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Toronto #6: A miracle or two

Alejandro Polanco plays a 12-year old boy trying to make a living in the "Iron Triangle" of Queens, in the Toronto success "Chop Shop."

TORONTO, Ont. -- Sometimes in a smaller theater, away from the searchlights and the 24-hour fans making privacy impossible for poor Brad and Angelina, you find an independent film that is miraculous. Such a film is “Chop Shop,” by Ramin Bahrani, the Iran-born American director whose “Man Push Cart” made such a stir three years ago. That film was about an immigrant from Pakistan trying to make a living in New York with a rented coffee-and-bagel cart. It was shot on a shoestring in less than three weeks, and won the critics’ prize at London and three Independent Spirit Awards, including best first feature. It embodied, I said in my review, the very soul of Italian neorealism.

Now “Chop Shop” is another film about making a hard living in New York City, and with more time to film and stunning performances by his very young actors, Bahrani has made an even more powerful film. It is set in Willet’s Point, Queens, and stars a 12-year-old boy named Alejandro Polanco and a 16-year-old girl named Isamar Gonzales, playing a brother and sister who share a tiny room above an auto repair shop. The film is so very real that the shop owner, Rob Sowulski, plays himself, and shares the whole film’s feeling of authenticity. For that matter Alejandro and Isamar attend the same school, and she was the close friend of his sister.

First a word about Willet’s Point. Bahrani observes in his notes that this area was the original Valley of the Ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Now it is a 75-acre district called “the Iron Triangle,” a third world clone jammed with auto and body part shops and the population that lives off of them. Alejandro (all the actors use their real names) hustles customers for his boss’s shop, learns the auto repair trade, peddles M&Ms on the subway, does some hubcap-stealing and purse-snatching, and dreams that he and his sister will own their own taco and beans truck.

He and Isamar, both from Puerto Rico, spontaneously, joyously like each other, and one of the movie’s scenes of heartbreaking reality shows them at horseplay—just a couple of kids, in a world of unremitting poverty. Bahrani’s camera lives in their lives. There is no false sentiment in his story, just a fascination with these characters. The area is across the expressway from Shea Stadium and in the LaGuardia flight path, but seems to be in another world than the United States. And yet the ingenuity and improvisation of this brother and sister forces the Iron Triangle to support them, sometimes by any means necessary. Now we have an American film with the raw power of “City of God” or “Pixote,” a film that does something unexpected, and inspired, and brave.

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The big-budget movies playing over the weekend included Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” starring Brad Pitt as the outlaw and Casey Affleck as the coward; and Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” starring Cate Blanchett in a sequel to their “Elizabeth” (1998), nominated for seven Oscars.

The Jesse James saga follows “3:10 to Yuma” as another convincing argument that the Western is far from dead. Pitt embodies the qualities that allowed Jesse James, essentially a low-life murderer, to gain iconic and almost heroic status. Affleck is quietly insidious as James’s worshipper, who becomes his murderer, something the outlaw almost seems to expect and invite. Ford is a coward, I suppose, because he shoots James in the back, but what does that make Jesse, whose gang killed helpless stagecoach passengers and bank employees? Once again, the Western demonstrates why it can be such an ideal platform for the scrutiny of character.

The film about Elizabeth begins at the height of her power, as the Virgin Queen enlists Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), just returned from claiming Virginia and naming it after her, to lead an outgunned British fleet in the humiliating defeat of the Spanish Armada. Once again Blanchett embodies austere queenly and vulnerable human emotions, and Kapur evokes British locations and a royal court that are not only bigger than life but bigger than legend. Samantha Morton, as Mary Queen of Scots, gets as much emotion out of a medium shot of a woman about to be beheaded as I think it is probably possible to extract, and Geoffrey Rush is the fierce warmongering courtier Sir Francis Walsingham. The word for this film is, I think, sumptuous. Maybe too sumptuous, unless you like that sort of thing, which I do.

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Eran Kolirin’s “The Band's Visit” is a charming sleeper of a comedy from Israel, about the mistaken visit of the Alexandria (Egypt) Municipal Policeman’s Band to perhaps the smallest hamlet in Israel. The band conductor (Sasson Gabai) is ferocious with an underling who put them on the wrong bus, and Ronit Elkabetz plays Dina, the proprietor of a snack shop that is literally the entire downtown.

During a long, hot day and night, the band members and locals interact (often in English, their common language). Dreams and disappointments are reviewed, truths are told, and romances start out as doomed and go downhill. If you are at all familiar with the uniquely deadpan comedies of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (“The Match Factory Girl,” “The Man Without a Past”), you will recognize some of the same qualities here, as downbeat characters recognize shared misery over Israeli-Egyptian lines. In its sad way, it is very funny.

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Now how does a critic review a film that has been dedicated to him? Werner Herzog has done me the astonishing honor of so dedicating his new documentary about Antarctica, “Encounters at the End of the World.” Yes, it is an awesome film, humbling in the face of a continent so vast it moves beyond human comprehension. But a review from me might seem like a conflict of interest I’ve decided the solution is to simply write a letter to this man whose work I have admired beyond measure for more than 40 years. It will appear after the festival, in a week or two.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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