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

Girlhood (2015)


Girlhood PosterDirector: Céline Sciamma

Release Date: October 22nd, 2014 (France); May 8th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré

Any filmmakers looking to edge themselves into the complimentary critical limelight next year might want to consider serving up a compelling human drama tinged with humour and realism, named something-hood. The approach worked for Richard Linklater and it has worked again here, this time for Céline Sciamma whose film about a young woman’s life after education is arguably the best of 2015 thus far.

The titular girl is Marieme, or Vic, played with exquisite poise by Karidja Touré. Caring for her two younger sisters while her mother works evenings has hampered Marieme’s success in school, and she’s unable to repeat classes for a third year running. As such she strives to take control of her present, believing her future is too far beyond reach. A group of girls, probably slightly older, invite Marieme to join their gang and the conflicted teen accepts.

This is very simple cinema. From a technical standpoint there are no obvious tricks, no special effects, because there is no need. Girlhood is injected instead with dramatic heft and humanistic depth. It is better than the director’s first voyage into the challenges of female maturity, Water Lilies, which does relay some raw authenticity but is ultimately a touch one dimensional. Here, we journey through the many different and very real experiences of burgeoning adulthood.

For one, Girlhood is braver than Sciamma’s debut film, an attribute highlighted by Marieme’s decision to join a gang from the get-go. Instantly she finds herself surrounded by three girls — Lady, Adiatou and Fily — who aren’t the most affable people. We’re certainly not drawn to them; when the invitation to join is presented to Marieme, you get the urge to reach through the screen and point her in another direction. The group don’t necessarily go looking for trouble, but when it lands on their doorstep clearer heads often fail to prevail.

Yet through deft writing and affecting acting, we feel ourselves rooting for Lady et al. The girls combat racial profiling with intimidation, and then erupt in a fit of giggles. They are relatable and genuine. Sciamma, who also penned the screenplay, makes it known that these characters have a great deal of learning to do. And they do learn. We see it through the eyes of Marieme, mostly, who often has to bear the brunt of her abusive older brother. But the piece doesn’t dwell on negativities — laughter and joy are frequently employed, mostly when the four females are in each other’s company.

“You have to do what you want,” says Lady. Her suggestion is misguided — she’s talking in extremes, i.e. petty theft — but entirely true. Vexed by poor grades, Marieme struggles with the anxiety of unfulfilled potential. Touré captures this internal ache with such subtlety for much of the drama, before exploding in a fit of justifiable rage over a system that has clearly failed her: “Where’s the dream? You wanna tell me where your dreams are?” she bellows at her three friends in the second of two utterly masterful scenes.

The first is like something out of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, only with an added dose of reality. It sees the group collectively mime to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, the screen tinted with an aqua fresh glare, in a hotel room rented for momentary respite from real life. The song lyrics reflect Marieme’s aspirations — those dreams she cares so much about — while also latching onto the more materialistic, idealistic psyche prominent in the minds of maturing teens (the quartet are all wearing delicate, expensive-looking dresses as they dance and sing about gemstones).

Inevitably, there are lots of peaks and troughs — from our characters squabbling affectionately and giggling the day away, to painful rejection at home. A scene where Marieme’s brother returns to their apartment in a fit of rage as she chats happily to her younger sister is incredibly well acted, Touré’s instinctive reaction almost as good as it gets from an actor (especially one in her first film). The piece touches on gender politics but never gets weighed down by it because, most of the time, to the girls their gender isn’t an issue. Other themes that arise include the paranoia of growing up, where everything feels like a competition and everybody a competitor, embodied by pre-arranged fights between gang members.

Though exceptional throughout, Girlhood arguably loses some vitality during the final act, but you get the sense that this decrease in energy is applied for a reason — it is Marieme’s worst half hour on screen, after all. The film is at its best when catching up with the four girls. Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré are each individually effective but their collective effort bulges with vigour. A game of minigolf game perfectly illustrates their infectious chemistry.

Cinematographer Crystel Fournier makes use of light and darkness, blue tints, and a rich colour palette to make the film reverberate with life despite the gravelly surroundings. Blunt gang verbiage such as “iced” and “wasted” is littered throughout, a classically un-French touch that serves to keep the gritty, urban atmosphere afloat. Electronic pulses in between scenes make up a soundtrack bearing that same psychedelic nighttime vibe as Drive.

French cinema is a go-to destination for those after simplistic dramas about people and life (Blue is the Warmest Colour similarly lit up the big screen last year). Girlhood is another that fits that mould. In a way, it is very unlike Boyhood — the perspective taken on growing up is rougher in this instance — but the two films would make a wonderful double-bill, equal in overarching message and, just about, in quality.

Girlhood - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Pyramide Distribution

Spring Breakers (2013)


Director: Harmony Korine

Release Date: March 22nd, 2013 (US); April 5th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco

Touted shortly after its release as a cult classic in the making, Spring Breakers delivers a unique blend of boisterous partying, melancholic musings and rhythmic tones. Following the exploits of four college students desperate to escape and experience spring break, we see two well-known former Disney stars averted from their origin and instead fuelled by drugs and desire.

The most prominent and intriguing question going into Spring Breakers was always going to be how Harmony Korine, the man behind the curtain, would be able to portray Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez in particular as anything but two ‘teen queens’ idolized for their roles in the High School Musical franchise and Wizards of Waverly Place, but to focus solely on that aspect would be doing the film a huge disservice. It is to the trio’s credit that they manage to pull it off to the degree they do (the characters, and the film, are both hard-hitting), but the success of Spring Breakers is also down to the inclusion of many more elements.

From start until finish, Spring Breakers boasts a mesmeric quality (much akin to that of Drive) which amplifies the hauntingly idyllic narrative the film follows. This is partially down to the score, which blends hip-hop, synth and a surreal-yet-effective use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, to create a diverse audio backdrop to the story. However, the trance-inducing nature of Spring Breakers also owes a debt to just how well-edited the piece is. Although the film follows a linear structure, certain events are replayed in various different forms — such as in slow motion or from another character’s perspective — and these events are often interlaced with unassuming dialogue — such as phone calls to home. Every time an event or a piece of dialogue is repeated, it evokes a more fulfilling meaning than the last time, and so the film delves deeper into the characters’ psyche as it progresses.

Even as all of the beer-swigging, party-going and bikini-wearing (or otherwise) is playing out on-screen, Spring Breakers consistently retains and gradually develops its primary message: when somebody wants to escape, just how far are they willing to go? For each of the four women the answer is different, and their realisation, or lack thereof, varies in extremity. Although ‘spring breakers’ signifies the age-old clichéd representation of college students and their annual partying and alcoholic exploits, the real spring break is the one that the four females encounter, which is far from clichéd yet remains very real in terms of the power of persuasion, desire and accountability in society.

Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine are all very good in their roles, and even begin to amalgamate into a single being as the story progresses. The abnormality of seeing Gomez and Hudgens portraying the characters that they do only adds to the overall bizarre and peculiar feel the film has to it (which is by no means a negative point). With that being said, perhaps even further astray from his comfort zone is James Franco, whose character Alien is a rapper who delves into a number of unconventional activities. Franco has never been more distant from square one with his performance here, and he is on full throttle from the get-go. His charisma and unconventional charm are in effect throughout, and by the end of the film Franco is almost entirely unrecognisable (not just visually). Whatever mindset James Franco had going into filming Spring Breakers was the correct one as he pulls the character off, cementing an excellent casting choice.

Spring Breakers is very vibrant and colourful, and at just over one and a half hours long does not overstay its welcome — another 20 minutes would probably have hurt this. The combination of many of the aforementioned devices (integration, repetition, colour etc.) come together to produce a film similar to that of a relentlessly meandering piece of art. There is more than a hint of beauty in the madness. Even without the use of special on-screen trickery such as CGI, Spring Breakers remains a spectacle in every manner: visually, audibly, and in relation to its narrative. The film has divided opinion since its release and will probably continue to do so, but Harmony Korine does something daring and provocative, and it works.

Credit: Cohorte
Credit: Cohorte