Friday, November 27, 2015


File:Pomological Watercolor POM00006443.jpgSean Baker has directed a film with an iPhone, a movie that starts with two transgender L.A. prostitutes sharing a doughnut on Christmas Eve. "Merry Christmas, bitch!" is one of the first lines spoken by one of the prostitutes, someone who has just been released from prison. Let's just say that your right-wing uncle would probably be more interested in seeing Spectre and talking about it during yesterday's Thanksgiving dinner, but this new movie by Baker and his team is a superior movie. The movie is called Tangerine (not to be confused with the Estonian-Georgian war production Tangerines from last year, which also is a recommendable film), and there have been increasing calls for it to be nominated at next year's Academy Awards after making its debut at Sundance this winter. (Baker and the two main trans actresses were all nominated for Independent Spirit awards earlier this month.)

These two sex workers, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), begin their chat with a revelation that Sin-Dee's boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a "real fish" (you might need to visit Urban Dictionary if you need help understanding that term). Alexandra tries to calm Sin-Dee down; it's "all about our hustle," she tells her, "and nothing else." Sin-Dee, however, is furious, and begins her day-long Christmas Eve hunt for Chester's "real fish." The story takes us in Act II on three different routes, as Alexandra has had enough of the drama Sin-Dee is partaking in, and the two temporarily go on their separate ways. A third major character makes his way into the story: Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian immigrant taxi driver, and at first it's not clear how his story is related--he may be Chester, for all we know. Razmik is a family man and appears to be competent at his job, chitchatting with a lady whose dog has just died or making sure a Cherokee man terribly drunk is okay. It eventually becomes evident that Razmik takes time away from his work to cruise; he picks up a (cisgender) worker, and Razmik suddenly is disappointed at what he finds down under. Eventually, though, he gets his release when he meets Alexandra, who calls him a "sight for sore eyes," and they have a quickie while going through a car washer. When Ramik learns that Sin-Dee is back, he gets an immediate crush--the difference in his demeanor when he's at home having Christmas dinner with his family and when he's on the lookout for Sin-Dee is obvious yet subtle.

Taylor and Rodriguez are untrained actors, but they both act better than most of the other (trained) actors involved. Baker has said in interviews that using only phones and not film cameras helped both of them avoid nervousness. Taylor in particular really shines. On the street she is a tough negotiator, and when a transaction goes wrong, she tells her shady customer, "You forgot I have a dick, too." A fight breaks out. What would the inspiration this kind of unique story be? I don't know, but it is engaging nevertheless.

There is an eclectic array of music in the movie, with immediate shifts from classical to hip hop and "Toyland" from the Laurel and Hardy movie Babes in Toyland throughout. The result is that it's practically a musical. Most viewers will probably tell you that (while it may take a while), it's difficult to believe that this is a full-length feature film shot entirely on smartphones. Part of the reason why it looks so good is because of its post-production work; the polluted hues of L.A. are augmented to give the movie a professional look. Boom mics and other audio technology were also used, which probably was the only thing on the street that gave it away that an actual movie was being shot.

Sin-Dee's actions become hard to watch and difficult to justify as she aggressively and violently tracks down Chester's supposed new girlfriend (one of his cisgender prostitutes, played by Mickey O'Hagan); her actions toward Dinah, the new girlfriend, are scenes that become increasingly disturbing, more so due to the fact that those who witness it do nothing to stop it. When it's not disturbing or revealing or funny or dramatic, Tangerine can probably best be described as surreal. Your conservative uncle might lecture you about our "lack of morals" in a movie depicting prostitution, drugs, and such, but Tangerine is a film with an incredibly diverse cast featuring a story about people, some of whom do bad things, but real people (in scenes that are admittedly sometimes hard to buy). Spectre, on the other hand, is a movie celebrating a mass-murdering quasi-rapist. So really, who should be the one doing the explaining? "Tangerine" might be considered unique for the average moviegoer, but it's one you should see: an enjoyable, well-crafted film, all shot on an iPhone.


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