May 16, 2008

REVIEW: Chop Shop (A-)

Background: Just over a year ago, Iranian-American writer/director Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for "Best First Feature." Though his film didn't take home the prize, Bahrani was back just a year later, this time winning the 2008 "Someone to Watch" award for Chop Shop, his second feature (he also made a highly regarded student film, Strangers, which I haven't seen). Not yet in his mid-30's, Bahrani has already established himself as an emerging master of cinema vérité. His films are shot on location with non-actors, in this case Alejandro Polanco, 12, and Isamar Gonzales, 16, both Puerto Ricans who attend the same school in New York, NY. Also making an appearance in Chop Shop is Ahmad Razvi, whose only other acting credit is in - you guessed it - Man Push Cart.

Synopsis : Alejandro ("Ale", played by Polanco) is a pre-teen wandering the muddy auto yards behind Shea Stadium in Willet's Point, Queens. We know nothing about him, but it's clear he doesn't attend school. His dirty clothes tell us he might be homeless, and his restless, tenacious independence tells us that he's probably parentless as well. Soon enough, we learn he indeed lives alone in the garage where he works, and his diet consists of cola and microwave popcorn. Who knows the last time he had a hug, a shower, or a square meal; Ale's eyes show a fire burning within a kid who's been given nothing in life. His older sister, Isamar (Gonzales), unceremoniously arrives to work in a lunch truck at the auto yards, and they share a bed in the perch of a room that's not bigger than a prison cell. Their plan is to work and save up enough money to buy their own lunch truck. Ale sells bootleg DVD's and candy bars, but mostly solicits the arriving cars to get serviced at his shop instead of the countless others (this isn't your local Midas; this is the place you go when your friend says he "knows a guy" that can fix your muffler). Occasionally, Ale also helps Ahmed (Razvi) take apart cars in his chop shop. In addition to her lunch duties, Isamar is doing some servicing of her own - dirty men, late at night. These two siblings love each other, but hate what they each have to do to get ahead. Whether they eventually earn up to buy the truck is almost beside the point, even though it's the film's primary driver. The story isn't necessarily meant to end anywhere; like the characters and the settings, it just exists as a moment in time.

I Loved:
+ Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales, whose presence was so natural that they made Chop Shop appear to be a documentary.
+ The last scene, especially the final shot - it's in the running as one of my favorites of the year.
+ The authentic feel to the film's elements. Aside from the actors and the location, also the lighting, noise, behavior, etc.

I Liked:
+ Seeing Ahmad Razvi again, even though he was almost playing the exact same character, Ahmad, from Man Push Cart.

I Disliked:
- Ale's annoying friend, Carlos.

I Hated:
The accents, occasionally. It's an acquired taste that I was still working on at the end of the movie.

Writing - 7
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - N/A
Significance - 5

Total: 41/45= 91% = A-

Last Word: There's no way to really qualify this statement, but I want to call Ramin Bahrani one of the most daring filmmakers currently working. He pulls out stories and characters that we have no way of identifying with and inexplicably puts them into situations we've never come close to experiencing. He doesn't use musical scores. His films don't really have a beginning or an end. He doesn't even use actors. Yet somehow, and perhaps as a consequence of his method, his films come together as honest, beautiful, neoreal glimpses into the lives of Americans that most of us haven't - and probably won't - ever get to know. Bahrani explores the third dimension in film, that which exists between documentary and fictional narrative. It's a fascinating, refreshing experience to see a film made my someone who doesn't follow any of the conventional rules, including that which says there needs to be a tidy ending. For these reasons, Chop Shop will wear down the impatient viewer, and a low tolerance for thick Queens accents may cause a major distraction. You won't find the answers for the countless questions going through your head (i.e., What happened to their parents?) - which is the point. The film exists as these lives exist, but hopefully Americans will pay a lot more attention to Chop Shop than we have to its all-too-real characters.


  1. Hey, thanks for visiting my blog... I notice you're a bu alum... I graduate last year! Go Terriers!

  2. My pleasure, Joe. Always nice to hear from a fellow BC-hater...

  3. I really liked Chop Shop a lot. I think I prefer it to Man Push Cart, primarily because the lead character is more me anyway.

    What's amazing to me is how watchable the movie is when it doesn't follow any of the patterns of a traditional american narrative. It has an arc of sorts, but really it's just a slice of life. Simple, yet moving, beautiful and kind of perfect.

    Daring is an excellent word to describe the director.

  4. It's weird, Craig. The films are made in exactly the same way, but I somehow find it hard to choose between them. This one disturbed me a little more, but as you said (and maybe because of that), it's hard not feel for Ale.

    I'm definitely looking forward to his next project. I hope he doesn't start to experiment too soon - just keep doing the same thing with new stories.

  5. I feel like I'd be stealing a kid's lunch money if I said that I hated Man Push Cart, but I will say that I was less then impressed. Chop Shop on the other hand, using the same basic short story/amateur actors format, was fantastic. The two youth leads (along with Catinca Untaru from The Fall) are making me rethink my long-held belief that kid actors always suck (I'm looking at you Osment). And I will go even further on your high rating of the final scene and say that there won't be a better scene all year.

  6. I mostly use my journalism degree as scrap paper to write down cab numbers, but I do know the difference between "then" and "than."

  7. Wait a minute, did I make the then/than mistake? I don't see where you did. Clearly, the Getafilm interns are failing in their proofreading duties.

    Maybe write a story about those cabbie's movie preferences and put your degree to use? I'm one to talk...

    Well you can not like Man Push Cart if you want to, especially because you recognize that it's such a similar set up.

    The child actor surprise started late last year for me with Things We Lost in the Fire and The Golden Compass, both of which featured charming kids. How this is possible any more I don't know, but your examples are great as well.

    Maybe part of it has to do with age. I think the older they get, the easier they are to tolerate. Pretty profound statement there, I know.


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