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Customer Review

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exhilarating in its wisdom, February 23, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Smoke [VHS] (VHS Tape)
I am your average movie buff whose taste in movies runs from the traditional movie fare such as "Ben-Hur", "E.T.", and "Star Wars". However, more and more recently I find myself attracted to the independent cinema. "Smoke" was a film that follows close on the heels of such indie blockbusters as "Short Cuts" and "Pulp Fiction" and, though not to take anything away from the former two films (which in my opinion are both masterpieces), "Smoke" lives up to the hype. Harvey Keitel was embarrasingly shut out of the Academy Awards in '95 (as was the entire film and two other gems from that year, "Heat" and "Casino", whose places in the Oscar slot were replaced by such bizarre choices as the inspirational but still rather childish "Babe" and the Italian Communist propaganda "Il Postino")for what I think is one of the most earthy and brazenly un-movie star-like performances of all time. His Auggie Wren is an enigma; at first sight you see a rugged man worn out by the day-to-day routine. Those who know him better, like widower novelist Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), find a keen philosophical spark behind the skewed demeanor of a cigar shop proprietor. The film has been read by many as too literate for its own good; why employ such insights into celluloid? The answer is not only in Paul Auster's brilliant writing (this film should have won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), but in the minimalist conceits of Adam Holender's camerawork and the mood invoked by director Wayne Wang's leisurely pacing of scenes. The scene where Keitel and Hurt are sitting inside the cigar shop looking at Keitel's photo album is one of the most moving and provocative scenes I have ever seen on film, ditto the entire last fifteen minute segment, essaying "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story", an idiosyncratic piece that originally appeared in the New York Times in Christmas 1990. The film's closing dialogue is one of the most poignant recent lines ever to end a movie: Wren: If you can't share your secrets with your friends then what kind of friend are you? Benjamin: Exactly...then life just wouldn't be worth living. The brilliance of the entire film is precisely how minimal its plotline is. Those who disagree that the film's meandering style didn't suit them miss the point. The pacing may be lazy, but the film surely is not. It's odd, and never before has the lack of harmony as displayed by Tom Waits' boozy barroom version of "Innocent When You Dream" seemed so poetic when coincided with the images of this film. The film has a message involving race, and I realized what a true filmmaker Wang is in not losing the subtlety of this message. Cross-cultural differences cannot be solved by obsessively preaching and ranting at your audience. They can be solved through generous displays of human emotion and a good evocation of sentiment. Wang does precisely this when, as the end credits unfold, he shows Keitel's hands clenched in between the lonely fingers of an elderly black lady. In perfect contrast, Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" sermonizes when Mookie the pizza delivery boy speaks of Louis Farrakhan and the entire celluloid of the film crawls with a false reverence shown toward the man whose anti-Semitism and reverse racism ring hollow within the tolerance context that film was trying to shoot for. "Smoke" may not be for everybody, and I realize that for those unfamiliar with novelistic style and flourish the film's many shots-which-call-attention-to-themselves (such as the camera moving into Keitel's lips as he tells the Christmas story) may seem needlessly stylistic, but the idea is not to get irritated by such a thing, but to weigh how closely the story's impact becomes so much more personal as the close-up gets tighter. 1995 was a really good year for movies: right off the top of my head I can name "Braveheart", "Apollo 13", "Seven", "Get Shorty", "Casino", "Toy Story", "Heat", "Sense and Sensibility", "Twelve Monkeys", and "Richard III". "Smoke" was the cream of the crop.
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