Tangerine (2015)

★★★

Tangerine PosterDirector: Sean Baker

Release Date: July 10th, 2015 (US); November 13th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor

The first thing you notice in Sean Baker’s Tangerine is its rapid-fire manifesto. Editing, pacing, score, dialogue — everything is turned up to 11, including the sepia-tinted aesthetic. It looks a bit like how a Coldplay music video would if Coldplay ever tapped into their underground urban side, boasting heightened tones and the occasional influx of technicolour vibrancy. Discussions between characters — especially our two main protagonists, sex workers Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) — aren’t quite comprehensive chats, more vulgar sound bites.

The very simple plot revolves around the search for Sin-Dee’s pimp-turned-boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) who has been outed by Alexandra as a cheat. Sin-Dee, having spent the last month in prison, is on the warpath, tearing through makeshift sex dens and doughnut joints in her breakneck quest for answers. Mirroring films such as Locke and Collateral, Tangerine thrives on its simplistic premise that unfolds within a contained locale (the streets of Downtown LA) and, like in those outings, vehicles become key mediators — much of the unsophisticated magic takes place in cars.

Unlike the more polished aforementioned flicks, Sean Baker’s proposition is rugged and boisterous, thanks in part to its headline duo. They may not be A-list stars, but Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor both completely convince as captivating on-screen presences. Rodriguez is spiky as the wittily named Sin-Dee whereas Taylor’s Alexandra relays a much calmer demeanour; she clearly doesn’t want any drama, though she is clearly also hanging around with the wrong ticked off prostitute. (Just in case we weren’t already aware, at one point Alexandra literally stands before a crossroads and chooses the quieter route.)

Later, we see her deliver a classically romanticised vocal performance before paying the venue manager for his troubles, and not vice-versa. She wants to be a singer, her desperation evident in this solemn scene that harks back to Girlhood’s “Diamonds” sequence. Alexandra’s trans identity adds some fuel to the narrative — we see men, including Armenian taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), give into their intimate urges while also trying to uphold some degree of self-perceived normality — but otherwise it’s beside the point. If there is any point to be made it’s that, by optioning good roles for trans actors, Tangerine represents what will hopefully become a proportional improvement.

We spend a fair chunk of time with the aforementioned Razmik and, while it isn’t time wasted per se, there is a sense it is time mishandled. He wheels around a bunch of not-so-eclectic residents in his taxi (one customer’s pet has just died, another inebriated duo disgustingly vomit everywhere) and you are left wondering why Los Angeles has suddenly run out of interesting folk. Perhaps it is just LA, but the film seems to exist in a world where nobody cares about anything or anyone, which kind of adds to the pillaging tenacity. Unfortunately, this also hampers your emotional involvement: there is no moral code, enemies fight all over town and then smoke a bong together in a seedy bathroom.

When characters aren’t communicating via swearwords, they deliver sporadic helpings of humour: a short-changed guy validates his craving for sex with a “come on, it’s Christmas”. Tangerine straddles the line between comedy and drama and just when you think things are about to get weighty, there is an influx of amusement. I think the piece is tonally muddled though: scenes exploring the woes of prostitution, of which there are many, could be presented as either lightly comedic or darkly dramatic, but the film opts for both and subsequently invokes a confusing disconnect. It’s tough to sympathise with a character who rampages through the streets towing a hostage one moment, and then supports her dream-chasing mate the next.

It is common knowledge that the film was shot using the iPhone 5s, not that you ever really notice. Indeed you do feel like you are on street level among the myriad of personalities, but that’s not exactly something the iPhone can claim exclusivity over. City of God, shot using conventional equipment, manages to generate the same immersive pretence for instance. Baker and Radium Cheung both have cinematography credits (Baker also co-wrote the film with Chris Bergoch) and their collaborative effort is effective — a car wash scene is particularly excellent, filmed with invention and amusement in mind.

“Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,” bemoans Razmik’s annoying mother-in-law. Her statement rings true as the film reaches its conclusion: a neon-infused Spring Breakers synth vibe serenades characters whose worlds are sort of in tatters, probably not unexpectedly given the tumultuous nature of their jobs. There is hope, but by this point I wished I had been given more of a mandate to care.

Tangerine - Cast

Images credit: IMP AwardsThe Guardian

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures

Top 10 Films of 2014 (January-July)

Apart from serving as a stark and somewhat worrying reminder about university work that I’ve not yet completed but absolutely should have, August is also the last month of summer blockbuster season. I’ve no idea why that’s relevant. Here are my top 10 films of the calendar year thus far. UK release dates. It’s about a month late.

We all love lists though, so I hope you fine folks’ll forgive me.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer guides the X-Men franchise back to form with a rip-roaring circus act made up of mind bending time travel, slow motion wall-running and Wolverine being Wolverine. Days of Future Past manages its cast supremely well – even the underused Evan Peters is magnetic. Though, not Magneto. He could be. That joke wasn’t even planned.

DoFP - McAvoy

9. Calvary

Brendan Gleeson both runs and steals the show as Father James Lavelle in a film that plays its cards from the get-go, before promoting a townsfolk guessing game as darkly entertaining and intriguing as any before. The screenplay evolves as characters unravel and, through Father James, we become an integral part of it all.

Calvary - Gleeson and Reilly

8. The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome! And hilarious. And energetic. And utterly batty. A flick that proudly flaunts something for everyone, The Lego Movie is non-stop from start until finish; the incessant stream of laughter that spills from our mouths makes it difficult to regain control of breathing. The film ain’t perfect but when things are this gleefully mental, it doesn’t need to be.

The Lego Movie - Icons

7. Locke

For 85 minutes we sit in a car with Tom Hardy and for 85 minutes Tom Hardy magnificently transforms into an ordinary guy bearing a portfolio of problems, each one weightier than the previous. Locke is a moment in time driven by authentic normality that’s incredibly hard to come by on film.

Locke - Hardy in Car

6. Edge of Tomorrow

Doug Liman’s sci-fi extravaganza is even more than that: it’s startlingly funny, unconditionally engaging and the only film I’ve seen twice at the cinema this year. Tom Cruise flips perception on its head, but Emily Blunt is the one who kicks most ass. Edge of Tomorrow is summer popcorn cinema done intelligently. The correct way.

Edge of Tomorrow - Blunt

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Hailed as more than simply one of Marvel’s superhero jaunts, The Winter Soldier captures a variety of interests. There’s both a political tinge and an espionage strand to go along with the familiar genre narrative, and these additions work. Chris Evans unveils his best performance as the Cap’n in a film that is considered by many to be the best Marvel output to date. Honestly.

Captain America The Winter Soldier - Captain

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn grabs the impressive progress made in Rise and swings to new, greater heights. The tone is more wrought and the outlook is increasingly bleak but, from acting to visuality, the execution is wholly sublime. To simplify Matt Reeves’ flick as the best looking film in a generation would be to do it a disservice. It is, but Dawn also boasts a fulfilling and rewarding foundation.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Caesar and Mate

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

From smoky bars to icy streets, there’s no escaping the genuine purity of the Coen brothers’ folk piece. Its screenplay is morbidly delightful, and Oscar Isaac is a walking manifestation of just that. Llewyn is a bit of an ass yet we root for him. Peculiarly, and perhaps it’s just me, despite his downtrodden unluckiness we want to be him. Then again, it might simply be the allure of this latest Coen tale.

Inside Llewyn Davis - Oscar Isaac Guitar

2. 12 Years a Slave

Formally recognised as 2013’s best film, 12 Years a Slave hit UK cinemas in January of this year. It’s inarguably the toughest piece on this particular list, and is certainly one of the most gruelling watches in recent memory. Not only is Steve McQueen’s retelling of the harrowing slave trade important, but it’s also incredibly well delivered. People should see this because it depicts a vile chapter that ought to be bookmarked as a warning to humanity.

12 Years a Slave - Ejiofor

1. Blue Ruin

Though it’s not as heavy as 12 Years a Slave, or as furnished as Inside Llewyn Davis, or as visually striking as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Blue Ruin comes nail-bitingly close each time. This is simple storytelling relayed with a restrained confidence and wholesome purpose, and there’s even a tremendous lead performance from Macon Blair to cap it all off. It’s just brilliant.

Blue Ruin - Blair Distance

I’m off to read about the geopolitics of Hollywood.

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox, Entertainment One, Warner Bros, A24, Walt Disney Studios, CBS Films

Locke (2014)

★★★★

Locke PosterDirector: Steven Knight

Release Date: April 18th, 2014 (UK); April 25th (US)

Genre: Drama; Thriller

Starring: Tom Hardy

For Ivan, every bump in the road signifies another life collision. As he gazes through the car window, eyes lamenting, a struggling reflection cast before us, we recognise him as a decent human being in the midst of self-inflicted calamity. Phone calls offer a moment of salvation: relief, anger, humour, misery. But still, salvation from lawless thought. Often, Ivan — a man of structure — joins up the dots in his own life by relating an ingrained knowledge and valuing of cement and stability to the current unsavoury predicament in which he finds himself, and occasionally the driver turns to an empty back seat in order to converse with his deceased father. It’s in these moments of spiritual bartering that Locke struggles to maintain order. Remember, Ivan is a man of structure and the film thrives not through obvious semiotic links, but by way of his empirical, rubble-gathering conversations. Not to mention an exceptional solo performance.

As the night’s misty ambience shrouds his car, construction boss Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) finds himself driving away from a highly imperative job at work through circumstances stemming from a past action that was not at all beyond his control. From home, his son continues to phone and commentate the latest football match, and from work, higher-ups and lower-downs transmit more bad than good news. But it is a situation on the periphery of his normal day-to-day existence that has Ivan abandoning domestic and occupational ship tonight. A birth — one primed to send a stake through his life.

Locke is about as ambitious as any film can get within the confines of a car and boasting a solitary character hampered by a snivel-inducing cold. Plot doesn’t really exist, at least not in its customary tangible form that encourages the camera to follow the actions of different people, to different places, in order to relay new actions. Rather here, any quintessential plot twist or narrative advancement lies at the mouth of Tom Hardy, whose words and facial expressions both have a defining hand in dictating every element of the film. At its core then, in order to be a success Locke perilously relies on a compelling central performance. And it certainly gets one.

At no point does the cinematic spotlight retreat from Tom Hardy. The Londoner has nowhere to hide — just like the man he is portraying, the car is his temporary prison; a voluntary prison, one that both Hardy and Ivan choose to enter. (His name, Locke, hints at confinement.) Further complicating matters, the actor must relay a rich Welsh accent for film’s entirety. It’s put up or shut up time and at no point are we crying out for Hardy to shut up. His dialogues caressed by a wonderfully thick cadence, the man behind the wheel not only garners audience sympathy, but also demands a degree of exasperation by way of an incessant need to fix everything (not to mention a prior noteworthy error in judgement). When Ivan converses with his son Eddie, voiced by Tom Holland, we can hear the compatible trust and loyalty between the pair. Misguided trust? No, not all. Ivan is too genuine in repentance. Yet when we ear-drop in on a discussion between Ivan and Donal, a colleague, it is obvious that the former’s practical desire to amend is being dispersed in the wrong direction. (“I want to talk about a practical next step,” he repeats.) That is, towards his job and not his family.

In establishing Ivan as an ambiguous sort, Hardy leaves it up each individual eavesdropper on his journey to decide whether or not his moral compass is shattered, cracked or still intact. Writer/director Steven Knight plays a role in formulating the character, of course, but Hardy’s delivery must be spot on otherwise the film is doomed. The lead is wearing so many different hats too: father, husband, son, consulter, instructor, peace-keeper. There’s not a single moment of respite in sight, not until he reaches his destination and by then, we’ll be gone. Hardy must relentlessly alter appearance without taking a breath. His character Ivan says it himself: “I have a list of things I have to do tonight when I’m driving.” Carrying wholesale weight on his shoulders, the actor remains poised throughout. If he hadn’t already appeared as Eames in Inception, or as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, this is the type of performance that would’ve propelled Tom Hardy up an acting echelon or two. Instead, it’ll simply cement his lofty place.

In a film as minimally scoping as Locke, a slow and effective plot that builds towards an emotive, tense crescendo is necessary to go alongside a commanding central performance. When Ivan converses with air over his own mistakes and resultantly flip-flops between placing blame on his father and on himself, the outing loses some tension-building momentum. The character is one stimulated by integrity — a structurally damaging change in cement for his building enrages him, and he is left disheartened by a self-generated misdemeanour, two varying instances of corrupt integrity that affect Ivan. Whenever a phone call ends, the car dashboard re-manifests as an electronic satnav, telling us all we need to know about Ivan’s life and where it is headed: straight ahead, approaching isolation, dictated by others. Simple aesthetic insights such as the one offered by said satnav are alluring, unlike the occasional obvious and over-egged metaphysical spiels that don’t do Locke any favours.

Unlike Buried, a film that spends its runtime trapped within a coffin alongside Ryan Reynolds, there’s ultimately no concrete pay-off. Perhaps this has something to do with the aforementioned philosophical interceptions in narrative, jarring much pressure-building. It is also conceivable that Knight writes himself into a tricky conclusion, where there is no justification for an unambiguous ending. This isn’t necessarily a negative — credit must go to Knight for sticking his neck on the line and making a film as experimental as Locke, particularly in an era pillaged by financial behemoths where even low-budget productions cough up allocations of around £10 million. (Locke was made for less than £2 million.) At heart, it is the typical redemption story, only without any typical advantageous factors apart from dialogue — no emphatic score, or distressed damsel, or soaring visual palette. Not even an outright hero. The closest we get to unbridled tension comes during conversations between Locke and any other voice, rather than an empty back seat. Confusion rears and urgency arises, compounded by the screeching sound of sirens and flashing lights from police cars that intermittently race past in the outside world.

Ivan’s journey to London is an exercise in personal demon exorcism, and you are the judge in this tale of uncertainty. One thing is for certain though — Locke is a damn good attempt at something different. Narratively-speaking, the film doesn’t scintillate as much as it wishes to. Performance-wise, it just might.

Locke - Hardy

Images credit: IMP Awards, Vulture

Images copyright (©): A24