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Movie Reviews

Smoke  

Movie: Smoke (1995)
Director: Wayne Wang (1995)
Cast: Harvey Keitel (Auggie Wren), William Hurt (Paul Benjamin), Harold Perrineau, Jr. (Rashid / Thomas Jefferson Cole), Stockward Channing (Ruby McNutt), Forest Whitaker (Cyrus Cole), Ashley Judd (Ruby's daughter)
This is a quiet movie, one of those undiscovered gems which aims for simplicity but achieves much more. Its not as if very much of huge importance happens - rather it is a portrayal of the juxtaposition of several stories coming together, all touching on a common base: a tobacco store in Brooklyn. It seems to be an attempt at story-telling, a seemingly simple art which surprisingly has been difficult art achieve.

Each character is given some background to help flesh them out a little: Harvey Keitel plays Auggie, the owner of the store, who encounters an old flame, Ruby (Stockward Channing), who unexpectedly appears to ask for his help in saving her (and possibly his) pregnant drug-addicted daughter (Ashley Judd). Paul (William Hurt), is a regular customer and a friend of Auggie's. He is a formerly successful writer who haven't been able to write since his pregnant wife died as an innocent victim in a robbery attempt. He encounters Rashid (Harold Perrineau, Jr.), a 17 year old who has run away from home in order to seek out his father (Forest Whitaker), whom he had not seen since the death of Rashid's mother. But Rashid is also running away from something else, a fact which he overlays with lies and half-truths.
Using this as a general structure, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster (who wrote the screenplay) proceeds to develop each character into three-dimensional beings, given each of them idiosyncrasies and character traits. Auggie, for example, takes pictures of his corner of the world at 8am everyday, building up a collection over a number of years. Paul, being a writer, is full of interesting absorbing stories, including one at the beginning of the film about Sir Walter Raleigh finding the weight of smoke from a cigar (hence the film title). There are no identifiable good or bad characters, but complex individuals whose actions may be questionable, but their motivations may be sympathetic. Rashid, though an easy liar, is articulate and cheeky, forward with all the boldness of his youth. His yearning to see his father though, exposes his vulnerability and humanity, despite his bravado. His father, though having left his young son behind, is filled with remorse. Cyrus is reminded everyday by his mechanical arm of the tragedy where Rashid's mother died in a car accident in which Cyrus was the driver. Ruby, a blowsy bottle-blonde, wears an eyepatch over her missing eye. Although it seems that she once screwed Auggie over, this time her concern seems genuine, leading Auggie to perform an astonishing act of great kindness and compassion.

Indeed, this is what the film achieves: beauty and grandeur in the smallest things, heroism springing from ordinary people. Each of us have a tragedy or a story, which although may not be earth-shattering as the most grandest epic, is nevertheless important and moving to us, transforming and changing us as we experienced them. Paul demonstrates this: as a writer, he hears and collects stories. At the end of the movie, he listens to the simple tale of how Auggie got his camera, and writes it for the New York Times, because it as good as any of those that concern more famous people, such as Sir Walter Raleigh and his measurement of the weight of smoke. Though these people may swear and cuss, lie and be insensitive at times, their hearts are basically good. From the accumulation of small actions, come great things.

When you see it like this, you realise how skilful the writing of this film actually is, because its touch is subtle to be almost invisible. Everything leads to something, nothing is left loose to unravel and irritate. The joy this film gives is not one of great exhilaration that comes from the rush of adrenalin, but the wonder and satisfaction of listening or hearing of a well-told tale, one that reaches out to all. For me, I find it interesting that this is one of those rare Hollywood films where the actors work together to serve the script and the movie, rather than stand out and jostle for attention. It is a simple tale, beautifully told and realised.

Eden Law

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