Chelsea Walls Movie Review

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New York living is all about location. And where you live is often a sign of your lifestyle. If you live in Brooklyn, it is assumed you are more artistically inclined then, say, someone living in Queens (though this borough is making a comeback with its cheap rent). But the most notorious creative residence in all of New York has been the Chelsea Hotel, as far back as anyone can remember. Boasting such notable alumni as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Bob Dylan, there is still a laidback, comfortably scrappy atmosphere about the place when you walk by.

Ethan Hawke (Training Day) courageously attempts to capture the essence of what makes this landmark so addictive in his directorial debut, Chelsea Walls. A collage of character plotlines that only barely intersect, Chelsea is a unique and respectable experiment in its focus on an inanimate object as its central character. Backed by a score that appropriately feels as if it were written while observing the production, Hawke creates an environment easily accessible to both New Yorkers and the non-initiated.

What keeps you from getting too engrossed in the proceedings are a handful of unfortunate technical difficulties inherent in shooting with digital video. It's impossible to fully concentrate on Terry (the ever reliable Robert Sean Leonard of The Last Days of Disco) while he's practicing a soulful tune in the bathroom, because the red lighting is an eyesore.

Another major distraction is uneven dialogue that consistently reminds you that Chelsea was adapted from a play (by the original playwright, Nicole Burdette). Kris Kristofferson is an understandably revered legend, but he is forced to repetitively spout every stereotypical machismo cliché in existence. You almost want to laugh at his pain, or at least tell him to shut up and deal, right along with the defeatist women he associates with. In the polar opposite direction is the fine handling of Terry's pensive nature, which leaves you wishing screen time had been parceled out differently to the sections of soap opera.

Despite some of the disposable claptrap, a great deal of tension in individual scenes is well handled through pregnant pauses. When Audrey (Rosario Dawson) and Val (Mark Webber) are together, the tearing situation of loving someone but finding yourself unable to share extended periods of time with them is evoked through thoughtful gazes. That it isn't easy to connect even during mutual attraction is poignantly portrayed in the awkward silences of Grace (Uma Thurman) and Frank (Vincent D'Onofrio).

Hawke also chooses his pacing wisely, structuring scenes so the point of a particular sequence might not be immediately obvious, lending a sense of unpredictability. The camera never holds on one individual long enough to completely drag attention from the screen. The soundtrack that Terry is playing also bleeds into other scenes, infusing the various circumstances with implicit universality.

Chelsea Walls may not be a prime example of whole characterization, or commentary on a given time, but it is an intellectually stimulating structural experiment. Surprisingly lacking in pretentious artistic dogma, it should be interesting to see what type of project Hawke might helm in the future.

Special DVD features include a few deleted scenes (as if this movie needs more scenes) plus interviews with Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard.

Don't jump, Rosario. You'll be in Men in Black II this summer!

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Chelsea Walls Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 2001

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