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

Beginners


Beginners

Oh look..."The Sound of Music." Lovely, just lovely.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci. Directed by Mike Mills

Relationships are more complicated than nuclear physics. There are no hard and fast rules that govern them and just when you think you have them figured out, the rules change. In love, as in life, we all muddle through as best we can and come to the realization that there are no experts – we are all, in reality, just beginners.

Oliver (McGregor) is very sad. It’s 2003 and his father Hal (Plummer) has passed away from cancer recently. Oliver’s relationship with dear old Dad is extremely complicated. Six months after his mom Georgia (Keller) died, Hal came out of the closet. It turns out that Hal had realized he was gay for the length of the marriage, more than 30 years.

As we flash back to young Oliver (Boos), we see with startling clarity that Georgia was in a marriage that was without passion, a lonely institution that left her sad and bitter, a non-conformist in all other respects but apparently unable to divorce her husband when she was clearly unhappy.

Oliver himself has been unable to commit to a relationship, ostensibly because he didn’t want to end up like his parents, lonely in their relationship. He meets Anna (Laurent), a French actress living in New York shooting a film in L.A. Like Oliver, she’s damaged goods but she might well be the love of his life.

As he tries to navigate his way through this relationship and find a way at last to commit rather than creating a reason not to, he flashes back to the last years of his father’s life, when he embraced the gay community – indeed, embraced life – and found happiness at long last with Andy (a nearly unrecognizable Visnjic). When his dad got ill and Oliver became his caretaker, the two men finally connected in ways they never had been able to when Oliver was growing up. His father had found joy late in life; would Oliver find it too, or would he turn it away as he always had?

Mills based much of this on his own experiences with his dad, reportedly. For that reason, the relationships ring true. They are very imperfect and fraught with land mines and machine gun nests. Nobody in this movie gets out unscathed, which is as it should be because that’s how life and relationships are.

Mills cast the movie brilliantly. McGregor is an immensely likable actor who here has to play an emotionally closed off man who desperately wants more than it looks like he’s going to get. He has a constantly befuddled expression on his face, with an occasional detour to sad. Oliver is never so alive as when he’s with Anna, and McGregor lights up around her as a man in love must do. He also gets the single most powerful moment in the film when one of his father’s friends gently wakes him to tell him his father is gone. The grief is so raw, so close to the surface that I wept, relating as a son who lost his father too young.

Plummer as that father has a touch of pixie in him, a kind of rakish twinkle in his eye that is immensely appealing. Hal discovers life and revels in everything about it. He awakens his son to ask him about a style of music he heard in a night club that he’s unfamiliar with. When his son tells him that it’s called House Music, Hal writes it down dutifully as an old man who can’t trust his memory would. Little touches like that make characters live and breathe.

Anna is lustrous and free-spirited and Laurent captures both the quirky qualities that make her endearing as well as the self-doubts and demons that make her fragile. It is a nuanced performance that those who remember her from Inglourious Basterds won’t be surprised by. Visnjic, once the hunk in “E.R.” is less brooding and hunky, but still crazy handsome as Andy, a man plagued with the suspicion that everyone hates him because he’s gay.

Some may shy away from the movie because of Hal’s sexuality; they do themselves a disservice. This is not a story about gay people; it’s a story about people. People who are imperfect, who make terrible choices and also wonderful choices – people who leave adorable Jack Russell terriers behind that communicate in subtitles. These are flawed people but flawed in the way real people are flawed. Now, I will grant you that at times I had problems figuring out the storyline because they aren’t all told sequentially which can make you scratch your head trying to figure out where you are in the scheme of things, movie-wise. Still, I found myself liking this movie and being deeply affected by it long after I left the theater. For someone who sees as many movies as I do, that’s a precious gift indeed.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic depiction of a man coming to terms not only with the loss of his father but with his own inadequacies. Great performances from McGregor, Laurent and Plummer.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed storytelling leaps back and forth from Dad’s story to young Oliver to modern Oliver.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of bad language and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plummer and McGregor have both played Iago in separate stage productions of Othello.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate drama befitting an intimate setting.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: An Inconvenient Truth

Exit Through the Gift Shop


Exit Through the Gift Shop

The mysterious Banksy.

(Producers Distribution Agency) Thierry Guetta, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Rhys Ifans (voice), The Space Invader, Swoon, Cheez, Neckface, Coma. Directed by Banksy

Street art is a phenomenon that grew out of the tagging and graffiti movement. Some have described it as “guerilla art” and that might not be a bad tag for it. The practitioners operate under cover of night and ply their trade with spray cans, stickers and mosaic tiles, among other mediums.

Some see it as a valid form of self-expression; others see it as blatant vandalism. Needless to say, there is a polarizing element to the art form and that can’t be a bad thing. Art, after all, is supposed to invite discussion.

French expat Guetta lives in Los Angeles. He moved there in the late ‘80s, opening up a vintage clothing store that often had big stars browsing in it. He was known in the city for constantly filming everything on his video camera. On a visit to his native land, he hooked up with his cousin, who had a quirky hobby of his own; he liked to put mosaic tiles of space invader-like figures in public places. Calling himself The Space Invader for obvious reasons, he had become a leading member of the highly cliquish street art scene which kept their anonymity with an almost jealous zeal.

Thierry grew fascinated with this scene – the dangerous aspect of it (the adrenaline rush of avoiding cops and security guards) appealed to him. Through his cousin he was introduced to Fairey, who also based himself in L.A. and Guetta videotaped his street art. The feeling among the street artists was that their art was very transitory by nature; it wouldn’t last long before someone took it down. In order to document their art, they turned to Thierry who was only too happy to oblige.

Under the guise of making a documentary about the street art scene, Guetta was given access to almost all of the leading personalities in the street art scene – all save one, the most notorious one of all. In London, the name of Banksy is well-known, particularly for his images of mice doing odd things. Banksy’s art was bold, caustic and full of a biting wit, too clever by half you might say. He was known for strictly preserving his identity, working only with people he knew well. To this day, the general public and the authorities have not a clue who he is.

At last, through Shepard Fairey, Thierry and Banksy were introduced. Thierry was very much taken by the brash young Englishman and for his part Banksy grew to trust Thierry, allowing him to film in his inner sanctum. On a visit to Los Angeles, Banksy notoriously put a figure of a hooded and bound figure alongside the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland with Thierry filming the whole thing. However, while Thierry was arrested by Disney security, Banksy got away scot free.

However, with years and years of shooting street artists and thousands of hours of footage to winnow through, Thierry’s subjects were becoming restless waiting for the documentary to be made. Thierry knew he had to at last make the film he had never intended to make. Knowing nothing about editing, scoring or anything in fact about filmmaking other than pointing a camera at his subjects, Thierry set out to create his masterpiece.

With Banksy being the subject he most admired, he screened it for him first. Banksy was mortified; the documentary was just terrible. Banksy figured that he could do no worse, so he took the footage and gave Thierry the instructions to “go make some art and put together a show.”

This documentary is the result of Banksy’s efforts and it takes a total turn at this point. Thierry adopts the persona of Mr. Brainwash and decides to put together a major event show in Los Angeles, despite knowing nothing about art or installing a show. He does know a thing or two about self-promotion and manages to capture the attention of the L.A. Weekly who give him a cover story which whips up a frenzy among modern art collectors, despite the fact most of the work is really awful and lazy; Mr. Brainwash takes existing images from the Internet and spray paints eye-patches on them, or Marilyn Monroe wigs.

We see Banksy as a narrator, but his face is always obscured by a hood and his voice distorted electronically; he really is serious about maintaining his anonymity. He wisely turns this from a documentary on street art to one about Thierry who is one of those magnificent eccentrics who give life some flavor. In many ways, he’s more interesting than the artists he was documenting. For his part, Banksy feels at once chagrined and pleased at the creation of the Mr. Brainwash persona; the artwork is somewhat atrocious but at the same time Banksy seems to admire Thierry’s fearlessness.

One gets a feeling throughout this film that we’re being conned a little bit. For example, Thierry proclaims that he had erased all the Disney footage from his camera when he was being interrogated by the security guards, but we are shown footage of Banksy crossing the fence and placing the figure alongside the track, and the trains being stopped shortly afterwards.

If it is a con, it’s a fascinating one and I don’t personally mind being conned in that way. The movie has a wicked sense of humor and there is a slickness and slyness to it that is refreshing and charming in its way. It also makes tremendous use of a great and sadly underrated song – Richard Hawley’s “Tonight the Streets Are Ours.”

There is a lot of ego involved here, from Thierry to Banksy to the artists themselves who take the stance that art outweighs all else. That’s like a blogger saying the most important things in the world are blogs and I, for one, would never assert something that preposterous. It sure as heck ain’t brain surgery…but is it art? That’s for you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: While initially slated to be a documentary about street art, it morphed into something completely different.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s a whole lot of ego involved in this project and quite frankly I’m not sure if the viewer isn’t the butt of the joke.

FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly blue language and smoking. There is also a fine line between art and vandalism here and it should be noted that those who find the lifestyle alluring might not know the difference.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fairey would later go on to design the Barack Obama “Hope” image that figured so prominently in his campaign.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely more suited to home viewing than a big theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Afghan Star