Chop Shop

Chop Shop

Isamar Gonzales doesn’t care if Alejandro Polaco knows she ate all the Rice Krispies.

(2007) Drama (Koch Lorber) Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Carlos Zapata, Ahmad Razvi, Rob Sowulski, Anthony Felton, Evelisse “Lilah” Ortiz, Michael “Gringo” Nieto, Carlos Ayala, Laura Patalano, Nick Jasprizza, Nick Bentley. Directed by Ramin Bahrani


 It’s a street like so many others around the world. Auto repair places cheek by jowl with illegal chop shops; pushcarts selling deep-fried goodies from native countries. Garbage lines the streets. There are no sidewalks and children play in the junk yards as if they were playgrounds. This could be a backwater third world country, but it’s not; it’s Willets Point in Queens.

Ale (Polanco), age 12, and Isa (Gonzales), age 16, live on their own on this very street. The owner of an auto body shop (Sowulski) has rented a room in the back to them with a couple of cots to sleep on. They are on their own and have nothing. She works in a food truck by day and sells her body to truckers by night.

He is a budding entrepreneur, selling stolen hubcaps to shop owners and M&Ms on the subway platform. He dreams of buying a lunch truck and fixing it up, selling hot meals to the many workers in the local shops. He is very much the man of the house; Isa is pragmatic but frail.

And that’s the plot. All of it. Oh, there are some further details but while none of them shake the room with thunder, they are best experienced just like life – as they come. Bahrani, whose debut Man Push Cart was a critical darling, excels at taking slices of life from places we generally don’t get to see and almost compels us to watch.

He is a worthy heir to Vittorio De Sica, the Italian auteur of The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. I can’t really say for certain how realistic his portrayal of Willets Point is, but it feels that way. He used a lot of people in the neighborhood, disguising his production as a documentary so that the performances were more naturalistic although of course these hidden performances vary.

Both of the juvenile leads, however, acquit themselves magnificently, particularly Polanco. He plays a savvy little street hustler and apparently that’s a role very different than his own personality. There’s a toughness to him that sometimes breaks, revealing the very vulnerable boy beneath the veneer. The chemistry between him and Gonzales seems genuine (they attend the same school and Gonzales is close friends with Polanco’s sister). Gonzales has some tough scenes – there are no overt sex scenes but she has to play a young girl playing at being a woman; some of the scenes with Gonzales are very moving and she leaves an indelible impression.

Some of the other performances are less successful but it’s hard to tell who is acting and who’s being themselves. Ultimately it’s difficult to assess a lot of the roles because of that factor; let’s just say that I found some people convincing and some not so much. That’s only how they affected me however. Other opinions may vary – and have a bit more insight than mine.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. There are no happy endings (although the ending does have a grace not that leads to a feeling of hope overall) and no dramatic epiphanies. It ‘s just like life; things happens and life goes on. It’s not always pretty but it’s real and sometimes, that helps us navigate our way through our own Willets Points.

WHY RENT THIS: Devastating performances by Polanco and Gonzales. Has an air of realism that can’t be matched. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the amateur actors come through. May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, adult themes, a little bit of violence and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The auto shop that Isa and Ale bunk in is actually owned by actor Rob Sowulski who plays the owner and the work that Ale does in it is real (he got paid by Sowulski for the work and by the producers for his acting). To prepare for the role, Polanco worked for Sowulski in the shop for six months before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Rehearsals for eight of the scenes in the film are shown.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $221,227 on an unreported production budget; it’s possible that the film broke even although not likely.



NEXT: Hobo With a Shotgun


The Syrian Bride

The Syrian Bride

A beautiful bride in a war zone makes for a compelling image.

(Koch-Lorber) Hiyam Abbass, Makram J. Khoury, Clara Khoury, Ashraf Barhom, Eyad Sheety, Evelyne Kaplun, Julie-Anne Roth, Adnan Trabshi. Directed by Eran Ricklis.

The Druze are an ethnic group living in the Golan Heights, an area occupied by Israel but claimed by Syria. Their passports list their country of origin as “unaffiliated” although many think of themselves as Syrian. Their lives are a kind of grey area where they live in one world in which they are more or less at peace but their hearts yearn for another world entirely.

Mona (Clara Khoury) is a beautiful young Druze woman who is about to get married. This should be a happy occasion, but there are many reasons why the young woman appears sad and depressed. She is in an arranged marriage with a Syrian actor whom she has never met. In order to marry, she must immigrate to Syria with her new husband. Once she does that, she will not be allowed to return to Israel to see her family, potentially for the rest of her life.

Hammed (Makram Khoury and Clara’s real life father) is the family patriarch who has already been jailed by the Israelis for his pro-Syrian activism. Embittered by the experience, he plans to attend a protest march on the day of the wedding despite the ramifications that might have on his daughter’s big day. Recently paroled, he has been told that he won’t be allowed to the border area, a sensitive military zone, to see his daughter off.

He has rocky relationships with his sons. Marwan (Barhoum) is a slick salesman who travels frequently to Europe. He calls himself a businessman but offers only vague explanations as to what that business actually is. A serial womanizer, he allows his charm and rakish good looks to scam his way through life. Hattem (Sheety) hasn’t spoken with his father in eight years after moving to Russia and marrying a Russian doctor. Outcast by the village elders, Hattem has returned for his sister’s wedding hoping to repair the damage in the relationship with his family bringing his tow his somewhat nervous wife and a son named for his father.

Orchestrating most of this is Amal (Abbass), the older sister. Married to a conservative man who has a somewhat bronze age view of women, she is independent, smart and ambitious. Intending to attend college in Israel now that her daughter is nearly grown, she is meeting stiff resistance from her husband who is more afraid of what the village will think than what will make his wife happy.

The wedding party soon makes its way to the immigration officer at the border where Mona presents her passport for the journey to a new life. However a new stamp, new Israeli policies and stubborn Syrian military officers jeopardize the wedding, which could leave Mona in a no-man’s land; a bride without a groom, a woman without a country.

Director Ricklis presents a story simply told about a situation which is not uncommon in that part of the world. Taking no sides, he instead lets the richly drawn characters tell the tale. But despite the movie’s title, this is less Mona’s movie than it is Amal’s. She is the driving force of the story and Abbass plays her like a young Irene Pappas with a bit of Sophia Loren mixed in.

I’ve always been fond of movies that present a slice of life in a part of the world that we don’t get to see much of on the evening news or in major movies. There have been quite a few of those types of movies emerging from the Middle East lately; The Band’s Visit, Paradise Now and Rana’s Wedding are just a few of the better ones. Ricklis wisely doesn’t cast stones here; he presents the situation as a fact of life, and that suits the story better.

Makram Khoury plays Hammed as a smart but bitter man, one who loves his family but might love his cause just a little bit more. While this is Amal’s movie, his journey from the stiff-necked patriarch to loving father during the course of the film is equally as compelling. While Hammed’s family is plainly dysfunctional, it is also just as plainly tight-knit. They bicker, yes, but they also come to one another’s aid when the situation calls for it. These are smart, independent people, and I would love to get to know them just a little bit better.

Cinematographer Michael Weisweg does an outstanding job of framing compelling images, such as a beautiful bride walking slowly in a demilitarized zone past signs warning of land mines, and of the desolate but oddly beautiful landscape of the Golan Heights. It’s a beautiful movie to look at.

One of the things I loved about the movie is the ambiguous ending, although some might be frustrated by this. Like the situation itself, there are no easy solutions and things are only going to change when somebody decides to lay down their rage and suspicions and make peace. Until then, movies like The Syrian Bride are going to be all-too-common.

REASONS TO RENT: A slice of life set in a world we see very little of in the States. Strong performance by Abbass. Gorgeous cinematography capturing compelling images.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many characters in the family (such as the story of Amal’s daughter who is in love with a man her father disapproves of) that muddy up the plot. Ambiguous ending may frustrate some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some harsh language but otherwise nothing not suitable for entire families. Younger sorts might not understand the complex issues presented here.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming had to be done in two different Druze villages, one pro-Syrian the other pro-Israeli. Which village was filmed in that day depended on the political leaning of the scene. Since the Israeli government wouldn’t allow filming to take place at the actual border, a mock-up was constructed some miles away.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The commentary from director Riklis gives additional insight into the history of the conflict and how it affects those living in the region.


TOMORROW: Avenue Montaigne