Three Dramas from Maple Pictures
Chelsea Walls (May 21/11)
Ethan Hawke's directorial debut, Chelsea Walls is a disastrously ill-conceived drama revolving around the lives of several residents of New York's Chelsea Hotel - including a struggling guitarist (Robert Sean Leonard's Terry), an aging writer (Kris Kristofferson's Bud), and a flighty dancer (Uma Thurman's Grace). There's little doubt that Chelsea Walls announces its worthlessness virtually from the word go, as Hawke's decision to employ as ugly and off-putting a visual style as one could possibly envision proves effective at immediately alienating the viewer - with the film's eye-rollingly pretentious feel heightened by Nicole Burdette's laughably avant-garde screenplay. The scripter has infused the proceedings with copious instances of rambling, artificial-sounding conversations that go absolutely nowhere, and there's little doubt that the movie is consequently (and completely) devoid of developed, wholeheartedly interesting characters - which, in turn, prevents the viewer from working up any interest in the film's many, many subplots. Chelsea Walls' frustratingly uninvolving atmosphere is undoubtedly exacerbated by its unreasonably deliberate pace, as Hawke places an all-too-consistent emphasis on overlong sequences that wear out their welcome almost instantaneously. The movie's total absence of authenticity cements its place as a hopelessly irrelevant and aggressively boring debut effort, and it's ultimately impossible not to wonder just what Hawke was hoping to accomplish with this utterly pointless waste of time.
The First Grader
Based on a true story, The First Grader follows 84-year-old Kenyan villager Kimani Maruge (Oliver Litondo) as he attempts to improve his life by finally learning how to read - with his decision to enroll in a crowded elementary school creating an uproar among angry locals and exasperated government officials. There's little doubt that The First Grader fares best in its opening half hour, as filmmaker Justin Chadwick, working from Ann Peacock's screenplay, does a nice job of initially luring the viewer into the proceedings by establishing an atmosphere of pleasant innocuousness (ie the movie often seems to have emerged directly from a template for uplifting true-life dramas). It's only as time progresses that the wafer-thin premise becomes an increasingly insurmountable problem, with Chadwick's ongoing efforts at padding out the running time generally falling entirely flat and ensuring that the midsection comes off as disastrously plodding and uneventful. The strong performances - Litondo is undeniably quite striking as the title character - initially play a key role in compensating for the flabbiness of the narrative, yet there reaches a point at which The First Grade morphs into an unexpectedly (and seriously) tedious piece of work. It does, as a result, go without saying that the inherently compelling premise is rendered moot by Chadwick's needlessly lofty modus operandi, with the end result a lifeless bit of Oscar bait that's simply (and ultimately) unable to pack the emotional punch that one might've expected.
Gritty and real, Winter's Bone follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) as she attempts to save her family farm by tracking down her deadbeat father - with Ree's ongoing efforts complicated by a variety of outside sources. It's a simple yet engrossing set-up that's ultimately employed to underwhelming effect by director Debra Granik, as the compelling opening half hour slowly-but-surely gives way to a subdued and almost oppressively slow-paced atmosphere that's rarely as engaging as one might've hoped. The novelty of the film's locale certainly goes a long way towards keeping things interesting even through its more overtly uneventful stretches, with Lawrence's star-making, downright astonishing work perpetuating the movie's consistently watchable vibe (and this is to say nothing of John Hawkes' scene-stealing turn as Ree's volatile uncle). It's clear, however, that the movie's thriller-based elements fall flat as a result of its excessively deliberate pace, and there is, as a result, little doubt that Winter's Bone is never quite able to pack the kind of emotional punch that Granik is obviously striving for. In the end, it's the film's palpable sense of authenticity and its stirring performances that end up compensating for its less-than-captivating narrative - which effectively cements its place as a well-intentioned yet somewhat disappointing piece of work.