About Schmidt (2002)

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A poignant film about the definition of success.

About Schmidt follows Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a veteran actuary of the Woodmen of the World insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. Schmidt is a polite, measured man surrounded by people who are commonly quite the opposite.

There are flashes of his broad, mischievous smile and roguish charm, but Nicholson reels in his iconic charisma, he effortlessly becomes the respectable, disconcerted Middle American and is as magnetic and watchable as usual.

The film begins in a desolate office as Schmidt stares at a clock that adorns a bare, grey wall as the final minute of his interminable career ticks by. He then enters something of a catatonic state, his blank expression displaying ambiguous yet decidedly dissatisfied emotions. He attends his retirement dinner, witnessing overlong, self-indulgent speeches from colleagues both old and new. He also drops by his old office to speak with his replacement who was so very charming at the dinner yet so indifferent afterwards. Throughout these scenes Schmidt retains his composure, reserving any judgement on his rapidly changing life.

As he sits at home unsure what to do with himself, he watches an advert appealing for the viewer to sponsor an African child. He does so, and is soon funding and corresponding with a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu; it is his first letter to Ndugu that provides the first big laugh in the film. As he puts pen to paper, Schmidt boils over and rants about his cocky upstart of a replacement, his daughter’s fiancée, his failure to achieve ‘semi-importance’, his wife’s annoying habits and his somewhat emasculating subservience to her.

Soon after this letter, his wife passes away. Schmidt then begins to reflect on every aspect of his life, even wondering if his wife was the soul mate she was supposed to be.

The film is about the nature of success. Schmidt’s definition of success is leaving an impression during one’s existence, making a difference. He doesn’t aspire to be Henry Ford or Walt Disney, he draws the line far below that level of success, however he wants to be ‘semi-important’ at least.

What exactly does Schmidt mean by ‘semi-important’? By striving for something that he hasn’t precisely defined he has set himself up for disappointment. The only way in which most people make a profound difference is by continuing their lineage, creating new people and a myriad of new experiences – I think that is entirely honourable. The main objective isn’t to shake the system up but to enjoy yourself. 

Personally, I think Schmidt has been a success; his hard graft will provide for generations to come, as long as his self-absorbed, high maintenance daughter isn’t foolish. His life’s greatest flaw was his wife, he had no connection with her, they were on very different wavelengths. He could have divorced her, but that would have most likely had negative effects on his daughter; he arguably did the righteous, selfless thing by sticking with her.

Some feel the ending is bathetic, which is understandable. I thought Schmidt was being too hard on himself, but it seems he filled a very personal void in the film’s final moments, so that has to be a good thing.

I have written about these characters as if I know them, which is testament to the existential resonance of About Schmidt. 

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Easy Rider (1969)

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‘Easy Rider’ is more of an artifact than a film

‘Easy Rider’ is unquestionably important, it’s a seminal film. It was a large contributing factor to the birth of ‘New Hollywood’, an era of burgeoning talent and art that produced many of the greatest films ever made. Easy Rider is a transgressive, political film; few creations have been so lauded for capturing the zeitgeist.

However, to a modern audience, I feel it’s more of an artifact than a film. To be frank, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I didn’t find it that interesting, it didn’t resonate with me that much. One connection it made with me was how it almost shattered that romanticised idea of riding the highways of America. Well, it didn’t shatter it, but it certainly shows the potential emptiness of the experience. However, I’d still love to drive around America, but I’d gladly ditch the spirituality for clean hotel rooms and nice corpulent plates of Americana. I’d also prefer a muscle car.

So, given its legacy, ‘Easy Rider’ is a hard film to judge. It would be ignorant of me to totally trash it, but I do think it’s overrated, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to casual viewers.

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The Most Painful Scenes in Cinema History

Personally, I find the stubbing of a toe or stepping on Lego infinitely more wince inducing than a big, bloody shootout.  There were numerous other clips I considered, however I felt they were more appropriately placed on a ‘most violent’ list. So instead of the cinema’s most violent, I name cinema’s most painful. Defining what’s cringe worthy is quite a subjective matter, so see if you agree. (Warning: Contains spoilers)

#10  Pet Sematary (1989)

The familiarity of this scene is what makes it so toe curling. Bedrooms may be a place of rest, but unforgiving bed posts and bedside tables can wreak havoc on your knees, elbows, ankles and in this case, entire face. This brief yet utterly visceral moment is the only thing I can remember about ‘Pet Sematary’, and it’s actually much funnier than I remember.

#9 Midnight Express (1978)

This scene demonstrates that when the nape of the neck and a large metal coat hook collide, the coat hook wins. The thought of that tender area of your body being penetrated so violently sends an unpleasant sensation down my spine. This scene is especially shocking when seen in context, it completely catches you off guard.  The pain begins at 1:28.

#8 ‘Thanksgiving’ Grindhouse Trailer (2007)

I know, this isn’t a film, but this little homage achieved the hard task of making me absolutely gasp. Although the scene is of a blade colliding with genitalia, it is spared of violence and successfully relies on your imagination to contemplate the ghastly damage. The pain begins at 4:50.

#7 The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson’s ad-libbed ‘Here’s Johnny!’ is one of the most famous lines in the annals of cinema history, it’s also followed by one of cinema’s cringiest injuries.  The pain begins at 1:54.

#6 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The sight of Leatherface having a wrench thrown at his head by a fat man in a mustard coloured t-shirt is undeniably funny, but the viewer immediately recoils when he falls over and cuts a few inches of flesh out of his thigh. Having a whirring chainsaw lacerate your leg makes for a very risky shot, but given the tight budget and notoriously intense filming conditions, something tells me that director Tobe Hooper slipped Gunnar Hansen a few dollar bills to injure himself in the name of exploitation cinema. The infamous meat hook scene is also bitingly painful. The pain shortly after 1:25.

#5 Goodfellas (1990)

This is a scene so painful, so completely agonising, that it bypasses your intellect and actually physically hurts you more and more with each blow of the pistol butt. The opening scene to ‘Goodfellas’ is also very vicious, but I think this just about edges in front of it on the pain-o-meter.

#4 Un Chien Andalou (1929)

You wouldn’t have thought that a French film from 1929 would make it into the top 10, let alone come in at number 4. This looks so horribly, wince inducingly real because it is, only it was the eye of a dead horse. I remember showing this to my father and he reacted with total dismay – “Why have you shown me this?! Why do you watch things like this?! Why do they make things like this?!”

#3 American History X (1998)

Here is another scene that is blood free yet jarringly visceral. ‘Curb stomping’ really is an evil, barbaric thing to do to someone, I don’t think even Hitler deserved this.

#2 127 Hours (2010)

Everyone knows the story before they watch ‘127 Hours’, but that does nothing to soften the blow of the amputation scene that the audience has been anxiously awaiting for the past 80 minutes. It certainly didn’t soften the blow for one viewer at the screening I was in. Shortly after the amputation scene, I heard ‘Can someone phone an ambulance?’ emanate from the back of the auditorium, for a split second I attributed it to the surround sound, but knowing that clearly wasn’t the case, I quickly realised that someone had fainted. Once they had been taken out of the screening, the distinct smell of vomit began to pervade the room. I pitied them, but they certainly gave the film a sense of occasion!

#1 Misery (1990)

This scene is infamous and for good reason. Seldom have I empathised with a character as much as I did with the defenceless Paul Sheldon (James Caan), what a sorry, sorry predicament to find oneself in.  I’d love to see an audience’s reaction to this one.