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On a rundown street corner in Brooklyn, Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) runs a small cigar shop that is more a second home to its loyal customers and close community than a simple store. One of Auggie's regulars, widowed novelist Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) leaves the store one day and is saved from certain death by young teen runaway Rashid Cole (Harold Perrineau) whom he befriends and takes in. Rashid's troubled past soon catches up with them both and when Rashid reaches out to his estranged father Cyrus (Forest Whitaker) for help, these four men's lives intertwine in a way that may see them bonded forever.

Review by Craig Miller:
An under-rated gem from the mid 1990s, thick with sentiment and rich with genuine characters and emotion, Smoke takes the focus of the everyday, non-descript stories of our lives and gives them real depth and meaning.

While the above synopsis is accurate, Smoke is much more complex, coming remarkably close to being a series of shorter stories as opposed to the one feature-length drama. It doesn't stick to popular genre conventions for its duration, with much of the story peppered with what look to be incidental moments involving outside characters. But this is where the beauty lies.

Director Wayne Wang's great triumph comes with the interweaving lives of his and Paul Auster's characters. This is a film about those lives and story-telling; the lies, the half-truths and anecdotes we shop around to others as our lives, to give ourselves meaning through experience and perception.

Veteran actors Harvey Keitel and William Hurt deliver in meaningful terms as the seasoned cigar store owner who loves his community and the widowed novelist dealing with the sudden loss of his wife and unborn child. One dramatic scene involving the two characters sharing a smoke as they look through Auggie's life work - a collection of photographs taken by Auggie of his store every day at 8:00am which happens to have captured an image of Benjamin's wife - is particularly heart-breaking and, arguably the very essence of the film. Take time to really look at life and it's amazing what you will see.

Smoke's same year sequel, Blue in the Face -which took approximately five days for Wang to shoot directly after Smoke's completion and is comprised almost entirely of ad-libbed material - takes a break from the more traditional linear story-telling structure and opts for the 'sometimes disjointed, sometimes inspired' series of vignettes. The only common denominator in these short snapshots of Brooklyn life seem to be the city itself, with Keitel and his cigar shop acting as loose protagonist and setting.

This mildly amusing sequel mostly works, with the scenes featuring cameos from the Hollywood glitterati sect like Lou Reed, Madonna, Michael J. Fox and Lily Tomlin the stand-outs; some good, some bad. Funnily enough, there's also a solid cameo from independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch discussing giving up cigarettes, which is almost better than everything in his Coffee and Cigarettes feature from 2003.

Barely ten years old and both these features look, unsurprisingly, fantastic on DVD with quality transfers and well-balanced audio capturing the harsh sounds of the city and the personable conversations perfectly. As with a lot of independent features, the extras package is rather small, but what is included is all quality. The filmmaker's commentary on Smoke gives a detailed history of the film's origins including how the story was developed from a Christmas article written for the New York Times and the featurettes on the making of the film include some wonderful interviews with cast and crew.

An intimate character-driven drama about the day-to-day lives of normal Brooklyn residents and the close relationships they form with the strangest of strangers, director Wayne Wang's and co-filmmaker Paul Auster's beautifully crafted work Smoke is a much more personable experience than the bulk of talky dramas out there and, more importantly, beautifully honest when it comes to the way people speak and the truth behind the words they say.

Published August 25, 2005

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(US, 1995)

CAST: Smoke: Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Harold Perrineau Jr.. Blue in the Face: Harvey Keitel, Lou Reed, Roseanne, Michael J. Fox, Lily Tomlin, Jim Jarmusch, Mel Gorham

DIRECTOR: Wayne Wang

SCRIPT: Paul Auster

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes & 83 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9 widescreen, DD 5.1

SPECIAL FEATURES: Filmmaker's commentary, Behind-the-scenes featurette, Original featurette, B-roll footage, outtakes, a conversation with Lou Reed.


DVD RELEASE: August 17, 2005

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