Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic
dir. Liam Lynch
First and foremost, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic is a mind-fuck. Running just over an hour, the film alternates between concert segments of the disarmingly pretty Silverman telling jokes in front of an audience, and assorted skits presenting Silverman in an array of supplementary guises. Stylistically, the clearest forerunner is Sandra Bernhard's Without You I'm Nothing, with which Jesus Is Magic shares a surreal fluidity and bizarre musical numbers. But Silverman tops Bernhard for the same reason Kanye West tops Common: She tells better jokes. Where Bernhard offers punch line–free po-mo musings, Silverman delivers lines that stab you in the face with hilarity. Her great skill is economy. "I was raped by a doctor," announces Silverman with her patented stoned-imp grin. "Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl."
Despite the concision of Silverman's wit, Jesus Is Magic is a messy affair. I'm tempted to endorse the obvious formula: standup segments = good; skits and framing devices = bad. But while it's true that the biggest and best laughs come from the standup, and that a number of the skits are so clunky they clog the flow of the concert footage, some of the skits do work, and even the lamest bits show us another side of Silverman, a surprisingly chameleonic and fearless performer. In the first of the film's two distinctly worthwhile false endings, Silverman presents herself in the creepiest light imaginable, drawing out her seemingly psychotic self-degradation to a skin-crawly extreme before flicking it all off with a giggle. If she's smart, Silverman will eventually sharpen her celebrated claws on something meatier than the general notion of taboo. For now, she's just fucking with us. But audiences have never been fucked with by anyone like Sarah Silverman before. DAVID SCHMADER
dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien
Hou Hsiao-hsien has always had a thing for girls trapped under bell jars. The prostitutes in his Flowers of Shanghai were confined to their opulent brothel; Millennium Mambo made even the techno party circuit seem rarefied, and the protagonist's beauty was as fleeting as a hothouse bloom. So it's strange to see Yoko, the central character in Hou's lovely and odd Café Lumière, roam Tokyo like a professional flâneur. As Yoko lopes around the city, rangy and pregnant, we learn that she doesn't plan to marry her Taiwanese boyfriend, and that her parents are stoically displeased.
Café Lumière was commissioned by Yasujiro Ozu's former studio as a tribute to the quintessentially Japanese director on the centennial of his birth. But Hou, who is Taiwanese, doesn't mimic Ozu's style in a systematic way. He's not interested in "tatami mat" low-angle shots. The main plot superficially resembles the family dramas Ozu was famous for, but Hou is clearly not as interested in the breakdown of the traditional Japanese family. Instead, Hou pays homage by presenting the audience with objects from Ozu's movies (particularly Tokyo Story)—streetcars and trains, umbrellas, the gift of a watch—as if they were souvenirs.
But there's more to enjoy than the references that only Ozu diehards will catch. What makes the film truly intriguing is the way it plays out as a dialogue between foreign and native cultures (this is the first film the Taiwanese director has made in Japan, and his first to be filmed in Japanese). Yoko (played by pop star Yo Hitoto, whose father happens to be Taiwanese) is a freelance writer researching a 20th-century Taiwanese composer. She's dating a Taiwanese man. She spends her time in Western-style coffee shops. Even her sleep is inflected by foreign myths: Though she isn't consciously worried about her pregnancy, she dreams of a woman giving birth to the goblin changeling from Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There. Far more than any other Hou protagonist, it's easy to see Yoko as a stand-in for the filmmaker himself. Simultaneously soothed and unsettled by foreign culture, Yoko shows us how Hou is both inspired and made anxious by Ozu's formidable example. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Amid the J-Horror glut of longhaired, waterlogged girls and killer household appliances, writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa stands alone. Through films like Cure and last year's SIFF entry Bright Future, the director has crafted a startling body of work in which technological advances serve to drive people apart, to often lethal ends. His scenarios can occasionally err on the side of incomprehensibility (1999's Charisma depicts the tender love affair between a man and a... well, a giant poisonous tree), but when he hits, it lingers.
Pulse, the director's 2001 masterpiece, has finally been granted a U.S. release, with a Wes Craven–penned remake coming hot on its heels. I'm not throwing the term masterpiece around lightly here, either: Kurosawa's concept of an instant-messenger-aided apocalypse is honestly one of the eeriest, most lyrical visions I've ever seen on a screen. The plot consciously defies an easy summary, but here's a try: In a Tokyo plagued by mysterious disappearances, a group of webcam enthusiasts come to the conclusion that the afterlife's hard drive is full. What's worse, the resulting stranded ghosts are looking for company. Spooky stuff, but what separates this from Grudge or Ring territory is Kurosawa's questioning of what the difference between life and death might mean, really, to people who already spend every free moment staring at a monitor with mouse in hand.
His methods may not be for folks just looking for a fun night out. There are no cheap scares or tension-relieving jumpshocks to be found in Pulse (although the inexplicable stutter-step of one female ghost will haunt your dreams), just a toxic atmosphere and tangible loneliness that build, and creep, and grow some more. By the final frames of a city in ruins, the director has managed to deliver an entirely new, achingly sad take on the ghost story. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Itthistoontorn Vichailak
It's WWII-era Thailand, and Bangkok's Japanese puppet regime is mandating Western modernity while the commoners attempt to defend their Thai roots. Front and center in this cultural standoff, besides betel leaf, is ranad-ek music, Thailand's roots rock. (The ranad-ek, which is a wooden xylophone, functions like the saxophone in a small jazz combo.) The movie tracks Sorn—a fictionalization of ranad-ek master Luang Pradit Phairao—on his rise from fishing-village ranad-ek phenomenon in the late 1800s to his coronation as the lead ranad-ek player in Thailand's royal court ensemble circa 1920.
It's all pleasantly lush and well-paced, but Sorn's backstory is corny, complete with slow-motion shots of fluttering butterflies and swaying palm trees (Sorn's muses) and overblown battle of the band showdowns between Sorn and his rival (an inexplicably angry dude named Khun-In with fiery eyes and sweaty puffed cheeks). There are predictable scenes in which the kid's youthful braggadocio is checked by the stern wisdom of his folksy dad, his sagacious music teacher, and a humbling trip to the big city. And he first spies his future wife when she's out gathering flower petals.
The clichéd story of Sorn's youth is told side-by-side with the story of the aged Sorn, who by the 1940s has reached the stature of a folk hero. According to the new government, Master Sorn is an obstacle in the crusade for modernity. This political drama is handled better than the hackneyed background story, but probably only because cultural duels over artists, and what art signifies politically, provide rich turf. For this reason, some otherwise tacky setups—like when a drag queen is forced to produce his performance license to an olive drab military goon squad, or when Sorn blasts the heavily armed Cultural Affairs Ministry with a ranad-ek solo before suffering a heart attack—manage to reel you in.
But it's the music that keeps you hooked. The younger Sorn's final battle with Khun-In (Sorn wins by momentarily forsaking his speedy showmanship for a drone solo) and the older Sorn's ranad-ek take on a jazzy Western pop number (despite Sorn's reverence for Thai tradition, he's no cultural dullard) totally rock. JOSH FEIT
Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt
dir. Margaret Brown
Midway through this documentary, a reporter asks (now deceased) Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt why his songs are so grim. "My songs aren't sad," he counters, answering instead that his lyrics simply lay life plain. He later admits that he can't escape the blues—an experience worse then hell, where purgatory would be a welcome respite. Such are the contradictions in Be Here to Love Me, a movie piecing together the troubled life of this cult country music figure. Admired by everyone from Willie Nelson to Mudhoney, but known by relatively few, Van Zandt cultivated a severe case of alcoholism instead of mainstream acclaim. Here his inner circle—family, friends, and followers—relay tales of this heartbreakingly self-destructive talent. Their collective portrait is as candid as Van Zandt's songwriting. JENNIFER MAERZ