Thursday, July 23, 2015

Peeling off LA's facade

Tangerine: a sometimes comic foray into the world of two transgender hookers.

Technical matters usually play second fiddle to story and character when it comes to movie reviewing. But, for me, one of the important reasons to see Tangerine -- a movie about transgender prostitutes scuffling to survive on the mean streets of Los Angeles -- centers on how the movie was made.

Reportedly named for the orange hues that dominate its images, Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhones (with special add-on lenses) and, one presumes, pro-level sound equipment, as well as lots of post-production massaging.

Tricks aside, any feature film shot entirely with iPhones -- specifically the 5s model -- should be of interest to anyone who cares about making credible, big-screen features on the cheap.

I wouldn't say Tangerine is a game changer; it's a continuation of game in which technological innovation already has made it possible for serious filmmakers to operate with budgets that once would have been considered laughable.

The iPhone approach is not incidental to the movie's style: Deeply saturated colors correspond to the street-saturated lives of the movie's characters, two transgender hookers (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and May Taylor).

Director Sean Baker takes a walk on Los Angeles' seedy side. Neither a moralist nor a journalist, Baker uses a down-scale milieu as a base for a comic exploration of people on the fringe -- "people'' being the operative word.

After spending 28 days in jail, Rodriguez's Sin-Dee Rella is back on the streets. Taylor portrays her best friend Alexandra, another hooker -- albeit one who's less prone to emotional fireworks.

When Alexandra tells Sin-Dee that her pimp boyfriend (James Ransone) has been sleeping with a woman (Mickey O'Hagan), Sin-Dee's fury is unleashed.

A whisper of a plot serves as an excuse to create a variety of scenes that introduce a variety of oddball characters, notably Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a stony-faced Armenian cab driver who routinely betrays his family with dalliances with transgender hookers. He's the kind of guy who's offended if he encounters a hooker with a vagina.

The main characters are played by trans actress, who bring an aura of gritty (and often funny) realism to the story, which -- by the way -- takes place on Christmas Eve, an inescapable note of irony in a film that's far removed from the wreath-and-holy mode.

Just when you find yourself wondering where the hell the film is going, Baker stages a farcical scene in a joint called Donut Time. Baker brings his characters together for a raucous comic finale.

To enjoy Tangerine, you have to accept the movie's profanity and sometimes squalid locations. Baker depicts this world with nonjudgmental realism, which means that Tangerine isn't always a pleasant experience.

Baker caps the movie with a coda about the way friendships survive and endure. I wouldn't say that Tangerine rises to the level of a feel-good movie, but it's a lively, full-on immersion in the tattered lives of characters who seldom (if ever) make it to the screen.

And, yes, it also proves that if you know what you're doing, you may not need a small fortune to make a good movie.

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