May 24, 2024
Movie reviews: The mannered obtuseness of Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’

Movie reviews: The mannered obtuseness of Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’


ASTEROID CITY: 3 STARS



For better and for worse, there is nothing quite like a Wes Anderson film. The director’s unique production design is all over his new sci-fi comedy “Asteroid City,” but with this film it is clear that whimsy has finally replaced storytelling on his to do list.


This is a twisty-turny one. Like a set of nesting dolls, it’s a film, within a play, within a show hosted by a Rod Sterling-esque talking head (Bryan Cranston), within a teleplay written by playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton).


The bulk of the “action” takes place in Asteroid City, a remote New Mexico desert town—population 87—where Steve Carell’s motel manager hosts a Junior Stargazer convention. Gifted kids and their parents from all over the state convene to showcase their incredible, and often outlandish, inventions.


It’s an interesting group that includes recently widowed war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), father to “brainiac” Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and son-in-law to Stanley (Tom Hanks), movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and the rough-n-tumble J.J. Kellogg (Liev Schreiber). Along for the ride are singing cowboy Montana (Rupert Friend), teacher June (Maya Hawke), Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) a scientist from the local observatory, and the fast-talking Junior Stargazer awards judge General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright).


When the convention is interrupted by a visiting alien, the whole thing is locked down for a mandatory government quarantine.


Despite the quirky tone and Anderson’s trademarked stylistic choices, “Asteroid City” is a serious film, albeit one laced with a healthy dose of absurdism. A study in how people deal with grief, and the true nature of love, Anderson’s characters experience existential dilemmas, angst born of loss and dissatisfaction. Threats are posed by nuclear bombs and life from other planets unexpectedly dropping by to say hello and children wonder aloud what happens when we die. A shroud of melancholic anxiety hangs over the film, like a shroud, but Anderson’s staging of the film, the meta story within a story structure, obscures the movie’s deeper meanings under layers of style.


The cast, particularly Johansson and Hanks, bring focus to Anderson’s unfocussed story, and Carell, Cranston and briefly Goldblum are having fun, but it sometimes feels the surfeit of characters are there more to decorate the screen than to forward the story.


“Asteroid City” may delight long-time fans, but casual moviegoers or newcomers to the director’s oeuvre may find the film’s mannered obtuseness off kilter and off putting.


NO HARD FEELINGS: 2 STARS



In recent years, the R-rated comedy has fallen out of favor, pushed out of movie theatres by hunky but fully clothed, spandex-clad superheroes. In her new movie, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence attempts to bring soft-core comedy and innuendo back to the big screen with “No Hard Feelings,” a throwback to a time before #MeToo when raunchy romps like “American Pie” and “Not Another Teen Movie” bridged the gap between mainstream movies and stag films.


Lawrence plays Montauk, Long Island Uber driver Maddie, a young woman with only a few dollars in her bank account and even fewer options to earn more after her vehicle gets repossessed.


“I’m an Uber driver and I don’t have a car,” she says. “I’m going to lose my house.”


With no job and no prospects, she answers a Craigslist ad posted by Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison (Laura Benanti), the wealthy, eccentric helicopter parents of withdrawn 19-year-old Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman). The overbearing couple, who keep track of their kid via GPS on his phone, fear he is too withdrawn and unready to attend Princeton University in the fall.


“He doesn’t come out of his room,” says Laird. “He doesn’t talk to girls. He doesn’t drink.”


The deal is simple: If Maddie will date Percy, and bring him out of his shell, they’ll give her an old Buick they haven’t driven in years.


“So, when you say ‘date him,’” Maddie asks, “do you mean ‘date him’ or ‘date him’?”


“Date him,” Laird says, “date him hard.”


“I’ll date his brains out,” she promises.


The plan doesn’t get off to a promising start after Percy, fearing that Maddie’s advances are actually a kidnapping attempt, pepper sprays her. As time passes, however, Maddie and Percy’s friendship goes beyond contractual.


“No Hard Feelings” aims to find a sweet spot between racy comedy and heartfelt friendship story and misses the mark on both counts. The silly premise dampens whatever authentic moments Lawrence teases out of the bland script, and the metaphors—i.e.: the old Buick may be broken down, but there’s nothing wrong with it, or Maddie, that a bit of love and tenderness can’t fix—are so heavy handed, they flatten out whatever sincerity is lurking in the shadows.


Lawrence and Feldman are both better than the material, and what success, and laughs, the film has are owed to their performances. As the movie struggles to create a feel-good vibe in the last reel, Lawrence’s considerable charisma comes in handy, but the predictable and ultimately contrived story feels outdated and overdone.


BLUE JEAN: 3 ½ STARS



“Blue Jean” is a new British period drama, set in 1988 at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, that feels unsettling in its timeliness.


Set in working class Newcastle, and told against a backdrop of news reports detailing Prime Minister Thatcher’s Section 28, a new law which would “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality,” the movie stars Rosy McEwen as Jean Newman. She is a gay high school physical education teacher who is out in her day-to-day life, but closeted at work. “You have to create boundaries as teachers,” she says. “It’s part of the job. If anyone found out, I‘d never work again.”


Her off hours are spent at home or at the local gay/lesbian bar, a smoky pool hall where she can be open with girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes).


The line between her personal and professional life begins to fade when a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), joins Jean’s class. As Lois navigates her way in unfamiliar surroundings, Jean encourages her to play basketball, but the newcomer is bullied before, during and after every game. Jean suspects Lois is a lesbian, but, despite Viv’s disappointment, doesn’t confide in her.


“What kind of example are you setting for her?” asks Viv. “How is that girl going to learn if she has a place in this world?”


When the underage Lois shows up at the local gay bar, Jean feels exposed; afraid that her secret will be revealed.


In an early scene in “Blue Jean,” Jean asks her class if they know what “fight or flight means.” It is, she says, how the body responds before the brain has even thought about it. It is that flight response to Lois that informs Jean’s initial reaction to being outed, before a wave of self-reckoning sweeps over her.


Vividly brought to life by McEwen, who makes her big screen debut here, Jean’s instinctual need to preserve her job conflicts with her heart. McEwen’s star-making performance guides the character through the self-recrimination, heartache and ultimately relief necessary to bring this low-key story to vibrant life.


“Blue Jean” is a harrowing but tender study in identity, that blends a personal story with a political and societal one. Set decades ago, it is unfortunately timely, given recent events, in its portrayal of oppression of rights and casual homophobia, but still, a quiet heartbeat of rebellion pulses within as Jean marches toward self-actualization. 

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