Review: ‘Missing’ (2023), starring Storm Reid, Joaquim de Almeida, Ken Leung, Amy Landecker, Daniel Henney and Nia Long

January 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Storm Reid and Megan Suri in “Missing” (Photo by Temma Hankin/Screen Gems)

“Missing” (2023)

Directed by Will Merrick and Nick Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2022, in the Los Angeles area and in Cartegena, Colombia, the dramatic film “Missing” (a spinoff of the 2018 film “Searching”) features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, Asian and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 18-year-old woman who lives in Van Nuys, California, goes on a frantic search (mostly on her computer and phone) to find out what happened to her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, who both disappeared during a vacation trip to Cartegena, Colombia.

Culture Audience: “Missing” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “Searching” and who are interested in fast-paced mystery thrillers.

Nia Long in “Missing” (Photo by Temma Hankin/Screen Gems)

“Missing” somewhat devolves into climactic scene clichés in the movie’s last 15 minutes. The rest of “Missing” is an absorbing and occasionally implausible twist-filled thriller about how technology can be used to solve mysteries. “Missing” is a spinoff movie of 2018’s “Searching” (about a father who uses computer technology to search for his missing teenage daughter), and “Missing” has some clever ideas and surprises that aren’t in “Searching.” However, the ending of “Missing” is a little too close to copying the ending of “Searching,” by playing too fast and loose with perceptions about the life or death of the missing person.

Will Merrick and Nick Johnson wrote and directed “Missing” (which is the feature-film directorial debut of Merrick and Johnson), after the duo served as editors of “Searching.” Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, who co-wrote “Searching,” are credited with the story concept for “Missing” and are two of the producers of “Missing.” Chaganty made his feature-film directorial debut with “Searching,” which showed most of the father’s investigation happening on various computer screens and smartphone screens.

“Missing” follows a similar format of having most of the investigation shown on computer screens and smartphone screens, but “Missing” flips the script of “Searching”: Instead of a parent looking for a teenage daughter, “Missing” has a teenage daughter looking for a parent. In the case of “Missing,” this daughter has no other family members who can help her in this search.

“Missing” begins by showing a family home video from April 13, 2008, during what will be the family’s last trip together. James Allen (played by Tim Griffin) is on a kitchen floor with a kitten and his daughter June Allen (played by Ava Lee), who’s about 4 yearsold and who has the nickname Junebug. It’s a lighthearted family moment until June’s mother (played by Nia Long) notices that James has gotten a nosebleed.

The movie then shows that someone is looking at this home video in 2022: June Allen (played by Storm Reid), who is now 18 years old. It’s June 2022, and June has been looking sadly at this video because her father died in 2008, and Father’s Day is coming up in less than two weeks. June lives with her overprotective mother Grace Allen in Van Nuys, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. June has recently graduated from high school, and she doesn’t have any big plans for the summer.

This year will be the first year that June won’t have Grace nearby on Father’s Day. That’s because Grace is going on a romantic vacation trip to Colombia with Grace’s fairly new boyfriend Kevin Lin (played by Ken Leung), who is the CEO of a start-up company called All-Brand Consulting. The movie later reveals that Kevin and Grace met through a dating app. June’s relationship with Kevin is emotionally distant, and he’s been making attempts to get her to accept him because he says he’s in love with Grace and expects to be in a long-term relationship with her..

June is looking forward to having the house to herself and no adult supervision during Grace and Kevin’s weeklong vacation in Cartegena, Colombia. June has been tasked with picking up Grace and Kevin from Los Angeles International Airport on June 20, 2022. Grace has left behind some spending money for June, who ignores Grace’s complaints that June’s voice mailbox is full and needs to be cleared. June sometimes gets frustrated or amused when her mother gets confused by how to use a smartphone, such as when Grace mixes up using FaceTime with using Suri.

Even though June is dependent on Grace for nearly every necessity in life, June is at an age where she resents being treated like a child. Grace has asked her close friend Heather Damore (played by Amy Landecker), who’s a well-meaning and inquisitive attorney, to check in on June while Grace is away. June, who doesn’t really care for Heather, says with annoyance: “Mom, I don’t need a babysitter!” June also gets very irritated when Grace calls her Junebug, because June thinks that she has outgrown this childhood nickname.

While her mother is away, June spends a lot of time partying with friends, including her best friend Veena (played by Megan Suri), who has bought alcohol by using money that June gave her from the amount that Grace left behind. Montages of photos on Kevin’s social media show that he and Grace are having a lot of fun in Colombia. When it comes time to pick up Grace and Kevin from the airport, June almost oversleeps.

June has let the house become a mess, so she quickly uses Taskrabbit (an app for temporary workers) to find a housecleaner to tidy up the house before Grace gets home. Taskrabbit is shown and talked about enough times in the movie, it’s a little bit of overload on brand placement. When Grace gets to the airport, Kevin and Grace aren’t there. Grace and Kevin also aren’t responding to any attempts to communicate with them.

Feeling worried and confused, June calls Hotel Poma Rosa, the place where Grace and Kevin were staying in Cartegena. Her concern turns to alarm when she finds out that Grace and Kevin were last seen leaving the hotel two days ago, but they left behind all of their belongings. June knows a little Spanish, but she is able to communicate better in Spanish by using Google Translate. The front-desk clerk who talks to June on the phone says that the hotel has video surveillance for the main front entrance, but after 48 hours, the video gets recorded over.

By now, Grace’s friend Heather and June’s friend Veena have joined in on the frantic search. Through her attorney connections, Heather has contacted the U.S. Embassy in Columbia to file a missing persons report. The FBI has assigned an agent named Elijah Park (played by Daniel Henney) to lead the investigation, but he warns June that the FBI doesn’t have jurisdiction for certain crimes in Colombia. First, the FBI has to find out if any crimes have been committed in this missing persons case.

The FBI can’t guarantee that someone can be sent in time to look at the hotel’s video surveillance footage. And so, June takes it upon herself to use Taskrabbit to find a local person in Cartegena to do it for her. She ends up hiring a compassionate and resourceful middle-aged man named Javi (played by Joaquim de Almeida), who becomes a valuable aide in many things that June asks him to do in the search. It’s explained in this “race against time” movie that June can’t go to Colombia herself because she’s finding out important things at such a rapid pace, getting on a plane to Colombia would slow down her investigation.

Much of June’s investigation involves Internet searches and video phone calls, but the tension is ramped up by quick-cutting editing, so that looking at all these computer screens doesn’t get boring for viewers of the movie. Just like in “Searching,” the more the protagonist investigates, the more information is revealed to expose certain secrets. “Missing” keeps viewers guessing until a certain point if Kevin is a victim of foul play, or if he had something to do with Grace’s disappearance. And just when it looks like the movie will go one way, it goes another way, until the last (very predictable) 15 minutes.

All of the cast members give watchable performances in “Missing,” with Reid offering a very realistic and empathetic portrayal of June. She carries the movie quite well in expressing the myriad of emotions and experiences that June has in the story. Most of the other characters in the movie are somewhat generic, except for enigmatic Kevin. Leung skillfully handles this role that viewers and some of the movie’s characters can’t quite figure out up until a turning point if Kevin is a “good guy” or “bad guy.”

“Missing” also credibly depicts the obstacles faced by a teenager looking for a loved one who’s disappeared, since some people don’t take June as seriously as they would if she were a much older adult. It’s why it looks very believable that tech-savvy June would want to take matters into her own hands instead of waiting for law enforcement officials who’ve already shown and told her that they’re very busy with other things. Even with June’s believable “take charge” attitude, there are still some hard-to-believe moments in “Missing,” which uses lot of the quick-cut editing to mask some very improbable occurrences that happen much quicker in the movie than they would happen in real life.

And woe to anyone watching this movie who’s computer-illiterate, because some of the computer terminology and functions in this movie will just be too confusing for people who aren’t familiar with the apps and gadgets shown in the movie. Conversely, “Missing” is so reliant on showing computer technology of 2022, this movie will eventually look very dated. (“Missing” also has inside references to “Searching,” including a scene where June watches a true crime show called “Un-Fiction,” which has an episode with recreations based on the case that was in “Searching.”) There’s nothing award-worthy about “Missing,” but it’s still very entertaining for anyone who wants to spend nearly two hours watching an intriguing mystery film.

Screen Gems released “Missing” in U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Petit Mal’ (2023), starring Ruth Caudeli, Silvia Varón and Ana María Otálora

July 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ana María Otálora, Ruth Caudeli and Silvia Varón in “Petit Mal” (Photo by Sara Larrota/Dark Star Pictures)

“Petit Mal” (2023)

Directed by Ruth Caudeli 

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, the dramatic film “Petit Mal” features a cast of Colombian female characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three queer women—who are in a three-way, live-in relationship—navigate the shifting dynamics of their relationship when one of the women goes away on a work trip.

Culture Audience: “Petit Mal” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about LGBTQ relationships or polyamory where the stories are more about being mood pieces than having a lot of dramatics.

Ana María Otálora, Ruth Caudeli and Silvia Varón in “Petit Mal” (Photo by Sara Larrota/Dark Star Pictures)

The occasionally tedious drama “Petit Mal” is an intimate and proficiently acted character study of what happens when three women in a polyamorous relationship together navigate the changing dynamics of the relationship when the “alpha female” goes away for a business trip. “Petit Mal” (which means “little evil” in French) is an interesting mix of not only being ambitiously artsy with its intent in showing a complicated relationship, but also being unpretentiously minimalist in how the movie was cast and filmed. Viewers expecting a movie with more drama and action might be disappointed, but the emotions in “Petit Mal” always look authentic. “Petit Mal” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Written and directed by Ruth Caudeli, “Petit Mal” features just three people on screen as the main characters. All three protagonists are queer women in their late 20s or early 30s who are in a three-way romance with each other. They live together (with five dogs as pets) in a middle-class house in Bogotá, Colombia. The house seems to be in a somewhat isolated wooded area, because neighboring houses are not seen in any of the scenes that take place outside.

Caudeli has the role of Laia, the “alpha female” of this trio. It’s obvious from the first 10 minutes of the movie that when the three women are together, Laia is the most dominant one, but not in an overtly bossy way. Her dominance is shown because Laia is the one in this ménage à trois who is at the center of all the affections, as if her two girlfriends care the most about making Laia happy, more than anyone else in this relationship. (“Petit Mal” is reportedly inspired by Caudeli’s own real-life polyamorous experiences.)

Laia is also the most confident and assertive of the three women when they’re together. It should come as no surprise when it’s revealed later in the movie that Laia is a movie director—a job that requires strong leadership skills. There are many signs that Laia thinks she has total control in this three-way romance. However, that self-assurance is tested when she temporarily goes away from home to direct a movie. Her work trip is to an unnamed city, where she has to take a plane flight to get there and back to Bogotá.

Anto (played by Ana María Otálora) is the woman in the relationship who is the most sensitive. Later in the movie, when a thunderstorm hits the area, Anto has a panic attack because of the sights and sounds caused by the storm. Anto is also most likely to be the “peacemaker” and “nurturer” to smooth over any arguments that happen. Anto’s job (if she has a job or a career) is not mentioned in the movie.

Also in this relationship is screenwriter/editor Martina (played by Silvia Varón), nicknamed Marti, who’s editing a documentary tentatively titled “Throuples, Dogs and Boxes.” And yes, the documentary is about this three-way relationship. Martina is the person in this threesome who seems to be the most diligent about planning and having things going according to a schedule. For example, she expresses some worries about not being able to meet the deadlines for this documentary.

During the movie’s opening scene, Laia, Anto and Martina prepare a barbecue meal together in their backyard. Observant viewers will immediately notice these women’s personality traits and how they affect this ménage à trois. Laia does some of the cooking, but she lets Anto and Martina do most of the work. Laia also shows them how she wants certain things done in this food preparation. All three women kiss each other, but Martina and Anto kiss Laia as if she’s the center of their attention.

Later, when they’re all inside eating the meal they’ve prepared, Martina asks (maybe because she wants this information for her documentary): “What’s the most difficult thing about having a throuple?” Anto replies, “Spending time together equitably.” Laia answers, “Jealousy.” Martina offers her own thoughts: “Three is not balanced. There are always two or one.”

Martina’s comments foreshadow what’s to come later when Laia goes away for the directing job. Anto and Martina, who act more like rivals when Laia is with them, find out they actually get along better with each other when Laia isn’t there. It leads to Anto and Martina become closer and more affectionate with each other, which Laia can sense, even though Laia not there in the house to see it firsthand.

There are other jealousy issues too. When Laia is away, Martina notices on social media that Laia and a man in Laia’s film crew have been flirting with each other. When Martina angrily asks Laia about this flirtation, Laia insists that she and the man are just friends. Martina is so upset that Laia has to calm her down. Viewers can only speculate why Martina has this mistrust.

Viewers are also left to speculate how and when Laia, Anto and Martina decided they would be in a three-way relationship together. However, conversations imply that it was probably Laia’s idea. The dynamics of the relationship suggest that Anto and Martina fell in love with Laia separately. And then, rather than Laia choosing one over the other, they decided to have a three-way relationship instead. That’s why it catches Laia off-guard when she notices that Anto and Martina have become closer when Laia is away.

Even though Laia, Anto and Martina are adults, the movie shows that they all have childlike, playful sides to their personalities. For example, they occasionally like to wear matching onesie pajamas (resembling wooly animal costumes for children) when they cuddle in bed together. And in an early scene in the movie, they play a game where they try to guess a word that one of them is thinking, based on one hint.

The direction, writing and editing of “Petit Mal” present the story as a cinéma vérité documentary or a video journal, rather than as a movie that has big melodramatic moments or important life lessons. For example, viewers won’t get any information on the backstories of Laia, Anto and Martina. Any previous romances they might have had with other people are not mentioned. In other words, “Petit Mal” is very much about the present lives of the protagonists.

Some of the movie’s scenes show everyday activities and mundane conversations inside the house. But underneath the surface is a question that’s not necessarily said out loud: “How will this relationship change when Laia is away and when Laia comes back?” “Petit Mal” doesn’t offer easy answers. The movie leaves it up to viewers to decide if this throuple is “three’s company” or more like “three’s a crowd.”

Dark Star Pictures will release “Petit Mal” in select U.S. cinemas on January 27, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 31, 2023.

Review: ‘The Curse of La Patasola,’ starring Najah Bradley, AJ Jones, Gillie Jones, Patrick R. Walker and Luciana Faulhaber

January 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Najah Bradley and Patrick R. Walker in “The Curse of La Patasola” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Curse of La Patasola”

Directed by AJ Jones

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional U.S. area called Bear Lake and briefly in Colombia, the horror film “The Curse of La Patasola” features a cast of white, African American and Latino characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two couples spend a night camping in an isolated wooded area, where they encounter a vengeful evil spirit.

Culture Audience: “The Curse of La Patasola” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind watching mindless, boring and predictable horror movies.

Gillie Jones and AJ Jones in “The Curse of La Patasola” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Curse of La Patasola” is yet another unimaginative horror movie that takes place in an isolated wooded area, where people have terror inflicted on them by an evil spirit. There are absolutely no surprises in this horrendously dull, amateurish movie, which doesn’t get to any real horror until the last 20 minutes of this 84-minute film. Until then, viewers of “The Curse of La Patasola” will have to sit through scene after scene that get dragged down with monotonous repetition of two couples and their individual bickering/relationship problems.

AJ Jones, one of the co-stars of “The Curse of La Patasola,” makes his feature-film directorial debut with this movie. Jones co-wrote the very flimsy and uninteresting screenplay with Shaun Mathis. The filmmakers of “The Curse of La Patasola” seem to have little to no understanding that if you’re going to do the over-used horror concept of “terror in the woods,” you better come up with something original and well-written instead of doing a sloppy rehash of so many other low-budget horror flicks that have the exact same concept.

Even worse: The “scares” in “The Curse of La Patasola” are very few and far in between. The acting is mediocre-to-bad, while a lot of the dialogue sounds phony and awkward. And there’s barely enough in the story to fill a short film. It’s why the movie stretches out and spends most of its screen time on relationship drama between the two couples who’ve decided to take a camping trip together in this remote wooded area called Bear Lake in an unnamed U.S. state. (“The Curse of La Patasola” was actually filmed in Clermont, Florida.)

The four people on this ill-fated trip are cocky Daniel (played by AJ Jones); his mild-mannered wife Sarah (played by Gillie Jones, also known as Gillie Fitz); combative Naomi (played by Najah Bradley); and Naomi’s laid-back boyfriend James (played by Patrick R. Walker). From the beginning of the trip, when they’re driving into the woods, Daniel and Naomi start clashing and do most of the arguing.

Here’s an example of the type of dialogue between Daniel and Naomi: Daniel says, “I’m not saying I’m anti-feminist. I’m saying that some feminists take it too far. Men have screwed up some history, sure. But Eve ate the apple first.” Naomi is offended by Daniel’s comments, but she’s ready to do verbal battle with Daniel. “Overconfident mansplaining is my favorite dish to feed on,” Naomi smirks in response. Who talks like that? Only militant feminists in badly written movies.

Daniel adds, “Men are providers. Men are protectors. You know that’s true, Naomi.” Sarah and James try not to get involved in this back-and-forth battle of the sexes between Daniel and Naomi. However, Sarah and James occasionally get dragged into the squabbling between Daniel and Naomi, when Naomi scolds Sarah about being too submissive in her relationship with Daniel, and Daniel taunts James for being too much of a pushover in his relationship with Naomi.

This type of bickering goes on and on for too much of the movie. Viewers will learn nothing about the backstories of these four people except that Daniel is unemployed and has been struggling for two or three years to start his own business; Sarah has gotten tired of Daniel’s stalled career and wants Daniel to get a job so she can go to nursing school; and Daniel and James have been friends since high school, where Daniel seduced one of James’ love interests on at least one occasion.

Later in the movie, when Naomi and Sarah have some private time together and smoke some marijuana, Naomi confesses that she’s gotten bored with James because he’s too nice for her, and she’ll probably break up with him after this camping trip. Naomi makes this cringeworthy comment about her relationship with James: “I thought we’d be yin and yang, but it’s more like yin and yawn.” Naomi doesn’t know it yet, but James is going to propose marriage to her on this trip. Is this a horror movie or cheesy soap opera?

On the way to the camping area, a park ranger (played by Mark Pettit) stopped the car to warn these four travelers that there have recently been strange occurrences at Bear Lake, such as missing people and reports of terrifying noises. Around the campfire that night, Naomi tells the story she heard from her Colombian grandmother about the ghost of a vengeful woman called La Patasola. As legend has it, La Patasola was unfaithful to her husband, who caught her in the act of infidelity. He chopped off her leg and left her to die, and then he murdered their children.

As a cursed spirit, La Patasola haunts wooded areas and gets revenge on unfaithful men by murdering them while possessing the bodies of unfaithful women. She inhabits these bodies because La Patasola is really a grotesque creature in her true form. The movie’s opening scene takes place in Colombia and shows an unidentified couple during a nighttime tryst in the woods and having an obvious encounter with La Patasola. The woman (played by Daniela Gonzalez) is a wife and mother, but she’s not married to the lover who’s with her in the woods.

During an amorous moment, the man (played by Jack Young) tells her: “Your husband doesn’t love you the way I love you.” And then, he hears another woman’s voice nearby saying multiple times, “Come find me,” so he leaves his lover to investigate in the part of the woods where he thinks he hears the voice. It’s easy to guess that happens next when the man can be heard screaming in the distance. Luciana Faulhaber has the movie’s role of La Patasola, which basically just has her walking around in a white dress and trying to look mysterious. Any monster visual effects in the movie just aren’t very impressive.

It’s also very easy to predict who will be the cheating partners on this camping trip and everything that happens after that. And if it isn’t obvious enough, the trailer for “The Curse of La Patasola” essentially gives away the movie’s entire stale plot, except for some of the gruesome scenes. And that’s why watching “The Curse of La Patasola” is ultimately a complete waste of time.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Curse of La Patasola” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Blast Beat,’ starring Mateo Arias and Moises Arias

May 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Mateo Arias, Wilmer Valderrama, Diane Guerrero and Moises Arias in “Blast Beat” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

“Blast Beat”

Directed by Esteban Arango

Spanish and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1999 and 2000 in Colombia and Atlanta, the dramatic film “Blast Beat” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Hispanic, African American, white and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two teenage brothers, who have opposite views of the American Dream, emigrate with their mother from Colombia to reunite with the brothers’ father, who is living in Atlanta.

Culture Audience: “Blast Beat” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted and sometimes melodramatic depictions of Hispanic immigrant stories in the United States.

Moises Arias in “Blast Beat” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Is the American Dream a worthy life goal? It depends on who’s answering that question. In the dramatic film “Blast Beat,” two teenage bothers have contrasting opinions of the American Dream, not only because they have polar opposite personalities but also because their lives are going in different directions. Directed by Esteban Arango (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Erick Castrillon), “Blast Beat” has some pacing issues, but the last third of this 105-minute movie is the best part. The credible acting performances of real-life brothers Mateo Arias and Moises Arias also make “Blast Beat” worth watching for people who are interested in gritty family dramas. (“Blast Beat” is based on Arango’s short film of the same name, which also starred Mateo Arias and Moises Arias.)

The “Blast Beat” feature film starts off a little cliché and uninteresting, as viewers are introduced to the two brothers who are at the center of the story. The year is 1999, and brothers Carlos “Carly” Restrepo (played by Mateo Arias) and Mateo “Teo” Restrepo (played by Moises Arias) are living with their mother Nelly Restrepo (played by Diane Guerrero) in an unnamed city in Colombia. Carly is about 17 years old, while Mateo is about 16. The Arias brothers are a lot older than the teenage characters that they portray in this movie, but this noticeable age difference isn’t much of a distraction from the story.

It’s revealed later in the movie that the Restrepo brothers’ father/Nelly’s husband Ernesto (played by Wilmer Valderrama) has been living in Atlanta for about six months. During this time, Colombia has been experiencing increasing political unrest and crime-related violence. Drug lords have been extorting money from private citizens with this ultimatum: “Pay us or we won’t protect you from being assaulted or murdered.”

Ernesto wants his wife and sons to join him in Atlanta, where he has been working menial jobs, such as painting buildings, to make a living. Relocating to Atlanta would mean that Nelly, Carly and Mateo would have to leave behind their middle-class lives and the rest of their family for a more financially unstable lifestyle in the United States, where they don’t know anyone else. The other option would be to stay in Colombia and pay off the local extortionist drug dealers for protection.

Because it’s in the “Blast Beat” movie trailer, it’s not spoiler information to reveal that Nelly makes the choice to move to Atlanta with Carly and Mateo. Nelly says that the family’s immigration lawyer (who’s never seen in the movie) has taken care of all of their asylum paperwork, so that the family can legally immigrate as refugees. She’s willing to start a new life in the United States because she thinks that their Atlanta neighborhood will be safer than in Colombia, and she wants her children to have access to American education.

Carly is excited about the move because he’s an aspiring space engineer whose goal is to graduate from the Georgia Space Institute and eventually work at NASA. Carly is in his last year of high school, so when he moves to Atlanta, he applies to the Georgia Space Institute, and will find out in this story if he has been admitted to the school or not. Mateo, who prefers to live in Colombia, doesn’t have any specific life goals, but he loves to draw and paint, especially graffiti art. He hates the idea of moving away from Colombia to a country where he won’t know anyone but his brother and parents.

Needless to say, Carly and Mateo are complete opposites in almost every possible way. Carly is a dedicated and intelligent student, who excels in math and science the most. He has long hair and loves heavy metal, especially a band called Emperor. Mateo is completely bald (his head is shaved), prefers Colombian pop music, and is a rebellious student who despises school. Mateo shows an inclination and talent to be in the creative arts rather than in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Mateo loves skateboarding, while Carly prefers BMX bike riding. Carly has a steady girlfriend named Mafe (played by Kali Uchis), who likes to make homemade videos of Carly doing BMX stunts. Mateo is socially awkward around girls and doesn’t have any romantic prospects in Colombia. And later in the movie, when Mateo is living in Atlanta, it’s strongly implied that he’s a virgin until he ends up having a romance with a schoolmate.

“Blast Beat” spends most of the first third of the film showing Mateo’s and Carly’s lives in Colombia. Young men in Colombia are being recruited to join the military to combat the increasing civil unrest. Mateo’s best friend is a guy around the same age named Norby (played by Cristian Madrigal), who has told Mateo that Norby’s father has paid off people so that Norby doesn’t have to serve in the Colombian Army and will be able to focus on his school studies.

Mateo has already confided in Norby that he doesn’t want to move to the United States. “Fuck the American Dream,” Mateo says bitterly. Norby asks, “Why couldn’t your brother graduate and leave by himself?” Mateo replies, “Because he’s a selfish fucking asshole.”

Mateo and Norby have this conversation outside while Mateo has been spraypainting graffiti on street walls. Predictably, a security guard (played by Jeffrey Hans) sees this illegal graffiti activity and tries to stop it. Mateo and Norby run away, while the security guard chases after them. Mateo has a skateboard for his getaway, while Norby has to flee on foot. The security guard catches up to them, but Norby and Mateo end up assaulting the security guard to get away, and then they hide at Norby’s house.

Their mischief making isn’t over though. Mateo sets off a firecracker in a room, which causes an explosion that happens shortly after Mateo and Norby leave the building. The two pals don’t get in any real trouble over it, but this incident is apparently one of many that has convinced Mateo’s mother Nelly that the family should move to the United States, so that they can start a new life somewhere else.

Nelly fears that Mateo will eventually get himself in too much trouble in Columbia. But she does what many loved ones of troublemakers tend to do when they’re in denial about a problem: They misplace a lot of blame on the troublemaker’s environment instead of seeing that the real issues are with the troublemaker, not where they live. Mateo’s rebellious streak and violent anger aren’t going to go away just because he’s living in another country.

Carly is obviously the favored child in the Restrepo family, because he’s considered to be the obedient brother who’s most likely to succeed. And that’s caused some hard feelings and sibling rivalry between Carly and Mateo. At a family get-together with other relatives, Nelly says that she will never pay extortion money. She also brags that her husband Ernesto will always take care of her, and that he found a “beautiful home in a nice and safe neighborhood” in Atlanta.

Because it takes a while (about 20 minutes) in this 105-minute movie before the story gets to Carly, Mateo and Nelly moving to Atlanta, the Colombian backstory of Carly and Mateo tends to drag for a little too long. There’s a lot of repetition over how much Carly is the “good son” who is eager to move to the United States, while Mateo is the “bad son” who wants to to stay in Colombia.

Before they move to Colombia, Carly tries to tactfully distance himself from Mafe, by telling her that they don’t need to have an exclusive relationship while they’re living in two different countries. She starts to cry because she wants more of a commitment from Carly, even if it’s in a long-distance relationship. Carly isn’t willing to give her that commitment, but he doesn’t want to outright break up with Mafe either. Later in the story, Carly finds out how much he really wants this “non-exclusive” status to apply to his relationship with Mafe.

When Carly, Mateo and Nelly first arrive in Atlanta, the two brothers are polite but emotionally distant with their father. The six months that Ernesto was away has taken an unspoken toll on the relationship that Ernesto has with his sons. Eventually, Carly begins warming up to Ernesto, but Mateo’s relationship with Ernesto is still filled with tension and resentment.

And the “beautiful home” that Nelly thought she would have in Atlanta is anything but that: It’s actually a run-down fixer-upper house, which Ernest says that he plans to renovate, with help from Carly and Mateo. However, Mateo ends up doing more of the physical work than Carly does, because Carly is allowed to spend more time on his schoolwork.

Because Mateo is treated like a second-class citizen in his own family, his resentment comes out in various ways. He gets angry at Ernesto, who gave Mateo a scooter bike instead of the “cool” bike that Carly has. Mateo gripes about the scooter bike: “I’ll look like an idiot on that thing.” Carly has been building a homemade satellite, which he has brought with him to Atlanta. Soon after moving to Atlanta, Mateo destroys the satellite’s solar panels in a fit of anger and jealousy.

When Ernesto asks Mateo what his goals are after high school, he warns Mateo that it better not be anything in the arts, because Ernesto doesn’t think being in the arts is a practical career choice. The only real complaint that Ernesto has about favored son Carly is that he doesn’t like Carly’s taste in heavy metal music, which Ernesto thinks is “satanic” music. Carly has a tendency to play his music too loud, which is why Ernesto doesn’t want Carly to have the bedroom that’s closest to Ernesto and Nelly’s bedroom.

In their American high school, Carly and Mateo have culture shock in different ways. The two brothers also both experience racism and ignorance about Colombian culture, such as people who think that Colombia is part of Mexico, or they don’t like hearing Carly and Ernesto talking to each other in Spanish. Carly and Mateo give polite corrections when people misidentify the brothers’ Colombian nationality, but these corrections are often dismissed or ignored.

Carly is an outstanding student, but his math teacher Mr. Stephens (played by Njema Williams) doesn’t like it when Carly outshines him in the classroom. When Carly suggests a shortcut to a math solution, Mr. Stephens is quick to tell Carly that shortcuts that might have been acceptable where Carly came from, but it’s not acceptable in America. It won’t be the last time that Carly hears variations of the condescending lecture “You’re in America now, and we do things better than other countries.”

As for angry and rebelllious Mateo, it doesn’t take long for him to get in trouble at his new school. In his first day at the Atlanta school, a spoiled and snobby student named Jared (played by Sam Ashby), who looks like a blonde Ken doll, accidentally bumps into Mateo in the boys’ locker room. Mateo calls Jared an “idiot,” while Jared explodes with anger, by getting up in Mateo’s face and calling Mateo a “bitch” and a “chili shitter.” Things calm down before it escalates into a full-on brawl.

A fellow student named Byron (played by Jaime Matthis), who witnessed this argument, warns Mateo not to mess with Jared, because Jared’s father is a lawyer. (It’s at this point in the movie that viewers can easily predict that Mateo is going to run into more problems with Jared.) Byron introduces himself to Mateo in a friendly manner. And later, Mateo ends up becoming friends with Byron and a fellow student named Nessa (played by Ashley Jackson), when they all first bond with each other while smoking marijuana in one of the school’s bathrooms.

“Blast Beat” has a subplot of Carly taking the initiative to visit Georgia Space Institute, where he sits in on a class led by Dr. Michael Onitsuka (played by Daniel Dae Kim), who has connections with people at NASA. Carly is so impressed with Dr. Onitsuka and what’s being taught in the class, that after the classroom session, Carly asks Dr. Onitsuka if he can audit the class. Dr. Onitsuka asks Carly if he’s a registered Georgia Space Institute student. Carly lies and says that he’s a first-year student. Carly has a big space engineering idea that he eventually shares with Dr. Onitsuka, and this idea could make a major impact on Carly’s future career.

Carly and Mateo also find new love interests with fellow classmates in their Atlanta high school. Carly has a mutual attraction to a brainy student named Alana (payed by Ava Capri), who’s in his math class. (Carly doesn’t tell Alana about Mafe.) Meanwhile, Mateo and Nessa become closer and start dating each other. It’s implied that Nessa is Mateo’s first real girlfriend.

But this wouldn’t be a drama if things went smoothly. The rest of the story continues through the school year in 2000. During this school year, Mateo gets into more trouble, and Carly has a lot of resentment over having to look after Mateo and clean up the messes that Mateo makes. And there are some other issues that could threaten the futures of Mateo and Carly. The last third of the movie gets a little melodramatic, but there’s nothing unrealistic that happens in this story.

What makes “Blast Beat” so different from many other stories about Hispanic immigrants in America is that it presents two very different sides of what the American Dream can mean in the same family. Carly represents the view that’s usually presented in movies: The immigrant who wants to move to America to succeed and make a better life. Mateo has a perspective that’s not as commonly seen in American-made movies: An immigrant who unwillingly moved to America and doesn’t see the United States as a “promised land” but as a place that makes him deeply unhappy, with a deep desire to go back to his original country.

It’s this immigrant dichotomy—rather than the somewhat formulaic high school squabbles—that makes “Blast Beat” an interesting movie to watch. It’s impossible to know how differently Mateo Arias and Moises Arias would’ve played these roles if they weren’t brothers in real life, but their brotherly chemistry with each other obviously comes from a place of genuine experiences. The rest of the cast members handle their roles capably, but “Blast Beat” largely depends on the authentic way that the two brothers portray this volatile fraternal relationship.

This emotional truth is why “Blast Beat” is effective on most levels. The movie has some flaws (including an ending that’s just a little too rushed), but “Blast Beat” overall will make a memorable impression on viewers of this unique immigrant family story. The conflicts that these two brothers exeprience have more to do with what they want for themselves and how they want to live on their own terms, rather than based on other people’s expectations.

Vertical Entertainment released “Blast Beat” in select U.S. cinemas and on TV VOD on May 21, 2021. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released “Blast Beat” on digital and Internet VOD on May 21, 2021.

Review: ‘Days of the Whale,’ starring Laura Isabel Tobón Ochoa, David Escallón Orrego, Carlos Andrés Fonnegra and Christian Tappan Sorzano

July 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Laura Isabel Tobón Ochoa and David Escallón Orrego in “Days of the Whale” (Photo courtesy of Outsider Pictures)

“Days of the Whale”

Directed by Catalina Arroyave 

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Medellín, Colombia, the dramatic film “Days of the Whale” has an all-Latino cast representing the middle-class, the artistic class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Two young graffiti artists who are starting to fall in love with each other have their relationship tested when local drug dealers threaten their safety.

Culture Audience: “Days of the Whale” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in gritty yet heartfelt stories about young people involved in street culture.

Laura Isabel Tobón Ochoa in “Days of the Whale” (Photo courtesy of Outsider Pictures)

The unflinching drama “Days of the Whale” (written and directed by Catalina Arroyave) takes a realistic look at what can happen to young love and artistic expression when crime and violence threaten to destroy them. This well-made movie has such authenticity to it and impressive naturalistic acting from all of its cast members, that “Days of the Whale” is the kind of narrative feature film that could easily look like it could be a documentary, if not for the fact that the criminals in the movie definitely wouldn’t have allowed cameras to film some of the scenes.

The main protagonists of the story are two graffiti artists in their late teens named Cristine, also known as Cris (played by Laura Isabel Tobón Ochoa) and Simón (played by David Escallón Orrego), who both love to spend their days creating illegal mural art on the economically deprived streets of Medellín, Colombia. Cris comes from a comfortably middle-class home, where she lives with her divorced father Julián, also known as Juli (played by Christian Tappan Sorzano), who worries about Cris hanging out in less-than-safe neighborhoods. Simón lives with his loving grandmother Dora (played by Margarita Celene Restrepo) in one of those neighborhoods.

Simón and Cris aren’t at home a lot because they’re either making art together or they’re hanging out at an old house called La Selva, which has become an open haven for local artists who are mostly young people. Cris is supposed to be enrolled in a local university, but she seems to be skipping classes and not doing any schoolwork. In fact, she’s been failing her classes and keeping it a secret from her parents.

The beginning of the movie starts out peacefully, as Cris and Simón find a young stray pitbull and bring it back to La Selva so that the group can help take care of the dog, which Simón has named Niche, after German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Cris teases Simón that he’s gotten very intellectual.

Meanwhile, the area where La Selva is located is in a territory controlled by gang members whose primary way to make money is by dealing drugs. The gang members have made it clear that they want to control the neighborhood by demanding money from the locals if these innocent people don’t want to be terrorized by the gang. It’s an extortion racket that has its drawbacks, because some people start to incur a lot of debt, such as Lucas (played by Carlos Andrés Fonnegra), one of the older artists who hangs out at La Selva.

As an act of sarcastic rebellion, one of the La Selva artists has made an illustration that shows someone shot dead with this written warning: “If You Don’t Pay Your Protection Racket.” The members of the La Selva artist collective have a debate over whether or not it’s a good idea to include the illustration in a pamphlet of their art that will be distributed in the neighborhood. Someone remarks that the gang violence has gotten worse since that illustration was made. Meanwhile, someone has written this graffiti message on a nearby wall: “No More Prisoners at Home.”

It’s unclear how long Simón and Cris have been spending time together as friends, but there’s something about Simón’s past that Cris doesn’t know yet: He used to be in the gang that’s controlling the territory. One of the gang’s main enforcers is named Samacá (played by Diego Alejandro Samacá Garzón “Voltracks”), and he was a close friend of Simón’s in their childhood. Samacá has a thug sidekick named Duván (played by Julián Gerald Ruiz), who helps Samacá intimidate people in the neighborhood.

One night, Samacá has a private conversation with Simón to warn him not to snitch about what he knows about the gang. Samacá also somewhat taunts Simón for leaving the gang, by saying that Simón was foolish for choosing a life where he doesn’t make much money. Samanca tells Simón that if  Simón had still been in the gang, he would have plenty of money and women and still have time to make art. Samanca also tells Simón that the only reason why he’s still alive is because Samanca respects Simón’s mother.

This conversation is an attempt to see if Simón will change his mind and come back to the gang, but Simón doesn’t take the bait. There’s underlying resentment that Samanca has in this dialogue with Simón, because even though Samanca exerts more power in the neighborhood,  Samanca’s choice to be a gang member means that he doesn’t have the kind of freedom that Simón has. Simón doesn’t have to answer to anyone, and the worst crimes that Simón is committing these days are his graffiti activities.

But Samanca’s resentment toward Simón comes out in a threatening way when one day a message is scrawled on the wall directly across from La Selva: “Snitches Get Stitches.” That graffiti message is symbolic of the type of power that the gang has over the neighborhood. But how the people in the area react to this message is also a symbol of possible resistance to that power. The artists of La Selva have different opinions on whether or not to paint over this ominous message.

This pervasive threat of gang violence is the reason why Cris’ journalist mother Aura (played by Ana Cristina Vélez López) has left the area to live in Spain. Aura had written some scathing newspaper articles about gangs taking over certain areas of Medellín, with the articles questioning how effective law enforcement and the government are in handling the problems. Cris has saved clippings of her mother’s newspaper articles—an indication of how much she admires her mother.

Cris and Aura communicate with each other mainly through text messages and Zoom conference calls. Aura is eager to have Cris visit her in Spain, but so far, Cris has been reluctant to make those travel plans. And when Aura brings up the idea of Cris living permanently in Spain with her, it upsets Cris so much that she hangs up on Aura during a video conference call.

But Cris living at home with her father Juli isn’t exactly a tension-free environment. Juli’s girlfriend Valería (played by Natalia Castaño Farjado), who spends a lot of time in the home and who looks young enough to be Juli’s daughter, has been questioning Cris about why she never seems to do any schoolwork. Cris replies that a lot of her schoolwork is done online. When Valería mentions reading one of Aura’s newspaper articles, Cris snaps back with an insult by saying that she’s surprised that Valería can read.

Juli has also been noticing that Cris is spending less time at home, and he makes it clear to her that he doesn’t like it. However, since Cris is of legal age, there’s not much he can do about it. Juli tells Cris that he trusts her to know right from wrong.

Meanwhile, Simón and Cris become closer, as their friendship starts to develop into a romance. But their relationship doesn’t go unnoticed by jealous and paranoid Samanca, as he and Duván accuse Cris of being a possible snitch and they chase her down a street one day. Cris manages to hide in a building, but the experience has frightened her enough that she’s thinking about taking up her mother’s offer to move to Spain.

However, Cris is torn about moving to another country as she and Simón start to fall in love. It’s around this time that Cris comes up with an idea to paint a giant mural of a whale, which is her mother’s favorite animal because it’s a creature that is very protective of its young children. The mural is symbolic of several things in the story that become apparent to people who see this movie.

“Days of the Whale” is Arroyave’s feature-film debut. Her way of capturing Medellín street life in this movie is both raw and artistic. There’s a kinetic energy to the movie that is heightened by the ever-present threat of danger that could end in people being seriously assaulted or killed. As a newcomer to street culture, Cris represents someone who has to make some choices about what kind of community and lifestyle she wants to embrace. Her choices could affect the rest of her life.

And although it isn’t explicitly stated in “Days of the Whale,” Cris being a woman in the male-dominated world of graffiti art is also a statement about how she wants to be viewed by society, by not conforming to some of society’s expectations about women. The relationship that she has with Simón is respectful and almost sweet, but there’s also an unspoken question of how committed she really is to living the kind of street artist life that he’s been living longer than she has. Is she for real or just experimenting with rebellion?

The movie also creatively expresses the defiance that these artists have, because they have to do battle on a number of fronts—against police who might arrest them for their illegal graffiti; against the gangs who demand payouts that they can’t afford; and against society in general that expects them to get “real” jobs instead of doing the art that they love. “Days of the Whale” is a movie that won’t change the world, but it gives a fascinating and emotionally impactful peek into a world where people suffering for their art can have a life-or-death meaning.

Outsider Pictures released “Days of the Whale” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 24, 2020.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix