The Cold World Awakens

Niels Strandskov

If you think Minneapolis, save for its complement of professional sports teams is, in Hubert H. Humphrey’s memorable phrase, no more than a “cold Omaha,” you would do well to consider the broad range of films available as diversions from the long, slow slide across the ice that is winter.

Unlike Omaha, Neb., which is cursed with a lack of vibrant live performance culture and noncorporate movie houses, Twin Cities residents have the opportunity to sample a wide variety of cinema experiences. Assuming you’re not off to Vail for skiing this winter break (or more likely, off to Rhinelander, Wisc. to drink some Pabst with your high school friends) then by all means, go to the movies!

“About Schmidt” (Opens Jan. 3, 2003 at area theaters)

director Alexander Payne knows something about different kinds of Omahas. The native Omahan set his first two feature films in his hometown and returns once again to the Big O for “About Schmidt.”

Payne, a graduate of Omaha’s elite Creighton Prep High School, first turned his lens to the seedy underbelly of his city in “Citizen Ruth,” a satirical farce that chronicled the story of a pregnant chronic “huffer” (Laura Dern) as she was caught in a tug-of-war between abortion rights supporters and anti-abortion activists.

In 1999’s “Election,” Payne examined the wasted lives of Omaha’s dull suburban middle-class, as their petty jealousies drove them to ever-more-ridiculous plotting.

Now, Payne brings us the story of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) a dried-up husk of an Omaha businessman who heads west to Denver to oversee (and meddle with) his daughter’s marriage to a wretched waterbed salesman. The combination of Payne’s direction and Nicholson’s incomparable capacity for snide humor should prove to be amazing. There are very few other actors and directors who can make the dismal seem as funny as these two can.

“All or Nothing” (Dec. 13-22 at the U Film Society)

lndon is a far cry from Omaha. But both metropolises contain their share of down-and-outers and director Mike Leigh has never been hard up for stories about hard-luck characters from London’s working classes.

His new film, “All or Nothing” is a return to this familiar milieu, after 1999’s lush Gilbert and Sullivan biopic “Topsy-Turvy.”

“All or Nothing” concerns a drab family of Cockneys who eke out a miserable existence in one of London’s council housing estates.

Timothy Spall and Leslie Manville, both veterans of Leigh’s recent work, head this sad excuse for a household. Spall, recently seen as a vicious cheated-on husband in Patrice Chereau’s disturbing “Intimacy,” plays a stoic taxi driver who is completely unable to connect with his family. Manville, in turn, drowns her sorrows at karaoke nights with her friends. Their children retreat, respectively, into the fantasy worlds of romance novels and television. Leigh’s special talent is bringing characters to life through his use of improvisation sessions which create the script.

Despite the overall lack of communication in this film, there’s no doubt the dialogues will zing with the director’s trademark verisimilitude.

“Gangs of New York” (Opens Dec. 20 at area theaters)

gangs and crooks aren’t something we associate with smaller Midwestern cities like Waseca or Omaha (Hype Williams’ hallucinogenic “Belly” aside). Gotham, on the other hand, is virtually synonymous with gangs and crime, especially following Martin Scorsese’s electrifying screen adaptation of “Goodfellas.”

After the disappointment of 1999’s “Bringing out the Dead,” Scorsese had better deliver on the promise inherent in “Gangs of New York.”

Based on the fascinating social history of 19th century New York gangs by Herbert Asbury, “Gangs of New York” traces the ascendancy of Irish gangs on the mean streets of the Five Points district. The old gangs had a brutal poetry about them, exemplified by the names they chose for themselves: Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies, Roach Guards, Slaughter Housers, Swamp Angels and Bowery Boys. Similarly, “Gangs of New York” promises plenty of the well-choreographed, dreamlike violence that many Scorsese fans appreciate.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the leader of the English or “Native American” gang will definitely be worth watching. Less sure perhaps, are the prospects for interesting performances by glamour pusses Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. Fox and Miramax could have saved themselves some anxiety about audience reception to the film had they released it sooner. Unfortunately, the release date was pushed back more than a year, which has only added to the anticipation.

“The Pinochet Case” (Dec. 13 ñ 22, U Film Society)

history does not record whether Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet ever visited Omaha. But if he had, he might have found the citizenry considerably less fractious than in his native land. Years of military dictatorship under Pinochet have left Chileans with deep and lasting bitterness. Crimes under the Pinochet regime included torture, political imprisonment and the notorious “disappearances” of dissidents. All of this was, of course, founded on the U.S.-backed coup which toppled popularly-elected Socialist President Salvador Allende.

Recently, Pinochet has faced a variety of attempts to bring him to justice for the crimes committed under his regime. Documentarian Patricio Guzmán chronicles Pinochet’s current troubles in “The Pinochet Case.” The film covers both the legal aspects of the case, as well as including testimony from survivors of the terror.

Niels Strandskov welcomes comments at [email protected]