Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet, 1988)
That point in the coming of age process where a young man or woman has to break from their family and make a life of their own (or begin the process of forming a family of their own) is compelling material on its own, something that can (and probably has, though no obvious examples just leap out) be done in a fairly straight drama. But you know what would be really great, hyping up the stakes by having the parents be on the run from the FBI for unconventional political activism gone awry. For Danny (River Phoenix), the need to move constantly demands that his ties to the rest of the world are weak and thus his ties to his parents Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie (Christine Lahti) and his brother are necessarily stronger. For him to move on to his own life (college) with outside friends or romantic partners would in essence be leaving his family forever. Yikes, narrative and thematic hyperbole. It might be seen as contrived the way they set up Annie’s own loss of contact with her family but it kind of is the point...this is something every generation experiences and must experience, to find their own spot in the world.
This all works rather well and a lot of credit for that goes to Phoenix who is expressive as someone torn between a real compassion for his family but the sense that he needs something else. If there is a weakness it comes from a lot of the others, and certain moments that just stick out. His brother is just terrible as are many of the bit parts and even Hirsch contributes to one of the worst moments when Artie gets drunk and acts too far out of character. There are other moments that aren’t so much bad as just too cutesy.
Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
I went into this knowing pretty much nothing about it other than its two leads. When it opens upon scenes right from an exploitation slasher, with lots of random female nudity, I instantly recalled Carrie. Then the credit popped up saying this was a De Palma film and it all clicked into place. From this opener (which is revealed to be a film that Jack (John Travolta) is doing the sound for) right through its political paranoia plot, it feels like an ideal summation of the 70s in film, and thankfully does so with more finesse than De Palma showed me last month with Carrie.
After the opening scene, the film really grabs your attention with its focus, naturally, on sound. The scene with Jack out recording sounds (and the later scene where listening to those sounds evoke his visual memory) speak to the power of sound. Unfortunately, the peaceful night is disturbed by a car crashing into the river, with Jack rescuing Sally (Nancy Allen), putting them both in the sights of a conspiracy. There are a lot of really great moments throughout, including the powerful last shot, but it is a film with a few sticky problems that hold it back from true classic status.
To paraphrase the popular saying, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean you are paranoid enough. After uncovering what he sees as a conspiracy, Jack is shockingly cavelier about things, which sets up the climax on less reliable foundation. Another big problem here is Nancy Allen, who just doesn’t have the chops or charisma for this big of a role. It stands out more than in Carrie (again alongside Travolta) where her unremarkable acting didn’t stand out amid all the other unremarkable acting. I’ll take Kate Capshaw in Temple of Doom any day as directors casting spouses goes. Less critical, and probably just a result of my own intellectual curiosities, the motivation of the conspiracy is underwhelming. Obviously those involved aren’t keen on the candidate leading the race for the Presidency, but to whom this is a threat is left blank. It is enough of a technical marvel that combined with its pulpy story it is well worth watching, but it ducks profundity on the nature of power in society that might let a conspiracy succeed.
Verdict: This was a very close contest with both films surprising me quite a bit, but neither avoiding some drawbacks that make me less enthusiastic to push one through. Ultimately I do think De Palma’s brashness and style wins out over the subtler contemplations of Lumet. Blow Out gets my vote.