Tag: mike nichols


Silkwood (1983)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood” tells the true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), a woman who worked at the Kerr-McGree nuclear plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma. Eventually becoming very vocal about the company’s unsafe policies, practices, and downright illegal activities, she inevitably becomes the target of not only the higher-ups but also her co-workers who are afraid that if the truth came out, the plant would be forced to shut down, thereby losing their jobs.

I admired the picture’s willingness to abstain from a typical arc involving a whistleblower and what might inevitably happen to her. I had no idea what was going on in the first half—a compliment—because the scenes do not appear to be building up to a climax—at least not in an obvious manner. The screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen seems to be more concerned about letting the audience into the mindset of a small town and allowing us to get a feel of Karen’s life: how she feels about her job and being miles away from her children, how she relates or is unable to relate to some of her co-workers, the dynamics of her friendship with her lesbian roommate (Cher) and lover (Kurt Russell).

Pay close attention to scenes that show Karen simply being a part of her workplace. While we get to see a good chunk of her personality there, it leaves enough room for us to notice that maybe she is neglecting to take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of radiation. The cake scene which takes place in a specific work area is telling. So is an early sequence in the lunch or break room where she takes food from other people. How does she know that they are clean?

Having experience working in a lab and dealing with radiation, I tend to notice every bit of detail, from what Karen is touching to what she is doing to protect herself—and others—from the long-term effects of plutonium exposure. And yet at the same time, the film does a good job in allowing us to understand that Karen may not know that she is being careless at times. After all, radiation safety is not instinctual. It involves considering things that are not easily seen. Maybe the workers at the plant are not well-trained.

The pictures offers one of the more chilling endings I have seen in some time. It is horrific and sad, certainly, but I was impressed with its elegance. Emphasis is not on the violence but in the aftermath, the still unresolved questions. It ends with mystery without pretension. Because of this, we think about the character and her mission rather than what has, what has not, or what has possibly happened to her.

Streep is such a consummate performer that watching her in slow motion makes me smile. I loved the scene where Karen must say farewell to her boyfriend temporarily. Karen does not want to let him go and so Streep, standing next to his car (Drew is a car mechanic—the car is an obvious representation of him), allows her hand to slide off the vehicle as it drives away. Choosing to inject such a small moment that may have been easily overlooked and inspiring us to extract significance out of it separates Streep from her fellow performers.

“Silkwood” is for absolutely for those who like to observe without having to be told where to look or what to think. One example is the relationship among Karen, Drew, and Dolly. During the first half, I did not know exactly what to make of what they have. I had my suspicions and so I looked for clues. The answer becomes clear soon enough but the fact that I had to question and revise means the characters are not cardboard cutouts but real people who have real thoughts, pains, and yearnings.


Wit (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) breaks the news to her patient, Dr. Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson), a professor of seventeenth century poetry, that she has advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. It is the type of cancer that has gone undetected during its first three stages—the fourth stage being so aggressive that the patient’s only hope is so undergo eight cycles of experimental chemotherapy. There is no fifth stage. Dr. Bearing agrees to battle the cancer.

Based on the play by Margaret Edson, “Wit” is a highly intelligent, moving, and searing portrait of what cancer really is instead of what most people think it is. More specifically, what the disease and the treatment do to the body—how the process is ugly and messy, how it can manage to strip away one’s dignity. When I hear that people are brave for trying to fight or overcoming cancer, I am not sure I buy it completely. This film shows that maybe people with cancer face the disease only because they do not have a choice.

Right from the very first scene, the direction by Mike Nichols is confident and clinical. The first shot is the close-up of a doctor with bad news; the second shot is the patient absorbing the grim diagnosis—in a series of close-ups we learn how they handle themselves in a difficult situation. It engages the mind. The second scene is equally powerful: a bald woman, Dr. Bearing, in a hospital gown speaking directly to camera. We know not many details about the woman with no hair but we immediately learn of her resolve. This is no ordinary Lifetime movie about a cancer patient.

I admire movies that take their time presenting details. Here, they are not afraid to use big words, phrases, and ideas—whether it be an aspect of poetry or literature or medical terminologies. Scenes that take place in the hospital are blended with scenes that take place in a university—a portrait of dying woman and a portrait of a woman in her prime—just as art is melded with science. The contrasting elements presented on screen never come off pretentious because the rhythm of language and passions of the characters on screen are constantly on the forefront: Though ideas and concepts are alive and well just underneath the epithelium, it embodies a humanistic approach first and foremost.

Standout scenes involve interactions between tough as nails Dr. Bearing and a physician-scientist in the fellowship stage of his career named Dr. Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward). Dr. Posner—very ambitious, smart, and focused—was Dr. Bearing’s student at one point even though his major was biochemistry. His goal was to take the three most difficult classes the campus had to offer and Dr. Bearing’s class happened to be one of them. Dr. Posner, without meaning malfeasance, treats his patient like a lab rat. The former student-teacher’s scenes are so uncomfortable that even though I wanted to admire Dr. Posner for his intelligence and drive, his bedside manner is so poor, I wondered why he even bothered to choose medicine as a career.

At one point, a nurse, Susie (Audra McDoland), asks Jason why he chose to specialize in cancer. He describes the disease as “awesome,” but his reasoning as to why it is such a fascinating disease to devote one’s life to study and learn from, I was reminded of why I decided to study cancer biology. The truth is, cancer is an awesome disease. I would even go as far to say that it is a smart disease—equipped with multiple ways, many of which I am convinced are still undiscovered, to overcome various therapeutics.

Lastly, “Wit” touched my very core. The way Susie is not afraid to touch Dr. Bearing’s body at its most fearful and most frail reminded me of the time when my grandfather was dying of cancer. I was moved to tears because it reminded me how much I regret not looking at my grandpa in eyes more often, not hugging him more tightly, not talking to him about the details that really matter about myself. In retrospect, maybe I wasn’t mature enough at the time or that his mortality had not fully sunk in. Or maybe I was just afraid.


Heartburn (1986)
★★ / ★★★★

Rachel (Meryl Streep) and Mark (Jack Nicholson), both single and successful, meet at a wedding. Rachel, a food critic, cannot help but notice Mark’s aggressive glances every time she looks his way so she asks her friends about him. It turns out that Mark is a hot shot columnist and has a certain… reputation with the ladies. The next thing she knows, he asks her for a drink, she coyly accepts, and they are married.

“Heartburn,” based on the novel and screenplay by Nora Ephron, surprised me because even though its core is about a wilting marriage, it is very much in touch with the effervescent angle of their relationship. That is, the comedy in the details of what Mark and Rachel share which show us that, at least for a time, it makes sense that the two of them decided to get married, that they did not jump into something for the sake of consoling an itch.

I enjoyed that the couple are painted as adults taking a part in a mature relationship but they are far from perfect and their situations, from the stresses of the renovation involving the dilapidated house they purchased to the increasing annoyance and ennui they start to feel toward one another, are not always ideal. Even though it appears as though they have more money and means than most couples, the screenplay allows us to identify with them through problems that a lot of partners, married or otherwise, have gone or might go through.

Streep and Nicholson are joyous to watch because there are times when their dialogue does not come across as scripted. For instance, when the two of them eat pizza and burst in song, I felt very awkward, at least initially, then gradually got into it and found the whole thing charming and delightful. Eventually, however, the film focuses on the heartbreak Rachel experiences when it finally clicks that her husband is having an affair and he is making a fool out of her.

I found the writing one-sided—which is frustrating. Since all the scenes of the affair happens off-screen, the blow of the infidelity, at least from our perspective, is softened. While we might feel bad for Rachel, we do not feel betrayed by him. Our lack of connection to the husband is strengthened further by the screenplay not allowing us to see or experience what he feels after his wife confronted him. There is almost a sense of unfairness because we watch them get into a relationship as two people coming together but the fallout is dealt with by taking sides.

Lastly, the friendship between Rachel and Richard (Jeff Daniels) is worth delving into but the picture does not make time to establish what makes their friendship work. And so when Rachel turns to Richard for consolation during her darkest trials, we are not moved or touched by what they share.

Nevertheless, I am giving “Heartburn,” directed by Mike Nichols, a marginal recommendation because there are moments in it that do ring true. The performances are strong but is incongruent with a screenplay that lacks consistent wit and focus.

Carnal Knowledge

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are roommates and best friends in Amherst College. They enjoy talking about women, what they like and do not like about them, and the prospect of making love to them. Jonathan spots beautiful Susan (Candice Bergen) slinking across the room. He urges Sandy that he should come over and talk to her. Who knows? He might even get lucky. Although Sandy is not an especially good-looking guy, Susan adores his sensitivity and likes the fact that she is able to talk to him about anything. Jonathan judges his friend’s lack of his experience with jealousy.

“Carnal Knowledge” holds a critical eye on men’s needs. When their requirements are not met, insecurities tend to destroy them from within. The picture shows that although Jonathan and Sandy are opposite in personalities and there is variation in their approaches to interacting with the opposite sex, both have a hunger for being with as many women as possible. The film does not judge them negatively for wanting to experiment. Instead, it observes the characters in absolute curiosity.

The screenplay treats Jonathan and Sandy’s sexual needs as natural. The material is more interested in showing us the men’s inability to recognize happiness and the possibility that it can arrive at their doorsteps in different forms. Because they are too preoccupied with looking for the chance of acquiring something better instead of treasuring and maintaining what they already have, as they age so do their insecurities.

Although Jonathan and Sandy are able to sustain their friendship for many years, they essentially have the same problems and fail to recognize the issues. As a part of the audience, we are forced to wonder if their very close friendship, realistically portrayed, will be able to continue to endure the weight their self-consciousness. And yet, equally interesting, there are times when the friendship, open to interpretation as to whether it is a healthy one, is touching and amusing.

There is sadness in the way Sandy is able to openly communicate to his best mate that marriage requires living a life without glamour but it is almost worth it because there is convenience in the routine. Garfunkel delivers his lines without irony so Sandy sounds like a man who is tired of being limited by a social union but at the same time one who has learned to take comfort in it. Meanwhile, Jonathan confesses that he has begun having trouble with getting an erection. It is amusing not because of his erectile dysfunction but because he has so many deeper problems worth talking about yet the topic he chooses to share is not being able to get it up. Again, there is a disconnect in their relationship.

Written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols, “Carnal Knowledge” provides an incisive portrait of men’s expectations, sexual needs, and fixations. When the intense and cathartic screaming matches finally arrive, as the ones between Jonathan and Bobbie (Ann-Margret), it is like being in a room with the couple with no door or window escape from and no furniture to hide behind.

The Graduate

The Graduate (1967)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Graduate,” directed by Mike Nichols, became a pop culture icon since its release so I just had to see it. I wasn’t impressed with it but I was satisfied because it had moments of genuine sadness inside of the comedic happenings on the outside. Dustin Hoffman stars as a recent graduate who we came to meet during a graduation party that his parents threw for him. He was deep in thought about something but we didn’t immediately know why. What we did know, however, was the fact that Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) wanted to have an affair with the twenty-year-old after he took her back to her house and had a drink with him. I didn’t expect this picture to be as mature as it was. In fact, I was expected it to be a slapstick or a gross-out movie of sorts. I really admired the way Nichols used Hoffman’s alienation to drive the story forward, often in unpredictable (and sometimes jarring) directions. When Nichols placed Hoffman’s character in that scuba diving suit, it was such a bold statement; even more daring was the decision to place the audience in the lead character’s point of view as he saw the world and familiar faces with such disconnect and great frustration. From that moment, even though I thought Ben was pathetic because he often whimpered his way through strange situations, I wanted to root for him. That scene was a stand out because it really captured the loneliness and the confusion that Hoffman was going through from the minute the film started to the subtle but brilliant final sequence on the bus. What didn’t work for me was the “romance” between Hoffman and Katharine Ross. I can understand that maybe it wasn’t supposed to feel real because the characters were young and perhaps didn’t know what they really wanted. It’s just that I think the movie would have been more effective (and I certainly would have cared more) if the passion felt genuine instead of just feeling like Hoffman was stalking Ross all over campus. Still, I thought the movie was strong because it was able to articulate the internal and external battles that the main character was going through. It was also difficult not to love the perfectly-timed soundtrack and it enhanced the experience instead of serving as a distraction like in a lot of coming-of-age movies nowadays that try too hard to be hip or cool. It’s easy to classify “The Graduate” as the movie where the main character had sexual affairs with a much older woman. I think it’s so much more than that; to me, it’s more about the temptations that the protagonist surrendered to because he ultimately didn’t know who he was. Since he didn’t know who he was, no matter what he did or what he accomplished, he couldn’t seem to feel happiness even at the most basic level.

The Birdcage

The Birdcage (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

All of the actors in this movie contributed something hilarious and that’s what makes it so special. A gay couple, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, who owns a drag club must meet their son’s (Dan Futterman) politically conservative family (Gene Hackman and Dianne West) and fiancée (Calista Flockhart) for the first time over dinner. One can guess that pretty much everything goes awry. Even though I’m not particularly into films that only feature homosexuality in a feminine light, there’s something about this movie that made me smile and laugh out loud. It’s easy to tell that all of the actors are having fun with their characters because sometimes it would seem that certain actions or pop culture references are a wink to the audiences. I also consider it a good thing that the talented Mike Nichols, the director, features a subculture that is so often viewed in a negative light. In here, no one gets infected or dies of AIDS, no one gets jumped, and no one commits suicide. Everyone’s pretty much happy with themselves; it’s just that the circumstances require three characters to change the way they act even for just a couple of hours. I also loved Christine Baranski as Futterman’s biological morther. She’s spunky and smart even though she seems a bit cold and tough at first glance. The one thing that didn’t work for me was the pair of journalists hoping to get the latest exposée from the conservative family. I think if various reporters were featured, the film would’ve had more chances of making fun of different types of reporters with different methods of acquiring controversial information. Still, “The Birdcage” deserves a high recommendation because it works as a farce and a classic comedy of errors. You rarely go wrong with Nichols’ films because most of them have smart characters and witty dialogues. This one is no exception.

Working Girl

Working Girl (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Mike Nichols, this romantic comedy has something to say or two about women in the work force. Set in the 1980’s, I was very amused by looking at people’s hair, clothes and the lingos they used. Even though those things are not that relevant today because they went out of fashion, there is one thing that persisted: Women are still considered less equal to men. Melanie Griffith plays Sigourney Weaver’s hardworking secretary who one day pitches an idea to Weaver. Even though Weaver promised Griffith that she will get some credit if Weaver’s boss liked her ideas, Weaver pitched Griffith’s ideas as her own. After an injury that left Weaver in bed for a couple of weeks, Griffith stumbled upon Weaver’s betrayal and decided to climb the corporate ladder. Even though this is a romantic comedy, it’s not an ordinary one because of the wit in its writing. Just when you think the story will unfold one way, it completely veers off another way and it surprised me (in a good way). Griffith is completely believable as an astute secretary who wants to be something more. Weaver did a great job as the boss from hell. It was hard for me to read her intentions because she’s so good at lying and manipulating everyone despite her sweet facade. Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack are also found here and they all have scenes where they truly shine. What didn’t work as well for me was the romantic angle. Sometimes, I felt as though it dragged the story down and shifted away from the business angle of the story. I can imagine this film being talked about in Women’s Studies courses because it has something to say about marriage, the workplace, and the home. The most interesting aspect in the film was even though Griffith wants to fight against a man-centered world of business, her enemy is a woman, just like herself. When I saw Weaver for the first time, my first instinct was Griffith and Weaver teaming up to climb the corporate ladder. I only realized later that it’s even better if they’re up against each other. As for its ending, it was so well-done. I was so touched because, in a way, it summarized Griffith’s journey in a different angle. This is a strong film by Nichols because it ultimately inspires.