Tag Archives: Liv Tyler

James Gray’s Ad Astra

James Gray’s Ad Astra. It’s difficult for me to get my thoughts out on this one while still dodging spoilers but here goes. This was kind of a disappointment for me, not because it’s a particularly weak or mediocre film but rather it was something wholly different from what I was expecting. That too isn’t necessarily a cardinal sin but when your trailers and marketing campaign suggest one thing and your film blatantly does another, that’s a problem. In any case this wasn’t the ‘reach for the stars’ mysterious, ponderous SciFi epic that I got the impression of off the bat, but perhaps that’s just me.

Brad Pitt gives a grounded, meditative, cleared eyed performance as Roy McBride, earth’s most accomplished astronaut save for his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has taken up residence somewhere near the rings of Neptune and caused quite a bit of trouble in a decades long campaign to contact extraterrestrial life. So begins Roy’s voyage out past the moon, Mars and towards the edge of our solar system to locate his dad’s research project, put a stop to the havoc it’s causing and set to rest the personal turmoil raging inside him, which is my fancy way of saying considerable daddy issues. There’s many diversions and they’re all handled nicely including an attack from vicious baboons in swooping zero gravity, a politically fuelled mutiny aboard a transport craft and a moon rover chase that feels comfortingly like Mad Max. Others provide supporting talent including Donald Sutherland as his dad’s ex pal hired to babysit part of his journey until that arc is cut disappointingly short. Liv Tyler is wasted on the thankless wife role that has no depth or vibrancy beyond looking worried, while Ruth Negga, Loren Dean and John Ortiz fare better as others he meets along the way.

So where does this falter? There’s a type of science fiction film that expands outward as characters explore their universe and reach for the great unknown while also feeling inward, finding themes of love, relationships and intimacy through something so grand as a journey into space. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris are probably the best example of this. This one ultimately fails at that, or at least going all the way and achieving something as profound as the examples I’ve given. Many elements work, including Pitt’s impressively centred, soulful performance, a beautifully atmospheric original score by Max Richter, stunning visuals and clever world building (somehow the fact that Virgin Atlantic does commercial flights to the moon in the future seems hilariously on point). But there’s an absent nature to the overall arc that can’t be overlooked. It’s sadly ironic that a film whose title translates to ‘To The Stars’ falls so, so far short of actually reaching them. You take this trip with Roy, experience everything he does and just when the penultimate moment approaches and you prepare for some soul nourishing pay off… your grasp closes on emptiness, and what’s worse is that was what Gray was actually intending, in a way. I get what he was going for and appreciate the effort this is the wrong film to pull a stunt like that with. Didn’t work for me overall.

-Nate Hill

Michael Bay’s Armageddon

As Michael Bay’s Armageddon opens, a stern, well spoken Charlton Heston informs us that once upon a time a great big asteroid slammed into our planet and killed all the dinosaurs. He also makes mention that it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. Well, Michael Bay takes that and runs with it for nearly three furious hours of jump cuts, character actors, explosions, music montages and delirious extended Americana fanfare, and I love the resulting film to bits with no apologies or hesitation. Bay haters (Bay-ters to us cool kids) can whine and rip on the guy all he wants but fuck em, Armageddon is one kick ass film and an all time favourite for me. I feel like people just latch onto the glossy, runaway excess of the Transformers films and are blind to the fact that the guy has several classics under his belt, this being chief among them.

Never mind that the plot defies logical scrutiny or science, it’s an excuse to see Bruce Willis and his merry band of oil drillers train for NASA’s space program, climb aboard the space shuttle that might as well be a party bus, blast around the moon and hang out on the surface of a freaky looking meteor that Steve Buscemi’s loopy Rockhound literally refers to as ‘Dr. Seuss’s worst nightmare.’ If there’s one thing you can count on in a Bay film it’s no expense spared on spectacle and set pieces, even the ones that aren’t necessarily central to the plot. Before Willis and his team are even briefed on the situation there’s a mini-asteroid demolition derby that shreds NYC and a busted valve on his oil rig that sends equipment flying everywhere and goes on for a good ten minutes as he’s somehow chasing Ben Affleck around with a shotgun as an aside to the main event. Willis and Affleck spar with each other over his daughter (Liv Tyler) and call me an old school sap but I’ve always fallen hook line and sinker for their romance, put to the test by the potential end of the world and accented by the now infamous Aerosmith song belted out by her dad in the background. The cast is stacked too, as per Bay. Scenery chewing occurs thanks to Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, Keith David, Jason Isaacs, Udo Kier, Eddie Griffin, Grace Zabriskie, Keri Russell, Chris Ellis, John Mahon, Shawnee Smith and Peter Stormare in probably the craziest Eastern European characterization he’s ever pulled off as the caretaker of the Russian space station who has more than a few screws loose.

As wild and crazy as much of the film gets, there’s a few characters who provide dramatic depth and weight that I’ve never seen mentioned in reviews, as most of them seem to be just focused on bashing Bay and his tactics instead. Billy Bob Thornton Is uncharacteristically grounded and dignified as the head of NASA, ditching his usual cocky prick attitude for a much more down to earth turn. Will Patton always makes me tear up as Chick, compulsive gambler who just wants to do right by his wife and kid, as well as make it home to see them. William Fichtner gives powerful work as an Air Force hotshot who also fears for his family’s lives and gets the most affecting scene of the film in a tense, emotional confrontation with Willis. Sure there’s the inherent silliness of the ‘Leavin On. A Jet Plane’ scene (it’s actually kind of sweet) and the overall maniacal attitude plus the constant stream of deafening pyrotechnics and special effects. But there’s also key dramatic moments and a host of excellent performances, and it would do many well to remember that. It’s an all timer for me, and a childhood classic that I fondly remember watching on VHS with my dad countless times. Oh, and fun fact; the guy who plays the US President here is Stanley Anderson, who also got the role in Bay’s The Rock, which pretty much suggests they exist in the same universe. I like the thought of a Bay multiverse, heh.

-Nate Hill

Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

The middle chapter in any trilogy has the unfortunate luck of being an oasis interlude that by definition can’t have an opening or a conclusion, because a hunk of story came before it and, naturally, there’s more to come after. However in the case of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, it adapts and adjusts that malady by finding it’s own groove with a surging forward momentum that is removed from the episodic nature of both Fellowship and Return Of The King. It’s not my personal favourite of the three (Fellowship holds that trophy on sheer potent nostalgia alone) but to me it’s the most unique in the sense that *because* it has no bookend on either side of its narrative, it ironically feels like the most independent chapter.

There’s a restless surge of movement from every side of the action here; Frodo and Sam are uneasily led by Gollum through a haunted, labyrinthine marsh ever closer to the acrid peaks of Mordor. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli furiously race to save the entire population of Rohan from devastation at the hands of Saruman, the good wizard who went about as bad as you can go, and his manipulative lackey Wormtongue. Merry and Pippin are whisked away on the shoulders of Ent elder Treebeard on an endless hike through Fangorn Forest, and eventually Isengard itself. Even Gandalf doesn’t get a sit-down or a smoke break, propelled on a dizzying battle with the Balrog and thrown right back into the struggle for Middle Earth with Tim for nought but a wardrobe update and hair dye. It’s that movement, the ever forward rhythm that sets this one apart and emphasizes what a truly massive journey this whole story is. Fellowship had dreamy interludes in Rivendell, whimsical leisure time spent in The Shire and near constant time to reflect and sit down for these characters, and Return had… six different endings that broke the pace. Two Towers begins with fiery chaos in Moria, holds that note throughout and finishes literal moments after the thunderclap battle of Helms Deep, which is still just an incredible piece of large scale filmmaking.

This one also introduced two of my absolute favourite characters in the whole trilogy, Theoden king of Rohan and his warrior niece Eowyn. Played by Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto, these two performances just sing through the whole film, drawing sympathies not just for Rohan but the entire human race, it’s struggle and earning every cheer out loud moment. The whole conflict with Rohan, despite again not being the inciting event in the war for Middle Earth or even the final battle, feels very immediate and important thanks to Hill, Otto, everyone involved and the monumental special effects involved in bringing the terrifying Uruk Hai army to life. There’s a tactile use of CGI that’s almost subtle enough to blend in with the real world elements, and despite being made like almost two decades ago, they still hold up and eclipse other similar efforts in more recent years, especially with the battle, Treebeard and poor Gollum who still looks fantastic. The stuff with Frodo is less compelling, or at least to me, I’ve always found in the latter two films that his trajectory gets increasingly dark, horrific and suffocating and find myself counting down the seconds until we rejoin the others. I suppose that’s the point as he is carrying that terrible Ring, but nevertheless, always tough to make palatable.

The climactic battle that goes on for nearly fifteen minutes, the incredibly cathartic siege of the trees on Isengard, the hair raising Warg attack, Gandalf’s final boss battle with the Balrog, Eomer (Karl Urban, a study in badassery) and his company massacring the Uruk war party, all are standout moments and fantastic pieces of cinema. But there are a few moments that are always present and important in my mind when watching this film: As a small village in Rohan is plundered by marauding orcs, a desperate mother sends her two (Robyn Malcolm) sends her two children ahead of her on horseback, and nothing is more heartbreaking or immediate than this parting. Later on, Theoden stands by the grace of his son and weeps against a twilit sky while Gandalf looks on in sorrow and utters words of comfort. Elsewhere, Frodo, despite being under the malicious influence of the Ring, takes pity on Gollum and treats him with compassion even though the creature has a track record of nasty behaviour. It’s the little moments like these that ground the story in emotion, create a stirring palette for the characters to interact in and make the battle scenes count for something.

-Nate Hill

Oliver Stone’s U Turn

Ever had one of those days where literally everything seems to go wrong and there’s some kind of invisible cosmic force aligned against you? Sean Penn’s Bobby has one of those in Oliver Stone’s U Turn, a deranged, sun drunk parable by way of neo-noir and near Boschian displays of brutal human behaviour punctuated by pockets of the blackest comedy one can find. This is a deliberately, brutally unpleasant slice of nihilism that wouldn’t be easy to swallow were it not so fucking funny, so gorgeously visual, so perkily acted by the knockout ensemble cast and so beautifully scored by Ennio Morricone. Penn’s Bobby has the rotten luck of breaking down in the one horse town of Superior, Arizona, where bumpkin mechanic Billy Bob Thornton takes his sweet time patching up the rig, leaving him to drift about town and get in all sorts of trouble. There’s a rockabilly maniac named Toby ‘TNT’ Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) who wants Bobby’s head for ‘making time’ with his girl (a loopy Claire Danes). The menacing local Sheriff (Powers Boothe) seems hellbent on doing anything other than protecting and serving. Jennifer Lopez is sultry babe Grace, who snares him up in a dangerously lurid love triangle with her husband Jake (Nick Nolte at his utmost Nick Nolte-iest), who also happens to be her stepfather (!). This all boils into a mucky miasma of murder, violence, sex games, insurance fraud, gas station robberies, betrayal, severed limbs, manipulation and any other noisy calamity you could think of to befall a small town in Arizona that the rest of the world has seemingly forgot. Bobby is on the run from a scary Vegas loan shark (Valery Nikoaelev), but nothing he can do compares to the level of hurt these warped townsfolk inflict upon him, so it’s kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type scenario. The thing is, Bobby himself is something of a reprehensible scumbag anyways, so there’s a cheeky masochist edge in watching him traverse this dusty, 9th ring of Americana hell and circle an ending of inevitable doom. ‘Treat others how you wish to be treated’ is an adage that almost every single character in the film seems to have sadly forgotten or chose to ignore except one individual, a blind old native man played with disarming truth by Jon Voight. Bobby has several encounters with him, and he’s the only one who isn’t after something, doesn’t display hostility or unkindness, he speaks plainly and offers Bobby bitter pearls of wisdom that ultimately go unheeded. Stone employs the same type of jittery, whacked out visual surrealities he used in Natural Born Killers, a deeply saturated colour palette, tumble dry editing techniques and more breathe life into this vivid version of curdled small town life in the vast, lonely desert. Morricone’s score is a spring loaded jack-in-the-box in areas and a melodic, melancholic lullaby in others, an underrated composition that gives the film an eerie sadness and zany vibration all it’s own. There’s more going on than meets the eye here; at surface level it’s a dark crime comedy with a quirky edge, but both Voight’s character and a few mysterious hints at Lopez’s backstory with the tribes in the region hint at a deeper, darker sense of malice lurking out there with the coyotes, suggestive of an almost mythic aspect. Stone gets high praise for his political dramas, but I’ve always loved him best when he’s doing genre stuff, he’s such an expressive storyteller and the real fruit of his imagination comes out when he’s turned loose. For me this is his second finest work after Natural Born Killers and before Savages, the three films that seem most genuine and celebratory of the medium. In any case, U Turn is a southern fried, asphalt laden, angry, sexy, perverse road trip to sunny noir heaven or hell, and a masterpiece. Watch for neat cameos from Laurie Metcalf, Bo Hopkins, Brent Briscoe, Julie Hagerty and Liv Tyler.

-Nate Hill

The Strangers 


You’ll be double checking that your doors are triple dead-bolted after The Strangers, the finest pedigree in home invasion/stalker chillers, a film so lethally unnerving that even a few moments in the trailer alone can get people squirming. On a dusky autumn’s eve, Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler arrive at their remote cottage to get some downtime. Giving each other the cold shoulder following a spurned marriage proposal, the mood is anything but romantic, but that’s nothing compared to the nightmarish arrival of three masked intruders who terrorize them the whole night through. First time Writer Director Brian Bertino has a brutal, bleak edge to his script and knows how to stage the scenes of fright in gut churning, uncomfortable fashion. Nothing about these Strangers is ever divulged, motive nor backstory, they’re just relentless phantoms of the night who chose this poor couple simply because “they were home.” The cinematography is gorgeously auburn and amber burnished, full of rich deep shadows that could be hiding anything, and quite often are. 1970’s inspired design creeps into the detailed production design as well as the soundtrack, and all the elements contribute to an immersive atmosphere. The ending has always been a point of contention amongst people since this came out (Ebert wrote an unfair, misguidedly scathing report), and it’s understandably tough for audiences to sit through such a depressing, hopeless conclusion. But considering this is Hollywood, where every film and it’s mother has a happy ending or something numbingly predictable, it’s a nice swap to get bludgeoned out of nowhere by a complete, no fucks given conclusion that leaves no way out for anyone and an upsetting, anxious feeling in the air. I love that the director had the stones to finish off the film like that, and I love even more so that the studio let him keep it, other outfits should take note of where and when to dole out creative control at the expense of making a memorable, lasting experience. A no frills nightmare that sends you straight to anxiety-ville. Keep those lights on when you turn in tonight and don’t answer the door if someone knocks. Don’t even move or breathe. 

James Gunn’s Super: A Review by Nate Hill 

Before James Gunn got all famous and whatnot in the Marvel universe, he made a few dark, perverse little gems that aren’t for everybody, but have to be seen by those with the right sense of humour. Slither was his low budget, brilliant schlocker, and here with Super he takes a stab (literally) at the superhero genre, albeit in his own off kilter and unsettling way. Rainn Wilson, who is off kilter and unsettling himself, is our sad sack protagonist, a dreary nebbish named Frank Darbo, married to a troubled hottie (Liv Tyler) who is way out of his league and adorned with baggage. We soon learn that Frank is very disturbed, when his favourite TV superhero (Nathan Fillion in a brief cameo) informs him he must adorn cape and costume himself in order to fight the injustice in the world. His name? The Crimson Bolt. His weapon of choice? A great big crescent wrench, which he uses very generously to dole out his own extreme brand of justice. His motto? “Shut up, crime!!” (I laughed every time). He’s an unconventional ‘hero’ to say the least, most of his good deeds consisting of brutally attacking citizens with said wrench for minor infractions like butting in line at the cinema, an uproarious scene if your sensibility is twisted enough, but then that’s the jist of the whole thing. His longterm goal is to get Tyler back from the clutches of evil drug kingpin Jacques (a hilariously chatty Kevin Bacon), and prevent as many crimes as he can along the way. He ends up causing far more damage than he means to fix though, an awkwardly psychotic tornado of unwarranted violence and delusions of grandeur. Things get more out of hand when he aquires a spitfire of a sidekick named Bolty, played by Ellen Page in a performance that’s right out to lunch and then some. Page plays her to the deranged hilt, cackling like a maniac at her own violent antics and getting super uncomfortable with Wilson in the bedroom (seriously… one messed up scene). Gunn can always be counted on to hire interesting actors, so be on the lookout for Linda Cardellini, Andre Royo, Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker as Bacon’s lead thug. A lot of what happens here is awkward, cringey stuff, the chronicle of a misplaced and sad little man under the impression that his life has some preordained meaning, as delineated by the red suit. It’s a thin shroud to hide the worthless and pathetic existence he has lead so far, and as such it’s kind of a depressing thing to bear witness to. But rejoice in how darkly hilarious it is as well, because there’s plenty of pitch black humour and perfectly timed comedic moments that spice it up. Gunn understands people and the way they talk (a trait so often lacking in writers), and even with concepts so out in the stratosphere beyond normality, his characters still have their feet on the ground and seem realistic. A treat, if a sourly bittersweet one.