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There will be many movies trumpeted as Oscar-worthy this season, but one of the best movies I've seen all year won't be released until 2007 - a comedy-drama called THE ASTRONAUT FARMER.

Written by Mark and Michael Polish and directed by Michael Polish, THE ASTRONAUT FARMER spins the tale of a rancher named Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), so desperate to realize his life-long dream of space travel that he decides to build his own rocket and launch himself into orbit. The US Government tries to stop him, even if it means shooting him down - after all, if a regular guy can assemble his own spacecraft and zoom off to the stars, there's no reason for the public to pay NASA billions of dollars to do the same thing.

But this brief synopsis doesn't do THE ASTRONAUT FARMER justice, since this is one flick that seemingly has it all. There's the fresh premise to attract audiences looking for something different in an increasingly formulaic movie landscape. There's the "underdog vs. the system" plot that continues to be popular at the box-office. There are the low-key but emotionally powerful performances by Thornton, Virginia Madsen as his long-suffering wife and Bruce Willis as Thornton's former pal turned nemesis. There's the snappy, memorable dialogue, like Madsen's father telling Thornton, "You're a hell of a father. I couldn't get my family to eat dinner together. You've got your family dreaming together." There's the growing suspense as more and more obstacles are thrown in the way of the launch (government threats to shoot Thornton down, financial ruin as he has to mortgage his home to pay for the rocket, his own wife turning against him as the bank threatens to foreclose on the ranch and make their kids penniless), keeping us on the very edge of our seats. And there are the characters who are filled with all the conflicts and contradictions all human beings have, making them more "real" to the audience: Thornton the loving family man who is nevertheless willing to sacrifice that family for his dream, Madsen the supportive wife who becomes increasingly bitter the more her husband's quixotic quest threatens her children's future, Willis the old astronaut buddy (Thornton was in the astronaut program himself until he had to quit to take care of the ranch when his father died) who admires Thornton's chutzpah but is contemptuous of his plan to hurl himself into space on his do-it-yourself rocket.

But the best part of THE ASTRONAUT FARMER is the theme, which salutes the value of dreaming in a world where playing it safe, following the crowd and being "realistic" is becoming more and more prevalent. Of course, the film is honest enough to say that all dreams have a price (Thornton risks both his family's financial future and his own life to become a homemade astronaut), but it's also daring enough to say that many of the things we've come to see as the mark of success in society (the nuclear family, financial stability) don't really matter if you give up the one thing you want the most. For a person without dreams soon sinks into despair, and a society without dreams has no future at all. If THE ASTRONAUT FARMER does nothing else but teach audiences that, it will have done its job and then some.

Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is (finally!) finishing up his first novel.


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