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THE ASTRONAUT FARMER

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Michael Polish
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: July 10, 2007

“Hey kid, you know what you want to do when you grow up?”

“I dunno.”

“Well better know what you’re going to do, before someone knows it for you.”

Film *** 

The Astronaut Farmer isn’t exactly the most unpredictable film to hit the planet (sorry, couldn’t resist), but it is a nonetheless uplifting and terrifically filmed piece of work. It’s traditional storytelling with a unique look to it, courtesy of the filmmaking team of brothers Michael and Mark Polish, who have graduated from the independent film circuit to make their first major studio release.

And if you think Billy Bob Thornton is only capable of only playing the drunken, loud mouth lout that he so perfected in Bad Santa and Bad News Bears, then this film will surprise you indeed. Thornton gives a perfectly restrained performance this time around, and it demonstrates that he’s one of the most versatile actors of our time. Since Thornton is associated so quickly with his eccentric comic personas, it’s easy to forget that he can play a quieter role like this.

Thornton plays Charlie Farmer, and what a fitting last name that is. Charlie is the proprietor of a farm in Texas, and although he has succeeded in keeping the farm afloat while being a devoted family man, he hasn’t fulfilled a dream that he has had since childhood. The dream of his is to fly into outer space, and he is constructing his very own rocket shuttle to make this dream come to life.

Of course, the entire town thinks Charlie is crazy. He has spent almost every cent of his money in the construction of the rocket ship. What’s more, his farm has been mortgaged six times, and the bank is ready to foreclosure. Nobody has faith in Charlie’s dream project, except for his supportive wife (Virginia Madsen) and children.

Charlie has precisely 30 days to succeed with his personal endeavor. If this one fails, his dream will be forever gone. And when rumor spreads about Charlie purchasing premium grade fuel to contribute to his project, the nasty government soon takes interest. Before long, Charlie’s dream becomes a media sensation to the point that Jay Leno even makes mention of it during his Tonight Show monologue.

At the heart of The Astronaut Farmer is a very Capra-esque story that reminds each and every one of us that our dreams are vital to our existence. As Charlie says at one point, “If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing.” Thornton is simply wonderful in the movie, as you thoroughly buy him as a man who will not stop until he accomplishes what seems to be the impossible.

I should also mention, once again, the writing and directing team of the Polish Brothers. Judging from their past projects, which includes Twin Falls Idaho and the beautifully filmed Northfork, that these guys, like the Coen Brothers, enjoy exploring various genres. They certainly know how to craft a feel-good movie, which means that they’re next film will take a 180 into darker territory. I’m guessing, that is.

The element in this film I responded to the most was the poetic cinematography of M. David Mullen, who has collaborated with the Polish Brothers on all of their past films (the look to Northfork is nothing short of astounding). Mullen has an incredible eye for vast landscapes, as he captures the farm landscape of Texas with some awe-inspiring images. It’s a terrific echoing of Terrence Malick, which is the best compliment any director or cinematographer could receive.

The Astronaut Farmer works as both a mature drama and superb family entertainment. It combines elements of both Field of Dreams and October Sky, and the result is a film with an equal effect. And Thornton’s terrific performance makes it all the more enjoyable.

BONUS: Thornton’s former Armageddon and Bandits co-hort, Bruce Willis, makes a pop up appearance as a NASA representative and former shuttle pilot.

Video ***1/2

With this release, Warner makes a startling return to their early DVD format; that of the double sided disc including both widescreen and full screen versions. Of course, I only watched the anamorphic widescreen version, and the picture itself is quite pristine. The gorgeous look to the movie is accompanied nicely, as the image is sharp and clean for the most part, given a touch of image softness or two. Colors are wonderfully displayed as well.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix delivers here for a film that is both quiet and furious with sound. Half of the film is mainly dialogue oriented, while the other half involves intense sounding sequences involving Charlie’s attempts to get his rocket ship going. The final 20 minutes really standout in terms of show stopping sound. The music score by Stuart Matthewman and dialogue delivery also get well-rendered treatment!

Features **

Included on the disc are two featurettes; “How to Build a Rocket: The Making of The Astronaut Farmer” and “A Conversation with NASA Astronaut David Scott”. Lastly, there is a Blooper Reel.

Summary:

The Astronaut Farmer is a purely well-crafted piece of feel-good entertainment. Anchored by a wonderful performance from Billy Bob Thornton, this tale of an impossible outer space dream is top-notch family entertainment, and impossible to dislike.

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