I’m afraid I haven’t been able to write as many full reviews as I’d have liked to recently, but here are a few short reviews of films I’ve been catching up on ahead of publishing my best of the year list shortly. Part one includes Tangerine, Black Mass, The Gift, Appropriate Behaviour, and Phoenix.
The first thing I heard about Tangerine following its festival screenings earlier in the year was that it had been shot using iPhones. While resourceful, that wasn’t much of a selling point to me. Thankfully, whatever modifications director Sean Baker employed worked tremendously as the film doesn’t for a moment look like a bit of smart phone footage. The energetic movie takes place over the course of a day in Los Angeles and follows two trans sex workers as they track down the boyfriend of one who’s reportedly been cheating on her. In taking the audience into this unusual corner of LA, it strikes a perfect balance of being neither overly worthy nor overly sleazy in examining its subject matter, and ultimately plays out like a sort-of 18-rated screwball comedy. As much fun as it has setting up its comedic scenarios though, it ultimately possesses a more touching message about friendship in tough situations. Plus, it’s the Christmas movie of the year.
Black Mass was supposed to be Johnny Depp’s much touted return to form. Though he had dropped the make-up, wigs and “quirk” for last year’s disappointing Transcendence, that film turned out to be a dull flop. He’s not adopting any kind of oddball ‘schtick’ here for his portrayal of real-life Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, but his otherwise unremarkable performance is once again defined by the garish wig and prosthetics he’s coated himself with. What’s more surprising about all the attention paid to Depp though, is that it left me unaware of just how many great actors were in this film as well, with everyone from Kevin Bacon to Adam Scott to Benedict Cumberbatch showing up. However this film is ultimately just the biggest waste of acting talent I’ve seen this year, a tedious re-tread of crime film troupes we’ve seen done before in better movies that doesn’t really give anyone a chance to stand out (except perhaps for Rory Cochrane). Also, it’s probably more Joel Edgerton’s corrupt cop character’s story than it is Depp’s.
‘The Gift’ (2015)
Speaking of Joel Edgerton, he fares much better in The Gift, a devious little thriller where he not only stars but makes a successful debut as a writer/director. The initial set-up, concerning a couple moving back into their old suburb to be greeted by a former acquaintance whose initial welcoming friendliness soon takes a turn for the stalker-ish, might sound a bit like some familiar mid-nineties thriller, but it soon takes some quite surprising and disturbing twists. Edgerton proves to be a natural crafter of tension, and gives an unnerving performance himself as the apparent stalker. He also draws surprisingly excellent work from Jason Bateman in a rare non-comedic lead role.
On paper, Appropriate Behaviour might sound like just another Sundance debut feature. An offbeat comedy-drama chronicling the life of a thirty-something aspiring actor, clearly based on and portrayed by the writer/director. However it’s not just that Desiree Akhavan’s Shirin is the kind of character we haven’t really seen before – a bisexual Iranian-American – that makes the film stand out. Appropriate Behaviour showcases her troubled love life – when her refusal to come out to her parents causes tension between her and her girlfriend, among other awkward encounters – alongside her attempts to get a job teaching young children in a witty manner that feels both fresh and relatable. While it obviously resembles other New York rom-coms of the Woody Allen-influenced type, it’s one of the more original ones in recent years and just might mark the arrival or a major new talent in Akhavan.
Phoenix is a drama from Germany that examines an aspect of the Holocaust I’d never seen put on film before. Taking place after the war, it follows a death camp survivor, tremendously played by Nina Hoss, who’s been sufficiently disfigured to require facial reconstruction surgery that will render her unrecognizable. After recovering, she seeks out the person who was responsible for her capture. Now, the film does require you to buy a ‘mistaken identity’-type set-up that I’ll admit I had a little trouble accepting, but if you go with it, the film gradually builds to what’s probably the most perfectly handled, stand-out ending scene of the year.