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Facets presents
The American Astronaut (2001)

Samuel Curtis: So I take the girl to Jupiter, trade her for the boy, bring the boy to Venus, trade him for Johnny R, bring Johnny R back to Earth, and I get rich.
The Blueberry Pirate: That's it.

- Cory McAbee, Joshua Taylor

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: February 21, 2005

Stars: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Greg Russell Cook
Other Stars: Joshua Taylor, Peter McRobbie, James Ransone, Annie Golden, Bill Buell, Joseph McKenna, Mark Manley, Ned Sublette, Tom Aldredge
Director: Cory McAbee

Manufacturer: Factory 515
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language)
Run Time: 01h:32m:24s
Release Date: February 22, 2005
UPC: 782891001198
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+A-B+ A-

DVD Review

For a reviewer, there are few things in life as undeniably rewarding as coming across a film that literally reverberates with raw creativity and inventiveness, one that can cross art school hipness, genre predictability, and just plain weirdness.

My ilk (the whole reviewer subculture) have to watch a lot of lifeless and mundane trash along the way, so when something ridiculously new and exciting comes along it is cause for all sorts of high hosannas and fluttery praise. The American Astronaut—from writer/director/actor/musician/artist Cory McAbee—is one of those certainly deserving all of the lusty accolades I can dish out.

Yes, The American Astronaut is that good. Weird, but good.

A thumbnail description would categorize this as a black-and-white sci-fi/western/rock musical, and if that doesn't whet your appetite you're either not adventurous enough to take the journey or maybe you missed that I said "black-and-white sci-fi/western/rock musical." Now that's a specialized genre, no doubt sparsely populated, and The American Astronaut can probably easily lay claim to being the definitive black-and-white sci-fi/western/rock musical out there, but I don't want to cheapen the moment or diminish the luster by pigeonholing McAbee's film into such a finite realm.

Scruffy interplanetary trader Samuel Curtis (McAbee, sporting some bushy Wolverine sideburns) accepts a convoluted mission from his old pal and intergalactic fruit trader, the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor), that has him traipsing across the solar system, bounding from desolate asteroid bar to shadowy mining camp on Jupiter to idyllic all-female Venus—on a daisy-chained series of events that will either kill him or make him rich. There aren't a lot of women in deep space, so Samuel's main goal is to transport the appropriately named "The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast" (Greg Russell Cook) to Venus for stud service, and to stay one step ahead of the murderous Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto), a prissy villain who can only kill someone if he doesn't have a reason to.

Made for less than $2 million, McAbee's film is understandably low-budget, especially for a film set in space. There are no big CG effects shots, and he actually goes the other direction by using still paintings to show a spaceship traveling across the stars. Hardly traditional, but those brief transitional sequences are just segues between scenes that move in beautifully strange directions, and McAbee has shot the entire film in a monochromatic black-and-white palette, full of deep black shadows, that gives it a real 1940s noir feel, something that allows his budgetary constraints to come across as stylish as opposed to skimpy. There's the all-male dance contest, treated with the same kind of cheering normally reserved for a boxing match, or the neo-western flashback scene in a desolate space barn (yes, a space barn) shot completely in silhouette.

That's all well and good for a quirky sci-fi tale, but this is a musical, too. Songs pop up unexpectedly, and when the first tune kicks in—a pair of stern-faced men with a phonograph perform an oddly threatening number in a men's room—McAbee forcibly pushes The American Astronaut from simply being a low-budget sci-fi film into something entirely new. The guitar-driven songs come from The Billy Nayer Show—another McAbee side project—and have elemental hints of Devo in the way some of the choruses are structured (tracks like The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass seems to borrow from The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise). But that's a good thing, because all the songs are propelled by a neatly disjointed meter that makes each one unique. The odd thing, if there are any nitpicks about the music, is that Annie Golden (former vocalist for early 1980s new wave band The Shirts) has a supporting role, but doesn't get to sing at all.

There's a whole lot going on here—a cloned girl made from the DNA of a male bartender, ray guns that turn people to dust, a leatherclad man named Bodysuit—and Cory McAbee makes it all fit together somehow.

Do I go as far as to call this brilliant?

Yes, I think I do.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: It might have been shot for less than $2 million, but the nonanamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer has the look of something far more costly. There is a real art to filming in black-and-white, and Facets has treated McAbee's deliberate retro-stylized work with great care, and the result is a remarkably solid print that falls between film noir and a 1940s serial. Shadows are wonderfully deep and black, and contrast and image details are razor sharp. The only negatives are a few instances of specking, most noticeable during the opening credit sequence.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: There are three English language audio choices here: mono, 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. All three are good in their own right, depending on your mood. The mono track adds the right amount of noir flatness to the presentation, while the 2.0 stereo fattens the soundstage a bit, especially during the musical numbers. No surprise that the 5.1 track is the house favorite, offering a real punch to the songs, and an notably expanded dynamic range.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Cory McAbee
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Writer/director Cory McAbee provides what the backcover calls a "live" commentary, which means he was recorded at a screening before a small audience, and he fields questions and talks about the film as it runs. What makes this slightly unique is that viewers can alternate back-and-forth (using the angle button on your remote) between the film itself and footage of McAbee's recording of the commentary. That novelty aside, it's one of the more engaging commentary tracks of late, with McAbee steadily chatting about all elements of the production, from the music to the artwork to the meager budget. My only beef is that the audience questions are often poorly miked.

The rest of the supplements offer a mix of galleries for storyboards, test footage, on-set stills (in color), production and graphic design, poster art, theatrical trailer, and even an entire section devoted to McAbee's sidewalk art. A very bizarre short piece entitled Rio Yeti (:53s) is also included, and it basically defies description.

The disc is cut into 24 chapters, and features optional subtitles in English, French or Spanish.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Easily one of the most unusual and inventive DVD releases of the year, Cory McAbee's low-budget sci-fi/western/rock musical is stylized 1940s black-and-white strangeness. Echoes of David Lynch seep in from all sides, but McAbee surges forward with his own alt-noir style, and if the bizarre storyline doesn't get you, the music will.

For my money, one of the year's best.

Highly recommended.


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