FBI

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.

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.

Ye of little faith

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM While I’m sure they don’t enjoy being lumped together — one imagines them ornery, if not just bratty — the brothers McDonagh share an extremely like-minded sensibility. Not least among numerous overlaps is possessing the kind of talent that is undeniable and suspect. Just because they’re frequently as clever as they think they are, need they be quite such show-offs about it?

Martin McDonagh first got attention with a series of plays (including The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and The Pillowman) that startlingly dragged traditional Irish drama toward Grand Guignol. Were they gratuitously or brilliantly cruel? Either or both, perhaps depending on the quality of the production you saw. He made his feature debut as writer-director with the insanely self-conscious yet delightful comedy-caper bloodbath In Bruges (2008). His 2012 exercise in auto-arse-kissing smartypantsery, Seven Psychopaths, might’ve struck you as insufferable (my vote), or the funniest hired-gun movie since Boondock Saints (1999). Notable trivia: Mickey Rourke dropped out of that movie, getting replaced by Woody Harrelson, because he thought McDonagh was a “jerk-off.” When Mickey Rourke thinks you’re a dick … well, you’re definitely something of a world-class nature.

By the time John Michael McDonagh emerged, his brother was already ensconced in slightly infamous fame. Discounting his adaptive screenplay for disappointing 2003 Aussie-Robin-Hood biopic Ned Kelly, John Michael made a splashy entree both writing and directing The Guard eight years later.

It starred Brendan Gleeson — a significant Irish national resource both McDonagh siblings have made regular use of, as a willfully perverse small town cop who takes infinite pleasure flummoxing the tightly wound FBI agent (Don Cheadle) he’s forced to investigate an international drug-smuggling ring with. Endlessly acerbic, spectacularly scenic, The Guard is so pleased-as-punch with itself you might occasionally wish to punch it. But Preston Sturges was also conspicuously delighted by his prancing-prize-pony of a mind, which didn’t make its cavorting any less delightful to others.

Gleeson and John Michael are back with Calvary, a film just as good, if yea more suspect for crimes of excess facility — especially because this time he’s being serious, at least sorta kinda. This McDonaugh’s flippancy is of the kind that makes you wonder whether he’s even capable of really giving a shit about anything, in part because he occasionally fakes it so well.

Father James (Gleeson) is the discreetly gruff moral center of a coastal Irish hamlet that surely would have none otherwise. His parishioners, living in some glossy tourist advertisement whose quaint authenticity looks polished beyond belief (or an actual native’s budget), are all skeptics, heretics, nonbelievers, and blatant sinners. They take particular pleasure in ridiculing the uprightness of this one man no one has a legitimate gripe against, save resentment.

There’s self-assigned upscale town slut Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), having a possibly kinky affair (among many) with handsome Ivory Coast émigré Simon (Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach de Bankole), while husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) claims bored indifference. Cynical Dr. Frank (Aidan Gillen) is seemingly hardened to suffering by all he’s witnessed in the hospital operating room. Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is the new lord of the local manor, a disgraced but as-yet-unjailed predatory financier who toys with holy forgiveness as he might any other asset his filthy millions could acquire.

Lower on the totem pole, troubled youth Milo (Killian Scott) wonders whether to kill himself, somebody else, or both — a dilemma shared at least partially by nearly everyone here — just to feel something. A life-sentenced serial murderer once in his flock (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan), a glib superior (David McSavage’s Bishop), a hopelessly shallow apparent successor (David Wilmot’s Father Leary), and others all seem to enjoy a little too much making Father James writhe on the skewer of his historically very guilty institution’s making. Rare exceptions are a French tourist (Marie-Josée Croze) widowed by a needless traffic pileup, and his own daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), a perpetual train wreck come home to the daddy she says abandoned her for God just as his wife/her mother abandoned them both for terminal cancer.

As if all this weren’t enough already: At Calvary‘s start, an unseen confessor tells James he was abused for years by a (now-dead) Catholic priest, and as recompense will kill his current, admittedly blameless confessor in a week’s time. Just for, y’know, catharsis or whatever.

That’s a setup narrative, to say the least. It would appear entirely, absurdly skewed if not for the gravitational center Gleeson provides. He single-handedly provides the sincere if faint hope of redemption in a scenario that otherwise provides every possible indication of damnation for all. It’s hard to imagine another actor doing as much so well, with so little apparent effort, under circumstances of such manipulative high contrivance. Basically every scene here is a beautifully staged theatrical dialogue angled toward a shocking revelation. Calvary centrally addresses the question of faith while ultimately dodging the answer. I’d appreciate McDonagh’s ambivalence more if he weren’t quite so pleased about it. He’s got extraordinary taste, no doubt — from its editorial pace to its costume and soundtrack choices, this movie is curated within an inch of too-much-ness. Beyond his understandable disillusionment with the Catholic Church’s crimes, does he truly care about morality, or is it just an authorial chew-toy?

Calvary is so cannily crafted and acted, many will shrug off such quibbles, deciding the film’s brilliant surface actually means something, or at least deliberately implies myriad meanings. But this McDonagh, like the other, feels like a genius attention-seeker whose impersonation of depth cannot be trusted. I doubt him — as many characters here do God — right down to the last fate-intervening inspiration of an ending that won’t leave a dry eye in the house. Nor should it, dammit. *

 

CALVARY opens Fri/8 in Bay Area theaters.

The Rock gets mythological, ScarJo turns scary-smart, Woody’s tepid latest, PSH’s final role, and more: new movies!

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In case you missed the cover of this week’s paper, the 34th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival kicked off last night and runs through Aug. 10 at an array of Bay Area venues. Get the whole schedule and info on tickets here; check out our commentary here and here

From the glittering (and otherwise) land of Hollywood, a raft of new releases also await. Read on for reviews of Hercules, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, A Most Wanted Man, and more!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHFkp5IpKNo

And So It Goes It’s not hard to scope out what the draw might be here for gray foxes like Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas when it comes to this Rob Reiner effort. The woman who so winningly wrapped her vocal cords around “Seems Like Old Times” in Annie Hall (1977) was obviously diverted from her Pinterest duties by the opportunity to sing her heart out on screen again (accompanied on piano by Reiner, a sad comic side dish). Meanwhile, Douglas gets to play a self-absorbed boomer who’s making up for neglecting the next generation — namely his son, an incarcerated addict — in a role that gives off a strong whiff of autobiography. Douglas’s Oren is doing his half-assed penance by caring for his stranger of a granddaughter Sarah (Sterling Jerins), a chore that he not-so-nicely foists onto the Keaton’s Leah. His character and turnaround of sorts, burnished by the triumph of a successful real estate transaction, is as mundane and unconvincing as a half-hour sitcom pivot. The colorless characterization and lame dialogue can probably be primarily attributed to As Good as It Gets (1997) writer Mark Andrus, who seems to be recycling bits of the latter’s title as well as stale chunks from sundry romantic comedies — though considering the missed opportunities and overall weak soup of And So It Goes, Reiner also appears to be chipping away at whatever reputation he has acquired. Is this really the same Reiner who made This Is Spinal Tap back in 1984? (1:35) (Kimberly Chun)

The Fluffy Movie Concert movie starring stand-up sensation Gabriel Iglesias. (1:41)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUM3V8Yh1EU

Hercules Dwayne Johnson is imposingly large indeed as the demigod of fabled strength. Going the Lone Ranger (2013) route of being winky-wink cynical about “the legend” while eventually buying into it anyway, here Herc is really just a 4th-century BC mercenary probably fathered by some random dude (as opposed to god-of-gods Zeus), and who with his merry band of sidekicks goes around fighting against pirates, pillagers, and such. These gigs are taken “for the gold,” but you know this Hercules wouldn’t be down fighting good people on behalf of bad people. When he’s hired to lead the citizens of Lord Cotys (John Hurt) against marauding hordes of alleged centaurs and extreme-wrestling-type beardos with green makeup led by Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), the plot advances toward the expected training montages and battle sequences. But the plot thickens only when our don’t-call-us-heroes heroes begin to suspect they might have been misled into playing for the wrong team. Relegating a mythology-based tale’s magical aspects to dream sequences and trickery (spoiler: those aren’t real centaurs!), this adaptation of Steve Moore’s graphic novel is way less Clash of the Titans (1981/2010) and much more in the straightforward action realm of Troy (2004) and 300 (2006). It’s big and handsome, like its star, though not so debonair — the pedestrian screenplay doesn’t let him have much fun, while the supporting players allowed to smirk and deliver generally lame quips aren’t much compensation. Directed by Brett Ratner, Hercules is not the campfest of unintentional hilarity some may have hoped for. Neither does it have the content originality or stylistic personality to be memorable. Instead, it’s just pretty decent late-summer entertainment: Probably worth it if you’re craving 98 painless air-conditioned minutes, possibly not if you could really use those 12 bucks or so elsewhere in your life. (1:39) (Dennis Harvey)

I Origins Sci-fi film about a heartbroken biologist (Michael Pitt) whose research leads him to some deeply metaphysical places. (1:53)

Land Ho! “Ex-brothers-in-law set off on a road trip through Iceland, hoping to reclaim their youth” — that’s the studio-supplied elevator description that does accurately describe Land Ho!, but the film is about so much more than that. Jocular Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) is fond of inappropriate jokes, smoking weed, and pushing boundaries, while more reserved Colin (Paul Eenhoorn of 2013’s This is Martin Bonner) is dealing with a recent divorce after enduring the death of his first wife. A spontaneous trip to Iceland, funded by Mitch (who’s going through a senior-life crisis of sorts), takes the pair to Reykjavik dance clubs, spectacular geysers, hot springs, and lonely rolling moors, all the while bantering about life and love (and getting into more than one stupid argument, as old friends do). Without really innovating on the road-movie genre, writer-directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz manage to avoid any cute-geezer clichés (for those interested, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 comes out next year) in this low-key, personality-driven tale, which aims to please with vintage American-indie charm. (1:35) (Cheryl Eddy)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kqq2eBvGTY

Lucy Eurotrash auteur Luc Besson’s latest is a mostly fun action fantasy about a party girl (Scarlett Johansson) who runs afoul of gangsters in Taipei and ends up with a leaking packet of futuristic drugs sewn into her shapely stomach. Side effects include super strength and supernatural intelligence — insert pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo about tapping into 100 percent of one’s woefully underused brainpower, etc. etc. — which leads to some satisfying scenes in which Johansson’s Lucy flattens a hallway of cops with a single gesture, or filters through every phone conversation in the Paris metro area to find the one guy she needs to eavesdrop on. She’s also able to beam herself into electronic devices, a nifty trick that convinces kindly scientist Morgan Freeman to help download her magnificently advanced intelligence into a kind of living computer (shades of 2013’s Her and Under the Skin, except this time ScarJo’s wearing a really great dress). South Korean weirdo/superstar Choi Min-sik (2003’s Oldboy; 2010’s I Saw the Devil) is an inspired choice to play the vengeful kingpin intent on tracking down his runaway mule, and Besson adds some arty flair via nature-show footage and Cosmos-esque clips from beyond the infinite — though the film’s Big Ideas wobble precariously amid its other, mostly silly elements. (1:29) (Cheryl Eddy)

Magic in the Moonlight Woody Allen’s latest — after last year’s vodka-drenched Cate Blanchett showcase Blue Jasmine — offers a return to period romance á la 2011 smash Midnight in Paris. Instead of Owen Wilson time-traveling through the artsy 1920s, we get winsome 1920s clairvoyant Sophie (Emma Stone, 25 years old) falling for the skeptic who’s sent to debunk her, played by Colin Firth (who’s 53). Firth’s performance is easily the best part of Magic in the Moonlight; his Stanley Crawford is a theatrical conjurer famed for his yellowface act, in which he solemnly makes elephants disappear. Off-stage, he’s a self-proclaimed genius regarded by most who meet him as a pompous jerkface. When he’s summoned to the South of France to help a longtime friend and fellow magician (Simon McBurney) prove that Sophie — from humble origins, she’s grown fond of high-society living — is hoodwinking the fancy American family that’s taken her in, nothing unfolds as he expects. The whole exercise is lighter than meringue; it’d be passable as lesser Allen except for that obvious, comically huge age gap between the leads. He knows we disapprove, and he does not care. Are you trolling us, Woody? (1:40) (Cheryl Eddy)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYORzJ3e-Og

A Most Wanted Man Director Anton Corbijn’s film may not be the greatest John le Carré adaptation in recent years (see: 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), but it’s still a solid thriller, anchored by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Günther Bachmann, the once-bitten-but-not-yet-shy head of an top-secret branch of Germany’s FBI/CIA equivalent. Its task: spying on Hamburg’s Islamic groups, where the 9/11 attacks were planned, though the enemies that Bachmann faces come mostly from within the greater intelligence community, including his superiors. Never before has the phrase “the Americans have taken an interest” been so chilling, especially to a guy who is just trying to do his job, if only everyone else (including Robin Wright as one of those meddling Americans) would keep their sticky mitts off his delicately planned surveillance operations. There’s a forward-moving plot, of course, about a Chechen-Russian illegal immigrant with a huge inheritance who might be a terrorist (Rachel McAdams plays his human-rights lawyer), but could also serve a greater purpose by helping bring down an even bigger target. And while A Most Wanted Man‘s twists and turns, involving Willem Dafoe as a banker who becomes a reluctant player in Bachmann’s scheme, are suspenseful, Hoffman’s portrayal of a man trapped in a constant maze of frustration — good intentions cut off at every turn, dumping booze into his morning coffee, breaking up a bar fight, ruefully admitting “I am a cave dweller,” visibly haunted by past errors — is the total package, a worthy final entry in a career that ended way too early. (2:02) (Cheryl Eddy)

Shrimp Boy denied bail

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who has a criminal history in Chinese gangs and was indicted along with Sen. Leland Yee and a slew of others in a high-profile FBI operation, was denied bail June 11.

U.S. Magistrate Nathanael Cousins struck down his defense attorneys’ motion for pretrial release on the grounds that Chow might pose a danger to the community due to his position as leader of the Chee Kung Tong (CKT), characterized as a Chinese crime syndicate by the FBI. Chow’s charges include seven counts of money laundering, one count of conspiracy to sell stolen cigarettes, and two counts of conspiracy to sell stolen liquor.

“The government’s advancing this conspiracy theory that my client is in charge of this organized crime syndicate. On that basis the judge is deciding to hold him,” said defense attorney Curtis Briggs. “It’s the Chinese Freemasons, it’s not a crime syndicate,” Briggs added. “It’s a fraternal organization. They’re going to be muddied up and dirtied up because the govermnent is pursing a racketeering case against them.”

Another wrinkle: “Now the government’s issued a deportation warrant againt him,” Briggs noted. “Even if we got him out, he’d be in immigration custody.”

A 23-page motion for release on bail for Chow, filed by Briggs and attorneys Gregory Bentley and Tony Serra, paints a very different picture of the targeted Chinatown figure than the all-powerful gangster portrayed by federal authorities.

The FBI complaint, unveiled in March, paints Chow as an international crime boss holding “supreme authority” as Dragonhead of the CKT.

In this role, the FBI charged, Chow was “the supervisor” of criminal relationships between Yee, political consultant Keith Jackson, and Chow’s associates, who had knowledge of and approved all criminal operations of the CKT and received payment for the various criminal dealings he facilitated. The complaint even noted that Chow had once told an undercover FBI agent that he served as a judge within the CKT; “if one member kills another member, Chow decides if the killing was justified.”

The mob boss who had returned yet again to a life of crime, all while swearing he’d given it all up, couldn’t be more different from the humble ex-convict described in his defense attorneys’ motion for release. Yee and Jackson, who faced charges on firearms trafficking, among other counts, were released on bail totaling $500,000 and $250,000, respectively. Prior to being taken into custody, Chow had already been wearing an ankle monitoring bracelet due to his pending case with immigration authorities.

In letters of support written on his behalf referenced in the motion, Chow was described as a community leader whose actions in recent years stemmed from nothing less than “a spiritual commitment … to make the San Francisco community a better place for all people even if it came at a great personal sacrifice to him.” A letter of support was even written by Wendy MacNaughton, an illustrator, journalist and author of Meanwhile in San Francisco.

Chow had apparently been working on his autobiography prior to being taken down by the FBI.

The motion recounts how Chow, born into “devastating financial conditions” in China, was taken in by the Chinese Triad at the age of seven “and for the next ten years scraped by and supported himself and his family through Triad related activities.” At 16, he was arrested and beaten by Chinese police in custody. Soon after, his family fled to the United States for a better life.

“Chow was recruited by local Chinatown so-called ‘gangs,’” the motion states. “As with many immigrant children with no resources, Chow was exploited by these groups for his desperate need for protection, acceptance, and recognition.” He served multiple prison sentences for various gang-related criminal activities.

But in 2003, when he was serving out a ten-year prison term, Chow became thoroughly disenchanted with the criminal lifestyle,” his defense attorneys wrote. “His revelation occurred when the façade of the gangster life disintegrated as each and every one of his criminal associates, people who he thought of as ‘brothers,’ turned their back on him and participated in activities which blatantly harmed the community.”

Chow’s girlfriend, Alicia Lo, had volunteered to act as a third-party custodian and post property bonds on her two San Francisco properties in order to facilitate his pretrial release.

In written testimony, she described him as caring and generous, saying she would buy him “second-hand clothes so he looked sharp in public,” only to later discover that he “would at times give these clothes away to addicts on the street so they could look presentable at job interviews.”

Yet in making his determination, the federal magistrate noted that there is “more than clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Chow would pose a danger to the community” if released.

Cruise into the weekend (oh yes we did) with new flicks!

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Dudes! The (lucky) 13th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, aka DocFest to those in the know, is underway now, running through June 19 with all kinds of weird and wonderful docs. Check out Dennis Harvey’s recommendations here

From the spangly tentacles of Hollywood, we’ve got Shailene “I Am Not the Poor Man’s Jennifer Lawrence” Woodley in a certified tearjerker, and Tom “Still a Big Enough Star to Avoid Being Cast in an Expendables Flick Just Yet” Cruise fighting aliens (and, surprisingly, his own ego). Plus: indie picks, including the latest from Kelly Reichardt and Lukas Moodysson. Read on for more.

 

Edge of Tomorrow Is it OK to root for Tom Cruise again? (The Oprah thing was almost a decade ago, after all.) The entertaining Edge of Tomorrow, crisply directed by Bourne series vet Doug Liman, takes what’s most irritating about Cruise’s persona (he’s so goddamn earnest) and uses it to great advantage, casting him as military PR guru Cage — repping our armed forces on talk shows amid battles with alien invaders dubbed “Mimics” — whose oiliness masks the fact that he’s terrified of actual combat. When he’s forced to fight by a no-nonsense superior (Brendan Gleeson), he’s gruesomely killed, along with nearly every other human soldier. But wait! Thanks to a particularly close encounter with outer-space pixie dust, he awakens, unharmed, to re-live the day, over and over again (yep, shades of a certain Bill Murray comedy classic). Each “reset” offers Cage a chance to work his way closer to changing the course of the war in humanity’s favor, with key help from a badass (Emily Blunt) whose heroics on the battlefield have earned her the nickname “Full Metal Bitch.” Nothing groundbreaking here — but Edge of Tomorrow manages to make its satisfying plot as important as its 3D explosions, which means it automatically rises above what passes for popcorn fun these days. (1:53) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Fault in Our Stars Shailene Woodley stars in this based-on-a-best-seller romance about two teens who meet at a cancer support group. (2:05)

Night Moves 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. (1:52) (Dennis Harvey)

Rigor Mortis Spooky Chinese folklore (hopping vampires) meets J-horror (female ghouls with long black hair) in this film — directed by Juno Mak, and produced by Grudge series helmer Takashi Shimizu — inspired by Hong Kong’s long-running Mr. Vampire comedy-horror movie series. Homage takes the form of casting, with several of Vampire’s key players in attendance, rather than tone, since the supernatural goings-on in Rigor Mortis are more somber than slapstick. Washed-up film star Chin Siu-ho (playing an exaggerated version of himself) moves into a gloomy apartment building stuffed with both living and undead tenants; his own living room was the scene of a horrific crime, and anguished spirits still linger. Neighbors include a frustrated former vampire hunter; a traumatized woman and her white-haired imp of a son; a kindly seamstress who goes full-tilt ruthless in her quest to bring her deceased husband back to life; and an ailing shaman whose spell-casting causes more harm than good. Shot in tones so monochromatic the film sometimes appears black-and-white (with splashes of blood red, natch), Rigor Mortis unfortunately favors CG theatrics over genuine scares. That said, its deadpan, world-weary tone can be amusing, as when one old ghost-chaser exclaims to another, “You’re still messing around with that black magic shit?” (1:45) (Cheryl Eddy)

Test Writer-director Chris Mason Johnson sets his film at a particular moment in the early years of the AIDS epidemic — when the first HIV blood test became publicly available, in 1985 — within a milieu, the world of professional modern dance, that rarely makes an appearance in narrative films. Test’s protagonist, Frankie (Scott Marlowe), is a young understudy in a prestigious San Francisco company, and the camera follows him on daily rounds from a rodent-infested Castro apartment, where he lives with his closeted roommate, to the dance studio, where he marks the steps of the other performers and waits anxiously for an opportunity to get onstage. Larger anxieties are hovering, moving in. We get a rehearsal scene in which a female dancer recoils from her male partner’s embrace, lest his sweat contaminate her; conversations about the virus in changing rooms and at parties; a sexual encounter between Frankie and a stranger, after which he stares at the man as if he might be a mortal enemy; a later, aborted encounter in which the man sits up in bed, appalled and depressed, after Frankie hesitantly proffers a condom, remarking, “They say we should use these…” A neighbor watches Frankie examine himself for skin lesions. Rock Hudson dies. Frankie warily embarks on a friendship with a brash, handsome fellow dancer (Matthew Risch) who offers a counterpoint to his cerebral, watchful reserve. And throughout, the company rehearses and performs, in scenes that beautifully evoke the themes of the film, a quiet, thoughtful study of a person, and a community, trying to reorient and find footing amid a cataclysm. (1:29) Elmwood (director in person Sat/7, 7:15pm show), Presidio (director in person Fri/6, 8:30pm; Sat/7, 3:50pm; and Sun/8, 6:15pm shows). (Lynn Rapoport)

We Are the Best! Fifteen years after Show Me Love, Lukas Moodysson’s sweet tale of two girls in love in small-town Sweden, the writer-director returns to the subject of adorably poignant teen angst. Set in Stockholm in 1982, and adapted from a graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife, Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best! focuses on an even younger cohort: a trio of 13-year-old girls who form a punk band in the interest of fighting the power and irritating the crap out of their enemies. Best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) spend their time enduring the agonies of parental embarrassment and battling with schoolmates over personal aesthetics (blond and perky versus chopped and spiked), nukes, and whether punk’s dead or not. Wreaking vengeance on a group of churlish older boys by snaking their time slot in the local rec center’s practice space, they find themselves equipped with a wealth of fan enthusiasm, but no instruments of their own and scant functional knowledge of the ones available at the rec center. Undaunted, they recruit a reserved Christian classmate named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), whose objectionable belief system — which they vow to subvert for her own good — is offset by her prodigious musical talents. Anyone who was tormented by the indignities of high school PE class will appreciate the subject matter of the group’s first number (“Hate the Sport”). And while the film has a slightness to it and an unfinished quality, Moodysson’s heartfelt interest in the three girls’ triumphs and trials as both a band and a posse of friends suffuses the story with warmth and humor. (1:42) (Lynn Rapoport)

Film Listings: June 4 – 10, 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.

DOCFEST

The 13th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs June 5-19 at the Brava Theater, 2781 York, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF; and Oakland School of the Arts Theater, 530 19th St, Oakl. For tickets (most shows $12) and complete schedule, visit www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see “Peculiar Thrills.”

OPENING

Edge of Tomorrow Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt star in this sci-fi thriller about an alien war being fought by soldiers caught in a seemingly endless time loop. (1:53) Four Star, Presidio.

The Fault in Our Stars Shailene Woodley stars in this based-on-a-best-seller romance about two teens who meet at a cancer support group. (2:05) Marina.

Night Moves 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. (1:52) Metreon. (Harvey)

Rigor Mortis Spooky Chinese folklore (hopping vampires) meets J-horror (female ghouls with long black hair) in this film — directed by Juno Mak, and produced by Grudge series helmer Takashi Shimizu — inspired by Hong Kong’s long-running Mr. Vampire comedy-horror movie series. Homage takes the form of casting, with several of Vampire‘s key players in attendance, rather than tone, since the supernatural goings-on in Rigor Mortis are more somber than slapstick. Washed-up film star Chin Siu-ho (playing an exaggerated version of himself) moves into a gloomy apartment building stuffed with both living and undead tenants; his own living room was the scene of a horrific crime, and anguished spirits still linger. Neighbors include a frustrated former vampire hunter; a traumatized woman and her white-haired imp of a son; a kindly seamstress who goes full-tilt ruthless in her quest to bring her deceased husband back to life; and an ailing shaman whose spell-casting causes more harm than good. Shot in tones so monochromatic the film sometimes appears black-and-white (with splashes of blood red, natch), Rigor Mortis unfortunately favors CG theatrics over genuine scares. That said, its deadpan, world-weary tone can be amusing, as when one old ghost-chaser exclaims to another, “You’re still messing around with that black magic shit?” (1:45) Metreon. (Eddy)

Test Writer-director Chris Mason Johnson sets his film at a particular moment in the early years of the AIDS epidemic — when the first HIV blood test became publicly available, in 1985 — within a milieu, the world of professional modern dance, that rarely makes an appearance in narrative films. Test‘s protagonist, Frankie (Scott Marlowe), is a young understudy in a prestigious San Francisco company, and the camera follows him on daily rounds from a rodent-infested Castro apartment, where he lives with his closeted roommate, to the dance studio, where he marks the steps of the other performers and waits anxiously for an opportunity to get onstage. Larger anxieties are hovering, moving in. We get a rehearsal scene in which a female dancer recoils from her male partner’s embrace, lest his sweat contaminate her; conversations about the virus in changing rooms and at parties; a sexual encounter between Frankie and a stranger, after which he stares at the man as if he might be a mortal enemy; a later, aborted encounter in which the man sits up in bed, appalled and depressed, after Frankie hesitantly proffers a condom, remarking, “They say we should use these&ldots;” A neighbor watches Frankie examine himself for skin lesions. Rock Hudson dies. Frankie warily embarks on a friendship with a brash, handsome fellow dancer (Matthew Risch) who offers a counterpoint to his cerebral, watchful reserve. And throughout, the company rehearses and performs, in scenes that beautifully evoke the themes of the film, a quiet, thoughtful study of a person, and a community, trying to reorient and find footing amid a cataclysm. (1:29) Elmwood (director in person Sat/7, 7:15pm show), Presidio (director in person Fri/6, 8:30pm; Sat/7, 3:50pm; and Sun/8, 6:15pm shows). (Rapoport)

We Are the Best! Fifteen years after Show Me Love, Lukas Moodysson’s sweet tale of two girls in love in small-town Sweden, the writer-director returns to the subject of adorably poignant teen angst. Set in Stockholm in 1982, and adapted from a graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife, Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best! focuses on an even younger cohort: a trio of 13-year-old girls who form a punk band in the interest of fighting the power and irritating the crap out of their enemies. Best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) spend their time enduring the agonies of parental embarrassment and battling with schoolmates over personal aesthetics (blond and perky versus chopped and spiked), nukes, and whether punk’s dead or not. Wreaking vengeance on a group of churlish older boys by snaking their time slot in the local rec center’s practice space, they find themselves equipped with a wealth of fan enthusiasm, but no instruments of their own and scant functional knowledge of the ones available at the rec center. Undaunted, they recruit a reserved Christian classmate named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), whose objectionable belief system — which they vow to subvert for her own good — is offset by her prodigious musical talents. Anyone who was tormented by the indignities of high school PE class will appreciate the subject matter of the group’s first number (“Hate the Sport”). And while the film has a slightness to it and an unfinished quality, Moodysson’s heartfelt interest in the three girls’ triumphs and trials as both a band and a posse of friends suffuses the story with warmth and humor. (1:42) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Rapoport)

ONGOING

Cold in July Though he’s best-known for his cut-above indie horror flicks (2010’s Stake Land; 2013’s We Are What We Are), Jim Mickle’s most accomplished film to date explores new turf for the writer-director: small-town noir. Cold in July, a thriller ranging across East Texas, circa 1989, is adapted from the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, who — buckle up, cultists — also penned the short story which spawned 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep. That said, there are no supernatural elements afoot here; all darkness springs entirely from the coal-black hearts beating in its characters. Well, some of its characters, anyway; though Cold in July begins with a killing, the trigger hand is attached to mild-mannered Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall, rocking a splendid mullet). The masked man he shot was breaking into his home; Richard was just protecting his family, and the crime is breezed over by the police. Unlike Viggo Mortensen’s secret gangster in 2005’s A History of Violence, a film which begins with a similar premise, Richard has zero past aggression to draw on; dude’s got a history of mildness — with a heretoforth untapped curiosity about the wilder side of life awakened by a sudden bloody act. The good guy/bad guy dynamic is twisted, tested, and taken to extremes as the story progresses; it’s the sort of film best viewed without much knowledge of its plot twists, which are numerous and cleverly plotted. Throughout, the film expertly works its 1980s setting as both homage to and embodiment of the era’s gritty thrillers; its synth-heavy score and the casting of Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt) add to the feeling that Cold in July was crafted after much time spent in the church of St. John Carpenter. Amen to that. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

The Dance of Reality His unique vision recently re-introduced to audiences by unmaking-of documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, cinematic fabulist Alejandro Jodorowsky is back with his first film in a quarter-century. This autobiographical fantasia shows all initial signs of being a welcome yet somewhat redundant retread of his cult-famed early work (1970’s El Topo, 1973’s The Holy Mountain), as Santa Sangre was in 1989. It starts with the filmmaker himself fulminating wisdoms about the spiritual emptiness of a money-centric world, then appearing as guardian angel to his child self (Jeremias Herskovits). Little Alejandro is raised by a bullying, hyper macho father (Brontis Jodorowsky) and warm, indulgent mother (soprano Pamela Flores, singing every line of dialogue) who naturally clash at every turn. Jodorowsky’s stunning eye for bizarre imagery (abetted by DP Jean-Marie Dreujou’s handsome compositions) hasn’t faded, so there are delights to be had even in what fans might consider an over-familiar parade of dwarfs, amputees, anti clerical burlesques (like a dress-up dog beauty contest at church), Chaplinesque circus sentimentality, and other simple if surreal illustrations of society’s eternal victims and overlords. At a certain point, however, the misdeeds of father Jaime force his self-exile. The film’s consequent picaresque allegory of epic suffering toward redemption becomes cheerfully goofy, its symbol-strewn path increasingly funny and sweet rather than burdened by import. A large part of that appeal is due to junior Jodorowsky Brontis, who demonstrates considerable farcical esprit while flashing more full-frontal nudity than Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor combined ever dreamed of obliging. Shot in the family’s native Chile on a purported crowd funded budget of $3 million — could Hollywood provide so much original spectacle for 30 times that amount?—The Dance of Reality finds its 84-year-old maker as frisky as a pony, one that provides an endearingly unpredictable ride. (2:10) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (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) 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) Clay. (Eddy)

The Immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotilliard) is an orphaned Polish émigré who’s separated from her sickly sister at Ellis Island in 1921, and scheduled for deportation as an alleged “woman of low morals.” She’s rescued from that by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), though he’s not quite the agent of charity he seems — in fact, Ewa doesn’t realize she’s actually been recruited for a prostitution racket he thinly veils as a theatrical troupe. Still, she stays, believing she has no other viable path to freeing her sister from quarantine, she allows her own degradation for money’s sake. This latest collaboration between Phoenix and director-coscenarist James Gray is a handsome period piece that’s done skillfully and tastefully enough to downplay — but not quite hide — the fact that its moral melodrama might as well have been written (as well as set) nearly a century ago. Cotilliard is fine in her best English-language role to date, and Phoenix is compelling as usual; Jeremy Renner is somewhat miscast as a distant-third lead. But whether you find The Immigrant poignant or forced will depend on your tolerance for a script whose every turn is all too predictable. (2:00) Metreon. (Harvey)

Maleficent Fairytale revisionism is all the rage these days, what with the unending power of Disney princesses to latch into little girls everywhere and bring parental units (and their wallets) to their knees. Yet princesses almost seem beside the point in this villain’s-side-of-the-story tale — Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), the queen of the fairies in the magical moors, wronged by Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who saws off her wings in order to win a crown. Accompanied by her shape-shifting minion, crow Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent attends the christening of King Stefan’s first-born daughter, Aurora, hot on the heels of three clownish good fairies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple), and delivers a curse that will have this future Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning) prick her finger on a spindle and sink into a deathlike coma until her true love’s kiss. Will that critical smooch be delivered  by Prince Bieber, er, Phillip (Brenton Thwaites)? Considering the potential for Disney’s trademark, heart-tugging enchantment to get magically tangled up in girl power, it’s tough to suck up the disappointment in the ooey-gooey, gummy-faced troll-doll aesthetics of the art direction and animation, as well as first-time director Robert Stromberg’s choppy, dashed-through storytelling. Part of the problem is that there’s almost zero threat here, despite its antihero’s devilish presence — is there ever any doubt that a healthy resolution will win out, even at the expense of blood ties? Best to find dangerous pleasures where one can — namely in the vivid Jolie, cheekbones honed to a razor edge, who spits biting remarks at her accursed charge, beneath Joan Crawford-esque eyebrows and horns crying out for club-kid Halloween treatments. (1:37) Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Chun) *