Judge Clark Douglas was relieved to discover that Chop Shop was not a violent splatter film.
A look at a different side of America.
"Hey, look. I'm working. Why aren't you working? You should be working, too."—Alejandro, speaking to his sister Isamar
Facts of the Case
12-year-old Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) and 16-year-old Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) are a brother and sister living in Queens, New York. They don't go to school, and they work all kinds of odd jobs in order to make a living. Alejandro spends most of his time at a chop shop, working on cars. He also sells candy on subway trains, and occasionally steals a purse or hubcaps when the opportunity presents itself. Together, they're attempting to save up enough money to buy their own snack truck, which would give them the freedom of owning their own business. However, fate may have some unpleasant circumstances on the horizon for these two siblings.
I was one of many film critics who admired Ramin Bahrani's superb Man Push Cart, the story of a simple immigrant in New York City attempting to make a living as a push cart operator. The film certainly won plenty of acclaim, but was largely unnoticed by audiences. It remains one of those titles that have a tendency to sit on the shelf at your local video store, collecting dust and going unnoticed. Now Bahrani's second film has come along, and once again he generated immensely positive reviews and a very small audience. With Chop Shop, Bahrani proves that Man Push Cart was no fluke. This is a very talented director who has a tremendous talent for translating ordinary moments of life to film in a convincing manner.
Here, Bahrani retains as much of reality as possible before inserting his own fictional devices. The primary characters are two children named Alejandro and Isamar, and they are played by two young children who are actually named Alejandro and Isamar. The owner of the chop shop in the film is actually the owner of the very same chop shop in real life. These are just a couple of the many elements of reality that Bahrani weaves into his film, attempting to provide a seamless connection between what is real and what is fictional. As such, Chop Shop retains the greatest attribute that Man Push Cart had to offer: an Altmanesque feeling of discovering real-life moments that have been found by (rather than created for) a camera. In this case, who knows how many of them actually were?
Polanco and Gonzales have such a tremendous chemistry together, and really feel like a brother and sister. Like most brothers and sisters, they frequently tease and taunt each other, but seem to have a deep love for one another as well. I was not surprised when Bahrani informs us (in a rather good commentary) that Polanco and Gonzales go to the same school, and know each other pretty well. Anyway, they work particularly well together. On their own, Polanco gives the movie a lively fire, while Gonzales provides it with a tender soul. The film is joyous during its earlier scenes, and turns positively heartbreaking and painful later on. The two kids capture some very complex situations with a raging intensity and honesty that will leave you emotionally devastated.
I don't think that I'm revealing too much by telling you that this is an immensely sad film. These children are going through struggles and challenges that we rarely see in an American film. It's not hard to believe that there are children whose lives are like those of Alejandro and Isamar…but it is certainly difficult to watch. How can such things happen here? After watching the film, the idea that America is "the land of the free and the home of the brave" ran through my mind. Those words rang very true, but for entirely different reasons than Francis Scott Key might have intended. This is an American film that feels like a foreign film. It offers an in-depth portrait of an American experience that is so vastly different from my own, and I imagine that most viewers will feel the same way.
Unlike his previous film, Bahrani does not employ an original score here. The only music in the film is source material in the background, worked in organically as part of the sound design. Sound is quite solid here. Dialogue comes through clear, but has to compete against the louder locations just enough to convince us that we're viewing "found" footage. Chop Shop is so much more convincing than something like Cloverfield. The latter had an atmospheric vibe of reality, but the plot of a standard issue monster movie. This film moves at the rhythm of real life, not following any sort of predictable pattern out of a screen writing book.
The DVD transfer is solid, and the film generally has a brighter and more lively color palette than the visually dark Man Push Cart. The film does have an intentionally real and gritty look, but it doesn't resort to the overused tactic of making the film super-grainy in order to accomplish this. DVD extras include the aforementioned commentary from the director and various cast and crew members (well worth a listen), some interesting rehearsal footage, and a trailer.
Chop Shop is not the equal of the masterful Man Push Cart…it's even better. This is a must-see film, one of the great recent portraits of life in America. Very highly recommend, please don't let this one slip through the cracks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
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