Monday, February 27, 2017

24 Hours of Movies: Goodbye, Bill Paxton

by Patrick Bromley
Game over, man.

It was announced yesterday that the great Bill Paxton had died from complications during a routine surgery. He was only 61 years old.

If you grew up watching the kinds of movies I grew up watching and loving the movies I love, Bill Paxton has been a fixture in your life for more than 30 years. He's a guy who appeared in some of the greatest genre films ever made, but more than that was a working actor who made all kinds of movies and brought something special to every single one of them. Sometimes it was a bug-eyed craziness. Sometimes it was just the straight-faced goodness he could so easily project. I spent the day the news broke reading remembrances from people who knew him and worked with him, and every one of them to a person made a point of mentioning just what a good man he was. Like many of you, I'm heartbroken.

So let's do what we always do when an actor or a filmmaker we love passes away and celebrate him through his work. This was an easy list to make because he's been in so many movies I'm excited to revisit, but it was tough at the same time because I had to make some difficult choices. There are a bunch of movies I wanted to include but couldn't find room for: Tombstone, True Lies, Trespass, Titanic, and even some others that don't start with the letter 'T'.

Thank you to Rob DiCristino for suggesting the column. Not only was it a great idea, but has actually served to help me deal with the loss by making me think of all of these movies and performances that I love.

10 a.m. - Weird Science (1985, dir. John Hughes)
Let's start the day with something light. Bill Paxton didn't make a ton of comedies, but he was always funny in the ones he did make. And while Weird Science is one of my least favorite entries from the Golden Age of John Hughes' teen movie cycle, there's no denying that Paxton's portrayal of bullying douchebag Chet, older brother of Ilan Mitchell-Smith's Wyatt, is one of the best representations of that kind of asshole in all of moviedom. The sheer joy with which he approaches the role and his willingness to go so crazy big with it is what made Paxton so much fun to watch. He could play a great everyman, but few actors are more fun to watch when they get a part they can just run away with.

11:45 a.m. - One False Move (1992, dir. Carl Franklin)
Super underrated '90s crime noir with a terrific Bill Paxton performance as a small-town sheriff who is excited about his first chance to bag some big-city criminals (including Billy Bob Thornton, who also co-wrote the screenplay; this was the movie that put him on my radar). Complications ensue when Paxton's relationship with one of the criminals (Cynda Williams) disrupts the investigation. This is such a good movie and one of the first that made people really take Paxton seriously as an actor; he was famous for character parts in genre movies, but here creates a nuanced and complex man who is forever underestimated by people around him but is capable and decent. If you're sad about losing Bill Paxton and you haven't seen this, it's the first movie you should watch.

1:45 p.m. - Navy SEALs (1990, dir. Lewis Teague)
While he's a part of some of the best genre movies of all time, Bill Paxton made some pretty shitty movies, too. Navy SEALs is one of them. It's also a shitty movie for which I have a great deal of affection, mostly for its cast; in addition to Paxton, there's Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn and Dennis Haysbert and Joanne Whalley and Rick Rossovich. This is a gloriously stupid action movie. For proof, look further than Paxton's character, a sniper everyone calls "God." Yes, movies like Aliens and Near Dark and The Terminator are what made us genre fans who grew up in the '80s and '90s love Bill Paxton, but movies like Navy SEALs are, too.

3:45 p.m. - Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002, dir. Robert Rodriguez)
Because the kids should be able to experience some of Bill Paxton's awesomeness, let's program his turn as Dinky Winks, eccentric amusement park owner in Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids 2, for our Saturday afternoon watch. This is my favorite of the Spy Kids movies and one of my favorites of all Rodriguez's work -- a movie bursting with imagination and cool backyard special effects inspired by Ray Harryhausen. Paxton's only in it a little, but helps set the tone for this energetic, endlessly positive movie with his energetic, endlessly positive presence and performance. His short screen time leaves a mark on the rest of the movie.

5:30 p.m. - Traveller (1997, dir. Jack N. Green)
While not Paxton's best movie, I wanted to be sure to include some of his leading turns in the smaller independent movies he did throughout the '90s in the lineup. This one casts him as Bokky, a member of a gypsy-like family of Irish con artists living in the country who takes on his younger cousin (Mark Wahlberg, somewhat miscast) as an apprentice. The movie is decent, not great, but it creates a sense of place and portrays a community not often seen on film. Paxton does his usual excellent work and is the main reason to see this one, particularly because it's the rare opportunity to see him play a romantic lead. The modesty of Travellers will provide a nice break as we run up to some of the actor's greatest hits.

7:30 p.m. - Apollo 13 (1986, dir. Ron Howard)
Speaking of greatest hits. Though he might have been "the other guy" to many audiences who saw Apollo 13 back in 1995 (you know, the one who isn't Tom Hanks or Kevin Bacon), Bill Paxton's Southern decency goes a long way towards getting us to invest in the men aboard the troubled spacecraft and reinforces their heroism -- no easy feat when Tom Hanks is also on the shuttle. If Hanks is the movie's heart, Paxton's everyman is its soul. This is still Ron Howard's best movie and a great example of classical American storytelling.

10 p.m. - Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
More than any other, I think this is the role for which Paxton will be remembered. His performance as the overcompensating Private Hudson is iconic, going from obnoxiously confident to obnoxiously terrified to being a total badass and doing it all more or less convincingly. Where do you even start quoting Hudson? I mean, "Game over" is probably his most famous line, but his whole "You want some of this? Come get some!" rant as he goes down has been copied again and again everywhere from other movies to kids on the playground. I love the working relationship between Paxton and director James Cameron -- guys who started out building sets together and went on to conquer Hollywood. This is their best pairing.

12:15 a.m. - Near Dark (1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
I don't think it's his most iconic (that's Aliens) nor do I think it's his "best" performance (that's coming), but if I had to pick a favorite Bill Paxton performance it would be this one. His turn as Severen, the meanest and scariest in a group of centuries-old vampires, is among the best movie vampires of all time. In a subgenre defined by tortured souls lamenting their eternal life, he's the guy who genuinely loves being a vampire -- all punk rock cowboy swagger and finger-licking-good one-liners. The scene in which he kills a bunch of people in a bar should have made me him a giant movie star overnight, but part of me is glad that us movie geeks got to keep Paxton to ourselves for a few more years.

2 a.m. - Brain Dead (1990, dir. Adam Simon)
This is the first -- and only -- movie on the list I've never seen, but I have faith in Adam Simon and want to watch any movie that stars Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman. It's not for the ironic hipster reason, either; aside from their ubiquity and names that sound a little similar, they're nothing alike. It's because they're both fucking rad. There were a couple of oddball movies Paxton made in the early '90s. I assume this is one of them.

3:30 a.m. - The Dark Backward (1991, dir. Adam Rifkin)
Speaking of oddball Paxton movies. Writer/director Adam Rifkin seems to have set out to make a cult movie with this, about a garbageman (Judd Nelson) who is also a terrible standup comic but suddenly finds fame when an arm grows out of his back. Paxton is the best buddy who encourages him all along. The aesthetic of this one is dirt-covered and garish (as if you couldn't tell by the above photo) and I don't think it works beyond its own novelty, but Paxton is given license to give one of his off-the-leash redneck performances and creates his own fun. This will play in the middle of the night but probably wouldn't at any other time in the marathon.

5:15 a.m. - Broken Lizard's Club Dread (2004, dir. Jay Chandrasekhar)
Club Dread, the follow-up to Super Troopers from the Broken Lizard guys, is another movie that has developed a rabid cult following but which I have never really fallen in love with. A slasher movie spoof should be right up my alley, but the movie's length and indifference towards selling the jokes has always left me cold despite finding certain things very funny; it's not a movie I dislike so much as one I wish was better. Regardless, Bill Paxton's performance as Coconut Pete, the singing, drunken, Jimmy Buffett-like owner of Pleasure Island, has always struck me as very funny. He does silly really well. Part horror movie, part comedy, this will bridge nicely from the overnight section into the morning hours when we get back to slightly more normal programming.

7 a.m. - Haywire (2011, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
I love that while he spent so much of his early career playing wild cards, eventually Bill Paxton's presence was shorthand for stability. Take his casting on Big Love, for example, or his turn as Gina Carano's father in Steven Soderbergh's excellent Haywire. After watching her punch and kick and choke and kill her way through a string of soldiers and hitmen, I love that Carano's main objective is to protect her dad; Paxton's casting immediately fills in the normalcy that her character is missing the rest of the movie. We want her to kill all the bad guys because we don't want anything bad to happen to Bill Paxton. Not when he's in Dad Mode.

8:45 a.m. - Frailty (2001, dir. Bill Paxton)
For as present as Bill Paxton seems to be in so many of our favorite movies, it feels like a lot of his best films fall into the categories of "underseen" and "underrated." Horror fans and Mike have been championing this, his feature directorial debut, for years, but it seems like the larger public has yet to catch up to it. He plays a super religious father who believes he is seeing demons for real; the story plays out through the eyes of his kids. It's a fantastic gothic horror movie, one rooted in character and emotion as much as it is in scares. It makes me wish he had directed more horror films; he only directed one other feature, and it was The Greatest Game Ever Played, aka that Shia LaBoeuf golf movie. I like Frailty a lot more.

10:30 a.m. - A Simple Plan (1998, dir. Sam Raimi)
There's no way we're doing a Bill Paxton marathon and not watching this crime drama from Sam Raimi, one of the director's best movies and without question Paxton's best performance. As a standup guy whose soul slowly rots after he and his buddies find a bunch of money in the woods, Paxton shows us the tragedy of the American dream -- what we are taught to want and the lengths to which we must go to actually get it. Raimi's direction is gorgeous and understated, dark and suspenseful. This is a truly great movie and Bill Paxton is great in it. It feels like the culmination of a career's worth of good work, and he still had another 20 years of work still to give.

12:45 p.m. - Indian Summer (1993, dir. Mike Binder)
Because A Simple Plan will be too big a bummer on which to end (especially when we're already feeling sad about saying goodbye to Bill Paxton), I want to end on a lighter note. This sweet, gentle and almost totally ignored comedy drama from the early '90s has a great cast of actors who, aside from maybe Diane Lane, otherwise made careers out of supporting bigger-name actors. Paxton is great as a guy who left a summer camp on terrible terms as a kid but has returned -- along with his childhood friends -- for one last weekend before owner Alan Arkin shuts it down. It's one of his few romantic roles and he brings the same air of coolness that made him such a standout in Near Dark, minus the bloodthirsty menace. Here he's just quiet and mysterious. He's also very sweet, and this is how I'll want to remember him when the marathon ends.

RIP Bill Paxton. Thank you for Chet. Thank you for Hudson. Thank you for God. Thank you for a lifetime spent watching your movies.

15 comments:

  1. i can't say i agree with all the choices, but that's a marathon i'd watch

    also, how come the universe didn't collapse on itself with brain dead and the two Bills (paxton and pullman) being in a movie together

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  2. Well done Patrick. Great idea Rob. Lovely.

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  3. Twister and Titanic are my favorites

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  4. Love this. I actually forgot he was in a couple of these. He will definitely be missed.

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  5. This is why I love this site, nicely done, I am a big fan of Frailty too, a very well made film, another Paxton film I love you mentioned is Trespass, it's not often we get Ice Thursday and Cube together, RIP Bill, gone but never forgotten

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    1. Ice Thursday is probably my best typo yet for Ice T!

      Damn Samsung phones

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    2. Ice Thursday is an amazing name!

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  6. Good call on "One False Move," one of my favorite movies of the 90's and the first time I became aware that Paxton can act and be convincing in a drama. I would have thrown in "Predator 2" somewhere in the 24 hrs. (probably in place of "Navy Seals") because it's a guilty pleasure of mine. Also "Titanic" should have been included, because 24 hrs. of Paxton without some Nucci goodness sprinkled in the mix makes for a sad panda. ;-) :'(

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    1. John Dahl - modern film noir master.

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    2. My first thought was Predator 2 as well (He's in town with a few days to kill). Put up a good fight, but still got his spinal cord ripped out. Classic Predator move right there.

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  7. according to google Bill Paxton was in a top 5 highest grossing movie 4 years in a row. 1994 true lies 1995 Apollo 13 1996 twister 1997 titanic. I forget how big a deal was. I was even giving his training day show a shot.

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  8. I'd have included true lies, his cameo is absolute genius

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  9. I'd have included true lies, his cameo is absolute genius

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  10. I'm still not ready to watch any Paxton. His relatively small appearance in Streets of Fire was one of the highlights of last year's F This Movie Fest was for me (even having seen the movie before).

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  11. Great article. One thing though; Apollo 13 was released in 1995 I believe.

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