Friday, July 24, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Christmas in July

There are five months left 'til Christmas but I've been seeing "Black Friday in July" ads from numerous stores. It seems an appropriate time then to release Tangerine, Sean Baker's low-budget but accomplished (on an iPhone 5 no less) tale of two transgender prostitutes tearing through the seamy side of Hollywood on Christmas Eve. The movie opens this weekend in Phoenix/Tempe and is now playing in other US cities.

Sin-Dee, ferociously played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, receives a tip that the pimp she loves, Chester, is cheating on her. She sets out to hunt Chester down with her more measured friend, Alexandra (the beautiful Mya Taylor), begrudgingly along for the ride. Her devotion to Sin-Dee, however, doesn't keep Alexandra from indulging in a little holiday treat with Razmik (Karren Karagulian, the most accomplished actor in the cast), a married cab driver secretly attracted to trans women.

The high dramatics on display in Tangerine (not to be confused with Tangerines, last year's Oscar-nominated foreign language film from Estonia) are effectively told in real time during the film's 88 minutes. Baker and his cast also add a healthy, welcome sense of humor but viewers should be warned in advance that the language is quite crude. The writer-director's palpable love for his edgy characters is not unlike that shown by John Waters toward the prostitutes, convicts and junkies prominently featured in his numerous classics. Although Christmas may still be a few months off, give yourself a gift now and see Tangerine.

Another new theatrical release deserving of attention, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (opening today in NYC and LA), shows how its beloved subject (though Jewish) would take out full-page ads in newspapers wishing a Merry Christmas to the residents of the cities in which she was performing. Tucker was popularly known as "the Last of the Red Hot Mamas" at the time of her death in 1966 and remains regarded as such by her modern-day devotees including Bette Midler, Carol Channing (who is interviewed in the documentary), Roseanne Barr and Joan Rivers.

Tucker, or "Soph" as she was known to her friends, was a server in her immigrant parents' kosher restaurant in early 1900's Hartford, Connecticut until she discovered vaudeville. She began to perform and was soon snapped up by New York impresario Florence Ziegfeld. Unfortunately, she was forced out by his more longtime showgirls but found herself picked up by a pre-agency William Morris, who remained Tucker's theatrical representative until his death in 1932.

With live performances, musical recordings and movies (including 1934's Gay Love) under her famously ample belt, Tucker was an international sensation by the time of World War II. She was so influential that Hitler banned her sentimental song "My Yiddishe Momme" from German airwaves. Once his troops were defeated, allied soldiers blared the song from their tanks as they entered Berlin.

All of this and more is generously recounted in The Outrageous Sophie Tucker. My only gripe against it is the too prominent role played on film by biographers Lloyd and Susan Ecker, who also co-produced it (William Gazecki directed but seemingly under the Eckers' heavy sway). While obvious fans of their subject, the Eckers comment on camera excessively throughout. The documentary is much more effective when Channing, Tony Bennett, Barbara Walters and others who knew Tucker personally are allowed to speak, but this isn't as frequent as it should be.

My late grandfather often mentioned Sophie Tucker lovingly but I had no idea who she was, since she died before I was born. Gazecki's film is an important, generally enjoyable tutorial on a great show-woman's life, accomplishments and enduring influence.

Reverend's Ratings:
Tangerine: B+
The Outrageous Sophie Tucker: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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