I’m reading and close to finishing Mark Harris brilliant Mike Nichols: A Life which led to me (re-)watching a bunch of his movies which are all reviewed down here below. So lets make this a general discussion thread for Nichols’s movies I guess, a fun one-off
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
A bit to stage like in spots which takes away from the sheer intensity of it all but when the first 30 minutes passes this remains a classic for all the right reasons. Even more since you remember this is Nichols first movie(The Graduate already improves on this technique wise a ton) and with help of the brilliant Haskell Wexler cinematography this just breaths the tense nature of it’s subjects relationships when it doesn’t get a bit too stuck in it’s play origins.
Everyone is amazing in this but Burton takes the cake for the most passive aggressive weasel of a man that ever existed. Like George says himself Good. Better. Best. Bested.
The Graduate (1967)
It’s wild the Graduate is turning 54 this year and still feels so fresh. Like this easily could’ve been made beat for beat nowadays and nobody would bat a eye, throw in a subplot about message apps or something. But in the heart of it all it’s a movie about how relationships are weird and carry on allot of weight outside of it all. Also boredom, loads of boredom.
Dustin Hoffman absolutely is a perfect for Ben, a like-able guy who is also aimless and honestly a bit of weasel. He just does endless things he knows that will end badly for them and really doesn’t seem like he wants to deal with the fallout till it can profit him personally. But he is also a very relatable charterer who gets thrown in a world with allot of people that have nothing to lose anymore. Bancroft maybe turns out one of her finest performances ever as the bored Mrs. Robinson who slowly but surely drags Ben into a abyss of boredom and what is pretty much a game.
The whole subplot with Elaine is wonderful also because honestly she is the person suffering the most of her and Ben’s affair. Not even directly but it causes her to get forced by the family to get hitched to a short lived college fling most likely leading a marriage as loveless as her parents. The godawful first date Ben takes her on to torpedo her chances with her on Mrs. Robinson’s behalf are some of the best painful cringe ever recorded on film. In the end she and Ben see each-other as more a out in a future that looks like their parents life then a real romance. There are feelings there but first allot of things need to be unwind before they can be really happy or not. They can also easily burn out the second the bliss goes away.
The ending is absolute wonderful also, a big gesture that is very much not thought through and for personal gain but it’s also not completely ill willed. That last bus scene goes more into uncertainly then the feeling of making a big mistake for me personally.
Nichols really directs this quite a bit like a play also which works for the dialogue heaviness of it all. Characters just enter and exit allot of busy scenes and we get allot of lingering shots. Works a charm.
Honestly a masterpiece.
(Watched in 2016)
Catch-22 was a extreme failure in every way possible. It is one of the most plagued Hollywood productions of the early 1970’s and even in it’s finished form it feels unfinished. Overall a very miserable affair to shoot for nearly everyone involved; from the on the set terror of Orson Welles camera hogging every scene he is is in to the deserted location they were shooting this and it carries through in the film. Which is a nice fit for a film about a group of soldiers trying to escape the war happening around them in their deserted base. Loads of massive shots of the air base built for this movie which really captures the boredom of war.
Overlong, surreal and worst of all episodic it feels more like a bunch of sketches bundled together then a coherent movie. Still when it really sets into it’s 70s anti-war groove it becomes a pretty unique dark comedy that really shows what it could’ve been with a tighter script. Got released just a couple weeks before M*A*S*H* which is the far better movie but still Catch-22 while a odd one out in Nichols filmography for the shear size of production is worth a watch for the weird relic it is.
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Interesting but also flawed. Clearly showcases allot of Nichols theatrical background but also misses a certain kind of depth these movies based around dialogue need. Luckily the cast is great even when the character is badly written like Ann-Margret’s suffering model. She puts allot of work in a character that feels shallowly written and gives it a bit of humanity.
For the rest the other actors are great but there is only really so much asshole rich people insulting each other that can carry a movie. Nicholson and Garfunkel are doing a great job with extremely unlikable characters and Bergen isn’t much better. It the end they really not get any up comings or even a real dramatic ending which honestly feels like the way this movie should’ve gone out. Now it’s mostly a pretty smooth sailing cool 70s progressive drama shot in dim rooms and bars which is fine but could’ve been allot more interesting.
The Day of the Dolphin (1973)
Pretty much the big drunken George C. Scott show who casts his then wife in the second lead and made this weird thriller(?) pretty much unwatchable. There is no pacing, Nichols is on extreme auto-pilot directing wise and the dialogue is beyond awful. Scott in his mid 40s wasn’t the look of a action-y thriller lead also, he looks out of breath most of the time and just so burned out. The location is gorgeous and that’s near the only positive on this when the absurdity of the plot wears out it welcome
Godawful and worst of it all so dull.
The Fortune (1975)
The Fortune isn’t a good movie at all, I get why the Coen brothers love it. It very much has the atmosphere of a proto-Coen brothers movie but lacks everything else that makes their work great. Feeling extremely rushed and severely underwritten this never really live up to it’s fun premise. It absolutely nails the look of 1930s darker comedic screwball movies but then does literally nothing with it. There’s a few OK throw away gags in this but for most of it the movie just exists. It doesn’t look bad at all but the direction is completely uninspired and by the numbers.
Jack Nicholson is horribly miscast as the goofy sidekick and really doesn’t seem like he wants to be there at all. Warren Beatty is equally on very low energy and made this movie as a package deal with Shampoo. Stockard Channing is good in this but gets very little to do till the last 20 minutes and for the rest just kind of gets endlessly put down by the two uninspired leads. Those 20 minutes are by far the best of the movie and save it a fair bit from it even going lower for me. The ending arrest and hi-jinks surrounding it feel like one of the few times the movie really gets close to nailing what it wanted to be a throwback to.
It’s so clear to see that this with a more inspired cast and director could’ve been a fun tribute to 1930s screwball but now it just kind of exists as a kind of nothing movie. But hey at-least we got Shampoo out of it.
Gilda Live (1980)
(Watched in 2020)
A real mixed bag but as a showcase of Radner even 40 years later it still works. A variety throwback show fits her style perfectly and while not all material is great it always is at-least entertaining enough. Loads of SNL rehashes but never it feels tired. Loads of cool big sets for it also and a eager audience love it also which gives it a nice easygoing feel.
It does feel tired when we get the Father Guido Sarducci intermissions which both are extremely unfunny. Sure worked allot better in short form on SCTV.
(first watched around 2009, latest re-watch 2018)
A huge gamble at the time, Silkwood does feel like a Hollywood treatment of a true story but also one that hits all the right marks for a ‘based on true events’ drama. Helped a ton by his first collaboration with Meryl Streep who turns out a pitch perfect performance and the first of the really good Cher roles it really never falls into pacing problems something allot of Nichols movies have. Great Kurt Russell performance also which gets overlooked a ton and his first real none SF/Action dramatic role.
Absolutely great script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen which is extremely realistic in it’s dialogue which helps this movie a ton breaking through it’s more Hollywood dramatic story beats. It plays loose with the true events but as a movie it works.
One of the best pure drama’s of the early 80’s which could’ve done with a better ending but a lawsuit prevented that.
Fairly bland divorce black comedy that really feels it was allot stronger and punchier in it’s original draft. Cast is pretty great and at-least try to make something out of it and it being a Nichols movie it looks pretty great but really the big culprit here seems to be the sub-par Ephron script which feels very much it had some of it’s best parts removed.
Working Girl (1988)
This really seem to push allot for a relatable underdog story but half of the characters are so cardboard thin in personality it really never takes off. Which means this isn’t good, it’s quite enjoyable, looks absolutely great even it’s full of 80’s haircuts and other yuppie fashion stuff.
Melanie Griffith really helps this allot also, Tess is a like able lead which poorly clashes a bit with the paper-thin villain-ish role Sigourney Weaver gets to play here. The moment she enters the screen you know she is there to well put out lead down and all her actions are over the top and very predictable which just doesn’t gel with the quite subdued comedy this movie has. Way more 1930/40s classic hollywood work place comedy then the screwball villain Weaver seems to be going for here.
Harrison Ford just kind of exists, he is good at those parts where he just kind of exists in his own sense of cool. He really doesn’t add allot or takes away from this even more through him and Griffith lacking any kind of chemistry. But for the part he fits in quite perfectly, shame Adam Baldwin is there looking all sweaty. The whole plot doesn’t add allot to be honest.
Just a pleasant comedy with a great lead and some solid jokes.
Biloxi Blues (1988)
Nichols and Neil Simon’s working relationship was way more set in theater with Nichols directing the original runs of Simon penned mega hits Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple but Biloxi Blues really showcases they work well on film also. Weird enough their sole entry working together in film even Simon did write the Heartbreak Kid for Nichols comedic partner Elaine May it’s a bit of a odd one out also.
The second out of three semi-autobiographic plays Simon did in the 80s Biloxi Blues is a war movie without any war. It starts just after d-day and the group gets deployed just 6 days before Japan surrenders after Hiroshima and mostly follows said group through basic training. It also really betrays it play nature there, it doesn’t really move along like a narrative but mostly feels like various snapshot scenes taken during the 10 weeks of basic training.
Which makes it feel a bit uneven and mostly really hurts it kind of slow build where the jumps in time are kind of hard to place but after the first 45 minutes are over it’s smooth sailing. It really banks allot on group dynamics and luckily the cast is very solid; Matthew Broderick is just the right kind of a nuisance a 19 year old in the army would be and Corey Parker pretty much takes second lead in the platoon as the plagued Epstein who clearly was the lead in the original play. Here he still pretty much co-lead but allot gets thrown on Broderick’s Eugene which at times feels a bit forced.
Absolute highlight of this is the most subdued Walken performance of the 80s which just beams unease but also delivers some of the movie’s best jokes. The dramatic ending might feel a bit forced but it’s done well and it gives this movie that mostly just kind of wanders(in a good way) some edge. Which it honestly didn’t even needed to start with but isn’t really unwelcome either.
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
There’s a bit in Mike Nichols biography where he talks about ‘being ill fitted to make woman movies’ early on, he nearly made one before Woolf in the old hollywood way and it’s funny to see Postcards From the Edge coming out 30-ish year later. Because this is a pretty classic Hollywood housewife marketed movie in honestly the best way. It feels like a massive throwback to the TV movies of the 60/70s and the failing family drama’s of the 50/60s and is even shot in that way. Loads of long stilted shots and heavy on dialogue with just letting Streep and MacLaine run wild.
Both bring their acting boots with it sometimes slowly crossing over in over blown kitsch territory. Which isn’t a ill fit for this but it never really landing into that or it’s more natural acted scenes. In spots this is just well very funny but also really balances the drama of it well.
The endless bickering when it’s not going into overblown scenes is wonderful and Gene Hackman adds a really nice grounded feel to it all later on. He pretty much breaths movie director that is sick of this shit but also cares for his actors, a perfect Hackman role for the 90s honestly. Also of-course there is a Oliver Platt part in this also and he has the most ridiculous hair and Dennis Quaid’s hair is even worse. Weird out-wash of the 80s fashion and hair still over this at-least.
The whole Dennis Quaid story-line drags it down a fair bit also. He is just a bit of aimless asshole that you know will be out of the movie by the third act and Quaid’s performance is rather well aloof in the wrong way. Even Harrison Ford in Working Girl had more energy then his role her. It luckily doesn’t last too long but still drags it down a fair bit.
A throw-back for sure and a charming one to boot.
Regarding Henry (1991)
The most cookie cutter of Hollywood drama’s I’ve seen in forever. The plot is pretty insane with Ford losing his memory after getting shot and just becoming a better person after all but it just doesn’t do anything interesting with it. Just very bland and boring with a slightly more then inspired Harrison Ford performance that just bumps this up a bit above being insufferable. Nichols very much on autopilot here which means it looks good but also feels empty.
Wolf is a bit of a fever dream even it was far better then I remembered. A horror movie directed by someone who hates horror pretty much. More a odd thriller/personal drama about Jack Nicholson fighting his werewolf urges and trying to get back on top at his work place. Which well leads to something Nichols loves: power-dynamics, a whole lot of them.
Mostly worth a watch for Nicholson being really into playing a werewolf and Michelle Pfeiffer playing a straight dramatic role well in this movie that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Horribly failed as a horror movie but as a weird angsty work place/relationship thriller it works surprisingly well after it gets the slow dull build of the story out of the way.
The Birdcage (1996)
(First watched around 2007, last re-watch 2016)
I honestly enjoy this better then La Cage aux Folles which this a remake of. Where Folles is a very fun screwball filled farce this just takes it a little bit further with a absolutely great cast. Nathan Lane and Robin Williams of-course steal the show as the endless bickering couple trying to make the best impression on some conservatives. It’s where most of the power of the movie lies with Nichols obviously delighted to do such a movie set in theatrics again. Just very funny, quick on it’s feet and just the right kind of kitsch without overdoing it. Williams really turns down his usually shtick a fair bit to give Lane the full range for flamboyancy and they just work so well as a couple and with the visiting parents.
Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest really are delightful and played perfectly against the leads. Dan Futterman and Calista Flockhart are very much in bit parts but as the newly engaged couple are a plot device but work well enough. Maybe the smartest move of it all was adding those Sondheim songs which just perfectly break up the movie from it’s screwball comedy. Absolutely delightful still.
Primary Colors (1998)
(First watched around 2010, last rewatch 2020)
Primary Colors is a unexpected very dark comedic drama coming from Hollywood for sure. Elaine May’s script while by far not her best is pretty much soaked in allot more venom then a Nichols movie usual has. Even more with Travolta playing someone so unlikable which is very much out of his usual stuff. He is also absolutely great as a sleazy democratic president hopeful who literally goes over bodies to cover up his own affairs. It’s a surprisingly nasty movie coming from Nichols and beside War(and Catch in some ways) his only overly political movie.
It doesn’t work the whole way through poorly enough. It suffers from a pretty weak mid part which is all there to lead up to a bleak ending but really brags it down a fair bit. Which honestly makes this maybe Nichols movie that the most could’ve used some refining of the script because when it’s great it is really good. Absolutely great all star cast on this also turning in some great performances over the board but maybe this one of Travolta’s finest performances ever. Just a shame it falters so hard midway through and takes a while to pick up again.
What Planet Are You From? (2000)
Extremely confused movie that just lands between the pretty sharp satire of Primary Colors and the conventional Hollywood drama of Wit. Which honestly makes this feel even more of because it really feels out of Nichols wheelhouse. Shandling’s lead performance as a pervy alien is odd and by far the worst part about this. He mostly was very good at playing himself and he kind of does it here also but his kind of distance performance just of the wrong kind of weird for a movie that is pretty much the older crowd answer to sex comedies.
It is honestly the sex comedy part that doesn’t work here. The endlessly sexual jokes could’ve worked but now mostly fall flat and take away from what is a slightly odd but charming relationship comedy. Benning and Shandling don’t have the worst chemistry and there’s a ton of good jokes there. It’s honestly quite easy to root for them, even more when the alien shtick slowly gets dropped when Shandeling adapts to earth living. Poorly it then comes back again in a funny but also kind of broad way that kinda mutes allot of the charming bits before it.
John Goodman helps this one allot also, he is used quite sparingly in this but also is extremely game for this bizarre movie plot. His FAA agent gets some of the few laughs out of the whole alien stuff and he nicely speeds the plot along a fair bit when needed.
Fails as sex comedy but it is quite a charming as a odd ball low fantasy comedy. Shame about the endless boring sex jokes.
Wit is a adaption of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning one-act play and her only work to this day. It’s clearly a made for TV(HBO) movie but maybe the most Nichols movie he made in quite a while. I’m honestly not the crowd for Wit, cancer/sickness movies also are something I tend to avoid for personal reasons. Still Wit is extremely well done drama that clearly mostly follows the play and Nichols mostly put his stamp on it through some beautiful shots of Vivian Bearing’s journey through sickness.
Emma Thompson is absolutely great in the part of Bearing and it also includes a rare but excellent dramatic performance by Christopher Lloyd. Where it fails for me personally a bit is the endless 4th wall breaking with Bearing expressing her feelings during her sickness. This works well in a play but I think it’s a bad fit for a movie and makes it feel allot more artificial then it set out to be. Still that is a small very personal based fault in a really solid drama movie. Well worth a watch.
Angels In America (2003)
(Watched in 2018)
I’ve seen Angels In America twice on stage, both in Dutch translations, it’s a play when done well is extremely relevant to this day. I’m not a massive fan of Nichols acclaimed mini-series which puts me in a small group. I think Nichols effort drowns itself a bit to much in the glamour of it all and leaves little breathing room for the humour that the original play showcases allot. It’s overly dramatic but also does leave room for allot of the original play’s message just not in a way that interests me that much.
That aside it’s well worth a watch. Spotting career best performances from Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep it is mostly just watching a bunch of great actors trying to out act each-other. Patrick Wilson also does a great job with a character is extremely hard to play. I think my biggest downfall, and unpopular opinion, is that personally I don’t really for Pacino’s performance here. It is broad when it needs to be more dialed in and dialed in for the ‘louder scenes’. Just never really feels like he hits the right balance for the character.
Film looks absolutely gorgeous and might be up there with the best directional work Nichols ever did.
(Watched in 2016)
Closer is another movie that never really escapes it’s play origins. Which is a shame because even with it’s obvious stage based nature and pacing this is a great romantic drama helped by a tremendous cast. Julia Roberts give one of her career best performances and the rest of the cast is pretty great also. It’s mostly a endless boiler of relationships, sexuality and endless lies which makes it quite a natural fit for a Nichols movie. It honestly is one of his more flat looking movies in looks but that has more to do with the locations that it was shot at then his direction. Nothing to amazing but a very well acted romantic drama that is interesting the whole way through.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
A movie that feels like a big mess and a laser focused vision at the same time. I’m not a Sorkin fan at all even I’ve seen quite a few things he’s done over the years and this might’ve been the most I liked one of his projects. Directed with his usual refined style by Nichols this movie is surprisingly not flashy for a hollywood semi-blockbuster with it mostly being set in congress, Afghanistan and the rare nightclub/hall and it honestly was the way to go because this drives on dialogue. Hanks is absolutely the worst believable Texan you ever saw but him being so game to play against type really makes his Charlie Wilson a like-able guy as far you can do that.
Hoffman delivers a absolute perfect performance full of deadpan that nicely goes against Hanks’s loudness and it’s mostly them that make the movie work because this still has the trope that Sorkin is godawful at writing female characters. Amy Adams’s character is cardboard thin with personality and is mostly just there for eye-candy in the camera where Julia Roberts’s performance for sure seems to have been rewritten a fair bit when she was cast. She’s good in this and pivotal to some of the plot but also in this for 12 minutes top spread over the whole movie. Not to even start about the unneeded stripper scene and the sectary staff stuff which feel at odds with the rest of it all. It mostly really shines when it’s dialogue is fast, punchy and keeps moving in a natural way which is uncommon for a Sorkin production for me at-least.
The third half poorly is a mess, it’s not bad but it really feels like they didn’t know how to end this. It mostly is a bunch small scenes inter-cut with archive footage that really makes you think that for some reason they were really trying to land this under the 2 hours mark. Which isn’t a bad idea but it would’ve been way better if it focuses on actors in Afghanistan a fair bit more then the throw-away skits we get here. The ending itself is pretty bland Hollywood stuff to boot which really avoids the part in the book where it explains that Wilson tried to get the America to help Afghanistan to rebuild itself but failed to get funding for it.
For a last movie Charlie Wilson’s War is a odd one which is a bit of failure but also a good movie. It just could’ve been way better. Still not a bad note to go out on for Nichols at all.
Well that were my dumb bad reviews, come join below to discuss Nichols movies I guess!