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Walter Hill (#110 of 9)

Ripley’s Got a Death Drive Alien³ at 25

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Ripley’s Got a Death Drive: Alien³ at 25

20th Century Fox

Ripley’s Got a Death Drive: Alien³ at 25

David Fincher’s Alien³ may be the only film ever made to peak with its logo. As the 20th Century Fox fanfare crescendos over the studio’s familiar logo, the music holds on the minor chord before the usual last note, replacing jubilant bombast with a dissonant groan of strings. The alteration produces an immediate sense of discomfort and unease, setting the tone for something ominous and fearsome. It’s an ingenious shot across the bow from Fincher, ushering in a feature career dotted with immaculately ordered, carefully scored works of blockbuster entertainment that veered from audience-pleasing major keys to their grim underbellies.

The perversion of the Fox theme epitomizes a succinct grasp of horror that only occasionally surfaces in the film proper. Too often, Alien³ shows its seams, whether in its thematic arc or the design of the xenomorph, and at not even two hours it still feels weighed down by unnecessary exposition and padded suspense scenes. But blame for much of this cannot fall at one person’s feet, as the film was notoriously the product of years of production hell that saw the studio soliciting wildly different drafts from writers including (but not limited to) cyberpunk author William Gibson, writer-director Vincent Ward, and producer/filmmaker Walter Hill. Eventually, ideas from each version found their way into a Frankenstein monster of a shooting script, one further plagued by endless on-set rewrites that left Fincher so exasperated that even Fox’s officially released behind-the-scenes footage shows the director railing against the pressures of the studio’s poorly planned project.

Toronto Film Review Walter Hill’s (Re)assignment

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Toronto Film Review: Walter Hill’s (Re)Assignment

Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto Film Review: Walter Hill’s (Re)Assignment

Walter Hill’s first feature film since 2012’s Bullet to the Head is, like much of the finest pulp fiction, designed to shock. To wit: Did you hear the one about the rogue surgeon who turned the hitman into the hitwoman? What a hook! And what a lurid, tattered paperback it would make, though Hill treats the story more like an underground comic book, complete with transitional sequences featuring exaggerated thought bubbles and garish splash panels.

Sensitivity, at least of the calculated sort, doesn’t enter into the proceedings. The film’s as steely as Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Rachel Kay, a sort of Hannibal Lecter by way of Marlene Dietrich who liberally quotes Shakespeare and Poe, and has a monomaniacal disdain for most of humanity. But as she tells the smug head psychiatrist (Tony Shaloub) of the mental hospital where she’s imprisoned, the main target of her ire is assassin Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), who murdered her brother (Adrian Hough) several years before. The doctor’s elaborate revenge culminates in the bearded, virile Kitchen given forced gender reassignment surgery. And then the counter-revenge begins.

Top 10 Greatest Car Movies

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Top 10 Greatest Car Movies
Top 10 Greatest Car Movies

Cars, it’s often been observed, offer a sort of contradiction of motion: They allow us to move around while sitting still. It only makes sense, then, that the movies have for so long been attracted to the allure of the automobile, for surely the appeal of the cinema lies in its capacity to take us from the comfort of the theater or living room to adventures around the world. The greatest car movies—movies about cars, largely set in cars, or otherwise significantly concerned with them—understand that our affection for our vehicles has as much to do with the possible freedoms they promise as the routines they let us uphold. Cars drive us to and from work every day, keeping our lives precisely ordered. But they also suggest escape: We’re always aware, faintly, that we could drive away from it all at any moment, out and off toward some new life’s horizon. Car movies remind us of the power in that possibility—of all the things that can happen when we turn the key.

BAFICI 2014 Streets of Fire, Stray Dogs, Only Lovers Left Alive, & Norte, the End of History

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BAFICI 2014: Streets of Fire, Stray Dogs, Only Lovers Left Alive, & Norte, the End of History
BAFICI 2014: Streets of Fire, Stray Dogs, Only Lovers Left Alive, & Norte, the End of History

The Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film seems to channel the sheer variety of the Internet, where it seems all movies from all eras are available. During 10 days, all sorts of films are made available at several venues within the Argentine capital, from horror flicks to forgotten commercial failures, classic studio productions, modern art-house fare, and experimental cinema. BAFICI seems to pride itself on its eclectic selection, and its broad pickings allow audience members to trace surprising connections between movies that might appear to have nothing else in common outside their shared inclusion in a festival. A sort of creative viewership is encouraged, as one comes to realize that an American rock fable, a miserablist Taiwanese drama, a visual poem with vampires, and an epic about social and political traumas in the Philippines have plenty in common.

Walter Hill’s unsung Streets of Fire and Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs have probably never been mentioned in the same sentence. Seen back to back, they reveal strikingly similar qualities, as both might or might not be science-fiction films. Streets of Fire is set in a fantasy land, which mixes costumes and vehicles from the 1950s with the urban squalor of the 1980s. When a motorcycle gang, led by fresh-faced Willem Dafoe, kidnaps a local pop singer (Diane Lane), it’s up to the gruff masculine hero played by Michael Paré to save the day. There are references to an unnamed war and the city appears to be in a state of crisis (its police force is sorely understaffed and justice is meted out by civilians). The characters are so conventional that they recede into the background as they follow archetypal signposts, and because their exploits are so predictable, the environment absorbs our attention instead. Diners and theaters from the American Graffiti years have decayed underneath rubble and trash. In an abandoned factory, the motorcycle gang has established a decadent bar where naked dancers strike aggressive poses, using their sexuality as a weapon. Having been recently and luminously restored, Streets of Fire plays differently today than it did back in 1984. What was originally a blend between the present and the past is now the combination of two different pasts, which together suggest a kind of future.

Summer of ‘88: Red Heat

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Red Heat</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Red Heat</em>

What the hell are film critics actually talking about when they speak of “craftsmanship”? Walter Hill’s relatively recent status as an auteur may have been stymied by his unwillingness to take on sprawling, pretentious, or overstuffed shots or edits; for him, the somewhat anonymous vocabulary of the studio picture was one well enough worth perfecting. The gains of 48 Hrs., Hill’s biggest hit by a substantial margin, were lost almost immediately on his follow-up, the post-apocalyptic doo-wop musical tent-pole Streets of Fire. The film’s financial loss was profound; in career terms it scaled the writer-director right back down to where he was before, directing lower-budget studio actioners and comedies for the rest of the ’80s.

Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger. If Hill was tasked with writing and directing Red Heat on the basis of his legendary pairing of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, it’s not hard to imagine the limitless possibilities that the bigwigs at Carolco—Schwarzenegger’s financiers of choice—saw for the superstar’s first-ever comedy. In both form and content, the film is lopsidedly, irrevocably dictated by his participation; the opening 15 minutes are exclusively in Russian, introducing Schwarzenegger’s Captain Ivan Danko as an impenetrably stiff juggernaut, nakedly infiltrating a sleazy cocaine ring encamped in a traditional Russian bathhouse. The scene’s dominant textures—buttressed by composer James Horner’s radiant, ominous synthesizer keys—are stone, flesh, smoke, steam, and ultimately snow, as the inevitable brawl between Danko and the Georgian mobsters explodes through a window out into the frozen hillside. Hill’s Moscow is nothing if not tough.

Understanding Screenwriting #108: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, & Smash

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Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>

Coming Up In This Column: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, Smash, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein, reacting to my comments on Cat Ballou, thought that all the things I liked about the writing and acting came together “thanks to efforts of that controversial new-fangled invention known as the Director.” I didn’t get around to mentioning the director, Elliot Silverstein, because this is one of those films, like M*A*S*H (1970), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Thelma & Louise (1991), that succeeds in spite of its director rather than because of him. Silverstein is very sloppy about where he puts the camera and the acting is all over the place. This was his only truly successful film, and he soon went back to television, where he started.

Side Effects (2013. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes.)

Better than Hitchcock. Both Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick were interested in psychiatry. In the mid-’40s, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to buy a novel that was, according to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, “a bizarre tale of witchcraft, satanic cults, psychopathology, murder, and mistaken identities.” (The background material here is from Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.) Hitchcock presented some ideas on how a movie could be made out of the material to Ben Hecht, who wrote the screenplay for Spellbound (1945). Hecht’s version deals with an amnesiac who replaces a man scheduled to become the head of a mental hospital. The amnesiac is accused of murder and with a helpful female psychiatrist works out his problems. Since she’s played in the film by Ingrid Bergman, he falls in love with her as well. The film was a commercial success, but it’s rather clunky, like many ’40s films about psychiatry. And like many Hitchcock films, it’s less about character than about giving the director a chance to show off. As befits Selznick, the film is a slick production with stars (Gregory Peck as the amnesiac) in a romantic mode.

2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions

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2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions
2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions

On September 18, Bryan Cranston will not win his fourth trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, as Breaking Bad’s fourth season fell outside the award show’s eligibility period—and if you think that bodes well for the AMC program’s chances for Outstanding Drama Series in 2012, remember that Mad Men’s much-delayed fifth season is still slated to fall within the upcoming Emmy calendar. Standing to gain from Cranston’s absence is always-a-bridesmaids John Hamm—unless Steve Buscemi’s Golden Globe and SAG victories earlier this year, and the chillier-than-Mad Men Boardwalk Empire’s surprise showing at the Creative Arts Emmys last weekend—weren’t just flukes of nature. A three-time winner for Outstanding Drama Series, Mad Men may have to move over for the new HBO prestige drama on the block, and if Betty White doesn’t win her 3,897th Emmy for acting saucier than your grandmother, that may be enough for this Sunday’s telecast to go down as the Year of the Passing of the Guard. Below, my predictions in a handful of the major categories—brought to you with less than my usual dash of wish-fulfillment.

Go West: A Talk with Walter Hill

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Go West: A Talk with Walter Hill
Go West: A Talk with Walter Hill

Walter Hill (48 Hours, Wild Bill) appeared at a Television Critics’ Association press conference to promote his upcoming AMC film Broken Trail, which debuts in July. The four-hour, two-part film stars Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church (who were also present) as a veteran rancher and his nephew. The characters drive a herd of cattle from Oregon to Wyoming, then get sidetracked into trying to rescue five immigrant girls who have been sold into prostitution.

Asked why westerns had nearly disappeared from popular culture—particularly on TV, where the genre is represented only by the occasional TNT movie and HBO’s Deadwood, for which Hill directed an Emmy-winning pilot—the filmmaker said, “You’d probably need a sociologist to answer that.” Then he took a shot at it.

“When I was a kid, there was a tremendous saturation of westerns on television,” said Hill.” “All things pass.”

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