Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sean Baker's best-yet--the sweet 'n juicy STARLET--hits DVD/Blu-ray/digital venues

All about porn and caring, STARLET makes some surpri-sing connections, both physical and emotional, along the way. This is the third film by Sean Baker that I've seen and covered (Take Out and Prince of Broadway are the other two), and his movies seem to get better and better. In retrospect, you may find yourself thinking of them as documentaries, so well does Baker -- who directs, edits and either writes or co-writes -- create lives that appear utterly real in a milieu that seems equally so. 
But these are narrative films, nonetheless.

Mr. Baker, shown at left, has a good eye and ear, both of which he uses to show us a group of full-bodied characters engaged in making their way in life. He is remarkably non-judgmental, too. This results in films in which you end up rather liking everyone, despite their occasional crass, venal or simply dumb behavior. Baker appears to see the good (at least some good) in everyone -- a rarity these days --  yet his vision is nothing like of a Pollyanna. This, along with his increasing flair for and understanding of the movie-making process, as much as anything else makes his work quite special.

In Starlet, he follows the adventures of a 21-year-old porn actress named Jane (Dree Hemingway, at left and last seen in The Truth About Angels), who looks to have a real future in this sleazy field, if she plays her cards right. Via a yard sale and a large thermos she purchases and plans to use as a vase, Jane makes the acquaintance of Sadie, a curmudgeonly old woman (Besedka Johnson, below, an astrologist-turned-actress, giving her first and, sadly, last film performance). How these two slowly connect, break apart and reconnect provides the meat of the movie, and with the help of his two pretty amazing performers, Baker makes all this register pitch perfect without a false moment.

Ms Hemingway, in particular, proves expert at limning a young woman with remarkably good instincts negotiating her way around everyone from this angry old woman to her porn boss, somewhat sleazy roommates (male, James Ransone, and female, Stella Maeve, below), all kinds of customers at a porn convention -- and even the police. In a more just world, this performance would be winning numerous awards. Maybe Hemingway just makes it look too easy.

Wisely, I think, Baker leaves the porn in the background for quite awhile. From what we initially see, this could almost be any old office situation in which our two girls labor. When, finally, we're confronted with an actual porn shoot (which, by the way, comes pretty close to hard-core action) it is handled so smartly, realistically and un-sensationally by the filmmaker that we simply go right along with it (as do -- whew -- the actors on view). The reason this proves such a smart move is that, by this time, we are so fully involved with and caring about Jane that we can understand and even appreciate her actions here as simply work for hire. In fact, we can maybe even approve of the good job she does.

I can't think of another movie that has achieved quite this. No, not the recent About Cherry, which gave us the business end of porn, or even Boogie Nights, which gave us all sorts of new things. Another reason that Baker's view of the industry proves so special and different is the actor,  Karren Karagulian, above, with Ms Hemingway, who was so good in Prince of Broadway, and adds layers of interest here as the intelligent, business-like, and even (dare we say it) relatively decent man in charge of the business.

The filmmaker keeps his camera up close (below) or distant (above), as necessary, and the results are just right. In a couple of situations, Baker veers near melodrama, but so well does he guide his actors, that the result is never melodramatic. What happens finally, and at any point along the way, is life continuing to unfold, with lessons only begun to be learned and changes maybe partially in place. This -- in our current low-budget, independent film world -- is near-miraculous.

Running 103 minutes from Music Box FilmsStarlet (which is the name, by the way, of our heroine's delightful little dog) is available, after its too-short theatrical run, this Tuesday, May 7, on DVD and Blu-ray and via digital formats, too -- for sale or rental.  Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray include audio commentary, The Making of STARLET, interviews with select cast and crew, rehearsal and audition footage (we watched the Besedka Johnson audition: fun!), Behind-the-Scenes, and more.

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