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Chalk

Not rated, 135 min. Directed by Rob Nilsson. Starring Destiny Costa, John Tidwell, Denise Concetta Cavaliere, Don Bajema, Kelvin Han Yee, Johnnie Reese, Edwin Johnson.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 30, 1999

Given the odds against it, it's a wonder that Chalk exists at all. Yet this 1996 film emerges as an artful, courageous, experimental work that is as compelling as it is impaired. Its story of small-time pool-hall hustling and Oedipal passion plays, told in gestures of taut pool cues and crackling balls, is grandly atmospheric and lowdown. Chalk's featured cast is culled mainly from members of San Francisco's Tenderloin Action Group, a grassroots program founded in 1991 by filmmaker Nilsson as an acting and production workshop composed of inner-city street people and filmmakers. What these down-and-out actors lack in subtle acting chops they compensate for in the realism they bring to their task. Nilsson is a proponent of the John Cassavetes approach to film acting that favors sustained improvisational work. In Chalk, the method reveals moments of flashing insight, but this core of actors is much too inexperienced to make the most of their ample screen time. Nilsson is on to many good things with this film, but the problem is that he doesn't know when to stop. Chalk moves at an unnecessarily slow and deliberate pace and goes on for way too long. Nilsson's superior ability to create mood and atmosphere seems at odds with his ability to tell a story. Some of the film's problems can be racked up to its difficult production -- years in the making while always hustling for money and supporting actors more committed to booze and junk than moviemaking. Still, shots are perfectly framed and drenched in sumptuously smoky lighting and backlit neon, which on the face of things seems as though it should earn DP Mickey Freeman some kind of medal of valor. The deliberateness of the compositions, however, is not in balance with the catch-as-catch-can nature of these characters' lives. The one (incoherent) outdoors scene is bathed in more shades of pink and blue than an ocean of Tequila Sunrises. The script, by Nilsson and co-star Don Bajema, is a workmanlike story about a two-bit hustler afraid in his gut to enter the big time. In the end, Chalk looks like one of those older Miller beer commercials that verged ineluctably toward narrative -- except the narrative in Chalk is socially downscaled for the rotgut, needles, and skeezers crowd. As the mercurial nemesis of the story, Bajema brings a certain electricity to his nasty piece-of-work character. Nilsson, whose previous movies, Northern Lights (1979) and Heat and Sunlight (1988), apart from demonstrating the filmmaker's overt obsession with issues of lighting, have won top prizes at such festivals as Cannes and Sundance. The director seems in complete sympathy with Chalk's characters, who dismiss others who are “all talk and no chalk.” In Chalk, the writing is all on the wall, but its outline can only be seen in artful smudges.
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