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Saturday, December 27, 2014

'Running on Empty' DVD: Radical '80s Film of Fugitive Student Activists Raising Kids on the Lam

Product Details
The Warner Archive Widescreen DVD re-release of the 1988 Sidney Lumet drama "Running on Empty" is the most anticipated release of that type since Archive re-released the Unreal TV reviewed 1983 Robin Williams dramedy "The World According to Garp." 

The good news is that "Empty" passes the test of time as well as "Garp." Bad news is that even thinking of "Empty" gets the Jackson Browne song of the same name deeply lodged in your brain.

Other bad news is that watching "Empty" evokes sad memories of original young Indiana Jones River Phoenix in this Oscar-nominated role; his excellent work as Danny Pope in "Empty" is a transitional one between teen roles in movies such as "Stand By Me" and "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon" and more mature parts, such as his uber-awesome job as Mike Waters in "My Own Private Idaho."

The following '80sliciuous clip, courtesy of YouTube, of the trailer for "Empty" offers a nice summary of the film and the dreaminess of Phoenix. The only flaw regarding this promo. is that it inaccurately makes "Empty" look like a TV Movie of the Week.

Danny is the roughly 17 year-old son of Annie and Arthur Pope, whom Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch respectively portray. Annie and Arthur are Vietnam Era student radicals whose not-so-civil disobedience causing a death has kept them on the run for roughly 20 years. This aspect of the film provides an interesting look at the covert support network that the people from the past of the Popes provide those fugitives.

Watching the Popes create new identities and overcome obstacles, such as registering Danny and his younger brother Harry in new schools despite not having records from former ones, is also interesting. The fact that these activities and other aspects of life on the run do not phase any member of the Pope family further enhances the power of the film.In this sense, they are the Addamses or the Munsters of their communities. What is odd to us is simply Tuesday to them.

Like the titular fugitive of the television series and feature film of that name, the Pope family moves into a new city and stays there until receiving indications that the feds are moving in. This prompts following the aforementioned well-honed drill regarding changing their appearances and names.

The game-changers that occur when the Popes move to the fictional suburban community of Waterford, New Jersey are that classical pianist prodigy Danny becomes the protege of high school music teacher Mr. Phillips and the boyfriend of Phillips' daughter Lorna. Seeing recent "Raising Hope" star Martha Plimpton as Lorna is a genuine hoot.

This chance of a normal life (and a related realistic shot at a scholarship to study music at Juilliard) prompt Danny to engage in reverse rebellion regarding wanting to reject the values of his parents and lead a traditional life. On a related note, Danny has a uber-symbolic coming out of the closet scene that (despite any hopes by gay admirers) does not involve any element of sexuality.

Just as symbolically, Annie offers Danny much stronger support than Arthur regarding the desire of their son to lead the life that he wants despite the costs that extend beyond rejecting the values of his parents. Danny aching to "come out" in the sense of enrolling in college and enter the spotlight as a concert pianist has the related prices of enhancing the risk of capture that his parents face and limiting future visits (if any) to actual or figurative quick meetings at highway rest areas.

In other words, the attitude of Arthur is that Danny is on other run, cannot go out in the sun, and his effort to do so is done.

In addition to the spot-on direction of drama film legend Sidney Lumet, "Empty" is "must-see" because of the performance of Phoenix. This thespian demonstrates perfect instincts regarding the emotions for which each scene calls and shows a range that runs from goofy high school boy to angst-ridden angry young man.

The fact that a minor scene is one of Phoenix's best further demonstrates his talent. He is masquerading as a pizza boy and shows wonderful youthful charm that is perfect for that guise when he is asked if he will need to pay for a non-requested pizza and responds that he will not have to pay for it but will need to eat it.

The realism regarding student radicals facing the challenge of being on the run for more than a decade after their offenses and the related believability of both the characters and their portrayors in "Empty" are additional elements that make this film so special. It also makes one hope for a sequel so long as they honor the late Phoenix by not casting anyone else as Danny.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Empty" is strongly encouraged to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.