Monday, January 4, 2016

Reviews from gulag: We shall never be free of 2015, no matter how much we might prefer to be

Here's some of the things I've seen recently, ranging from the truly terrible to the marginally okay, and none of which I had the stomach to write full reviews for: Tangerine, Girlhood, White God, and Home.  2015 was really not a good year for film.

When Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) gets out of jail, she finds that her lover (James Ransome) has moved on.  She'd lean on her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) for emotional support, but marauding across Los Angeles and dragging the other woman (Mickey O'Hagan) by the hair through the uncaring streets of the city somehow strikes her as more cathartic.  Note: this movie is allegedly progressive.

Feted as one of the better and more surprising movies of the year, the real surprise of Tangerine comes from both barrels.  First, it's about as fucking pointless as a movie can be, seeming in many ways more like a demo reel for co-writer/director Sean Baker's basic ability to put a series of shots in some sort of narrative order, and for its actors' basic ability to read lines and convey broad emotions, than it ever seems like some kind of useful motion picture.  Second, if I were a transwoman, and particularly a transwoman of color, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want this to be the movie that raised awareness of my issues, insofar as the story (such as it is) boils down to the following: "an unstable brown transwoman prostitute somewhat brutally kidnaps a tiny white XX prostitute in order to exact revenge upon her, for during the latter's monthlong stint in jail, the former had sex with their mutual pimp, whom the latter conceives as her actual boyfriend."  For the sake of argument, we'll concede that our heroine, Sin-dee, is simply tragically deluded—and that it's not just that Sean Baker thinks prostitutes are really this stupid.  (Though isn't it nice that it's the tiny white XX prostitute who gets to point out the gap in the lead's logic?  Maybe Sean Baker just thinks transwomen are this stupid.)  Anyway, what we're left with is a revenge movie where the impetus for revenge is morally repulsive and the subject of the revenge is a sexually exploited victim.  Happy holidays, losers.  (It's also a Christmas movie.)

You might expect, then, that Baker and the actors might have let this incredibly dire scenario at least serve as a springboard for some kind of epiphany, or personal growth, or even self-examination.  You would be incorrect; co-lead Alexandra (another transgendered sex worker) might be substantially more pleasant than her more active co-worker, but hopes that she'll emerge as the hero and her erstwhile friend as the villain are submerged beneath the tidal wave of farce that's as blithe as it is shrill: if Alexandra could care less about her buddy's loud, felonious wrath, she'd probably be in another movie entirely.  Instead, we find their friendship reaffirmed, upon the basis of a hate-crime, no less—a hate crime that comes out of the clear blue sky and turns Tangerine, at the last, into the thing it had heretofore avoided being: an after-school special.

Tangerine, for all its representational novelty, feels like a movie someone might've made about t-women in the Before Times, with characters in such a reduced state of consciousness that they're scarcely believable, let alone enjoyable.  The fundamental bleakness of their lives is matched only by the obnoxiousness with which those lives are lived: this is, I imagine, how the critics have deigned to describe it as a comedy.  Of course, Tangerine, while admittedly lively, is in fact depressingly unfunny: there is one proper joke in the whole movie—it's where the other major character, a taxi driver, realizes to his disappointment that he's accidentally purchased the services of a ciswoman prostitute—and the laugh is strangled upon birth with the rough language and rougher tone of this dissatisfied customer.  For, at this point in Tangerine, you have no idea whether or not this scene's going to end with a random sex worker getting punched in the fucking face.

Perhaps it's easy to grade something this low budget (though not that low budget) on a curve, especially when confronted with its guerrilla filmmaking bona fides.  I'll even admit that it's positively Goddamned gorgeous for a movie shot on an iPhone, with extraordinarily well-captured, high-saturation colors.  But, of course, "Goddamned gorgeous for a movie shot on an iPhone" doesn't get you very far at all when your movie's edited around the weaknesses of your novice performers and the paucity of your coverage, let alone when a solid 20% of the film is composed of hack montages of Sin-dee momentously marching down some West Hollywood street.  Oh, yes, it's surely pretty enough, but halfway-decent cinematography, which would not necessarily mean too much even in the best of cases, means absolutely nothing when it's deployed in the service of a story this empty, grating, and suspect.

Score:  2/10

GIRLHOOD (2014 France/2015 USA)
In the banlieue, there really isn't as much parkour as you'd hope; instead, it's a dull daily struggle, as Marieme (Karidja Koure) finds out when she edges her way into a life of rebellion and, ultimately, crime.

Now, if Tangerine only retrenches into the mode of an after-school special in its climax, Girlhood starts there and never leaves, though in this regard it at least has something to say, regardless of how sleepily it says it.  Director Celine Sciamma's clinically depressed camera only ever comes alive in three scenes: the first, a nice little karaoke bit where the gals sing an entire pop song during a lame early-teen hotel room romp; the second, when Sciama decides to leer at our minor heroes while they shake their groove thing in a park, like somebody read "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" as a how-to manual (or, more charitably, like someone decided that the Scope frame's lack of headspace demanded lots of close-ups of gyrating underage pelvises, in order to get its point across); and the third, when Sciamma tracks slowly up a flight of stairs following our still-under-18 protagonist's beheeled-feet and bestockinged-legs as she saunters up, because Sciamma—who, I should perhaps point out, is herself a lady—wants to imply to you that during one of the several long black interstitials that represent "the passage of some amount of time," young runaway Marieme has been forced to become a call girl, though we soon discover she hasn't.  (Her couture is her drug-dealer disguise; perhaps this is a thing in France.)  I have decided not to count the fourth time, since the sequence where she appears to be about to kiss a girl winds up deliriously pointless.  I suppose I could count the very final shot, too—a nice, obvious bit of blocking—but I was never well-disposed enough toward her film for Sciamma's blunt visualization of "wiry determination" to move me in any particular way.

Girlhood is not, in the main, terrible; it manages to more-or-less hold the attention as a rushed-through collection of notes about the life of a young woman from France's disadvantaged classes, even when the most specificity it ever achieves is "Marieme likes video games."  Yet everyone is just about as good as they could be, and Karidja Toure stands out by underplaying her role in a way that probably does the film no favors as a narrative, but seems awfully believable in its creation of a quasi-introvert introduced to the joy of belonging.  It's only too bad that "belonging," in this case means fist fights, running drugs, and generally being a teenaged hellion.  So: don't join a gang, kids!  Be yourself!  And get vocational training!  Actually, that last part I agree with.

Score:  4/10

WHITE GOD (2014 Hungary/2015 USA)
Lili (Zsofia Psotta) is sent to live with her father for three months, but the old man has no time or space for her beloved dog, Hagen (Luke/Body).  With the Hungarian government cracking down on impure breeds of dogs (do you get it?), Lili's dad's recourse is to simply dump the mutt in an abandoned lot.  Hagen's incredible journey begins, and he is captured by a vile homeless man, sold into dogfighting, and finally winds up in a kill shelter, where through a trick of magical realism, he manages to lead the other inmates in an escape that becomes a full-fledged dog revolt.  Is there no humanity left in him?  Of course there is, because this movie is cowardly on top of being narratively lumpy and often poorly-shot.

Now it seems like we're getting somewhere: prospective genre entertainment with blood and gore and awesome animal stunts.  But wait, what's that?  White God is actually a chilly allegory about Hungarian social problems?  Son of a

There's nothing really wrong, of course, with White God's attempt to use its animal uprising as a stand-in for human issues, although it winds up a shy, clumsy metaphor in the hands of its co-screenwriter and director Kornel Mondruzco.  No, White God is far better when it's about itself—that is, when it's about the suffering that humans inflict upon animals.  On this top, non-allegorical level, White God works about as well as it could given its production realities; Mondruzco ambitiously sought to tell this story in a live-action feature that required the cooperation of around 150 dogs pulled from animal shelters across Hungary and trained to run in packs through the streets and occasionally perform tricks.  I don't think it's a surprise, then, that Mondruzco's ambition far exceeds his grasp—White God is edited to shit, with the director trying to put together collages of dog behavior that more-or-less represent the story he's telling, and the fact that you can't use either squibs or explosives around dogs necessitates some glaringly phony CGI blood and sparks.  Less forgivable are the human extras: in most of the scenes of dogs swarming, the people being menaced by them look vaguely nonplussed, rather than terrified, possibly because screaming around non-professional dog actors would have made the dogs impossible to handle.  On top of everything, you have some hideous handheld video work: nearly the only moments where White God feels like an assured piece of cinema is when the camera is bolted to the bottom of a moving car and the film manages some elegant tracking shots at a dog's-eye level.  No, taken altogether, White God's canine onslaught isn't very convincing, or engaging as a spectacle.  That hurts it badly as a nature-unleashed horror movie, though let's be crystal clear—we're light years away from, say, Birdemic: Shock and Terror here.  And I'll happily call it a better movie than The Birds, too, although The Birds obviously had a larger budget for mayhem and for more grotesque props.

Meanwhile, the central dogs—Luke and Body, two brothers portraying our hero Hagen—are fantastic.  Indeed, they're such great dog actors that they're better than the human actors in White God—and not on some kind of a relative scale.  Which is why it's such a drag that so much of White God's two hour runtime is spent not with dogs, but with people.  (By the way: is there any justification for a "dog revolution" film being two hours long, especially when it doesn't even bother with a science fiction conceit for its hyper-organized dog revolutionaries?  Congratulations, you recognized that this was a rhetorical question.)  The humans of White God are useless beyond their function as the reason why a dog's life is so miserable; the decision to stay with Hagen's original owner, Lili, is a disastrous one.  Lili and her home life are preposterously boring—she and her father indulge in a rote arc of reconnection that simply could not be more icy and forced—and the attempt to try to tie Lili's prosaic problems into Hagen's exploitation at the hands of dog fighters and his eventual fate as a prisoner in a doggie death camp would be laughable if it weren't so damaging to the film's pace.  But, naturally, since White God is European, there's at least one part where it looks like Lili might wind up sexually abused; she doesn't, since Mondruzco is, I assume, not a total prick and at least half-understands the kind of movie he's making.  Still, it's clear that he enjoys toying with the audience in scenes like the one where Lili has to share a bedroom with her unaccountably-squalid father, and he tells her to change into her nightclothes right there (he turns around); or in the sequence where Lili falls in with a boy at least four years older with her, gets drunk, and winds up unconscious on the floor of a rave (the cops break up the party).  However, we need to keep track of Lili—I guess—because without Lili reappearing in the third act we couldn't have White God's ending, which is as strikingly-shot as it is cloying, stupid, and campy.

Score:  5/10

HOME (2015)
Meet the Boov, a species of conformists and cowards who have become experts in the strategy of running away from their galactic enemies, the fearsome Gorg.  With their homeworld destroyed, they've decided to settle down on a familiar blue marble called Earth; however, finding it occupied, they move all of us humans to Australia prior to colonization.  But they miss one of us: young Gratuity "Tip" Tucci (Rihannaand are you kidding me with that name?).  In the aftermath of the takeover, Tip has been living an Omega Man existence in the remains of our civilization.  But things change when she makes the acquaintance of an accidental renegade named Oh (Jim Parsons).  He's a Boov so stupid that he accidentally told the Gorg where the Boov are.  Together, first as uneasy allies and later as annoying friends, they must save the Earth from the Boov and from the Gorg alike.

There is a good-to-great movie in DreamWorks' Home, and sometimes it peeks its head up from beneath the slathering of godawful humor, stupid broken English, and checked-out performances from luminaries ranging from Steve Martin to Rihanna to that creepy burglar from those Intel commercials.  In fact, I underestimate how often you can see the good-to-great movie hiding here: it's actually visible in just about every frame.  Home is blessed—or perhaps cursed—with a surfeit of genuinely pleasant design, especially in the form of its color-changing alien Boov, whose hues match their moods and whose trunklike ears unfurl with extraordinary cuteness and whose bubble-based anti-gravity technology should rarely be anything less than absolutely delightful to behold (even if, in practice, it very often is).

Unfortunately, the layers of effluence are many and they are deep in Home; so many that they're hard to list, and so deep that they're painful to recall.  But you already know that the most omnipresent problem, and most offensive, is the aliens' film-breaking diction—every Boov speaks a form of reprobate "English," apparently as a first language.  They speak it to the audience in voiceover; they speak it to humans; they even speak it to one other, because Home is lazy and because Home is dumb.  It gets old almost before it even begins—yet the film must believe it is the funniest fucking thing in the whole world, because good God, is it not doled out anything like prudently.  Lines like "Boovs do not dancing!" remain the most salient expression of Home's terrible sense of humor, even in a movie whose whole plot turns on an e-vite mis-sent to the Boov's galactic enemies and features a flying car powered by a slushie machine.  (One of the slushie flavors featured in this film is called "Busta Lime."  Jesus wept.)

That's before you get to the self-congratulation of a film that features Rihanna songs as a bridge between civilizations, or the eye-rolling inspidity of its ultra-generic hero's journey; but even these elements don't register as the worst thing about it.  No, the worst—even if Home does its best to distract you with pretty colors and an awful, awful lot of unmotivated camera movement—is the teeth-grinding kids'-movie indifference it shows to its central premise, embodied in a human co-protagonist who seems mildly inconvenienced at most that her entire species, including her mother, has been put in an internment camp by implacable alien conquerors who—as far as she can tell—are probably just waiting to eat them.  Home is like a mash-up of E.T., Enemy Mine, Independence Day, and Schindler's fucking List, mixed together by the brain-damaged.  (I'm not kidding, either: I pray that they're actually accidental, but there really are direct visual quotes from Schindler in this movie.)

Every part of its foundation is deeply incompatible with itself, even beyond all the obnoxious textual contradictions which the script continually raises, seemingly without either knowing or caring.  But of course even more insult must be added to the mix, because Home also has a bad-ass "evil" alien (in any event, they're allegedly even more evil than the Boov), who arrive in our solar system in one of most visually spectacular ways such a force has ever come, by smashing a path through the rings of Saturn with a spaceship apparently the size of our moon.  An incomprehensible, unforgivable waste, Home is pitched at the stupidest four year olds, and it still winds up socking them in the knees.  And does it end with a moronic dance party, despite Oh's assertions regarding such things?  You bet your ass it does.

Score:  1/10


  1. Wow, Home did NOT jive with you. I quite detested it, but you've reached an Olympic level. I'm actually impressed.

    1. It's so frustratingly bad, Brennan. Why, in an environment as immaculately controlled as an animated film, would such bad ideas be permitted to thrive?

      I mean, it's no hour and a half version of Lava, but it's still pretty annoying.