Favorite

Chicks First 

Bring It On (PG-13)
Universal

Woman On Top (R)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

A Map of the World (R)
First Look Pictures -- on video

The term chick flick, historically, refers to that genre of film that draws tears by focusing on the difficulties -- usually emotional, sometimes physical, often societal -- of being a woman. The first bonafide chick flick I remember emoting over was I'll Cry Tomorrow, with Susan Hayward as a sympathetic, breast-beating, beautiful, imprisoned woman awaiting execution in the electric chair. My little sister and I sobbed and bonded as we watched it on the Late Movie on television.

But in the past 25 years or so, the chick flick has expanded beyond weepies to include tales of physical triumph on the playing field and comedies that make fun of female stereotypes. Spanning both of those categories with a foot firmly planted in the sexed-up teen genre is Bring It On, a perky and often hilarious take on the world of competitive cheerleading.

Walking into the theater on a Sunday afternoon, I was struck by the decidedly pre-adolescent bent of the audience -- mostly girls under 14, the majority of them blondes. But cheerleading is dominated by pre-18-year-olds, high school marking the height of most cheering careers.

Adorable dimpled blonde Kirsten Dunst is Torrance, the head cheerleader of San Diego's Rancho Carne High School Toros -- five-time national cheerleading champions who are faced with a dilemma when they realize their prized routines have been ripped off from an inner-city squad from Los Angeles, the fabulous Clovers. Coming up with a new routine in time for the nationals competition provides the central conflict of the movie, but sexiness -- toothy smiles, short skirts with tight, stretch panties, spread eagle moves, perfect legs, arrogant beauty, all the characteristics loathed by anti-cheerleaders in high school and secretly coveted by most junior high school girls -- dominates the film.

Skillfully mixing wonderfully choreographed routines with self-deprecating humor and some sweet puppy romance, Bring It On entertains from start to finish. Some of the cheers are a hoot: "I'm sexy, I'm cute. I'm popular to boot. I'm bitchin'. Great hair. The boys all like to stare." And Dunst leads the cast with excess star quality -- we actually come to believe she can execute the flips and throws and splits, though we know those are stand-ins we're watching fly through the air.

Bring It On succeeds because it does not succumb to heavy-handedness in the rich girl-poor girl, white girl-black girl central conflict which is significant but not pandering. The cheering is terrific, the teen-speak dialogue relentless, the camera moves supple and graceful and the climax is satisfying.

Woman On Top, the first big English-speaking vehicle for Spanish film star Penelope Cruz, while ostensibly a simple and straightforward, textbook chick flick romantic comedy, is more problematic.

Cruz is absolutely winning as Isabella, a beautiful Brazilian chef who leaves her husband and true love, Tonio (Murilo Benicio), when she discovers he has been cheating on her with a neighbor. Confined to the kitchen and to the back of Tonio's wandering mind for too long, Isabella strikes out for unknown territory and eventually becomes a celebrated television chef in San Francisco under the tutelage of her adoring neighbor, television producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein). Everyone loves Isabella and it's easy to see why -- she's sweet, gorgeous, sensual and sensitive. Soon she's a woman on top.

Tonio comes searching for her, his mariachi band in tow, and tries to woo her back with love songs and memories of their shared home, but Isabella refuses to return to her formerly submissive role. This plot, mixed with some magical realism involving food, recipes and a vengeful sea goddess, has plenty of promise but fails in the delivery.

Director Fina Torres pasted Woman on Top together as if it's an episode of I Love Lucy -- far too many short sequences pasted together to resemble the passing of time -- and the special effects are so amateurish they serve only to distract. A smart supporting performance by Harold Perrineau, Jr. as Monica, the drag queen who is Isabella's best friend, carries most of the film. And the sublime music of Brazilian guitarist Heitor Pereira and vocalist Paulinho Moska, most of it composed in the '40s by Silvio Caldas, is winning. Had Torres paid as much attention to the other production aspects of the film, including doctoring the weak script, Woman On Top might have succeeded. As it is, it's neither a good romance nor a good comedy -- it's a mediocre tease at both.

A fine example of a truly complex and sophisticated chick flick, A Map of the World, unfortunately never made it to Springs theaters last year, though Sigourney Weaver's performance in it garnered massive critical praise and major award nominations. Now you can see it on video.

Adapted by screenwriters Polly Platt and Peter Hedges (What's Eating Gilbert Grape) from Jane Hamilton's novel, this is the story of Alice Goodwin, a Wisconsin farm woman whose world is turned upsidedown when a neighbor's child drowns in the pond behind her house. Julianne Moore plays the dead child's mother, Theresa, with remarkable delicacy and exhaustion -- Moore can strike the look of someone who has spent the past month crying and warm to the camera at the same time with her vast inner range.

But A Map of the World is Sigourney Weaver's film, and quite possibly her finest moment on film. Alice is a difficult, often unsympathetic character about whom the point is made: She brings trouble on herself. And it's true, she does, but with her stark honesty, her outspokenness, her brittle countenance and even her statuesque physical presence. A Map of the World questions the sanctity and warm-and-fuzzy definition of motherhood, asking if a less than warm-and-fuzzy mother can succeed in a small, Midwestern town where moms quietly fix balanced meals and silently serve their husbands and children.

Weaver's performance is a triumph, as is the realistic attention to detail reflected in the wardrobe and setting. And the script is literate and compelling -- a rarity among all contemporary films, not just among chick flicks.

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