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The Bomb Drops on Tribeca

One of the artists at work in the Tribeca competition documentary Bomb It

By Eric Kohn

Now that it’s no longer chic to point out the prevalence of documentaries in virtually every major film festival, audiences can get choosy about their options. Tribeca offers a flurry of nonfiction narratives that deal with similar themes and subject matter, mostly because only certain themes and subject matter are conducive to the documentary form. Bomb It provides a perfect example. An engaging 93-minute overview of the international graffiti art scene, the movie creates a montage-fueled roundtable of the various discussions swirling around the art. From a structural perspective, director Jon Reiss doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking; we get the usual round-up of talking heads and B-roll of the artists at work, all of which is pulled together with tight transitions and a fairly enjoyable soundtrack.

Dealing with material that isn’t particularly fresh territory, Reiss eschews the tried-and-true method of following specific characters and chooses instead to focus on a broad history of grafitti (yes, he goes all the way back to cave paintings) and incorporates a global view. With voices of grafitti artists young and old, from Paris to the Bronx and back again, Bomb It serves its purpose as a comprehensive overview. Anyone seeking an “Idiots Guide” introduction to medium—a completely legitimate curiosity—will find the overarching debates about whether or not grafitti constitutes a negative anarchistic force or a beautiful expression of freedom to be constantly provocative.

Considering that graffiti tends to get associated with youth culture, its suitability as a documentary shouldn’t surprise anyone. Young people tend to carry the sort of vibrant energy and creative intelligence that lends itself to entertainment. Which isn’t to say that they have to be on the streets in order to create compelling drama. Chops, which traces the trajectories of three high school jazz bands from across the country who compete in the 2006 Essentially Ellington Festival hosted by Jazz at Lincoln Center.

A certain amount of the drama comes from where your sympathies lie: Seattle’s Garfield High School presents an impressive orchestral crew, but director Bruce Broder seems to focus his lens primarily on the group from Jacksonville, Florida. While the head-bopping performances really hold everything together, much of the amusement arises from asides during students’ exchanges in between performances, where they jovially mock their instructor and nibble their nails in anticipation of the final results. Like Bomb It, the movie never emphasizes the plight of a single personality over any of the others, but their communal experiences eventually emerge as a unifying character. The most rewarding element arrives in third act, when jazz god Wynton Marsalis shows up to give the teens a reason to salivate.

Speaking of bodily fluids, there’s plenty talk of bloodletting in the discomfiting expose Taxi to the Dark Side, which focuses on another regular area of documentary dissection: prison abuse. Alex Gibney, whose name may be familiar since he directed the popular business scandal overview Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, focuses on the underreported case of an Afghani taxi driver who was arrested by the United States military under false pretenses in 2002 and essentially tortured to death. Having seen a seemingly innumerable amount of documentaries that explore the insanity of prison abuse (and pin the blame squarely on Donald Rumsfeld), I can attest that Taxi doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the conversation, except that it reminds us that this stuff went down in other places besides Iraq. Gibney unnecessarily includes incredibly lengthy close-ups on still photographs that show records of abuse, which is something that doesn’t do anything beyond making viewers uncomfortable. Of course, it’s always fascinating to watch soldiers, in a barrage of interviews, discuss how their allegiance to orders from back home led them to behave like savages. But something tells me that this isn’t the last opportunity to hear these people speak their part.

Fortunately, the festival offers a better option for anyone interested in experiencing the rabid confusion currently plaguing the middle east: Making Of, an original narrative that explores the mindset that leads suicide bombing while simultaneously critiquing the pretentiousness implied by cinematic representation of the phenomenon. Talented breakdancer Bahta (Lotfi Abdelli) lives a comfortable life in Tunisia until he falls prey to the teachings of a local fundamentalist, causing him to question his beliefs. As it turns out, the actor playing Bahta questions the motives of his character, as we learn in a fake behind-the-scenes documented that supposedly shows the director (actual helmer Nouri Bouzid) squabbling with his radical lead on a movie set. It’s a terrific gimmick, and probably the first time that a mockumentary never becomes explicitly funny. Instead, Making Of provides us with a treasure trove of insight into the way that a real taxi to the dark side is quite the strenuous affair.

That’s a complaint you could also level at West 32nd, a reasonably vapid genre movie whose greatest appeal is that it stars John Cho (Harold from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle). Sadly, there’s no semblance here of the goofy energy Cho demonstrated in that classic stoner comedy. Cho plays a lawyer who tries to help a New York-based Korean family with a homicide case in order to find his big break. The big mob boss catches wind, and some violence occurs. The whole thing unfolds as much by-the-numbers as it sounds. This isn’t the direction that I had hoped Michael Kang would take; the director’s debut, a sweet character study called The Motel, indicated that he understands how to throw his plot into turmoil without exploiting his characters. But West 32nd exploits the intelligence of its audience.

At least Black Sheep isn’t trying to be exceptionally smart. An impressive offering of horror schlock from debuting New Zealand director Johnathan King, the movie (already set with a U.S. distribution deal through IFC) follows a band of survivors who struggle to combat an outbreak of sheep zombies. All the implied absurdity does indeed unfold -- but King shows remarkable restraint when it comes to the gory silliness. Echoing the early efforts of Peter Jackson, Black Sheep takes time building a credible scenario before injecting it with insanity. Great fun, all the way through: The argument put forth by a lot of today’s young horror auteurs (particularly Eli Roth) that the genre gives people a refreshing escape from the frustrations of disturbing newspaper headlines never made more sense to me until I considered it in light of Abu Ghraib -- something that, having read about prison scandals just a few paragraphs earlier, you’ll have to do, too.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Bomb It
Taxi to the Dark Side
Making Of
West 32nd
Black Sheep

Posted at April 25, 2007 12:03 AM

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