February 23, 2007, - 1:12 pm

Weekend Box Office: Fantastic “Astronaut Farmer”; Madsen v. Madsen

By Debbie Schlussel
This weekend’s biggest box office releases might be called “Virginia Madsen v. Virginia Madsen.” The talented, beautiful actress has starring roles in both the excellent “The Astronaut Farmer” and the novel “The Number 23.” With both “Farmer” and the atrocious “Reno 911!: Miami,” it’s also got the best and worst movies of 2007, so far. Here are my reviews:
* “The Astronaut Farmer“–So far, this is the best movie of 2007, and I believe that’ll hold (as my “United 93″ claim on that title for 2006 did, after its spring release). You can take your whole family to see this movie.

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A true encapsulation of the American spirit and the individualism and dreams that comprise it, it’s the story of Chris Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texas rancher who dreamed of being an astronaut until a family death forced him to drop out of the NASA astronaut training program. But he hasn’t given up his dream and is building his rocket in the barn. While he’s behind on loans from the bank, and it puts a strain on his family, his loving wife (Virginia Madsen) support him amidst the financial strife, the opposition of the U.S. government, and all the naysayers who think he’s a kook. But he’s really a modern American cowboy in the best sense.
It’s the story of a traditional nuclear family in small town America, a man whose dreams are bigger than that town, and how a loving wife’s support makes that dream possible. And it’s the story of how big government bureaucrats and federal agents can’t keep a man down. Though I’d call this the fictional “The Right Stuff” of the decade, this movie isn’t just about space and astronauts and small towns in Texas. It’s about everything that’s great about America and the possibility–only in America–of making great dreams come to fruition. It reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s famous statement, “We have the right to dream heroic dreams.”
If I had any criticism of this film, it’s that while it’s a serious film, the FBI agents in it are comedic caricatures. It’s a minor point. And while I’m critical of the FBI, I know most of its agents are good people. Few are as incompetent as these. And none whom I know still wear Ray-Ban aviators. Best part of the film: the tune one FBI agent has as his cellphone ringtone. Also, I could have done without the political lines about Weapons of Mass Destruction and the presence of an apparent illegal alien farmhand. But that was very minor.
Walt Disney is smiling down from Heaven, as the young twin Polish brothers who wrote and directed this magnificent film have picked up where he left off. Some might call this film hokey, but I call it great. It’s the uplifting, positive, great American family film Hollywood makes too little of–and which America needs so badly. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
I interviewed filmmakers Mark and Mike Polish and stars Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen, and I will post my interview, later today. The Polish brothers are an impressive, imaginative pair. And I couldn’t think of anyone but Thornton and Madsen to play these roles–both are excellent.
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* “The Number 23“–Most critics are panning this psychological thriller starring Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen. But not me. While the last third of it has too many twists and turns, I think it’s a novel, interesting movie with a plot I haven’t seen before. It’s a little bloody and explicit in sex scenes, so it’s not for kids. Though different and dark, I found it interesting and new.
Carrey plays a dogcatcher Walter Sparrow, who thinks his life should be bigger, more exciting. His loving wife (Madsen) makes cakes. One day, he’s late for his birthday celebration because he’s bitten by a dog he’s trying to catch. That leads him and his wife to a bookstore, where she buys him a tattered pulp fiction book, “The Number 23,” by “Toppsy Kretts.”
Soon Sparrow finds himself obsessed with the book, its private detective character “Fingerling,” his paramour “Fabrizia,” and finds himself seeing similarities between himself and the fictional investigator. He also becomes obsessed with the number 23 and sees it everywhere in everything. And he tries to figure out who killed a local college student, whose body was never found. Is the book a fiction or is it real?
Entertaining and recommended, even though it’s way too twisted and overdone toward the end.
* “Reno 911!: Miami“–Absolutely disgusting. Vile. Gross. Never thought I would miss “Police Academy 6.” This movie, based on the TV comedy is far worse than it’s small screen version. And not funny. Yes, I laughed a few times. But mostly, I was embarrassed, and I’m no prude. People walked out of the screening, and I wished I’d joined them. If you’re into explicit, stupid sex, deviance, and bathroom jokes, this is for you. But even those in that category won’t laugh much. No cops are this dumb, this sick . . . or this unfunny. The worst movie of 2007 so far, though “Smokin’ Aces” is strong competition in that category. Skip this, if you’re smart.

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