MEAN STREETS and TRAINWRECK: Tangerine and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

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tangerine oneGuerilla filmmaking is nothing new to the world of cinema. It’s probably existed since the first motion picture camera was invented. But perhaps the most famous and influential one is Rome: Open City in which the action is often filmed on the streets of a newly un-Nazi occupied Rome with a mixture of amateur and pro actors.
It’s never not gone out of style since (Sam Fuller uses it during the opening scenes of The Crimson Kimono, for example), but bulky cameras and sound gear made it very difficult. Now with smaller, cheaper and easier to use film equipment, it has been on the rise.
Most notably and recently we had Escape from Tomorrow, much of it secretly shot at Disneyland and Disneyworld (and often impressively so). But that film lacked a strong and focused narrative until it felt like the writer and director ultimately lost control of it all and the final third never came together in a satisfying way.
And now we have Tangerine, shot not just on the streets of Los Angeles (mainly on Santa Monica between Vermont and Highland, though it does extend to West Hollywood at one point), but also on busses, motels and in fast food restaurants, especially a donut shop manned by a very beleaguered clerk.

Tangerine is a wonder, and not just because of the gimmick. I mean, I don’t want to downplay the guerilla filmmaking part of it, because it does add to the excitement of the film as a whole.

In many ways, Tangerine is a technical marvel, shot exclusively on smartphones in actual locations and on the streets and parking lots of tinsel town. And not just shot on smartphones, but with often a gliding and graceful movement where the camera seems to float around the characters and the situation (I understand the cinematographers were often on skates or a bicycle). It is one of the least static films, indie or not, that you will see this year (Mad Max notwithstanding).

And perhaps most amazing is that it has some of the best sound in the indie world of recent note (minus that awful, hollow sound that so many low budget films have).

Plus what daring for all involved, doing these highly emotional scenes on the streets where anyone could walk past (and do), as well as, most astoundingly, having a near knock down drag out fight on a city bus (I’d love to know exactly how they got around the drivers and other passengers for that).

But believe me, in the end the movie is more than the sum of its gimmicky parts.

The basic story, written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch and directed by Baker (they also gave us Starlet) revolves around two transgendered prostitutes. When Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriquez) gets out of being in jail for a month, she is ready to see her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone—obviously one of the pros here). But Sin-Dee’s best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) lets slip that Chester has been cheating on her with a non-transgendered woman.

tangerine twoSince hell hath no fury, Sin-Dee goes on a quest to find this woman and Chester, with Alexandra tagging along against her better judgment. Meanwhile, Alexandra is trying to get people to come to her singing showcase that night while an Armenian cab driver is trying to find Sin-Dee because she is his favorite and she is now out of prison.

The story immediately grabs you because of the wonderful personalities of the two central characters. There is a great chemistry between Rodriquez and Taylor and they work off each other expertly (it’s a first film, surprisingly, for both). And this chemistry extends to everybody else the two meet along the way. In fact, there are almost no actors here who don’t play off each other as if they were to the Stella Adler born.

And then when the complication is first introduced, just try like hell not to want to know how it’s all going to play out.

And it never stops going. There is so much high octane energy here you don’t have time to breathe. And it’s not just the acting, gliding camerawork, and daring filmmaking. Baker often punctuates the characters actions of marching down a street with over the top, classical and operatic background music that is both slightly ridiculous, yet moving at the same time.

The basic plot is structured like a farce in which all the characters (including the cab driver’s family) all end up at the donut shop and have it all out. Unlike a farce, not everything is resolved. In fact, it ends the only way it could, with the two friends by themselves, as at the beginning, sort of stuck with each other not just because they are all they have, but because no matter what, they are there for each other.

One of the best films of the year.

young and prodigiousThe writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has acquired quite a following with his career, beginning most notably over here with Delicatessen and following that up with City of Lost Children, A Very Long Engagement and Micmacs.

But his most effective creation has to have been Amelie, which charmed the pants off America, made a lot of money and earned five Oscar nominations.

Now we have his latest, along with writer Guillaume Laurant (they’ve worked together on other films, including Amelie), and it’s called The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet.

Much was made in the local L.A. media that it opened without reviews and without any fanfare. But upon seeing it, I think I have a fairly good idea why. I’m sorry to report that the latest film by these often charming and imaginative filmmakers is extremely difficult to get through. It’s almost a failure in every area.

The basic premise is…well, there are two, actually. Ten-year-old T.S. Spivet lives on a ranch in the middle of nowhere Montana. He’s a genius who likes to create and experiment, but one of these goes wrong when his twin brother has a gun accident and is killed. And half the movie is about the family coming to terms with the fallout of this tragedy.

The second premise is that T.S. invents a perpetual motion machine and is invited by The Smithsonian (without knowing how young this inventor is) to receive an award in Washington, D.C. So T.S. runs away by hopping a freight train, arriving first to the astonishment of the Smithsonian, but then the delight because of the attention such a young inventor will bring.

But the filmmakers never remotely bring these two stories together and make then dependent on one another. Or if they do, it’s in such a vague, undramatic way that I couldn’t figure it out.

The movie even at times gets off these subjects, such as a scene where T.S. meets a railway hobo played by French stalwart Dominque Pinon, he of the beautiful scrunched up face. I have no idea what their conversation was about or what it had to do with anything.

And the Smithsonian through line, even within the confines of a story that is told somewhat using magic realism, is not remotely convincing. Perhaps the oddest part of the tale is that this perpetual motion machine T.S. invents isn’t a perpetual motion machine. When he gets to D.C., he clearly states the energy source will only last 400 years, which, by definition, is not perpetual. But no one seems bothered by this.

But to add insult to injury, the movie moves at a snail’s pace (ironic for a film about the creation of a new energy source). It takes forever for very little to happen.

I must say that to his credit Jeunet has an incredible eye. With the help of his cinematographer Thomas Hardmeier he has crafted one of the most beautiful elegies on the U.S. in some time, with breathtaking, never ending vistas and cities at night. It’s a highly original look at our country, if nothing else. And there is some quite imaginative use of 3D.

Yet this ravishing look never really adds anything to the story or the characters. It just looks pretty.

Of course, how you react to the movie may in some great part depend on how you react to Kyle Catlett in the title role. He’s adorable to look at and tries to have a lot of spunk, but for me he doesn’t quite have a strong enough screen personality and is never that convincing in the role. Instead of intriguing or ingratiating, he seems, well, annoying, as annoying, or even more so, that the young boy in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

The cast is rounded out by Helena Bonham-Carter as his entomologist mother; she gives a calm, downhome performance that isn’t very exciting (because the part isn’t), but she’s very effective in it. Judy Davis plays the Smithsonian representative with a huge amount of energy, but since this through line never made sense to me, neither does her character. Callum Keith Rennie plays the father with even less screen presence or personality than Catlett.

So tell me what you think.

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