Gross Anatomy

May 19, 2020

grossanatomyIf the title Gross Anatomy makes this new college film sound vaguely like Animal House, more’s the pity. Actually, the title refers to the most gruesome class in the lives of a group of medical students, in which they spend the better part of a year working with an authentic human cadaver.

If the film recalls any previous movie, it is The Paper Chase, which described the various madnesses of law school. Gross Anatomy is similarly consumed with the apparent impossibility of surviving the first year of medical school: the endless studying, the intense pressure to perform, and the daily confrontation with a cadaver.

As a rehash of some familiar school-is-hell themes, Gross Anatomy doesn’t add much new to the genre. Around the edges, however, director Thom Eberhardt (Without a Clue) finds a few fresh elements for the mix.

He’s helped by a watchable cast: Matthew Modine is the jaunty student who breezes in and infuriates his fellow students by never seeming to study much; Daphne Zuniga is his lab partner (and object of his much-deferred desire) who resists his entreaties in favor of study; Todd Field and John Scott Clough are driven students who share anatomy class with Modine; and Christine Lahti, the superb actress from Housekeeping, plays a professor who has Modine’s number.

The major sticking-point is Lahti’s frustration with Modine’s attitude. He’s obviously gifted, but he’s a major goof-off; when Lahti asks him what he would say to a patient whom he diagnoses as terminally ill, he suggests, “Goodbye?” This struggle is traditional, but it’s so divertingly acted that it’s easy to take. The same can be said for the whole movie.

The 26-year-old leading lady of Gross Anatomy, Daphne Zuniga, was in the area recently for interviews. Zuniga, who first came to attention with her winning performance in Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing, has also played in films as disparate as The Fly II and Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs.

She, too, has reservations about the title. “I saw the title and said, “‘Next, please,'” she says. “I hated it from the beginning.” Despite name-the-movie contests during filming, and wide lobbying of friends and relatives, no substitute was found.

Probably because of her delicate good looks, Zuniga has been cast in some snooty roles: the upper-class student in The Sure Thing, even the Druish princess in Spaceballs (which inspired the immortal line, “Funny, you don’t look Druish”).

Zuniga wanted this character to be different: “I didn’t want her to be this ice princess who slowly melts. I had to ask the director to really watch me on that, to make sure that her reactions to things were warmer than I might have made them at first.” Such an impulse drove Zuniga to make Last Rites, a steamy thriller that went straight to video and which she now disowns.

Part of the research process for the actors was visiting a real gross human anatomy lab. Real gross. Zuniga says she looked at the ceiling until she finally had to drop her eyes and gaze upon the cadavers. “It was toward the end of the term,” she says, “and the students were handling organs just like fruit in a grocery store. I could only last a half an hour. It was eerie. Very eerie.”

First published in The Herald, October 20, 1989

I am running some review/interviews this week and, well, it was Daphne Zuniga’s turn. She’s still working hard, by the way. Director Eberhardt made Night of the Comet and The Night Before, and doesn’t seem to have many credits in the last dozen years. It’s odd how certain things stay in your mind – Modine’s glib “Goodbye” has popped into my head from time to time, as a measure of shallowness. The Paper Chase reference reminds me that there was a time when that movie was pretty well-known; curious how it has fallen out of the collective imagination.

Running on Empty

April 13, 2020

runningonemptyTo most kids, “radical” is a highly approving descriptive term that suggests something outrageous and hip. However, to the children of Archie and Annie Pope, in the new film Running on Empty, “radical” describes their parents. Archie and Annie are radicals from the 1960s who have never given up the cause.

They couldn’t, even if they wanted to. In 1971 they bombed a napalm lab, injuring a janitor. Since then, they’ve been running from the police, changing their identities frequently, and roaming around the country. They’ve had two sons, the oldest of whom is now college-age. He’s wondering whether he’ll ever have a life of his own.

This boy, Danny (played by River Phoenix) is a talented musician, but he can’t go to any college without school records, of which he has none. But his parents (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) are wary of setting him free. If they do, they might never see him again.

In these days when liberalism is a four-letter word, a sympathetic treatment of ex-radicals is unusual, to say nothing of commercially risky. Naomi Foner’s original screenplay has an angle: By approaching the story through the kid, the issues become immediately personal and less political.

It’s an interesting, emotionally affecting, and not entirely successful movie. Sidney Lumet, the director, falls prey to some of his familiar weaknesses (when a big emotional scene comes up you can be sure he’ll shoot the whole thing in teary close-ups). Yet there is something very strong at work here, something deeply personal that lingers.

Lumet’s opening and closing sequences are beautifully staged. As the film begins, we catch the family as they are hurriedly pulling up stakes in Florida, having been discovered by the authorities.

You get a trembly sense of the tenuousness of their existence, but not as melodrama; Lumet emphasizes the matter-of-fact way they change their appearances, the way the boys grouse about getting their hair dyed again.

And the ending, in which a few characters grow up – not just the children – is superbly handled. In between, there are some sharp scenes and some fuzzy ones, but it’s one of the rules of storytelling that a strong beginning and ending make up for a lot.

The film also has one of the best scenes Lumet has ever directed: a birthday party that breaks up into a communal dance when James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” comes on the radio. You get a real sense of the family’s dynamics, the rituals within their strange way of life.

Martha Plimpton plays Danny’s love interest, a pampered girl who’s developed some budding rebelliousness of her own; L. M. Kit Carson plays a fellow radical who’s long since burned out; and Steven Hill plays Annie’s father, who meets his daughter for the first time in years in the movie’s biggest handkerchief scene.

All the principals are fine, but the film is most squarely on the shoulders of River Phoenix, who also played the son of unorthodox parents in The Mosquito Coast and Little Nikita. Phoenix finds the half­ formed nature of his character; his gestures and vocal mannerisms suggest a boy who has spent a lifetime repeatedly trying to fit in.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1988

Funny review. I think I made up the “rule of storytelling” that a strong beginning and ending mean so much. And yet, that’s probably true. Also, what was I doing translating the lingo of “most kids” for the readers? I was in my 20s. I have not gone back to watch this film, but I was clearly moved by it, and by River Phoenix’s beautiful performance, which would surely seem even more touching now. You can tell by my touchiness in the review that this was being written from the Reagan era, when conservatives had the upper hand and progressive values – especially of the ’60s variety – were being denigrated by the right-wing jackasses in charge. By the way, Naomi Foner (who got one of the film’s two Oscar nominations, along with Phoenix) is the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Just Between Friends

January 15, 2013

justbetweenfriendsJust Between Friends seeks to be this year’s Terms of Endearment—last year it was Twice in a Lifetime, you’ll remember—with a similar mix of ordinary people facing up to both ordinary and extraordinary situations.

It’s certainly got the right pedigree. Just Between Friends was written and directed by Allan Burns, who, like Oscar-winner James L. Brooks of Terms, was a staff writer on the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Burns clearly hopes to strike gold in the same mine.

But Just Between Friends is a strangely flat movie, lazily paced and without many distinguishing characteristics. You can sense Burns trying to wrench it into something more interesting, by throwing in an unexpected death here, a surprise pregnancy there, but the concoction refuses to jell.

It’s about a woman (Mary Tyler Moore, in a tailor-made role) whose neat, ordered life is brightened by a friend she meets at aerobics class (Christine Lahti). What Moore doesn’t know is that her seismologist husband (Ted Danson, of “Cheers”) is having an affair with Lahti.

When Moore invites her new friend over to have dinner, predictable hysteria ensues, as Lahti and Danson uncomfortably discover their mutual acquaintance.

Lahti decides to call off the affair, Danson isn’t sure, Moore stays in the dark—until, that is, the day she looks through her husband’s office and discovers a dime-store photo of Danson and Lahti together.

The film gets more serious as it goes along, although Burns has the good sense to insert a comic scene now and again. And his situation is valid enough, but his languid pace and utterly dull visual scheme damage the impact of the story.

The film was pretty clearly commissioned for Mary Tyler Moore, and Burns knows how to write funny “Mary” scenes, including a reference to her character’s past as a dancer, when she was a dancing peanut in a TV commercial (part of Moore’s actual dues-paying, if I remember correctly).

Moore’s only problem, as it was in Ordinary People, is that she tends to treat her big dramatic moments as—well, big dramatic moments. She loses her subtlety when called upon to emote.

Lahti, who was nominated for an Oscar for Swing Shift, provides some welcome bite. Just as she stole Swing Shift from Goldie Hawn, so does she grab our attention here. Her performance is more offbeat than Moore’s.

Danson, a likable, light leading man, is oddly unfocused, as though he wished he were getting some direction. Sam Waterston is steady as Danson’s best friend, who harbors a not-particularly-secret affection for Moore.

It’s a perfectly honorable try. There’s nothing cheap about the film’s emotion-tugging. The actors try valiantly to breathe some life into the proceedings, but ultimately the company can’t life the film above the level of a better-than-average TV movie.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1986

I was flicking across channels the other night and came upon the sight of Mary Tyler Moore saying “fuck,” which is, I think we can agree, something that stops you in your tracks. I sat there thinking What the hell is this? and finally figured out that it must be Just Between Friends, a movie I had forgotten all about, for reasons that should be evident from the tone of the review.

Swing Shift

July 20, 2012

Have you ever found yourself sitting on the edge of your seat watching a movie—not because the movie is exciting, but because you’re waiting for it to start? Even when you’re still waiting for it to start after it’s been running for an hour or two?

Somehow, if you lean forward, you can have the feeling you’re going to help the film get in gear. I have found, however, that it doesn’t work that way. The actors might be amiable, the situation might be intriguing, the locations might be beautiful. But, lean all you want, the film just won’t click.

I was doing a lot of leaning during Swing Shift. Here’s a movie with a lot to recommend it: watchable onscreen people, a talented young director, and a potentially rich milieu. But something went wrong with Swing Shift. It suffers from a fundamental lack of focus. There’s no clear answer to the question: What is this movie about?

In simple plot terms, it’s about a meek wife (Goldie Hawn) left behind during World War II. Hubby (Ed Harris) is serving in the Pacific, so Goldie takes a job at the local airplane factory, along with her next-door neighbor (Christine Lahti). Also working there is a trumpet player (Kurt Russell) with whom Goldie will have an affair.

What the movie really consists of is a rather shapeless series of episodes in the lives of the three workers. Part of it is about Goldie’s consciousness-raising. Part of it is about the romance. Part of it is about the friendship between the two women. Part of it is about the women gaining respect in the male-dominated workplace.

There is much to enjoy in all of these parts, thanks to the likability of the actors and director Jonathan Demme’s feeling for the material. One of Demme’s strengths, in films such as Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard, is in taking a bittersweet, generous view of humankind by looking at ordinary people in a deceptively loose, no-sweat style.

Swing Shift, although it takes place over four years, should have a leaner, straighter shape than, say, Melvin and Howard. But the movie seems disjointed and fuzzily-conceived.

Take Lahti’s boyfriend (Fred Ward), for instance. The character drifts in and out of the movie, but we haven’t really gotten to know him enough to care about his enigmatic leave-takings.

For that matter, Goldie’s entry into self-awareness is achieved somewhat abruptly. We see a montage of her beginning to hold her own at the factory, and suddenly she’s working her way up the managerial ladder. Some of the jumps in narrative make you suspect that perhaps a portion of the film ended up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe it’s part of the explanation for the film’s odd shape.

The much-publicized behind-the-scenes romance between Hawn and Russell doesn’t really spice up the love scenes, although both players are in good form. It’s Christine Lahti who really walks away with the movie, as the smart, sexy, sympathetic best friend. A combination of intelligence and high cheekbones, Lahti seems very much due for a starring vehicle of her own.

First published in the Herald, April 1984

There seems to be some debate about whether Demme’s original cut (he was involved in the re-shoots, too) survives and is watchable. But the release version certainly goes flat.


June 17, 2011

We have come to identify director Bill Forsyth with the gently peculiar comedy of films such as Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl, and Comfort and Joy. Those movies, and their wonderfully skewed, bittersweet way of seeing, qualified Scotsman Forsyth as one of the current cinema’s most cherishable creators.

We might have suspected that when Forsyth turned his attention to more serious material, his view would be equally offbeat. His newest film is an adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and the subject matter is perfectly pitched to Forsyth’s interests: The theme is eccentricity.

The main characters are two adolescent sisters, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill). Orphaned by their mother’s suicide, they take up residence in the fictional town of Fingerbone, somewhere in the wilderness of Washington state (filmed in Nelson, British Columbia, which also served as the setting for Roxanne). This gorgeous location provides the backdrop for the incidents that haunt their imaginations; such as Fingerbone Lake, which serves as a grave for the passengers of a train that went off track and broke through the ice one long-ago winter, or the mountains that drew their famously restless grandfather to the area.

Here they are joined by their Aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti, of Swing Shift), and she is the vehicle for the eccentricity.

Aunt Sylvie is different. Her behavior seems slyly whimsical at times; she happily watches television through her neighbor’s window, she collects stacks of newspapers for no discernable reason, and she’s liable to say such subliminally odd things as, “I love traveling by train—especially in the passenger car.”

But Aunt Sylvie is not one of those terminally cute characters who waltz into a child’s life and contrive to change it. She is a darker creation entirely, a perpetual wanderer and outsider who sometimes frightens her teenage charges. At the heart of her, there is something restless and disturbed, although she is caring toward her nieces.

Her presence affects the girls. Lucille, bright and outgoing, is embarrassed by Sylvie’s behavior; she can’t understand why their aunt enjoys sleeping on a park bench in the middle of the day. The more introspective Ruth begins to gravitate toward Sylvie’s method of choosing the road not taken. Their split is exemplified in Lucille’s destruction of some dry flowers preserved in a book. Pragmatic Lucille can’t see the value in a bunch of dead flowers; soulful Ruth looks on in horror.

Housekeeping is a strange movie, in sympathy with those who are drawn to “life’s other side,” in Woody Guthrie’s phrase. But Forsyth refuses to romanticize the call of the road and cry of the train whistle; the stakes are high, the consequences are potentially dangerous. You can’t help but imagine a difficult future for Sylvie and Ruth as they follow their wanderlust; the film’s superb last shot does not present an easy resolution.

But it is natural that Forsyth should cast his feelings with the eccentrics; an indulgence for peculiarity informs his films (provides his governing stylistic method, in fact), and he usually sides with outsiders. At one point the straight-ahead Lucille tells her sisters, “You spend too much time looking out of windows,” as the real world passes. This is a film for people who look out of windows.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

Bill Forsyth: A man who made some lovely films and then apparently got disillusioned with the whole thing. And yet rotten people get movies made all the time. I have to say I have not seen this film since it came out, which is a bummer for me, and it has been gently forgotten in a general way out there. Will a Criterion release change all that? It could, but people say that about dozens of movies (Criterion is the genie’s lamp for cinephiles), and mostly it doesn’t go that way.