Call me hard-hearted, but there is only so long I can tolerate overly-anthropomorphic nature films about creatures who suffer for the sins of man.

Director Judy Irving has wonderful footage of Pacific pelicans in the wild, but once they are captured–usually because they are ill &/or injured–she turns her subjects into pets, and starts writing dialogue for them. Oy! (JLH: 3/3)

Directed by Judy Irving. Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.


Review of Pelican Dreams by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Pelican Dreams begins with Judy Irving narrating footage of a pelican stopping traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. The documentary picks up from there and proceeds to tell the sad story of the almost-extinct birds.

Like her previous film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Irving’s documentary is targeted towards nature (and animal) lovers. She overlaps her own story with footage of endangered pelicans, interweaving her passion for the animals with shots of them in their natural habitat – or at least their natural habitat outside San Francisco. We learn little-known facts about pelicans, from mating rituals to their flying abilities. The intelligent animals are shown turning their necks 360 degrees to show affection for other pelicans and seen as charming animals in general.

The film centers on two pelicans in particular – Gigi, the bird on the Golden Gate Bridge, and Morro, the bird living in the backyard of rehab specialists Dani and Bill Nicholson. Irving and the Nicholsons’ main goal is to get both pelicans back into the wild. Watching their journey is interesting (and sometimes humorous) but overall, very sad. The purpose of the documentary is to show every aspect of how pelicans are overlooked and under appreciated. The point is made by the first 20 minutes of the film and starts to feel tedious and gloomy. The remaining portion of Pelican Dreams shows the care given to the injured birds, with Irving covering all the bases of why pelicans are going extinct – climate change, oil spills, and pollution.

At some points, the imagery is difficult to watch but the entire purpose of the documentary is to open people’s eyes and that is exactly what it does. The stunning footage the documentarian captures of pelicans soaring over cliffs and through the San Francisco fog is both breathtaking and thought provoking. Somehow, through the lens of her camera and her saddened voiceovers, she makes you think twice about a subject unfamiliar to so many people. It shows how humans are directly and indirectly affecting the lives of these endangered species, so if Pelican Dreams does nothing but make people more mindful of their actions, then Irving has successfully done her job.


Review © Brigid K. Presecky (11/08/14)

Top Photo: Judy Irving with brown pelican Gigi

Bottom Photo: A white pelican in St. James Park, London

Photo Credits: Shadow Distribution and Stephen McLaren / Pelican Media

Q: Does Pelican Dreams pass the Bechdel Test? RedA


Irving speaks with several conservationists, a couple of whom are women.

But it’s a stretch…

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Opens today in NYC. Review coming soon.

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Opens today in NYC. Review coming soon.

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New York SWAN Project (ESVB)

EnidZentelisAAUW’s Empire State Virtual Branch (NY) kicked off its new SWAN Project at a program at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale. Special guests included Enid Zentelis, who screened her film Bottled Up and then lead a Q&A session, and Ellen Tejle, creator of Sweden’s A-Rating campaign.

Top Photo: Enid Zentelis

Middle Photo: With Ellen Tejle.

Photo Credits: Laura Fieber (10/18/14)



Botttom Photo: Mary Lou and Maria address ESVB Audience.

Botttom Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (10/18/14)

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PublicSnowdenEdward Snowden has been a shadow figure since he made the decision in 2013 to release evidence of illegal covert surveillance programs.

In this remarkable doc, we not only listen to him explain himself, we also watch as he determines when, where & how to transform himself from a private citizen into the whistleblower who set off an international media firestorm. (JLH: 4/4)

Documentary directed by Laura Poitras. Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. Highly recommended by both me & Rich.


Top Photo: Edward Snowden–in Hong Kong–makes the leap from private to public.

Bottom Photo: Laura Poitras at her computer getting ready to shine light into dark corners.

Q: Does pass the Bechdel Test?


Laura Poitras is constantly filming in the background and sometimes we hear her voice, but we never see her and she never interviews any women.

We get a brief glimpse of Lindsay Mills–Snowden’s companion–at the very end, but Poitras never speaks with her one-on-one, so “Lindsay Mills” continues to be just a name… at least so far…

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Opened yesterday in NYC. Review coming soon.

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laggies1Review of Laggies by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Lynn Shelton’s Laggies (a term for those slow to grow up) tells the story of a girl who is stuck in between her high school glory days and full-fledged adulthood. The film begins like a home movie, with footage of a group of high school friends at their senior prom, laughing and yelling in their limo, and enjoying their John Mellencamp-type-world of high school. When the film picks up a decade later, “Megan” (Keira Knightley) still belongs to her high school group of friends, half-heartedly dating her longtime boyfriend “Anthony” (Mark Webber) and attending the bachelorette party of her stuck-up friend “Allison” (Ellie Kemper). Although Megan has a Masters Degree in Family Counseling, she has yet to land a full-time job and instead twirls a cardboard arrow that says, “Tax Advice,” outside of her dad’s office.

All of Megan’s frustrations boil to the surface at Allison’s cookie-cutter wedding, as she watches the couple complete with their first choreographed dance together. (Side note: the first act of the film drips with so much sarcasm and satire that my stomach hurt from laughing). Hippie, tree-hugger Anthony bends down on one knee to propose to Megan, to which she pulls him back up and immediately starts to panic. To make matters even worse, Megan walks out of the wedding venue to see her father “Ed” (Jeff Garlin) cheating on her mother. One solution to making Megan’s terrible night better? Alcohol. When she arrives at the liquor store, Megan encounters teenage “Annika” (Chloë Grace Moretz) who asks her to buy alcohol for her posse of friends – to which Megan accepts and hands them a bag of wine coolers, beer, and a bottle of wine. But instead of returning to the wedding-from-Hell, Megan hangs around with Annika and her friends, flipping skateboards, TP-ing a house, and bumming around in the park in a drunken stupor.

The next day, eager Anthony and hung-over Megan make plans to elope, but not before she can go on a weeklong “personal development” retreat. But instead of going out of town, Megan decides to camp out at Annika’s house and spend some time with the high-school crowd. Megan and Annika talk about boys, parties, and their parents until Annika’s divorce-lawyer dad, “Craig,” (Sam Rockwell) catches Megan sleeping over and questions why a woman in her late 20s would want to spend time with his teenage daughter. Megan makes up a lie as to why she’s homeless for a week and Craig agrees to let her stay in the guest room.

Predictably, Megan not only forms a close bond with Annika, but a blossoming romance with Craig (unbeknownst to him, she is still engaged to Anthony). What was promising in Act One and most of Act Two becomes stagnant by Act Three. With actors like Knightley, Rockwell, and Moretz, there needed to be a stronger plot than the one they had to work with. There were great one-liners and a handful of strong scenes that worked really well, especially between the three main characters, but Shelton seemed to be telling too many stories at once. The trailer for Laggies leads you to believe the film is about Megan’s bond with Annika and Craig (which it is, of course), but the film spends too much time on Megan’s unhappiness with her high school friends, her fiancé, her job, her parents, etc. The film would have been better off if it spent more time with Moretz and Rockwell (who always give superb performances in almost everything they do) and had given Megan’s relationship with the father/daughter duo more time to build and breathe. But unfortunately, the film spent precious minutes on Annika’s boarding school-bound friend “Patrick” (Dylan Arnold) and her absentee, lingerie-model mother “Bethany” (Gretchen Mol).

Overall, it was a funny film on growing up and moving on. Although the plot was weaker than what I expected, the cast (especially charming Sam Rockwell) made up for the mediocre material. Keira Knightley did her best to mask her British accent and was believable as the lost, unkempt Megan. Going back to the trailer, the teaser included scenes and dialogue that I wish hadn’t been deleted from the final product. I believe Lynn Shelton’s screenplay had additional material to give the story more depth and live up to its potential – but was most likely cut for time in the editing room. If that is the case, I will have to watch the deleted scenes on the DVD and see if the missing links Laggies’ plot were unfortunately kept on the cutting room floor.


Review © Brigid K. Presecky (11/08/14)

Top Photo: Keira Knightley as “Megan” and Chloë Grace Moretz as “Annika”

Bottom Photo: Sam Rockwell as “Craig,” Keira Knightley as “Megan,” and Chloë Grace Moretz as “Annika”

Q: Does Laggies pass the Bechdel Test?DigitalStampA

Yes. Most of the film is focused on the relationship between Megan and Annika. Their relationship is more than talking about their respective boyfriends. Megan pretends to be Annika’s mother at school and eventually takes her to see her real mother (albeit estranged and flighty) exemplifying the bond they’ve created over the course of a week.

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DebbieReview of Ouija by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

The makers of Ouija accomplished exactly what they set out to do: produce a low-budget movie for teenage girls and make quadruple the return on investment (on opening weekend, no less). Unfortunately, that was the only successful element of the laughable, board game-inspired film. Screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White infused elements from the entire horror genre (loud noises, crazy old women, a creaky attic) and somehow made them as dull and non-threatening as possible in the 89-minute flick. The story begins with friends Debbie and Laine as little girls, playing a Ouija board and discussing the three main rules: do not play alone, do not play in a graveyard, and always say goodbye.

Do not play alone: The film picks up a decade later as, “Debbie,” (Shelley Hennig) now a teenager, breaks the first rule and suffers the consequences. Since she played alone, she awakened a spirit in her house that causes her to tear down her room’s twinkle-lights, wrap them around her neck and hang, lifeless, in her house’s foyer. Her best friend “Laine” (Olivia Cooke) refuses to believe Debbie killed herself and enlists the help of her model-esque friends to get some answers by performing a séance around the ancient Ouija board.

Do not play in a graveyard: Almost the entire film is set in Debbie’s house as the friends search for clues in a dusty attic and obligatory, dark and scary basement. Although the Scooby gang doesn’t break the first two rules, they die one-by-one (on par with most horror flicks) for seemingly no reason. The spirit simply wants them dead and kills them by sewing each of their mouths shut with dental floss. Laine is left to figure out the mystery of the house’s spirits and pieces together clues from faded pictures and old newspaper headlines to end the madness.

Always say goodbye: Saying goodbye was an easy task for audience members seeing Ouija. A movie targeting a younger female audience or claiming to be on a micro-budget are not excuses for bad storytelling. There have been movies like Paranormal Activity made for a fraction of the cost that use narrative, suspense, and psychological thrills to keep the audience engaged and satisfied. Ouija tries to implement a little bit of everything but ultimately ends up with nothing at all. There are a few loud noises and a handful of disturbing images, but the lackluster backstory failed to enhance the already-pointless plot.

Originally intended to be a risky $200 million blockbuster, the film’s budget was reduced to $5 million and given relatively unknown actors to play one-dimensional roles. Olivia Cooke did a fine job as lead protagonist Laine, but coming from her role as sickly sidekick Emma Decody in the bone-chilling Bates Motel, she had to have known this was a big step down in quality material. I can imagine the amateur, problematic script was the main reason for the budget cut, but again, there have been plenty of noteworthy horror films made with less money than Ouija.


Review © Brigid K. Presecky (10/26/14)

Top Photo: Shelley Hennig as “Debbie” looking for a spirit in her house

Bottom Photo: Olivia Cooke (center) as “Laine” with Daren Kagasoff as “Trevor,” Bianca A. Santos as “Isabelle,” Douglas Smith as “Pete,” and Ana Coto “Sarah” as they try to summon Debbie’s spirit

DigitalStampA Q #1: Does Ouija pass the Bechdel Test?

Yes, the friendship between Laine and Debbie is one of the major plotlines that is supposed to illicit emotion from the audience. There are videos of the friends shopping and taking pictures and promising to decorate their dorm rooms with purple furniture. Although it does pass the Bechdel Test, I cannot recommend the film.

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WeiTangBioPic stars Wei Tang as Chinese writer Xiao Hong. Focusing on the turbulent 1930s, when left-wing intellectuals lived in the heightened exhilaration of internal upheaval & Japanese invasion, Xiao Hong somehow keeps publishing despite pregnancies & romantic complications. (JLH: 4/5)

Suggestion for non-Chinese audiences: Read about Xiao Hong on Wikipedia before you go!

Directed by Ann Hui. Screenplay by Qiang Li. Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.

Who knew that in the midst of internal dissention between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, China produced at least two critically important feminist authors who made vital contributions to world literature? I certainly didn’t. This was the great joy of watching Ann Hui’s new biopic The Golden Era, starring Wei Tang as Chinese writer Xiao Hong in the turbulent 1930s. The relationship between “Xiao Hong” (Wei Tang) and her writer/mentor “Ding Lin” (Lei Hao), while not the focus by any means, is critical to the success of the film. Xiao unfortunately had a short, feverish life, dying of Tuberculosis in 1942 while Hong Kong was under intense Japanese bombardment. Ding Lin, who lived a long life, was more politically active than Xiao, but less poetic. She was a commander of the Red Chinese Mao’s forces and spent time at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the late ‘80s.

In the beginning of the film, the main character Xiao Hong informs the audience of her premature death through narration, along with third person characters detailing the long, three-hour epic following the course of her life. This beautiful, poetic young woman from a wealthy family lost her mother when she was young and grew up under the control of an oppressive father. When he tried to marry her off, she ran away with her student boyfriend “Xiao Jun,” (Shaofeng Feng) but continued to write even as she struggled through pregnancies and desertions. Although a majority of the film concerns her romantic life, Xiao chronicles her time with her powerful mentor, “Lu Xun” (Zhiwen Wang).

The five main characters are Xiao Hong, Xiao Jun, Lu Xun, her husband “Duanmu Hongliang,” (Yawen Zhu) and her friend Ding Lin. For an American audience, it’s difficult to watch when you aren’t familiar with the people and are trying to sort out the story and the characters at the same time. I enjoy long biopics, stemming from my love of Academy Award-winning Reds starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, so although The Golden Era was disconcerting at times, it drew me in and made me want to read Xiao Hong’s books.

Ann Hui’s previous film A Simple Life was a small, intimate drama whereas The Golden Era is an epic about artistic and intellectual fervor of mid-1930s China. It was evident that she didn’t have the budget to do what she really wanted or needed to do. Where Reds had big, elaborate scenes with hundreds of people marching on the Winter Palace and crossing Central Asia, Ann Hui chose not to do that for this film. For example, during one scene where Xiao Hong is pregnant and trying to catch a ferry out of Hong Kong, she runs and passes out, but instead seeing of thousands, if not millions, of people around her, all you see is Xiao Hong alone on the dock. I don’t know if it was a decision on the director’s part to keep focused on her central character or if she just didn’t have the budget to do what she really should have done. Overall, I liked it a lot and thought gorgeous, talented Wei Tang did a incredible job. Going into the film with little knowledge of the content, I was fascinated, yet somewhat disoriented with figuring everything out. Although it’s hard to watch, it’s definitely worthwhile.


Top Photo: Wei Tang stars as Chinese writer “Xiao Hong.”

Bottom Photo: Comrades in the fight against the Japanese.

Q: Does The Golden Era pass the Bechdel Test? DigitalStampA


Although most of the personal story concerns Xiao Hong’s relationships with men, there are critical scenes with other women, most especially with Lei Hao as “Ding Lin.”

The Golden Era received 5 nominations for Taiwan’s 2014 Golden Horse Film Festival: Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Wei Tang) & Best Supporting Actress (Lei Hao). So I’m not the only one who found their bond critical!

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Opens tomorrow in NYC. Review coming soon.

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