Old 04-23-2009, 02:56 PM
Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop

Chop Shop (2007)

Ramin Bahrani's "Chop Shop" attempts to be an interesting character study, but the main problem is that he doesn't really know what to say about the characters or their situation in a movie that seems to drift from one scene to the next for most of its runtime.

Ale (Alejandro Polanco) gets a job at a chop shop through a friend of his. He is eventually joined by his sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales). Their dream is to save up enough money to by a van so that they can turn it into a restaurant on wheels. Eventually they get enough money and buy the van, but it turns out to be more trouble to fix it up than it's worth. After having sunk all their money into the van, they must continue to find other means to make money.

Bahrani and his fellow screenwriter Bahareh Azimi had a good start of what could have been a compelling premise, but it turns out they just didn't really know where to take it. A big problem was that they chose to wait until the last ten minutes or so to start exploring interesting themes. For example, about halfway through the film, we learn that Isamar has been doing sexual favors to earn extra money, because currently she only has a job at a restaurant on wheels, like the one she and her brother want to start.

Ale never chooses to confront her about it, but does eventually indirectly refer to it in what is probably the film's most meaningful line: "I'm working. You should be working too." We learn precisely what kind of "work" he is doing in the last act of the film. Although we've seen him doing it first hand, his sister doesn't have to think too hard to understand what he means.

The film waits to do this for far too long. The film is only about 80 minutes, but waiting to get to the heart of the matter until the last ten minutes leaves 70 minutes where nothing much really happens. We learn of Ale's and Isamar's situation and only end up watching them work towards their goal; not much else. When Ale learns of his sister's side work, we think something is going to happen with that situation, but it doesn't happen until the end.

When it finally did get to the meaningful part at the end, it got deeper and actually starting exploring the theme of what these two people were willing to do to make money. We know of how Isamar made her money and that Ale had been trying to protect her from having to do it anymore, but it was good to see his brotherly instinct kick in fully at the end.

It was an interesting choice to leave Ale's way of making money open ended. We don't know if he will continue doing it or not after what he does to protect his sister. Though the final scene felt like it should have had more meaning behind it, but it came off as rather generic in the way that it leaves us with the "everything will be alright" feeling.

It seems mean to pick on the actors as almost all of them were first timers, but the performances weren't particularly good, making it hard to form an attachment to them or their situation. As for the characters themselves, it's hard to form an attachment or feel sorry for them when the characters got ripped off so easily when it came to buying the van. Apparently neither Ale nor Isamar actually read the sales contract.

Aside from that, there is not much character development, especially when all we really get to see for most of the film is the brother and sister working towards buying the van. There is not much behind the film, driving it forward, to make it interesting enough to recommend. As I mentioned, the filmmakers had a good start, but they needed to have their characters doing more, preferably something that would allow them to develop during those 70 minutes where nothing much is happening. In the end, it becomes ironic that a film like this, with a half-baked plot and underdeveloped characters, is called "Chop Shop." 2.5/4 stars.
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