Drew Barrymore is having a great year at the movies. She started off with one of her signature ditzy roles in the stereotypical but easygoing relationship comedy hit He's Just Not That Into You ( which her company produced ) ; triumphed as Little Edie Beale, giving a career-altering, Emmy-nominated performance in HBO's Grey Gardens; and now, brings forth her directorial debut, the slight but endearing grrrrl-power comedy Whip It.
The movie stars Ellen Page, who plays Bliss Cavender, a shrinking violet high school teen in tiny Bodeen, Texas, driven by a pushy, pageant-worshiping Southern belle mother ( Marcia Gay Harden ) . Bliss yearns to break free of small-town life and the traditional role mom and pop ( Daniel Stern ) have mapped out for her. What Bliss really, really wants to do is join the Hurl Scouts, the local female roller-derby team. After a night in nearby big-city Austin, watching the team in action, Bliss gathers her courage and aces her tryout. Soon she's renaming herself Babe Ruthless and trying to learn how to toughen up and go for her dreams, following the examples of the other players who have names like Rosa Sparks, Bloody Holly and Maggie Mayhem.
Along the way Bliss finds romance with a cute indie musician, learns about life from her teammates, how to overcome adversity thanks to a competition with the nasty reigning derby queen Iron Maven ( Juliette Lewis ) and even perhaps, figured out a way to tell mom and dad what she's been up to all those nights she was supposed to be studying for her SATs.
Barrymore, not surprisingly, shows her greatest strength as a director in the way she handles her actors. The normally whiny Page is suitably toned down. ( This is the first movie I've actually been able to tolerate her. ) Alia Shawkat, as the gal pal, really shines, as does Andrew Wilson as their hilariously serious coach. Barrymore also gives herself a great little comedic part as the ditzy but fearless skater Smashley Simpson, who enters with a bloody nose and never hesitates to jump into the fray.
Whip It doesn't really have much of the vicarious thrill and fun, salacious, tough vitality of the riveting female roller derby action I remember watching on local TV as a teenager ( the Hurl Scouts being so non-competitive that they cheer when they lose ) but this charming, light film skates along just fine without the bloodsport, nevertheless.
Director Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel could have used some of Whip It's lightness. Fontaine's dry biopic of the early days of the fashion doyenne hints at the legend in the making but the by-the-numbers script and Audrey Tautou's performance in the title role straps her into a personality so cranky and unsatisfied that it's a wonder the little pugnacious Chanel ever rose beyond her humble beginnings.
After a prologue in which we see the orphaned, petite little Gabrielle abandoned by her adored father, we cut to 15 years later when Gaby, now nicknamed Coco, is a saloon singer with her sister, Adrienne ( Marie Gillain ) . Soon Adrienne catches a French nobleman but the obstreperous Coco has only been a diversion for her rich, elderly suitor. Kicked out of her job for refusing to sleep with the customers, Coco brazenly arrives at the estate of her rich suitor unannounced and moves into the guest room and proceeds to bewitch his titled guests.
But Fontaine's one-note movie never veers much from its portrait of a contrarian. Chanel seems less inspired than dogmatic and, though it works toward the moment when Coco creates the first of her signature black dresses ( this one for a dress ball ) , we never see how this sour, determined fussbudget charmed the pants ( or skirts ) off anyone. Independent she may have been but, as essayed by Tautou through Fontaine's lens, this Chanel is dry as toast and the antithesis of her sensual sartorial creations.
The Halloween movie season has kicked off with a bang. Paranormal Activity, which is rightly being touted as this year's Blair Witch Project, is now playing midnight screenings around town. Paramount's packed late-night screening at the Music Box a few weeks back helped convinced the studio to release the film hereespecially after a host of jacked-up audience members no doubt clicked the "Demand It!" button on the movie's Web site afterwards. For thrillseekers, this low-budget, gore-free flick is worth staying up for. You can read my complete review at www.knightatthemovies.com .
Suspiria, Italian horror director Dario Argento's 1977 masterpiecewhich centers on a witch coven up to evildoings in a European dance academy, starring Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett and Alida Valliwill be shown Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. The screening will feature a rarely loaned, archival Technicolor 35mm print which will no doubt showcase Argento's striking, bold use of color and the film's baroque set design. The unnerving but beautiful music score by Goblin heightens the creepiness while gore fans will surely appreciate the over the top violence in many of the movie's famous set pieces. This is a rare opportunity to see Argento's masterwork in its original and most potent form. This is highly recommended; see www.siskelfilmcenter.com .
For the full horror-movie enchilada, film-event promoter Rusty Nails is back Oct. 10-11 with Music Box Massacre 5, his annual 24-hour horror movie marathon at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport. This year's edition includes everything from the Lon Chaney silent classic version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame to a rarely screened Val Lewton classic starring Boris Karloff, Isle of the Dead, to David Cronenberg's The Brood and Brian DePalma's Carrie ( at 10:15 a.m., no less! ) . Stuart Gordon, star of the 1985 cult black gore-comedy Re-Animator, and others will appear in person throughout the marathon. As always, horror-movie memorabilia dealers will be set up in the lobby and patrons are encouraged to arrive dressed in costume or in their pajamas and spend the night. Complete schedule and ticket information are at www.musicboxtheatre.com .
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site.