Movies You Might Not Know: Defending Your Life

In 1991, writer/director Albert Brooks released Defending Your Life, a clever and thoughtful comedy about life, regrets, and what happens after you die. In this well-written script, you go to a place called Judgment City and a trial takes place to determine whether you move on to the afterlife or get sent back to Earth to try again.

Brooks plays an L.A. ad exec who learns through his trial that he was paralyzed by fear and that it kept him from living to the fullest. Meryl Streep costars as an almost angelic woman whose trip to the next world seems assured. Rip Torn has some very good moments as Brooks’ defense attorney. Defending Your Life is filled with the type of witty observations you’d expect to find for those familiar with Mr. Brooks’ work. The plot is extremely high-concept, but Brooks pulls it off well.

The film was a box office disappointment in February of 1991 earning a mild $16 million. It deserved better and it’s a picture worth seeking out. This is the kind of flick that you’ll find yourself with a big smile on your face once the credits begins to roll.

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Movies You Might Not Know: Leonardo DiCaprio Edition

Leonardo DiCaprio headlines the eagerly awaited remake of The Great Gatsby, opening this Friday. He’s made his cinematic mark with an impeccable track record of working with the best directors and choosing terrific projects. Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, and the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street with Scorsese. Catch Me If You Can with Spielberg. Inception with Nolan.

However, a 2008 title that reunited Leo with Titanic co-star Kate Winslet was a surprise dud at the box office, bringing in a meager $22 million domestically. That film is Revolutionary Road, directed by American Beauty and Skyfall‘s Sam Mendes. It chronicles a marriage gone bad between the two leads during the 1950s, an era when divorce wasn’t a popular option in society’s view. Road features sharp writing and sure-handed direction with its often dark overtones. It also features DiCaprio doing what he normally does: putting forth a rock solid performance that proves why he’s one of his generation’s finest performers. A supporting performance by Michael Shannon is also one of the picture’s high points.

Revolutionary Road is a frank, honest, and often unflinching view of marriage and broken dreams. Leo and Winslet are both wonderful in it. It’s a tough pic to digest at times, but it’s worth the trip. And while most of Leo’s movies have been financial successes, this is an example of one that fell through the cracks and shouldn’t have.

Movies You Might Not Know: Michael J. Fox Edition

In 1991, Michael J. Fox had two pictures released: in March, the buddy cop comedy The Hard Way and in August, the fish out of water comedy Doc Hollywood.

In an interview years later, Fox would talk about the unpredictability of how movies perform, stating that he thought The Hard Way would be a giant hit that had the potential to turn into a franchise and Doc Hollywood would do only OK business. The reverse happened: Hollywood was a hit and The Hard Way performed a box office belly flop, earning a weak $25 million.

Too bad because I’ve always thought The Hard Way is a highly entertaining flick that deserved a bigger audience. From director John Badham (who made Saturday Night Fever!), it stars Fox as Nick Lang, a pampered movie star who is known for big-budget action spectacles. As he prepares for his new role as a tough cop, he decides to shadow real NYC cop John Moss (James Woods), who doesn’t take well to a spoiled celebrity following him around. Lang joins Moss on the trail just as he’s closing in on a demented serial killer known as the Party Crasher (played in a deliriously nutty performance by Stephen Lang).

The Hard Way is far from a perfect film and there are better and more well-known buddy cop comedies. Still, it’s a lot of fun and represents one of my favorite Fox pictures where he’s not playing Marty McFly. The Hard Way shares some similarities with another 90s box office disappointment, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero, which came two years later. The Hard Way is better. And it’s worth a look.

It’s also got LL Cool J playing a fellow cop and the end credits begin with his hip hop classic “Mama Said Knock You Out”. So it’s got that going for it, too!

Movies You Might Not Know: Harrison Ford Edition

Harrison Ford has an amazing career spanning four decades of film history, most notably playing two of the most iconic characters to ever grace the screen: Han Solo and Indiana Jones in a total of seven movies.

That tally will soon be added to, as Mr. Ford is set to return as Han Solo in either Star Wars Episode VII or one of the spin-off pictures. And a return to Indiana Jones certainly cannot be ruled out, if even the 2008 installment Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull was met with a mixed response (it still made tons of money).

As for the near future, Ford will appear in three high-profile releases in 2013: the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 (out in April), the big-budget science fiction thriller Ender’s Game (November), and as a legendary newscaster in Anchorman: The Legend Continues (December). It could be Harrison’s best year at the box office in quite some time.

Beyond Mr. Solo and Dr. Jones, Ford has starred in some other very well-regarded movies, including Blade Runner, Witness, and The Fugitive. And there was his stint as Jack Ryan in both 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. 

Here are two more films featuring Harrison Ford that you might not know and are both worth watching. First, the 1988 mystery Frantic, directed by Roman Polanski. It stars Ford as a doctor visiting Paris whose wife disappears, leading to all sorts of international intrigue. Frantic has a distinct Hitchcock vibe to it, Ford’s performance is solid, and it’s definitely worth a look.

The same can be said for 1990’s Presumed Innocent, a very entertaining legal thriller starring Ford as a prosecutor accused of killing his mistress. This one will keep you guessing throughout and, once again, features a first-rate performance from the star. Presumed Innocent was considerably more of a box office hit than Frantic, but it’s been over 20 years since its release and if you’re not aware of it, seek it out.

Movies You Might Not Know: Leno and Letterman Edition

Over the past two decades, I have followed the saga known as the Late Night Wars intensely. The comedic performers who grace our TV screens late at night has been filled with serious drama that has risen to almost Shakespearean levels at times.

This was never more true than in the early 90s when late night king Johnny Carson made the decision to give up his throne after 30 years. The question on the minds of TV watchers was an obvious one: would Jay Leno or David Letterman be given the coveted “Tonight Show” gig? The dynamic between the two performers had a history of its own with Jay getting his biggest break by Dave featuring him regularly on his 12:30 show that followed Johnny.

We all know that it was Mr. Leno who received the honor. What you may not know is the fascinating back story behind it all. It’s a tale first told in a book of the same title by NY Times writer Bill Carter. The novel would be turned into an HBO movie that is definitely worth seeking out.

The Late Shift focuses on the rough office politics that led to Leno’s ascendancy to the “Tonight” throne and Letterman’s eventual move to CBS to directly compete with his rival. We see Leno driven at all costs to obtain the gig, even hiding in a closet at one point to eavesdrop on a network executives conference call. He is aided by his ruthless producer Helen Kushnick, played wonderfully by Kathy Bates.

The casting is a mixed bag. Daniel Roebuck plays Leno as more of a direct impersonation, while John Michael Higgins acquits himself well as Dave. Higgins doesn’t attempt to do a Letterman impersonation, but rather embody the often prickly and difficult personality that those who’ve researched Mr. Letterman are aware of. It works. As the ultra powerful Hollywood agent Mike Ovitz, Treat Williams gives a solid performance. One unfortunate bit of casting is well-known celebrity impressionist Rich Little as Mr. Carson. It seems gimmicky. Too bad they didn’t get Kevin Spacey to portray the Late Night King. His Carson is terrific. Here’s an example of the actor doing his impression on Mr. Letterman’s program:

The Late Shift is a solid movie. It’s especially interesting to look at from a historical perspective. As we watch the infighting between the main players and their teams, we can’t help but think of what would occur nearly two decades later when Mr. Leno and Mr. Conan O’Brien experienced a similar battle for the “Tonight” throne.

And just yesterday, reports broke that NBC is working on a plan to bring Jimmy Fallon in to host next year. Watching The Late Shift and remembering the recent actions with Conan, there’s a good chance Jay Leno won’t slip quietly from the late night landscape.

In closing, The Late Shift is a Movie You Might Not Know about some television legends you know quite well. It’s worth a look.

Movies You Might Not Know: Stephen King Edition

A more appropriate heading for this post could be Movies You Might Think Todd Is Crazy For Recommending.

The literary works of the great Stephen King has given us some classic films from 1976’s Carrie to 1980’s The Shining to 1990’s Misery to 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. There’s also been major disappointments. Two pictures from 1993 immediately come to mind: The Dark Half and Needful Things. There’s a whole lot more from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s guilty pleasure The Running Man to that creepy clown played by Tim Curry in “Stephen King’s IT”, an effective and frightening TV movie.

Any self-described movie buff has those films that they seem to like, even though pretty much no one else seems to agree. One of those titles for me is undoubtedly 2003’s Dreamcatcher, based on King’s 2001 novel.

First off: I will readily admit Dreamcatcher is a mess of a film. Tonally it’s all over the map, switching from psychological drama to gross-out horror flick to alien invasion military thriller, sometimes from scene to scene.

There is a lot of talent involved here. The director is Lawrence Kasdan, who brought us The Big Chill and Silverado. He also co-wrote the screenplays to The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi. His co-writer here is William Goldman, writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride. And, once again, it’s based on a work by one of the world’s most celebrated novelists.

The cast includes Morgan Freeman, Tom Sizemore, Damian Lewis (Brody from “Homeland”!), Jason Lee, Thomas Jane, Timothy Olyphant, and Donnie Wahlberg.

With all the pedigree involved, audiences had a reasonable expectation that Dreamcatcher could join the pantheon of classic King adaptations. What audiences got is a movie that is just… well, way out there. Its plot involves a group of guys reuniting for their annual Maine hunting trip at a cabin when they encounter alien forces… including in one extremely disgusting and shocking bathroom scene. Turns out the group all became telepathic as young boys after they befriended a mentally challenged boy who also possessed similar abilities. It’s as strange as it sounds. When the alien forces who have infiltrated the cabin are revealed, the military moves in with Morgan Freeman playing a ruthless commander.

Just when you think Dreamcatcher can’t get more bizarre, it does. Consistently. And there is no doubt that moviegoers were probably completely blindsided by it. I know I was. Strangely enough, though, I totally dug it. I sincerely admired its go-for-broke attitude, even though it doesn’t always work. I found it quite entertaining.

Film goers did not respond positively. Dreamcatcher grossed a weak $33 million domestically and suffered a nearly 60% drop in its second weekend, indicating that audiences were not telling their friends to go see it.

Now, ten years later, I am telling my friends to go see it. You may resent me for it if you take me up on the offer. Or you might have the same positive reaction I did. That’s what movies are all about and that’s why I’m proud to recommend Dreamcatcher for your consideration.

 

Movies You Might Not Know: Matt Damon Edition

He might be Jason Bourne or Will Hunting to most moviegoers, but in my humble opinion, Matt Damon gave the performance of his career in an under appreciated 2009 feature that I highly recommend if it’s a Movie You Might Not Know.

Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! give us one of those stories that’s so unbelievable, it must be true. Kind of like Argo, for an ultra timely reference. Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a corporate executive who becomes a famous whistle blower shedding light on his company’s price fixing activities. All the while he’s embezzling millions from that same company.

The depth of Whitacre’s illegal activities becomes more and more wild as the film moves along. Did he take $500,000? $1 million? $2 million? It keeps getting crazier and crazier as the FBI, who started out working with Mark, are simply dumbfounded by his actions.

Based on a true story, Soderbergh makes the choice to make The Informant! a comedy. It’s a decision that pays off. The script is razor sharp and filled with terrific supporting characters. They include Scott Bakula (Sam from “Quantum Leap”!) and Joel McHale (“The Soup”, “Community”, Ted) as the FBI partners tasked with unenviable job of working with Whitacre. Melanie Lynskey shines as Marc’s poor wife, who’s just as duped by him as everyone else. There’s also a great musical score by the late Marvin Hamlisch, who was honored at last night’s Oscars.

Ultimately, though, it is Damon’s often hilarious and sometimes touching portrayal of Whitacre that makes The Informant! a special movie. This is a guy who has serious issues, namely the fact that he simply can’t stop lying. Mr. Damon should have been nominated for Best Actor for his work here. I truly believe this a career-best performance.

The Informant! is one of those films that I’ve grown to like more and more with each viewing. It did not connect with audiences in 2009, grossing a meager $33 million. The film deserves a larger audience and if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor.

 

Movies You Might Not Know: Sylvester Stallone Edition

Rocky Balboa and Lando Calrissian as New York City cops battling the bad guy from Blade Runner!?!?!

Yep, it’s a movie and quite possibly one you haven’t heard of or seen. It’s 1981’s Nighthawks, a gritty crime thriller that is one of the best pictures of Sly Stallone’s career.

Stallone and Billy Dee Williams are tracking an international terrorist with dastardly plans, played by Rutger Hauer. Why this film didn’t connect with audiences in beyond me. Stallone was certainly popular at the time, but Nighthawks earned just $19 million upon release.

For fans of the action and crime movies genre, this is well worth seeking out. Especially if you only know Mr. Stallone as Rocky and Rambo.

Movies You Might Not Know: Darkman

1990’s Darkman holds the interesting distinction of being one of the best comic book movies not actually based on a comic book. 2000’s Unbreakable, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, is another contender for that award.

Here’s the back story: director Sam Raimi was a celebrated cult filmmaker in the 1980s best known for the Evil Dead series. When the director was unable to get the rights to adapt famous comic book characters Batman or The Shadow, he moved on to Plan B and created his own superhero. That hero is Darkman, played by Liam Neeson. His girlfriend is played by Frances McDormand. And the main bad guys are played by Colin Friels as a ruthless billionare and Larry Drake from the TV series “L.A. Law” and the cult 1992 horror flick Dr. Giggles, as a crazy mob boss.

Watching Darkman now, you’ll swear it’s based on a comic book and that’s a testament to Raimi’s ability to transform a well-known genre into original material. It’s no masterpiece and certainly isn’t on the level of a Dark Knight or X-Men 2, but it works well on its own terms. It’s considerably more violent than similar genre titles and it definitely earns its R rating.

Darkman was a financial success in 1990, earning a solid $48 million dollars. There were even direct-to-video sequels made, albeit without the involement of Raimi or Neeson. Ironically, its success contributed to Raimi later being able to direct a “real” comic book movie… three of them actually when he was behind the camera for the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy. Raimi’s latest work, Oz the Great and Powerful, opens March 8th.

For genre fans who have not see Darkman, I found it to be a lot of fun and it’s well worth checking out.

Movies You Might Not Know: Boxing Edition

When we think of movies based on the “sweet science”, we likely think of Rocky Balboa, Apollo Creed, Ivan Drago, Mick, Adrian, Uncle Paulie, and Clubber Lang in the six-film Rocky saga.

Or perhaps very dramatic titles such as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, and Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man. There’s also biopics such as Michael Mann’s Ali and Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane. Most recently, we’ve seen Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in David O. Russell’s The Fighter. We even had robots boxing in Real Steel, with Hugh Jackman.

The sport of boxing has given us some great cinematic moments. And here’s two more that go in the more comedic direction that weren’t widely seen and are definitely worth a look, especially for fans of the ring.

First, 1992’s Diggstown, directed by Michael Ritchie. Starring James Woods (you know, the guy the high school is named after on “Family Guy”), Lou Gossett Jr., Bruce Dern, and Heather Graham, the film centers on a con artist who bets on an aging fighter to get him out of a jam. In the summer of ’92, Diggstown came and went from theaters, earning a paltry $4.8 million. It’s worth seeking out though and is a lot of fun.

Second, we have 1996’s The Great White Hype, from director Reginald Hudlin. This comedy centers on a very Don King-like promoter (played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson) who realizes the only way to make money on his fights is find a Caucasian fighter to challenge the world champion (Damon Wayans). Featuring a solid supporting cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Peter Berg, Cheech Marin, Jon Lovitz, and Jamie Foxx (in an early role), The Great White Hype is a smartly written and often hilarious picture. Like Diggstown, it didn’t have any box office impact, grossing only $8 million. It’s a heck of a good time, though.

These two titles represent a lighter take on the boxing movie and both work well. Laughing during a boxing movie doesn’t happen often, but you will here. Unless you count that ridiculous robot who flirts with Uncle Paulie in Rocky IV.