Movie News

Moriarty looks at HOLY SMOKE

Published at: Dec. 3, 1999, 8:23 a.m. CST by staff

Hey folks, Harry here with a peekaboo from Moriarty, that degenerate old evil dude in that Lab beneath that Fault in California, on HOLY SMOKE. As you my remember from Lynn Bracken's review, his hands were on her more than the popcorn, but still... I think he has given a fair review of Lynn's... I mean HOLY SMOKE. So without further barnfarkling from me, let's get on with the evil genius...

Hey, Head Geek...

"Moriarty" here.

Well, it's been a busy month, but we're finally wrapping up those long-term projects that forced me to take much of last month off from my work here at AICN. That's not to say I haven't slipped in a couple of assignments here and there. For example, I accompanied the charming Lynn Bracken to a showing of HOLY SMOKE just last week, her account of which I forwarded to you already. Since the film's opening for its limited run in Los Angeles and New York today, the 3rd, I wanted to jump in and share my feelings on it with you.

I admire Jane Campion. I really do. I think she's a brave filmmaker, a personal filmmaker with a unique voice and a singular vision. I think much like I think of David Lynch... they each make the films they make because there's no other type of film they could make. Jane Campion couldn't bury her trademarked interests and style in a mainstream picture if she tried, and that's to be admired in a world where art is so frequently sold out, homogenized.

But with ambition can come failure, and Jane's proven that before. In my opinion, PORTRAIT OF A LADY is one of the most horrendously painful films I've ever had the misfortune of witnessing. I didn't just watch the film... I suffered it. I endured it. I was, in the end, beaten by it. That crushing disappointment was due in large part to my esteem for ANGEL AT MY TABLE, SWEETIE, and THE PIANO, all of which I consider masterful, transporting, astonishing to different degrees. When I walked into HOLY SMOKE, I was open for whatever experience might be ahead, hoping it was Campion with her wings fully spread again.

I think HOLY SMOKE is, in the end, a lesser effort from the filmmaker, but it's one that is crammed with ideas that are interesting, intriguing, teasing, sexy, and smart. In many ways, the film is too full of ideas. Jane co-wrote the film with her sister and occasional collaborator Anna, and there's a breathless sense to it, as if they were both so eager to get all these cool things into the film that they didn't ever stop to make sense of any of them. There's no finesse, no subtelty, no time for us to get swept up in the goings-on.

It starts well. In fact, it starts very well. I'd say that if you showed the first two or three reels of the film to anyone, they'd be up for the rest of it. Nothing ever matches that persuasive crazed inventiveness, though. We start with a girl, Ruth (Kate Winslet), on a bus. She's going somewhere. She's surrounded by people. It's just her face that holds us, and it's a seductive start. I hate to use words like this, because there's no way to use them without sounding hackneyed, but Winslet is radiant in the film, lit from within, and seems possessed of secrets at every turn. She goes to see a guru with a friend while they're on vacation in India, and she is enlightened. Something inside of her responds on a primal level, and Ruth decides to stay. The way Campion shoots the sequence, the rapture that she paints the frame with, convinces us as well. Ruth's right to stay. It's beautiful.

When her parents Miriam (Julie Hamilton) and Gilbert (Tim Robertson) find out about what she's done, they are devastated, convinced she's been brainwashed. Miriam becomes obssessed with getting Ruth back, and decides to fly to India, to lie to Ruth, to tell her that her father's dying -- whatever it takes. Again, Campion nails every moment of the mother's visit. We see India through her eyes, smell what she smells. It's squalid, filthy, terrifying, sad. Hamilton is heartbreaking in these early moments, setting a tone so real, so honest, that the later cartoonishness of many characters seems jarring. She can't convince Ruth with any argument, though, can't shake her daughter's alien new faith, and she flees. Her subsequent panic attack on the streets and hysterical collapse do what her reason couldn't; Ruth accompanies her mother back to Australia.

Meanwhile, her family has brought in PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), an American cult exiter, a deprogrammer. He's going to spend three days with Ruth at a remote shack and break her will, bring her back. He's supposedly a big deal, the best in the business, with Ruth being just number 190 in a long list of successes. Still, I wasn't convinced. There's nothing in Keitel's performance that suggests this guy would be any good at the job. In fact, he's loathesome from the moment he arrives, a stereotype of the middle-aged hustler, and I never believe that anyone would fall for his act. He sure doesn't strike me as any sort of master chess player, a verbal duellist of unmatched ability. He's just Keitel... a lout, a big bruise of a guy. One of Ruth's relatives, a sister-in-law named Yvonne (Sophie Lee), is practically throwing her panties at PJ from the moment he steps off the plane. In the press notes for the film, Lee talks about her character, giving a glimpse at how her behavior is caused by a reaction to having two children, to feeling trapped, and that's a valid choice. It's just that the Campions haven't written anything that would suggest any of that inner life to us, the audience.

That's actually one of my biggest overall complaints about the film. There's a big cast here of family members, all of them gathered and huddling and waiting on the fringe of Ruth's deprogramming. Dan Wyllie, Paul Goddard, George Mangos, Kerry Walker, Leslie Dayman, Simon Anderson... they all do everything they can to fill out this massive ensemble with quirks and little character touches, and it's admirable work in many ways. They're not characters, though, and they never really make any impression. They're types, all barking and reacting, and always doing exactly what they have to do in order to keep the film moving, moving, moving. Again, there's that relentless "Look at this and this and this and this" quality that keeps the viewer at a distance, never letting us in.

Once Ruth and PJ are alone, the film should kick into high gear. We're expecting a spirited debate here, a battle of willpowers, a TAMING OF THE SHREW meets LAST TANGO IN PARIS thing, and that seems to be what they're getting at with scene after scene of arguments that go nowhere. Ruth and PJ posture at each other, but they never engage. There's not one real conversation between them. They talk around things, artifice overwhelming many of their exchanges. There's a few nice touches, like when Ruth makes a "HELP" sign out of rocks that draws the attention of a plane, with PJ having no idea why the plane keeps buzzing them. It's a funny scene, and there's a great subtle power game that comes from her having a secret. There's moments where a few sparks fly, when there's a hint of chemistry. Campion keeps interrupting things, though, pulling us out of it to bring that giant family ensemble back at the worst moments.

One of the hallmarks of Campion's work is her attitudes towards sexuality. She's got specific ideas, and it's evident from the beginning of the film that this is a movie that's got sex on its mind just as much as the spirit, if not more. Yvonne eventually makes her pass at PJ, giving him a blowjob when she drops by some of Ruth's clothes in the middle of the night. Yvonne confesses to PJ that she uses photos of movie stars' faces to get off during sex with her husband. It's a funny scene, but I don't believe it for a second. Yvonne's a device. The only reason she sleeps with PJ is so that Kate can observe PJ and Yvonne together at a showing of a videotaped documentary on cults. Ruth sees them touching, puts it together even if no one else in the room does.

And here's where everything starts to really fall apart. The moment when Ruth finally surrenders to PJ sexually is undeniably arousing, but it's muddled, confusing, and Campion never clues us in to how much of a game Ruth is playing. Is her helpless, wilting, vulnerable nature an act, or is it the real Ruth? And if it is, then was the strength we've seen in every other sequence previously just an act? Because the Ruth of the film's second half and the Ruth of the film's first half aren't the same character. Not by a long shot. It just feels like what we're watching are notes, the rushed doodles of the Campions as they block out the kind of film they want to make. There's almost no subtext to anything. It's all right there where it can be seen by anyone. It's text, writ large.

By the end of the film, once Pam Grier's shown up and we've had lesbian bar dancing and a memorable golden shower and some unexpectedly ugly violence, I had sufferend one embarrassing laughing fit during an extended sequence involving Keitel in a skintight red dress, makeup, and one cowboy boot, and I was also fidgeting mightily. I was impatient for the film to end, a bad sign. This is one of those times when you just feel bad that it didn't work. Campion's gifted enough that she'll get her focus back with something, where it's the next film or the one after, but this is something I'd only recommend to hardcore fans of the director or anyone with a Kate Winslet fetish. Her nudity in the film isn't just brave... it's genuinely erotic. Her confidence is magnetic, and it's because of her that I never gave up on the film completely, but the talent on display in the first part of the movie ends up squandered, as if the film has given up on us.

Okay... I'm seeing a big (and I mean big in every sense) Christmas movie later today. I'll be telling you all about that and a dozen other things in RUMBLINGS FROM THE LAB on Tuesday morning. I'll also be talking about a special four-part series coming up in the last few weeks of the year. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback

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  • Dec. 3, 1999, 8:56 a.m. CST

    wauw Warrior

    by Hotspur

    you seem like a very intelligent man!!!

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 10:24 a.m. CST

    As Long As It's Better Than PORTRAIT.....

    by mrbeaks

    My sentiments exactly, Moriarty. I saw that monstrosity at the Worldwide in NYC (Manhattan's only second-run theater,) and was more interested in the fist-fight that inexplicably broke out two rows in front of me than anything in Campion's lugubrious misfire.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 10:26 a.m. CST

    Winslet does soft-porn? Woo-hoo!

    by Mickey Louse

    Okay, okay we all know this girl can act right? Who cares? She's a voluptous beauty and if she wants to play bouncy, "ride-em cowboy", soft-porn with the Bad Lieutenant I'll be the first to stand up in the theatre screaming "I'm the King of the World!"

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 11:25 a.m. CST

    there are only two female stars that can sell a movie to me by n

    by L'Auteur

    One is Natlie Portman, the other is Kate Winslet. One's flat and the other's fat, you say? Fuck off. Go read a fashion magazine and jerk-off to the freak show they call attractive women.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 11:39 a.m. CST

    Kate is GREAT, the movie is GREAT!

    by Azur000

    I have seen the movie and I have no idea what that guy is talking about, Holy Smoke! is damn GREAT and Kate is Great!(he did say that!)No really, the movie is fantastic! And Kate, well...she is just the hottest women on the planet!!MAMMA MIA!!Veryyyyyyyy hot in the movie!!!

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 12:29 p.m. CST

    Winslet rules

    by 006

    I think that Kate is a great actress and is commanding in this film. She brings it from mediocrity to have the film warrant merit. And she's tasty!!

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 12:31 p.m. CST

    by savage lollipop

    I saw Holy Smoke and it stank. I am sick of Campion's old-school sexual politics. Pony boys get ready... there's plenty of Keitel's submission in this film. They're stuck in this house in the middle of some desert and that's when we might get into something good-- but Moriarity's right-- there's not enough intimacy passing betweeen them. It's all voyeurism. She doms him all up and down the outback, she teases him, she feminises him, she makes him give her oral pleasure (or at least she makes a show of it-- I promise it takes a lot more to train a man to do his duty). Okay, almost a new way of looking at the young woman older man relationship. As if. Any young woman who's ever had sex with an older man already knows that it's very easy to dominate an older man with your sexuality. A very obvious choice, in my opinion. And it's the major hinge of the movie. Yadda yadda yadda, men are weak, women are goddesses. Ask yourself, boys, do you really need the goddess? And Campions, I ask you, do you really expect Kate's character to forgive Keitel? Why is that so elemental? His submission, her forgiveness? It's Catholic at root, my dears. If they wanted to write some new feminist meditations, it would have been nice to see them break out of the same old schtick. Nothing new here.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 1:39 p.m. CST

    Jane Campion killed Henry James again

    by haunted

    I agree with Moriarty. Campion's take on Henry James is a totally mistake after mistake. First, the screenplay: the fact that Merle and Osmond were lovers was a big shocker in the book. Then Campion's throws it away at the early scenes. Then she makes Isabel and her cousin, lovers. BLAAAH. This ain't Jude, Jane!. And finally she picks Nicole Kidman so we can all laugh as how a bad actress, if she ever deserves the latter can ruin a movie with a horrible, impavid performance. This is the most horrible movie I've ever seen, indeed. Wait a minute, I'm starting feeling dizzy again. I'm going to burp.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 2:26 p.m. CST

    To Fireinthehole

    by Anton_Sirius

    One quibble: "...train a man to do his duty"? You mean train a BOY. A real man doesn't see it as a 'duty' at all. As for the goddess thing: Yes, yes we do, if only to remind us of our own godhood. I'll be Osiris to your Astarte any day.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 3:09 p.m. CST

    Kate Winslet

    by Everett Robert

    While the rest of you may praise Kate Winslet as an actor in my opion she's not, she's an actress. There is a difference between that and I don't mean just in sex terms. to me I have never seen Kate Winslet ACT. To me she's always just been this whiny little girl. In my opinion she plays the same type of charaters over and over agin. I will say though that I have not seen this or Heavenly Creatures so I can't fully judge her acting ablities. But From Hideous Kinky to Titantic to Hamlet, I haven't been impressed with her. I'll be holding off seeing this one.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 3:10 p.m. CST

    What about the spirituality?

    by All Thumbs

    When I read previews for this movie in the summer, I got the impression that it was about spirituality more than sexuality. Of course, Campion's films are all about sexuality, which is not a bad thing, but I thought this movie was going to be a good mix of both. I thought the main message of the film was about personal beliefs/spirituality, etc. and how they can be misunderstood by both the outside world and yourself.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 3:25 p.m. CST

    to Thumbs

    by Hotspur

    you're right. But I guess when a babe like Kate Winslet is in a film like this it will be the sexuality of the story that is in focus. And to the guy who says he isn't impressed by Kate, well you don't even mention the two best performances of her career. Heavenly Creatures (which you, of course, say you haven't seen) and Jude. So a comment like that is simply stupid. It's no big mystery to see that Kate Winslet is one of the best (if not the best) actresses of her generation. And whiny little girl!!! I guess you don't really get the point of any of the characters she has played. There has been absolutely no whiny about them. A good idea for you would be to analyse the characters a bit more before you start talking about them.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 3:38 p.m. CST

    So.....

    by mrbeaks

    .....what do you call men who play whiny little boys? Using your logic, I guess they'd be actresses, too. Still, might I suggest another term: "Reisers."

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 4:14 p.m. CST

    Kate Winslet is a good actress...

    by All Thumbs

    Though I still think she was out of place througout most of Titanic. When I first saw that movie, I was really happy to see her and thought she did this overwhelmingly excellent job. Then I got off my "I saw a movie about one of my favorite subjects in history AND it had Kate Winslet in it!" high. I took a real good look at the movie, which I own in widescreen because it IS a good movie in many ways, and notice that her chemistry with DiCaprio is almost non-existant until the drawing scene (I think that has to do with the way DiCaprio was nervous in real life about seeing her nude). She seemed wooden when she was acting opposite him...maybe it was because she was trying to portray the times...maybe it was she was just wooden when she acted with him. I thought she and Billy Zane had good chemistry and sometimes felt sorry for his character. Anyways, I'm always glad to see Kate in a movie because she's got a "real person" feel to her, unlike other actresses of late.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 4:15 p.m. CST

    Ohhhhhhh Kate!!!!

    by mitsurugi777

    Damn L'Auteur, those are my favorites also. I don't care if Kate can act or not. She's so damn hot and thick i don't care if she's in Ernest meets Howard the Duck i'm going to see it. Man i'm tired of rewinding her nude scene in Titantic, i'm going to need to buy a new copy or vcr before too long.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 4:18 p.m. CST

    For once, a pleasant surprise from Moriarty

    by Achilles

    I have been tuning in to this site for several years now, and Moriarty has always worked my last nerve when writing his reviews. I don't know how old this guy is, but my ten-year old nephew would call his lame "I'm-a-mad-scientist" routine totally childish. For whatever reason, Moriarty seems to have dumped his Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fetish and awful sense of humor in favor of a well-thought out and insightful review. The best I have read anywhere on this film, hands down. Without giving anything away, you have painted a clear picture of the strengths, weaknesses, and the general visual and emotional impact of this film. Keep writing them like that, Moriarty, and I'll take back anything nasty I've ever said about you. Good job!

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 5:18 p.m. CST

    The Goddess that is Kate

    by mechanimal

    Let me just throw in my two cents to echo the worship for Ms. Winslet. God Damn, what a wonderful woman in every respect! I have no interest in this movie really, but you can bet I'm planting my ass in a seat just to watch her be Kate. She chooses films SHE wants to make, not what will make her rich or bankable, she lights up every scene of every movie she is in with some kind of weird magic I can't describe. And beautiful?? Damn!! Everything about her is desirable (she even breaks the curse of British teeth!). Anyway, I get so god damn furious when I hear people say she is fat. What the hell do you think a woman is supposed to look like? A stick like Calista Flockhart, or a pneumatic freak like Pamela Lee? Get Real!! Kate is a WOMAN all around, with a WOMAN's body. Joan Rivers calls her fat. How many of you are dying to bone old Joan? Thought so! There are two types of people who work in "fashion" who decide what "beauty" is: old bitter jealous hags (like Joan) and gay guys. Think either of these types share the average man's idea what a beautiful woman is? Of course not. I think anyone who prefers a waistoid like Kate Moss over Kate Winslet probably has pedophiliac tendencies, admiring the body of twelve year olds in private. Geez, I'm rambling. Too much Green. Good Night.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 6:23 p.m. CST

    hey Harry

    by Hotspur

    give Mechanimal some sort of award, because he speaks the only truth!

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 6:48 p.m. CST

    Kate Winslett

    by TomReagan

    I agree with that Kate Winslett is far too overrated (although calling her an actress not an actor is meaningless). Like most people I used to be quite taken by her, Jude was the film where she really caught my attention. But at least in my eyes she's turned out to be a bit of a one-trick pony, giving essentially the same performance in each role. She doesn't really show any sign of being able to branch out either, being charming and radiant will only go so far in my book. She's turning into the art house answer to Julia Roberts (but with nude scenes). And what is it with all the nude scenes? It seems strange to complain about a beautiful actress getting her kit off, but she seems just a tad too keen to do it. I read that Phillip Kaufman (the dirty old bastard) has her getting her gear off again in that Marquis de Sade flic. I guess it'll keep the nude celebrity sites happy.

  • Dec. 3, 1999, 7:12 p.m. CST

    Or maybe more appropriately the art house answer to Pamela Ander

    by TomReagan

  • Dec. 4, 1999, 12:39 a.m. CST

    The Beach

    by DarthJoe

    Marketing Dude, the Beach is going to bomb because the script was the hugest pile of horse-shit I've seen in a while. I respect Leo for taking the project because the book is fantastic, but they had to change the role for him. They made the "Richard" character an American when he is actually English in the book. Ewan McGregor would have kicked ass in this movie if Fox didn't want to have their cake and eat it too. They chose Leo for bankability. That's not to say that the script doesn't suck for reasons besides the American thing. (*SPOILERS*)For example, Richard in the book is a likable Gen-X slacker-backpacker, obsessed with Vietnam and searching for an Eden paradise. At the end of his horrific ordeal on the Beach, he goes home and resumes his life as normal. It really doesn't have too much of an effect on him because author Alex Garland is making a comment on his generation and their "whatever"-attitude. Richard in the script is an arrogant prick who boasts about bagging the lady-friend of the Beach's leader. Furthermore, Hodge and Boyle missed the point of the book because at the end of the movie, Richard kills himself because of the horrors he has been through. I mean, come on.(*END SPOILERS*) So cut Leo a break cause the movie could have been cool. He could have had any movie for his next project and he chose a neat idea like "this". Oh yeah, back on this board's topic... uh.... Kate is hot and I would like to get it on with her. :-)

  • Dec. 4, 1999, 12:41 a.m. CST

    Bum ba bum bum

    by DarthJoe

    Holy Smoke sounds like some movie starring Abbot and Costello.

  • Dec. 6, 1999, 12:49 a.m. CST

    Mechanimal

    by Absolut

    Yes, those who like twelve-year-old bodies are pedophiles, or, even worse, they are men who really want to get it on with little boys. I mean, all photogs (Ritts, LaChappelle) are GAY! That should tell you soemthing. Kate Winslet rocks the fucking world with her sensitivity and passion. She was luminous in "Jude." And Anna Wintour should stuff her big black sunglasses right up her bony butt.

  • Dec. 6, 1999, 12:54 a.m. CST

    Marketing Man

    by Absolut

    Finally, someone voices what I've always thought. I will never, as long as I live, understand why fucking Leo DiCaprio took creit for that movie. James Cameron wrote, directed and nursed that thing to fruition. Not that he didn't get his share of publicity, but in the end it was Leo's name that can sell as movie, so studio execs have decided for us. What about Kate, the first person cast in the film, the woman who SURVIVES the fucking movie, through whose eyes we see this story...Leo is a good actor but, come on. He as much to do with the sucess of Titanic as Kate did. You could have put Michael Jackson in the role and it would have done boffo box office. (Well, on second thought...)

  • Dec. 6, 1999, 2:27 a.m. CST

    HILARY SWANK BETTER WATCH OUT BECAUSE KATE WINSET IS GONNA....

    by GEEKBASHER 3.0

    snatch that little gold man right out of her hands....Well I just drove up to LA this weekend and low and behold "Holy Smoke" was playing up there for a limited one week engagement...I said what the heck, I'll catch a morning show... WHOAAAAAA!!! What a FUCKING MOVIE!!!! WHAT A OUTSTANDING, AMAXING PEFORMANCE FROM KATE!!! I am SPEECHLESS, STUNNED!!! Kate went where most actresses would not dare to go, Her and Hilary Swank are tie in my book for the best female peformance of the decade!!! When this movie comes out, Go see this movie!!! Man I cannot wait to see it again!!! Does anyone know when it is going to open in San Diego????

  • Dec. 6, 1999, 7:06 p.m. CST

    Katey-O!

    by bswise

    I have a hard time seeing Kate Winslet in movies becuase everytime she's on screen I go, "Ohhhhhhh!" and am eventually asked to leave.

  • Dec. 8, 1999, 12:15 p.m. CST

    makin me feel like liz meetin marc antony

    by savage lollipop