RIP Bill Paxton

Sadly, this morning I write a post I didn’t expect to with the news that Bill Paxton has passed away at age 61. For even casual movie fans, Paxton was a very familiar face that starred and co-starred in blockbusters such as Aliens, True Lies, Twister, and Titanic.

Upon hearing the news of his death, I began to realize just how present he’s been in my movie watching existence over the last three decades plus. I first knew of him as Chet, the bullying older brother in Weird Science. If that is a guilty pleasure pic, his performance is one of the best pleasures in it. It’s a terrific comedic performance.

Just one year later, his role in Aliens stuck out in that fantastic sequel with one-liners like “Game Over, Man!” That same year, he starred in Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire cult classic Near Dark.

All told, Mr. Paxton has about a dozen DVDs and Blu-Rays sitting on my shelf. Like I said, he was truly a part of many of our collective filmgoing experiences from the 1980s on. He was alongside Tom Cruise just three years ago in the solid Edge of Tomorrow and was a rival tabloid cameraman to Jake Gyllenhaal in my favorite picture of 2014, Nightcrawler.

His TV credits include headlining HBO’s “Big Love” and just a few weeks ago, his CBS crime drama “Training Day” (based on the 2001 Denzel Washington film) premiered. His final movie will be The Circle with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. It opens in April.

Other notable onscreen efforts range from Predator 2 to Tombstone to A Simple Plan and U571. Today I wish to highlight a trio of lesser known titles worth seeking out:

Two are from 1992. Trespass finds him and William Sadler as firefighters who find a treasure map that pits them against drug dealers Ice Cube and Ice-T. It’s great gritty fun. One False Move is an intense crime thriller from director Carl Franklin and written by Billy Bob Thornton. Gene Siskel named it as his favorite movie of that year and it is impressive.

Paxton turned to directing himself in 2001 with Frailty, an underrated and effective thriller where the actor plays a religiously fanatical father. I just watched it again recently and it made me wish Paxton had directed more.

What Bill Paxton did leave us with is his own treasure trove of performances to enjoy. He will be missed.

Summer 1994: The Top Ten Hits and More

Last summer I wrote two blog posts discussing that season’s top films (and flops) from 20 years ago and 10 ten years ago. In that spirit, we shall do it again beginning with the summer movie season of 1994 some two decades in our rearview.

While we may be focused on Godzilla and the X-Men and Spider-Man and Transformers and not yet trained dragons in 2014, summer 1994 proved that when it came to predicting the #1 highest grossing picture, you never knew what you were going to get.

As I did last year, I will start with the top ten grossing pictures from 10 to 1 and then discuss some other notable titles, as well as some flops.

10. Wolf

Domestic Gross: $65 million

Mike Nichols may be known more for dramatic titles such as The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, and Silkwood – but in 1994 he turned to the horror genre with Wolf, a mature retelling of the Wolfman tale. He got some big names to contribute – Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and James Spader. The film received mostly positive reviews and I count myself as a fan.

9. The Client

Domestic Gross: $92 million

Josh Grisham fever was its peak at this time as The Firm with Tom Cruise and The Pelican Brief with Julia Roberts were blockbusters the previous year. The Client with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones continued the hot streak even though it didn’t reach the grosses of the aforementioned pics. Sarandon received an Oscar nomination for her role and the movie spawned a short-lived TV series one year later.

8. Maverick

Domestic Gross: $101 million

Mel Gibson reteamed with his Lethal Weapon series director Richard Donner for this western/action/comedy based on the 1950s TV show. Jodie Foster and original series star James Garner rounded out the cast. Critical reaction was mostly positive and while the $100M haul was solid, its gross was a bit on the low end of domestic expectations.

7. The Mask

Domestic Gross: $119 million

In February of 1994, Jim Carrey became a massive box office force with his starring debut Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. This special effects driven comedy would go even further in solidifying that status. It also introduced the world to Cameron Diaz, in her first major movie role. A sequel in 2005 Son of the Mask minus Carrey was quickly and deservedly forgotten.

6. Speed

Domestic Gross: $121 million

A surprise hit – the well-constructed and suspenseful Speed from director Jan de Bont turned Keanu Reeves into an action star and gave Sandra Bullock her breakout role. Dennis Hopper was a rock solid villain, too. Like The Mask, this too spawned a ridiculed sequel in 1997 minus Reeves.

5. Clear and Present Danger

Domestic Gross: $122 million

Harrison Ford was fresh off his megahit The Fugitive when his second Jack Ryan flick Clear and Present Danger managed to out gross its predecessor Patriot Games two years earlier by $40 million dollars. It remains the highest grossing Jack Ryan picture domestically.

4. The Flintstones

Domestic Gross: $130 million

Many expected the film version of the famous Hanna-Barbera cartoon to be the summer’s top grosser with its huge marketing tie-ins. It didn’t turn out that way, though its $130M take was decent. Reviews were mostly bad, however, and while Universal planned this as a franchise – we would never see John Goodman as Fred, Elizabeth Perkins as Wilma, Rick Moranis as Barney, or Rosie O’Donnell as Betty return. A 2000 “sequel” with an all-new cast fizzled.

3. True Lies

Domestic Gross: $146 million

The previous summer, Arnold Schwarzenegger had experienced an unexpected box office flop with Last Action Hero. His reteaming with Terminator director James Cameron in this action/comedy got him back in the good graces of audiences. This well-reviewed flick also featured a fine performance from Jamie Lee Curtis as Schwarzenegger’s wife who’s oblivious that he’s an international super spy. The pic also has the distinction of featuring career best work from Tom Arnold!

2. The Lion King

Domestic Gross: $312 million

Disney was five years into its animation resurgence (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) when this came along and out earned them all. A classic from the moment it was released, The Lion King remained the highest grossing traditionally animated picture until just last year when Frozen overtook it. The film is also well-remembered for its Elton John soundtrack.

1. Forrest Gump

Domestic Gross: $329 million

If you would’ve polled 100 people in early 1994 as to what would be the summer’s biggest earner, I’ll venture to guess nobody would’ve said Forrest Gump. The journey through history of a simple yet remarkable man captured the hearts of audiences across the U.S. upon its July release. The reward? Besides being the year’s largest hit, it also earned Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Robert Zemeckis) and Actor (Tom Hanks), earning the performer his second Academy Awards in consecutive years following his 1993 Philadelphia victory. It also spawned a whole lotta catchphrases.

Outside of the Top Ten, here are some other notables flicks from the season 20 years ago:

12. The Crow

Arriving in theaters more than a year after star Brandon Lee was tragically killed on the set of the film, The Crow resonated with audiences to the tune of a $50 million gross.

13. Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone’s wild tale of media sensationalism gave Woody Harrelson his first acclaimed dramatic role. The controversial pic, costarring Juliette Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Robert Downey, Jr., earned a solid $50 million.

And now… for the flops of the season:

City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold whiffed with both critics and audiences. While the 1991 original earned $124 million, the sequel managed a sad $43 million. Sequelitis also caught up with Eddie Murphy as Beverly Hills Cop III also was drubbed by critics and viewers alike. The third installment took in $42 million while the first earned $234 million in 1984 and II made $153 million in 1987.

Universal Pictures was hoping to turn The Shadow with Alec Baldwin into a franchise, but its meager $32 million gross ended that prospect in a hurry.

Wyatt Earp starring Kevin Costner was looked at as a potential blockbuster but mixed reviews and the fact that well-received Earp flick Tombstone had come six months prior meant this only made a paltry $25 million.

Finally, while Julia Roberts had already starred in successful rom coms – it turned out filmgoers weren’t clamoring to see her chemistry with Nick Nolte in the flop I Love Trouble, which petered out at $30 million.

And there you have it, folks! That’s what was happening 20 years ago at multiplexes across the nation. I’ll be back with my overview of summer 2004 very soon!