment. As of today, “Mamma Mia! Has crossed the $100 million domestically, and is still performing strongly internationally.

The whole enterprise has a touristy flavor; sort of girls just want to have fun–a result of being shot on a magical Greek Island. “Mamma Mia!” embraces the myths that in exotic locales, far away from the inhibitions of the home country, everything and anything can happen, particularly in the area of love. The romantic possibilities are infinite, and love is really in the air, to quote from another popular tune.

The women who created the stage hit, producer Judy Cramer, screenwriter Catherine Johnson, and director Phyllida Lloyd, reprise their roles in bringing this joyful story to the screen. Embracing the stage musical mantra, “Let the joy wash over you,” the movie goes out of its way to do so.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

Three years have passed since audiences last saw Tibby, Carmen, Bridget and Lena, who were 16, best friends, and just beginning to realize the possibilities that lay beyond the Bethesda neighborhood where they all grew up. That summer *marked their first brief separation, as Lena visited her grandparents in Greece, Bridget attended soccer camp, Carmen adjusted to her divorced father's new household, and Tibby took a local job to fund her first major video project.

To help them keep in touch, they relied upon a unique messenger, a pair of vintage jeans found in a thrift shop that miraculously fit each of them perfectly and even seemed to bring them luck. They made a pact to mail the pants to one another throughout the summer months, with notes enclosed from each wearer to the next about everything that had happened during the time the pants were in her possession.

But things are different now. The issues they face are more adult and the pace of life is faster. Producer Denise Di Novi, who was also made the first film, says, “The story picks up after the girls' first year of college. They have matured; their concerns and relationships are more complicated. We can see how their friendship has changed as they themselves are changing.”

“It's a classic coming-of-age story, but these are modern 21st-century young women,” says director Sanaa Hamri. “One of the things I like about the story is how authentic it is and age-appropriate. It's a time of fun and freedom and trying new things, but also a time when we all begin to deal seriously with relationships, self-discovery and confidence. There are often no easy answers to the fundamental questions about who we are and what we want.” It's also a time for learning how to stand up for yourself and what you believe in, as the girls will discover. Unexpected events can uncover painful truths or lead in exciting new directions. Strengths and talents emerge. And love–in its myriad forms–is everywhere.

“Sisterhood” is popular because it's relatable,” observes producer Debra Martin Chase. “The movies I like best, and strive to make, are what I call 'universal in the specific.' They're simply about life, with themes that touch people, regardless of gender or generation. This is a story about four young women, but it's also about the kinds of things we all go through to find ourselves and our place in the world.

Screenwriter Elizabeth Chandler, a writer on the original film in 2005, drew upon volumes two, three and four of Ann Brashares' award-winning and best-selling book series, with an emphasis on the fourth, Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood. It was decided that the new film would jump three years forward, after the girls had spent a year living very separate lives at different colleges. This allowed us to explore more mature issues and dramatize how the girls deal with these problems while the bonds of their friendship are beginning to unravel,” she says.

Says Hamri, “Our goal was to satisfy the fans of the original movie and the books and, at the same time, create a self-contained saga for an audience that may not have seen 'The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' or know the books. That really is the job of a sequel. I knew we had a tough act to follow. But I also knew that these characters had been so well-developed and presented with such honesty that it was clear to see they had a future.”

The ultimate test whether the chick flick has become integral to mainstream Hollywood will occur in mid-September, when Diane English's “The Women,” a remake of George Cukor's 1939 classic, would be released theatrically by Picturehouse. The movie has been in the works for over a decade, with speculations of how English (best known for the TV series “Murphy Brown” starring Candice Bergen) would update the older film.