Saturday, 12 December 2015

Tangerine (2015) - Movie Review
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 Bloggs 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?

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 humorous 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 legalising 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.

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