Monday, January 25, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Tangerine

Due to my status as an employed man with a pregnant wife, a 12 year old daughter, and no car, I am fairly limited in all three things I would need in order to keep up to date on all of the newest films; money, time, and steady transportation. This means that, although I love watching the Oscars every year (enough to have recently written a piece about this year's ceremony with my friend Rik), I haven't actually seen most of the nominated films before the awards air in quite a few years. I am endlessly omnivorous in my viewing habits, and yet my activity is largely dictated by easy availability. If it isn't on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, I pretty much don't get around to it. One thing I'm hoping to achieve with this movie-a-day project is to make more of an effort to see films that I might pass by in favor of some slick, forgettable action/horror/sci-fi flick, and also to watch more recent movies in an effort to keep abreast of current trends. Today's film, Tangerine, luckily fulfills both goals.

I went into the film pretty much blind; I read the netflix description, and I recalled seeing the name of the film mentioned on various film websites I frequent during festival season, but I had pretty much remained ignorant as to the film's plot and style. Tangerine follows a pair of transgendered women, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out in the real world after a month in jail, and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), her friend who accidentally breaks the news to Sin-Dee that her pimp boyfriend has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman. I suppose technically both women could be referred to as prostitutes- Sin-Dee was in jail for prostitution, and Alexandra is seen in the film with two clients- and yet it also seems a bit reductive to describe them that way. Sex work seems like such a minor part of their lives, simply something they do from time to time to get by, that describing them by that act doesn't do justice to the characters we meet. Alexandra, the more level-headed of the two, harbors dreams of being a lounge singer, and Sin-Dee deeply, naively wants nothing more than to get married to her pimp boyfriend and live happily ever after. But, after hearing about his indiscretions, Sin-Dee is looking for revenge, and the film follows her as she scours West Hollywood looking for the mysterious woman her boyfriend has been shacking up with. The film follows Sin-Dee on her quest for revenge, Alexandra on her quest for fame, or at least some form of expression, and an Armenian cab driver with a penchant for transgendered prostitutes (Karren Karagulian) as he searches for Sin-Dee. Along the way we're treated to a tour of the seedier side of an already seedy district, as crack is smoked in bathrooms, motel rooms are set up for meth-addled prostitutes to entertain large groups of transient men, and at least one family unit is dissolved in front of our eyes. Oh, and Tangerine is a comedy.

It might help to know that last part, about the comedy, before you actually watch Tangerine, because it would otherwise be easy to miss it. It's as if Edgar Wright had directed Requiem For A Dream; the subject matter is harrowing and often depressing, but it's pitched at such an energetic tone that it never completely devolves into outright miserablism. Tangerine was filmed for a reported $100,000, using only an iPhone with an anamorphic lense snapped onto it, and looks far better than any rational person would expect. Director Sean Baker has admitted to playing around with the film on his computer, correcting the color and giving everything a more cinematic look, but even knowing that Tangerine looks impressively professional for such a cheap consumer-ready origin. This cheapness, and the convenience of the iPhone, means that his camera can instantly and unobtrusively change to any desired angle and get into any cramped space. It's this energy he brings to the film that makes Tangerine one of the most vibrant films I've seen from last year.

Sean Baker, filming an honest-to-goodness movie on an iphone!

I'll be honest, when I first finished watching the film, I had to gather my thoughts. The film betrays it's comedic intent in a finale worthy of a classic farce, with characters bursting into rooms at just the wrong time and a half dozen people with their own intersecting plotlines all crashing into each other, and yet I wasn't sure how I felt about all of this. The characters can be so unlikable, and Sin-Dee in particular can be so shrill and obnoxious that I had trouble investing any emotion in her story. Alexandra, as I said, seems more levelheaded and her dreams of fame make her more immediately sympathetic, but she is revealed to be just as horrible a person as anyone else, and her constant refrain of 'I don't want to be involved in any drama' is laid bare for the lie that it is. James Ransone (an interesting character actor who seems to be popping up with an increasing, and welcome, frequency) shows up for the finale as Sin-Dee's cheating pimp, and he seems to get the tone just right, and allows the film's themes to gel around him. He plays a scumbag with an instant charisma and charm that lightens the mood considerably, even as events get worse for everyone involved. It takes awhile for some of the other characters, but eventually Sin-Dee's screeching naivete and self centered demeanor slips enough for her true vulnerability to show through, and it's clear the film has nothing but empathy for every person on screen, no matter how horrible their actions or choices.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

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