Days of the Whale (Los dias de la ballena)


Taking it to the streets.

(2019) Drama (OutsiderLaura Tobón Ochoa, David Escallón Orrego, Carlos Fonnegra, Christian Táppan, Julian Giraldo, Diego Alejandro Samacá, Margarita Celene Restrepo, Valeria Castaño, Fajardo. Directed by Catalina Arroyave Restrepo

Art is a universal, something that reaches across cultural and social lines, be they class distinctions, or international borders. What makes film so universal is that we can often recognize the same issues that we ourselves face or have faced while watching those who live thousands of miles from us undergo the same tribulations.

Cris (Ochoa) and Simon (Orrego) are about as disparate as you can get; Cris is a college student from a well-off family. She lives with her father (Táppan), who has remarried a much younger woman (Fajardo) who doesn’t get along well with Cris, who isn’t much younger than her stepmom. Her actual mom (M. Restrepo), an investigative journalist, has had to flee to Spain after running afoul of the local criminal gang that runs the streets of Medellin, Colombia where Cris and her dad live.

Simon is from a working-class family; he is close to his grandmother who tolerates his frequent absences and always has a home-cooked meal at the ready for him. Both Simon and Cris spend a lot of their time in an art collective run by Lucas (Fonnegra). The same gang that ran off Cris’ mother is extorting protection money from the collective as they are from most of the small businesses in the area. Simon, something of a risk-taker, goes out at night as a graffiti artist, using Medellin as his canvas.

At first, Cris goes out with him to paint as well, but their platonic relationship grows closer and more intimate. As that occurs, the collective, unable to pay the protection money, is getting sinister messages spray painted on the wall across the street from their front door. Simon, who once ran with some of the boys in the gang, decides to paint over the warning and put up a mural of a whale to cover it. Cris, much more cautious as she has seen first-hand just how vicious the gang can be, urges him to back off, but that’s not in Simon’s vocabulary. Whether you consider his actions to be bravery or bravado, those actions will have consequences.

I debated summarizing the plot because it might lead you to believe that this is a crime thriller, and it is far from that. The movie is about the coming of age of Cris and Simon, and of their budding relationship. There is a sweetness between the two, a shy awkwardness that goes with two young people exploring feelings that they’ve never had before, but this isn’t exploitative in the least either – while most American coming-of-age films tend to be more raunchy recently than in the past, this one is more gentle.

Most of the cast are not professionals and while the down side of that is that inexperience can sometimes lead to poor acting choices, there is also a naturalness to the performances that is appealing, particularly in Ochoa who like many Latin women her age, seem to have absolutely no clue how incredibly gorgeous they are.

The ending was a little unrealistic to my thinking; criminal gangs are not noted for their forgiving nature and while there are some tense moments, the resolution felt a little too fairy tale-like. But then again, I don’t think Restrepo is going for gritty realism here; she is capturing feelings and situations that are common to most of us even if the situation is uncommon. Most of us don’t live our lives controlled by criminal gangs.

Even so, this is an impressive debut and although it hasn’t made much of a splash in terms of buzz on the indie circuit, it is well worth your effort to look into it. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that films like this are getting more widespread exposure as this one gets a Virtual Cinematic release. Florida theaters benefiting from VOD rentals include the Tropic Cinema in Key West and the Tallahassee Film Society. Click on the Virtual Cinematic Experience link below for a complete list of theaters that are running the movie on demand – if there isn’t a theater near you on the list, you might choose another theater deserving of your support. It’s a win-win for you in any case.

REASONS TO SEE: The performances are pretty much natural and well-received.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little too Hollywood for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use, profanity, some violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature for Catalina Restrepo.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Photographer of Malthausen

Woodpeckers (Carpinteros)


Julian is on the inside looking out.

(2017) Drama (Outsider) Jean Jean, Judith Rodriguez Perez, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Mario Nunez, Aleja Johnson, Manuel Raposo, Carlota Carrelero, Toussaint Merionne, Orestes Amador, Fernando De Jesús Mejia, Cape Ramirez, Gilberto Hernández, Jose Cruz, Keunis Alvarez, Karina Valdez. Directed by José Maria Cabral

Incarceration is no joke; going to prison is not a preferable situation for anyone, anywhere in the world. In the Dominican Republican, prisons suffer from brutal punishment, terrible overcrowding and crumbling living conditions that come from having too many dangerous men in close proximity to one another. Of course, once someone is convicted most of society doesn’t really give a hoot what happens to them.

Julian Sosa (Jean) is a petty thief who gets arrested for stealing a motorcycle. As is the custom in the Dominican Republic where he lives, he is jailed in the notorious Najayo Prison outside of Santo Domingo. Prison conditions are inhuman with overcrowding, a lack of basic human facilities, brutal discipline enacted by brutal guards and of course surrounded by hard, violent prisoners.

Julian, who is of Haitian descent (which is not a very pleasant place to be in Santo Domingo) initially wants to keep to himself and just do his time but he finds that increasingly impossible. Eventually he falls in with Manaury (Candelario) who like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption is the kind of guy who can get things for you. Unlike Mr. Freeman, Manaury has a hair-trigger temper and is borderline psychotic.

He introduces Julian to woodpecking, a detailed sign language that the prisoners use to communicate with the female inmates who are housed a mere 400 feet away across a yard. Through woodpecking, romances bloom and prisoners fall in love with one another. Manaury has a “girlfriend” named Yanelly (Perez) who is a bit temperamental herself. When Manaury gets in a fracas and gets sent to solitary, he prevails upon Julian to communicate with Yanelly via woodpecking.

The problem is that Yanelly had discovered that Manaury had been woodpecking with another girl in while she was in solitary herself. As she “talks” to Julian she begins to fall for him and he for her. By the time the suspicious and paranoid Manaury gets released back into the general population, Yanelly and Julian are deeply in love. He has even managed to wrangle a work detail in the women’s prison so that the two of them can exchange a quick and furtive kiss. She arranges to smuggle her own panties to him which leads to Manaury finding out that his paranoia was justified…and for him to plot brutal revenge against Julian.

This movie played the Miami Film Festival earlier this year and is the Dominican Republic’s official Oscar Foreign Language Film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. The movie is gritty and realistic which you know it had to be, considering the filming location and extras (only the leads were professional actors). You get a sense of the overcrowding and volatile conditions.

The movie spins around the relationship between Yanelly and Julian and if that doesn’t work, neither does the film. Fortunately despite being something of an odd couple – Yanelly is volatile and passionate, Julian introspective and quiet – the love aspect works and one ends up rooting for the couple. Both Perez and Jean do strong jobs here, particularly the former. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Candelario who seems to be screaming at the top of his lungs most of the time. It’s an over-the-top performance that makes his character more of a caricature.

Unfortunately the filmmakers can’t sustain the momentum the movie builds early on and during the last third, after both Julian and Manaury are transferred to the even more brutal La Victoria prison and a prison riot breaks out. It does lead to a final shot that is compelling and almost redeems the rest of that plot point – but not quite. Still this is a superior movie that made the rounds on the festival circuit (and continues to do so) and even had a brief New York run. It’s a little hard to find at the moment but no doubt it will get some streaming service or another to pick it up and once it does you should give it a chance. This is a fine movie from a filmmaker who has enormous potential.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty and realistic depiction of prison life in the Dominican. The love story is believable and fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses momentum during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some nudity and sexuality as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed inside a Dominican prison utilizing actual prisoners in small roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crown Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Te Ata