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They Live by Night
23 June 2017 1:55 PM, PDT
Don’t look to this noir for hardboiled cynicism – for his first feature Nicholas Ray instead gives us a dose of fatalist romance. Transposed from the previous decade, a pair of fugitives takes what happiness they can find, always aware that a grim fate waits ahead. The show is a career-making triumph and a real classic from Rko — which shelved it for more than a year.
The Criterion Collection 880
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 95 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date June 13, 2017 / 39.95
Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Film Editor: Sherman Todd
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Produced by John Houseman
Directed by Nicholas Ray »
- Glenn Erickson
Running on Empty
23 June 2017 1:27 PM, PDT
These fugitives on the run aren’t innocent young lovers. Still wanted for anti-war violence from years before, an ex-radical couple struggles to remain free just as their children become old enough to think for themselves. Screenwriter Naomi Foner and director Sidney Lumet’s fascinating movie is a sympathetic look at an untenable lifestyle.
1988 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 116 min. / Street Date June 27, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Jonas Abry, Martha Plimpton, Ed Crowley, L.M. Kit Carson, Steven Hill, Augusta Dabney, David Margulies, Lynne Thigpen, Bobo Lewis, Daniel Dassin.
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Film Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Original Music: Tony Mottola
Written by Naomi Foner
Directed by Sidney Lumet
1988 suddenly seems much farther in the past than it did just a few months ago. The small town high school in Running on Empty has a dedicated, classically trained music teacher on the payroll. He earns enough to afford a rather nice house. The public school system is not being undermined, with all the wealthy students going to new kinds of exclusive, alternative schools siphoning off public money. We all have our own ideas about what ‘making America great again’ means, I suppose.
It doesn’t happen any more, but we used to read about ex- radicals from the Vietnam War days surfacing to turn themselves in. Not that many were directly involved in violent acts, but some had lived for decades under assumed identities, while their wanted photos were posted down at the Post Office. Some of them tried to raise families.
“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America.
Everything they say we are, we are.
. . . And we are very proud of ourselves.”
— The Jefferson Airplane
Naomi Foner’s Running on Empty is basically a ‘what comes next?’ chapter in the lives of former political public enemies like The Weather Underground. An unusual family is on the lam. The parents are militant radicals from the Nixon years, who went underground when one of their bombs maimed a janitor. Now they are nearing their forties, and must move from town to town whenever they think the Feds have picked up their trail. The couple chose their life and has accepted the consequences, but where does that leave their growing children, who are likewise forced to live like gypsies under assumed names?
I should think that this good movie would have a tough time in today’s market. If the online mob harps on Wonder Woman for promoting non-traditional values, what would they make of a movie ‘glorifying terrorism?’ Half of America still wants to see Jane Fonda strung up by her thumbs, and death threats for ‘enemies’ singled out on the web are now routine. Our channels of information are so jammed with stories elbowing each other for attention, I don’t think anybody could rouse the general public to even consider the problems of this kind of fugitive. Who has time for scurrilous pleas for sympathy for ‘undeserving’ people, when the public responds better to patriotic pieces about veterans . . . or cute animals?
Always watching for signs of F.B.I. surveillance, young Danny Pope (River Phoenix) alerts the rest of his family through pre-arranged signals. Annie and Arthur Pope (Christine Lahti & Judd Hirsch) abandon their jobs, their belongings and even their dog and flee to a new state with Danny and their other son Harry (Jonas Abry). With new identities they start new lives. Arthur and Annie find off-the-books employment as a cook and a medical receptionist and the boys are enrolled in school with ‘previous transcripts on the way.’ We see the unusual preparations that must be made, with secret arrangements so that any family member can alert the others if they’re found out; we also see that the family is supported to some degree by a network of post-radical (or still radical?) sympathizers, such as a doctor (David Marguiles) who tends to political fugitives. But the Popes are cut off from their own families. Annie’s disapproving father (Steven Hill) can only see her in an extraordinary circumstance arranged by a third party. Potential trouble comes when former comrade Gus Winant (L.M. Kit Carson) drops by. He’d like to sleep with his old flame Annie, and is carrying guns in the assumption that Arthur will agree to rob a bank with him. But a more troubling problem is closer to home. Young Danny has inherited his mother’s musical talent, and his teacher Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley) is encouraging him to apply to Julliard in New York. Danny is also stuck on Phillips’ teenage daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton), a girl to whom he might be ready to commit. As far as Arthur is concerned, Danny can’t do any of those things because his first duty is to help his family in the undercover life. Annie doesn’t know what to do. If she leaves her son behind, she may never see him again.
Practically speaking, Running on Empty will only play well to a certain segment of the public. Are you the kind that sympathizes with draft deserters that fled to Canada, or the kind that wants to hand them long terms in prison? The Popes aren’t victims of injustice, at least not directly; they knew what they were doing when they went militant, and the injuries they caused can’t simply be dismissed as youthful idealism. They are also hopelessly associated with fanatics they inspired, like the Sla. And there’s no statute of limitations on armed insurrection. I think almost all of the radical fugitives that went underground are now accounted for. Some served prison time and others got off because courtroom prosecutions would reveal or publicize the government’s own illegal doings. Running on Empty dramatizes what might have been reality for just a few of these ‘outlaws in the eyes of America.’ Some radicals reportedly found it easy to live undetected while still on various Most Wanted lists. Others found ways to turn themselves in, square themselves with the authorities and re-commence academic lives interrupted years before to oppose the government. *
Running on Empty is a fascinating show, with a cast that clearly had to work hard to make their characters believable. Christine Lahti puts up with her bossy, security-minded husband. He himself gets drunk one night and starts shouting his real name loud enough to wake the neighbors. Judd Hirsch and director Lumet know that these can’t be ordinary people. He doesn’t try to make them Ozzie and Harriet types, somehow (sniff!) trapped by their youthful mistakes. No, they’re still promoting various Union and social justice causes here and there, although Arthur must back away whenever he becomes visible enough to appear in a news photo. Every year they celebrate a birthday to Sam, the man struck by their bomb. It’s not a joke, but a ritual so they won’t forget their crime.
At the center of the movie is the cult actor River Phoenix, who graduated briefly to good roles after his appearance as an adolescent space voyager in the fantasy film Explorers. Phoenix is excellent as Danny, a kid raised to never let down his guard. The show begins with Danny detecting a plainclothes tail and executing what must be ‘escape plan 9.’ The family is out of town in a matter of minutes. Danny’s a sensitive, smart guy. If he plays by the rules, he must keep himself a complete mystery to his new girlfriend Lorna. The boy is committed to his family, but feels the pull to go off on his own, where a decent future awaits. In a way, it’s not a situation wholly unique to these former radicals. This must happen all the time when someone breaks away from a strongly structured family, or a religious cult.
The movie’s tension level doubles when Danny takes the forbidden step of telling Lorna everything. How many of us living normal lives (well, reasonably normal lives) could trust our sweethearts with such a volatile secret: “I and my whole family are fugitives from justice. Anybody helping us is a potential accomplice. Just by letting you know, I’m putting you in legal jeopardy. Will you turn me in, or become a criminal with me?”
At this age Martha Plimpton might remind one of a teenage Lauren Bacall. A survivor of Goonies, she is featured in what I think is the best Cannon film, Shy People. Plimpton and Phoenix have several worthy melodramatic romantic scenes to play, and they’re excellent together.
With the ace director Sidney Lumet in charge the strange relationships seem credible, even when the flaky, reckless Gus Winant breezes through. The former radical patriot is now nothing but an outlaw bum. In a nice choice, Gus is played by L.M. Kit Carson, the original fake counterculture hero in the classic experimental faux-documentary David Holzman’s Diary. With dangerous idiots like Gus on the loose, the Popes can’t even consider themselves part of a noble creed. Some of their old colleagues are indeed armed and dangerous.
I don’t think the Popes would stand a chance of evading the cops in today’s security state. One can no longer simply find the name of a dead infant and apply for a new birth certificate and passport. The Popes aren’t hiding in a shack in the woods, but are out and about in the public, working and rubbing elbows with schools and doctors. I guess that back in the 1980s Arthur could become a cook and Annie a receptionist without references, but it’s less likely now, when one can’t buy bubble gum without leaving a data trail. Traffic and security surveillance cameras are now everywhere. Billions of smart-phone photos are taken at public gatherings, and routinely posted on the web. A high-level security agency could be (is?) scanning the web with face recognition software.
Sidney Lumet wrote that his movies Running on Empty and Daniel had the same theme: “Who pays for the passion and commitment of the parents?” This is an even-handed and insightful drama. Lumet made a wide range of great entertainments, and some of the best- ever ‘New York Jewish Liberal Movies.’ He’s also one of the few directors who could take on fundamentally controversial material like this, and continue to maintain a busy career.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Running on Empty is a good encoding of what was already a very good Wac Mod disc from just two years ago. The improved picture and sound reveals the expected quality of a top Sidney Lumet product. The small town we see is very attractive, a political landscape completely different from the corporate/banking rapacious wasteland of last year’s Hell or High Water. ‘Radicals unselfishly trying to stop a war in 1971’ is still anathema, while Mr. and Mrs. U.S.A. now considers it justifiable for ‘radicals to selfishly try to rescue their ruined finances.’
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Running on Empty Blu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? Yes; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 21, 2017
* I remember a major case from 2001. A radical who had evaded capture for thirty years finalized arrangements to turn herself in, after a delicate negotiation aimed at running her quietly through the legal system to let her get on with her life. She was reportedly not personally responsible for any violent acts, and under her assumed identity had worked for decades in a socially productive job. I followed her story for a couple of days in the newspaper . . . and then 9/11 happened. In the storm of security-minded post-attack chaos that followed, her story thread just vanished from the media-scape. I don’t have a clue what happened to her next. The timing couldn’t possibly have been worse for a former Enemy of the State.
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- Glenn Erickson
Comfort and Joy
23 June 2017 1:19 PM, PDT
You never heard of the Great Glasgow Ice Cream Wars? They weren’t exactly Armageddon, and the gentle director Bill Forsyth makes a radio personality’s involvement with two competing ice cream companies more of a plunge into amiable drollery. If you like Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero you’ll understand the odd, unhurried attitude of this oddball show from 1984.
Region B Blu-ray
1984 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 100 min. / Street Date February 29, 2016 / At Amazon UK / £ 9.99
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Film Editor: Michael Ellis
Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth
Quick, name some great filmmakers before the 1990s that hail from Scotland. Actually, there are plenty, it’s just that most made their careers and reputations in London, and some later in Hollywood. The home-grown talent Bill Forsyth »
- Glenn Erickson
22 June 2017 10:00 PM, PDT
Blood-spattered amalgam of two different samurai entries in the 6-part “Lone Wolf/Baby Cart” series, cobbled together with an ’80s techno-music score by American producers for the drive-in trade. Voice dubbers include Sandra Bernhardt and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders. Has a remarkably avid following considering the superiority of the originals. »
- TFH Team
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
20 June 2017 10:00 PM, PDT
Although only sparsely released theatrically in the United States, the recently deceased director Liu Chia-Liang’s 1978 Hong Kong kung fu epic is widely considered a highpoint in the evolution of the genre. Its official mainstream release came on dvd in 2000 under the title Shaolin Master Killer. »
- TFH Team
Brother Can You Spare a Dime
19 June 2017 3:31 PM, PDT
It’s 1930s America as seen in the movies, through music, and the evasions of newsreels. Franklin Delano Roosevelt preaches prosperity while James Cagney slugs out the decade as a smart-tongued everyman — in a dozen different roles. Director Philippe Mora investigates what was then a new kind of revisionist info-tainment formula: applying old film footage to new purposes.
The Sprocket Vault
1975 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 106 min. / Street Date ?, 2017 / available through The Sprocket Vault / 14.99 (also available in Blu-ray)
Film Editor: Jeremy Thomas
Directed by Philippe Mora
Years before he was briefly sidetracked into sequels for The Howling, Philippe Mora was an accomplished artist and documentary filmmaker. Backed by producers Sanford Lieberson and David Puttnam, his 1974 documentary Swastika pulled a controversial switch on the usual historical fare about »
- Glenn Erickson
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy
19 June 2017 3:26 PM, PDT
Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero: Filmed mostly on the streets in newly-liberated territory, Roberto Rossellini’s gripping war-related shows are blessed with new restorations but still reflect their rough origins. The second picture, the greater masterpiece, looks as if it were improvised out of sheer artistic will.
Roberto Rosselini’s War Trilogy
The Criterion Collection 500 (497, 498, 499)
1945-1948 / B&W / 1:37 & 1:33 flat full frame / 302 minutes / Street Date July 11, 2017 / available from the Criterion Collection 79.96
Film Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Original Music: Renzo Rossellini
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Criterion released an identical-for-content DVD set of this trilogy in 2010; the new Blu-ray »
- Glenn Erickson
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
19 June 2017 3:21 PM, PDT
This time they may have gotten it right! If a knife or a straight razor won’t do, how about killing a victim with 500-pound metal artwork studded with spikes? Dario Argento distilled a new kind of slick, visually fetishistic horror who-dunnit thriller subgenre with this shocker, aided by the dreamy cinematography of Vittorio Storaro.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video USA
1971 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date June 20, 2017 / L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo / Available from Arrow Video/ 49.95
Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Raf Valenti, Giuseppe Castellano, Mario Adorf, Pino Patti, Gildo Di Marco, Rosita Torosh, Omar Bonaro, Fulvio Mingozzi, Werner Peters, Karen Valenti, Carla Mancini, Reggie Nalder.
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Film Editor: Franco Fraticelli
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Directed by Dario Argento »
- Glenn Erickson
Ninja 3: The Domination
18 June 2017 10:00 PM, PDT
Prime Golan-Globus product from 1984 boasting the quintessential Cannon Films plotline: a curvy aerobics teacher (played by Lucinda Dickey, star of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) is possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja and the only way she can can rid herself of this meddlesome ghost is to engage in foot to nose combat with another ninja. The film made close to 8 million dollars at the box office confirming once again the method to the Golan-Globus madness.
- Charlie Largent