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With a first-person look at the notorious Crips and Bloods, this film examines the conditions that have lead to decades of devastating gang violence among young African Americans growing up in South Los Angeles.
It is the rare feature film that makes the viewer think that he is watching a documentary. At some point, the glare of the bright lights or some errors of continuity belie the illusion and the spell is broken. Rare is the film that succeeds in its attempt to thrust the viewer into a situation, and make one feel genuine, life-or-death tension. Gang Tapes, the stunning, new film from first-time director Adam Ripp.
The film, which will be unfairly compared to The Blair Witch Project (more on that later), is a stunning pseudo-documentary that takes the viewer on an enlightening, enthralling, intense, and often horrifying journey. Gang Tapes opens with a white family, on vacation, videotaping their trip to Southern California. Suddenly, the are attacked in their rental van, and suddenly, the camera is in the hands of the carjackers, still taping.
The camera makes its way into the hands of a 14-year old gangsta wannabe, Kris (Trivell) who, after acquiring the camera, proceeds to tape everything in his life. The camera becomes a window into his life. It records conversations with his mother, violent beatings, the loss of his virginity, drive-by shootings, drug deals, and all the other episodes that made up the fabric of Kris' existence.
Though some might accuse it of being episodic, that is what life is; a series of episodes strung together. Several aspects give this film its gritty realism. First, the razor-sharp editing by Tina Imahara is relentless. One forgets that this is a film because it truly feels like we are moving from one episode in Kris' life to another. Second, the film does an incredibly effective job of conveying violence. The viewer feels the punches. The gunshots are remarkably lifelike. When people get shot, you do not think that you are watching squibs and blood packets. The recoil, the deep rumble, and the reaction of the victims all feel real.
The acting is also remarkably solid. The cast members (primarily current and former gang members) play themselves; however, that they can do this without being conscious of the camera is remarkable. The past experiences that this cast brought to the film could not have been captured by even the most talented of actors. They prove that there is nothing more convincing than reality. Trivell, who helps to carry the film, shows remarkable range. He veers from childhood to adulthood; alternating between maturity beyond his years and incredibly immaturity.
Finally, the script is brutal and unflinching. Ripp and co-writer Steven Wolfson made a crucial decision after casting the film. Instead of hoping that they could realistically capture the sound of the street, they handed the script over to their cast, and had them translate the film into a more realistic street vernacular. This terrific decision sealed the fate of this film. In much the same way that Goodfellas captured the beats, the timing, the accents of the city streets, Gang Tapes is similarly effective at capturing the reality of life on the gang-infested streets.
Some will be lazy and attempt to compare this film to The Blair Witch Project, which is a vastly inferior film; however, where one who watched that film never forgot that he was watching a film, in Gang Tapes, the illusion is never broken. An amazing seven-minute monologue in the middle of this film belies that fact. This film can be compared more accurately to 1995's Kids, which was also an unflinching, often-troubling look at a distinct cultural sub-section.
The only unfortunate thing about this film is that Lions Gate films is having a very difficult time releasing it. Though it has already garnered an "R" rating from the MPAA, theater chains nationwide fear that the film will engender violence, and, accordingly, have blacklisted the film. This decision is a ludicrous one. If anything, by the end of this 81-minute masterpiece, viewers will either be so numbed or disturbed by that which they witnessed that they will walk out of the theater silent.
Not everyone will like this film. It is challenging, uncompromising, intense, and disturbing. The language is not easy on the ears. It is real and many people are terrified by reality. Those who are offended by the "n" word are advised to stay away. The word appears numerous times in the film because it is part of the vernacular of the streets. However, those willing to take a chance and see a film that will move them and that they will not soon forget, should call their local movie theater and demand that the theater screen Gang Tapes.
This unforgettable film remains with the viewer for days after it unspools. It is an extraordinary achievement from a director with an incredibly bright future. It is a crime to think that a film of this quality might not get the wide release it deserves. If and when it does, rest assured that it will be regarded as an instant classic. Gang Tapes is one of the best films of this or any year.
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