Leave it to Wes Anderson to set his latest feature film, ASTEROID CITY, in a desert town with a population of 87. That little nugget right there gives specific insight into the director’s innovative mind --- and what keeps all his fans coming back for more. ASTEROID CITY is Anderson’s best effort since THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, a claim not made lightly.


Beginning on a 1950’s television-studio soundstage in black and white, the Host (Bryan Cranston), sounding much like Rod Serling from “The Twilight Zone”, describes to the audience what they are about to see. Then the playwright, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), is introduced, along with the lead actors, Jonas Hall (Jason Schwartzman) and Mercedes Ford (Scarlett Johansson). You see, ASTEROID CITY is about a play within a play within a television broadcast. And, as the Host informs us, ‘Asteroid City’ doesn’t exist.


Next, Anderson’s film morphs into panoramic color as visitors in 1955 converge upon Asteroid City which features a one-pump gas station, a 12-stool luncheonette, a 10-cabin motor-court hotel and an off ramp which was never completed. Everyone is in town to honor the five Junior Stargazers finalists. Hosting this momentous event is a five-star general Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), along with famed astronomer, Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton).


War photographer, Augie Steenbeck (also Schwartzman), is present with his three young daughters and teenage son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), one of the Junior Stargazer honorees. His wife has recently died and Augie hasn’t mustered the courage to inform his children. His father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), blows into town in his Cadillac Eldorado convertible to help with the children. He never thought Augie was good enough for his daughter, but he wants to be there for his grandchildren. He does not, however, wish to bury his daughter’s ashes ---currently in a Tupperware container --- in Asteroid City, but his three granddaughters prevail.


Movie star Midge Campbell (also Johansson) and her daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), another Junior Stargazer honoree, are also in for the festivities, along with three other Space Cadet winners and their parents. The motel Manager (Steve Carell) gets everyone settled in their cabins and everything seems to be progressing smoothly until an unexpected guest --- an alien --- makes an appearance. Asteroid City is placed under quarantine until further notice.


ASTEROID CITY is quirkier than most of Anderson’s others with flashes of brilliance throughout. And, true to form, the humor is dispatched in deadpan style. The color palettes are astounding --- Asteroid City is awash in vibrant hues. And the music by Alexandre Desplat is sublime.


But, as always, it is Anderson’s choice of actors which solidifies his uniqueness. The cast of ASTEROID CITY reads like a Who’s Who of filmmaking. Schwartzman, Johansson and Hanks are, as one would expect, perfectly suited for their roles and each delivers a nuanced performance. Johansson is particularly notable --- it’s by far her best role since JOJO RABBIT.


There is also a laundry list of others, some favorites being Rupert Friend as the cowboy troubadour, Montana, Maya Hawke as a schoolteacher, June Douglas, Matt Dillon, who plays the only mechanic in Asteroid City and Jeff Goldblum as the alien. Margot Robbie, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Hope Davis, Liev Schreiber and Stephen Park also appear.


Wes Anderson films are certainly not for everyone. His eccentricity may delight some, puzzle others --- and perhaps offend a small minority. But no matter. ASTEROID CITY explores the meaning of life and death, grief and hope --- and especially love and loneliness. His ability to address in a completely adult --- and

humorous --- way has always been his forte. ASTEROID CITY will not disappoint his devotees, and it may even garner him some new followers. Those of us who treasure his filmmaking skills are grateful.


Opinion: Strong See It Now!





Viewing Wes Anderson’s latest directorial effort, ASTEROID CITY, is an adventure in concentration and focus. Not only does he offer a huge cast, many of whom are well-known veteran actors, but his film is about a play within a play. Thus, many of the players have dual roles so it occasionally becomes a challenge to decipher when they are onstage or off.


ASTEROID CITY is not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as some of his previous work, such as THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. But it is definitely unorthodox as fans of Anderson know. Although Ralph Fiennes is not among the cast members, the following are present --- in no particular order: Bryan Cranston, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Wright, Hope Davis, Liev Schreiber, Matt Dillon, Steve Carell, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Fisher Stevens and Margot Robbie. And the great Alexandre Desplat provides the music.


Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola were inspired and/or influenced by many past films, notably Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE, the gritty western BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and Frank Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. Anderson even found one of his characters on YouTube because he witnessed a video by Aristoyu Meehan who plays Clifford. The young man invented an apparatus with octopus-like robotic arms, and because part of ASTEROID CITY involves five young inventors called “Junior Stargazers” waiting to receive awards, Anderson felt compelled to find Meehan. He did and he cast him.


Another theme in ASTEROID CITY is the handling of grief. Augie Steenbeck (Schwartzman) is quietly bemoaning the loss of his wife but has waited to tell his four children. A running joke in the movie has the kids carting around their mother’s ashes in a Tupperware container. As Anderson says, “Deaths are the biggest milestones in our lives.”


One of the Steenbeck kids, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), has invented a device that can portray images on the moon, thus prompting the possibility of interstellar advertising.


Anderson and Coppola also draw on the mid-50s story about a UFO that supposedly was spotted in Roswell, New Mexico, since debunked as an American spy balloon.

And an alien played by Goldblum inspires fear and dread of things like a Russian invasion, common to the Cold War hysteria of the era.


Originally the filmmakers conceived their movie as taking place entirely in an Automat. Those of a certain age will remember these early “vending machines” --- indigenous to New York City --- which contained sandwiches, etc.   But Anderson and Coppola opted to set their film in the American desert of 1955, although filming took place in Spain.


ASTEROID CITY is vastly appealing, particularly experiencing these many actors intermingling in their varied roles. It’s an ingenious collaboration between Anderson and Coppola and a host of behind-the-scenes personnel. While I’m not a big fan of seeing movies twice, ASTEROID CITY is certainly a candidate.


Opinion:  See It Now!