Saturday, 12 December 2015

Movie Review: Knock Knock/Tangerine (2015)

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Every so often, the Hollywood scheduling system looks at the crap that gets screened and bestows a boon on the viewing public with a double feature from an acclaimed director. 2013 was an amazing year in this regard as we got not only two releases from David O. Russell with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but also the ‘supposedly’ final two theatrical releases from Steven Soderbergh with Side Effects and Behind The Candelabra. But then, there are times when the scheduling results in a dual release from a… less reputable director. This is unfortunately a latter case as we are discussing another film by Eli Roth. I once again don’t want to completely badmouth his abilities as a director, as the guy definitely has talent in certain areas. However, his insistence on filming his own scripts is his biggest flaw; the guy has character sensibilities that make Mark Renton look like Oskar Schindler. For as much credit as I was willing to give his last film, it still makes me feel slightly ill thinking back on it. So, is this film as bad as that… or is it, by some terrifying miracle, even worse? This is Knock Knock.

The plot: Married architect Evan (Keanu Reeves) is home alone while his wife (Ignacia Allamand) and children are on a family vacation that Evan couldn’t make it to because of a shoulder injury. That night, two girls Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) arrive at his front door to seek shelter from the weather outside. Once inside, they proceed to seduce Evan who, despite his best attempts, succumbs to their charms. However, as their stay is prolonged further and further, it seems that the girls have something far more sinister in store for him.

I still concur that Keanu Reeves doesn’t get nearly as much recognition for his acting as he should; hell, how much everyone loved John Wick is proof positive that he isn’t as bad as the world has made him out to be. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good showcase of his abilities. His first scene where he is interacting with his family is hilariously awkward, with him trying to do the play-acting that parents often do around younger kids but coming across more like “I’m acting as hard as I can!” without a hint of irony. He gets a nice shouty moment near the end where he essentially calls these girls exactly what they are, but it isn’t nearly as hammy enough to justify sitting through the rest of the film to get to it. Aside from him, the family isn’t really in the movie long enough to be worthy of note, so that leaves us with the two main girls. Izzo and de Armas are decent actors, but they never come across as that much of a threat in the intimidating sense. They do portray teen girls pretty accurately, but then again, I’d mark that as a point against the film.

There is a special word that has a lot of power in the English language. It is easily one of the more controversial swears that exist and, while it is definitely used more frequently nowadays, it still holds some sway in showing utter contempt. I don’t swear on this blog as much as I probably should, given how much visceral hatred I have for some of the films I discuss on here, but every so often I feel a need to use more colourful language. This word in question is one I simply hate using because of how vulgar it is, but there is nothing else that fits in the following sentence. Genesis and Bel are two of the most irritating, pretentious Valley Girl cunts that I have had the misfortune to encounter all year, if not the last several years.

They have all of one note for the entire film, that of constant annoyance, and they never waver from that at any point during the film. I immediately retract any and all statements I made in the Green Inferno review about Eli Roth showing signs of improvement, as these two are the embodiment of every atrocious writing trope Roth has ever put into his movies. The traditional argument is that these characters are supposed to be loathsome, and while I congratulate Roth on that front, that doesn’t instantly make them watchable. I’ve talked before about the trend in horror films to make the main characters thoroughly unlikeable so that no tears are shed when bad things happen to them. Well, that applies to the main villains as well; it may provide an easy means to be against the bad guys, but that doesn’t mean that we will want to see them on screen for any length of time. Hell, the one likeable character in this mess, who acts like he has a brain in his head, is killed off in quite idiotic fashion after only a few moments of relief.

There might be a certain subtext that can be read into the film’s events, particularly about the reason why the girls targeted Evan in the first place. Maybe it’s trying to make commentary on the double standards between the sexes when it comes to sexual histories: Men can sleep around all they want, but women are shunned for doing the same thing. As such, this is meant to show how easy it is to paint men as being the sexual aggressors and women as the victims, regardless of what the reality is. Ignoring what kind of person it would take to feel the need to commentate on that in this fashion (hint: emotionally stunted man-child), this is just following the age-old stereotype that all men will accept whatever sex they are given. Basically, the same brain-rottingly stupid argument that is the reason why male rape is largely treated as a joke nowadays. Much like how Stephanie Meyer being a woman doesn’t excuse her for how misogynistic her writing is, Eli Roth being a man doesn’t excuse him for how misandristic this film is.

Even if this premise did hold any kind of water as some kind of satire, the amount of plot holes and just plain stupid character actions involved in the girls’ plan means that, in the real world, what actually took place would become public knowledge and evidence would prove that Evan was the victim. So, by film’s end, all of the incessantly exasperating dialogue, the torture scenes, the man rape (which at least isn’t meant to be taken as a joke… yay?); none of it amounts to anything. If there was an actual point to all of this, then maybe the contents could have been salvaged, but instead it just ends in a damp squib and a painfully forced attempt to end on a slightly humourous note. This might be the first time that I have felt the urge not to read deeper into a film; with how infuriating the surface is, I just don’t fucking care anymore.

All in all, this is nauseating in how vapid it is. The acting and writing show off every reason why someone should smack the keyboard out of Eli Roth’s hands, as it highlights his ‘talent’ for creating unfathomable vexatious characters who do unbelievably idiotic things, all under the guise of delivering a ‘point’. If you’re lucky enough to like Roth’s style of storytelling, then this should be just fine. If not, avoid like the vacuous skid mark that it is. It’s worse than Hot Pursuit, because this is the kind of film where I wish I could forget how horrendous it is. However, since Hot Tub Time Machine 2 ended up at roughly the same point of failure but from a higher expectation, it only just ranks higher than that.

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By next year, approximately 2 billion people will have access to a smartphone; a little more than a quarter of the world. This means that more than 1/4th of Earth’s population can become amateur filmmakers. With the continuing advances being made in mobile phone technology, including the cameras attached to them, as well as the advents of services like YouTube and Vine, it is now easier than ever for Joe Blogs to call himself a director. Of course, that same notion also makes standing out in the industry even tougher: Yeah, it’s easier to do, but that also means that you have to compete with everyone else who can do the same thing. Still, all of this information kind of makes the weirdly high budgets most found footage films get ($3 million and up) look especially wasteful by comparison. So, in the hands of true-blue American independents, a budget of approximately US$100,000 and only three iPhones to serve as the cameras, how does today’s film fare? This is Tangerine.

The plot: After getting out of prison, trans female sex worker Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) learns from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a white cisgender woman. As Sin-Dee tears through Los Angeles looking for the person responsible, and Alexandra prepares for a stage show in West Hollywood, the two of them try to stay out of the way of those more prejudiced against their ways of life.

Considering we’re dealing with camera quality that is usually reserved for selfies, the fact that this film is shot through smartphones is invisible: The shots are smooth, the light is a little oversaturated but still serviceable as a stylistic choice and the camera handling is actually better than most in-universe found footage films I’ve seen. Really, it marks a great milestone when it comes to low-budget filmmaking; if it’s possible to get this good a picture of an iPhone, it definitely gives hope for other prospective directors out there. However, in terms of cohesive story-telling, the use of cellular video is unfortunately very apparent. About 40-45% of the shots used are comprised of characters just walking and/or driving, set to high-energy EDM tracks. Rather than working as a means to show transition between the more dramatic moments, it ends up feeling like the film is just a series of music videos strung together to form a complete movie.

A definite effect that comes across as a result of this more home-grown approach to filmmaking is that the production has a very raw feeling to it. Given how we’re dealing with a rather niche section of Los Angeles’ prostitution racket, this ends up doing wonders for the film overall. When we see Sin-Dee dragging Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) through the street by her hair, or even searching through a whorehouse for her, this has the sufficient grime needed to carry off those scenes. Not to say that the film is all dirt, as its more serene moments are probably when it’s at its most dispiriting. It’s the small moments, be they when the characters are just talking, singing or saying nothing at all (without the music becoming too hectic), that bring the down-and-dirty and, honestly, kind of darkly comedic action into perspective. At least, I think some of these moments are meant to be funny to some degree. The big confrontation at the donut shop where everyone clashes with everyone else gets quite humourous out of how ridiculous it is, and some of Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s catty comments bring out somewhat repentant laughter; I should not be laughing at a Chris Brown assault joke, but the delivery just worked. However, because of how immoderate the dialogue gets, I’m not entirely sure if I should be laughing or not. It doesn’t help that, at its core, this film is dealing with some rather serious subject matter.

I shouldn’t have to use the term “brave” when it comes to the casting here; in fact, it’s kind of sad that this is the state we are in right now. But the fact remains that not only having the film be centred on transgendered characters, but actually casting transgender actresses in the majority of the roles, is a rather ballsy decision. To further this, the film also addresses issues concerning the trans population in the U.S., even outside of the world’s oldest profession. Even through something as simple as who uses which gender pronouns, we see the difficulties faced by people who wish to be seen as the gender they feel that they are other than the one that was “officially” assigned to them. The prejudices placed on them by the cis majority, the questioning about sexuality in conjunction with transgendered relations, the troubles that come from what is needed to maintain the outward appearance of the gender; not only are all these fairly well addressed, but addressed in surprisingly subtle ways. We have the obvious portrayals through Sin-Dee, Alexandra and the other sex workers, but then we get metaphors using the setting of Christmas and even the city of Los Angeles itself to explain the idea that, despite what is on the outside, what is at the core never changes. These women could go through life being men as was designated for them at birth, but that doesn’t alter what they are on the inside.

But the ultimate bit of subtext in terms of dealing with transgender issues comes from a very unfortunate source. I say “unfortunate” because it explicitly involves comparing the circumstances in the U.S. to those of another, less welcoming country; specifically, Armenia. The largest subplot of the film involves Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who frequents the working girls. Now, bear in mind that it is only in the last ten or so years that homosexuality was made legal in Armenia, with none of the other rights being bestowed to them as of yet. As Razmik tries to keep his connection with Alexandra separate from his family, particularly his mother-in-law, the issue of suppressing one’s sexual nature brings up a rather unsettling point: Despite how much work is yet to be done in terms of equal rights, the U.S. is still doing better in that regard than other places. Hell, they actually got around to legalizing gay marriage; we in Australia have a while to go yet before that gets passed.

All in all, while not a little tonally confusing when it comes what parts are meant to be comedic, this is still a real testament to the capabilities of low-budget filmmakers. The smartphone camera could’ve been handled better, but it still looks amazing, the acting is solid and the writing offers both an honest-feeling depiction of life for an L.A. hooker as well as a look into the difficulties faced by trans women in the U.S. If you have a taste for the more unorthodox side of cinema, both in production and in subject matter, then this is worth checking out. It’s better than Last Cab To Darwin, as the effort made into the commentary isn’t wasted because it stays consistent through the entire film. However, in terms of overall engagement, it pains me to admit it but Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse was more entertaining overall.

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