Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
PARK CITY, Utah -- I've seen nine movies so far at this year's Sundance Festival, and can report with absolute certainty that there is no trend, unless it is that South American filmmakers are more relaxed around the subject of sex than North Americans. But then we already knew that.
"When I was growing up in Chile," the director Sergio Castilla said before the screening of his "Te Amo (Made in Chile)," "there were never any films about young people. So I wanted to make one."
He has, and judging by the result, the young peoples' films he had in mind were the ones starring Sylvia Kristel as a sexy tutor who seduced her teenage students. "Te Amo (Made in Chile)" stars Castilla's son, Adrian, as a 16-year-old born in Chile, raised in New York, and back home again after a divorce. His mother is always absent, and his care has been entrusted to a 25-year-old nanny, who has been sexually abusing him for years.
The difference between "Te Amo" and, say, "My Tutor" is that Castilla is a serious and gifted filmmaker who has made a tender, thoughtful coming-of-age film; I was reminded of Louis Malle's tightrope act in the equally controversial "Murmur of the Heart." The young hero is part of a crowd of two boys and two girls who find an abandoned house and make it their headquarters for a summer during which they discover themselves.
Subtitled films have a hard time at the xenophobic U.S. box office, but "Te Amo" is easier going because about half of the dialogue is in English. Audiences may be attracted by the promise of sex, but they will discover that for Castillo, sex is not the destination of a movie, but part of a larger purpose. He asks: Can the fragility of the 16-year-old's teenage crush on his first girlfriend survive his experiences with the nanny?
Consider, too, the charming "Me You Them," by the Brazilian filmmaker Andrucha Waddington, which made its way here via the Cannes and Toronto festivals. The film features Regina Case, a Brazilian TV star, as Dolores, a young woman from a backward province who is abandoned, pregnant, at the altar. Deprived of a husband, Dolores eventually finds herself supplied with no less than three - at the same time, and living peacefully together under the same roof.
The film is said to be based on a real-life case of polygamy, and also has echoes of the Brazilian classic "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands." It does not sensationalize its story in any way, but simply shows that for someone like Dolores, who is an earth mother without even trying, one thing leads to another. The film is sly in the way it shows the three husbands, macho products of a patriarchal society, becoming stablemates.
The most unexpected sex scene so far at Sundance is no doubt in "The Caveman's Valentine," the new film by Kasi Lemmons, whose "Eve's Bayou" was the best film of 1997. Once again she works with Samuel L. Jackson, this time playing a homeless man, probably schizophrenic, who lives in a cave in a New York park. When a frozen body is found in a tree near his cave, the Caveman finds himself drawn into the investigation (his daughter is a cop).
The police think they've solved the crime. The Caveman thinks not. A fearsome sight in his filthy clothes, his face hidden behind a curtain of dreadlocks, he was once a brilliant musician p and after he cleans up in order to visit the studio of a famous artist who is a suspect, he attracts the attention of the artist's chic sister (Ann Magnuson), who isn't what the Caveman expected. It's intriguing, how Jackson finds the right line for the character, who is convincingly homeless and mentally ill, and yet accessible and sympathetic.
Two wonderful comedies in three years have come from the Australian team of director Rob Sitch and producer Michael Hirsh. They made the hilarious "The Castle" (1999), a story of a family home six inches from a jumbo jet runway; I'm convinced Miramax forfeited a "The Full Monty"-scale hit by sitting on its hands after buying the film.
Now comes "The Dish," which will get proper distribution - it's being released in March by Warner Bros. - and takes place mostly on July 20, 1969 - the day the first live television signals were beamed from the moon. The backwater Australian town of Parkes is aflutter, because the world's largest radio telescope is located there and will relay the historic signals to an audience of 600 million. At least, that's the plan before everything starts to go wrong, in an inspired human comedy that somehow makes radio astronomy and slapstick fit together. Sam Neill stars, as the man who tried to hold things together when the Australians "lost" the astronauts.
Richard Kelly's "Donnie Darko" stars Jake Gyllenhall as a suburban teenager whose mental disturbance may have opened a wormhole in the space-time fabric. It's an odd, haunting combination of science-fiction and coming-of-age tale, accurate in its view of adolescents, touching in the human qualities of Donnie's parents (Mary McDonnell is especially warm), and with a plot so labyrinthine that explaining it has become this year's version of "The Usual Suspects" game. The movie has the potential to be a breakthrough hit among adventurous teenagers.
Tom DiCillo's "Double Whammy" stars Denis Leary, Elizabeth Hurley and Steve Buscemi in a cop story that recalls "Pulp Fiction" and "Bound." Tortured by a bad back, Leary screws up two high-profile situations before meeting chiropractor Hurley, who straightens out more than his back.
Demane Davis and Khari Streeter were here a few years ago with the remarkable, unheralded sleeper "Black & White & Red All Over," and are back this year with "Lift," with Kerry Washington as a skilled shoplifter who steals as a way of healing childhood wounds. Lonette McKee plays the distant mother she tries to reach with expensive gifts. The film uses an interesting visual style to contrast the booster's everyday life with the elevated plane she seems to float in when she's stealing.
Having seen "Scratch," by Doug Pray, I know as much as I am ever going to need to know about the use of turntables as musical instruments. The film goes to the beginnings of the hip-hop, DJ and MC scene, even interviewing the inventor of the technique of manipulating short vinyl passages to create new works of art. We meet Qbert, the Filipino-American who is perhaps the best of the recent turntablists, and follow another artist into a basement storeroom of hundreds of thousands of old vinyl records - it's like the closing show of "Citizen Kane," for real. The film never quite allows us to hear a performance all the way through, but that's poetic justice, since sampling of performances is the essence of turntable art.
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