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Grade: C-Chelsea Walls (2001)

Director: Ethan Hawke

Stars: Kris Kristofferson, Tuesday Weld, Uma Thurmond

Release Company: Lionsgate Films

MPAA Rating: R

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Ethan Hawke: Chelsea Walls

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Soviet Poet Andrei Voznesensky Relaxing, Sitting at Chelsea Hotel
Soviet Poet Andrei Voznesensky Relaxing, Sitting at Chelsea Hotel
Ted Thai
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Most remember Ethan Hawke as the low-key actor from Dead Poet's Society, Snow Falling on Cedars, or Training Day. But he debuts in the director's chair for Chelsea Walls, shot with an ensemble cast of 30+ actors shot over eighteen days at the famous Chelsea Hotel on 23rd street in Manhattan.

The Chelsea is the first hotel I ever stayed at on my first trip to NYC, and like anyone else who stays there did so because of its history (and it was relatively cheap). Admittedly my impression of the room we rented was not entirely positive—the rug was worn through in the tiny room, the bed was too short, the bathroom door didn't shut—but what the hell...Who can complain about the bohemian atmosphere? Not when the likes of Mark Twain, Eugene O'Neill, Thomas Wolfe, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, and countless other literary and artistic icons have hung out here.

Hawke can't tell a story cinematically, but he pays homage to the Chelsea Hotel with a variety of shots and angles to make it the true star of the film. The “plot”...well, there is no plot. It's as though you hung around the Chelsea for a 24-hour period and randomly watched its various kooky inhabitants. Not a horrible idea, since the landmark spot attracts members of the artistic community along with wannabe bohemians—people who just want to hang there and absorb the atmosphere, so they can appear to be cool. Ethan Hawke himself fits into that category, and he enjoys playing with the camera à la Andy Warhol in this decidedly disjointed avant-garde affair.

The varied lighting effects (including one with hard-to-see-through reddish glow), occasional blurred focus, and hand-held camera movement are among the better charms of the film. Armed with a digital camera, a screenplay by Nicole Burdett, and backed by $100,000, Hawke was able to get a number of actors together at the Chelsea to improvise some scenes.

Most memorable among the cast is Kris Kristofferson, who plays a boozy novelist pecking away at his typewriter while attempting to woo any woman within calling distance. His best scene occurs with his wife (Tuesday Weld), who still loves him despite their separation and knowledge of his infidelity. There's a touch of melancholy about his macho character. His latest lover (Natasha Richardson) doesn't see a place in his life for her, seeing him only really loving his writing work. He doesn't really love anyone (the way she sees it).

Later, a habitually drunk Kristofferson lamely attempts to hit on Uma Thurmond, a poet eking out a meager existence with a distant self-absorbed boyfriend only in the picture via the phone (uncredited real life husband Hawke). She's also pursued by a shy and bumbling artist played by Vincent D'Onofrio (best known for his Private Pyle character in Full Metal Jacket). After hanging up on her boyfriend, D'Onofrio tentatively approaches her. "Maybe sometime we could have a cup of coffee and talk. About life." Thurmond stares blankly and monotones, "Yeah, maybe. I don't know."

Robert Sean Leonard (best known as Hawke's suicidal roommate in Dead Poet's Society) plays a likable low-key Minnesota folk singer pursuing the footsteps of Hibbing's Bob Dylan. I'm not sure that Bob would have turned down all the sexual favors offered up as Leonard righteously does, but his sincerity shines through. He longs for a girl back home, but fumbles weakly when pursuing her on the phone—h;his live encounters will continue to be similar. His loneliness is relatable.

Less fathomable is Mark Webber's character. With only $43 to live on, his beautiful girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) doesn't seem to mind, and they have a nice scene where she sensually shaves the peach fuzz off his cheeks, yet Webber inexplicably chooses to run off with an asshole friend. Perhaps it's to justify his poem entitled "The Insufferable Hunger of the Damned."

Hawke obviously has adopted director Richard Linklater as his directing mentor; he acted for him in Tape and did voice acting in Waking Life. And his best work appears in Before Sunset and Before Sunrise. In the brief interview on the DVD version, Hawke states that he felt Chelsea Walls would be a good first film for him since he's lived in hotel rooms for years. Perhaps he can relate to it, and any pseudo-bohemians, Linklater fans, or pretentious types who want to appear avant-garde will suck up to this project. For most of us, it'll play much better if you can get as drunk as Kristofferson's character or zombie out on some drugs. You will have more fun if you can get over to the Chelsea and soak up the atmosphere first hand, but in a pinch you can substitute Hawke's impressions. Just don't expect too much.
 


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