F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 17, 2017)

17 08 2017

Sean Baker might be our most essential contemporary humanist filmmaker. He locates the beating heart of his films not in the extraordinary but in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. His works start in one place and end in someplace altogether different and unexpected, leaving us all the better for having walked two hours in his characters’ shoes.

His 2012 feature “Starlet” is no different. While my first impression upon encountering the film back in 2013 was that the film was sweet but a little slight, a second watch recently convinced me otherwise. This is more than just a May-December platonic friendship between two women in Los Angeles. It’s a moving journey of how people can clear away the calcified numbness in their hearts.

The central character of this selection in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column is Dree Hemingway’s 21-year-old Jane, an actress down on luck and short on cash. She gets a welcome snap out of her boredom when she unexpectedly stumbles upon a wad of cash hidden inside a thermos purchased from an elderly woman, Besedka Johnson’s Sadie, at a yard sale. Conflicted, Jane takes some money for herself – but also makes attempts to befriend Sadie to assuage her guilt.

The two initially take to each other like oil and water, but each has a cloistered part of their identity that leaves them with a void in their day-to-day existences. Gradually, and heartwarmingly, they begin to fill that space. We see more of Jane’s alternative world, as she’s the protagonist, and Baker finds a visual schema that represents the two discordant spheres she inhabits. Her home life is filled with hand-held camerawork and fast-paced editing, while her visits with Sadie are comprised of more stable shots and longer takes. I won’t spoil what exactly makes Jane’s personal struggles so turbulent and simply let the film reveal it. Baker drops a detail that would define any other character so casually about halfway through the film; it’s a refreshing change of pace for this type of figure who traditionally never amounts to anything other than the work she does.

REVIEW: Prince of Broadway

20 05 2017

The working class appear a decent amount in contemporary cinema, but few directors take the time to understand their world like Sean Baker. His technique is more than just an aesthetic superiority of neorealism or “poverty porn” meant to coddle the bleeding hearts of the audience. Baker gets down into the weeds and grapples with poverty on its own terms, examining how getting dealt a single bad hand can trigger a cascade of negative outcomes.

At the beginning of “Prince of Broadway,” the Queens street vendor Lucky (Prince Adu) sees his life take such a turn when an old girlfriend shoves a baby into his arms. She needs childcare for two weeks for some unexplained reason while she jumps town, and we get the sense that Lucky is her last resort. Not only does he have no parenting skills under his boat, but he lives by the seat of his pants hocking off-brand designer bags and, as an undocumented immigrant from Ghana, Lucky can scarcely fall back on a network of extended family to shoulder the burden of watching the baby.

Leaving an ill-equipped individual in possession of a baby has classically entailed the trappings of comedy (“Three Men and a Baby”) or poignant drama (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) … so long as the protagonist comes from means. In “Prince of Broadway,” the same inciting incident triggers the basic mechanisms of economic survival as Lucky wonders how to feed, house and monitor his son. The sacrifices and trade-offs he must make in order to fulfill the most basic human compassion to the young life in his care involve his very livelihood.

Baker understands that a story as seemingly commonplace as this one in Lucky’s world cannot involve mere transposition from an upper-middle-class milieu. Every decision carries enormous weight. Every event comes with massive aftershocks, many of which cannot be met with adequate preparation. He’s taken the time to understand the mechanics of Lucky’s situation, and while “Prince of Broadway” might not necessitate its full 100 minute runtime (subplots involving his boss could easily have been streamlined), there’s not a moment that does not demonstrate his empathetic eye for detail. B

REVIEW: Tangerine

29 07 2015

TangerineThe big headline surrounding “Tangerine” after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival concerned its radical filming techniques.  Director Sean Baker made the decision to shoot his entire project on an iPhone using anamorphic lens adapters, which makes it the first widely legitimated film made with such mobile cameras.  As he later explained in interviews, this choice largely came about due to budgetary concerns.

But to relegate this aesthetic selection simply to fiscal matters does the film a disservice.  The iPhone does not merely capture the events of “Tangerine.”  It heightens them, lending a sense of ceaseless motion and excitement to the proceedings.  Unlike a larger camera, the untethered iPhone as a recording mechanism can float more freely through a scene.

With such a camera, Baker (who also co-shot the film with Radium Cheung) has the freedom to quickly jump around a moment to find the most interesting component at any given time.  This enhanced capacity makes a perfect match of form to content as “Tangerine” follows a day in the life of two transgender sex workers in Hollywood.  Their activities, which are covert and shady by nature of their illegality, lead to many dramatic and surprisingly hysterical situations.

At first, “Tangerine” seems content to just portray its two leads, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee and Mya Taylor’s Alexandra, shooting the breeze in swear-heavy vernacular.  Both are fast-talking chicks quick to erupt in anger over the backhanded dealings of their pimp, Chester.  The camera mostly follows as their mouths and egos lead them across town, resembling a collection of anecdotes.  It glides by on novelty for a while but fully redeems itself when a number of the threads connect in one uproarious climax.

Sneakily, “Tangerine” also comes full circle in the end and reveals itself as a rather touching chronicle of friendship through thick and thin.  Sin-Dee and Alexandra are two indelible creations who will likely linger in the cinematic landscape far longer than the battery of an iPhone.  B+3stars