Friday, October 30, 2015

An Oscar campaign begins for Sean Baker's oddball and entrancing indie, TANGERINE

The fact that mini-budget independent movies almost never get noticed by the Academy is by now such a standard occurrence -- an anomaly like Winter's Bone simply proves the rule -- that most of us critics just groan and roll our eyes yearly at all the excellent work that never gets "officially" noticed (except occasionally by the group that shepherds the Best Foreign Language Film to completion). So the recent news that TANGERINE, the latest film from indie stalwart Sean Baker, is going to receive an Oscar campaign via its distributor, Magnolia Pictures and its executives producers The Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark (also indie stalwarts), is welcome news.

Filmmaker Baker has been on my radar since his funny/sad/ energetic look at an illegal immigrant deliveryman of Chinese food, Take Out, released theatrically back in 2004. When I finally saw the movie upon its DVD release a few years later, I contacted Baker for a quick Q&A interview (you can find it here), and I have been enjoying his every-couple-of-years-appearance of a new film ever since. These would include Prince of Broadway, Starlet, and now Tangerine.

The adjective group funny/sad/energetic applies to all of Baker's films, as does the term "documentary feel." While all of these are narrative films, so filled with specific of the workplace and the living habits of their protagonists, with each you could swear you're watching a documentary. One thing that will tip you off to the contrary is how often, plot-wise, the films seem melodramatic. And yet, so gifted are the performers on view, and so full of life and good will are the movies themselves -- despite their often bleak subject matter -- that even some of us cynical critic types appear to embrace them quite fully.

In some ways, Tangerine seems the best of all the Bakers so far. While I say that with each new film of his, it's because he keeps growing as a filmmaker. Here he has acted as director, editor, co-writer, co-cinematographer, co-producer and co-casting director. (Yes, I think we can legitimately call this a Sean Baker film.)  Baker also completely shot his film on an iPhone, and while it is not the first movie to boast this -- 2012s underseen and excellent King Kelly was shot on a phone camera -- Tangerine looks like a million bucks in comparison.

Baker loves to tackle "the other," whether it be immigrants, the poor, porn industry workers or now, the transvestite hookers of his latest movie. He endows all his characters with enormous humanity and such a range of good and bad qualities that we see their faults aplenty but can still care about them and enjoy them and their often fraught situations. His characters become so real, genuine and important that their humanity completely overtakes their "otherness." This is no small accomplishment.

Tangerine takes place in Hollywood on Christmas Eve, as hookers Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, below, right) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor, above), exchange pleasantries and sadness concerning Sin-Dee's unfaithful pimp (the wonderful James Ransone of The Wire), whom Sin-dee decides to punish (along with the blond whore with whom he's taken up: a very funny, spaced-out Mickey O'Hagan, below left).

What happens and why includes an Armenian taxi driver with a yen for chicks-with-dicks (played beautifully by Karren Karagulian, below, Baker's go-to guy in literally all his films), the family of this sex-obsessed cab man, and various other denizens of the dank, culminating in a Hollywood donut shop in which all hell breaks hilariously loose.

Whether Tangerine will connect with Academy members in a major way, I couldn't say. But so far as low-budget independents with sleazy themes, big hearts and a lot of gumption and talent are concerned (Taylor and Rodriquez are both phenomenal), this is the one to beat.

The movie, running just 88 minutes, is still playing in theaters (it first opened in early July) and still turning heads. No doubt its video incarnation will appear in time for Academy members to take further note before nominations are in. New upcoming playdates, with cities and theaters listed, can be found by clicking here.

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