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DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Astronaut Farmer

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Ken_McAlinden, Jul 2, 2007.

  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer

    Feb 20, 2001
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    Livonia, MI USA
    Real Name:
    Kenneth McAlinden
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    The Astronaut Farmer

    Directed By: Michael Polish

    Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, Jon Gries, J.K. Simmons, Max Thieriot, Mark Polish

    Studio: Warner Brothers

    Year: 2006

    Rated: PG

    Film Length: 104 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

    Subtitles: English, Spanish, French

    Release Date: July 10, 2007

    The Film

    "The Astronaut Farmer" features Billy Bob Thornton as Charles Farmer, a former aerospace engineer, pilot, and astronaut candidate who holds onto his dream of space flight as best he can. This involves mortgaging his Texas ranch and everything he owns to the hilt, scavenging discarded parts and materials from old rockets, and constructing a rocket and launching pad inside of his barn. His efforts go unnoticed by anyone outside of his supportive beyond-all-reason wife (Madsen), his children, his father-in-law (Dern), and his small town neighbors (especially the loan officers at the bank). When he attempts to purchase tens of thousands of pounds of high grade rocket fuel, however, he becomes the subject of attention from several different government agencies and, at his lawyer's (Nelson) recommendation, the global media. As it becomes increasingly apparent that the federal government in general and the Federal Aviation Administration Director (Simmons) in particular do not want Farmer to go through with his plans, the strain on their financial and personal lives forces Farmer and his family to re-evaluate how important his dream of space flight is to them.

    The film, written by brothers Mark and Michael Polish and directed by Michael, is at its heart a space-age fable. Recognizing this fact is essential in order to get past the obviously incredulous elements of the premise. If the slightly otherworldly score and idealized western-style cinematography were not enough to convince one of this, certain cutesy details like the way that everyone including his wife refers to Charles by the name "Farmer" should cement his everyman status in the viewer's mind. The characters are played low-key and completely straight by the talented cast, which is a good choice because the whole enterprise could easily fall apart if the viewer ever had the sense that they were being winked at. It plays very much like a classic Disney live-action film, but with a gentle, character-based humor replacing the Disney propensity for slapstick. As a fable, it lives and dies based on the degree to which its themes are clearly communicated, and the film does stumble slightly in this regard. The overriding theme has to do with the ability of a shared dream to both unite and divide a family (and a community, nation, world, etc.). This is undermined slightly when Farmer's wife makes a reversal late in the picture that is not particularly well supported by her explanation. Secondary themes about the importance of dreams and a frontier spirit are conveyed more convincingly.

    The movie is very well cast, with Thornton and Madsen displaying an easy chemistry that smooths over some of the aforementioned plot contrivances. The balance of the cast is filled out by talented character actors such as Nelson, Gries, and Simmons along with one Hollywood megastar who gives an unbilled supporting performance as a former astronaut colleague of Farmer's. Of particular note is teen actor Max Thieriot who plays Farmer's son, Shepard. He plays a quiet, reserved, intelligent, but not especially articulate teen and manages to convey a lot with very little dialog.

    While the film does not necessarily work on every level, it does carve out its own territory in the realm of mainstream modern family films by focusing on the story of an unusual but functional family without either parent being dead or unreasonably tyrannical.

    The Video

    Two separate presentations of the film are encoded on either side of a dual-sided single-layered DVD-10. For the purpose of this review I am going to pretend that the 4:3 pan & scan presentation does not exist. The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer presents pleasing color and contrast range, and is marred by one minor, and one more significant flaw. First and least, there are occasional instances of ringing around high contrast edges. This is not present throughout the whole film, and it seems to pop up primarily during certain very long shots against a horizon and sky background. Second and more importantly, the video has a softness to it that results in a level of detail short of what I have come to expect from recent SD DVD presentations of modern films. This is more than likely due to the film's relatively low bitrate since two hours and 20 minutes of film and extras are encoded on a single DVD layer that is not even filled to its full capacity. Compression artifacts are not as much of an issue as one might expect from the low bitrate, suggesting that the image was filtered before encoding.

    The Audio

    The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, encoded at a 448 kbps bitrate, presents a very dynamic mix. Surround activity provides dimensional ambience throughout the film and kicks in strongly, as does the LFE channel whenever the rocket engines are ignited.

    The Extras

    Special features consist of three featurettes All are presented in 4:3 video with interview and behinds the scenes footage letterboxed to 1.78:1 and movie clips and outtakes letterboxed to the film's 2.35:1 ratio.

    First and foremost is "How to Build a Rocket: The Making of 'The Astronaut Farmer'". This featurette is an assemblage of on-camera interviews, behind the scenes footage, and clips from the film punctuated by title cards with quotations from former astronauts. It straddles the line between electronic press kit fluff and serious "making of" documentary with many elements of both. While there are certainly some interesting behind the scenes facts about many aspects of the production, there are also a lot of on-set interviews where participants gush about how wonderful it was to work with everybody. Participants in the interviews include Michael and Mark Polish, Tim Blake Nelson, Jon Gries, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, producer Len Amato, Billy Bob Thornton, Max Thieriot, producer Paula Weinstein, 1st assistant director Andrew Coffing, costume designer Danny Glicker, production designer Clark Hunter, and composer Stewart Matthewman.

    Next up is an eight minute collection of "Bloopers and Outtakes" some of which are funny, some of which are bleeped for profanity, some of which are confusing, and one of which features Thornton doing a comical riff on Karl Childers, his "Sling Blade" character.

    Finally we get a two minute "Conversation with NASA Astronaut David Scott" who acknowledges the film's departures from realism, but suggests that getting hung up on them is largely missing the point.


    The film comes in a standard Amaray-style case with no insert. As mentioned above, the disc is a double sided single layered DVD-10 with a 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 presentation on one side and a 4:3 pan and scan presentation on the other side. All of the extras are repeated on both sides.


    If you can manage to suspend your disbelief and check it at the door of your home theater, "The Astronaut Farmer" is an interesting if not 100% successful space-age fable about the importance of shared dreams. The DVD is presented with excellent audio, but with video that is somewhat soft in appearance. The primary extra is a 28 minute featurette that is a little more substantial than your typical EPK piece, but not as comprehensive as fans of the film may want.

  2. Yumbo

    Yumbo Cinematographer

    Sep 13, 1999
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    Warner - drop the friggin' double sided discs already! We already got Combos, which serves an actual purpose.
  3. Chris Maynard

    Chris Maynard Supporting Actor

    Nov 7, 1998
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    I had a very negative experience with this disc. The first 40 minutes were muddy, plugged up, ringing, you name it.

    It looked horrible. I was so very, very let down.

    I tried it through my Denon 1910, PS3, Xbox 360 and my Panasonic A2 on two different sets.

    Nothing seemed to make it look better. [​IMG]

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