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Corruption

By George

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FILM/LIT It’s anyone’s guess how many films and videos George Kuchar made before his death in 2011 (Portland’s Yale Union is valiantly attempting a comprehensive retrospective, which they estimate will take seven years), but there’s material for at least a hundred more in The George Kuchar Reader (Primary Information, 336 pp., $27.50). Tracing a singular life in movies from the Bronx-bound 8mm melodramas Kuchar made with his twin brother, Mike, on through the boundlessly nutty video conflagrations emerging out of his classroom at the San Francisco Art Institute, the book collects handwritten screenplays, letters, underground comics, meteorological observations, and UFO diaries. Reader editor Andrew Lampert will be in attendance at two special screenings in the coming weeks to report on these deep-sea dives into Kuchar’s self-described cinematic cesspool.

That Kuchar’s literary artifacts should be hilarious and not a little wise is no surprise, but it’s worth pausing to note the extent to which the writing itself illuminates Kuchar’s creative methods. Take the letters of recommendations he wrote for his SFAI students — an obligatory form of writing if there ever was one, but for Kuchar an occasion for uninhibited characterization: “This winged spirit, reared in semitropical heat, can banish the chill that has descended upon your patrons; so turn up the heat and witness what only equatorial nearness can nurture”; “His unbridled lust for livid living endows the fruits of his labor with intoxicating incense. Sniff these works at your own risk as the aroma reeks of secret scents from a Garden of Eden gone mad with flower power”; “He’s a lone figure swimming upstream to a different drumbeat.” No cliché is safe. Kuchar’s persistence in slugging it out with these once familiar figures of speech surely says something about the way he approached a dramatic scene.

Implicitly skewering heroic strains of avant-garde poetics, Kuchar’s accounts of his own filmmaking almost always turn on the body. Take this metabolic account from a 1964 article for Film Culture:

“Many nights I lay awake in my sheets burning with the fever of a new movie script … Sleep only comes when extra sugar is pumped into my body due to the excessive emotional tension that grips me during these celestial periods. The sugar makes my body hot thereby opening its big pores. Then the sweat of my ordeal seeps out in a stink of creativity and new germ has been born. A germ that will grow into the virus of 8mm movies. In the morning I awaken, fresh, vibrant, but constipated with the urge to release a lump of cinematic material.”

So filmmaking is fever, open pores, sweat, stink, germs, and viruses; the film itself, a load of shit. One begins to sense that the many Joycean digressions on “exciting gastric distress” peppering these pages are less a matter of any particular tummy trouble than Kuchar’s underlying conviction that the creative muse is ineluctably bound to more basic drives.

Bodily fixations notwithstanding, Kuchar was plenty canny about film aesthetics, whether pinpointing the underlying motivations for “these gigantic, moving billboards” (“IT WAS LOVE AND OBSESSION”) or situating his own fortuitous ascendancy in the 1960s avant-garde: “You’d develop them [8mm films] cheap at the local camera store and in five or 10 years the emulsion would crack and chip in time for the 1960s, avant-garde film explosion. No need to bake your footage in an oven like so many artists were doing: your home movies had already deteriorated into art.” Not that Kuchar wasn’t grateful: An early letter to Donna Kerness evinces little enthusiasm for his work as a commercial artist but adapts a more familiar exuberance when describing his latest 8mm production about a brawling ménage-a-trois.

The final 50 pages of the Reader are dedicated to a poignant last testament stitched together from the “endless emails of unexpurgated excess” Kuchar sent Kerness in 2010-2011. Even in his teenage letters to Kerness, it’s clear that Kuchar felt unusually at ease writing to the star of his Corruption of the Damned (1965). Describing an earlier melodrama, he writes with unusual candor how “I was very inspired by Arlene and her kin. They are very mixed up and sometimes they are damaging their lives but I like them anyway probably because I’m just like them.” Fifty years later, sick with love and cancer, Kuchar treats Kerness more as a confessor than a confidante. “Anxious to reveal secrets I usually kept under wraps,” Kuchar doesn’t spare any detail in describing his yearning for a long-time “midnight caller” named Larry: “Instead of realizing that he’s just what you call a sex buddy, I turn the whole thing into a live or die, Victorian romance.”

Even in his hour of darkness, Kuchar couldn’t help but seeing his own trials as material for a grand melodrama. “Being the egotistical movie director that I am, I want the motion picture of my life to be an X rated, inspirational saga of the nerdy Bronx kid who walked the red carpets of Hollywood while flirting with the red light districts of Sin City.” In a more reflective mood he writes to Kerness, “Expressing all this in certain chosen words and constructed sentences made the mental and medical troubles take a back seat to creative engineering: an arrangement of letters and punctuations to coalesce the chaos that contaminated my cranium.”

Kuchar writes of depressive anxiety, rampant insecurity, sexual hang-ups, and plenty of confusion in the face of “getting old and dreaming young” — but not a word of boredom. “Since I’m an actor anyway, I see the personal issues I penned (or typed) as emotional motivations in an ongoing (for a time anyway) B-movie.” B-movies aren’t really a wellspring of inspiration; that was all George. A final photograph shows him standing in front of a Denny’s, eyes on the skies like always. 2

 

OFF THE SCREEN: MOVING PICTURES AND WRITTEN WORDS: CELEBRATING THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER

Oct. 15, 7pm, free

Exploratorium

Pier 15, SF

www.exploratorium.edu

A CRIMINAL ACCOUNT OF PLEASURE: THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER

Oct. 18, 7:30pm, $8-10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

www.ybca.org

Project Censored 2014

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joe@sfbg.com

Our oceans are acidifying — even if the nightly news hasn’t told you yet.

As humanity continues to fill the atmosphere with harmful gases, the planet is becoming less hospitable to life as we know it. The vast oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide we have produced, from the industrial revolution through the rise of global capitalism. Earth’s self-sacrifice spared the atmosphere nearly 25 percent of humanity’s CO2 emissions, slowing the onslaught of many severe weather consequences.

Although the news media have increasingly covered the climate weirding of global warming — hurricane superstorms, fierce tornado clusters, overwhelming snowstorms, and record-setting global high temperatures — our ocean’s peril has largely stayed submerged below the biggest news stories.

The rising carbon dioxide in our oceans burns up and deforms the smallest, most abundant food at the bottom of the deep blue food chain. One vulnerable population is the tiny shelled swimmers known as the sea butterfly. In only a few short decades, the death and deformation of this fragile and translucent species could endanger predators all along the oceanic food web, scientists warn.

This “butterfly effect,” once unleashed, potentially threatens fisheries that feed over 1 billion people worldwide.

Since ancient times, humans fished the oceans for food. Now, we’re frying ocean life before we even catch it, starving future generations in the process. Largely left out of national news coverage, this dire report was brought to light by a handful of independent-minded journalists: Craig Welch from the Seattle Times, Julia Whitty of Mother Jones, and Eli Kintisch of ScienceNOW.

It is also the top story of Project Censored, an annual book and reporting project that features the year’s most underreported news stories, striving to unmask censorship, self-censorship, and propaganda in corporate-controlled media outlets. The book is set for release in late October.

“Information is the currency of democracy,” Ralph Nader, the prominent consumer advocate and many-time presidential candidate, wrote in his foreword to this year’s Project Censored 2015. But with most mass media owned by narrow corporate interests, “the general public remains uninformed.”

Whereas the mainstream media poke and peck at noteworthy events at single points in time, often devoid of historical context or analysis, Project Censored seeks to clarify understanding of real world issues and focus on what’s important. Context is key, and many of its “top censored” stories highlight deeply entrenched policy issues that require more explanation than a simple sound bite can provide.

Campus and faculty from over two dozen colleges and universities join in this ongoing effort, headquartered at Sonoma State University. Some 260 students and 49 faculty vet thousands of news stories on select criteria: importance, timeliness, quality of sources, and the level of corporate news coverage.

The top 25 finalists are sent to Project Censored’s panel of judges, who then rank the entries, with ocean acidification topping this year’s list.

“There are outlets, regular daily papers, who are independent and they’re out there,” Andy Lee Roth, associate director of Project Censored, told us. Too many news outlets are beholden to corporate interests, but Welch of the Seattle Times bucked the trend, Roth said, by writing some of the deepest coverage yet on ocean acidification.

“There are reporters doing the highest quality of work, as evidenced by being included in our list,” Roth said. “But the challenge is reaching as big an audience as [the story] should.”

Indeed, though Welch’s story was reported in the Seattle Times, a mid-sized daily newspaper, this warning is relevant to the entire world. To understand the impact of ocean acidification, Welch asks readers to “imagine every person on earth tossing a hunk of CO2 as heavy as a bowling ball into the sea. That’s what we do to the oceans every day.”

Computer modeler Isaac Kaplan, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Seattle, told Welch that his early work predicts significant declines in sharks, skates and rays, some types of flounder and sole, and Pacific whiting, the most frequently caught commercial fish off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and California.

Acidification may also harm fisheries in the farthest corners of the earth: A study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme outlines acidification’s threat to the arctic food chain.

“Decreases in seawater pH of about 0.02 per decade have been observed since the late 1960s in the Iceland and Barents Seas,” the study’s authors wrote in the executive summary. And destroying fisheries means wiping out the livelihoods of the native peoples of the Antarctic.

Acidification can even rewire the brains of fish, Welch’s story demonstrated. Studies found rising CO2 levels cause clown fish to gain athleticism, but have their sense of smell redirected. This transforms them into “dumb jocks,” scientists said, swimming faster and more vigorously straight into the mouths of their predators.

These Frankenstein fish were found to be five times more likely to die in the natural world. What a fitting metaphor for humanity, as our outsized consumption propels us towards an equally dangerous fate.

“It’s not as dramatic as say, an asteroid is hitting us from outer space,” Roth said of this slowly unfolding disaster, which is likely why such a looming threat to our food chain escapes much mainstream news coverage.

Journalism tends to be more “action focused,” Roth said, looking to define conflict in everything it sees. A recently top-featured story on CNN focused on President Barack Obama’s “awkward coffee cup salute” to a Marine, which ranks only slightly below around-the-clock coverage of the president’s ugly tan suit as a low point in mainstream media’s focus on the trivial.

As Nader noted, “‘important stories’ are often viewed as dull by reporters and therefore unworthy of coverage.” But mainstream media do cover some serious topics with weight, as it did in the wake of the police officer shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. So what’s the deciding factor?

As Roth tells it, corporate news focuses on “drama, and the most dramatic action is of course violence.”

But the changes caused by ocean acidification are gradual. Sea butterflies are among the most abundant creatures in our oceans, and are increasingly born with shells that look like cauliflower or sandpaper, making this and similar species more susceptible to infection and predators.

“Ocean acidification is changing the chemistry of the world’s water faster than ever before, and faster than the world’s leading scientists predicted,” Welch said, but it’s not getting the attention is deserves. “Combined nationwide spending on acidification research for eight federal agencies, including grants to university scientists by the National Science Foundation, totals about $30 million a year — less than the annual budget for the coastal Washington city of Hoquiam, population 10,000.”

Our oceans may slowly cook our food chain into new forms with potentially catastrophic consequences. Certainly 20 years from now, when communities around the world lose their main source of sustenance, the news will catch on. But will the problem make the front page tomorrow, while there’s still time to act?

Probably not, and that’s why we have Project Censored and its annual list:

 

2. TOP 10 US AID RECIPIENTS PRACTICE TORTURE

Sexual abuse, children kept in cages, extra-judicial murder. While these sound like horrors the United States would stand against, the reverse is true: This country is funding these practices.

The US is a signatory of the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but the top 10 international recipients of US foreign assistance in 2014 all practice torture, according to human rights groups, as reported by Daniel Wickham of online outlet Left Foot Forward.

Israel received over $3 billion in US aid for fiscal year 2013-14, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Israel was criticized by the country’s own Public Defender’s Office for torturing children suspected of minor crimes.

“During our visit, held during a fierce storm that hit the state, attorneys met detainees who described to them a shocking picture: in the middle of the night dozens of detainees were transferred to the external iron cages built outside the IPS transition facility in Ramla,” the PDO wrote, according to The Independent.

The next top recipients of US foreign aid were Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. All countries were accused of torture by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Kenyan police in Nairobi tortured, raped, or otherwise abused more than 1,000 refugees from 2012 to 2013, Human Rights Watch found. The Kenyan government received $564 million from the United States in 2013-14.

When the US funds a highway or other project that it’s proud of, it plants a huge sign proclaiming “your tax dollars at work.” When the US funds torturers, the corporate media bury the story, or worse, don’t report it at all.

 

3. TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP, A SECRET DEAL TO HELP CORPORATIONS

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is like the Stop Online Piracy Act on steroids, yet few have heard of it, let alone enough people to start an Internet campaign to topple it. Despite details revealed by Wikileaks, the nascent agreement has been largely ignored by the corporate media.

Even the world’s elite are out of the loop: Only three officials in each of the 12 signatory countries have access to this developing trade agreement that potentially impacts over 800 million people.

The agreement touches on intellectual property rights and the regulation of private enterprise between nations, and is open to negotiation and viewing by 600 “corporate advisors” from big oil, pharmaceutical, to entertainment companies.

Meanwhile, more than 150 House Democrats signed a letter urging President Obama to halt his efforts to fast-track negotiations, and to allow Congress the ability to weigh in now on an agreement only the White House has seen.

Many criticized the secrecy surrounding the TPP, arguing the real world consequences may be grave. Doctors Without Borders wrote, “If harmful provisions in the US proposals for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement are not removed before it is finalized, this trade deal will have a real cost in human lives.”

 

4. CORPORATE INTERNET PROVIDERS THREATEN NET NEUTRALITY

This entry demonstrates the nuance in Project Censored’s media critique. Verizon v. FCC may weaken Internet regulation, which Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital freedom advocates allege would create a two-tiered Internet system. Under the FCC’s proposed new rules, corporate behemoths such as Comcast or Verizon could charge entities to use faster bandwidth, which advocates say would create financial barriers to free speech and encourage censorship.

Project Censored alleges corporate outlets such as The New York Times and Forbes “tend to highlight the business aspects of the case, skimming over vital particulars affecting the public and the Internet’s future.”

Yet this is a case where corporate media were circumvented by power of the viral web. John Oliver, comedian and host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, recently gave a stirring 13-minute treatise on the importance of stopping the FCC’s new rules, resulting in a flood of comments to the FCC defending a more open Internet. The particulars of net neutrality have since been thoroughly reported in the corporate media.

But, as Project Censored notes, mass media coverage only came after the FCC’s rule change was proposed, giving activists little time to right any wrongs. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

 

5. BANKERS REMAIN ON WALL STREET DESPITE MAJOR CRIMES

Bankers responsible for rigging municipal bonds and bilking billions of dollars from American cities have largely escaped criminal charges. Every day in the US, low-level drug dealers get more prison time than these scheming bankers who, while working for GE Capital, allegedly skimmed money from public schools, hospitals, libraries, and nursing homes, according to Rolling Stone.

Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg, and Peter Grimm were dubbed a part of the “modern American mafia,” by the magazine’s Matt Taibbi, one of the few journalists to consistently cover their trial. Meanwhile, disturbingly uninformed cable media “journalists” defended the bankers, saying they shouldn’t be prosecuted for “failure,” as if cheating vulnerable Americans were a bad business deal.

“Had the US authorities decided to press criminal charges,” Assistant US Attorney General Lanny Breuer told Taibbi. “HSBC (a British bank) would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the US, the future of the institution would have been under threat, and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.”

Over the course of decades, the nation’s bankers transformed into the modern mafioso. Unfortunately, our modern media changed as well, and are no longer equipped to tackle systemic, complex stories.

 

6. THE “DEEP STATE” OF PLUTOCRATIC CONTROL

What’s frightening about the puppeteers who pull the strings of our national government is not how hidden they are, but how hidden they are not.

From defense contractors to multinational corporations, a wealthy elite using an estimated $32 trillion in tax-exempt offshore havens are the masters of our publicly elected officials. In an essay written for Moyer and Company by Mike Lofgren, a congressional staffer of 28 years focused on national security, this cabal of wealthy interests comprise our nation’s “Deep State.”

As Lofgren writes for Moyers, “The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction.”

This is a story that truly challenges the mass media, which do report on the power of wealth, in bits and pieces. But although the cabal’s disparate threads are occasionally pulled, the spider’s web of corruption largely escapes corporate media’s larger narrative.

The myopic view censors the full story as surely as outright silence would. The problem deepens every year.

“There are now 854,000 contract personnel with top-secret clearances — a number greater than that of top-secret-cleared civilian employees of the government,” Lofgren wrote, of a group that together would “occupy the floor space of almost three Pentagons — about 17 million square feet.”

 

7. FBI DISMISSES PLOT AGAINST OCCUPY AS NSA CRACKS DOWN ON DISSENT

Nationally, law enforcement worked in the background to monitor and suppress the Occupy Wall Street movement, a story the mainstream press has shown little interest in covering.

A document obtained in FOIA request by David Lindorff of Who, What WHY from the FBI office in Houston,, Texas revealed an alleged assassination plot targeting a Occupy group, which the FBI allegedly did not warn the movement about.

From the redacted document: “An identified [DELETED] as of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protestors (sic) in Houston, Texas if deemed necessary. An identified [DELETED] had received intelligence that indicated the protesters in New York and Seattle planned similar protests in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas. [DELETED] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles.”

Lindorff confirmed the document’s veracity with the FBI. When contacted by Lindorff, Houston Police were uninterested, and seemingly (according to Lindorff), uninformed.

In Arizona, law enforcement exchanged information of possible Occupy efforts with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, according to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy titled Dissent on Terror. The CEO meant to evade possible protests, and local law enforcement was happy to help.

Law enforcement’s all-seeing eyes broadened through the national rise of “fusion centers” over the past decade, hubs through which state agencies exchange tracking data on groups exercising free speech. And as we share, “like,” and “check-in” online with ever-more frequency, that data becomes more robust by the day.

 

8. IGNORING EXTREME WEATHER CONNECTION TO GLOBAL WARMING

In what can only be responded to with a resounding “duh,” news analyses have found mainstream media frequently report on severe weather changes without referring to global warming as the context or cause, even as a question.

As Project Censored notes, a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found extreme weather events in 2013 spurred 450 broadcast news segments, only 16 of which even mentioned climate change. National news outlets have fallen on the job as well, as The New York Times recently shuttered its environmental desk and its Green blog, reducing the number of reporters exclusively chasing down climate change stories.

Unlike many journalists, ordinary people often recognize the threat of our warming planet. Just as this story on Project Censored went to press, over 400,000 protested in the People’s Climate March in New York City alone, while simultaneous protests erupted across the globe, calling for government, corporate, and media leaders to address the problem.

“There is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today,” Graca Machel, the widow of former South African President Nelson Mandela, told the United Nations conference on climate change. “The scale is much more than we have achieved.”

 

9. US MEDIA HYPOCRISY IN COVERING UKRAINE CRISIS

The US battle with Russia over Ukraine’s independence is actually an energy pipeline squabble, a narrative lost by mainstream media coverage, Project Censored alleges.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn fire from the media as a tyrant, without complex analyses of his country’s socio-economic interests, according to Project Censored. As the media often do, they have turned the conflict into a cult of personality, talking up Putin’s shirtless horseback riding and his hard-line style with deftness missing from their political analysis.

As The Guardian UK’s Nafeez Ahmed reported, a recent US State Department-sponsored report noted “Ukraine’s strategic location between the main energy producers (Russia and the Caspian Sea area) and consumers in the Eurasian region, its large transit network, and its available underground gas storage capacities,” highlighting its economic importance to the US and its allies.

 

10. WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION SUPPRESSES REPORT ON IRAQ IMPACTS

The United States’ legacy in Iraq possibly goes beyond death to a living nightmare of cancer and birth defects, due to the military’s use of depleted uranium weapons, a World Health Organization study found. Iraq is poisoned. Much of the report’s contents were leaked to the BBC during its creation. But the release of the report, completed in 2012 by WHO, has stalled. Critics allege the US is deliberately blocking its release, masking a damning Middle East legacy rivaling the horrors of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But Iraq will never forget the US intervention, as mothers cradle babies bearing scars obtained in the womb, the continuing gifts of our invasion.

Win tickets to Chinatown at Paramount Theatre October 10

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CHINATOWN (1974) – In 1937 Los Angeles, private eye Jake “J.J.” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to undertake an investigation that leads him deeper and deeper into a web of scandal, deceit, and corruption. One of director Roman Polanski’s greatest films, Chinatown hooks the viewer into a plot whose unpredictable twists and turns develop into a mind-bending and unguessable conclusion. Complex characters, pitch-perfect dialogue, and masterful acting all combine to make this one of the best noir films of all time. Six Oscar wins: Best Writing, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Direction, Best Cinematography. 

Movie classics feature 35mm film prints, a newsreel, cartoon, previews, Dec-O-Win raffle, and a live Wurlitzer organ serenade. Purchase advance tickets here and enter to win a pair of tickets by emailing RSVP@sfbg.com. Tickets available at the Paramount Box Office on movie night.

Friday, October 10, 8pm at the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland | $5

Lawsuit alleges Lee campaign accepted illegal donations from undercover agent

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By Max Cherney

Mayor Ed Lee has been named in a civil lawsuit that alleges he conspired to accept bribes in the form of illegal campaign contributions from an undercover FBI agent involved in the far-reaching federal corruption and racketeering probe into State Sen. Leland Yee, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, and 26 other defendants. The lawsuit is being leveled by an attorney working on Shrimp Boy’s behalf.

Filed yesterday [Thu/18] in San Francisco Superior Court, the lawsuit ties a $500 donation toward Lee’s 2011 successful bid for mayor to a man named Michael Anthony King, who the lawsuit claims was the same undercover federal agent referred to as UCE 4773 in the complaint against Yee.

King’s $500 donation was a part of more than $20,000 that the federal agent illegally contributed to the mayor’s campaign, according to the lawsuit. Individual contributions over $500 to the same candidate are against the law in San Francisco.

“From what we can tell, undercover agents have illegally been putting money into politicians’ pockets,” attorney Cory Briggs, who filed the lawsuit on Chow’s behalf, told us. In June, Briggs filed a public records request with the city of San Francisco, seeking documents associated with the campaign donations and additional cash allegedly contributed through individuals “involved in government” who were working for Lee’s campaign.

“What we want to know, is that when I asked on Raymond’s behalf about this, which we defined to include the transfer and payment of money to campaigns, why did the mayor not produce records of King’s donation? The public is entitled to an answer.” Cory Briggs is the brother of Curtis Briggs, who, along with Gregory Bentley, and famed civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra, represent Shrimp Boy in the criminal case.

Since individual donations totaling more than $500 are prohibited in San Francisco, the remaining $19,500 to an unnamed San Francisco elected official’s political campaign was allegedly spread out among dozens of straw donors, by two campaign staffers and political consultant Keith Jackson — also indicted by the feds — in an illegal attempt to mask the source of the funds, according to court documents in the Yee case.

According to the feds, the undercover agent was encouraged “by Individuals A and B to make donations to the elected official in excess of the lawful limit,” a motion filed by the feds in Sept. reads. “Each spoke plainly about the fact that they would have to break up UCE-4773’s donations among straw donors. UCE-4773 initially made a $10,000 donation in the form of a check made payable to Individual B and a $500 donation in the form of a check made payable to the elected official’s campaign.”

Despite rumors swirling that the $20,000 went to Ed Lee, the feds haven’t publicly stated which politician the funds went to. Nor have the feds released the alias that Undercover Employee (UCE-4773) used to make the contributions, or the names of the campaign staffers allegedly involved in the conspiracy — who were “involved in government” at the time, according to the feds’ motion.

Mayor Lee’s campaign is aware of King’s $500 donation, according to Kevin Heneghan, who served as campaign treasurer. The campaign sent a letter to the US Attorney’s Office seeking to verify whether or not the donation indeed came from a federal agent, Heneghan noted, but hasn’t yet received a response. The campaign hired a law firm to vet the campaign donations after the US Attorney’s Office announced the sprawling indictment that now includes racketeering charges.

Both the FBI and US Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit, or the alleged connection between Michael King and the campaign donations to Mayor Lee’s campaign. Several emails to King were also not returned.

Many details contained in the far-reaching federal corruption probe match what the Bay Guardian has learned about King. US Attorney William Frentzen’s court filings in the Yee corruption trial stated that after being introduced to two campaign staffers, UCE 4773 contributed $500 to the campaign with a personal check.

Michael A. King of Buford, Georgia donated $500 to Leland Yee’s mayoral campaign on Sept. 22, 2011, San Francisco campaign contribution records show. King contributed another $500 to Ed Lee for Mayor on Mar. 15, 2012, months after Lee had been elected. At the time, Lee had approximately $300,000 in campaign debt, according to filings with the San Francisco Ethics Commission.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in August, an unnamed source told the newspaper that a man with the surname “King” appeared in the Bay Area in the fall of 2011 looking to invest in Bay Area real estate projects.

To secure Bay Area real estate investments and other business contracts, UCE 4773 posed as an Atlanta, Georgia-based real estate developer seeking political favors from Yee, and an unnamed San Francisco elected official, according to court documents. Another undercover agent in the case, known as UCE 4599 — posing as a member of the La Cosa Nostra crime syndicate — introduced UCE 4773 to political consultant Keith Jackson after Jackson allegedly repeatedly asked UCE 4599 to donate to Sen. Yee’s campaign.

According to court documents, UCE 4773 met with the unnamed San Francisco official after he contributed the cash. Prior to the meeting, the campaign staffers, identified by the feds as “Individuals A and B” told UCE 4773 not to mention the donation scheme to the elected official.

The King Funding Group, which is controlled by M.A. King and Associates — the company listed on Michael King’s $500 donation to Mayor Lee’s campaign — also donated $500 to Leland Yee’s bid for Mayor, according to donation records. With Jackson’s help UCE 4773 also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Sen. Yee’s campaign, including a personal check for $500 to the campaign written in Yee’s presence.

According to court filings the government has made in the far-reaching corruption and racketeering investigation, the unnamed San Francisco elected official wasn’t the target of the investigation. Instead, the government focused on Keith Jackson and various members of the Chee Kung Tong organization, which Chow, aka “Shrimp Boy,” was allegedly leader of.

However, the feds did look into other politicians in San Francisco. Sups. London Breed and Malia Cohen both met with an undercover FBI agent using the name William Joseph on several occasions, according to records obtained by the Bay Guardian. The meetings didn’t amount to anything, and Breed dismissed Joseph as a hustler, according to a Chronicle report.

Tornadoes vs. turtles: this week’s new movies

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Will ninja turtles or killer tornadoes reign supreme in this week’s battle of the CG-heavy box office? Read on for our reviews of new movies, plus trailers!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaB5Egej0TQ

Alive Inside See “Rise Up Singing.” (1:13) 

Calvary See “Ye Of Little Faith.” (1:45) 

A Five Star Life Does the world need a Euro-femme counterpart to 2009’s Up in the Air? This warm look at a so-called “mystery guest”-cum-hotel inspector, who spends more time working in transit than in her own home (where she’d be in danger of allowing her personal life to unfold), doesn’t have quite the same torn-from-the-headlines, corporate-hatchet-man edge. Nevertheless, A Five Star Life‘s subject — centered on a 40-ish single career-woman, still such a demographic rarity these days for films — is subtly subversive, in a molto well-heeled way, while offering guilty pleasure peeps at posh concierge services and scented beige corridors. Irene (Margherita Buy) is a workaholic, but can you blame her when her job is critiquing luxe lodgings around the world? The downside of such a passion for order and perfection is that she has no one to otherwise share her high-thread-count linens. A chance encounter turns this professional traveler around and leads her question everything, though mercifully director Maria Sole Tognazzi doesn’t end up reaching for easy, Eat, Pray, Love-style responses. Self-love or acceptance, it seems, is the answer. (1:25) (Kimberly Chun)

Heli Spanish-born Mexican writer-director Amat Escalante’s latest feature is a striking drama that’s harshly minimalist in terms of explication, and harrowingly cruel in upfront content. Schoolgirl Estela (Andrea Vergara), who looks all of eight years old, lives with her father, her 17-year-old factory-worker brother Heli (Armando Espita), his wife, and their baby. But she already dreams of escaping their bleak economic circumstances by running off with police cadet boyfriend Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), who’s Heli’s age. It’s the latter’s idea that they steal a cache of drugs seized and hidden by corrupt cops. Needless to say, this plan goes south in the worst ways, as soon as possible. A controversial winner of the Best Director prize at Cannes last year, this portrait of pervasive corruption is as superbly crafted as it is undeniably unpleasant. But there’s nothing gratuitous here. If you’re looking for feel-good pabulum with an art house gloss, go see The Hundred-Foot Journey. This movie is art, and that ain’t always pretty — Lorenzo Hagerman’s very handsome cinematography notwithstanding. (1:45) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEO1TWeM5JU

The Hundred-Foot Journey Yep, it’s another chef-centric flick. This one stars Helen Mirren as a snooty French restaurateur who clashes with the Indian family who sets up shop across the street. (2:02) 

Into the Storm This disaster movie can’t be discussed without bringing up 1996’s Twister, probably the biggest cinematic showplace for tornadoes since 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. And while Into the Storm spectacularly improves upon Twister’s special effects and makes timely references to climate change’s fiercest consequences — the 2011 Joplin outbreak gets a nod in dialogue and via the inclusion of a scary high-school graduation scene — it’s also a far more shallow exercise. Twister was silly, but its ragtag storm chasers (including a then-unknown Philip Seymour Hoffman) were likable; Cary Elwes’ bad-guy meteorologist was fun to jeer; and the broken-marriage tension between Helen Hunt (pre-Oscar) and Bill Paxton (endearingly wooden) had at least a few script pages’ worth of depth. No such luck in Into the Storm, in which every character seems to have been crafted based on his or her ability to perpetuate Into the Storm’s “found-footage” aesthetic, be they filmmakers, tech-obsessed teens, or comic-relief adrenaline junkies dreaming of YouTube stardom. Sarah Wayne Callies (Walking Dead) does her best to bring gravitas as the scientist member of a documentary crew led by a tank-driving tornado hunter (Veep‘s Matt Walsh) — and Richard “Thorin Oakenshield” Armitage tries on an American accent to play the tough-love dad of two high-school boys — but no human here has as much charisma as those CG funnels. (1:29) (Cheryl Eddy)

Step Up All In Dancers from various films in the Step Up series join forces for this Vegas-set tale, which promises little in the way of a coherent plot, but plenty of fancy footwork. (1:52) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TD-F4lhMh2E

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Years from now, film scholars will look back at these creatively bankrupt (if box office-rich) times and blame Michael Bay for many evils, including a garish Transformers series that won’t die. He also produces this theatrical reboot of a kiddie action series (currently enjoying a TV cartoon renaissance on Nickelodeon) that probably should’ve been left in the sewer after 2007’s TMNT — star Chris Evans thanks you for forgetting that even existed — or, even better, after revealing the secret of the ooze in the 1990s. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is here to stomp all over nostalgic goodwill, not to mention take advantage of CG advancements that render its heroes as “real” as pumped-up reptiles with weapons can be, with a 3D coating that does allegedly human but suspiciously plastic co-star Megan Fox no favors. If you can get past that eeriness, you won’t be rewarded for your efforts; the jokes are either unfunny or pointless (are we really still referencing the Lost finale?), and the plot is so insultingly predictable William Fichtner’s character might as well be named “Sinister Rich Guy.” May also contain: fart jokes, butt jokes, pizza. (2:00) (Cheryl Eddy)

What If A med-school dropout (Daniel Radcliffe) meets his dream girl (Zoe Kazan), and must struggle with the fact that she has a long-term boyfriend. (1:45)

Exposing PG&E’s other “cozy relationship,” with Mayor Ed Lee

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News outlets from Sacramento to Los Angeles are crowing about Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s alleged “cozy relationship” with the utlity that oversees it, the California Public Utilities Commission.

At least 41 emails obtained by the city of San Bruno reveal an intimate, friendly arrangement between the monopolistic power company and the regulators that are supposed to keep them in line. Where the public would expect a separation as hard and fast as church and state, the emails reveal a buddy-buddy relationship.

This is of no surprise to long-time Guardianistas, who may remember Rebecca Bowe’s cover story three years ago “The secret life of Michael Peevey, [5/11]” chronicling the CPUC president’s extravagant trips to Madrid, Spain and Germany with top energy officials, as well as other activities that may seem strange for an official who’s supposed to be a watchdog against PG&E malfeasance.

But if world-trekking trips to pricey hotels aren’t enough to raise eyebrows about the relationship between PG&E and its regulators, now we have suspicious emails to add to the pile.

As the San Jose Mercury News revealed:

In an April 2013 email, Carol Brown, chief of staff for Commissioner Peevey, wrote to PG&E executive [Laura] Doll and offered advice about how to handle one of the proceedings related to the San Bruno explosion. In the email, Brown said she had talked to one of the PUC administrative law judges about the matter.

“Send back a sweet note” to the PUC about the matter “and then wait for them to throw a fit” was part of Brown’s advice. Brown also said she was “happy to chat” about the matter with PG&E to help guide company officials through the PUC process.

Doll replied to Brown, “Love you. Thanks.”

Even Peevey himself emailed PG&E, offering them public relations advice. It’s like an umpire sneaking around between innings to coach a first-baseman — unseemly, and totally strange.

All of this should ring alarm bells in The City. The city of San Bruno obtained the emails through settlement of a lawsuit, which are now revealing potential corruption at top levels of the CPUC. But here in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee flouts public records laws and, as we revealed, drafted a policy allowing him to delete his own emails.

There’s no way we can check what Lee is saying to PG&E in emails, making exposing any alleged “cozy relationship” much more difficult than PG&E’s alleged romance with the CPUC.

And the consequences for The City are very real, as well as potentially fatal. As we’ve covered before, there are PG&E pipelines aplenty in San Francisco (including one right along Bernal Hill). When San Bruno’s pipeline exploded, eight lives were lost and many more homes destroyed.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported last month (and as we’ve said for years), Lee already has suspiciously close ties with PG&E.

From the Chronicle:

However, multiple city officials say that Lee’s administration has consistently, and quietly, raised objections about legislation and policies that PG&E opposes. They also point to the utility’s charitable giving to the city and some of Lee’s pet projects as an example of how PG&E tries to exert its influence.

Critics of Lee’s relationship with PG&E extend from the political left to at least five current and former high-level city officials. In some cases, several of the sources said, that relationship appeared to be inappropriate. PG&E officials regularly went to the mayor’s office when they were unhappy with city staff members, said the sources, who requested anonymity because of their relationship with the mayor.

“They were in his office all the time, meeting with either the mayor or his staff, and seemed to directly intervene in city decisions,” said one official. “It isn’t normal for most businesses in the city to always have meetings with the mayor.”

Lee, in several interviews, dismissed the idea that he was doing PG&E’s bidding as “a little off base.”

“I look at PG&E like any other company in the city,” Lee said. “I don’t think I have any special relationship with them.”

But in the case of the mayor, we may never know how close he is with the utility, as long as his off-kilter public record laws allow him to delete any paper trail. The CPUC is discovering what Lee long ago learned from former-Mayor Willie Brown: The “E” in e-mail stands for “evidence.”

tearing up emails

Film Listings: June 25 – July 1, 2014

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For complete film listings, see www.sfbg.com.

FRAMELINE

Frameline 38, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, runs through June 29 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF; Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St, SF; and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College, Berk. For tickets (most shows $10-15) and schedule, visit www.frameline.org.

OPENING

Breathing Earth: Susumu Shingu’s Dream Japanese artist Susumu Shingu has built his career through his concerted engagement with the natural world. The wise and eternally smiling 75-year-old creates angular and often gargantuan mobiles that harness the power of wind and water to gyrate in ever-changing directions. In Breathing Earth, German director Thomas Riedelsheimer crafts a deliberately paced rumination on Shingu’s life philosophy that, while devoid of the frenetic facts, figures, and trite biographical rehashes that punctuate hyper-informative pop-docs, uses a beautifully simplistic narrative arc to illuminates Shingu’s attempt to create a hilly, open-air collection of windmills. The sculptor’s impassioned narration and charming conversations with potential landlords and investors (who usually entirely miss the point of his mission to raise environmental consciousness through aesthetic beauty) make Shingu impossible not to fall in love with — he is laid-back, funny, and astonishingly youthful. Riedelsheimer’s camera is similarly relaxed, gliding sumptuously over the green and wild landscapes on which Shingu installs his works. Despite his meditative tempo, Riedelsheimer manages to explore a remarkably wide scope; Shingu’s late-life marriage to a fellow sculptor, his appeals to both Japanese and German schoolchildren to care for the earth and help to avoid environmental disasters, and his intricate technical processes all receive intimate and inspiring sections. (1:37) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (David Kurlander)

Citizen Koch After quietly influencing conservative ideology, legislation, and elections for decades, the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers have found themselves becoming high-profile figures — much to their dismay, no doubt. The relative invisibility they hitherto enjoyed greatly abetted their impact in myriad arenas of public policy and “popular” conservative movements. Look behind any number of recent red-vs.-blue flashpoint issues and you can find their fingerprints: Notably state-level union busting; “smaller government” (i.e. incredible shrinking social services); seeding allegedly grassroots organizations like the Tea Party; furthering the Corporations = People thing (see: Citizens United); and generally helping the rich like themselves get richer while fostering working-class outrage at everybody else. This documentary by Trouble the Water (2008) co-directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessen touches on all those matters, while also focusing on Wisconsin as a test laboratory for the brothers’ Machiavellian think-tank maneuvers, following a Louisiana GOP candidate on the campaign trail (one he’s marginalized on for opposing corporate influence peddling), and more. Any one of these topics could support a feature of their own (and most already have). Citizen Koch‘s problem is that it tries to encompass too much of its subjects’ long reach, while (despite the title) leaving those subjects themselves underexplored. (It also suffers from being a movie completed at least 18 months ago, a lifetime in current US political terms.) For the reasonably well-informed this documentary will cover a lot of familiar ground—which is not to say that ground isn’t still interesting, or that the added human interest elements don’t compel. But the film covers so much ground it ends up feeling overstuffed and unfocused. (1:26) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Coherence See “Vortex Room.” (1:29) Presidio.

Korengal This companion piece to 2010’s Oscar-nominated Restrepo — one of the best docs about modern-day warfare to date, offering unfiltered access to an Army platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley — uses previously unseen footage shot during the year filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent shadowing their subjects. Korengal is structured as a more introspective work, with musings on what it feels like to be a soldier in the Korengal, surrounded by rough (yet strikingly beautiful) terrain populated by farmers who may or may not be Taliban sympathizers, not to mention unpredictable, heavily armed opponents referred to simply as “the enemy.” Interviews reveal sadness, boredom, a deep sense of brotherhood, and the frustrating feeling of going from “100 miles an hour to a dead halt” after the surreal exhilaration of a firefight. Korengal also functions as a tribute to Hetherington, who was killed in 2011 while on assignment in Libya. Not only does his death add a layer of poignant subtext, it also suggests why Junger felt moved to revisit this story. That said, though Korengal‘s footage is several years old, its themes remain distressingly timely. (1:24) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Snowpiercer Eighteen years after an attempt to reverse global warming has gone wildly awry — freezing all life into extinction — the only known survivors are on a one-of-a-kind perpetual-motion train that circles the Earth annually, has its own self-contained ecosystem, and can smash through whatever ice buildup has blocked its tracks since the last go-round. It’s also a microcosm of civilization’s worst class-economic-racial patterns over history, with the much-abused “tail” passengers living in squalor under the thumb of brutal military police. Unseen at the train’s front is its mysterious inventor, Wilford, whose minions enforce “Eternal Order Prescribed by the Sacred Engine.” Curtis (Chris Evans) is default leader of the proletariat’s latest revolt, in which they attempt to force their way forward though the prison section (where they free Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung as the train’s original lock designer and his psychic daughter) on to the wonders of the first class compartments, and beyond. This first (mostly) English-language feature by South Korean Bong Joon-ho (2006’s The Host, 2009’s Mother), based on a 1982 French graphic novel, starts out as a sort of locomotive, claustrophobic Mad Max (1979) variation. But it gets wilder and more satirical as it goes along, goosed by Tilda Swinton’s grotesquely comic Minister Mason, and Alison Pill as a teacher propagandist in a particularly hilarious set piece. In case the metaphor hasn’t already hit you on the head, one character explains “The train is the world, we the humanity.” But Snowpiercer‘s sociopolitical critique is as effective as it is blunt, because Bong handles everything here — visceral action, absurdist humor, narrative left-turns, neatly etched character archetypes, et al. — with style, confidence, and wit. Some of the FX may not be quite as seamless as it would have been in a $200 million Hollywood studio production, and fanboys will no doubt nitpick like nitwits at various “credibility gaps.” (As if this movie ever asks to be taken literally.) But by current, or any, sci-fi action blockbuster standards, this is a giddily unpredictable, risk-taking joy. (2:07) (Harvey)

Third Person A screenwriter, Paul Haggis, pens a script in which a novelist (Liam Neeson) sits alone in a smoke-filled hotel room in Paris struggling over a manuscript about a novelist who can only feel emotions through his characters. What that psychic state would actually look like remains unclear — when the woman (Olivia Wilde) he’s left his wife (Kim Basinger) for shows up, their playful, painful, fraught interactions reveal a man with above-average emotional reserves. Meanwhile, in another hotel in another city, Rome, a sleazy fashion industry spy (Adrien Brody) finds his life turned sideways by a seemingly chance encounter in a bar with a beautiful Romanian woman (Moran Atias) in dire need of money. And in a third hotel, in Manhattan, a young woman (Mila Kunis) cleans up the suites she used to stay in when she was married to a renowned painter (James Franco), with whom she has a son she may or may not have harmed in some terrible way. The film broadly hints at connections between these three sets of lives — in each, the loss or endangerment of a child produces an unrelenting ripple effect; speaking of which, objects unnaturally submerged in water present an ominous visual motif. If the movie poster doesn’t give the game away as you’re walking into the theater, the signposts erected by Haggis ensure that you won’t be in the dark for long. Learning how these characters relate to one another, however, puts considerable drag on the fabric of the plot, exposing the threadbare places, and where Haggis offers his tortured characters redemption, it comes at the cost of good storytelling. (2:17) Shattuck. (Rapoport)

Transformers: Age of Extinction Mark Wahlberg and the Dinobots star in the latest installment of Michael Bay’s action sci-fi series. (2:30) Presidio.

Under the Electric Sky Hey, raver! This 3D concert film enables you to experience the Electric Daisy Carnival without punching any holes in your brain. (1:25)

Violette Taking on another “difficult” woman artist after the excellent 2008 Séraphine (about the folk-art painter), Martin Provost here portrays the unhappy life of Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos), whose fiction and autobiographical writings eventually made her a significant figure in postwar French literature. We first meet her waiting out the war with gay author Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), one of many unrequited loves, then surviving via the black market trade before she’s “discovered” by such groundbreaking, already-established talents as Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). It is the latter, a loyal supporter who nonetheless retains a chilly emotional distance, who becomes bisexual Violette’s principal obsession over the coming 20 years or so. Devos does her best to portray “a neurotic crazy washed-up old bag” with an “ugly mug” — hardly! — who is perpetually broke, depressed, and awkward, thanks no doubt in part to her mean witch of a mother (Catherine Hiegel). “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere,” Simone at one point tells her, and indeed Leduc is a bit of a pill. For the most part lacking the visual splendors of Séraphine (this character’s environs weren’t so pastoral), Violette is finely acted and crafted but, like its heroine, hard to love. (2:18) Albany, Embarcadero. (Harvey)

ONGOING

Belle The child of a British naval officer and a Caribbean slave, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is deposited on the doorstep — well, the estate grounds — of her father’s relatives in 1769 England after her mother dies. Soon she’s entirely orphaned, which makes her a wealthy heiress and aristocratic title holder at the same time that she is something less than human in the eyes of her adopted society. For Belle is black (or more properly, mixed-race), and thus a useless curiosity at best as a well-bred noblewoman of the “wrong” racial makeup. Based on a murky actual historical chapter, Amma Asante’s film is that rare sumptuous costume drama which actually has something on its mind beyond romance and royalty. Not least among its pleasures are a fine supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, and Emily Watson. (1:45) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

A Coffee in Berlin How do you say “mumblecore” in German? Jan Ole Gerster’s debut feature has certain arty pretensions — it’s shot in black-and-white, and scored with peppy jazz — but it’s more or less a rambling day in the life of law school dropout Niko (Tom Schilling). It happens to be the very day Niko’s golf-loving father decides to stop funding his shiftless son’s slacker lifestyle, though that crisis (which, you know, Lena Dunham built an entire HBO comedy around) receives nearly equal heft as a cutesy ongoing gimmick that sees Niko incapable of getting a cup of coffee anywhere in Berlin. Hipster ennui can be compelling if it has some underlying energy and purpose (see: 2013’s Frances Ha, to which this film has been compared), but A Coffee in Berlin comes up short on both. That said, it does offer an intriguing portrayal of Berlin — a city whose modern-chic façade barely contains the history that haunts it — and some of its supporting characters, particularly Friederike Kempter as a former schoolmate of Niko’s who has outgrown him emotionally by about one thousand percent, provide pleasant enough distractions. (1:28) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Fault in Our Stars I confess: I’m no card-carrying, vlog-flogging Nerdfighter in author John Green’s teen-geek army. But one can admire the passion — and teary romanticism — of the writer, readers, and the breakthrough novel that started it all. Much has been made over the cinematic tweaks to the best-selling YA book, but those seem like small beefs: OK, male romantic lead Gus’s (Ansel Elgort) perhaps-understandable brattiness seems to have been toned down a touch, but we’ll all get the somewhat-subversive push and pull of Green’s love story centered on two cancer-stricken innocents. Sixteen-year-old Hazel (a radiant Shailene Woodley) has been battling cancer almost all her life, fighting back from the brink, and now making her way every day with an oxygen tank and her devoted parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammel) by her side. Her mordant wit, skeptical attitude, and smarts attract Gus, a handsome teen with a prosthetic leg, at a cancer support group, and the two embark on what seems like the most normal thing in the world — sweet, sweet love — albeit cut with the poignancy of almost-certain doom. Would the girl who calls herself a grenade dare to care for someone she will likely hurt? That’s the real question on her mind when the two reach out to the solitary author (Willem Dafoe) of their favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. The journey the two make leaves them both open to more hurt than either ever imagined, and though a good part of Fault‘s denouement boils down to a major puddle cuddle — with solid performances by all, but particularly Dern and Woodley — even a cynic is likely to get a bit misty as the kids endure all the stages of loss. And learning. (2:05) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Chun)

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Nicholas Wrathall’s highly entertaining documentary pays tribute to one of the 20th century’s most brilliant, original, and cranky thinkers, with extensive input from the man himself before his death in 2012 at age 86. The emphasis here is less on Vidal’s life as a literary lion and often glittering celebrity social life than on his parallel career as a harsh scold of US social injustices and political corruption. (Needless to say, recent history only sharpened his tongue in that department, with George W. Bush dismissed as “a goddamn fool,” and earlier statements such as “This is a country of the rich, for the rich and by the rich” seeming more apt than ever.) He’s a wellspring of wisdoms both blunt and witty, sometimes surprising, as in his hindsight doubts about the virtues of JFK (a personal friend) as a president. We get plenty of colorful archival clips in which he’s seen verbally jousting with such famous foes as William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, invariably reducing them to stammering fury while remaining exasperatingly unruffled. His “out” homosexuality and outré views on sexuality in general (at odds with an increasingly assimilationist gay community) kept him controversial even among many liberals, while conservatives were further irked by his rock-solid family connections to the ruling elite. In our era of scripted political rhetoric and pandering anti-intellectualism, it’s a joy merely to spend an hour and half in the company of someone so brilliantly articulate on seemingly any topic — but particularly on the perpetually self-mythologizing, money-worshipping state of our Union. (1:29) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

The Grand Seduction Canadian actor-director Don McKellar (1998’s Last Night) remakes 2003 Quebecois comedy Seducing Doctor Lewis, about a depressed community searching for the town doctor they’ll need before a factory will agree to set up shop and bring much-needed jobs to the area. Canada is still the setting here, with the harbor’s name — Tickle Head — telegraphing with zero subtlety that whimsy lies ahead. A series of events involving a Tickle Head-based TSA agent, a bag of cocaine, and a harried young doctor (Taylor Kitsch) trying to avoid jail time signals hope for the hamlet, and de facto town leader Murray (Brendan Gleeson) snaps into action. The seduction of “Dr. Paul,” who agrees to one month of service not knowing the town is desperate to keep him, is part Northern Exposure culture clash, part Jenga-like stack of lies, as the townspeople pretend to love cricket (Paul’s a fanatic) and act like his favorite lamb dish is the specialty at the local café. The wonderfully wry Gleeson is the best thing about this deeply predictable tale, which errs too often on the side of cute (little old ladies at the switchboard listening in on Paul’s phone-sex with his girlfriend!) rather than clever, as when an unsightly structure in the center of town is explained away with a fake “World Heritage House” plaque. Still, the scenery is lovely, and “cute” doesn’t necessarily mean “not entertaining.” (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero. (Eddy)

Ida The bomb drops within the first ten minutes: after being gently forced to reconnect with her only living relative before taking her vows, novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) learns that her name is actually Ida, and that she’s Jewish. Her mother’s sister, Wanda (Agneta Kulesza) — a Communist Party judge haunted by a turbulent past she copes with via heavy drinking, among other vices — also crisply relays that Ida’s parents were killed during the Nazi occupation, and after some hesitation agrees to accompany the sheltered young woman to find out how they died, and where their bodies were buried. Drawing great depth from understated storytelling and gorgeous, black-and-white cinematography, Pawel Pawilowski’s well-crafted drama offers a bleak if realistic (and never melodramatic) look at 1960s Poland, with two polar-opposite characters coming to form a bond as their layers of painful loss rise to the surface. (1:20) Albany, Clay, Piedmont. (Eddy)

Ivory Tower The latest “issue doc” to come down the pipeline is this very timely and incisive look at the cost of higher education from director Andrew Rossi (2011’s Page One: Inside the New York Times). Rossi is a Yale and Harvard Law grad, and he begins his film in the hallowed halls of the latter to frame the question: In the era of skyrocketing tuition, and with the student loan debt hovering at a trillion bucks, is college still worth it? The answer is left open-ended, though with the very strong suggestion that nontraditional education (including community colleges, online learning, and the Silicon Valley-spawned “uncollege” movement) is certainly something worth exploring, particularly for the non-wealthy. Along the way, we do see some positive tales (a kid from the mean streets of Cleveland gets a full-ride scholarship to Harvard; students at rural Deep Springs College follow philosophy discussions with farm work; African American women at Spelman College thrive in an empowering environment), but there’s a fair amount of cynicism here, too, with a hard look at how certain state schools are wooing deep-pocketed out-of-staters with fancy athletic stadiums, luxurious amenities, and a willingness to embrace, however unofficially, their hard-partying reputations. Segments following a student protest at New York’s Cooper Union, a formerly free school forced to consider collecting tuition after a string of financial troubles, echo Frederick Wiseman’s epic At Berkeley (2013), a thematically similar if stylistically very different work. (1:37) California. (Eddy)

Jersey Boys The musical that turned the back story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — the 1960s hit making machines behind upbeat doo-wop ditties like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and a zillion more; you will recognize all of them — into Broadway gold ascends to the big screen thanks to director Clint Eastwood, a seemingly odd choice until you consider Eastwood’s own well-documented love of music. Jersey Boys weaves a predictable tale of show biz dreams realized and then nearly dashed, with a gangster element that allows for some Goodfellas-lite action (a pre-fame Joe Pesci is a character here; he was actually from the same ‘hood, and was instrumental in the group’s formation). With songs recorded live on-set, à la 2012’s Les Misérables, there’s some spark to the musical numbers, but Eastwood’s direction is more solid than spontaneous, with zero surprises (even the big finale, clearly an attempt at a fizzy, feel-good farewell, seems familiar). Still, the cast — including Tony winner John Lloyd Young as Valli, and Christopher Walken as a sympathetic mobster — is likable, with Young in particular turning in a textured performance that speaks to his years of experience with the role. For an interview with cast members Young, Michael Lomenda (who plays original Four Season Nick Massi), and Erich Bergen (as Bob Gaudio, the member who wrote most of the group’s hits), visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (2:14) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)

Obvious Child We first encounter the protagonist of writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s funny, original film — a Brooklyn-dwelling twentysomething named Donna (Jenny Slate), who works at a lefty secondhand bookstore and makes regular (if unpaid) appearances at a local comedy night — onstage mining such underdiscussed topics as the effects of vaginal discharge on your garden-variety pair of underwear. This proves a natural segue to other hefty nuggets of embarrassment gold concerning her love life, to the dismay of boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti), auditing from the back of the club. He pretty much deserves it, however, for what he’s about to do, which is break up with her in a nasty, well-populated unisex bathroom, taking time to repeatedly glance at the texts coming through on his phone from Donna’s good friend, with whom he’s sleeping. So when Donna, mid-drowning of sorrows, meets a nice-looking fellow named Max (Jake Lacy) at the bar, his post-fraternity-presidency aesthetic seems unlikely to deter her from a one-night stand. The ensuing trashed make-out dance-off in Max’s apartment to the Paul Simon song of the title is both comic and adorable. The fractured recap of the evening’s condom-free horizontal events that occurs inside Donna’s brain three weeks later, as she hunkers down with her best friend, Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), in the bookstore’s bathroom after peeing on a stick, is equally hilarious — and unwanted-pregnancy jokes aren’t that easy to pull off. Robespierre’s treatment of this extended windup and of Donna’s decision to have an abortion is a witty, warmhearted retort to 2007’s Knocked Up, a couple generations’ worth of Hollywood rom-com writers, and an entertainment industry that continues to perform its sweaty contortions of storytelling in the gutless cause of avoiding the A-word. (1:15) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Ping Pong Summer Eighties teen flicks of the My Bodyguard (1980), smart-dweebs-beat-the-bullies ilk are paid homage in Michael Tully’s deadpan satire, which is closer in spirit to the Comedy of Lameness school whose patron saint is Napoleon Dynamite. Radley (Marcello Conte) is an average teen so excited to be spending the summer of 1985 in Ocean City, Md. with his family that he renames himself “Rad Miracle.” He acquires a new best friend in Teddy (Myles Massey), who as the whitest black kid imaginable might make even Rad look cool by comparison. However, they are both dismayed to discover the local center for video gaming and everything else they like is ruled by bigger, older, cuter, and snottier douchebag Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sidekick. Only kicking Lyle’s ass at ping pong — with some help from a local weirdo (a miscast Susan Sarandon, apparently here because she’s an off screen ping pong enthusiast) — can save Rad’s wounded dignity, and the summer in general. A big step up from Tully’s odd but pointless prior Septien (2011), this has all the right stuff (including a soundtrack packed with the likes of the Fat Boys, Mary Jane Girls, New Edition, Whodini, and Night Ranger) to hilariously parody the era’s inanities. But it’s just mildly amusing — a droll attitude with lots of period detail but not much bite. (1:32) Roxie. (Harvey)

The Rover Future days have never seemed quite so bleak as they are depicted in the wild, wild Aussie west of The Rover — rendered by Animal Kingdom (2010) director David Michod, who co-wrote The Rover with Joel Edgerton. Let’s just say we’re probably not going to see any primo Burner ensembles inspired by this post-apocalyptic yarn: Michod ventures to a plausible future only a decade out, after a global economic collapse, and breaks down the brooding road trip to its hard-boiled bones, setting it in a beauteous, lawless, and unceasingly violent outback. A heist gone wrong leads a small gang of robbers to steal the car belonging to monosyllabic, ruthless mystery man Eric (Guy Pearce). The latter wants his boxy little sedan back, badly, and, in the cat and mouse game that ensues, seems willing to die for the trouble. Meanwhile, one of the gang of thieves — the slow, dreamy Rey (Robert Pattinson), who has been left to die of a gunshot wound in the dirt — turns out to be more of a survivor than anyone imagined when he tracks down the tracker hunting for his brother and cohorts. Michod seems most interested in examining and turning over the ties that bind, in a mean time, an eminently absurdist moment, when everything else has fallen away in the face of sheer survival. Cineastes, however, will appreciate the elemental, existential pleasures of this dog-eat-dog Down Under out-Western, not the least of which include the performances. Pearce’s rework of the Man With No Name exudes intention in the very forward thrust of his stance, and Pattinson breaks his cool — and the confines of typecasting — as a blubbering, babbling, thin-skinned man-child. Clad in the mystic expanses of the South Australia desert, which tip a hat to John Ford Westerns as well as scorched-earth-of-the-mind movies such as El Topo (1970) and Paris, Texas (1984), The Rover is taken to the level of tone poem by the shuddering, moaning cellos of Antony Partos’s impressive, atonal electroacoustic score. (1:42) Metreon, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Signal Sharing its title with a 2007 film — also a thriller about a mysterious transmission that wreaks havoc in the lives of its protagonists — this offbeat feature from co-writer and director William Eubank belies its creator’s deep affection for, and knowledge of, the sci-fi genre. Number one thing The Signal is not is predictable, but its twists feel organic even as the story takes one hairpin turn after another. MIT buddies Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), cross-country to California. Complicating the drama of the young couple’s imminent separation is Nic’s deteriorating physical condition (it’s never explained, but the former runner apparently has MS or some other neurological disease). The road trip turns dark when the trio (who also happen to be hackers) realize an Internet troll they’ve tangled with in the past is stalking them. After a brief detour into found-footage horror — fooled ya, Eubank seems to be saying; this ain’t that kind of movie at all! — the kids find themselves embroiled in ever-more-terrifying realities. To give away more would ruin the fun of being shocked for yourself, but think Twilight Zone meets Area 51 meets a certain futuristic trilogy starring Laurence Fishburne, who turns up here to play a very important role in Nic and company’s waking nightmare. (1:37) Metreon. (Eddy) *

 

Frameline is underway! Plus: crooners, ping-pong champs, and more, in new movies

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Frameline 38, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, kicked off last night and runs through June 29; check out our big list o’ blurbs right here. Elsewhere, Clint Eastwood directs a musical, Guy Pearce prowls the outback, a very good suburban noir emerges from the Netherlands, a documentary takes on the cost of higher education, and more! Read on for the goods (and bads). 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-VBgShBKlY

 Borgman Popping out from his underground hidey hole, narrowly escaping organized armed vigilantes — indicating an ongoing, possibly global secret battle this movie is content to leave entirely unexplained — the titular figure (Jan Bijvoet) shambles to a nearby home and demands comfort. Refused, he persists, and housewife Marina (Hadewych Minis) acquiesces — at first on the sly, as husband Richard (Jeroen Perceval) has already beaten their paunchy, disheveled, weird would-be guest. But soon Borgman is insinuating himself with the well-off suburban couple’s three children, gradually warping the family dynamic until he has everyone under his power. You’ve seen this kind of “Enigmatic stranger invades complacent bourgeoisie home, wreaks liberating and/or terrifying havoc” thing before, both in thrillers and in artier parables from Teorema (1968) to The King (2005). There is nothing wildly original about Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam’s seductive, macabre black comedy in outline, not its satire of oblivious upper-middle-class entitlement or even (perhaps especially) when the too-generous hosts and any unlucky interlopers start getting killed off one by one. You can debate Borgman’s precise point, or whether it has one at all. But there’s a tart, bracing quality to this cruel absurdist joke that is as perversely delightful as the film is utterly misanthropic. (1:53) (Dennis Harvey)

A Coffee in Berlin How do you say “mumblecore” in German? Jan Ole Gerster’s debut feature has certain arty pretensions — it’s shot in black-and-white, and scored with peppy jazz — but it’s more or less a rambling day in the life of law school dropout Niko (Tom Schilling). It happens to be the very day Niko’s golf-loving father decides to stop funding his shiftless son’s slacker lifestyle, though that crisis (which, you know, Lena Dunham built an entire HBO comedy around) receives nearly equal heft as a cutesy ongoing gimmick that sees Niko incapable of getting a cup of coffee anywhere in Berlin. Hipster ennui can be compelling if it has some underlying energy and purpose (see: 2013’s Frances Ha, to which this film has been compared), but A Coffee in Berlin comes up short on both. That said, it does offer an intriguing portrayal of Berlin — a city whose modern-chic façade barely contains the history that haunts it — and some of its supporting characters, particularly Friederike Kempter as a former schoolmate of Niko’s who has outgrown him emotionally by about one thousand percent, provide pleasant enough distractions. (1:28) (Cheryl Eddy)

Fateful Findings Oh my. With the technical sophistication of Birdemic (2008), Doris Wishman-worthy attention to superfluous detail, and the obliviousness of The Room (2008) toward any semblance of narrative or character continuity, this supernatural drama — or, uh, something like that — is making a bid to be the latest so-bad-it’s-surreal midnight movie hit. Writer-director-producer-editor-star Neil Breen, a man of many hats if no apparent talents, plays Dylan, a writer. As a child, he and friend Leah had found a mushroom that turned into a jewelry box (““Look what I found! A treasure! It’s a magical day!”), and which will come to effect their lives in ways that never make any sense whatsoever. They reunite as re-infatuated adults (Jennifer Autry now playing Leah), which is bad news for the pill-popping wife (Klara Landrat) Dylan is kinda over anyway. Meanwhile, their friends Jim (David Silva) and Amy (Victoria Valene) fight a lot, because he drinks to compensate for their nonexistent sex life, and she’s just incredibly bitchy. Eventually we realize that Dylan is working on a new book that will shockingly expose the rampant global corporate and political corruption that apparently no one has ever noticed before. The climax, which must be seen to be believed, has him triumphantly announcing these (extremely vague) revelations to the cheers of invisible thousands, while disgraced officials are seen committing suicide en masse rather than, you know, retiring to the Canary Islands. There’s a fine line between the hilarious and tortuous that is exactly where Fateful Findings lives. With its flatlined pacing, not-from-this-planet dialogue (Dylan straight facedly tells a dead body “I can’t help you outta this one”), gratuitous nudity, and curious insistence that its characters express emotions by throwing things (laptops, pieces of meat, etc.), this inscrutable vanity project is indeed unique. What it lacks to get you through the (many) boring parts is the compelling personality of a Tommy Wiseau — Breen is (like everyone here) awful, but he’s just a zero onscreen, not a fascinating weirdo. You will want to be drunk for this movie. (1:40) Clay. (Dennis Harvey)

Ivory Tower The latest “issue doc” to come down the pipeline is this very timely and incisive look at the cost of higher education from director Andrew Rossi (2011’s Page One: Inside the New York Times). Rossi is a Yale and Harvard Law grad, and he begins his film in the hallowed halls of the latter to frame the question: In the era of skyrocketing tuition, and with the student loan debt hovering at a trillion bucks, is college still worth it? The answer is left open-ended, though with the very strong suggestion that nontraditional education (including community colleges, online learning, and the Silicon Valley-spawned “uncollege” movement) is certainly something worth exploring, particularly for the non-wealthy. Along the way, we do see some positive tales (a kid from the mean streets of Cleveland gets a full-ride scholarship to Harvard; students at rural Deep Springs College follow philosophy discussions with farm work; African American women at Spelman College thrive in an empowering environment), but there’s a fair amount of cynicism here, too, with a hard look at how certain state schools are wooing deep-pocketed out-of-staters with fancy athletic stadiums, luxurious amenities, and a willingness to embrace, however unofficially, their hard-partying reputations. Segments following a student protest at New York’s Cooper Union, a formerly free school forced to consider collecting tuition after a string of financial troubles, echo Frederick Wiseman’s epic At Berkeley (2013), a thematically similar if stylistically very different work. (1:37) (Cheryl Eddy)

Jersey Boys The musical that turned the back story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — the 1960s hit making machines behind upbeat doo-wop ditties like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and a zillion more; you will recognize all of them — into Broadway gold ascends to the big screen thanks to director Clint Eastwood, a seemingly odd choice until you consider Eastwood’s own well-documented love of music. Jersey Boys weaves a predictable tale of show biz dreams realized and then nearly dashed, with a gangster element that allows for some Goodfellas-lite action (a pre-fame Joe Pesci is a character here; he was actually from the same ‘hood, and was instrumental in the group’s formation). With songs recorded live on-set, à la 2012’s Les Misérables, there’s some spark to the musical numbers, but Eastwood’s direction is more solid than spontaneous, with zero surprises (even the big finale, clearly an attempt at a fizzy, feel-good farewell, seems familiar). Still, the cast — including Tony winner John Lloyd Young as Valli, and Christopher Walken as a sympathetic mobster — is likable, with Young in particular turning in a textured performance that speaks to his years of experience with the role. Interview with cast members Young, Michael Lomenda (who plays original Four Season Nick Massi), and Erich Bergen (as Bob Gaudio, the member who wrote most of the group’s hits), right here. (2:14) (Cheryl Eddy)

Ping Pong Summer Eighties teen flicks of the My Bodyguard (1980), smart-dweebs-beat-the-bullies ilk are paid homage in Michael Tully’s deadpan satire, which is closer in spirit to the Comedy of Lameness school whose patron saint is Napoleon Dynamite. Radley (Marcello Conte) is an average teen so excited to be spending the summer of 1985 in Ocean City, Md. with his family that he renames himself “Rad Miracle.” He acquires a new best friend in Teddy (Myles Massey), who as the whitest black kid imaginable might make even Rad look cool by comparison. However, they are both dismayed to discover the local center for video gaming and everything else they like is ruled by bigger, older, cuter, and snottier douchebag Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sidekick. Only kicking Lyle’s ass at ping pong — with some help from a local weirdo (a miscast Susan Sarandon, apparently here because she’s an off screen ping pong enthusiast) — can save Rad’s wounded dignity, and the summer in general. A big step up from Tully’s odd but pointless prior Septien (2011), this has all the right stuff (including a soundtrack packed with the likes of the Fat Boys, Mary Jane Girls, New Edition, Whodini, and Night Ranger) to hilariously parody the era’s inanities. But it’s just mildly amusing — a droll attitude with lots of period detail but not much bite. (1:32) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)

The Rover Future days have never seemed quite so bleak as they are depicted in the wild, wild Aussie west of The Rover — rendered by Animal Kingdom (2010) director David Michod, who co-wrote The Rover with Joel Edgerton. Let’s just say we’re probably not going to see any primo Burner ensembles inspired by this post-apocalyptic yarn: Michod ventures to a plausible future only a decade out, after a global economic collapse, and breaks down the brooding road trip to its hard-boiled bones, setting it in a beauteous, lawless, and unceasingly violent outback. A heist gone wrong leads a small gang of robbers to steal the car belonging to monosyllabic, ruthless mystery man Eric (Guy Pearce). The latter wants his boxy little sedan back, badly, and, in the cat and mouse game that ensues, seems willing to die for the trouble. Meanwhile, one of the gang of thieves — the slow, dreamy Rey (Robert Pattinson), who has been left to die of a gunshot wound in the dirt — turns out to be more of a survivor than anyone imagined when he tracks down the tracker hunting for his brother and cohorts. Michod seems most interested in examining and turning over the ties that bind, in a mean time, an eminently absurdist moment, when everything else has fallen away in the face of sheer survival. Cineastes, however, will appreciate the elemental, existential pleasures of this dog-eat-dog Down Under out-Western, not the least of which include the performances. Pearce’s rework of the Man With No Name exudes intention in the very forward thrust of his stance, and Pattinson breaks his cool — and the confines of typecasting — as a blubbering, babbling, thin-skinned man-child. Clad in the mystic expanses of the South Australia desert, which tip a hat to John Ford Westerns as well as scorched-earth-of-the-mind movies such as El Topo (1970) and Paris, Texas (1984), The Rover is taken to the level of tone poem by the shuddering, moaning cellos of Antony Partos’s impressive, atonal electroacoustic score. (1:42) (Kimberly Chun)

Think Like a Man Too Kevin Hart and company head to Vegas in this sequel to the 2012 hit comedy based on Steve Harvey’s best-selling relationship tome. (2:02)

Extra! Extra! Sunshine advocates beat the Anti-Sunshine Gang in City Hall

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 By Bruce B. Brugmann

And so the  Anti-Sunshine Gang in City Hall, which for two years has been conducting a nasty vendetta against the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force,  capitulated quietly at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting without a fight or even a whimper.

The capitulation came in a two line phrase  buried in item 28 in the middle of the board’s agenda.  It was a report from the rules committee recommending  the Board of Supervisors approve a motion for  unnamed nominees to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. “Question:  Shall this Motion be approved.”

Board Chair David Chiu asked for approval in his usual board meeting monotone. And the approval came unanimously, with no dissent and no roll call vote and not a word spoken by anybody.  He banged the gavel and that was that. And only a few veteran board watchers knew that this was the astonishing  end to a crucial battle that pitted the powerfuf Anti-Sunshine Gangs against the sunshine forces and the citizens of San Francisco. It was a battle that would decide whether the task force would remain an independent people’s court that would hear and rule on public access complaints.  Sunshine won.

It was ironic and fitting that Chiu presided over the capitulation. For it was Chiu as board president who orchestrated  the deal to demolish Park Merced and then orchestrated the  infamous 6-5 board vote  in September 2010 approving  a monstrous redevelopment  project that would evict lots of tenants, and destroy most of the affordable housing. This was a big deal because the housing crisis was heating up and Park Merced was the largest affordable community in the city and one of the largest In the nation. This is where tens of thousands of young people, young married couples, students and faculty at nearby San Francisco State, older people, and middle class people had come for generations with their families to live in affordable housing in an  “urban park,” as Park Merced promo once put it.

And it was Chiu as board president who was charged by the Sunshine Task Force, along with Supervisors Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen, and Eric Mar with violating the Sunshine Ordinance and the state’s open meeting law (Brown Act) when they approved the project with blazing speed.. 

Wiener, Cohen, and Mar were on the board’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee when they voted on the contract. Literally minutes before the committee vote, Chiu introduced 14 pages of amendments to the contract. The deputy city attorney at the meeting blessed the amendments by saying, gosh, golly, gee, no problem, the amendments do  not substantially alter the contract and therefore the description of the item on the agenda was still apt and the committee could act on it. Bombs away! The full board approved the contract the same day by one vote.

This sleight of hand and pellmell approval process meant that Park Merced was going,going, gone and in its place would be a project that “has no hindsight, no insight, or foresight,” as Planning Commissioner Kathryn Moore was quoted as saying in a scathing Westside Observer column by landscape architect Glenn Rogers. “It is not a project of the 21st century.  It is the agenda of a self-serving developer.”

 The Observer, to its immense credit, was the only media in town to blast away at the project. (Read its coverage and weep, starting with a June piece by Pastor Lynn Gavin who wrote that the Park Merced owners did not disclose to her or her family that they “were going to demolish the garden apartment that was our home.”)  Gavin and her neighbors took the formal complaint to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and got a unanimous 8-0  ruling condemning Chiu, Wiener, Cohen, and Mar for open government violations.

It was a historic ruling by the task force and demonstrated once again in 96 point tempo bold the irreplaceable value of the people’s court.  The ruling also had impact because it amounted to a stinging  expose of how government often works in San Francisco with big money and big development and how one vote can add gallons of high octane petrol to the housing crisis. It angered the hell out of the six supervisors who voted for the project.

 And in effect, it gave rise to what I call the Anti-Sunshine Gang in City Hall whose response to the ruling was, not to apologize and change their illegal ways, but to start a vicious vendetta against the task force for doing the right thing at the right time.  The six votes were David Chiu, Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen, Mark Farrell, Sean Elsbernd, and Carmen Chu. Elsbernd has gone on to Sen. Diane Feinstein’s office in San Francisco and Chu to becoming assessor. But the gang picked up other allies along the way, notably the city attorney’s office.

Two years ago, when the task force members came to the board for reappointment, the Anti-Sunshine Gang retaliated and swung into action by “launching a smear campaign aimed at purging the eight task force members who had unanimously voted to find the violations,” according to Richard Knee, a 12 year veteran of the task force, in a June column in the Observer.  Knee, who represents the local chapter of the Society of Professonal Journalists, also wrote that “the mayor and the Board of Supervisors…made sure that the panel gets minimal funding, staffing and resources, and the board has refused to fill two long standing vacancies, making It difficult at times to muster a quorum since task force members are volunteers with outside responsibilities such as family and work.

“Two year ago, the board’s failure to appoint a physically disabled member forced the task force to take a five month hiatus, exacerbating a backlog of complaints filed by members of the public.This year, Knee wrote,  the start of the appointment process was “farcical and ominous.”  He explained that, at the May 15 meeting of the board’s rules committee, which vets applicants for city bodies, the two supervisors present chair Norman Yee and Katy Tang (David Campos had an excused absence) “complained that there weren’t enough racial/ethnic diversity among the 13 candidates. “That didn’t deter them from recommending the reappointments of Todd David, Louise Fischer, and David Pilpel, all Anglos.”

Before the full board five days later, Yee complained again, “this time that lack of a regular schedule and frequent switching of meeting dates were making attendance difficult for task force members. Either Yee had no clue of the facts or he was lying.” Knee explained that the task force normally meets the first Wednesday of each month and its subcommittees usually meet during the third week of the month.

“Meeting postponements and cancellations are the result, not the cause, of difficulties in mustering a quorum, due to the vacancies—which now number three.

“In gushing over David, Fischer, and Pilpel, at the board’s May 20 meeting, Wiener offered no evidence or detail of their alleged accomplishments and ignored the fact that David has missed six task force meetings since March 2013, including those of last February and April. Until the board fills the other seats, the five remaining incumbents—Chris Hyland, Bruce Oka, David Sims, Allyson Washburn, and yours truly—stay on as ‘holdover’ members.”

Meanwhile, by the next session of the Rules Committee on June 5, the sunshine advocates had rallied and put together an impressive mass of sunshine power. Testifying at the hearing were representatives from SPJ and the journalism community, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, the sunshine posse, the Library Users Association, the Bay Area News Group, the Inter-American Press Asociation, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, the First Amendment Coalition, the  Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Observer and neighborhood activists, and other sunshine allies and FOI groupies. It was quite a show of force. 

SPJ placed a pointed, timely op ed in the Chronicle (“SF Supervisors block Sunshine Ordinance Task Force,” good of the Chron/Hearst to run it but better if the paper didn’t black out local sunshine issues.) Members of the posse peppered the gang with public record requests aimed at tracking skullduggery and they found it. Reps from the groups lobbied the supervisors by email, phone, and personal office visits. And the word that the Anti-Sunshine Gang was back and on the gallop shot through the neighborhoods and around town and into election campaigns and among constituents of the gang.

SPJ and its vigorous Freedom of Information Committee under co-chairs Journalist Thomas Peele, of Chauncey Bailey fame, and Attorney Geoff King  were particularly effective. Peele is an investigative reporter with the Bay Area Newspaper Group, a lecturer on public records at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and author of a respected book on Chauncey Bailey, a black journalist murdered on his way to work.

The word got around that the supervisors were blocking strong pro-sunshine candidates for the task force and that their first three nominees were the weakest of the lot. Campos, a stellar sunshine advocate, was back at the committee meeting, making the right calls and shepherding the strong nominees along through the committee and the Board of Supervisors.  Great job.

The cumulative weight and force  of the presentations of the nominees and the sunshine advocates made the proper political point:  any supervisor who voted with the Anti-Sunshine Gang was going to face their constituents and voters with the brand of being anti-sunshine and anti- government accountability.  More: they would have to answer some embarrassing questions: Who lost Park Merced? Who voted to turbo charge evictions and middle class flight from the city for years to come? Who tried to cover up the outrage and who did it? And who led the retaliatory vendetta against the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force for doing the right thing on behalf of sunshine in San Francisco?

And so the Board of Supervisors was dragged kicking and screaming into the sunshine of June 2014 and beyond. The supervisors ended up nominating what looks to be one of the strongest pro-sunshine task forces: Attorney  Mark Rumold and journalist Ali Winston from SPJ, Allyson Washburn from the League of Women Voters, Attorney Lee Hepner, Journalist Josh Wolf, and holdover Chris Hyland. Plus Bruce Oka who looks to be a late holdover in the disabled seat. Congratulations for hanging in and winning, hurray for the power of sunshine, on guard,  B3

P.S. l: PG&E institutionalizes City Hall secrecy and corruption:  The pernicious influence of the Anti-Sunshine gang hung heavy over the rules committee.  Tang tried to force every candidate to take a pledge of allegiance to the city attorney. Tang is the kind of neighborhood supervisor (Sunset) who has a 100 per cent Chamber of Commerce voting record. Her city attorney pledge demand was laughable on its face, given the fact that the city attorney refuses to move on the PG&E/Raker Act scandal and thus has helped institutionalize secrecy and corruption in City Hall on a multi-million dollar scale for decades. Which is reason enough for the city to always maintain a strong, enduring Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, to help keep tabs on how PG&E keeps City Hall safe for PG&E and its allies. (See Guardian stories and editorials since 1969.)  

Tang and Yee continued the gang’s hammering on Bruce Wolfe, a worthy candidate for the disabled seat whose main sin was that he was one of the Honorable Eight who voted condemnation.  The gang knocked out Wolfe as a holdover candidate the first time around and they were at it again at the committee meeting. Oka says he wants to resign from the task force but only when the board finds a good replacement. Wolfe, who was an effective and knowledgeable sunshine task force member, is the obvious replacement but he is still on the purge list.  Stay tuned on this one. . 

There are three things that no one can do to the entire satisfaction of anyone else: make love, poke the fire, and run a newspaper. William Allen White, 1917, line atop the editorial page of the Durango Herald, Durango, Colorado. 

If you even have time to make it to the movies between World Cup matches…

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…read on for our takes on the new flicks of the week. Pssst: lots of good stuff still to come at DocFest, too!

Alone Yet Not Alone Remember that Christian historical drama that was Oscar-nominated for Best Song but then got kicked out of the running because of the songwriter’s sketchy campaign tactics? No? Well, here ’tis. (1:43)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INW6i6K1NmQ&feature=kp

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Nicholas Wrathall’s highly entertaining documentary pays tribute to one of the 20th century’s most brilliant, original, and cranky thinkers, with extensive input from the man himself before his death in 2012 at age 86. The emphasis here is less on Vidal’s life as a literary lion and often glittering celebrity social life than on his parallel career as a harsh scold of US social injustices and political corruption. (Needless to say, recent history only sharpened his tongue in that department, with George W. Bush dismissed as “a goddam fool,” and earlier statements such as “This is a country of the rich, for the rich and by the rich” seeming more apt than ever.) He’s a wellspring of wisdoms both blunt and witty, sometimes surprising, as in his hindsight doubts about the virtues of JFK (a personal friend) as a president. We get plenty of colorful archival clips in which he’s seen verbally jousting with such famous foes as William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, invariablyreducing them to stammering fury while remaining exasperatingly unruffled. His “out” homosexuality and outré views on sexuality in general (at odds with an increasingly assimilationist gay community) kept him controversial even among many liberals, while conservatives were further irked by his rock-solid family connections to the ruling elite. In our era of scripted political rhetoric and pandering anti-intellectualism, it’s a joy merely to spend an hour and half in the company of someone so brilliantly articulate on seemingly any topic — but particularly on the perpetually self-mythologizing, money-worshipping state of our Union. (1:29) (Dennis Harvey)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Sequel to the 2010 animated hit about Vikings and their dragon buddies, with voices by Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Djimon Honsou, America Ferrera, Kit Harington, Jonah Hill, and others. (1:42) 

Obvious Child We first encounter the protagonist of writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s funny, original film — a Brooklyn-dwelling twentysomething named Donna (Jenny Slate), who works at a lefty secondhand bookstore and makes regular (if unpaid) appearances at a local comedy night — onstage mining such underdiscussed topics as the effects of vaginal discharge on your garden-variety pair of underwear. This proves a natural segue to other hefty nuggets of embarrassment gold concerning her love life, to the dismay of boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti), auditing from the back of the club. He pretty much deserves it, however, for what he’s about to do, which is break up with her in a nasty, well-populated unisex bathroom, taking time to repeatedly glance at the texts coming through on his phone from Donna’s good friend, with whom he’s sleeping. So when Donna, mid-drowning of sorrows, meets a nice-looking fellow named Max (Jake Lacy) at the bar, his post-fraternity-presidency aesthetic seems unlikely to deter her from a one-night stand. The ensuing trashed make-out dance-off in Max’s apartment to the Paul Simon song of the title is both comic and adorable. The fractured recap of the evening’s condom-free horizontal events that occurs inside Donna’s brain three weeks later, as she hunkers down with her best friend, Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), in the bookstore’s bathroom after peeing on a stick, is equally hilarious — and unwanted-pregnancy jokes aren’t that easy to pull off. Robespierre’s treatment of this extended windup and of Donna’s decision to have an abortion is a witty, warmhearted retort to 2007’s Knocked Up, a couple generations’ worth of Hollywood rom-com writers, and an entertainment industry that continues to perform its sweaty contortions of storytelling in the gutless cause of avoiding the A-word. (1:15) (Lynn Rapoport)

The Signal Sharing its title with a 2007 film — also a thriller about a mysterious transmission that wreaks havoc in the lives of its protagonists — this offbeat feature from co-writer and director William Eubank belies its creator’s deep affection for, and knowledge of, the sci-fi genre. Number one thing The Signal is not is predictable, but its twists feel organic even as the story takes one hairpin turn after another. MIT buddies Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), cross-country to California. Complicating the drama of the young couple’s imminent separation is Nic’s deteriorating physical condition (it’s never explained, but the former runner apparently has MS or some other neurological disease). The road trip turns dark when the trio (who also happen to be hackers) realize an Internet troll they’ve tangled with in the past is stalking them. After a brief detour into found-footage horror — fooled ya, Eubank seems to be saying; this ain’t that kind of movie at all! — the kids find themselves embroiled in ever-more-terrifying realities. To give away more would ruin the fun of being shocked for yourself, but think Twilight Zone meets Area 51 meets a certain futuristic trilogy starring Laurence Fishburne, who turns up here to play a very important role in Nic and company’s waking nightmare. (1:37) (Cheryl Eddy)

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon See “Puff Piece.” (1:24) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qm8UaNdq24c&feature=kp

22 Jump Street In this TV-inspired sequel, “Previously on 21 Jump Street…” is all the backstory we get. 22 wastes no time sending Officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) back to school to solve another case. A few details have changed (they’re in college now, where the drug of choice is “Why Phy”), but the situation is self-consciously boilerplate, which lets the filmmakers cast (ironic) judgment on sequels — and imply the TV show was redundant. College proves hilarious, from the rundown of dorm room essentials to Schmidt’s walk of shame, and the touchstones are sharp and embarrassing. An extended fight between Schmidt and a girl (Jillian Bell, fabulous) twists gender issues and sexual assault into gloriously absurd politics. Best of all is a fairly understated joke in front of the Benjamin Hill School of Film Studies. I laughed as much at 22 as I did at 21, but 22 spends so much time calling out its number-two status that it almost becomes performance art. (1:45) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

Anxious art

0

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Poland had not been a major hub of film production in the early decades of the medium, and its industry stabilized without getting very interesting in the years after World War II, when a Soviet-backed Stalinist regime founded state-controlled Film Polski. This shotgun wedding of art and bureaucracy wasn’t ideally conducive to creative expression, however. By the mid-1950s younger filmmakers, many graduates from the recently founded National Film School in Lodz, agitated for more independence — which, surprisingly, they won.

The resulting United Groups of Film Production almost immediately began producing work that won international attention and came to be known as the “Polish Film School” of cinema. Then in the 1970s a second wave of distinctive talents arrived, their troubled and ambivalent movies coming to be known as the Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement. Presented by Martin Scorsese, the touring “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” retrospective playing Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive offers 13 features spanning three decades.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-CQj8n3Rek&feature=kp

The series kicks off this weekend with perhaps the most famous films by two polar (ahem) opposites of the school’s first wave: fantasist Wojciech Has and sober, socially conscious realist Andrzej Wajda. The latter sounded a new Polish cinema’s opening salvo with 1955’s A Generation, and is still at it 60 years later. Last year he continued his never-ending project of dramatizing 20th century Polish history with the biographical Walesa: Man of Hope (as yet unreleased in the US), and might yet be active when he hits 90 in 2016.

An honorary Oscar winner, Wajda has been the most imposing presence in Polish cinema for nearly his entire career, even if he’s not the nation’s most fabled cinematic son — that would be Roman Polanski, a sensibility as slippery as Wajda is solid (and sometimes stolid), as well as a director who fled to the West at his first opportunity. (Polanski made a rare return after the fall of Communism, acting the lead in Wajda’s atypical period comedy Zemsta in 2002.) The four features representing Wajda in the PFA series see his development from an edgy young voice to the master artisan of large-canvas, often polemical works on subjects of official import.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) introduced the striking screen presence of Zbigniew Cybulski — one consciously modeled on the magnetic malcontents of James Dean, and Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One — as one of two resistance fighters tasked with assassinating a Communist official just days after the end of World War II. While his partner copes with this now-pointless mission by going on an epic drunk, Cybulski’s Maciek expresses his ambivalence in distracted pursuit of a barmaid (Ewa Krzyzewska). His iconic death scene would influence many others, notably those in Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960). The actor coped with his subsequent international stardom by doing everything to excess; there was grief but not much surprise among those who knew him when he died in a drunken fall at a train station in 1967, not yet 40 but looking much older.

He also has supporting roles in Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1959 slice-of-life demi-thriller Night Train, and in Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers from the next year — both long journeys toward dawn, the second set in a jazz-soaked, raffishly disillusioned Warsaw where it’s “harder to catch a taxi than a girl.” The two other Wajda titles here are later epics: 1975’s The Promised Land, a long, lavish and shrill indictment of worker-exploitative Industrial Revolution capitalism; and 1981’s Man of Iron, dramatizing the rise of the Solidarity movement. Man won the Golden Palm at Cannes, but also angered Polish officials sufficiently to drive its director abroad for some years, making films in Germany and France.

By contrast, political — or any — reality is infrequently found in the works of the late Has, whose best films are hothouse phantasmagorias rich in surreal imagery and dreamlike illogic. The PFA series kicks off with his 1964 The Saragossa Manuscript, perhaps that decade’s first “head” film, and duly named by Jerry Garcia as his favorite film. (The musician was involved in the PFA acquiring a print before his death.) Its picaresque maze of tall stories, with beautiful available women ornamenting most of them, remains a stoner’s delight. In a similar vein, Has’ The Hour-Glass Sanatorium a decade later is a triumph of Gothic jumble-sale production design, its own hapless hero pulled down a richly colored rabbit’s hole of dress-up role playing and various perversities at the titular institution.

A much more straightforward costume extravaganza is 1960’s Black Cross, aka Knights of the Teutonic Order, about the 15th century struggle between Poles and Christian invaders that led to the Battle of Grunwald. Its director Aleksander Ford was a major figure in establishing the post-war state film industry, yet not long after this expensive epic he was purged in a late-decade anti-Semitic campaign, and his unsuccessful attempts at a career overseas ended with suicide in 1980 Florida. A very different historical piece is Kawalerowicz’s 1961 Mother Joan of the Angels, a treatment of the same 17th century alleged convent demon infestation that inspired Ken Russell’s 1971 The Devils, and one that’s as quiet and stark as the latter film is hysterical.

The leading lights of the later Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement—which mostly eschewed such grand gestures and bizarre subjects for small, disquieting modern narratives — are represented in three films toward the series’ end. Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1976 Camouflage and 1980 The Constant Factor are terse, bitter portraits of institutional corruption. The late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s pre-Three Colors series breakout A Short Film About Killing (1987) is, if anything, bleaker: Drawn together by chance and then by tragedy, its protagonists live in a Warsaw where injustice is practically in the air — thanks to the oppressively tinted cinematography — and the climactic events of a murder and an execution have their existential pointlessness underlined by each being excruciatingly prolonged. *

MARTIN SCORSESE PRESENTS MASTERPIECES OF POLISH CINEMA

June 14-Aug 21, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

Guardian endorsements

139

OUR CLEAN SLATE VOTERS GUIDE TO TAKE TO THE POLLS IS HERE.

 

Editor’s Note: Election endorsements have been a long and proud part of the Guardian’s 48-year history of covering politics in San Francisco, the greater Bay Area, and at the state level. In low-turnout elections like the one we’re expecting in June, your vote counts more than usual, and we hope our endorsements and explanations help you make the best decisions.

 

GOVERNOR: JERRY BROWN

There is much for progressives to criticize in Jerry Brown’s latest stint as governor of California. He has stubbornly resisted complying with federal court orders to substantially reduce the state’s prison population, as well as shielding the system from needed journalistic scrutiny and reforms of solitary confinement policies that amount to torture. Brown has also refused to ban or limit fracking in California, despite the danger it poses to groundwater and climate change, irritating environmentalists and fellow Democrats. Even Brown’s great accomplishment of winning passage for the Prop. 30 tax package, which eased the state back from financial collapse, sunsets too early and shouldn’t have included a regressive sales tax increase. Much more needs to be done to address growing wealth disparities and restore economic and educational opportunity for all Californians.

For these reasons and others, it’s tempting to endorse one of Brown’s progressive challenges: Green Party candidate Luis Rodriguez or Peace and Freedom Party candidate Cindy Sheehan (see “Left out,” April 23). We were particularly impressed by Rodriguez, an inspiring leader who is seeking to bring more Latinos and other marginalized constituencies into the progressive fold, a goal we share and want to support however we can.

But on balance, we decided to give Brown our endorsement in recognition of his role in quickly turning around this troubled state after the disastrous administration of Arnold Schwarzenegger — and in the hope that his strong leadership will lead to even greater improvement over his next term. While we don’t agree with all of his stands, we admire the courage, independence, and vision that Brown brings to this important office. Whether he is supporting the California High-Speed Rail Project against various attacks, calling for state residents to live in greater harmony with the natural world during the current drought, or refusing to shrink from the challenges posed by global warming, Jerry Brown is the leader that California needs at this critical time.

 

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR: GAVIN NEWSOM

Gavin Newsom was mayor of San Francisco before he ascended to the position of Lieutenant Governor, and we at the Bay Guardian had a strained relationship with his administration, to put it mildly. We disagreed with his fiscally conservative policies and tendency to align himself with corporate power brokers over neighborhood coalitions. As lieutenant governor, Newsom is tasked with little — besides stepping into the role of governor, should he be called upon to do so — but has nevertheless made some worthwhile contributions.

Consider his stance on drug policy reform: “Once and for all, it’s time we realize that the war on drugs is nothing more than a war on communities of color and on the poor,” he recently told a crowd at the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles. “It is fundamentally time for drug policies that recognize and respect the full dignity of human beings. We can’t wait.” In his capacity as a member of the UC Board of Regents, Newsom recently voted against a higher executive compensation package for a top-level administrator, breaking from the pack to align with financially pinched university students. In Sacramento, Newsom seems to come off as more “San Francisco” than in his mayoral days, and we’re endorsing him against a weak field of challengers.

 

SECRETARY OF STATE: DEREK CRESSMAN

Although the latest Field Poll shows that he has only single-digit support and is unlikely to make the November runoff, we’re endorsing Derek Cressman for Secretary of State. As a longtime advocate for removing the corrupting influence of money from politics through his work with Common Cause, Cressman has identified campaign finance reform as the important first step toward making the political system more responsive to people’s needs. As Secretary of State, Cressman would be in a position to ensure greater transparency in our political system.

We also like Alex Padilla, a liberal Democrat who has been an effective member of the California Senate. We’ll be happy to endorse Padilla in November if he ends up in a runoff with Republican Pete Peterson, as the current polling seems to indicate is likely. But for now, we’re endorsing Cressman — and the idea that campaign finance reform needs to be a top issue in a state and country that are letting wealthy individuals and corporations have disproportionate influence over what is supposed to be a democracy.

 

CONTROLLER: BETTY YEE

The pay-to-play politics of Leland Yee and two other California Democrats has smeared the Assembly. Amid the growls of impropriety, a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting has painted Speaker of the Assembly John Perez, a leading candidate for Controller, with a similar brush. CIR revealed Perez raised money from special interest groups to charities his lover favored, a lover later sued for racketeering and fraud.

Betty Yee represents an opportunity for a fresh start. On the state’s Board of Equalization she turned down campaign donations from tobacco interests, a possible conflict of interest. She also fought for tax equity between same-sex couples. The Controller is tasked with keeping watch on and disbursing state funds, a position we trust much more to Yee’s careful approach than Perez’s questionable history. Vote for Yee.

 

TREASURER: JOHN CHIANG

While serving as California’s elected Controller, John Chiang displayed his courage and independence by refusing to sign off on budgetary tricks used by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and some legislative leaders, insisting on a level of honesty that protected current and future Californians. During those difficult years — as California teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, paralyzed by partisan brinksmanship each budget season, written off as a failed state by the national media — Chiang and retiring Treasurer Bill Lockyer were somehow able to keep the state functioning and paying its bills.

While many politicians claim they’ll help balance the budget by identifying waste and corruption, Chiang actually did so, identifying $6 billion by his estimate that was made available for more productive purposes. Now, Chiang wants to continue bringing fiscal stability to this volatile state and he has our support.

 

ATTORNEY GENERAL: KAMALA HARRIS

Kamala Harris has kept the promise she made four years ago to bring San Francisco values into the Attorney General’s Office, focusing on the interests of everyday Californians over powerful vested interests. That includes strengthening consumer and privacy protections, pushing social programs to reduce criminal recidivism rather than the tough-on-crime approach that has ballooned our prison population, reaching an $18 billion settlement with the big banks and mortgage lenders to help keep people in their homes, and helping to implement the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.

Harris has maintained her opposition to the death penalty even though that has hurt her in the statewide race, and she brings to the office an important perspective as the first woman and first African American ever to serve as the state’s top law enforcement officer. While there is much more work to be done in countering the power of wealthy individuals and corporations and giving the average Californian a stronger voice in our legal system, Harris has our support.

 

INSURANCE COMMISSIONER: DAVE JONES

We’ve been following Dave Jones’s legislative career since his days on the Sacramento City Council and through his terms in the California Legislature, and we’ve always appreciated his autonomy and progressive values. He launched into his role as Insurance Commissioner four years ago with an emergency regulation requiring health insurance companies to use no more than 20 percent of premiums on profits and administrative costs, and he has continued to do what he can to hold down health insurance rates, including implementing the various components of the Affordable Care Act.

More recently, Jones held hearings looking at whether Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies are adequately insured to protect both their drivers and the general public, concluding that these companies need to self-insure or otherwise expand the coverage over their business. It was a bold and important move to regulate a wealthy and prosperous new industry. Jones deserves credit for taking on the issue and he has earned our endorsement.

 

SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS: TOM TORLAKSON

This race is a critical one, as incumbent Tom Torlakson faces a strong challenge from the charter school cheerleader Marshall Tuck. An investment banker and Harvard alum, Tuck is backed by well-heeled business and technology interests pushing for the privatization of our schools. Tech and entertainment companies are pushing charter schools heavily as they wait in the wings for lucrative education supply contracts, for which charter schools may open the doors. And don’t let Waiting for Superman fool you, charter schools’ successful test score numbers are often achieved by pushing out underperforming special needs and economically disadvantaged students.

As national education advocate Diane Ravitch wrote in her blog, “If Tuck wins, the privatization movement will gain a major stronghold.” California ranks 48th in the nation in education spending, a situation we can thank Prop. 13 for. We’d like to see Torlakson advocate for more K-12 school dollars, but for now, he’s the best choice.

 

BOARD OF EQUALIZATION: FIONA MA

Fiona Ma was never our favorite member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and in the California Legislature, she has seemed more interested in party politics and leadership than moving legislation that is important to San Francisco. There are a few exceptions, such as her attempts last year to require more employers to offer paid sick days and to limit prescription drug co-payments. But she also notoriously tried to ban raves at public venues in 2010, a reactionary bill that was rejected as overly broad.

But the California Board of Equalization might just be a better fit for Ma than the Legislature. She’s a certified public accountant and would bring that financial expertise to the state’s main taxing body, and we hope she continues in the tradition of her BOE predecessor Betty Yee in ensuring the state remains fair but tough in how it collects taxes.

 

ASSEMBLY, DISTRICT 17: DAVID CAMPOS

The race to replace progressive hero Tom Ammiano in the California Assembly is helping to define this important political moment in San Francisco. It’s a contest between the pragmatic neoliberal politics of Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and the populist progressive politics of Sup. David Campos, whom Ammiano endorsed to succeed him.

It’s a fight for the soul of San Francisco, a struggle to define the values we want to project into the world, and, for us at the Bay Guardian, the choice is clear. David Campos is the candidate that we trust to uphold San Francisco’s progressive values in a state that desperately needs that principled influence.

Chiu emphasizes how the two candidates have agreed on about 98 percent of their votes, and he argues that his effectiveness at moving big legislation and forging compromises makes him the most qualified to represent us in Sacramento. Indeed, Chiu is a skilled legislator with a sharp mind, and if “getting things done” — the prime directive espoused by both Chiu and Mayor Ed Lee — was our main criterion, he would probably get our endorsement.

But when you look at the agenda that Chiu and his allies at City Hall have pursued since he came to power — elected as a progressive before pivoting to become a pro-business moderate — we wish that he had been a little less effective. The landlords, tech titans, Realtors, and Chamber of Commerce have been calling the shots in this city, overheating the local economy in a way that has caused rapid displacement and gentrification.

“Effective for whom? That’s what’s important,” Campos told us during his endorsement interview, noting that, “Most people in San Francisco have been left behind and out of that prosperity.”

Campos has been a clear and consistent supporter of tenants, workers, immigrants, small businesses, environmentalists — the vast majority of San Franciscans, despite their lack of power in City Hall. Chiu will sometimes do right by these groups, but usually only after being pushed to do so by grassroots organizing and lobbying efforts.

Campos correctly points out that such lobbying is more difficult in Sacramento, with its higher stakes and wider range of competing interests, than it is on the local level. Chiu’s focus on always trying to find a compromise often plays into the hands of wealthy interests, who sometimes just need to be fought and stopped.

We have faith in Campos and his progressive values, and we believe he will skillfully carry on the work of Ammiano — who is both an uncompromising progressive and an effective legislator — in representing San Francisco’s values in Sacramento.

 

ASSEMBLY, DISTRICT 19: PHIL TING

Incumbent Phil Ting doesn’t have any challengers in this election, but he probably would have won our support anyway. After proving himself as San Francisco’s Assessor, taking a strong stance against corporate landowners and even the Catholic Church on property assessments, Ting won a tough race against conservative businessman Michael Breyer to win his Assembly seat.

Since then, he’s been a reliable vote for legislation supported by most San Franciscans, and he’s sponsoring some good bills that break new ground, including his current AB 1193, which would make it easier to build cycletracks, or bike lanes physically separated from cars, all over the state. He also called a much-needed Assembly committee hearing in November calling out BART for its lax safety culture, and we hope he continues to push for reforms at that agency.

 

PROPOSITION 41: YES

Over a decade ago, Californians voted to use hundreds of millions of our dollars to create the CalVet Home and Farm Loan Program to help veterans purchase housing. But a reduction in federal home loan dollars, the housing crisis, and a plummeting economy hurt the program.

Prop. 41 would repurpose $600 million of those bond funds and raise new money to create affordable housing rental units for some of California’s 15,000 homeless veterans. This would cost Californians $50 million a year, which, as proponents remind us, is one-tenth of 1 percent of the state budget. Why let hundreds of millions of dollars languish unused? We need to reprioritize this money to make good on our unfulfilled promises to homeless veterans.

 

PROPOSITION 42: YES

This one’s important. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown sought to gut the California Public Records Act by making it optional for government agencies to comply with many of the requirements built into this important transparency law. The CPRA and the Ralph M. Brown Act require government agencies to make records of their activities available for public scrutiny, and to provide for adequate notice of public meetings. Had the bill weakening these laws not been defeated, it would have removed an important defense against shadowy government dealings, leaving ordinary citizens and journalists in the dark.

Prop. 42 is a bid to eliminate any future threats against California’s important government transparency laws, by expressly requiring local government agencies — including cities, counties, and school districts — to comply with all aspects of the CPRA and the Brown Act. It also seeks to prevent local agencies from denying public records requests based on cost, by eliminating the state’s responsibility to reimburse local agencies for cost compliance (the state has repeatedly failed to do so, and local bureaucracies have used this as an excuse not to comply).

 

SF’S PROPOSITION A: YES

Prop. A is a $400 million general obligation bond measure that would cover seismic retrofits and improvements to the city’s emergency infrastructure, including upgrades to the city’s Emergency Firefighting Water System, neighborhood police and fire stations, a new facility for the Medical Examiner, and seismically secure new structures to house the police crime lab and motorcycle unit.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to place Prop. A on the ballot, and a two-thirds majority vote is needed for it to pass. Given that San Franciscans can expect to be hit by a major earthquake in the years to come, upgrading emergency infrastructure, especially the high-pressure water system that will aid the Fire Department in the event of a major blaze, is a high priority.

 

SF’S PROPOSITION B: YES

As we report in this issue (see “Two views of the waterfront”), San Francisco’s waterfront is a valuable place targeted by some ambitious development schemes. That’s a good thing, particularly given the need that the Port of San Francisco has for money to renovate or remove crumbling piers, but it needs to be carefully regulated to maximize public benefits and minimize private profit-taking.

Unfortunately, the Mayor’s Office and its appointees at the Port of San Francisco have proven themselves unwilling to be tough negotiators on behalf of the people. That has caused deep-pocketed, politically connected developers to ignore the Waterfront Land Use Plan and propose projects that are out-of-scale for the waterfront, property that San Francisco is entrusted to manage for the benefit of all Californians.

All Prop. B does is require voter approval when projects exceed existing height limits. It doesn’t kill those projects, it just forces developers to justify new towers on the waterfront by providing ample public benefits, restoring a balance that has been lost. San Francisco’s waterfront is prime real estate, and there are only a few big parcels left that can be leveraged to meet the needs of the Port and the city. Requiring the biggest ones to be approved by voters is the best way to ensure the city — all its residents, not just the politicians and power brokers — is getting the best deals possible.

 

SF SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE: DANIEL FLORES

Daniel Flores has an impressive list of endorsers, including the Democratic, Republican, and Green parties of San Francisco — a rare trifecta of political party support. But don’t hold the GOP nod against Flores, who was raised in the Excelsior by parents who immigrated from El Salvador and who interned with La Raza Centro Legal while going to McGeorge School of Law. And he did serve in the Marines for six years, which could explain the broad range of support for him.

Flores is a courtroom litigator with experience in big firms and his own practice, representing clients ranging from business people to tenants fighting against their landlords. Flores told us that he wants to ensure those without much money are treated fairly in court, an important goal we support. We also liked Kimberly Williams and hope she ends up on the bench someday, but in this race, Flores is the clear choice.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 12: NANCY PELOSI

This was a hard decision for us this year. Everyone knows that Pelosi will win this race handily, but in past races we’ve endorsed third party challengers or even refused to endorse anyone more often than we’ve given Pelosi our support. While Pelosi gets vilified by conservatives as the quintessential San Francisco liberal, she’s actually way too moderate for our tastes.

Over her 21 years in Congress, she has presided over economic policies that have consolidated wealth in ever fewer hands and dismantled the social safety net, environmental policies that have ignored global warming and fed our over-reliance on the private automobile, and military policies that expanded the war machine and overreaching surveillance state, despite her insider’s role on the House Intelligence Committee.

Three of her opponents — Democrat David Peterson, Green Barry Hermanson, and fiery local progressive activist Frank Lara of the Peace and Freedom Party — are all much better on the issues that we care about, and we urge our readers to consider voting for one of them if they just can’t stomach casting a ballot for Pelosi. In particular, Hermanson has raised important criticisms of just how out of whack our federal budget priorities are. We also respect the work Lara has done on antiwar and transit justice issues in San Francisco, and we think he could have a bright political future.

But we’ve decided to endorse Pelosi in this election for one main reason: We want the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives this year and for Pelosi to once again become Speaker of the House. The Republican Party in this country, particularly the Tea Party loyalists in the House, is practicing a dangerous and disgusting brand of political extremism that needs to be stopped and repudiated. They would rather shut the government down or keep it hopelessly hobbled by low tax rates than help it become an effective tool for helping us address the urgent problems that our country faces. Pelosi and the Democrats aren’t perfect, but at least they’re reasonable grown-ups and we’d love to see what they’d do if they were returned to power. So Nancy Pelosi has our support in 2014.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 13: BARBARA LEE

Barbara Lee has been one of our heroes since 2001, when she was the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, braving the flag-waving nationalism that followed the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to warn that such an overly broad declaration of war was dangerous to our national interests. She endured death threats and harsh condemnation for that principled stand, but she was both courageous and correct, with our military overreach still causing problems for this country, both practical and moral.

Lee has been a clear and consistent voice for progressive values in the Congress for 16 years, chairing both the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus, taking stands against capital punishment and the Iraq War, supporting access to abortions and tougher regulation of Wall Street, and generally representing Oakland and the greater Bay Area well in Washington DC. She has our enthusiastic support.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 14: JACKIE SPEIER

Jackie Speier has given her life to public service — almost literally in 1978 when she was an aide to then-Rep. Leo Ryan and survived the airstrip shootings that triggered the massacre at Jonestown — and she has earned our ongoing support. Speier has continued the consumer protection work she started in the California Legislature, sponsoring bills in Congress aimed at protecting online privacy. She has also been a strong advocate for increasing federal funding to public transit in the Bay Area, particularly to Muni and for the electricification of Caltrain, an important prelude to the California High-Speed Rail Project. In the wake of the deadly natural gas explosion in San Bruno, Speier has pushed for tough penalties on Pacific Gas & Electric and expanded pipeline safety programs. She has been a strong advocate of women’s issues, including highlighting the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military, seeking greater protections, institutional accountability, and recourse for victims. More recently, Speier has become a key ally in the fight to save City College of San Francisco, taking on the federal accreditation process and seeking reforms. Speier is a courageous public servant who deserves your vote.

Projections

27

The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Screening venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $15) and complete schedule, visit festival.sffs.org.

Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan/Germany/France, 2013) Darwinian natural selection seems to be the guiding principle at the rural Kazakh school where bright farm boy Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is sent to further his education. What he learns there is mostly about survival, as he soon discovers the institution is dominated by an elaborate system of bullying and extortion in which a few older students terrorize the younger and weaker. Emir Baigazin’s striking debut feature applies a rigor both aesthetic and intellectual to a familiar theme here, his script as methodical as his minimalist compositions in dissecting the havoc wreaked by (and eventual unraveling of) a corrupt system that’s a microcosm of a societal whole. Fri/25, 3:30pm, Kabuki; May 4, 12:45pm, Kabuki; May 5, 6:15pm, Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania/France, 2013) Romanian moviemaker Corneliu Porumboiu (2009’s Police, Adjective) turns his lens around, toward the casting couch and the oh-so-delicate damage done, in his third feature film. An everyday kind of corruption, sex, lies, and video — zipless, tapeless, and forging way beyond the limits of film — is the name of the game when a director (Bogdan Dumitrache) nonchalantly drops a nude scene on his actress (Diana Avramut) and the two try out a few ideas, on-camera for the screen and off-camera in the bedroom. The hardly working relationship plays both ways, as the moviemaker bends in turn to his producer, in this minimalist albeit layered glimpse into the unlovely guts of the last sacred cow: the so-called creative process. Fri/25, 3:45pm, New People; Sat/26, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 8:30pm, PFA. (Kimberly Chun)

Hellion (Kat Candler, US) Beer drinking and metal tees, shit-talking and shit-kicking, boys and their toys and their broken dreams — the signatures of director-writer Kat Candler are familiar even to those unversed in her 2006 Jumping Off Bridges and the short that this extended-play feature is based on. Yet somehow the motocross-fixated Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is finding his own fresh hell amid this testosterone-scape: with the death of his mother, his faded baseball star of a father (Aaron Paul) is struggling to hold the family together and kick his tendency to take refuge at the bottom of a beer can. Meanwhile younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) has been taken away and placed with the boys’ Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis). Candler makes this hell of hurts fresh with her close attention to detail, relishing the whipped cream sandwiches and sofa bounce-offs of home-alone kids as well as the throttled rage of the Metallica and Slayer soundtrack, and charged performances from all, in particular Paul, also an executive producer here, and Lewis, two small-town castaways just a hair less lost than the kids. Fri/25, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 4pm, Kabuki. (Chun)

Blind Dates (Levan Koguashvili, Georgia, 2013) This rather wonderful deadpan comedy from Georgia (the former Soviet territory, not Jimmy Carter’s home) revolves around two best friends, male schoolteachers looking for love on the mutual brink of 40. Doleful-looking history prof Sandro (Andro Sakhvarelidze) and robust soccer coach Iva (Archil Kikodze) seem hapless and thwarted at every turn, yet simultaneously oblivious to scads of available women around them. The gentle, rueful tenor sneaks up on you, delivering some big laughs and narrative surprises as well as a very soulful sum impact. One of this year’s SFIFF sleepers (with no US distribution in sight), this droll yet bighearted gem is not to be missed. Fri/25, 9pm, Kabuki; Sun/27, 8:15pm, PFA; Tue/29, 6:30pm, New People. (Harvey)

Child of God (James Franco, US, 2013) You may not know that SFIFF It Guy James Franco has directed nearly two dozen shorts, documentaries, and features since 2005, in addition to his acting and miscellaneous multimedia dabblings. Don’t worry: You haven’t missed much. But this adaptation of a 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel is a great leap forward from his prior efforts, most of which felt like pretentious grad school thesis films. Scott Haze is startlingly good as Lester Ballard, a Tennessee hillbilly whose lack of conventional home, family, social instincts, or behavioral restraint gets him perpetually in trouble with the law — trouble that takes a macabre turn when he finds a dead woman’s body. The story’s shock value might easily have played as exploitative or ludicrous, but Franco hits the right tenor of mad intensity to reflect Lester’s near-feral state, in which acts that might appall any “civilized” mindset make perfect sense to him. Fri/25, 9:30pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 3:45pm, New People. (Harvey)

The Double (Richard Ayoade, UK, 2013) Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a lowly clerk who gets nothing but indifference and scorn both at work and in his pitiful private life. Things slip even more insidiously beyond his control with the arrival of James (Eisenberg again), his exact doppelgänger — though no one else seems to notice that — and a climber as ruthlessly efficient as Simon is hapless. Not only does he steal his look-alike’s ideas in a rapid rise to the top, he seems to take great pleasure in kicking Simon further downward. Applying a Kafkaesque gloss to Dostoyevsky’s novella, with stylistic hat-tips to the Coens and Terry Gilliam, Richard Ayoade’s second feature is very different from his prior Submarine (2010) in all ways but one: It, too, is both overwhelmed and rendered fascinating by an excess of high directorial “style” whose self-consciousness infuses every frame and puts quote marks around every emotion. As a result, The Double is a striking objet d’art you’ll either love or hate — or enjoy aesthetically while being annoyed by its sacrifice of depth for a showoff surface. Sat/26, 1pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 9:15pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

Tangerines (Zaza Urushadze, Estonia/Georgia, 2013) It’s 1992, and carpenter Ivo (Lemit Ulfsak) and farmer Marcus (Elmo Nuganen) are old neighbors who are practically the only residents left in their rural Abkhazia village — everyone else has fled the approaching war between Georgian and Russia-backed North Caucasian forces that erupted over this disputed land after the USSR’s dissolution. The 60-something men have stayed behind out of habit, and to harvest Marcus’ latest (perhaps last) tangerine crop. When a shootout on Ivo’s doorstep leaves him stuck with one wounded soldier from each side, these uninvited guests must be kept from outside discovery — and from one another’s throats — as they recover. Wry and poignant, Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze’s antiwar microcosm is beautifully crafted, particularly in Rein Kotov’s gorgeous photography of the verdant countryside. Sat/26, 9pm, Kabuki; Sun/27, 6:15pm, Kabuki; May 6, 8:30pm, PFA. (Harvey)

The Sacrament (Ti West, US, 2013) This very disappointing latest by Ti West, of flavorful indie horrors The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), basically puts a piece of tracing paper over the climactic events at Jonestown, changing the names but otherwise refusing to do anything different — or really anything at all — with that historical model of mass religious cult freak out. Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowen, and Kentucker Audley play filmmakers who visit a secretive jungle compound in order to figure out if somebody’s sister (Amy Seimetz) is staying there of her own free will or not. She seems to be doing OK, and in fact appears to be the favored apostle of enigmatic leader “Father” (Gene Jones). But once the strangers get a glimpse behind the facade of their carefully stage-managed visit, they glean that not everyone is happy here — indeed, some may be desperate to escape. Despite some good performance moments, there’s little psychological insight or real suspense to this fictionalized take on the 1978 catastrophe at Rev. Jim Jones’ Guyana settlement, and its quasi-“found footage” aesthetic feels very tired. Sat/26, 11:45pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 9pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UD8TrqVrFyU

All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, US, 1979) Stage and screen choreographer and director Bob Fosse’s autobiographical phantasmagoria modeled itself on Fellini’s very Italian 1963 8 1/2 (which also inspired the stage/film musical Nine), but its heart is pure, cold American show-biz brass. Roy Scheider is terrific as Fosse alter ego Joe Gideon, a driven workaholic whose decades of numerous excesses (pills, smoking, women, etc.) have put him at serious risk of a fatal heart attack just as he’s simultaneously starting rehearsals for a Broadway musical and finishing up editing on a Hollywood feature. The external pressure is exceeded only by his own compulsive perfectionism. He reviews his life of professional triumphs and failed relationships as it very possibly sputters toward an end. Like Joe’s character (and creator), Jazz is egomaniacal, charming, over-the-top, sexy, sexist, indulgent, and overbearing — a glitzy portrait of a brilliant heel, with dazzling musical numbers. Seldom revived in recent years, it’s being shown in a newly restored print. Sun/27, 12:30pm, Kabuki; May 2, 8:30pm, PFA. (Harvey)

Belle (Amma Asante, UK, 2013) The child of a British naval officer and a Caribbean slave, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is deposited on the doorstep — well, the estate grounds — of her father’s relatives in 1769 England after her mother dies. Soon she’s entirely orphaned, which makes her a wealthy heiress and aristocratic title holder at the same time that she is something less than human in the eyes of her adopted society. For Belle is black (or more properly, mixed-race), and thus a useless curiosity at best as a well-bred noblewoman of the “wrong” racial makeup. Based on a murky actual historical chapter, Amma Asante’s film is that rare sumptuous costume drama which actually has something on its mind beyond romance and royalty. Not least among its pleasures is a fine supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, and Emily Watson. Sun/27, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 3:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nL-0RLaFcSg

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2013) The fate of those left behind — the homeless, the stray dogs — amid the go-go aggression of tiger markets is ostensibly Tsai Ming-liang’s first concern in what he’s said is his last film. But the “Second Wave” Taiwanese director can’t help but leave a mark — those amazing performances, those achingly long, meditative shots — that makes you hungry for more. Ever so loosely knitting together a series of lengthy, gorgeously composed images that resemble still lifes of a metamorphosing Taipei that’s rapidly leaving its cultural core, the family, in the dust, Stray Dogs wanders, hangs, then drifts once more, much like the homeless father (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) and two children at its rootless center. Dad holds an advertising sign at an intersection — necessitating what might be the longest urination shot in cinema and a singular burst into poetry and song — while the kids feed themselves with supermarket samples and wash up in public restrooms. Will they be brought together by the missing matriarch, in the form of a grocery store manager, or just a random instance of art or beauty in a crumbling building? Beauty, it seems, is everywhere, Tsai seems to signal, and time — here, spent and bent to new ends — might or might not tell, while this mesmerizing, testing, and ultimately rewarding digital farewell to the movies keeps you hanging on. Mon/28, 6pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 3:15pm, New People; April 30, 6:30pm, PFA. (Chun)

The Overnighters (Jesse Moss, US) If you’re looking for a movie to affirm the resilient generosity of the American spirit (or economy), this isn’t it. But Bay Area filmmaker Jesse Moss’ new documentary is as engrossing as it is dismaying. When a fracking-related job boom hits low-population North Dakota, close-knit Williston — which had a population of just 12,000 at the millennium’s turn — suddenly becomes a magnet for the unemployed and desperate. That includes a diverse racial mix of men, including some transients, a few felons and ex-cons, plus others whom many locals are willing to skittishly term “trash.” There’s scant housing available to accommodate them; Pastor Jay Reinke of Concordia Lutheran tries to help out by letting some new arrivals sleep on the church (and even his family home’s) floor. But his congregation is increasingly unhappy about that, as is the community in general. The Overnighters grows more complicated, however, than a simple portrait of small-town closed-mindedness and a clergyman acting like Jesus would. Not every charity case is grateful, or honest, or manageable. Meanwhile, Rev. Reinke’s own psychological baggage starts looking pretty dang heavy well before a game changing late revelation that is painful on about 20 different levels. Mon/28, 6:30pm, Kabuki; May 3, 1pm, New People. (Harvey)

The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Mike Fleiss, US) Bob Weir gets a little of his share of the critical limelight in this doc by Mike Fleiss, which focuses on Weir’s personal life and gives Grateful Dead chronology a light scramble. It kicks off with a cruise across the Golden Gate Bridge with the SF-born musician, who was taught to drive by Neal Cassady and gleans admiration from both expected quarters (Sammy Hagar) and less so (The National, which tries a brief jam with Weir) and drops tidbits about his dyslexia, early hangouts with Palo Alto banjo player Jerry Garcia, his chronic shoulder pain, and songwriting approaches (“There’s no logic to it. It comes through the window when it wants to come though the window”), along with a visit to the famed Dead house at 710 Ashbury with his wife and daughters. Couched amid a bevy of performance snippets, none very long, the road-weathered rhythm guitarist comes off as a bit of tough nut to crack and almost too humdrum in his current downplayed presentation to ever really lead us on a truly “long, strange trip.” Still, this document serves as a decent primer for the rock generalist on the man (though not of his bands apart from the Dead) and goes a little way toward generating gratitude for the man oft dubbed an unsung hero. Tue/29, 8:50pm, PFA; May 2, 9:30pm, Kabuki. (Chun)

Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, France, 2013) We first meet well-off, middle-aged single gay man Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) as he’s cruising a Paris train station for rough trade in writer-director Robin Campillo’s bravura opening sequence. He settles on impish Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), negotiates an assignation, and goes home. But later on it’s not Marek who turns up on Daniel’s doorstep, but a couple dozen young former-Soviet-bloc illegal émigrés who take over his luxury apartment for an epic party as they cart his possessions out the door. (This unpleasant passage is the most difficult to swallow, as there’s no explanation why our protagonist is so passive about being robbed.) Yet Marek does eventually turn up, and despite all, a relationship develops — always at risk of incurring anger from “Boss” (Danill Vorobyev), the thuggish leader of the immigrant community Marek has aligned himself with. Like the Laurent Cantet films (1999’s Human Resources, 2001’s Time Out, 2008’s The Class) Campillo has edited, Eastern Boys doesn’t fill in all its narrative blanks, but is grounded in recognizable characters we can empathize with as the scenario takes unexpected turns. It’s a provoking movie that’s ultimately well worthwhile. April 30, 9:10pm, PFA; May 2, 6pm, Kabuki; May 4, 8:45pm, New People. (Harvey)

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, US) Fargo (1996), now also an FX series, is having a moment — and as bracingly sweet, tragicomic, and strange as its inspiration, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter sets course from where the Coen Brothers left off. Essential ingredients include another moviemaking team of brothers, David and Nathan Zeller, and a waterlogged VHS tape of the North Dakota micro-epic, the latter leading one woman into white-out lunacy beyond the grinding conformity of Tokyo office work or small-town Minnesota mundanities. Shy, odd, and obsessive Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is the nail that must be pounded down, as the Japanese saying goes; as she trudges through her job at a large, alienating company, her fantasy world is fueled by a video of Fargo she finds buried in a sea cave. Those grainy images set her on a quest among the determinedly kawaii in Japan and the hilariously humane in the States, which she compares to that of the conquistadors’. Even when accompanied by the Octopus Project’s vivid electronic score, which spells out the horror of this journey, Kumiko’s no Aguirre — though, like Fargo, her adventure’s end is based on a true case. A wonderfully weird — and ultimately compassionate — vamp on the power of fantasy and obsession that crosses international datelines. May 1, 8:45pm, Kabuki; May 3, 2:30pm, Kabuki; May 4, 12:30pm, Kabuki. (Chun)

Difret (Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, Ethiopia) Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s film dramatizes a shocking human rights issue in Ethiopia: the continuing acceptance in rural areas of forcibly abducting young women for marriage. Fourteen-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is walking home from school one day when she’s surrounded by seven armed men, dragged off to a hut, then raped by the suitor whose marriage proposal she’d already rejected. When later she kills him in an escape attempt, tribal law decrees she be executed (and buried alongside him as “wife”). But a city lawyer for a women’s rights organization (Meron Getnet) takes up her cause. This is powerful material, but Difret would be a better film, and even better advocacy, if it didn’t handle its fictive events in such heavy-handed, pedestrian, everything spelled-out-for-you fashion. May 1, 6:30pm, Pacific Film Archive; May 3, 3:15pm, Kabuki; May 7, 3:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, France/Belgium/Germany, 2013) Those who last saw Isabelle Huppert as a dutiful daughter in 2012’s Amour will be both thrilled and piqued to see the tables turned so remarkably in Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness. Huppert gives an unapologetic, stunning tour de force performance in what appears to be a story torn from the filmmaker’s own life, when Breillat suffered a series of strokes in the ’00s and ended up entangled in a loving and predatory friendship with con man Christophe Rocancourt. Here, moviemaker and writer Maud (Huppert) is particularly vulnerable when she meets celebrity criminal and best-selling writer Vilko (Kool Shen). She is determined to have him star in her next film, despite the protestations of friends and family, and he helps her in return — by simply helping her get around and giving her focus when half her body seems beyond her control, while his constant machinations continue to compel her. Crafting a layered, resonant response to what seems like an otherwise clear-cut case of abuse, Breillat seems to have gotten something close to one of her best films out of the sorry situation, while Huppert reminds us — with the painful precision of this intensely physical role — why she’s one of France’s finest. May 1, 9pm, Kabuki. (Chun)

Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland/Germany, 2013) Benedikt Erlingsson’s astonishing directorial debut weaves together a half dozen disparate stories involving beautiful horses and mostly unlucky humans in and near a modern Icelandic small town. It’s a horsey movie like no other, each surprising tale marked to various degrees by black comedy, cruel fate, very earthy humor, and hints of the fantastical. Nature being a harsh mistress, some events here are rather shocking or tragic — those who automatically despise any film in which animals come to harm (only in dramatic terms, of course) had best stay clear. But less delicate souls may well find this unique equine-themed mix of folk art and fable exhilaratingly original. May 2, 4:30pm, Kabuki; May 3, 8:45pm, Kabuki; May 5, 6pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

Salvation Army (Abdellah Taïa, Morocco, 2013) Paris-based Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa adapts his presumably autobiographical 2006 novel in this accomplished feature. Teenaged Abdellah (Said Mrini) is stuck in the middle of a large, rambunctious family where his parents continually fight, sometimes violently, and he has to keep his feelings hidden — not least because they largely revolve around an infatuation with older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji). While that attraction remains forbidden, Abdellah does find ways to access love or at least sex with other older men, though these sometimes exploitative interludes leave him dissatisfied. Salvation Army would be an effective if unmemorable portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-queer if it didn’t take an abrupt, unexpected jump forward 10 years, to chart the rough early days of a now-adult protagonist (Karim Ait M’Hand) in supposedly more gay-friendly (but not necessarily immigrant-friendly) France. It’s these later scenes that lend this directorial debut by (so far) the only out gay Arab Moroccan scribe its lingering gravity. May 2, 9pm, Kabuki; May 4, 8:30pm, PFA; May 6, 6:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

Intruders (Noh Young-seok, South Korea, 2013) Noh Young-seok’s insidiously clever black comedy-thriller takes its time getting to the nasty stuff — although things start getting weird for our protagonist right away, when his bus ride to a remote resort region is interrupted by an overly-friendly local who will figure in his troubles later on. Sang-jin (Jun Kuk-ho) is here to spend some alone time finishing a screenplay. But he’s unlikely to get much work done, given various pesterings from the hitherto mentioned ex-con New Best Friend (Oh Tae-kyung), an obnoxious quartet of skiers, some hostile poachers, and … well, you’ll have to wait until the very end to get the complete list of unwanted guests. As misunderstandings and bodies pile up, Intruders cleverly finds ways to make the worst possible scenario even worse. May 2, 9:45pm, Kabuki; May 7, 9:30pm, Kabuki; May 8, 5:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, US) Adapted from the 2010 short story collection by James Franco, first-time director Gia Coppola’s depressive, aimless tale of disaffected youth tracks the ennuis and misadventures of a handful of Palo Alto teenagers: shy, inexperienced April (Emma Roberts), teetering on the edge of an affair with her soccer coach (Franco); naively promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin); budding head case Fred (Nat Wolff); and his friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who plays April’s out-to-lunch stepfather), who ambivalently participates in Fred’s mayhem while pining after April. Adult supervision is nearly Peanuts-level sparse — in other Peninsula households, helicopter parents may be fine-tuning the lives of their children down to the last extracurricular; here, the stoned, distracted elders who occasionally wander in front of the camera are more like flaky, absentee roommates. Meanwhile, their young charges fill the empty hours with copious amounts of alcohol consumption, random property destruction, and a round or two of social crucifixion. May 3, 7:30pm, Kabuki. (Lynn Rapoport)

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, US, 1941) Superficially the most conventional of Preston Sturges’ classics — being a romantic comedy vehicle for two major stars — this 1941 gem is no less great for it. Barbara Stanwyck plays Jean, the feminine lure in a team of wily con artists who spy easy prey in Henry Fonda, a fabulously wealthy “bumble-puppy” more interested in studying Amazonian snakes than inheriting the family brewery fortune. They relieve him of considerable cash at the card table, but when Jean decides she really does love the big dope and comes clean, he thinks she’s still lying. Now a woman scorned — and whatta woman! — Jean hatches a spectacular revenge scheme to teach him the lesson he deserves. As is Sturges’ wont, the film goes over the top a bit toward the end. But who cares, when Eve is so brilliantly written and performed, not to mention consistently hilarious. Film critic David Thomson and journalist-novelist Geoff Dyer will be present for this screening in conjunction with Thomson’s acceptance of the Mel Novikoff Award. May 4, 3pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5rVCYqW8U4

Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully, US) Eighties teen flicks of the My Bodyguard (1980), smart-dweebs-beat-the-bullies ilk are paid homage in Michael Tully’s deadpan satire, which is closer in spirit to the Comedy of Lameness school whose patron saint is Napoleon Dynamite. Radley (Marcello Conte) is an average teen so excited to be spending the summer of 1985 in Ocean City, Md., with his family that he renames himself “Rad Miracle.” He acquires a New Best Friend in Teddy (Myles Massey), who as the whitest black kid imaginable might make even Rad look cool by comparison. However, they are both dismayed to discover the local center for video gaming and everything else they like is ruled by bigger, older, cuter, and snottier douchebag Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sidekick. Only kicking Lyle’s ass at ping pong — with some help from a local weirdo (a miscast Susan Sarandon, apparently here because she’s an offscreen ping pong enthusiast) — can save Rad’s wounded dignity, and the summer in general. A big step up from Tully’s odd but pointless prior Septien (2011), this has all the right stuff (including a soundtrack packed with the likes of Mr. Mister, the Fat Boys, Mary Jane Girls, New Edition, Whodini, and Night Ranger) to hilariously parody the era’s inanities. But it’s just mildly amusing — a droll attitude with lots of period detail but not much bite. May 4, 6:30pm, Kabuki; May 7, 8:45pm, New People. (Harvey)

The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, US) Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) have hit a speed bump in their relationship — they don’t have fun together like they used to, and even direct attempts to replicate that past magic fall completely flat. Ergo they take the advice of a couples counselor (Ted Danson) and book a weekend at a country getaway he swears has done “wonders” for all his previous clients in relationship trouble. Things get off to a pleasant enough start, but the duo’s delight at recapturing their old mojo becomes complicated when they realize … well, it’s best to know as little as possible going into The One I Love, a first feature for director Charlie McDowell and scenarist Justin Lader that approaches a fantastical narrative idea with a poker face and considerable ingenuity. Duplass and (especially) Moss are terrific in roles that eventually require some very complicated (and subtle) nuances. May 6, 9:15pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, US, 2013) Not to be confused with Arthur Penn’s same-named 1975 Gene Hackman thriller, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film nonetheless is also a memorably quiet, unsettling tale of conspiracy and paranoia. It takes us some time to understand what makes temporary allies of jittery Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Portland, Ore.-style alterna-chick Dena (Dakota Fanning) and genial rural recluse Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), beyond it being a mission of considerable danger and secrecy. When things don’t go exactly as planned, however, the three react very differently to the resulting fallout, becoming possibly greater threats to one another than the police or FBI personnel pursuing them. While still spare by mainstream standard, this is easily Reichardt’s most accessible work, carrying the observational strengths of 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, and 2006’s Old Joy over to a genuinely tense story that actually goes somewhere. May 7, 9pm, Kabuki; May 8, 7:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Devil’s advocate

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM It’s taken nearly three years for Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust to get to the Bay Area. That seems apt for what was surely, in 2011, the least popular recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in decades. Jury chief Darren Aronofsky (whose own epic about God and man’s purpose and such, Noah, is stone sober by contrast) called it the kind of movie that “changes you forever after you see it.” Others — especially those who expect some resemblance to the “tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe” the film claims to be based on, perhaps its first insidious joke — registered reactions in the general realm of “WTF?”

But mostly, this Faust simply hasn’t been seen very much, an odd fate for a fairly expensive art movie that purportedly Putin himself hoped would demonstrate the glory of modern Russian culture to the world. (Even if it is a German-language period piece shot in the Czech Republic.)

One can only imagine Vladimir’s subsequent dismay, and possible avowals to never again back auteurs without the surnames Bondarchuk or Mikhalkov — men who can be counted on to grunt out macho, patriotic cine-blintzes that in proud testament to national nepotism invariably get chosen as Russia’s official Oscar contenders. (Nikita Mikhalkov’s massive 2011 bust Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel nudged out Faust for that honor, prompting international hilarity.)

What can Sokurov be counted on for? He is a weirdo. Even his popular triumphs — 1997’s rhapsodic Mother and Son; 2002’s extraordinary 300-years-of-history-in-one-traveling-shot Russian Ark — are very rarefied stuff, disinterested in conventional narrative or making their meanings too clear. In production scale, Faust is Sokurov’s biggest project, which hardly stops it also being possibly his most perverse. Whose idea was it to give this guy millions of euros in anticipation of something beautiful, accessible, or at least non-maddening? Surely a few heads rolled at the Russian Cinema Fund, Golden Lion or no.

But whatever bureaucrats’ loss is our gain … finally. Faust is compellingly, often hypnotically dreamlike and grotesque, a film not quite like any other. It rings bells redolent of certain classic 1970s Herzog features, and of course Sokurov’s own prior ones (as well as those by his late mentor Tarkovsky). But it has a stoned strangeness all its own. It’s not 140 minutes you should enter lightly, because you are going to exit it headily, drunk off the kind of questionable homebrew elixir that has a worm floating in it.

Bruno Delbonnel’s camera dives headlong from celestial clouds into a clammy mittle-Yurropeon town in which the thin margin between pissy bourgeoisie and dirty swine is none too subtly delineated when a funeral march collides with a cartful of porkers. Starving — for love, for lunch, for any sign that God isn’t just a nagging personal delusion — is Professor Faust (the marvelously plastic Johannes Zeiler), whom we meet dissecting a corpse in his filthy studio. Asked by bonkers assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) where the soul dwells, he shrugs “There’s only rubbish in here,” yanking out the most gratuitous onscreen innards since Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973). Impoverished and hungry, the questionably good doctor is an easy mark for Mephistophelean moneylender Mauricius Muller (physical theater specialist Anton Adasinsky), an insinuating snake who claims the soul is “no heavier than a coin,” and will happily relieve Faust of his in return for some slippery satisfactions.

Their endless day together encompasses a rowdy inn, the vaguely unsavory pursuit of dewy Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), and finally a sort of death in a volcanic landscape that’s like the setting for a creation myth — one encompassing both the religion Faust resists and the science he practices merely as “something to do to fill the void,” comparing it to his inamorata’s knitting.

There’s also the revelation of a naked Muller at the baths as some sort of a-human, asexual fleshy lump, with useless penis-tail on his backside; the unrecognizable fleeting specter of Hanna Schygulla as Frau Muller; a monkey on the moon glimpsed through telescope; poor Wagner revealing the “homunculus” he’s bred from “oils of asparagus and dandelion mixed with hyena’s liver,” a pathetic tiny monster as doomed as the Eraserhead (1977) baby.

Faust completes Sokurov’s tetralogy on power and corruption, which otherwise consisted of druggy fantasias about real historical leaders: 1999’s Moloch about Hitler, which showed once at the San Francisco International Film Festival; 2001’s Taurus (Stalin), which hardly played anywhere; and 2005’s stilted The Sun (Emperor Hirohito), which rather inexplicably played everywhere. Coming complete with the director’s trademark distortion effects (in both color tinting and image aspect), Faust has a soft, queasy, pickled feel, like a disquieting dream too fascinating to wake yourself from. Andrey Sigle’s orchestral score rolls beneath dislocating visuals, a constant wave assuring no one aboard gains their sea legs.

For all actual mention of the soul in a script devised with prior collaborators Yuri Arabov and Marina Koreneva, this is a less “spiritual” film than many Sokurov has managed before. God (or whomever) knows you are likelier to sense his very Russian mysticism as a redemptive force in Mother and Son, not to mention 2007’s Alexandra or such Soviet-era cries in the dark as Days of Eclipse (1988) or The Second Circle (1990). Faust is beautiful in its distinctive aesthetics, even if its view of human existence is philosophically, ornately ugly. It’s also antic in the semi-subterranean way you might expect from a once frequently-banned artist raised in Siberia. Nearly a decade ago he said this project would be “a very colorful, elegant picture with a lot of Strauss music and a smell of chocolate.” Always with the jokes, that Sokurov. *

FAUST opens Fri/18 at the Roxie Theater.

SF’s culture of corruption

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EDITORIAL The extent of the charges in the criminal complaint against Sen. Leland Yee, political consultant Keith Jackson, and others are shocking and sensational: international arms trafficking, drug dealing, money laundering, cavorting with organized crime figures, murder for hire. But the basic allegation that Yee and Jackson practiced a corrupt, transactional kind of politics wasn’t surprising to anyone who knew how they operated.

What’s worse, they were simply a more extreme — and now, thanks to FBI wiretaps and undercover agents, a better documented — example of the political corruption that is endemic to San Francisco and some other high-stakes American cities. The city of St. Francis gets sold out to the highest bidders everyday, by politicians who value wealthy constituents over the vast majority of us who are just trying to get by — and over the interests of city finances and governance.

Part of the problem is inherent in our money-driven political system, in which politicians are constantly hustling for cash from people who want things from them. Politicians deny they take actions with political contributions in mind, but well-heeled capital and labor interests don’t spend millions of dollars on contributions out of the goodness of their hearts. These are business transactions.

We wholeheartedly support the call Senate President Darrell Steinberg made for fundamental political reform during the March 28 vote to suspend Yee and two of his allegedly corrupt colleagues. These cases aren’t aberrations, they are indicative of how power get wielded when it’s based on wealth. That’s the reality that has gotten even uglier since the Citizens United decision equated money with political speech and upped the ante for would-be public servants.

But much of the problem is particular to San Francisco, where cozy relationships between politicians and corporate interests are often feted in plain view. Former Mayor Willie Brown — a lawyer and unregistered lobbyist who won’t reveal his huge corporate client list despite having an influential weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle — helped install his longtime City Hall functionary Ed Lee into Room 200 to guard against anyone asking too much of the rich and powerful. Yee and Lee represented rival Chinatown economic factions, both wanting to use the power of the Mayor’s Office for their interests.

In his March 22 column, Brown once again repeated a joke he’s used before, that the “e” in email stands for “evidence,” which is really only funny in a sick political culture that celebrates slick rule-breakers. And it was from Brown that Lee learned it was acceptable to brazenly give tax breaks and regulatory passes to the tech companies that his top fundraiser, venture capitalist Ron Conway, are invested in.

Megadeveloper Lennar Urban used its wealth and political connections to take control of San Francisco’s biggest tracts of undeveloped and underdeveloped land, including Hunters and Candlestick points and Treasure Island, paying off community groups and hiring Jackson and other political henchmen to get the job done.

In fact, the FBI complaint says Jackson was working on behalf of that project when he approached accused Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow for support, leading to their alleged involvement in a string of wild criminal conspiracies. Meanwhile, Chow was getting public commendations from San Francisco-based politicians including Lee, Yee, Gavin Newsom, Dianne Feinstein, Fiona Ma, and even Tom Ammiano. Chow courted political legitimacy the same way politicians seek cash, and mainstream media outlets were happy to play along.

Throughout his political career, Yee has carried water for Pacific Gas & Electric, perhaps the most corrupting contributor to political campaigns in the city’s history. PG&E’s influence at City Hall had thankfully waned in recent years as a result of overreach and deadly criminal negligence, until Lee and his appointees last year killed CleanPowerSF (see “Challenge Mayor Lee and his lies,” 9/17/13) on a pretext so thin it could only be gift to PG&E.

In many ways, San Francisco hasn’t changed. It’s still the old Barbary Coast, ruled by capitalist thugs and corrupt politicians, only with glossy modern spin created by armies of well-paid political consultants. But we all deserve better.

Yee and Jackson should go to prison if there’s even a slice of truth to the allegations against them. And maybe they’ll cut deals and take other political figures down with them, giving us more of a peek behind the curtain of political power. But it’s up to all of us to break the close ties between economic and political power and begin to restore the democratic power of everyday people.

Film Listings: April 2 – 8, 2014

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, Sam Stander, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

OPENING

Breathe In In Drake Doremus’s lyrical tale of a man in midlife crisis, Guy Pearce plays Keith Reynolds, a high school music teacher living in upstate New York with his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), and teenage daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie David). Quietly harboring his discontent, Keith spends solitary moments wistfully sifting through glory-days photographs of his former band and memories of the undomesticated life he and Megan led two decades ago in New York City, which the two revisit in a low-toned call-and-response that doesn’t need to erupt into a blistering argument to clarify their incompatible positions. The melancholy calm is disrupted by the arrival of a British exchange student named Sophie (Felicity Jones, who also starred in Doremus’s 2011 film, Like Crazy). Evading a scene of loss and heartbreak at home, 18-year-old Sophie has come to spend a semester at Lauren’s high school, a juxtaposition that presents us with two wildly distinct species of teenager. Lauren is a brittle, popular party girl whom we watch making poor choices with a predatory classmate; Sophie is a soulful, reserved young woman whose prodigious talent at the piano first jars Keith out of his malaise into an uncomfortable awareness. A scene before Sophie’s arrival in which the family plays Jenga and Keith pulls out the wrong piece, toppling the tower, perhaps presses its ominous visual message too hard. Meanwhile, similarities to 2012’s Nobody Walks underscore the argument that this subject matter is an old, tired tale. But for the most part, the intimacy that develops between Keith and Sophie is constructed with delicate restraint, and Doremus and writing partner Ben York Jones have crafted a textured portrait of a man trying to repossess the past. (1:37) Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Marvel’s most wholesome hero returns in this latest film in the Avengers series, and while it doesn’t deviate from the expected formula (it’s not a spoiler to say that yes, the world is saved yet again), it manages to incorporate a surprisingly timely plot about the dangers of government surveillance. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), hunkiest 95-year-old ever, is still figuring out his place in the 21st century after his post-World War II deep freeze. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has him running random rescue missions with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), but SHIELD is working on a top-secret project that will allow it to predict crimes before they occur. It isn’t long before Cap’s distrust of the weapon — he may be old-fashioned, but he ain’t stupid — uncovers a sinister plot led by a familiar enemy, with Steve’s former BFF Bucky doing its bidding as the science-experiment-turned-assassin Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, and series regular Colbie Smulders are fine in supporting roles, and Johansson finally gets more to do than punch and pose, but the likable Evans ably carries the movie — he may not have the charisma of Robert Downey Jr., but he brings wit and depth to a role that would otherwise be defined mainly by biceps and CG-heavy fights. Oh, and you know the drill by now: superfans will want to stick around for two additional scenes tucked into the end credits. (2:16) (Eddy)

Frankie & Alice Halle Berry plays a go-go dancer with dissociative identity disorder. (1:42)

Goodbye World The end begins with a text — “Goodbye world,” sent to every cell phone. Once the computer virus-spawned anarchy really gets rolling (internet and power outages, violence and chaos), a group with nerdy-tech past connections descends on the survivalist-chic homestead of responsible James (Adrian Grenier) and “zany” Lily (Kerry Bishé): uptight Becky (Caroline Dhavernas) and unhappy Nick (Ben McKenzie); Lev (Scott Mescudi, aka musician Kid Cudi), who may have accidentally unleashed the virus; Laura (Gaby Hoffman), haunted by a recent political scandal; and ex-con Benji (Marc Webber) with his nubile tagalong (Remy Nozik). Most of these folks — even the ones married to each other — are frenemies at best, and their relationships disintegrate as civilization crumbles from afar. Physical menace enters this Big Chill-off-the-grid reunion when surly National Guardsmen emerge from the woods, but the main dramas take place ‘twixt the members of the angsty ensemble — all of whom are actually in desperate need of a fresh start. Among a cast composed mostly of TV veterans, Hoffman (last seen scene-stealing on Girls) is the standout performer, not to mention the MVP of this particular apocalypse. (1:41) Four Star. (Eddy)

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar Morgan Freeman narrates this 3D IMAX look at lemurs. (:39)

It Felt Like Love Set on the outer edges of Brooklyn and Queens, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s debut feature tracks the summertime wanderings and missteps of 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti), whose days mainly consist of trailing in the wake of her more sexually experienced and perpetually coupled-off best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni). The camera repeatedly finds Lila in voyeur mode, as Chiara and her boyfriend, Patrick (Jesse Cordasco), negotiate their physical relationship and redefine the limits of PDA, unfazed by Lila’s silent, watchful presence. It’s clear she wants some part of this, though her motivations are a murky compound of envy, loneliness, and longing for a sense of place among her peers. A brief encounter with an older boy, Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), whom Chiara knows — more of a sighting, really — provides the tiniest of openings, and Lila forces her way through it with an awkward insistence that is uncomfortable and sometimes painful to witness. Lila lacks Chiara’s fluid verbal and physical vernacular, and her attempts at mimicry in the cause of attracting Sammy’s attention only underline how unready and out of her depth she is. As Lila pushes into his seedy, sleazy world — a typical night is spent getting wasted and watching porn with his friends — their encounters don’t look like they feel like love, though Piersanti poignantly signals her character’s physical desire in the face of Sammy’s bemused ambivalence. Hittman unflinchingly leads her hapless protagonist through scenes that hover uneasily between dark comedy and menace without ever quite landing, and this uncertainty generates an emotional force that isn’t dispelled by the drifting, episodic plot. (1:22) Roxie. (Rapoport)

Jinn Horror movie based on the mythical creature from Arabic folklore. (1:37)

The Missing Picture Rithy Panh’s latest film about the homeland he fled as a teenager is atypically, directly autobiographical, and most unusually crafted. He re-creates his once comfortable Phnom Penh family’s grim fate after Pol Pot and company seized control of Cambodia in 1975 — as all fell prey to the starvation, forced labor, and other privations suffered by perceived “enemies” of the new regime — not by any conventional means but via elaborate dioramas of handmade clay figures depicted in prison camp life (and death). There’s also ample surviving propagandic footage of the Khmer Rouge trumpeting its “model society” that was in reality little more than an experiment in mass execution and torture. The result is a unique and powerful take on one of the 20th century’s worst crimes against humanity. (1:36) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Nymphomaniac, Volume II The second half of Lars von Trier’s anecdotal epic begins with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recalling the quasi-religious experience of her spontaneous first orgasm at age 12. Then she continues to tell bookish good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) — who reveals he’s an asexual 60-something virgin — the story of her sexually compulsive life to date. Despite finding domestic stability at last with Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), she proves to have no talent for motherhood, and hits a tormenting period of frigidity eventually relieved only by the brutal ministrations of sadist K (Jamie Bell, burying Billy Elliott for good). She finds a suitable professional outlet for her peculiarly antisocial personality, working as a sometimes ruthless debt collector under the tutelage of L (Willem Dafoe), and he in turn encourages her to develop her own protégé in the form of needy teenager P (Mia Goth). If Vol. I raised the question “Will all this have a point?,” Vol. II provides the answer, and it’s (as expected) “Not really.” Still, there’s no room for boredom in the filmmaker’s most playfully arbitrary, entertaining, and least misanthropic (very relatively speaking) effort since his last four-hour-plus project 20 years ago, TV miniseries The Kingdom. Never mind that von Trier (in one of many moments when he uses Joe or Seligman as his mouthpiece) protests against the tyranny of political correctitude that renders a word like “Negro” unsayable — you’re still free to feel offended when his camera spends more time ogling two African men’s variably erect dicks in one brief scene that it does all the white actors’ cocks combined. But then there’s considerably more graphic content all around in this windup, which ends on a predictable note of cheap, melodramatic irony. But that’s part of the charm of the whole enterprise: Reeling heedlessly from the pedantic to the shocking to the trivial, like a spoiled child it manages to be kinda cute even when it’s deliberately pissing you off. (2:10) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

On My Way Not for nothing too does the title On My Way evoke Going Places (1974): director Emmanuelle Bercot is less interested in exploring Catherine Deneuve’s at-times-chilled hauteur than roughing up, grounding, and blowing fresh country air through that still intimidatingly gorgeous image. Deneuve’s Bettie lost her way long ago — the former beauty queen, who never rose beyond her Miss Brittany status, is in a state of stagnation, working at her seafood restaurant, having affairs with married men, living with her mother, and still sleeping in her girlhood room. One workday mid-lunch hour, she gets in her car and drives, ignoring all her ordinary responsibilities and disappearing down the wormhole of dive bars and back roads. She seems destined to drift until her enraged, equally lost daughter Muriel (Camille) calls in a favor: give her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman) a ride to his paternal grandfather’s. It’s chance to reconnect and correct course, even after Bettie’s money is spent, her restaurant appears doomed, and the adorable, infuriating Charly acts out. The way is clear, however: what could have been a musty, predictable affair, in the style of so many boomer tales in the movie houses these days, is given a crucial infusion of humanity and life, as Bercot keeps an affectionate eye trained on the unglamorous everyday attractions of a French backwater and Deneuve works that ineffable charm that draws all eyes to her onscreen. Her Bettie may have kicked her cigarette habit long ago, but she’s still smokin’ — in every way. (1:53) Clay. (Chun)

The Raid 2 See “Brawl Opera.” (2:19) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki, Shattuck.

Rob the Mob Based on a stranger-than-fiction actual case, this rambunctious crime comedy stars Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda as Tommy and Rosie, a coupla crazy kids in early 1990s Queens — crazy in love, both before and after their strung-out robbery antics win them both a stint in the pen. When Tommy gets out 18 months later, he finds Rosie has managed to stay clean, even getting a legit job as a debt collector for positive-thinking nut and regular employer of strays Dave (a delightful Griffin Dunne). She wants Tommy to do likewise, but the high visibility trial of mob kingpin John Gotti gives him an idea: With the mafia trying to keep an especially low profile at present, why not go around sticking up the neighborhood “social clubs” where wise guys hang out, laden with gold chains and greenbacks but (it’s a rule) unarmed? Whatta they gonna do, call the police? This plan is so reckless it just might work, and indeed it does, for a while. But these endearingly stupid lovebirds can’t be counted on to stay under the radar, magnetizing attention from the press (Ray Romano as a newspaper columnist), the FBI, and of course the “organization” — particularly one “family” led by Big Al (Andy Garcia). Written by Jonathan Fernandez, this first narrative feature from director Raymond DeFitta since his terrific 2009 sleeper hit City Island is less like that screwball fare and more like a scaled down, economically downscaled American Hustle (2013), another brashly comedic period piece inspired by tabloid-worthy fact. Inspiration doesn’t fully hold up to the end, but the film has verve and style to spare, and the performances (also including notable turns from Cathy Moriarty, Frank Whaley, Burt Young, Michael Rispoli, Yul Vazquez and others) are sterling. (1:42) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

The Unknown Known After winning an Oscar for 2003’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamera, Errol Morris revisits the extended-interview documentary format with another Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The film delves into Rumsfeld’s lengthy political career — from Congress to the Nixon, Ford, and George W. Bush administrations — drawing insights from the man himself and his extensive archive of memos (“there have to be millions”) on Vietnam, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, the “chain of command,” torture, the Iraq War, etc., as well as archival footage that suggests the glib Rumsfeld’s preferred spin on certain events is not always factually accurate (see: Saddam Hussein and WMDs). Morris participates from behind the camera, lobbing questions that we can hear and therefore gauge Rumsfeld’s immediate reaction to them. (The man is 100 percent unafraid of prolonging an awkward pause.) A gorgeous Danny Elfman score soothes some of the anger you’ll feel digesting Rumsfeld’s rhetoric, but you still may find yourself wanting to shriek at the screen. In other words, another Morris success. (1:42) Elmwood, Presidio. (Eddy)

ONGOING

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq Writer-director Nancy Buirski’s documentary follows the short, brilliant career of a young dancer named Tanaquil Le Clercq, who came up in the New York City ballet world of the 1940s and ’50s. Le Clercq was discovered by George Balanchine, married him (as three other dancers had done before her), sparked a paradigm shift in the ballet world regarding what was considered the quintessential dancer’s body, had numerous ballets set on her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and then, at the peak of her career, at age 27, was stricken by polio and left paralyzed in both legs. The film takes its time moving toward this catastrophe, recounting Le Clercq’s early adult life through interviews with her contemporaries and tracking her professional progress through gorgeous archival footage of her performances. Equally moving archival material are the letters from a longtime correspondence between Le Clercq and Robbins that documented two very different periods of her life: the first, when Robbins was choreographing ballets for her, including Afternoon of a Faun, and professing his love; the second, after her paralysis, when she wrote him a series of poignant communications describing her impressions of her illness and her new, circumscribed world. The film has some trouble holding on to its center — as in life, Balanchine proves a magnetic force, and Afternoon of a Faun feels inexorably drawn to his professional and personal details. We don’t get enough of Le Clercq, which you could say is the tragedy of her story — nobody did. But the letters do provide a sense of someone resourceful and responsive to life’s richness and joys, someone who would get past this crisis and find a way to reshape her life. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

American Hustle David O. Russell’s American Hustle is like a lot of things you’ve seen before — put in a blender, so the results are too smooth to feel blatantly derivative, though here and there you taste a little Boogie Nights (1997), Goodfellas (1990), or whatever. Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting-scandal of the late 1970s and early ’80s (an opening title snarks “Some of this actually happened”), Hustle is a screwball crime caper almost entirely populated by petty schemers with big ideas almost certain to blow up in their faces. It’s love, or something, at first sight for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who meet at a Long Island party circa 1977 and instantly fall for each other — or rather for the idealized selves they’ve both strained to concoct. He’s a none-too-classy but savvy operator who’s built up a mini-empire of variably legal businesses; she’s a nobody from nowhere who crawled upward and gave herself a bombshell makeover. The hiccup in this slightly tacky yet perfect match is Irving’s neglected, crazy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s not about to let him go. She’s their main problem until they meet Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who entraps the two while posing as a client. Their only way out of a long prison haul, he says, is to cooperate in an elaborate Atlantic City redevelopment scheme he’s concocted to bring down a slew of Mafioso and presumably corrupt politicians, hustling a beloved Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) in the process. Russell’s filmmaking is at a peak of populist confidence it would have been hard to imagine before 2010’s The Fighter, and the casting here is perfect down to the smallest roles. But beyond all clever plotting, amusing period trappings, and general high energy, the film’s ace is its four leads, who ingeniously juggle the caricatured surfaces and pathetic depths of self-identified “winners” primarily driven by profound insecurity. (2:17) Metreon. (Harvey)

Bad Words Settling a grudge score whose precise origin remains unclear until late in the game, world-class misanthrope Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is celebrating his 40th birthday by competing in a national spelling bee. Yes, spelling bees are generally for children, and so is this one. But Guy has found a legal loophole permitting his participation, and the general hate wending his way from contest staff (Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall) — let alone the tiger-mom-and-dad parents ready to form a lynch mob — is just icing on the cake where he’s concerned. What’s more, as some sort of majorly underachieving near-genius, he’s in fact well equipped to whup the bejesus out of overachieving eight-year-olds when it comes to saying the right letters out loud. The only people on his side, sorta, are the online journalist (Kathryn Hahn) reporting on his perverse quest, and the insidiously cute Indian American competitor (Rohan Chand) who wants to be besties, or perhaps just to psych him out. (Note: The tyke’s admitted favorite word is “subjugate.”) Written by Andrew Dodge, this comedy in the tradition (a little too obviously) of 2003’s Bad Santa and such provides the always enjoyable Bateman with not only a tailor-made lead role, but a directorial debut as well. He does just fine by both. Yet as nicely crafted and frequently-pretty-funny Bad Words is, at core it’s a rather petty movie — small, derivative, and cynically mean-spirited without the courage of genuine biliousness. It’s at once not-half-bad, and not half as badass as it pretends to be. (1:29) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Boys of Abu Ghraib First-time feature director-writer Luke Moran stars as Jack, an all-American lad who signs on for an Army stint in the wake of 9/11, and finds himself posted to the titular Iraqi prison turned U.S. military detainee camp 20 miles outside Baghdad. Despite the occasional bombing, however, life is mostly underutilized tedium for he and his fellow grunts. With nothing else to do, Jack volunteers for MP duty as a guard in the cell blocks — where his initial shock at the torture and abuse of prisoners is exacerbated by his friendship with the well educated, friendly, convincingly innocent captive Ghazi (Omid Abtahi). Shot at an abandoned New Mexico penitentiary, this drama is effective as far as it goes in exploring one fictive soldier’s rocky road under the influence of stress, isolation, and boredom. But as it ultimately encompasses the real-life international Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004 — in which leaked photos revealed widespread humiliation and abuse of prisoners for no evident purpose save enlistees’ loutish amusement — Boys falls well short in illuminating just how that kind of systemic breakdown can occur amongst seemingly normal, disciplined military personnel. Moran and company do raise the issue, but it turns out to be a weightier, more disturbing issue than this modestly ambitious feature is equipped to handle. (1:42) Metreon. (Harvey)

Cesar Chavez “You always have a choice,” Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña) tells his bullied son when advising him to turn the other cheek. Likewise, actor-turned-director Diego Luna had a choice when it came to tackling his first English-language film; he could have selected a less complicated, sprawling story. So he gets props for that simple act — especially at a time when workers’ rights and union power have been so dramatically eroded — and for his attempts to impact some complicated nuance to Chavez’s fully evident heroism. Painting his moving pictures in dusty earth tones and burnt sunlight with the help of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, Luna vaults straight into Chavez’s work with the grape pickers that would come to join the United Farm Workers — with just a brief voiceover about Chavez’s roots as the native-born son of a farm owner turned worker, post-Depression. Uprooting wife Helen (America Ferrera) and his family and moving to Delano as a sign of activist commitment, Chavez is seemingly quickly drawn into the 1965 strike by the Mexican workers’ sometime rivals: Filipino pickers (see the recent CAAMFest short documentary Delano Manongs for some of their side of the story). From there, the focus hones in on Chavez, speaking out against violence and “chicken shit macho ideals,” hunger striking, and activating unions overseas, though Luna does give voice to cohorts like Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), growers like Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich), and the many nameless strikers — some of whom lost their lives during the astonishingly lengthy, taxing five-year strike. Luna’s win would be a blue-collar epic on par with 1979’s Norma Rae, and on some levels, he succeeds; scanning the faces of the weathered, hopeful extras in crowd scenes, you can’t help but feel the solidarity. The people have the power, as a poet once put it, and tellingly, his choice of Peña, stolidly opaque when charismatic warmth is called for, might be the key weakness here. One suspects the director or his frequent costar Gael García Bernal would make a more riveting Chavez. (1:38) Metreon. (Chun)

Divergent Based on the blockbuster dystopian-future YA novel by Veronica Roth (the first in a trilogy), Divergent is set in a future city-state version of Chicago in which society is divided into five character-based, color-coded factions: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Abnegation, and Dauntless. Like her peers, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), the film’s Abnegation-born teenage heroine, must choose a permanent faction — with the help of a standardized aptitude test that forgoes penciling in bubbles in favor of virtual reality psychic manipulation. When the test fails to triangulate her sole innate personality trait, she learns that she belongs to a secret, endangered sixth category: Divergent, an astonishing set of people who are not only capable of, say, acts of selflessness but can also produce intelligent thought, or manifest bravery in the face of danger. Forced to hide her aberrant nature in a society whose leaders (Kate Winslet) are prone to statements like “The future belongs to those who know where they belong,” and seemingly bored among Abnegation’s hive of gray cardigan-wearing worker bees, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, a dashing gang of black-clad, alterna-rock music video extras who jump on and off moving trains and live in a warehouse-chic compound whose dining hall recalls the patio at Zeitgeist. Fittingly, a surly, tattooed young man named Four (Theo James) leads Beatrice, now Tris, and her fellow initiates through a harsh proving regimen that, if they fail, will cast them into an impoverished underclass. Director Neil Burger (2006’s The Illusionist, 2011’s Limitless) and the behemoth marketing force behind Divergent are clearly hoping to stir up the kind of madness stoked by the Twilight and Hunger Games series, but while there are bones a-plenty to pick with those franchises, Divergent may have them beat for pure daffiness of premise and diameter of plot holes — and that’s after screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s major suturing of the source material’s lacunae. The daffiness doesn’t translate into imaginative world-building, and while a couple of scenes convey the visceral thrills of life in Dauntless, the tension between Tris and Four is awkwardly ratcheted up, and the film’s shift into a mode of crisis is equally jolting without generating much heat. (2:20) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Ernest & Celestine Belgian animators Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier are best known for the stop-motion shorts series (and priceless 2009 subsequent feature) A Town Called Panic, an anarchic, absurdist, and hilarious creation suitable for all ages. Their latest (co-directed with Benjamin Renner) is … not like that at all. Instead, it’s a sweet, generally guileless children’s cartoon that takes its gentle, watercolor-type visual style from late writer-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent’s same-named books. Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner) is an orphaned girl mouse that befriends gruff bear Ernest (the excellent Lambert Wilson), though their improbable kinship invites social disapproval and scrapes with the law. There are some clever satirical touches, but mostly this is a softhearted charmer that will primarily appeal to younger kids. Adults will find it pleasant enough — but don’t expect any Panic-style craziness. (1:20) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

Frozen (1:48) Metreon.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Is this the first Wes Anderson movie to feature a shootout? It’s definitely the first Anderson flick to include a severed head. That’s not to say The Grand Budapest Hotel, “inspired by” the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, represents too much of a shift for the director — his intricate approach to art direction is still very much in place, as are the deadpan line deliveries and a cast stuffed with Anderson regulars. But there’s a slightly more serious vibe here, a welcome change from 2012’s tooth-achingly twee Moonrise Kingdom. Thank Ralph Fiennes’ performance as liberally perfumed concierge extraordinaire M. Gustave, which mixes a shot of melancholy into the whimsy, and newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, his loyal lobby boy, who provides gravitas despite only being a teenager. (Being played by F. Murray Abraham as an older adult probably helps in that department.) Hotel‘s early 20th century Europe setting proves an ideal canvas for Anderson’s love of detail — the titular creation rivals Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the Overlook Hotel — and his supporting cast, as always, looks to be enjoying the hell out of being a part of Anderson’s universe, with Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Adrien Brody having particularly oversized fun. Is this the best Wes Anderson movie since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums? Yes. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)

Gravity “Life in space is impossible,” begins Gravity, the latest from Alfonso Cuarón (2006’s Children of Men). Egghead Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is well aware of her precarious situation after a mangled satellite slams into her ship, then proceeds to demolition-derby everything (including the International Space Station) in its path. It’s not long before she’s utterly, terrifyingly alone, and forced to unearth near-superhuman reserves of physical and mental strength to survive. Bullock’s performance would be enough to recommend Gravity, but there’s more to praise, like the film’s tense pacing, spare-yet-layered script (Cuarón co-wrote with his son, Jonás), and spectacular 3D photography — not to mention George Clooney’s warm supporting turn as a career astronaut who loves country music almost as much as he loves telling stories about his misadventures. (1:31) Metreon. (Eddy)

The Great Beauty The latest from Paolo Sorrentino (2008’s Il Divo) arrives as a high-profile contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, already annointed a masterpiece in some quarters, and duly announcing itself as such in nearly every grandiose, aesthetically engorged moment. Yes, it seems to say, you are in the presence of this auteur’s masterpiece. But it’s somebody else’s, too. The problem isn’t just that Fellini got there first, but that there’s room for doubt whether Sorrentino’s homage actually builds on or simply imitates its model. La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963) are themselves swaying, jerry-built monuments, exhileratingly messy and debatably profound. But nothing quite like them had been seen before, and they did define a time of cultural upheaval — when traditional ways of life were being plowed under by a loud, moneyed, heedless modernity that for a while chose Rome as its global capital. Sorrentino announces his intention to out-Fellini Fellini in an opening sequence so strenuously flamboyant it’s like a never-ending pirouette performed by a prima dancer with a hernia. There’s statuary, a women’s choral ensemble, an on-screen audience applauding the director’s baffled muse Toni Servillo, standing in for Marcello Mastroianni — all this and more in manic tracking shots and frantic intercutting, as if sheer speed alone could supply contemporary relevancy. Eventually The Great Beauty calms down a bit, but still its reason for being remains vague behind the heavy curtain of “style.” (2:22) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Jodorowsky’s Dune A Chilean émigré to Paris, Alejandro Jodorowsky had avant-garde interests that led him from theater and comic book art to film, making his feature debut with 1968’s Fando y Lis. Undaunted by its poor reception, he created El Topo (1970), a blood-soaked mix of spaghetti western, mysticism, and Buñuellian parabolic grotesquerie that became the very first “midnight movie.” After that success, he was given nearly a million dollars to “do what he wanted” with 1973’s similarly out-there The Holy Mountain, which became a big hit in Europe. French producer Michel Seydoux asked Jodorowsky what he’d like to do next. Dune, he said. In many ways it seemed a perfect match of director and material. Yet Dune would be an enormous undertaking in terms of scale, expense, and technical challenges. What moneymen in their right mind would entrust this flamboyant genius/nut job with it? They wouldn’t, as it turned out. So doc Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of “the greatest film never made,” one that’s brain-exploding enough in description alone. But there’s more than description to go on here, since in 1975 the director and his collaborators created a beautifully detailed volume of storyboards and other preproduction minutiae they hoped would lure Hollywood studios aboard this space phantasmagoria. From this goldmine of material, as well as input from the surviving participants, Pavich is able to reconstruct not just the film’s making and unmaking, but to an extent the film itself — there are animated storyboard sequences here that offer just a partial yet still breathtaking glimpse of what might have been. (1:30) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

The Lego Movie (1:41) Metroen, 1000 Van Ness.

The Lunchbox Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a self-possessed housewife and a great cook, whose husband confuses her for another piece of furniture. She tries to arouse his affections with elaborate lunches she makes and sends through the city’s lunchbox delivery service. Like marriage in India, lunchbox delivery has a failure rate of zero, which is what makes aberrations seem like magical occurrences. So when widow Saajan (Irrfan Khan) receives her adoring food, he humbly receives the magical lunches like a revival of the senses. Once Ila realizes her lunchbox is feeding the wrong man she writes a note and Saajan replies — tersely, like a man who hasn’t held a conversation in a decade — and the impossible circumstances lend their exchanges a romance that challenges her emotional fidelity and his retreat from society. She confides her husband is cheating. He confides his sympathy for men of lower castes. It’s a May/December affair if it’s an affair at all — but the chemistry we expect the actors to have in the same room is what fuels our urge to see it; that’s a rare and haunting dynamic. Newcomer Kaur is perfect as Ila, a beauty unmarked by her rigorous distaff; her soft features and exhausted expression lend a richness to the troubles she can’t share with her similarly stoic mother (Lillete Dubey). Everyone is sacrificing something and poverty seeps into every crack, every life, without exception — their inner lives are their richness. (1:44) Embarcadero. (Vizcarrondo)

Mistaken for Strangers Tom Berninger, brother to the National vocalist Matt Berninger, is the maker of this doc — ostensibly about the band but a really about brotherly love, competition, and creation. It spins off a somewhat genius conceit of brother vs. brother, since the combo is composed of two sets of siblings: twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums respectively. The obvious question — what of singer Matt and his missing broheim? Turns out little bro Tom is one of those rock fans — of metal and not, it seems, the National — more interested in living the life and drinking the brewskis than making the music. So when Matt reaches out to Tom, adrift in their hometown of Cincinnati, to work as a roadie for the outfit, it’s a handout, sure, but also a way for the two to spend time together and bond. A not-quite-realized moviemaker who’s tried to make his own Z-budget scary flicks but never seems to finish much, Tom decides to document, and in the process gently poke fun at, the band (aka his authority-figures-slash-employers), which turns out to be much more interesting than gathering their deli platters and Toblerone. The National’s aesthetic isn’t quite his cup of tea: they prefer to wrap themselves in slinky black suits like Nick Cave’s pickup band, and the soft-spoken Matt tends to perpetually stroll about with a glass of white wine or bubbly in hand when he isn’t bursting into fourth-wall-busting high jinks on stage. Proud of his sib yet also intimidated by the National’s fame and not a little envious of the photo shoots, the Obama meetings, and the like, Tom is all about having fun. But it’s not a case of us vs. them, Tom vs. Matt, he discovers; it’s a matter of connecting with family and oneself. In a Michael Moore-ian sense, the sweet-tempered Mistaken for Strangers is as much, if not more so, about the filmmaker and the journey to make the movie than the supposed subject. (1:15) Roxie. (Chun)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman Mr. P. (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a Nobel Prize-winning genius dog, Sherman (Max Charles) his adopted human son. When the latter attends his first day of school, his extremely precocious knowledge of history attracts jealous interest from bratty classmate Penny (Ariel Winter), with the eventual result that all three end up being transported in Peabody’s WABAC time machine to various fabled moments — involving Marie Antoinette, King Tut, the Trojan Horse, etc. — where Penny invariably gets them in deep trouble. Rob Minkoff’s first all-animation feature since The Lion King 20 years ago is spun off from the same-named segments in Jay Ward’s TV Rocky and Bullwinkle Show some decades earlier. It’s a very busy (sometimes to the brink of clutter), often witty, imaginatively constructed, visually impressive, and for the most part highly enjoyable comic adventure. The only minuses are some perfunctory “It’s about family”-type sentimentality — and scenarist Craig Wright’s determination to draw from history the “lesson” that nearly all women are pains in the ass who create problems they must then be rescued from. (1:30) 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Muppets Most Wanted Building on the success of The Muppets, Jim Henson’s beloved creations return to capitalize on their revitalized (and Disney-owned) fame. This follow-up from Muppets director James Tobin — technically, it’s the seventh sequel to the original 1979 Muppet Movie, as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew points out in one of the film’s many meta moments — improves upon the 2011 film, which had its charms but suffered by concentrating too much on the Jason Segal-Amy Adams romance, not to mention annoying new kid Walter. Here, human co-stars Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and others (there are more cameos than you can count) are relegated to supporting roles, with the central conflict revolving around the Muppets’ inability to notice that Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” has infiltrated their group, sending Kermit to Siberian prison in his place. Constantine and his accomplice (Gervais, whose character’s last name is “Badguy”) use the Muppets’ world tour as a front for their jewel-heist operation; meanwhile, his infatuated warden (Fey) forces Kermit to direct the annual gulag musical. Not helping matters are a bumbling Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and his CIA counterpart (Sam the American Eagle, natch). Really, all that’s needed is a simple plot, catchy songs, and plenty of room to let the Muppets do their thing — Miss Piggy and Animal are particularly enjoyable here; Walter’s still around, but he’s way more tolerable now that he’s gotten past his “man or muppet” angst — and the film delivers. All the knowing winks to the grown-up fans in the audience are just an appreciated bonus. (1:46) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

Need for Speed Speed kills, in quite a different way than it might in Breaking Bad, in Aaron Paul’s big-screen Need for Speed. “Big” nonetheless signals “B” here, in this stunt-filled challenge to the Fast and the Furious franchise, though there’s no shame in that — the drive-in is paved with standouts and stinkers alike. Tobey (Paul) is an ace driver who’s in danger of losing his auto shop, also the hangout for his pals (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) and young sidekick Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), when archrival Dino (Dominic Cooper) arrives with a historic Mustang in need of restoration. Tragedy strikes, and Tobey must hook up with that fateful auto once more to win a mysterious winner-takes-all race, staged by eccentric, rich racing-fiend Monarch (Michael Keaton). Along for the ride are the (big) eyes and ears for the Mustang’s new owner — gearhead Julia (Imogen Poots). All beside the point, since the racing stunts, including a showy helicopter canyon save, are the real stars of Speed, while the touchstone for stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh — considering the car and the final SF and Northern California race settings — is, of course, Bullitt (1968), which is given an overt nod in the opening drive-in scene. The overall larky effect, however, tends toward Smokey and the Bandit (1977), especially with Keaton’s camp efforts at Wolfman Jack verbiage-slanging roaring in the background. And despite the efforts of the multicultural gallery of wisecracking side guys, this script-challenged popcorn-er tends to blur what little chemistry these characters have with each other, skip the residual car culture insights of the more specific, more urban Fast series, and leave character development, in particular Tobey’s, in the dust in its haste to get from point A to B. (2:10) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Noah Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic begins with a brief recap of prior Genesis events — creation is detailed a bit more in clever fashion later on — leading up to mankind’s messing up such that God wants to wipe the slate clean and start over. That means getting Noah (Russell Crowe), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their three sons and one adopted daughter (Emma Watson) to build an ark that can save them and two of every animal species from the imminent slate-wiping Great Flood. (The rest of humanity, having sinned too much, can just feed the fishes.) They get some help from fallen angels turned into Ray Harryhausen-type giant rock creatures voiced by Nick Nolte and others. There’s an admirable brute force and some startling imagery to this uneven, somber, Iceland-shot tale “inspired” by the Good Book (which, needless to say, has endured more than its share of revisions over the centuries). Purists may quibble over some choices, including the device of turning minor Biblical figure Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) into a royal-stowaway villain, and political conservatives have already squawked a bit over Aronofsky’s not-so-subtle message of eco-consciousness, with Noah being bade to “replenish the Earth” that man has hitherto rendered barren. But for the most part this is a respectable, forceful interpretation that should stir useful discussion amongst believers and non believers alike. Its biggest problem is that after the impressively harrowing flood itself, we’re trapped on the ark dealing with the lesser crises of a pregnancy, a discontented middle son (Logan Lerman), and that stowaway’s plotting — ponderous intrigues that might have been leavened if the director had allowed us to hang out with the animals a little, rather than sedating the whole menagerie for the entire voyage. (2:07) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Non-Stop You don’t want to get between Liam Neeson and his human shield duties. The Taken franchise has restyled the once-gentle acting giant into the type of weather-beaten, all-business action hero that Harrison Ford once had a lock on. Throw in a bit of the flying-while-addled antihero high jinks last seen in Flight (2012) and that pressured, packed-sardine anxiety that we all suffer during long-distance air travel, and we have a somewhat ludicrous but nonetheless entertaining hybrid that may have you believing that those salty snacks and the seat-kicking kids are the least of your troubles. Neeson’s Bill Marks signals the level of his freestyle alcoholism by giving his booze a stir with a toothbrush shortly before putting on his big-boy air marshal pants and boarding his fateful flight. Marks is soon contacted by a psycho who promises, via text, to kill one person at a time on the flight unless $150 million is deposited into a bank account that — surprise — is under the bad-good air marshal’s name. The twists and turns — and questions of who to trust, whether it’s Marks’ vaguely likeable seatmate (Julianne Moore) or his business class flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) — keep the audience on edge and busily guessing, though director Jaume Collet-Serra doesn’t quite dispel all the questions that arise as the diabolical scheme plays out and ultimately taxes believability. The fun is all in the getting there, even if the denouement on the tarmac deflates. (1:50) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Nymphomaniac: Volume I Found battered and unconscious in a back alley, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), to whom she explains “It’s all my fault — I’m just a bad human being.” But he doesn’t believe there are such things. She seeks to enlighten him by narrating the story of her life so far, from carnally curious childhood to sexually voracious adulthood. Stacy Martin plays her younger self through a guided tour of excesses variously involving Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen as her parents; a buncha guys fucked on a train, on a teenage dare; Uma Thurman as one histrionically scorned woman; and Shai LaBeouf as a first love who’s a cipher either because he’s written that way, or because this particular actor can’t make sense out of him. For all its intended provocation, including some graphic but unsurprisingly (coming from this director) unerotic XXX action, von Trier’s latest is actually less offensive than much of his prior output: He’s regained his sense of humor here, and annoying as its “Look at me, I’m an unpredictable artist” crap can be (notably all the stuff about fly-fishing, cake forks, numerology, etc. that seems randomly drawn from some Great Big Book of Useless Trivia), the film’s episodic progress is divertingly colorful enough. But is Joe going to turn out to be more than a two-dimensional authorial device from a director who’s never exactly sussed women (or liked people in general)? Will Nymphomaniac arrive at some pointed whole greater than the sum of its naughty bits? The answer to both is probably “Nah.” But we won’t know for sure until the two-hour second half arrives (April 4) of a movie that, in fairness, was never really intended to be split up like this. (1:50) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Particle Fever “We are hearing nature talk to us,” a physicist remarks in awe near the end of Particle Fever, Mark Levinson’s intriguing doc about the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Earlier, another scientist says, “I’ve never heard of a moment like this in [science] history, where an entire field is hinging on a single event.” The event, of course, is the launch of the Large Hardon Collider, the enormous machine that enabled the discovery. Though some interest in physics is probably necessary to enjoy Particle Fever, extensive knowledge of quarks and such is not, since the film uses elegant animation to refresh the basics for anyone whose eyes glazed over during high-school science. But though he offers plenty of context, Levinson wisely focuses his film on a handful of genial eggheads who are involved in the project, either hands-on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), or watching from afar as the mighty LHC comes to life. Their excitement brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings — and their “fever” becomes contagious. (1:39) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

RoboCop Truly, there was no need to remake 1987’s RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s smart, biting sci-fi classic that deploys heaps of stealth satire beneath its ultraviolent imagery. But the inevitable do-over is here, and while it doesn’t improve on what came before, it’s not a total lost cause, either. Thank Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, whose thrilling Elite Squad films touch on similar themes of corruption (within police, political, and media realms), and some inspired casting, including Samuel L. Jackson as the uber-conservative host of a futuristic talk show. Though the suit that restores life to fallen Detroit cop Alex Murphy is, naturally, a CG wonder, the guy inside the armor — played by The Killing‘s Joel Kinnaman — is less dynamic. In fact, none of the characters, even those portrayed by actors far more lively than Kinnaman (Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley), are developed beyond the bare minimum required to serve RoboCop‘s plot, a mixed-message glob of dirty cops, money-grubbing corporations, the military-industrial complex, and a few too many “Is he a man…or a machine?” moments. But in its favor: Though it’s PG-13 (boo), it’s also shot in 2D (yay). (1:50) Metreon. (Eddy)

Sabotage Puzzle over the bad Photoshop job on the Sabotage poster. The hard-to-make-out Arnold Schwarzenegger in the foreground could be just about any weathered, sinewy body — telling, in gory action effort that wears its grit like a big black sleeve tattoo on its bicep and reads like an attempt at governator reinvention. Yet this blood-drenched twister, front-loaded with acting talent and directed by David Ayer (2012’s End of Watch), can’t quite make up its mind where it stands. Is it a truth-to-life cop drama about a particularly thuggy DEA team, an old-fashioned murder mystery-meets-heist-exercise, or just another crowd-pleasing Pumping Arnie flick? Schwarzenegger is Breacher, the leader of a team of undercover DEA agents who like to caper on the far reaches of bad lieutenant behavior: wild-eyed coke snorting (a scene-chomping Mireille Enos); sorry facial hair (Sam Worthington, as out of his element as the bead at the end of his goatee); unfortunate cornrows (Joe Manganiello); trash-talking (Josh Holloway); and acting like a suspiciously colorless man of color (Terrence Howard). We know these are bad apples from the start — the question is just how bad they are. Also, how fast can the vanilla homicide cops (Olivia Williams, Harold Perrineau) lock them down, as team members are handily, eh, dismembered and begin to turn on each other and Schwarzenegger gets in at least one semi-zinger concerning an opponent with 48 percent body fat? Still, the sutured-on archetypal-Arnie climax comes as a bit of a shock in its broad-stroke comic-book violence, as the superstar pulls rank, sabotages any residual pretense to realism, and dons a cowboy hat to tell his legions of shooting victims, “I’m different!” Get to the choppers, indeed. (1:49) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

300: Rise of An Empire We pick up the 300 franchise right where director Zack Snyder left off in 2006, with this prequel-sequel, which spins off an as-yet-unreleased Frank Miller graphic novel. In the hands of director Noam Murro, with Snyder still in the house as writer, 300: Rise of an Empire contorts itself, flipping back and forth in time, in an attempt to explain the making of Persian evil prince stereotype Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) —all purring androgyny, fashionable piercings, and Iran-baiting, Bush-era malevolence — before following through on avenging 300‘s romantically outnumbered, chesty Spartans. As told by the angry, mourning Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones), the whole mess apparently began during the Battle of Marathon, when Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed Xerxes’s royal father with a well-aimed miracle arrow. That act ushers in Xerxes’s transformation into a “God King” bent on vengeance, aided and encouraged by his equally vengeful, elegantly mega-goth naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-hating Greek who likes to up the perversity quotient by making out with decapitated heads. In case you didn’t get it: know that vengeance is a prime mover for almost all the parties (except perhaps high-minded hottie Themistokles). Very loosely tethered to history and supplied with plenty of shirtless Greeks, taut thighs, wildly splintering ships, and even proto-suicide bombers, Rise skews toward a more naturalistic, less digitally waxy look than 300, as dust motes and fire sparks perpetually telegraph depth of field, shrieking, “See your 3D dollars hard at work!” Also working hard and making all that wrath look diabolically effortless is Green, who as the pitch-black counterpart to Gorga, turns out to be the real hero of the franchise, saving it from being yet another by-the-book sword-and-sandal war-game exercise populated by wholesome-looking, buff, blond jock-soldiers. Green’s feline line readings and languid camp attitude have a way of cutting through the sausage fest of the Greek pec-ing order, even during the Battle of, seriously, Salamis. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Veronica Mars Since the cult fave TV show Veronica Mars went off the air in 2007, fans of the series, about a smart, cynical teenager who solves mysteries and battles her high school’s 1 percenters — a sort of adolescent noir minus the ex nihilo patois of Rian Johnson’s 2005 Brick — have had their hopes raised and dashed several times regarding the possibility of a big-screen coda. While that sort of scenario usually involves a few of the five stages of grief, this one has a twist happy ending: a full-length film, directed by show creator Rob Thomas and cowritten by Thomas and show producer-writer Diane Ruggiero (with a budget aided by a crowdfunding campaign), that doesn’t suck. It’s been a decade since graduation, and Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has put a continent between herself and her creepy, class war–torn hometown of Neptune, Calif. — leaving behind her P.I. vocation and a track record of exposing lies, corruption, and the dark side of the human soul in favor of a Columbia law degree and a career of covering up same. But when Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), her brooding, troubled ex, gets charged with the murder of his pop star girlfriend and asks Veronica for help, she can’t resist the pull of what she admits is a pathological impulse. Plus, it’s her 10-year reunion. And indeed, pretty much anyone who had a character arc during the show’s three seasons makes an appearance — plus (naturally) James Franco, Dax Shepard (Bell’s husband), and (oddly) Ira Glass. It could have been a cameo fusillade, but the writing here is as smart, tight, funny, and involving as it was on the TV series, and Thomas and Ruggiero for the most part manage to thread everyone in, taking pressure off a murder mystery that falls a little flat, updating the story to reflect current states of web surveillance and pop cultural mayhem, and keeping the focus on the joy of seeing Veronica back where she belongs. (1:43) Metreon. (Rapoport)

Le Week-End Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain’s brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they’ve made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation’s bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon’s magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It’s not his story, but damned if he doesn’t just about steal the movie anyway. (1:33) Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

The Wind Rises Hayao Miyazaki announced that Oscar nominee The Wind Rises would be his final film before retiring — though he later amended that declaration, as he’s fond of doing, so who knows. At any rate, it’d be a shame if this was the Japanese animation master’s final film before retirement; not only does it lack the whimsy of his signature efforts (2001’s Spirited Away, 1997’s Princess Mononoke), it’s been overshadowed by controversy — not entirely surprising, since it’s about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed war planes (built by slave labor) in World War II-era Japan. Surprisingly, a pacifist message is established early on; as a young boy, his mother tells him, “Fighting is never justified,” and in a dream, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni assures him “Airplanes are not tools for war.” But that statement doesn’t last long; Caproni visits Jiro in his dreams as his career takes him from Japan to Germany, where he warns the owlish young designer that “aircraft are destined to become tools for slaughter and destruction.” You don’t say. A melodramatic romantic subplot injects itself into all the plane-talk on occasion, but — despite all that political hullabaloo — The Wind Rises is more tedious than anything else. (2:06) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *

 

Crime and politics

10

steve@sfbg.com

San Franciscans awoke March 26 to the surprising news that state Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF) had been arrested on federal corruption charges as part of early morning police raids targeting an organized crime syndicate based in Chinatown, along with reputed gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow and two dozen others.

Yee had a reputation for sometimes trading votes for campaign contributions, a perception that had only gained strength in recent months as he launched his first statewide campaign, running to lead the Secretary of State’s Office, casting key votes for landlords and big industries that he refused to explain to local activists.

So in a year when two other Democratic Senators have also been stung by federal corruption and bribery probes, the televised image of Yee in handcuffs wasn’t beyond the realm of possibilities. It was surprising, but not shocking.

Yet by the mid-afternoon when the 137-page federal criminal complaint was unsealed and journalists started reading through what undercover FBI agents had discovered during their five-year criminal investigation, it read more like a sensational organized crime and espionage novel than a court document, a real page-turner that just got more wild and incredible as it went on.

timelineYeeWhat began with the FBI investigating a murder and leadership transition in the San Francisco branch of the ancient Chinese organized crime syndicate known as the Triad, led by an undercover FBI agent who had infiltrated the group, evolved into a widening investigation accusing Yee of arranging an illegal arms trafficking deal with a Muslim rebel group in the Philippines in exchange for $100,000 funneled into his campaign, on top of smaller favors that Yee allegedly did in exchange for envelopes with $10,000 in cash.

It was even worse for local political consultant Keith Jackson, a key Yee fundraiser who was also on contract with Lennar Urban for its Bayview-Hunters Point development projects, with the undercover FBI agents allegedly drawing Jackson into big cocaine deals, money laundering, bribery, and even a murder-for-hire plot. If the complaint is to be believed, Jackson seemed willing to do just about anything to enrich himself and raise money for Yee.

Meanwhile, the public image that Chow has been cultivating for himself since his 2003 release from federal prison — that of a reformed career gangster turned Chinatown civic leader, someone praised by local politicians for inspiring fellow ex-convicts to turn their lives around — was replaced the complaint’s description of a powerful “Dragonhead” overseeing a vast criminal enterprise involved in drugs, guns, prostitution, protection rackets, moving stolen booze and cigarettes, and money laundering.

“I think the whole city is in shock at the moment,” Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents Chinatown and ran against Yee in the 2011 mayor’s race, told the Guardian that afternoon. “Today’s widespread law enforcement actions are incredibly disturbing. The detail and scale of the criminal activities are shocking.”

In the days that followed, Yee withdrew his candidacy for Secretary of State and was suspended by his colleagues in the California Senate. But where this wild tale of crime and corruption goes next — and who else gets implicated as these powerful and well-connected defendants look to cut deals to avoid the lengthy prison sentences they all face — is anyone’s guess.

 

THE CRIMINAL

Chow, 54, was raised a criminal, telling the History Channel’s “Gangland” that he stabbed someone in Hong Kong at the age of nine before moving to San Francisco in 1977 and getting involved in the Hop Sing Boys gang and Chinatown’s criminal underworld.

He survived the Golden Dragon Massacre, a shooting between rival Chinatown gangs that left five dead, but he was arrested in 1978 for a robbery and sent to prison for the first time, released in 1985. The next year, he was sent back to prison for attempted murder and more gang mayhem, released in 1989.

“I did time with Charles Manson, a good friend of mine. Kimball, a serial killer. I did time with a bunch of amazing people. Each person you talk to you learn something from. Ain’t no stupid people inside the prison, you can say that,” Chow told Gangland.

In 1991, a gangster named Peter Chong was sent from Hong Kong to San Francisco to extend the reach of the Wo Hop To Triad. He enlisted Chow as his right-hand man, and together they extended the reach of the Wo Hop To across the Western United States, trying to create an all encompassing gang named the Tien HaWui, “The Whole Earth Association.”

Chow was arrested again in 1995 on a variety of racketeering and other criminal charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But he later testified against Chong and got his sentence reduced, and he was released from federal prison in 2003.

After his release, Chow publicly claimed to go legit, working on book and movie deals about his life, as well as building connections in the political world. Chow posed for photos with then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and other local political figures.

But the latest criminal complaint said that even as Chow pretended to be moving on, he continued to make incriminating statements to the undercover agents “confirming his knowledge of and involvement in criminal activity.”

 

THE COMPLAINT

The criminal complaint alleges that “Chow is currently the Dragonhead, or leader, of the San Francisco-based Chee Kung Tong organization,” which it described as a criminal syndicate connected to Hung Mun, a criminal dynasty that began in 17th century China, “also referred to as a Chinese secret society and the Chinese Freemasons.”

It says Chow was sworn in as CKT head in August 2006, soon after the still-unsolved murder of CKT head Allen Leung. Chow’s swearing-in was reported in local Chinese media sources, so SFPD and FBI conducted surveillance there and launched an investigation.

The FBI says it began infiltrating CKT five years ago, including an undercover FBI agent dubbed UCE 4599, who in May 2010 was introduced to Chow, who “then introduced UCE 4599 to many of the target subjects.” UCE 4599 told Chow he was a member of La Cosa Nostra, the Italian mob.

In March 2012 he was inducted into CKT as a “Consultant,” the complaint alleges. It says that Jackson — a former San Francisco school board member and political consultant — had also be inducted into CKT as a “Consultant,” participating in various criminal conspiracies.

The gang members are accused of laundering money made from “illegal activities, specifically illegal gambling, bookmaking, sports betting, drugs, and outdoor marijuana grows.” They allegedly laundered $2.3 million between March 2011 and December 2013 for UCE 4599, with members collecting a 10 percent fee for doing so.

The complaint says Jackson “has a long-time relationship with Senator Yee,” and “has been involved in raising funds for” Yee’s run for mayor “and for Senator Yee’s current campaign in the California Secretary of State election.” And much of the complaint details deeds allegedly committed by Jackson and Yee.

In fact, the second person named in the complaint, right after Chow, is Yee, “aka California State Senator Leland Yee, aka Uncle Leland.”

As the complaint alleges, “Senator Yee and Keith Jackson were involved in a scheme to defraud the citizens of California of their rights to honest services, and Senator Yee, [Daly City resident Dr. Wilson] Lim, and Keith Jackson were involved in a conspiracy to traffic firearms.”

 

THE POLITICIAN

Yee and Jackson met UCE 4599 through Chow, and then Jackson allegedly solicited him to make donations to Yee’s 2011 San Francisco mayoral campaign “in excess of the $500 individual donation limit. UCE 4599 declined to make any donations to Senator Yee, but introduced Keith Jackson and Senator Yee to a purported business associate, UCE 4773, another undercover FBI agent,” who made a $5,000 donation to Yee’s mayoral campaign.

Yee had $70,000 in debt after that mayor’s race and worked with Jackson on ways to pay off that debt. “This included soliciting UCE 4773 for additional donations and in the course of doing so, Senator Yee and Keith Jackson agreed that Senator Yee would perform certain official acts in exchange for donations from UCE 4773.”

Yee allegedly agreed to “make a telephone call to a manager with the California Department of Public Health in support of a contract under consideration with UCE 4773’s purported client, and would provide an official letter of support for the client, in exchange for a $10,000 donation.”

Meanwhile, it says Jackson and Yee continued raising money for his Secretary of State race by soliciting donations from UCE 4599 and UCE 4180, another undercover agent. “They agreed that in exchange for donations from UCE 4599 and UCE 4180, Senator Yee would perform certain officials acts requested by UCE 4599 and UCE 4180.”

That included Yee issuing an “official state Senate proclamation honoring the CKT in exchange for a $6,800 campaign donation, the maximum individual donation allowed by law.” Yee allegedly did so, and it was presented by one of his staff members at the CKT anniversary celebration on March 29, 2013.

Yee and Jackson are also accused of introducing a donor to unidentified state legislators working on pending medical marijuana legislation, the donor being another undercover agent who claimed to be a medical marijuana businessman from Arizona looking to expand into California, “and in payment for that introduction, UCE 4180 delivered $11,000 cash to Senator Yee and Keith Jackson on June 22, 2013.”

In September, after making another introduction, Yee and Jackson allegedly received another $10,000 cash donation for their services. Then Jackson allegedly had an idea for getting even more money.

“Jackson told UCE 4599 that Senator Yee, had a contact who deals in arms trafficking.” Jackson then allegedly requested UCE 4599 make another donation “to facilitate a meeting with the arms dealer with the intent of UCE 4599 to purportedly purchase a large number of weapons to be imported through the Port of Newark, New Jersey.”

That deal for up to $2.5 million in weapons involved automatic weapon and shoulder-fired missiles, the complaint said, and “Senator Yee discussed certain details of the specific types of weapons UCE 4599 was interested in buying and importing.”

The complaint says that Yee expressed discomfort with how openly UCE 4180 discussed overt “pay to play” links between cash donations and official actions. “I’m just trying to run for Secretary of State. I hope I don’t get indicted,” Yee allegedly told two undercover FBI agents during a walk on June 20, 2013, urging them to be less explicit about connecting official favor with campaign donations.

“Despite complaining about UCE 4180’s tendency to speak frankly and tie payment to performance, and threatening to cut off contact with UCE 4180, Senator Yee and Keith Jackson continued to deal with UCE 4180 and never walked away from quid pro quo requests make by UCE 4180,” the complaint said. “In fact, Senator Yee provided the introductions sought by UCE 4180 and accepted cash payments which UCE 4180 expressly tied to the making of the introductions.”

Yee’s attorney, Paul DeMeester, told reporters they will contest the charges: “We will always in every case enter not guilty pleas, then the case takes on a life of its own.”

 

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.