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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Slums abroad and close to home: Chop Shop and Slumdog Millionaire

Chop Shop
(2008) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Well, I'm still sick and have still been sitting on my couch watching movies. I was very impressed with Chop Shop, a film from Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani. The movie is about a 12-year-old boy and his older sister living in Queens and making a living working at the local car shops and food carts. Almost no backstory is given as to how they ended up here, but the camera simply follows them for a few days of their life.

Many reviewers have said (and I absolutely concur) that this doesn't feel like an American film. It is very reminiscent of the classic neorealist films from Europe and the more recent films from Iran. If it weren't for Shea stadium and the subway train in the background, it would be very easy to forget that this story even takes place in America. Everyone who immediately thinks of Sex and the City or Woody Allen's Upper East Side when they think of New York should definitely see this film to get another version of life in the city. The only recent "American" movie I've seen that reminds me of this is Maria Full of Grace.

As I was watching this movie, I couldn't help but think of Slumdog Millionaire, another film about a young man who doesn't go to school and gets by on his wits. I saw Slumdog a few weeks ago. The filming style couldn't be more different, and neither could the overall feel of the movie. As you watch Slumdog, you are pulled up and down by its grand emotional gestures. Chop Shop includes moments no less heartbreaking moments than moments from Slumdog, yet they are simply observed rather than highlighted. I really liked both films, but there's little doubt in my mind that Chop Shop is more emotionally honest with the audience. Chop Shop also gets extra points for a beautiful and minimalist ending.

Since I've picked on Slumdog a bit, perhaps I should say what I really liked about it. I loved the cinematography, the score, the creative use of subtitles, and the textured and colorful version of life in India. Yes, the story is derivative of Dickens, but Dickens is still read for a reason, we all need some emotional catharsis sometimes. The ending of Slumdog was great, and I definitely walked out of the theater feeling energized.

So, all in all, Slumdog is perhaps a more enjoyable experience to watch, but Chop Shop certainly gets the points for realism.

Chop Shop: A-
Slumdog Millionaire: B+

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