Chop Shop - Review  

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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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