Chop Shop - Review  


Chop Shop was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival 2008 and is now in limited release. Only lead actor Alejandro Polanco was present and available for Q & A at the 2nd Berlin screening.

Chop Shop - Genre: drama -- Running time: 84 minutes. Festival suggestion: PG-13

Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani's (Man Push Cart) feature Chop Shop shows the daily struggle of an orphaned 12-year old boy in the Willet's Point area of Queens, aka The Iron Triangle. In the beginning we see Alejandro "Ale" (Alejandro Polanco) and a friend sell candy in the subway. Ale points out that he's not doing that for school, that indeed he isn't in school at all, but..."If you want me to go to school, I got candy for you". Pretty genius little spiel he got there - people are buying. Too bad he doesn't mean it, his plans don't include school.

It's a cool little scene but it's also deceptive. It sets up expectations that aren't going to be fulfilled. Chop Shop is one of those "important" films about important topics that you wish would also tell an interesting story in an entertaining way - but they don't. Instead, you're in for a dose of the filmmaker's style that gets in the way of storytelling.. lingering shots without subtext to warrant them, repetitions that never pay off but seem to be there simply to ensure Jane & Joe Shmoe don't miss that one action, painfully long stretches during which nothing much happens. Some rave reviews from the usual sources felt compelled to call this style "poetic".

Why, if a topic is that important, one chooses to present it in such a way that warrants only a (very) limited release, will appeal to few people and be accessible to even fewer? It's art, you say. It's showing off the filmmaker's talent, it's a showcase. That bugs me to no end. I kept on editing my review and putting its publication off. Until...

....I came across an interview (in a press release) with Stefan Ruzowitzky, whose feature The Counterfeiters won this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. In this interview, Ruzowitzky supports my view when he talks about "a moral obligation to tell the stories in such a way that the largest possible audience can be reached".* Though Ruzowitzky talks specifically about Holocaust-stories, I'm sure he'd say the same thing about any relevant fact-based story. I'm betting 5 bucks that he would. Back to Chop Shop.

I really do like the Alejandro character, he seems real. Ale is a true survivor. He knows the value of money, but is completely illiterate. Trust? No way. Alejandro trusts nobody, period. He does believe in the power of money, though. Money will buy him a better life, he thinks, money is the solution to all his problems. You see, he saves up for a vending truck.

Ale works for a car shop - they tell him what parts they need, he goes and steals them. He treats this like a regular job, gets paid, has a room upstairs and is allowed to use the shower. The man who owns the place we see a number of times with a dangerous-looking dog. You know, just like in regular movies questionable characters get to walk around with cute little doggies to tell you: "he's not all bad, look, he's got a dog!"? This dog shows his teeth quite a few times so you start to think something's up with the dog, but then - nothing. Just a prop, just shorthand. That's art, people.

When Ale's older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) shows up, he talks her into staying with him and works hard to convince her that that vending truck isn't just a dream, it's a goal, it will become a reality. Isamar could quit her job at the diner, he could quit the Chop Shop and all will be swell from there. What Ale doesn't tell Isamar is that he knows she's turning tricks, too.

Isamar, on the other hand, is a piece of work. She's too comfortable with her situation and has the friends to go with it. Money is spent on outfits, there's partying, you get the picture. This place is her world. She can't see beyond its limits. In a way, this character is far more interesting than Ale, who's a typical victim that gets victimized over and over while he tries so hard to be like you and me. Work, work, busy bee and dream the American dream. Isamar works and also tries to have fun, but she lacks an ingredient that's actually the stuff that sells Hollywood movies: The American Dream.

One thing that doesn't work for Chop Shop is its focus on Willet's Point as a microcosmos. It makes it too easy to forget that this place is actually located in the US. I remember at one point thinking: is this in South America? Occasionally showing Shea Stadium may work for New York residents and/or baseball fans, but it did nothing for me.

Another weak point is Ale. I'm not even going to talk about the acting in some scenes that were far from convincing. (After all, Alejandro Polanco isn't a professional actor and neither are most of the other cast members. Polanco told us he was hired by the filmmaker who cruised schools searching for Spanish-speaking kids.) It was the emotional distance that was the bigger problem. We don't know what he's feeling and that ultimately prevents us from investing our feelings.

What this flick provides is fodder for the let's-infer-meaning game. Alejandro Polanco sure wasn't any help when one viewer inquired about the meaning of the pigeons. If his answer "Ale wanted to entertain Isamar" is any indication, we're thinking way more about what stuff in the film could mean than its creators. My shot at the pigeons: Pigeons - "flying rats" - genpop feeds them or kills them at will - they might represent Ale and Isamar. There you go, certainly none the wiser.

Not very many people attended the 2nd Chop Shop screening at the Berlin International Film Festival. We were told before the show "if you like the film, please tell your friends. We still got tickets left for the other two screenings". Word of mouth won't work for this flick, I'm afraid.

Screenplay: Ramin Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi
Director: Ramin Bahrani

Chop Shop Cast:
Alejandro Ale - Alejandro Polanco
Isamar - Isamar Gonzales
Carlos - Carlos Zapata
Ahmad - Ahmad Razvi
Rob - Rob Sowulski

* (translation mine)

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Meet Bill - Jessica Alba's next disaster?  


Pregnant Jessica Alba probably isn't terribly concerned with the state of her career at this time. But some of her male fans over the age of 15 might be. There was the juvenile rom-com Good Luck Chuck, then the slighty better Awake, followed by yet another one of those really sucky remakes of Asian films - The Eye (okay, the original sucked, too, but in a different way). Next up for Alba fans:

The comedy Meet Bill with Aaron Eckhart in the title role and Timothy Olyphant (sans bar code tattoo, but with hair) as Chip, Bill's wife Jess' (Elizabeth Banks, currently in Definitely, Maybe) new lover. Yupp, Bill the banker has a huge 'L' on his forehead.

The task is clear - get the wife back. Of course he needs help, haven't you learned anything from Hitch to Three Can Play That Game? That's where Jessica Alba seems to come in. And a teenage boy. When I saw that boy in the trailer suggest that Bill get a new lover to play the jealousy-game, I thought: wow, now there's one brand new idea I've never heard of in my entire life....

Though the Meet Bill trailer that currently floats around the net doesn't - really - look all that bad, the two mini-reviews, especially the one over at Variety, don't sound, ahem, impressed.

Aaron Eckhart was last seen in a waste of my time called No Reservations, the remake of a German film, in which he kinda played the same character he played in Erin Brockovich. I guess if I can watch No Reservations in its pointless entirety, just to watch Aaron Eckhart, I might also survive Bill.

Timothy Olyphant I prefer to see in other types of roles, like Hitman. I'm looking forward to seeing him soon in Kimberly Peirce's new film - Stop Loss - now that one can't be bad. It just can't. We've waited long enough for Peirce's next feature, 9 years! More on Stop Loss later.

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Oscars 2008 - why they didn't watch....  


Ken Evans' article The Real Problem with the 80. Academy Awards about TV-viewers' disinterest in this year's Oscars-Show made me think about the topic. First I want to say that I don't believe in the numbers in the first place. But that's not going to keep me from cooking up my own 5-part-theory "Oscars 2008 - why they didn't care to watch". Completely non-scientific, I promise.

It wasn't the show, the show was fine. Jon Stewart always cracks me up and that joke he made about inviting the screenwriters? Priceless. Not to mention Cameron Diaz. There should be an award for funniest presenter. Can you say ci-ne-ma-to-gra-phy? She can say it! You did good, hon.

Apropos screenwriters. During the strike people came to learn new and - for many - surprising information re: the movie business. Not sure how impressed they were by that...

Here's my Oscar-theory:

1. The extreme hype

Maybe my memory isn't working properly, but I feel that never before has there been such an onslaught of....

a) advertising
Could you go anywhere without seeing ads? I remember Atonement-videos in the New York Times movie-section, horrible giant pop-ups (was that Variety, I'm 99 % sure it was) - for what film (TWBB or NCFOM?) I can't say because all I was ever interested in was finding the X to get rid of the intrusive ad. The imdb wasn't exactly ad-free, either. Which reminds me on...

b) "the Road to the Oscars"
How exciting is it to see the same films being nominated for different awards and winning one award after the other? Did we expect to see any surprises at the Oscars? Did we? Which leads me to....

2. Several noms for the same film
makes for a yawnfest. We've been there before, but at least more people cared about LOTR as opposed to this year, when...

3. People hadn't seen all the nominated films
Ken Evans points out, and I agree, that we don't care if a film we haven't seen wins an Oscar or not. The blame goes - in part - to a crowded December release schedule.

4. People hated some of the nominated films/were ticked off that some films weren't nominated
Yupp, I admit, I didn't care one bit for Atonement. And why exactly was Sweeney Todd not nominated for Best Picture? Beats me.

4a. Nominations. Period.
Dame Judy Dench didn't work in 2007, I guess. But Cate Blanchett was in at least 2 movies! Hey, and check out the category "Best Supporting Actress". Strange, to say the least. I'd give an award to Helena Bonham Carter for Sweeney Todd. I know, I know, but we're all entitled to our opinions, aren't we?

5. Heath Ledger's death
Yeah, I know, it's just me being a silly fangirl. But I thought about the in-memoriam section of the Academy Awards Show a few times before the event and it made me sad. We all knew we'd see him there and it would be painful. This paragraph not sponsored by Kleenex or any other brand of tissues.

80. Academy Awards - The Oscar goes to...

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Pathology Release -- Ventimiglia and Milano  


Pathology -- genre: Thriller -- MPAA-rating: R
New Release date: April 18, 2008 (limited)

After an extremely long wait Pathology seems to finally get its theatrical release. Yeah!

During the wait we had to read posts re: not-so-great test-screenings months ago and a February release date came and went -- no Pathology sightings. It's finally time to get excited. And I am excited, because I'm digging the trailer (scroll down to check it out).

[Re: the validity and benefit of test-screenings. I don't believe in test-screenings. I've been working in market research (all aspects, including face-to-face, studio, phone, opinion polls, b2c, b2b and whatnot) for a number of years and have seen how the system works or rather: fails - especially when you're dealing with the assumed target group face-to-face. Some new products still fail tremendously after costly market research projected---> product is a surefire winner! I'd also say that test-screenings can be counterproductive, they can backfire. Some dim bulb may write about how horrible a flick was - word gets out - buzzkill. On the other end of the spectrum, of course, are the over-hyped crapfests. Nuff said.]

screenwriters: Marc Neveldine & Brian Taylor (Crank)
director: Marc Schoelermann

Pathology Cast:

Ted Gray - Milo Ventimiglia (Rocky Balboa)
Jake - Michael Weston (Scrubs, Garden State)
Juliette Bath - Laureen Lee Smith (The L-Word, One Way)
Chip Bentwood: - Dan Callahan (Crank)
Griffin - Johnny Whitworth (3:10 to Yuma)
Catherine Ivy - Mei Melancon (X-Men: The Last Stand)
Ben Stravinsky - Keir O'Donnell (Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up)

The original highly official Pathology trailer courtesy MGM:

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