London Film Festival 2015 – Day 7

Reviewed today, Sean Baker’s iPhone-shot neo-screwball Tangerine, Pablo Larrain’s latest coruscating chronicle of Chile’s discontents The Club and Lenny Abrahamson’s Toronto award winner Room.

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Tangerine (d. Sean Baker scr. Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch)

There are two things everybody knows about Tangerine, so let’s start there. The first thing to note about the film is the fact that director Sean Baker shot it entirely on three iPhones, albeit phones complemented by an anamorphic adaptor and a Steadicam tool, and the result is a film that looks surprisingly fantastic on a cinema screen, distinguished by its saturated colours and vibrant lighting. The other thing to say upfront about Tangerine is that the two lead characters are transgender women, but that in itself is not what makes this film feel so exciting and groundbreaking; it’s the simple fact that this is not a film about trans issues and their gender is not the only defining trait that these characters have. Baker takes them at face value as people and invites us to experience the world on their terms.

The challenge we face in this arrangement is simply to keep up. Tangerine‘s central duo are Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and we are introduced to them as they enjoy a Christmas Eve doughnut together, but they are rarely this calm and static over the subsequent 90 minutes. When Sin-Dee learns that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransome) has been cheating on her during a brief spell behind bars, she flies out of the doughnut shop in a rage, intent on revenge. Rodriguez is the volatile engine that powers much of Tangerine‘s first half, which possesses a screwball momentum and a fizzing energy. The film is brash, rude and frequently hilarious, with the comedy being bolstered by a tangible sense of authenticity. Another dimension is given to the film by the cutaways to Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian taxi driver who has to put up with drunks in the back of his cab all day and likes to sneak away from his overbearing family to get some action from the trans hookers who ply their trade on these grubby L.A. Backstreets.

All of the characters in the film are presented as flawed human beings just trying to get by in a world that won’t give them a break, and when the explosion of energy that Tangerine begins with starts to dissipate, it is replaced by a note of poignancy and intimacy that the two leads carry off beautifully. It feels like the kind of film that Rainer Werner Fassbinder might be making if he was around today, and it offers the kind of bracing and satisfying entertainment that is rare enough in cinema to be worth cherishing. It also feels like a genuine breakthrough film at a time when transgender people are opening doors into mainstream conversation and making their voices heard, with one shot in the film feeling particularly resonant. As Sin-Dee marches through the streets the camera briefly pans down and we see that she is striding down Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The shot only lasts for a few seconds but the message is clear – here comes a new movie star. – Philip Concannon

The Club (d. Pablo Larrain scr. Guillermo Calderon, Pablo Larrain, Daniel Villalobos)

In a quiet coastal town in Chile, four elderly men share a house with a younger woman who keeps house, and train a greyhound who they think could win them big money in the national cup in Santiago. Not that they could spend the money, it turns out, because they are excommunicated priests, exiled to one of many remote safe houses by a church looking to secure their silence. One was a homosexual  (who denies being a paedophile). One stole babies from their parents and sold them to the childless. One kept a dossier of the crimes of the military junta. And the fourth – his mind has long since gone, maybe mercifully.

The priests’ day to day existence isn’t explicitly purgatorial – their days of prayer, solitude and dog walking have a peaceful equilibrium which, this being the movies, is inevitably ruptured by three new arrivals; a fifth ex-priest, a troubled young man who has followed the priest here to stand outside the house shouting litanies of the abuse that was inflicted on him as an altar boy, and a slick, smug Jesuit bureaucrat who arrives to investigate the  fallout from the arrival of the first two, which the four men and their carer (an ex nun, it turns out, with her own baleful story)  are attempting to cover up.

This inquisition forms the centrepiece of the film’s second act, as each of the priests is interrogated by the newcomer, and given ample rope to hang themselves with their evasion and self-justification of their pasts, and their anger about how the church has treated them. This section of the film could have been stagey in other hands (and it would work brilliantly on stage; the dialogue throughout the film is fluid, scabrous, filthy, uncomfortably hilarious) but the unique visual language created by Larrain and his longtime DP Sergio Armstrong, using a variety of mismatched vintage lenses which distort the picture in various ways, overlays an unsettling psychic fog on proceedings. It’s as hard to see these men clearly in the flesh as it is to hear through their stories.

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Matters escalate, of course, and it’s the town’s only true innocents who will pay the highest price in the end for the need of the establishment to protect itself. But equilibrium will always be restored in purgatory – it’s the natural order. – Indy Datta

Room (d. Lenny Abrahamson scr. Emma Donoghue)

If Room, adapted by Donoghue from her award-winning novel, seems an unlikely swerve from the director of Frank, look again because this film too is about a protagonist whose world is different from – and rather smaller than – the world for anybody else. Jack, beautifully played by Jacob Tremblay, has just turned five years old and he lives with his Ma (Brie Larson – fierce, desperate) in Room, a shed housing a bed, loo and bath and a rudimentary kitchen – as well as a wardrobe in which Jack hides, and sometimes watches, when Old Nick, Ma’s nightly visitor, arrives.

For those, like me, who came to the film without having read Donoghue’s book, the realisation of why Jack cannot leave Room comes as a dreadful truth we’d rather not hear – not dissimilar to Jack’s own reaction when his mother tells him that she has, in order to protect him, lied to him about the real world. As she plans their escape from their captor, pinning her hopes on a boy who’s never before been outside, our sense of dread for him and her is palpable. When Jack is out in the world and eventually encounters other people – smart cops, kind doctors and smiling grandparents are all equally strange at first – Abrahamson sticks rigidly to the boy’s story, telling us as much about the criminal investigation and the emotional and psychological impact on his family as a five-year-old might overhear. It’s this rigid focus that makes Room so compelling. – Concetta Sidoti

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