The Astronaut Farmer
(WB, 2006) D: Michael Polish, w/ Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
Here's an odd case: a movie that manages to be highly likeable and engaging despite working from a premise that is hard to believe and contrary to the movie's "follow your dream" message.
The premise is that one man, a farmer with astronaut and aerospace engineering training, can build a working orbital rocket in his barn. And the Polish brothers (they co-wrote and Mark directed second unit) sell it with beautifully written scenes, sure pacing and a love of their characters so strong that even the comic-relief villains have some dignity.
Mostly, though, great performances by Billy Bob Thornton as the farmer and Virginia Madsen as his loving wife put the story across. They play together with such natural ease that it feels like they've been in love for years. Bruce Dern, as Grandpa, also brings a lot to the party.
But the Thornton/Madsen relationship seriously undercuts the movie. The farmer's dream is monstrously selfish and runs a fair chance of killing him. If he loves his family like everything on screen insists he does, how can he even contemplate throwing his life away? How can his wife even pretend to support him? The movie never really addresses these questions.
The "follow your dream" theme carries over to the very good making-of doc, which emphasizes both the personal nature of the film and, via lots of quotes from real-life astronauts, the validity of the dream.
Extras Making-of doc, bloopers and outtakes, interview with NASA astronaut David Scott. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Comedy Of Power
(Mongrel, 2006) D: Claude Chabrol, w/ Isabelle Huppert, François Berléand. Rating: NNN; DVD package: N/A
Isabelle Huppert is an examining magistrate going after powerfully connected, high-end businessmen who've had their fingers in the till. In the French legal system, the "juge d'instruction" doesn't try cases. She investigates to determine whether or not there's a realistic case against the accused. She has considerable powers of search, interrogation and detention. One character calls it "the most powerful position in France."
Huppert, one of the screen's greatest actresses, can convey worlds of feeling with barely a movement. Here, she mostly keeps the judge's lust for power under wraps, giving us glimpses in small shifts of expression while the world sees the determined, principled civil servant. Her performance makes for great actors' duels in the interrogation scenes with the rich and powerful. François Berléand is particularly fun as an executive who responds to the pressure with a bad itch.
Veteran suspense master Claude Chabrol is more interested in character and droll comedy than in the conventional thriller, which leads to a low-key ending, but there's no shortage of intrigue and suspense along the way.
A large disclaimer at the start of the film suggests that this may be a very sharp jab at the French establishment, since disclaimers usually reside in the small print at the tail of the end credits. Sadly, we're given no extras to provide context.
Extras Wide-screen. French audio. English subtitles.
The Exterminating Angels
(Mongrel, 2006) D: Jean-Claude Brisseau, w/ Frédéric van den Driessche, Maroussia Dubreuil. Rating: NNN; DVD Package: NNN
In the extensive and fairly good interview that accompanies the movie, director Jean-Claude Brisseau refers to his film as a tragedy. This is important, because otherwise you might think it's just an excuse to watch women masturbate, as opposed to being about the terrible consequences of being a man who thinks up artistic excuses to watch women masturbate.
But Brisseau is not pulling our leg. This really is a tragedy, at least in form. Our hero's dead granny tries to warn him that supernatural beings are effecting his downfall and that he's got a tragic flaw: "He's stupid and intelligent at the same time," says Granny, which he proves first by having no clue about what he's really after and second by imagining he can get some young actresses to pleasure themselves and each other and reveal their secret fantasies without any kind of emotional blowback.
Stupidity isn't that great a tragic flaw, and tragic heroes are supposed to be guys you look up to; otherwise, their fall doesn't resonate. Oedipus was doing his level best to lift a plague. It doesn't help that the craggily handsome Frédéric van den Driessche plays the obsessed filmmaker with all the emotion of a wooden horse.
Overall, the women fare better: better dialogue, richer emotion, and they get to self-pleasure in beautifully shot and lit sequences nicely pumped by Jean Musy's remarkable score that effectively combines a sense of tragedy and eroticism.
In the interview, Brisseau likens the sex scenes to Hitchcock's suspense scenes. He makes a good case, but you have to wonder about the forthrightness of a man whose own record of sexual harrassment of actresses parallels his fiction. In 2005, Brisseau was reportedly found guilty of sexually harassing two actresses on his previous film, Secret Things.
Extras Interview with director and editor/production designer María Luisa García, alternate scenes with director commentary. Wide-screen. French audio. English subtitles.
The Last Mimzy
(WB, 2007) D: Robert Shaye, w/ Chris O'Neil, Rhiannon Leigh Wryn. Rating: NN; DVD package: NNN
Two kids find some toys from the future and develop strange powers along with a species-saving mission in this mild-mannered and clumsy attempt to mesh science and mysticism. But while pushing a New Age weenie vision of humanity, the film treats the two characters who represent both science and mysticism as comic relief.
Director Robert Shaye has a day job as co-CEO and co-chair of New Line Cinema. Apart from a couple of shorts in the 60s, his only previous directorial outing was 1990's Book Of Love. The inexperience shows. The adult performances seem to belong in two or three different movies, the script is full of holes, the cutting rhythms clumsy.
The effects sequences are lively and original, though, and the child stars do an convincing job with them, but their avoidance of emotion makes them fairly characterless. Somehow, that feels like no big loss.
Best extras are the interactive mini-docs that feature scientists explaining black holes and mandalas to the kids.
Extras Interactive making-of and science mini-docs, text commentary, making-of and science docs, games. Wide-screen. English, French audio.
Coming Tuesday, July 17
36th Chamber Of Shaolin
(Alliance Atlantis, 1978)
One of the all-time great kung fu movies in a spiffed-up Dragon Dynasty edition loaded with extras.
Ace In The Hole
Kirk Douglas stars in Billy Wilder's long-unavailable tale of a mine collapse, a cynical reporter and a media circus. Lots of good extras.
Sandra Bullock's husband dies, then he's alive again. Sinister plot or wacky dream?
Masters Of Horror: The Black Cat
(Anchor Bay, 2007)
Jeffrey Combs stars as Edgar Allan Poe in Stuart Gordon's weird and atmospheric riff on the classic terror tale. Not the best in the MOH series, but still well above 90 per cent of the horror schlock out there.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb