Tangerine [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Second Sight
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (18th January 2023).
The Film

"Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!"

Los Angeles trangender sex worker Alexandra (Myra's Mya Taylor) is trying to make some extra money before seven in the evening when she plans to wow her friends with her singing debut at a local dive bar. Unfortunately, she meets up with Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) who has just finished a twenty-eight day stint in jail for holding and Alexandra lets slip the rumor that Sin-Dee's pimp/boyfriend Chester (Kids' James Ransome) has been messing around with a white woman ("…like vagina and everything"). This revelation sends Sin-Dee on the warpath with anyone who crosses her path subject to interrogation over the whereabouts of Chester and a "real fish" whose name starts with a D. Alexandra reluctantly tags along if only to keep her friend from winding up back in jail because there is no way that Sin-Dee is keeping her promise of "no more drama." In a parallel story, Armenian rideshare driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) puts up with various quirky Los Angelinos – among them, the late Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead) – in between pursuing his own desires, even going so far as to skip out on Christmas Eve dinner with his wife (Luiza Nersisyan) to make Alexandra's show. Eventually Alexandra, Sin-Dee – dragging prostitute Dinah (Mapplethorpe's Mickey O'Hagan) by the hair – Razmik, and his suspicious mother-in-law (Sour Grapes' Alla Tumanian) all converge on a West Hollywood doughnut shop in a Yuletide confrontation with the elusive Chester.

As notable in some circles for its trans characters as its another early full-length feature film lensed entirely on iPhones, Tangerine is, by turns, hilarious, tense, and affecting, most of the time within the same scene. Director Sean Baker and his two leads quite impressively juggle the rapid tonal shifts of the film's "drama." Baker and his cinematographer Radium Cheung also manage to convey a gritty Los Angeles while also giving away to bravura moments of camerawork and music that suggest the way Sin-Dee visualizes her heroic role in her own life story in those most decisive moments when she moves through the city before she encounters people who are merely obstacles. However resistant to getting involved in Sin-Dee's drama, Alexandra's storyline seems low key but has its own share of dramatics. While the contrasting temperaments of the two characters are at the forefront, both Rodriguez and Taylor are as adept at conveying anger as they are the sadness and longing that marks Alexandra's disappointment in her friends failing to turn up at her singing debut and Sin-Dee having her triumphant strut away from her Chester drama cut short by a hate crime.

"You forgot I got a dick too," says a breathless Alexandra to a John (producer Darren Dean) who blames her for his inability to rise to the occasion and tries to throw her out of his car without paying her; and, indeed, it is easy to forget that Alexandra and Sin-Dee are anything but how they present themselves and live their lives as we connect to the story on an emotional level in a film in which there is much talk about "real" women (as "fish"), looking convincing, and with cis male characters who either fetishize transgender women – like Razmik, however much he seems to also be pining for one of the main characters – or do not appear to distinguish between sex with transgender or cis women (like Chester who may be a sleazebag who demeans all women but does not seem to prize Dinah's biological sex over Sin-Dee's gender). The film does not forget the danger the characters face from their clients, bigots, and even the police; although one of them only deadnames Alexandra privately to her partner – which makes sense in that it is the name she might still have on her identification and her record – but consistently uses her preferred name in their interaction with her; and however much the sex workers may snipe at each other, mock their looks, and physically fight, they do seem to rally together against violence from without.

There are even some remarkably tender moments between characters at odds with each other suggestive of the theme of found families, which carries over in a way to the B-plot involving Razmik who finds another side of himself in America and the loneliness that comes with having to keep both sides separate. The subplot involving his family is more than filler with a wife who is willing to look the other way but just as furious with her mother poking her nose in as she is with having her part in Razmik's double life the subject of mockery and derision by total strangers. Even the Armenian cab driver (Arsen Grigoryan) who finds Razmik for his mother-in-law must "agree to disagree" with her about the "beautifully-wrapped lie" that is the decidedly non-white Christmas of Los Angeles. Bookended by the larger projects Starlet and Red Rocket – also character studies involving protagonists engaged in sex work of one sort or another – Tangerine carves out its own path thanks as much to its technical and budgetary constraints as the humanity of the actors (novices and veterans alike) that shines through in what could have been flat, cliched pimps, hos, and johns.


Shot entirely on iPhone 5s smart phones – the first model to include 4K video – with the Filmic Pro app (which did not allow shooting raw video but did include higher bitrate options than the phone's stock video app) and the Moondog anamorphic lens attachment, Tangerine does not even try to look like the output of a professional digital rig, but it never feels less than "cinematic" as it embraces its technical limitations and captures the smoggy light of Los Angeles, and the lens flares generated by the light and the anamorphic lens seem organic to the setting and the rough and ready photography than the "retro" attempts of larger productions to emulate the flaring of older anamorphic lenses. The film was finished in 1080p and the same master seen on Magnolia Pictures' US release and Metrodome's earlier UK DVD has been utilized for Second Sight's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.40:1 widescreen Blu-ray. Given the technical limitations of the feature and the additional grading to video with less latitude than the raw video generated not only by professional gear but newer pro iPhone models, detail is sufficient but not so "tactile" conveying the grittiness of the city and its characters in broad strokes thanks to a single wide focal length and no digital attempts to evoke shallow focus. While I have not seen the film theatrically, the added digital grain filter is more apparent on disc than it was on streaming, and I'm not really sure whether or not it adds or detracts from the imagery.


The sole audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio lossless encode of the original 5.1 mix which is very front-oriented for much of its activity which is mainly dialogue with the surrounds utilized for some low, steady atmosphere and the soundstage sounding at its fullest during the outbursts of music underlining Sin-Dee's "drama". Optional English HoH subtitles are included.


Extras start off with an audio commentary by Melbourne Cinιmathθque co-curator Cerise Howard and filmmaker Rohan Spong who discuss the shooting format, the casting of trans actors, and Baker's contrasting uses of grittiness and expressionism via the camerawork and use of music. They also note the significance of the precise geography within Los Angeles – an area not often depicted in films about Hollywood or Los Angeles in general – and the staging of confrontations at intersections. They also discuss the collaborative nature of the scripting between cis hetero Baker and writing partner Chris Bergoch and the cast of trans actors as well as the Armenian performers.

"Merry F*cking Christmas: The Making of Tangerine" (71:52) is a wonderfully comprehensive, funny, and moving documentary in which Baker and Bergoch reveal that Starlet had started out as an intimate day in the life of a porn star but evolved into something bigger; as such, the germ of Tangerine's intimate, stripped down approach was present here and resurrected when the project did not open up more doors for Baker who decided he needed to make another low budget film after being approached by producer/actor Mark Duplass (Creep) who offered him a budget of $100,000 that Baker knew he would have to use strategically toward some sense of production value in making a film both distinctive and accessible to the mainstream. He recalls having recently moved near the corner of Santa Monica and Highland and growing curious about its inhabitants, meeting Taylor while doing research and Taylor in turn introducing him and Bergoch to Rodriguez. O'Hagan recalls her trepidation about doing such physical scenes with a relatively inexperienced actor but forming a bond with Rodriguez while Karagulian recalls his attempts to find Armenian actors and how the original actors who dropped out lead to the good fortune of casting Armenian screen legend Tumanian as well as being able to use the home of an Armenian family rather than needing to recreate the look of an Armenian home at Christmas. Tumanian discusses her difficulty finding work in America and her memories of the shoot while Grigoryan recalls deciding that he wanted to appear in a movie while in America and posted on social media where Karagulian found him. Other cast and crew provide some briefer input including some of the producers who played johns in the motel room scene. The conclusion of the documentary includes some discussion of the realities of the sex workers as recollected by Taylor and Rodriguez.

"Staying Authentic" (33:29) is an interview with director Baker that overlaps with a lot of the information conveyed in the documentary but the more intimate talk conveys more of the sense of where he was mentally after Starlet which did not open the doors he hoped it would, as well as his interest in the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland, exploring the eventual locations and interviewing people including Taylor and Rodriguez. In "Honest and Hilarious" (15:50), Taylor recalls her precarious living situation at the time, her willingness to talk to Baker and Bergoch about her experiences, convincing Rodriguez to talk to them, hating the song they picked for her – and going "diva" on the cast – her self-consciousness about her performance, and reaction to the film upon its screening.

In "The Magic Happens" (17:20), Karagulian recalls turning down a role in The Americans to do Tangerine, working with Baker, his sex scene with Taylor in terms of shooting it without a permit in a real car wash (twice), casting the Armenian talent, giving them direction to tone their acting styles down and the American style of speaking Armenian, as well as his worries about performing scenes in a mix of English and Armenian (particularly in locations where they might not have time to do additional takes). In "Legit Bruises" (14:26), O'Hagan recalls the physicality of her role and Rodriguez's professionalism, working with Ransome, and being embarrassed to tell her friends that the film was being shot on an iPhone.

In "Just Hold It In!" (10:00), actor Josh Sussman (Glee) discusses the technicalities of great-tasting vomit, the opportunity to act while actually drunk, and writer Bergoch heavily sedating himself in order to be vomited upon in the taxi scene. "We Make It Work" (12:17) is an interview with cinematographer Cheung who recalls taking time off of The Americans to shoot the film, adapting to the limitations of the iPhone, his resourceful lighting kit, blown-out hightlights, the Sundance projection, as well as how he has used the iPhone subsequently in place of more cumbersome rigs (for instance, in some underwater shots for Billions).

In "It Was Electric!" (16:50), writer Bergoch recalls meeting Baker while working at MTV, trying to get The Florida Project off the ground, scouting locations and doing research with Baker, and the importance of collaboration with the cast while developing the script. In "Many Hats" (6:05), producer Shih-Ching Tsou recalls her multiple roles on the film including art director, producer, and actor when the owner of Donut Time was too shy to appear on camera. In "Inside a Tangerine" (15:29), producer Dean recalls that he and Baker went their separate ways professionally after The Prince of Broadway but would get together with him to commiserate as they attempted to get other projects off the ground, his reaction to Baker wanting to shoot the film both digitally and with an iPhone, and being convinced when Baker pointed him to a Vimeo channel of short films shot on the device.

In "To Be Real: Kat Ellinger on the Cinema of Sean Baker" (17:47), Ellinger discusses the usually classist depictions of the underclass in popular culture, particularly the demonization of female sex workers in contrast to conservative ideals of womanhood, the "unexpected freedoms of having nothing," and how Baker eschews such justifications or motivations as the "trauma plot" in depicting the everyday lives of his characters. The disc cloes out with the "Tangerine Visual Style Test" (2:06) shot by Baker as demo material for the producers.


Not provided for review were the rigid slipcase with new artwork by Caelin White, 60-page book with new essays by Caden Mark Gardner, Michelle Kisner, Shaadi Devereaux and Jerome Reuter, or the six collectors' art cards.


Bookended by the larger projects Starlet and Red Rocket – also character studies involving protagonists engaged in sex work of one sort or another – Tangerine carves out its own path thanks as much to its technical and budgetary constraints as the humanity of the actors (novices and veterans alike) that shines through in what could have been flat, cliched pimps, hos, and johns.


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