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Thornton's latest sappy but feel-good

By Lady Liberty
web posted February 26, 2007

The Astronaut Farmer

** out of ****

The Astronaut FarmerEverybody has a dream. Unfortunately, not many get to live them. Sometimes, it's disapproving parents that crush the dreams — and all too often the dreamer along with them. On other occasions, it's families and friends who offer too little support. In the end, many a dreamer simply gives up his dreams as being too hard or too far-fetched to accomplish. But somehow, a precious few survive. Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is one of those few with a dream left intact.

It's possible that Farmer's dream has survived because he once came so close to achieving it all. He graduated college as an aeronautics engineer, and joined the military where he became a top test pilot. Eventually, he was one of the elite chosen by NASA to be a part of its astronaut corps. But on the cusp of everything he'd ever wanted, Charlie's father died and he went home to take over the family's debt-ridden ranch.

Even a life-changing tragedy of that magnitude, however, can't kill Charlie's dream entirely. With the never flagging support of his wife, Audrey (Virginia Madsen) and the near hero-worship of his children, Charlie determines to build his very own rocket in his barn. He recruits his 15 year-old son, Shepard (Max Thieriot) as his helper and his flight controller. Even his two little girls — the precocious Stanley (Jasper Polish) and precious little Sunshine (Logan Polish) — get into the act of helping Daddy with his dream. And with parts and pieces from government junk yards, Charlie gets to work.

Literally within days of his planned launch, Charlie's dreams are once again weighed down with impossible obstacles. The local bank is threatening to foreclose on the ranch. The thousands of gallons of fuel he needs are priced well beyond reach. And worst of all, Charlie's inquiries concerning the fuel bring him to the attention of the FBI which is worried Charlie's rocket isn't a rocket at all, but rather a missile with a target they don't know. Then to top it all off, an FAA committee headed up by the humorless Mr. Jacobson (J.K. Simmons) comes down on Charlie's head like a ton of bricks consisting of rules, regulations, prohibitions, and skepticism.

Charlie enlists some help from his small-town attorney (Kevin Munchak, played by Tim Blake Nelson) and his Mexican ranch hand (Pepe Garcia, played by Sal Lopez). His wife, kids, and even his father-in-law, Hal (Bruce Dern) stand behind and beside him. But even one more hurdle is likely to prove too much for even the most dedicated to dreamers, and given Charlie's track record to date, you can bet yet another obstacle is looming.

Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen are both terrific actors, and they manage to bring a certain believability even to this relatively unbelievable tale. Charlie Farmer could easily have been played as crazy, but in Thornton's sure hands, he's earnest and dedicated to a fault instead. Madsen, meanwhile, plays a woman I'd never in a million years buy as real — no matter what her crazy husband does or the risks to the family, she barely demurs — and yet she manages to make us think of Audrey as incredibly loving and loyal enough that you're able to suspend disbelief just long enough to enjoy the film.

The child actors are surprisingly good, especially the littlest ones. Though they're hopelessly optimistic and giggly, that's the fault of their characters, not the actors themselves. They all do just fine. All of the denizens of the Farmers' small Texas town are drawn almost as caricatures, but in light-hearted fare such as this, that's surprisingly enough to get by. Do watch for an uncredited cameo by a very famous actor indeed who is perfectly cast and whose chemistry with Thornton is obvious to boot.

Written by Mark and Michael Polish and directed by Michael, The Astronaut Farmer is less science fiction than it is science fluff. Still, even the lightest fare has its dark moments, and the screenplay and direction alike handle both ends of the spectrum well enough. The special effects aren't quite as good as we've come to expect in our movies these days (the budget for The Astronaut Farmer was surprisingly low), but were good enough; the rocket itself was a marvel. The sets were fine (I particularly loved the restaurant with the very clever name), and the cinematography as good as it needed to be.

On balance, The Astronaut Farmer isn't a movie you'll find yourself talking about for days or weeks afterward. It is, however, a movie you'll find yourself feeling for some time to come. Hokey? Yeah, kind of. But for anyone who's had a dream of their own and suffered its loss, The Astronaut Farmer offers a real lift. And those interested in family fare will find something for everybody in the emphasis on gentle humor, the importance of family, and the notion that dreams only come true when you refuse to give up.

As an aside, The Astronaut Farmer resonated particularly strongly for me personally. I can't remember when I didn't dream of going into space. Though it's not likely any more that my dream will ever come true, there's still a big place in my heart for the desire. Watching somebody else strive for what I want so badly myself was incredibly moving, and I found myself with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face with each and every one of even the smallest of Charlie's victories.

POLITICAL NOTES: Sure, parents and family can crush a dream. So can lack of money and, frankly, lack of talent and ability. But the biggest hurdle for Charlie to overcome in The Astronaut Farmer is an incredibly arrogant government. Civilians aren't allowed to make attempts to go into space because, Mr. Jacobson says down his nose, "It's too dangerous," and as such we should "Leave it to the professionals." Charlie shouldn't have thousands of gallons of rocket fuel on his property because it might explode. The fact that Charlie knows what he's doing, is willing to take the risks, and lives in an isolated area where even a good-sized explosion isn't going to hurt anybody but him is apparently immaterial.

The Astronaut Farmer portrays government in full-blown "Big Mother" regalia. "You can't do that because you might hurt yourself," and "We know what's best for you." Charlie resented being treated like a child and fought back despite overwhelming odds he couldn't possibly beat. He and his family are threatened, including by a local social worker who says the state might take away his kids who have clearly been "brainwashed" because they're supportive of their father's dreams. The Astronaut Farmer is obviously fiction, but I can't help but wonder the progress that might have been made in space as well as right here on earth if Big Mother just left people alone to pursue their own interests.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Astronaut Farmer is rated PG for "thematic material, peril, and language." There are things here that small children aren't going to understand — the inherent dangers of rocket fuel, for example, government coercion, or even the tragedy of a family about to lose its home. Little ones also aren't going to have any grasp of history whatsoever concerning the space program. That being said, The Astronaut Farmer is likely enjoyable even for the average 7 or 8 year-old. The good news is that, with all of the other aspects of the film (peripheral as they might be), Mom and Dad can actually enjoy it, too.

The Number 23

* out of ****

The Number 23Numerology is simple. First, you put numbers to everything. Then you throw out everything that doesn't match up the way you want it to. What's left is a list of "proof" that numerology actually works (it helps to be credulous; it helps even more if you're a little paranoid). Unfortunately, The Number 23 doesn't even add up to that much.

Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is an animal control officer. His wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen) bakes fancy cakes for a living. They have a son, Robin (Logan Lerman), and a house in the suburbs. They also have a fairly ordinary life. But that only lasts until Walter's birthday...

Counting the minutes until quitting time on his February 3 birthday, Walter gets a last minute call from his dispatcher about a loose dog. He's not happy to get the call so late, but he heads for an alley behind a restaurant where the bulldog was sighted. He finds and identifies the dog whose name, he learns, is Ned. But at the last second, Ned bites him and runs away. As if being bitten doesn't cap his day off nicely enough, he's now late to pick up his wife from work.

Agatha, meanwhile, gets bored waiting for Walter and so she wanders into a nearby bookstore. As she's browsing, she finds a book she believes Walter might like, and she buys it for him for his birthday. The book is entitled The Number 23. Agatha reads some of the book and finds it interesting and strangely compelling, but Walter quickly becomes obsessed by it. The author has written, he claims, a story all about him! Soon enough, and the deeper he gets into the narrative, he begins to see the number 23 everywhere he looks.

The book, which begins with a sad and traumatic childhood for the character who tells readers to call him Fingerling, rapidly becomes even darker. Fingerling grows up to become a detective, and he tells his erstwhile readers about both his personal life and his beautiful girlfriend, and his professional life and the bodies he musts sometimes help to clean up. Walter, who is horrified by Fingerling's descent into darkness, begins to see signs of a comparable descent in himself. When Fingerling commits murder, Walter begins to wonder if he can stop himself from doing exactly the same thing.

Jim Carrey is, of course, a brilliant comic actor. But he's done some very credible dramatic work as well, so casting him here wasn't a bad idea in that context. But Carrey never seemed to really inhabit this character as he did in such previous efforts as The Truman Show and Bruce Almighty, so his acting seems almost forced. Virginia Madsen does a good job. The unbelievability of her character lies at the feet of the writer. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is also good though again not always given particularly sensible lines to speak.

Director Joel Schumacher has a good deal of experience under his belt, and you can tell. The edits and some of the camera techniques are brilliant and very effective. I particularly loved the handling of many of the flashbacks from the color to the camera angles to some very effective edits. My problem here is really with the screenplay. This is Fernley Phillips first script to make it to the big screen and, while the idea is sound and some parts and pieces of it are too, the whole is considerably less than that. In simple terms, it just plain tries too hard. And as an aside, no matter how I worked at it, I simply could not get past the notion that some idiot actually thought naming a character "Robin Sparrow" was cute.

I liked the premise of The Number 23 quite a bit, and I thought the cast and the movie-making in general was just fine. But during this relatively short movie (about an hour and a half), I found myself yawning, fidgeting, and trying desperately to see my watch in the dim light coming from the big screen. At one point, I even seriously considered leaving but told myself it would be over soon so I should stay (it wasn't, but I did). For all of the good things about the movie — and there are some — any time I'm that restless and I'm that anxious to have things done and over with, there's not much I can really say to encourage you to put yourself through the experience. So I won't.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Number 23 is rated R for "violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language." Although the R rating might be a little harsh, I don't believe many of the visuals if not the subject matter are suitable for kids. There are some disturbing images including the aftermath of bloody murder; there is some sexuality, including that of the aberrant kind (though not particularly graphic). If you've got teens who insist on seeing this film, I'd allow those 16 and older to go ahead and see it if that's what they really want. ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.






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