The critical buzz on The Astronaut Farmer, The Number 23, and Amazing Grace.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 23 2007 2:32 PM

Space Oddity

The critical buzz on The Astronaut Farmer, The Number 23, and Amazing Grace.

The Astronaut Farmer (Warner Bros.). Billy Bob Thornton plays a former NASA astronaut trainee turned rancher (last name: Farmer) who builds a spaceship in his backyard. Cheerful bromides about individualism and American gumption ensue, and some critics are charmed. In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum reflects, "Now might not be the ideal time to release a movie about an astronaut with an obsession, but Charlie's madness is far grander than any ho-hum NASA employee meltdown." In the New York Times, A.O. Scott notes that a different actor in the lead role (he names Kevin Costner) could have turned this film into an overly treacly mess, but Thornton "can be relied upon for understated dignity accompanied by an intriguing undertone of serious craziness." Other critics see a darker side to Farmer's fantasies. The Chicago Reader connects the film to the war in Iraq, warning, "The value of his dream and its potential for destruction are irrelevant. Refusing to accept defeat is all that matters—at least if you're the designated good guy." (Buy tickets to The Astronaut Farmer.)

The Number 23 (New Line). A very buff Jim Carrey takes a noir turn in this would-be thriller, but most critics write it off as an incompetent snooze. The Los Angeles Times warns, "[T]he filmmakers get it all wrong from the get-go. Everyone seems to be approaching the material from a different direction with unintentional humor seeping in from all angles." Carrey plays a dogcatcher who becomes obsessed with the number 23, which begins appearing everywhere—and eventually leads him to a dead girl and the mystery surrounding her death. Part of the problem is the former Pet Detective himself, who has less to offer when funny faces and physical antics are off the table. New York magazine's David Edelstein remarks: "Shackled by realism—and by the seriousness of this enterprise—he can only act more catatonic: His brain seems to be grinding emptiness." But director Joel Schumacher is also to blame. The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter observes, "Schumacher, who's old enough to know better, gives the movie a jittery quality, as if he's having a nervous breakdown, too." (Buy tickets to The Number 23.)

Amazing Grace(Samuel Goldwyn Films). Mixed reviews for director Michael Apted's latest, based on the life of British parliamentarian and abolitionist William Wilberforce. The filmmaker and his crew "understand the challenges of this kind of story and have met them with intelligence and energy," writes the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis notes that the film "carries a strong whiff of piety," but concedes that it is "generally pleasing and often moving, even when the story wobbles off the historical rails or becomes bogged down in dopey romance." Critics seem to agree that Apted avoids falling into the traps of cliché and hagiography, though some quibble with his historical interpretation. Variety notes that the movie's "convenient tale of good vs. evil nevertheless makes its forceful point that Wilberforce's youthful obsessiveness and unorthodox methods aided tremendously in ending British transport of slaves and accelerating the demise of the slave trade"—but, in actuality, the Slavery Abolition Act wasn't passed until a month after Wilberforce died in 1833. (Buy tickets to Amazing Grace.)

Pan's Labyrinth.
Pan's Labyrinth
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Oscar nominees for best foreign language film. The nominees in this category— Pan's Labyrinth, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Lives of Others, Water, and Days of Glory—"are even more politically charged, and every bit as artistically successful, emotionally touching and accessible as the English-language candidates," argues Caryn James in the New York Times. But other critics question the relevance of the award this year, when several films nominated in other categories feature foreign languages. Australian newspaper The Age comments, "Initially designed to encourage non-Hollywood cultures to come to the Oscars party, it seems [the foreign language category's] work is done." And the Los Angeles Times wonders why the academy still needs "a separate category for the best foreign language film produced outside the United States? Is that the academy's way of saying that such films as Pan's Labyrinth, a drama about Fascist Spain by Mexico's Guillermo del Toro, needn't be considered for the top prize?"

Tom Stoppard
Tom Stoppard

The Coast of Utopia,Part III—Salvage. Most critics who loved the previous six hours of Tom Stoppard's epic about the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia feel similarly about its long-awaited conclusion, which recently opened in New York. "It comes as a pleasant surprise that … the lengthy preliminaries finally have given way to a story of historical suppleness and sweep," remarks the Washington Post. In the New York Times, Ben Brantley raves, "Utopia is a major work of theatrical craftsmanship, a luscious advertisement for the singular narrative seductiveness of drama." But this production leaves some critics cold. The Philadelphia Inquirer shrugs, "It is a melancholy and somewhat disappointing finale, but that's Russian history for you." (Buy tickets to The Coast of Utopia.)

Viacom

Viacom and Joost. After failing to reach an agreement with YouTube over the 100,000 unauthorized clips from its networks on the video sharing site, the media company—owner of TV networks Comedy Central, MTV, BET, VH1, and film company Paramount, among other properties— announced it would strike a deal with new video file-sharing service Joost. For viewers, the deal could signal an important shift in how they watch TV online: "The [Joost] experience closely resembles watching regular television, except the shows can be paused, rewound and fast-forwarded," comments the San Jose Mercury News. The New York Times notes that the partnership "gives Viacom something it pressed with YouTube but never received: a share of advertising revenue." On ZDNet.com, blogger John Carroll comments, "It's one thing for content companies to overlook 'copyright infringement' when the company involved isn't really making much money. … That reasoning, however, applied before Google decided to purchase the company." Joost is scheduled to launch to the public this summer.

Eva Birthistle and Jason Isaacs in The State Within
Eva Birthistle and Jason Isaacs in The State Within 

The State Within (BBC America, through Feb. 24). Comparisons to 24 are inevitable for this miniseries about a British ambassador caught up in a complicated chain of terrorism-related events in and around Washington, D.C. The Boston Globe observes, "[W]e follow him through conspiracies and duplicities that are more politically intriguing, if less juicy, than those that Jack Bauer faces." And USA Today sniffs that the "ponderous six-hour BBC/BBC America co-production … filters some of 24's oldest ideas through some even older British archetypes." But others rave about the British effort's smarts and sophistication. The Hollywood Reporter enthuses that The State Within is "a rip-roaring thriller … that pulls off the rare trick of being both massively intelligent and unbearably intense." The San Francisco Chronicle commends the show for its complexity: "One of the surprisingly welcome aspects of The State Within is that it's complicated and hard to follow."

Breach
Breach

Breach (Universal). Director Billy Ray's spy thriller about real-life FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) breaks from the usual genre conventions by taking the view that evil is best served banal. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis lauds this approach: "This conception of the F.B.I. as a more bureaucratically constipated, possibly more malevolent version of, say, Microsoft, if nowhere near as securely fortified, is Mr. Ray's masterstroke." Another FBI agent (Ryan Philippe) is instrumental in bringing about Hanssen's downfall, and the Hollywood Reporter comments, "The movie boils down to a character study where the stakes couldn't be higher." Unlike most critics, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman prefers Ray's previous film, Shattered Glass, to Breach but allows that "for most of it, I was held—by Chris Cooper's dour portrayal of walled-off demons, by the director's fascination with a deception that, on the surface of it, doesn't add up." (Buy tickets to Breach.)

Doree Shafrir is the executive editor at Buzzfeed.

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