In the vein of Field of Dreams Astronaut Farmer is about building the seemingly impossible. Thankfully in this case it’s simply a rocket in the barn not a ballpark in a cornfield where ghosts of baseball heroes past can play the game. That is a bit far-fetched. Instead we meet Charles Farmer (Thornton) a man who was once on track to be an astronaut but was forced to leave NASA to save his family farm. He still wants to go into space however and so sets out to build a rocket inside his barn. By the time the movie starts the rocket is pretty much put together so we aren’t burdened with how he gets his supplies. All Charles needs now is 10 000 pounds of fuel which shoots up a big red flag with the government--a government that now considers Charles a threat--while the media look at him as a big story. But no matter the odds nothing can deter Charles from his dream to break through the atmosphere and orbit the earth. It’s refreshing to see Thornton as a loving father who wants to inspire his kids rather than make them go get him another beer. Of course Charles Farmer isn’t all sweetness and light—he’s an obvious eccentric whose obsession to launch into space effects the entire family—and it’s definitely a role right up Thornton’s alley. Virginia Madsen does an admirable job as the loving and supportive wife who nonetheless puts her foot down when things get out of hand while Bruce Dern plays the grizzled but equally supportive father-in-law. There’s also a supportive lawyer played by Tim Blake Nelson. In fact besides the big evil NASA chief (J.K. Simmons) and two bungling FBI agents (Mark Polish and Jon Gries) everyone supports Charles in his crazy dream. How could he fail? From the writing-directing team of Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork) Astronaut Farmer is pure old-school—an unassuming throwback to those feel-good movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In fact Thornton told Hollywood.com he considers this his “Jimmy Stewart” movie. While the Polish brothers based Charles Farmer on their own eccentric father and obviously harbor their own boyhood dreams of being an astronaut the guys still follow a nice and simple formula finding some good actors to carry it out and adding cool visual effects when they can. Yes the more cynical moviegoer may look at Astronaut Farmer as completely improbable and trite. But those willing to be taken back to a simpler time--when movies were about walking out triumphant--should find watching Astronaut Farmer a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Meet Roger (Jon Heder) a beleaguered New York City meter maid who can’t even get a kid to like him in the Big Brother program he’s that much of a loser. In a desperate attempt to change Roger joins a top-secret confidence-building class taught by the suavely underhanded Dr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton). The doc guarantees that if you employ his unorthodox and often dangerous techniques you WILL unleash your inner lion. The class turns out to be just the incentive Roger needs and he takes to it like a duck to water. He even finally gets up the courage to ask out his pretty neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). But here’s the catch: Because Roger is such a star student it catapults Dr. P. into ultra-competitive mode and he makes it his mission to infiltrate and destroy Roger's life including going after Amanda. Well that’s not very fair. Can Roger use his newfound king of the jungle-ness to beat the master at his own game? Hmmm. It’s mostly because of the two leads that Scoundrels feels like you’ve been there and done that. First of all Heder best known as THE Napoleon Dynamite is playing a nerd...again. And although he’s far more lovable this time around—with the full lips and shaggy hair—and you instantly cheer him on the actor doesn’t really evolve by movie’s end. With his limited comic abilities he may not be the right choice to carry an entire film. Thornton who has been known to carry a film is just doing his same Bad Santa shtick he’s done in about the last four films he’s made. Wonder if he’ll ever go out on a limb again like he did with Sling Blade. As for the other band of misfit classmates—Walsh (Old School’s Matt Walsh) who's dying to move out of mother's basement; Diego (SNL’s Horatio Sanz) a punching bag for his hen-pecker of a wife; and Eli (Jerry Maguire’s Todd Louiso) a shy guy just looking for female companionship—they are hilarious. Barrett (The Last Kiss) too works fine as the ingénue. And there is a well-placed cameo by Ben Stiller as a former student of Dr. P who also got in his way. Based on the 1960 British film of the same title Scoundrels reunites director/writer Todd Phillips with his writing partner Scot Armstrong—the guys who brought us Old School Starsky and Hutch and Road Trip. It’s obvious these guys know comedy and they turn an uppity British laffer into a cross between Anger Management and Rushmore. Not a bad combination actually. They set up the big comedic payoffs such as the class’ painful attempt at engaging in a paint ball fight in the woods or the one-upmanship competition between Roger and Dr. P and let the chortles roll in. But overall Scoundrels seems almost too paint by the numbers and tad superficial. It could have definitely benefited from either a little more star power (as with Anger Management’s Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson) or more off-beat humor (as between Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray). Oh well better luck next time.
Don't expect too many happy moments in Beyond Borders. Even though it follows a rather tepid romance the movie is more a travelogue of third-world horrors than anything else. Separated into three time periods the film begins in 1984 when newly married socialite Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie) first sees renegade doctor Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) at a London event delivering a fiery plea on behalf of starving children in Ethiopia. His intense commitment stirs Sarah's soul--so much so that she drops everything to take food and supplies to the dusty drought-ridden area herself. In Ethiopia she meets the unorthodox doctor face to face and witnesses the determination that he and his non-governmental organization (NGO) in saving lives. Sarah and Nick make a connection but Nick is too involved in his work to act on it and she is married after all (sigh). Four years later Sarah's marriage has turned sour but she now has a son and a life's passion working for the United Nations refugee agency. When the opportunity arises to see Nick again Sarah travels to Cambodia at the height of country's bloody civil war with a shipment of medical supplies. Amidst life-threatening situations she and Nick consummate their feelings for one another at last. But alas Nick is aware his devotion to his work hampers his capacity for love and he leaves her again (heavy sigh). The final segment takes place five years later when Sarah sets out on a quest to rescue Nick who has been captured in war-torn Chechnya. Will Sarah be able to save him so they can finally be reunited? Remember there are no happy moments in this film.
After reading the script for Beyond Borders which was filmed in 2001 Angelina Jolie began her real-life UN efforts so in a way Jolie's fictional alter ego reflects the Oscar-winning actress' real life. As Sarah learns about third-world strife she decides to dedicate her life to helping others through the United Nations as did Jolie who became a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2001 a role she has extended for two more years. In Beyond Borders whether Sarah is nursing a child near death from starvation or standing up to a corrupt Cambodian general it's empowering to see Jolie the humanitarian pouring out her true feelings on screen. Owen (Gosford Park) does a more than believable job as the hard-bitten Nick who plays the character full of fury and grace as he is willing even to sell his soul to the devil--in this case a CIA operative who uses Nick to transport anything from secret documents to guns to the troubled areas in exchange for money to fund the NGO's efforts. Yet the film's main flaw lies in the lack of chemistry between Nick and Sarah. Nick is the smarter of the two--he knows his one true love is his work. Sarah is just too besotted to realize their affair--and her character arc--is doomed from the start.
Director Martin Campbell knows how to create spectacular vistas having directed such scenery-heavy films such as Vertical Limit and GoldenEye. From London's gray skies to Ethiopia's orange desert Cambodia's lush greenery to Chechnya's stark white winter Campbell's film is a visually stimulating treat. By far the most moving and alarming scenes take place in Ethiopia which was filmed on location in Africa's Namib desert. Seeing the emaciated (albeit mostly CGI) bodies of the dead and dying in the choking desert is enough to move anyone into humanitarian action. Be that as it may Borders should stop for a moment and give more history on the conflicts brewing in each beautiful yet troubled region--particularly by the time we get to Chechnya (actually Quebec). Rather than give any background on the region's raging civil war it simply shows bombed-out buildings and shooting in the streets and follows Sarah into the snowy woods on the search for Nick. While the other parts of Beyond Borders inspire your spirit this last part focuses solely on the love story and frankly it's just not as interesting