The Substitute (Vikaren) (Denmark, 2007) * * *
D: Ole Bornedal
I didn't know what to expect from The Substitute--running into the theater so quickly, after getting caught in traffic, I didn't even have time to look up what country it was from, but I vaguely recalled that it had something to do with an alien disguised as a substitute teacher. I expected some modest laughs, hoping it wouldn't be too terrible. What a delight to find that it was an effectively mounted, ingenuity-stuffed throwback to the dark and satirical Joe Dante fantasies of the 1980's, like Gremlins and Explorers. Indeed, the substitute teacher for this Danish elementary school is an alien from outer space--from a breed that's replaced love with war--and she's intent on kidnapping a few specimens (all right, the entire classroom) to teach her race the unique traits of Earthlings. In the meantime, she demonstrates all sorts of wicked powers, like shrinking humans so that she can eat them, gobbling down chickens in a gory mess, summoning a doppelgänger of the Minister of Education from a hovering metal sphere that follows her wherever she goes, and even (worst of all) calling the kids out on their secret longings and inner weaknesses. She's bizarre and unpredictable, and keeps the proceedings off-kilter, even when you think you know the beats this kind of story should take. Ultimately, the story proves to be less than it seemed, but there's plenty to entertain along the way, and the child actors, who are very good, are given fully-realized characters to portray.
Chop Shop (U.S., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Ramin Bahrani
Ramin Bahrani's first feature was Man Push Cart, a stripped-down homage to Neorealism (think Bicycle Thieves), filmed on a shoestring budget, that received deserved acclaim. Still, I half-suspected that maybe the acclaim was a little too rabid, that the comparisons to Robert Bresson were a bit premature. Now comes Chop Shop, an excellent follow-up that is superior to the earlier film, demonstrating a talent for realistic storytelling that is growing more compelling. Ale (Alejandro Polanco) is a young adolescent so streetwise that he could almost be mistaken for an adult, if it weren't for his height. He certainly seems to be in complete command of his situation, despite the fact that he has no parents, and he's living out of a garage. When his older sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), arrives in the city, he happily gives her a home, while both plot to save up enough money to purchase a vending truck (shades of Man Push Cart) from which they can run their own business. In the meantime, Ale does auto body work and steals fenders and hubcaps to sell to the shop, storing his savings in a jar hidden in a dirty hole in his home, beneath a simple wooden board. Isamar is making money too, by turning tricks, and how Ale finds out--and how he copes, setting his makeshift maturity against the last embers of his innocence--fills out the narrative with real emotional depth. The story is efficient and simple, but Bahrani's documentary-style approach is so absorbing that I began to lose all track of my own reality, trading it in for the grungy world of Chop Shop's. When the lights finally came up--after a suitably minor-key, but deeply satisfying ending--I barely knew where I was. That's tribute enough to Bahrani's skills as a filmmaker, and the utterly convincing performances he elicits from his young leads and their co-stars.