Ramin Bahrani is the new great American director. After three films, each a master work, he has established himself as a gifted, confident filmmaker with ideas that involve who and where we are at this time. His films pay great attention to ordinary lives that are not so ordinary at all. His subjects so far have been immigrants working hard to make a living in America. His fourth film, now in preparation, will be a Western. His hero will be named Tom. Well, he couldn't very well be named Huckleberry.
The Old West, too, was a land of immigrants, many of them speaking no English. But Bahrani never refers to his characters as immigrants. They are new Americans, climbing the lower rungs of the economic ladder. There is the Pakistani in "Man Push Cart," who operates a coffee-and-bagel wagon in Manhattan. The Latino kid in "Chop Shop," surviving in a vast auto parts bazaar in the shadow of Shea Stadium. The taxi driver from Senegal in "Goodbye Solo," who works long hours in Winston-Salem, N.C. ["Solo" opens March 27 in Chicago and New York.] These people are not grim and depressed, but hopeful when they have little to be hopeful about. They aren't walking around angry. Wounded, sometimes. They plan to prevail.
View image Alejandro Polanco plays... Alejandro.
Within the first 30 seconds or so of Ramin Bahrani's "Chop Shop," you know you're in good hands. I've written quite a bit about how much I loved Bahrani's debut feature, "Man Push Cart," from its opening shot to its final ingenious moment, and "Chop Shop" is a piece of filmmaking that is every bit as observant and assured. So, that first shot: A cluster of day workers stand in wait. This could be anywhere -- California, Texas, Mexico, South America -- but the first thing you sense is that it's not: it's this particular place, even if we don't know the name of it yet. The camera (hand-held, but not shakycam style) pans to the left as a truck pulls up. A guy gets out and picks two men for the job, telling a persistent kid, "I don't need you today" -- and the accent is unmistakably NY. As the pickup pulls out, the kid hops into the back.
Simple enough, but in these few seconds the movie establishes a setting, a milieu, some characters and the beginnings of a story with an ease and grace that you don't often see in the work of filmmakers who are much more established. What's more, the film develops a sense of place, and the people who inhabit that place, that few movies ever succeed in capturing. This guy knows how to make movies.
I admit I went in wanting to like "Chop Shop." I'd been wowed by "Man Push Cart," and I met Bahrani and that film's star, Ahmad Razvi, at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival a couple years ago, and I liked them and their work so much I wanted them to succeed. But by the end of "Chop Shop" I was walking down Bloor Street about 18 inches above the sidewalk, just from seeing a film that skillfully avoided so many pitfalls and cliches, and that felt so fresh, so alive, and just so right down to its last detail. (And, once again, the moment at which the movie chooses to end is both unexpected and unexpectedly satisfying. Seconds before it happens, you just feel it's so right it's inevitable.)
Here's what I knew about "Chop Shop" going in: It was directed by Ramin Bahrani and I was pretty sure it had a kid in it. That's all. Except I knew it had been shown at Cannes. I wish you'd see the film the same way (trust me), but I want to tell you as little as possible while still conveying my enthusiasm.
View image Alejandro P., director Rahmin Bahrani, and DP Michael Simmondson the set in the setting of "Chop Shop."
As usual, I'll explain next to nothing of the story, except to say that it concerns a 12-year-old boy named Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), who works any number of odd jobs (subway candy vendor, bootleg DVD salesman, chop shop assistant), mostly in and around the "Iron Triangle," a neighborhood of body shops and junkyards in the shadow of Shea Stadium in Queens.
But here's the thing: Too many of these "slice-of-life" movies feel like they're made by tourists. They shoehorn a fairly generic story and characters into a "colorful" setting in hopes of getting a distribution deal at Sundance. In "Chop Shop," the story and characters seem like details that the filmmaker has noticed within the hustle and bustle of this patch of city real estate -- as if they were here all along, and it just took someone with a sharp eye and an attuned ear to pick them out and give them shape. The texture is organic and alive; the story is an accumulation of incidents and experiences.
Listen to the hum of an oscillating fan in a tiny plywood room; the irregular tapping sounds (rain on the roof, or expanding/contracting pipes, or an overworked mini-fridge?) that turn out to be coming from a bag of microwave popcorn; the rising and falling roar of an unseen ballgame echoing off the honeycomb of metal garage doors and cement walls. Notice the mud puddles in the potholed streets; the pit bulls and the pigeons; the meats sizzling on a grill at a block party; the elevated trains passing over and through on their way to other neighborhoods, other people, other "stories" (the way they're photographed they are both part of the teeming cityscape and a reminder of a whole stratum of life going on above the low-lying realm where these characters scrape together a living, and a life).
View image Isamar Gopnzales and Alejandro Polanco, as sister and brother Isamar and Alejandro.
I don't want to use one American indie to bash another, but... looks like I'm going to. Consider "Quinceañera," a Sundance prize-winner that felt like a guided-tourist movie to me. In my review, I wrote: If there was ever a movie that seemed precision-tailored for a Park City reception, this is it -- the quintessential example of the festival's favored brand of hand-crafted, slice-of-life, youth-oriented filmmaking that expresses affection for a nicely captured American subculture. In other words, it's a Sundance specialty, right from the box.
This is a shopping-list movie: A double coming-of-age story spiced with local color; a bittersweet portrait of a Los Angeles neighborhood in transition; a warm and soapy celebration of a Mexican-American community. "Quinceañera" is also a thoroughly predictable melodrama that's both kitchen-sink and "After-School Special." You can see every plot development coming from miles away, much more clearly than you can see downtown L.A. from Echo Park most days. The story is so generic it seems put together from pre-fab modular elements... The life of a movie is all in the details, the atmosphere, and the contrast between "Quinceañera" and "Chop Shop" could not be more vital or revealing.
Ahmad Razvi, the star of "Man Push Cart," has a supporting role here as a local shop proprietor, but remains a star. The camera loves this guy, and he holds it with the magnetism of Harvey Keitel in early Scorsese movies. In fact, if Bahrani's guiding influences in "Man Push Cart" were the likes of Bresson and Ozu, he seems to have been inspired by Scorsese and Altman this time, in making a movie that recalls "Pixote" and, of course, Italian Neorealist classics like "Bicycle Thieves" and "Paisan," but without the slightest hint of sentimentality. I'm told he starts shooting his next movie in two weeks. My movie-lovin' heartbeat quickens at the news....
View image "Brick": The third shot of the movie.
For 35 years, on and off, critics Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy have annually assembled a montage of memorable impressions from the year's movies in a feature called "Moments Out of Time." It began in the pages of the Seattle Film Society's magazine, Movietone News, and continued in Film Comment under Jameson's editorship. This year, it's at MSN Movies. Whether the films themselves are big or small, good or bad, "Casino Royale" or "Climates," nearly all of them have their indelible moments...
A few samples to whet your appetite:
In "Brick," our hero's dreamgirl (Emilie de Ravin) dead in a drainage ditch...
"Little Children": In a dark playground, the accused child molester (Jackie Earle Haley) hunches over on a swing ... all menace drained...
Lucy, the dog in "Old Joy," always finding a stick to carry, and undeterred when it's too big...
"Shortbus": The lights go out in all the windows of a colorful, handcrafted model that stands in for New York's skyscrapers, and a trick of shadow turns the buildings into crowded tombstones, a city of the dead...
At the end of a New York pocket park in "Man Push Cart," Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) opens his cart for business just before dawn, as the lights in a line of little trees blink out one by one...
"The Queen": The royal face arranged as public mask, softening imperceptibly when Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) asks a child if she can place a bouquet of flowers among the great drift of Diana's tribute, and is told: "It's for you."...
"Man Push Cart."
Full list of nominees here.
I haven't seen all the nominees ("The Dead Girl," "American Gun," "Wristcutters: A Love Story," etc.), but, as always, there are some most welcome nominations. (Links below go to my reviews, festival coverage -- or even Opening Shots.)
"Man Push Cart," for best first feature (director Rahmin Bahrani), male lead (Ahmad Razvi) and cinematography (Michael Simmonds). Opening Shot treatment here.
"Half Nelson," for best feature, director (Ryan Fleck), first screenplay (Anna Boden & Fleck), male lead (Ryan Gosling), female lead (Shareeka Epps)
"Pan's Labyrinth," for best feature and cinematography (Guillermo Navarro). (But not Guillermo del Toro for director and screenplay?!?!?!)
"Old Joy," for the John Cassavettes Award.
Paul Dano for "best supporting male" (that's the IFP's category) in "Little Miss Sunshine," which is also nominated for best feature, screenplay, directors -- and Alan Arkin, also nominated for supporting male. I love Arkin (it's all about "Little Murders," people!), but I thought Steve Carell and Dano stole the movie, with Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear close behind.
Catherine O'Hara for best female lead in "For Your Consideration."
Robert Altman, best director for "A Prairie Home Companion."
Biggest disappointments: No documentary nominations for "51 Birch Street" or "The Bridge." The former may have been too deceptively simple and artless (in truth, it's a complex work of art) and the latter too cold and disturbing for many in the Indie tent-party crowd.
I'm still technically on break, but I'll be back to blogging (and editing) Wednesday.
One of the year's most subtly extraordinary movies opens in Chicago today: Ramin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart." (See Roger Ebert's review here). As readers of this blog know, I first encountered it at Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in May and my experience with it was like falling in love, and not fully realizing it until the final credits were rolling. And that's exactly what's great about it: I never felt like I knew where it would go, or that it was straining to fit a traditional narrative structure; I just became absorbed in the daily (and nightly) struggles of this one human life, an almost invisible man in New York City. Roger sees in it "the very soul of Italian Neo-Realism"; I see the purity and minimalism of Bresson and Ozu. We're both right.
Here's part of what I filed from the Overlooked: Alfred Hitchcock supposedly said that while most movies are a slice of life, his were a slice of cake. He's right about the last part, although most movies are not slices of anything resembling life as most of us experience it. But "Man Push Cart," the film by Ramin Bahrani, a director born in Iran and raised in North Carolina, is not only an exquisitely realized slice of life but a slice of filmmaking perfection. I didn't know, as I became absorbed in this portrait of a New York City street vendor whose life is slowly slipping from his grasp (like his heavy pushcart on one occasion), that it would become one of my favorite movies of recent years until moments after its inexplicably magnificent ending.
All I can tell you is that when the moment came, a thought flashed through my mind: "Wow, I would just end the movie right here -- wouldn't that be great?" And then, one more shot, and the movie was over. So, yes, I felt absolutely in synch with the vision of the filmmaker (whose manifest influences include some of my favorite directors: Robert Bresson and Lodge Kerrigan -- not to mention Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus"), but the film also had me so completely in its spell that it subtly prepared me for arrival at this ending (which, in formulaic conventional movies, would hardly be considered a conclusion at all). It just felt absolutely, ideally right. (Hitchcock also liked to say he played the audience like an organ; "Man Push Cart" is no less masterful, but its method and effects are not the bravura manipulations of Hitchcock but the subtle, underplayed shadings of Bresson or Yasujiro Ozu.)
On the most prosaic level, the story of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi, a former restauranteur who'd never acted before), a Pakistani-American who pushes (or pulls) his breakfast cart to 54th and Madison every day, could be seen as something of a downer. But, as Roger Ebert is fond of saying, no good movie is ever depressing -- because the experience of being in the presence of such artistry is elevating. (A friend and I, in the grips of a paralyzing mutual depression, once made a pilgrimage to "GoodFellas" and the experience -- though it's hardly an upper of a movie -- temporarily, at least, lifted us out of our low-seratonin stupor because it was just so exhilarating to watch something so beautifully composed and performed.) "Man Push Cart" is that kind of movie. I posted an Opening Shot Project entry for "Man Push Cart" here. Please come back after you've seen the film and let me know your impressions. It may be my favorite movie of the year.
Ramin Bahrani and Ahmad Razvi after the screening of "Man Push Cart" at the Overlooked Film Festival.
"Man Push Cart": Alfred Hitchcock supposedly said that while most movies are a slice of life, his were a slice of cake. He's right about the last part, although most movies are not slices of anything resembling life as most of us experience it. But "Man Push Cart," the film by Ramin Bahrani, a director born in Iran and raised in North Carolina, is not only an exquisitely realized slice of life but a slice of filmmaking perfection. I didn't know, as I became absorbed in this portrait of a New York City street vendor whose life is slowly slipping from his grasp (like his heavy pushcart on one occasion), that it would become one of my favorite movies of recent years until moments after its inexplicably magnificent ending.
University of Illinois President B. Joseph White (center), his wife Mary (left) and volunteer host Judy Tolliver (right) outside the Virginia Theatre.
So many movies and filmmakers and conversations, so little sleep. Well, that's a film festival for you. I was especially impressed with Ramid Bahrani's "Man Push Cart" -- a film of extraordinary attention to detail in every aspect. Not only does it closely observe the behavior of its central character Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani pushcart vendor at 54th and Madison in New York City, but every image and sound and gesture accumulate to create a Sisyphean portrait of a life slowly rolling out of control. More about it and other Overlooked events later. Meanwhile, check out the photo album(s) and MP3 audio of selected Ebert on-stage interviews.
Some films are born overlooked. Others have it thrust upon them. Among this year's festival entries, "Ripley's Game" has never had a theatrical release in the United States, and "Duane Hopwood" had a release so spotty it seemed designed to hide the film. Yet these are the kinds of films a movie critic views with joy: Films that are a meeting of craft and art. Being able to share them is an incalculable pleasure; everybody should have their own Overlooked Film Festival in the glorious Virginia Theater, all the year around. You have no idea how much fun it is.
PARK CITY, Utah – On the last day of Sundance 2006, I went to see one final film, named “Man Push Cart.” It was playing at 8:30 a.m. in the Prospector Square Theater, which is a large room filled with fairly comfortable folding chairs. The movie tells the story of a young man who was once a rock star in his native Pakistan, but now operates a stainless steel push cart on the streets of Manhattan, vending coffee, tea, muffins and bagels (“You want cream cheese?”).