Film-Forward Review: [CHOKING MAN]

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Jorge (Octavio Gómez Berríos), far right
Amy (Eugenia Yuan), far left
Photo: International Film Circuit

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Written & Directed by Steve Barron.
Produced by Joshua Zeman & Zachary Mortenson.
Director of Photography by Antoine Vivas-Denisov.
Edited by Todd Holmes & Jon Griggs.
Music by: Nico Muhly.
Language: English & Spanish with English subtitles.
USA. 82 min. Not Rated.
Released by: International Film Circuit.
With: Mandy Patinkin, Octavio Gómez Berríos, Eugenia Yuan, Aaron Paul, Kate Buddeke & Paolo Andino.

My New York City borough of Queens is the most diverse county in the country. Diners are its iconic crossroads for the 140+ languages spoken here, including Choking Man’s quintessential Olympic Diner, at the intersection of three streets in the busy neighborhood of Jamaica near JFK Airport.

Greek owner Rick (Mandy Patinkin) regales staff and demanding regular customers with non-stop stories (Patinkin modeled his accent on the diner’s real owner). He has South Americans in the kitchen; an Irish-American ex-con cook, Jerry (Aaron Paul); Teri (Kate Buddeke), an older waitress out of Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; and sweet, young Chinese waitress Amy (Eugenia Yuan), who grooves to Latin hip hop. Their interactions are mostly seen and heard from the point of the view of the virtually silent Ecuadorian dishwasher, Jorge (Octavio Gómez Berríos).

The child-like Jorge may just be extremely shy, like the diner cook in James Mangold’s Heavy with a similar crush on another pretty and kind waitress, or he may be isolated by language and illiteracy, or by the shock of adjustment. Or, Jorge may be more developmentally or seriously disturbed, what with his extreme sensitivity to sounds, accentuated on the soundtrack. With so little human interaction, Jorge fixates on the diagram above his sink, the government-required (and universally ignored) advisory graphically demonstrating the Heimlich maneuver.

Barron creatively mixes magic realism and animation to express Jorge’s thoughts, oppressive nightmares, and daydreams, somewhat as Australian Sarah Watt did in the also quirky Look Both Ways. Like his notable music videos for the Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” Barron imaginatively integrates Marina Zurkow’s bright expressionistic art into the storyline as Jorge focuses on shapes and images in his sink that morph into the adventures of his childhood toy, a rabbit roaming at will to Nico Muhly’s lovely, lively score.

In his first original screenplay, Barron provides brief and touching insight into the other characters. Jerry is less of a blustery bully when he’s wooing Amy with a magic carpet ride at the local Persian rug store, and the tough-talking Teri is less confident when beset by family problems. In this warmly sympathetic look behind the scenes at the everyday life of a diner, the very American holiday of Thanksgiving and its aftermath creates what climactic tensions there are, as immigrants Jorge and Amy are left at loose ends and become less anonymous, even surprisingly heroic in adjusting to a new land. Nora Lee Mandel
November 9, 2007



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