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After The French DispatchI didn’t believe Wes Anderson would ever get more Wes Andersonic. Then along comes Asteroid City (now streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video), which ratchets up the filmmaker’s unmistakable idiosyncrasies another notch or three – it might be his most nesting-dolled, deadpanned, symmetrical and side-panned movie yet. The movie is definitely one of his most starry, as he has added Tom Hanks to the cast, along with Scarlett Johansson, Steve Carell, Margot Robertbie, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, and Jason Schwartzman. He also added a space alien to the mix this time.
The Gist Cranston plays an unnamed man who hosts a black-and-white TV show cropped in the Academy ratio. Conrad Earp is played by Norton. He’s a playwright sitting on a stage, typing away. He’s typing Asteroid CityThe desert town of Asteroid City is a thriving community in 1955. 87. In a series of pans, we see a gas station and diner. We also see a motel, and the Point Of Interest – a huge crater left by a meteorite that hit earth many years ago. A roadrunner will occasionally scamper by, or a mushroom cloud may appear on the horizon as a result of yet another atom-bomb test. Occasionally we’ll return to a black-and white scene. Above the motel, a sign welcomes a group of – get a load of Anderson’s wording here – space cadets for a convention that will fill its rooms and the coin banks of its many vending machines, which dispense everything from cocktails to deeds for real estate parcels.
In this scene, a towtruck pulls a car with Augie (Schwartzman), his wife and four children. Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is the oldest and one of the spacecadets. His three sisters are often framed as the Triple Goddess. Matt Dillon, the mechanic, assesses the vehicle. Augie asks his father-in law Stanley (Hanks), to pick up the girls, since they are stuck in Asteroid City. Augie and Woodrow stay at the convention. Augie is a war photographer who is also an atheist. He tells his children that their mom passed away a few years ago from an illness.
Soon after, Midge Campbell, a famous actress (Johansson), and her daughter, a space cadet (Grace Edwards) arrive at the convention. June (Maya Hawke), an elementary school teacher, leads a bus full of young space cadets. Stanley comes to pick up the girls. Dr. Hickenlooper, a scientist from the Asteroid City Observatory, and General Gibson, the convention host who will award the awards to the young spacecadets for their inventions. Montana (Rupert Friend), a singer in a cowboy music group. Various other parents, and their children, who are space-cadets. (Notable names: Liev, Schreiber Hope Davis Sophie Lillis Stephen Park). Carell, the manager of the motel, welcomes them all. As promised, we will occasionally return to Norton’s writer and Cranston’s TV host, and meet other black and white characters played by Brody. Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe and Robbie. What this means, I will not reveal.
What Movies will it Remind You of?: Wes Anderson movies remind me of Wes Anderson film. They may have color palettes that remind you of Pedro Almodovar and expansive, dynamic casts, as well as ambitions similar to Robert Altman’s. Anderson’s influence is lost in Anderson’s own style. So: Asteroid City It is a natural progression from The French DispatchThen, there is also The Grand Budapest HotelThen, there is also Moonrise Kingdom. It is a perfect match for the films from his later half of a career.
Performances Worth Watching I don’t know who will break your heart more in this movie, Johansson and Schwartzman. When they’re sharing a scene – those are the moments when the emotional heart of Asteroid City The truth is revealed.
Memorable Dialogue: The script, as always, is superb. Anderson and Roman Coppola are the writers. Here are a few of our favorites.
“I love gravity. It might be my favorite law of physics at the moment.” – Woodrow
“All my pictures come out.” – Augie
“The time is never right.” – Augie
“The time is always wrong.” – Stanley
“You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.” – many characters
Sex and skin: Johansson, a short full-frontal.
What We Think: Asteroid City This is a film about a television show about a drama, and the boundaries between them are blurred. “realities” This is a deliberate design to make the experience unpredictable and provocative. Anderson seems to be commenting on how art and artists are always exposed, whether we want it or not. That doesn’t mean we can psychoanalyze Anderson from our seat in front of the screen in any specific manner – which, frankly, would be far from enjoyable – but rather sense the broad, common anxieties of the human creature, most prominently the existential despair wrought from loneliness and uncertainty.
Augie’s and Midge’s interactions echo loneliness. They face each other in their motel rooms, and reveal their lonely souls when he shows his photos to her and she asks for help with her script. Johansson uses the famous Anderson Deadpan in a way rarely seen. The performance reflects a woman that is loved by so many, but only a few know her. She builds walls to protect herself but has no problem removing clothes for a stranger. Johansson’s performance is one of the best of her career. She has a way of expressing her pain in a thoughtful and beautiful manner.
Uncertainty? As for uncertainty? “junior stargazers,” They’re just starting their journey, from being hopeful teenagers to bewildered adulthood. You never know what otherworldly decree may appear to descend from the skies, or from nowhere, and cause havoc. For example, an illness can kill a mother of 4. Or an automobile accident. What if it was an alien with long appendages, large eyes and skinny appendages? It’s unlikely, but possible.
No, none of these events can occur “make sense” Conrad Earp, for example, explores the uncertainty of his writing in the same way that Augie uses his photos to show the horrors of war. Midge, meanwhile, taps into her grief to enhance a character. Anderson, meanwhile, uses his exacting methods to create a false sense of control, while the real world is void of any. The irony and futility of Anderson’s method generates a bleak sense of comedy – the implication: We’re all suffering, so why not laugh? – that finds elegant purchase with the sweet innocence that underscores his younger, more exuberant characters, who play childlike games until they fall in love with each other and take a fast track to a broken heart.
The feeling of profound disconnection and connection is common to all Anderson’s movies. It is also exemplified through his shoebox diorama style, which features crisp, linear movements, and carefully arranged set pieces. Asteroid City Anderson continues to embrace his Andersonness as he is unconcerned about whether people love it or hate. I believe the film to be his most visually and thematically ambitious, and a potential masterpiece; I’m not sure if I wholly understood it – that may come with inevitable and likely compulsive repeat viewings – but I loved it. I laughed a lot at random times. It was as if the moments of extreme silliness or hearty intellect accumulated beyond my ability to contain them and my mind, body, and body-mind couldn’t find a way to release it. The film is a sad, ridiculous one, and that’s by design.
Please Call Us: Gadzooks. STREAM THE FILM.
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John Serba works as a film critic and freelance writer in Grand Rapids.