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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Smoke

Starring: William Hurt, Harvey Keitel
Director: Wayne Wang
Rated: R
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: June 1995
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Independent

*Also starring: Forest Whitaker, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, Giancarlo Esposito, Harold Perrineau Jr., Erica Gimpel, Clarice Taylor

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
2.  Andrew Hicks read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

SMOKE is a touching set of interrelated stories somewhat reminiscent of SHORT CUTS. The central theme in the movie is taking life slow enough to get to know your fellow man. The title and the foci of the movie is the smoke shop in Brooklyn owned by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel). The visual link of all of the characters is the casual smoking among them as they take the time to get to know each other. The exquisite direction is by Wayne Wang who was responsible for THE JOY LUCK CLUB and DIM SUM.

I want to state my prejudice up front. I am violently antismoking having never had a cigarette touch my lips, but having lived with parents who smoked like chimneys rotting out their lungs until they gave it up 10 years ago. I complain frequently in my reviews about how Hollywood shows more smoking that happens in the real world and how they have too much gratuitous smoking in the movies. Nevertheless, the smoking in this almost documentary feeling movie was natural, and I had no problem with any scene in it.

The smoke shop is frequented by Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) plus many excellent minor characters. They spend a lot of time in talk fests a la MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. Unlike that film, the camera work in this movie is a central part of its success. The camera frequently will linger at the end of a scene with a close up of a character's face. In the scene with Auggie's putative daughter Felicity (Ashley Judd), it ends with Felicity giving a silent and yet so emotive and natural series of expressions that several people in the audience burst into tears. Similarly the camera angles enhanced Auggie's telling of his strange Christmas story. In this scene, the camera slowly moved in closer and closer until we saw every pore on Auggie's face and his nose was about 6 feet tall on the screen. This gave the scene great poignancy and drama.

The script by Paul Auster was the equal to Wang's direction. Although the Christmas story was the best scene, the picture book one was a close second. Auggie shows Paul a picture book that has exactly one picture of the smoke shop made everyday at 8:00am from the same vantage point. At first Paul is not impressed, but then Auggie points out that each picture is the same yet if you take the time and look close enough, you can see that they are all different. This is one of the key messages of the movie. To further emphasize the point, the background music is a slow piano playing a beautiful tone consisting only of single staccato notes serving as a metaphor of the single pictures. Highly effective.

William Hurt's acting in the movie may drive you crazy. His speech rhythm and his overall pace is one half or less of that of the other actors. I tried to accept it as yet another symbol of the taking the time to smell the flowers theme. The acting by Keitel, Keitel's ex-girlfriend, Ruby (Stockard Channing), the young man, Rashid/Thomas Cole (Harold Perrineau Jr.), that Hurt befriends, and the young man's father, Cyrus Cole (Forest Whitaker), was all top notch, but again, I would give much of the credit to the director. This was a movie with a strong director's stamp. He probably suggested Hurt adopt his slow and methodic pace which was my only real problem with the movie.

The cinematography (Adam Holender) and the Brooklyn sets (Kalina Ivanov) gave the movie a classic low budget feel. The script frequently referred to "The Projects". The enunciation of the words provoked sadness and desperation without Wang ever having to show us the locales discussed. Many of the scenes and themes reminded me of other wonderful movies I have seen. The theme of chance encounters changing your whole life and spurring lifetime friendships was lifted straight out of that great film, GRAND CANYON.

Finally, stay to the end as this movie features something I have never seen before. After the credits start to roll, the movie continues and the best series of scenes in the entire show occur. Moreover, it provides a perfect ending and extremely upbeat mood for you as you exit the theater.

SMOKE runs a surprising 2:05 since it feels much shorter. Somehow the lingering editing by Maysie Hoy and Christopher Tellefsen manages to make the picture seem shorter rather than longer, perhaps because it captures your imagination so well. The movie is rated R, but it is the softest R I have seen in quite a while. Other than a few uses of the F word, the language is pretty clean, there is no violence or sex, and the movie is extremely life affirming. Any teenager would be fine at this movie. I recommend this delightful and sweet movie to you and award it ***.

Copyright 1995 Steve Rhodes

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