Blinded by the Light
His Dark Materials
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Running on Empty is the story of a family that is on the run because of things from the parents’ past. It shows the hard life that they lead, never forming long-term connections outside of the family, and always being prepared to run. It’s a tear-jerking drama that feels a little like an after-school special that I would have watched as a kid. What elevates it above those TV specials is the cast. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch are both great as the parents. They look and act like the type of people who might have been involved in war protests when they were younger. They make a convincing couple and you can feel the love they have for their children even when it is tough love. Martha Plimpton has never been my favorite actress, but I think I’ve always judged her from Goonies. Here she is sweet and likable as the main love interest. Then there’s the marvelous River Phoenix. He had a great talent for wordless acting. I am totally impressed by the amount of emotion I see in his performance even though he is playing a quiet brooding teen. There are some definite flaws in the script of Running on Empty. Some of the interactions with their old life feel like a pointless distraction. I understand if they want to increase the tension by making it feel like they could be caught at any moment. However, there was no need for us to meet L.M. Kit Carson in a scene that stops the entire movie in its tracks. That was the most blatant waste of time, when that time would have been more valuable building the bonds between the other characters. However, in this type of movie I measure the quality almost completely on whether I am engaging with it on an emotional level. If they expect me to cry and I’m laughing, then it failed. Luckily, I cried a few times. There are some heavy dramatic moments, and I had invested in these characters enough that I couldn’t contain my emotions and cried right along with them. It doesn’t help that they added a James Taylor song to it (that’s not even playing fair!) Running on Empty is a solid film that was effective at what it was trying to do, even if it had some flaws in the plot construction.
Sidney Lumet has done big films, but many of them remain pretty unheard of. This is not one of them - it was Oscar nominated and all, but in these years you don't hear much about this one.
A family is hiding from everyone. FBI are after them, after they destroyed some old napalm supplies or something and a lost life got into the mix. The intention was good, but the result got them in the fed's scope. This represents a lot of the film - the intention and the consequences. The two kids are especially suffering as they not only changes looks, hair, clothing and names, but also schools and towns, making it hard to make real friends and roots.
Amazing acting all over the line. A solid story that's touching and smart. It's good, but few big scenes. They act careful, but normal and there is little sneakyness here. Sensitive and touching film about a loving family that never can run away from the past.
I guess it felt a bit dated or something. It's not a poor one, but I wanted a whole lot more to be honest.
7 out of 10 newspaper rip outs.
This made me cry again. I love the story and the performances.
This movie hit close to home without the criminal aspect of it. I loved this film, the music part by Phoenix was a awesome surprise with the piano playing. The emotions were felt in this drama, I don't think a single director in Hollywood today could make a movie like this anymore, such depth, directors today have no clue how to build character which should be the first thing they learn. One of the best films by River.
Reviewed 6.5.18 The film sports a stellar script, for which it dutifully received an Academy award nomination. Former radicals transformed into doting parents makes for an original and interesting setup. On occasion, it teeters toward movie of the week territory, but is thankfully rescued by the above board acting. The real life relationship between River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton renders genuine screen chemistry. It's a simple yet well-crafted film, which could easily be translated to the stage. If only River Phoenix's expressed desire for a sequel could have come to fruition. These are characters you want to grow with.
This film is a real sleeper. A family trying hard to have a normal life while on the run. All the actors are very good with Lahti in particular standing out. All of the young actors gave naturalistic performances and were well cast.
Another Lumet winner.
Really great character piece full of amazing performances. Moving, real and smart... what else much I say.
Not for everyone. A family drama about running from a dark past. I like it a lot myself. Great cast. Very PG rated. So if you don't like language, violence or sex see it.
A real gem. Lumet's unsung love song to a real dysfunctional family. Outstanding performances by all of the leads, especially River, who is on full display. The performance harkens back to the 50's and one James Dean. A snapshot of his greatness at such a young age that only reminds us of "what could've been..." Bravo, Riv.
Being a teenager is hard enough as it is. Not that I'm saying adult life isn't a confusing nightmare not to be taken seriously; it's just that it's a series of milestones lined with manic anxiety. You worry about your first date and your first kiss and your first time driving alone, and you wonder with panic when you'll lose your virginity, what college you'll go to, what you're going to do with the rest of your life. The older you get, the more you yearn for your childhood, when worries were so small you want to smack yourself for not appreciating the simplicity.
So imagine the life Danny Pope has lived for his eighteen years. The son of Vietnam War activists who blew up a napalm laboratory at the height of the conflict, they've been running from the law for twenty years. Since then, their lives have consisted of changing identities and changing towns every six months since the year of Danny's birth. He's never known a true friendship; the discrepancies of average suburban life are a foreign territory to him. On top of being stricken with the fears that plague youths during their formative years, he is always looking over his shoulder, always guarded in making new relationships with classmates because he knows that they won't last.
But now that adulthood is around the corner, Danny, along with his family, know that something is going to have to change sooner or later. Unnoticed by those closest to him is an astonishing musical talent. In their years of turmoil, Danny, a keyboard in tow, has metamorphosed into a serious prodigy. In the first few moments of "Running On Empty," the Popes are undergoing their usual shedding of their latest fake names and latest place called home. But, something is different in the air, a characteristic amplified when Danny's talents are noticed by his music teacher on the first day of school. And this recognition affects him with the force of a bullet filled with realization; for the first time in his life, he finds himself pondering what his future holds, pondering what a life without his family would resemble.
His parents and kid brother can sense it, too, with contrasting states of denial. Danny's mother, Annie, is aware that Danny deserves to realize his full potential, but is also crippled with the fear that there's little chance that she'll ever see him again if she lets him go. His father, Arthur, covers his dread with fire that sometimes comes across as selfishness; his brother is perhaps too young to fathom the severity of a looming goodbye. The situation grows increasingly pensive, too, when Danny is accepted to Juilliard, and when he begins a romance with the daughter of his music instructor that is more than just fleeting. And so he's forced to consider what no teenager should have to - choose a life of his own and never see his family again, or continue living the life of a nomad and never see his talents through.
This tug-of-war of emotion is what makes "Running On Empty" the masterpiece that it is. It isn't the kind of movie you just love; you also want to hug it, to console it, to prolong it in order to see its characters live their lives more because we come to care about them so completely. Written by Naomi Foner and directed by filmmaking great, Sidney Lumet, it is the rare family drama, that is void of expectation. We want to spend time with these characters, to be the friend they've never had. If it weren't for the lethal mistake of Arthur and Annie's youthful past, what kind of people would the Popes be?
We come to the conclusion that they're pretty terrific ones, ones that are intelligent and loving and open-minded but lack, by necessity, the compassion needed to give their kids a normal childhood. "Running On Empty" sees Arthur and Annie hitting an iceberg of epiphany, and that's one of the many reasons why the film so formidably tugs our hearts. Maybe they should have given Danny up to Annie's parents, giving him the opportunity to stay in one place and to foster his piano talent in a more stable of an environment. Maybe they should never have conceived Harry, thus keeping him away from the pains of his lifetime. They love their children, but as Danny comes of age, such brutal questions hit them like a truck, and the emotional tolls they take on them inflict a great deal of pain onto us, too. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch, warm and likable, are phenomenal as Annie and Arthur, sympathetic as they come to realize that running from past mistakes is a losing fight. What a shame it is that their children have to be so dramatically affected by them, too.
So many scenes in "Running On Empty" are as able to warm our hearts as they are able to break them. The film's opening, which depicts the Popes going through the usual routine of changing names and towns (packing their belongings into their van, abandoning a briefly kept family dog, staying in a motel and dying each other's hair, finding a new place to stay, registering for schools they barely belong in), is chilling in the way it rings as so normal for Danny and Harry.
There's also the sequence illustrating the first time Danny brings over his girlfriend for the celebrating of his mother's birthday; such love and joy becomes the scene, but we can never fully enjoy its events because we aren't so sure this girlfriend will be able to stick around for much longer.
And then there's the brutal progression of Annie being informed that Danny has been accepted to Juilliard, having no idea that her son was even that gifted to begin with, and then conspicuously meeting her father (whom she hasn't seen for fourteen years) to beg him to take Danny on to back his potential endeavors. Lahti is brilliantly emotive in this scene, stunningly convincing, and we come close to losing it ourselves after she departs the diner and her father breaks down himself.
But the best thing about the film is River Phoenix, whose tragic 1993 death is especially tragic after seeing just how magnificent he is in "Running On Empty." Only seventeen, he has qualities only seen in such heavyweights as James Dean and Leonardo DiCaprio; as if his character weren't already heart-wrenching enough, we never stop speculating how his career might have gone had he never died. You know he would have only gained momentum in his respectability.
Danny is a role made for him, reflecting the shy, sensitive persona he emitted in his public life. The character is unlike most victims of the coming-of-age film, as he's deeply wounded by the way his life has never proven to be average, always unpredictable and always emotionally detached. Being a quiet, perceptive young man without the brass to speak his mind - he adores his parents too much to complain anyway - he's stayed neutral to avoid conflict, keeping his musical talent out of the limelight to take attention off of himself and maybe because he's too humble to even realize how much he might have to offer.
As his eyes open and he begins to understand that it's highly likely that he could make it on his own, we feel the same awakening he does - what would it be like to live your dreams instead of tuck them away? His relationship with Lorna (played by an excellent Martha Plimpton) is especially touching; so true is their connection that our hearts ache as we wonder if their romance will make it, or if it will be destroyed by the Popes' next move.
Movies like "Running On Empty" are treasures I only occasionally stumble upon - it's seldom that a drama turns you into something more than a casual viewer. The film is a work that presents itself as being more than just a movie. It's a waterfall of emotion characterized by its empathetic humanity, and it leaves you shaking. That's just how I like it.