Film reviews

Stiff Schmidt
About Schmidt, dir. Alexander Payne.

Jack Nicholson (above) must have been born with an ironic twist in his brow. I mean, how many people can make the sweep of their receding hairline appear as though it’s laughing at you, or at least having a lend?  It’s an enviable talent and one I’m happy to pay to see, but here it’s not about Schmidt, it’s about Jack.

Warren Schmidt is moments away from retiring. The clock on his office wall counts down the final seconds of a well ordered, efficient but boring professional life. Unmoved by the moment, Schmidt collects his coat and goes home to his well ordered, efficient but boring domestic life.

Schmidt would like to stand while he urinates, but his wife won’t allow it. Schmidt wonders why his daughter is about to marry a moron, but he can’t involve himself enough to stop it. Schmidt’s wife dies while she’s vacuuming and he enquires whether it would be cheaper if he drove the hearse himself. Life’s pretty bleak for this recent retiree.

About Schmidt is never moving and that is its downfall. It’s all very well to laugh at the limited lives of others but to laugh too loud from the outside is risky. Payne might want to think a little about casting the first stone. Or he might just need to go see The Castle.

Siobhan Jackson

Shades of Motown
Standing in the Shadows of Motown, dir. Paul Justman.

Ever wondered who created the sublime and unforgettable guitar riff that kicks off ‘My Girl’? His name was Robert White and he played with the Funk Brothers—a loose collection of Detroit session musicians who created the unique Motown sound during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Underpaid and anonymous, the Funk Brothers provided the backing tracks which made the likes of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross into household names. The Brothers are now either old men or gone forever—White, for example, died in 1993—and Standing in the Shadows of Motown is an act of belated recognition for these unsung heroes of popular music. It is Motor City’s answer to the Buena Vista Social Club, but unfortunately director Paul Justman doesn’t display the same sure touch as Wim Wenders.

Whenever the Funk Brothers themselves are on screen—whether playing from their seemingly endless repertoire of hits with the verve of much younger men or rapping humorously about their days spent slaving away in Motown’s legendary Studio A—the film instantly lifts.

It is fascinating, for example, to see them re-create their version of the classic ‘Ain’t too Proud to Beg’ from the ground up. Starting with the drums, then adding guitars, keyboards, bass and finally tambourine, that elusive, special quality known as ‘Motown’ materialises as if by magic.

Sadly these sorts of moments are rarer than they should be, given the material and talent that Justman has at his disposal. Overall, the film is confusingly structured, and marred throughout by a  clichéd narration. (If I hear about the ‘innocence of America’ one more time …)

Lovers of Motown will love the film. For those who have never danced with abandon to ‘Heatwave’ it might drag a little. Mind you, if the film doesn’t quite do the Funk Brothers justice, I bet the CD does. 

Brett Evans

Side lines
Taking Sides, dir. István Szabó.

Why didn’t great music civilise the Germans? Or, try the puzzle another way: are human beings so adept at compartmentalising themselves that their noble chamber is just along the corridor from the chamber that leaks moral putrefaction? And there is a connecting door.

Director István Szabó has made a career out of pursuing such questions about art, compromise and corruption. This is not his best film on the subject (Mephisto, with its mercurial star Klaus Maria Brandauer is hard to beat) but it is a tight one, with a courtroom intensity about it. But perhaps that is what is wrong with the film: from Szabó we have come to expect range and a narrative ease that verges on the epic. There are gestures at visual/historical sweep in Taking Sides, but they have a (computer generated?) flatness about them. The real action takes place within the echoing baroque interior of a makeshift interrogation room, where a miscast Harvey Keitel (as American Major Steve Arnold) grills the once revered German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård, not miscast) about his alleged collaboration with Hilter and his musically sophisticated co-murderers.

The close confines would not matter if the dynamic between the two men worked. It doesn’t. Keitel is scripted like a poor man’s Spencer Tracey in Judgment at Nuremberg. He twangs rubber bands with his teeth and is folksily vengeful. Skarsgård’s Furtwängler is a subtle, occasionally towering, triumph, but the performance keeps ricocheting off an implacable Keitel, who seems to be in a different film—certainly not a European film.

Newcomer Birgit Minichmayr, as Emmi, the co-opted German secretary and daughter of a dead German officer is, like Skarsgård, a sensation. You follow her every move. So too with Oleg Tabakov as the gloriously swaggering and venal Russian Colonel Dymshitz. Their incidental moments—like inspired variations—provide a glimpse of spiralling human tragedy, not just a set of acting or scripting exercises. It should all have been like that. 

Morag Fraser

Killer moves
Chicago, dir./choreographer Rob Marshall.

As ever, the wrong people got the awards. Golden Globe winners Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere exceeded my expectations as Roxie Hart and Billy Flynn, but those most deserving of recognition must surely be the army of sequin sewers and Brazilian waxers backstage at Chicago.

Chicago is sex, murder, gin and jazz—all writ large in neon lights. The plot may unfairly be dismissed as an excuse for great music. But when you consider the contemporary culture of celebrity murder trials (O.J. Simpson, etc.) and of ambitious, self-absorbed, fabulous nobodies invading our lives under the guise of reality TV, it’s hard not to draw some striking comparisons. While Chicago can hardly claim a moral imperative, the execution by hanging of the poor Hungarian inmate at least rings familiar in the Australian climate of persecuting those with little means of defence.

Translating from stage to screen is always a risk—even more so with musicals. The move here is made possible by the use of sharp editing and other filmic devices not available to the stage. The music of John Kander and Fred Ebb profits from the theatre experience, and there remains clear evidence of Bob Fosse’s brazen choreography.

The ensemble of Richard Gere (Flynn), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelly) and Renée Zellweger (Hart) works surprisingly well. The success of Kelly and the hungry ‘wannabe’ of Hart is reflected physically in the more seductive shape of Zeta-Jones and the aching thinness of Zellweger.

Gere is readily believable as the media savvy lawyer. He may lack the natural grace and flair of a Gene Kelly, but Gere’s rendition of ‘Razzle Dazzle’ is, in the old language, a show-stopper. And for the first time in my experience, a film audience broke into applause at the end of each big number.

Queen Latifah as Mamma Morton is as big and bawdy as they come, and Lucy Liu as Kitty exceeds her cameo allotment. John C. Reilly as Amos Hart, ‘Mr Cellophane’, hits just the right note of pathos and realism.

Chicago may be a film for believers, but the combination of music, dance and cinematography make for a heady mix. How can you say that murder’s not an art?   

Marcelle Mogg

Guns in the gun
Bowling for Columbine, dir. Michael Moore.

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans kill each other with guns? I always thought the answer was obvious; they have so many guns they can’t help but kill each other. Bowling for Columbine suggests otherwise. Canada has 7 million guns across 10 million homes, but the statistics on gun related deaths plummet, literally, as you cross the border from the US into Canada. Gun ownership is not the problem, according to Moore (above)—it’s fear; Puritan fear of persecution, settler fear of Native Americans, fear of retribution from the slaves, fear of emancipated blacks, fear of … everything. And that fear is assuaged by violence, not just against each other, but against the world. At one point Moore lists (to the backing of ‘It’s a Wonderful World’) US funded and instigated atrocities outside its borders from the ‘50s on, right up to Osama Bin Laden’s use of his CIA training to murder 3000 people in the September 11 attacks. This montage of US atrocities is paralleled in the film with another long sequence of violence—security camera footage from the Columbine High School massacre. He is, he says, ‘trying to connect the dots between local violence and global violence’, suggesting that these events, large and small, share the same ultimate cause—a culture and history of fear and paranoia that is specific to the United States.

Moore has a knack, not only for personalising the political, but for translating that personal impact into a media event—as for example when he takes two of the survivors of the Columbine tragedy to the K-Mart where the ammunition used to shoot them was bought, to ‘return’ the bullets still lodged in their bodies. This translation of politics into emotion can, however, lead him into pathos and melodrama, to the detriment of his own arguments. In the conclusion to Bowling for Columbine he sheets home the blame for the gun murder of a six-year-old girl by another six-year-old to Charlton Heston as head of the National Rifle Association—which only makes sense if you think that gun ownership is the problem, and not the national culture of fear and violence. Moore propping a photo of the murdered girl on Heston’s driveway makes for a wonderfully weepy end to his film, but it tell us nothing about the fear that drives Heston to lay the blame for the United States’ murder rate on its ‘mixed ethnicity’—or why George Jnr. is insisting on a war no-one else wants or sees the need for. 

Allan James Thomas



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