Things Aren’t What They Seem
Asteroid City & Blue Jean
By Marc Glassman
Wes Anderson, director & script
Starring: Jason Schwartzman (Augie Steenbeck), Scarlett Johansson (Midge Campbell), Tom Hanks (Stanley Zak), Jeffrey Wright (General Grif Gibson), Tilda Swinton (Dr. Hickenlooper),
Bryan Cranston (TV host), Edward Norton (Conrad Earp), Adrien Brody (Schubert Green), Liev Schreiber (J.J. Kellogg), Hope Davis (Sandy Borden), Stephen Park (Roger Cho), Maya Hawke (June Douglas), Steve Carell (Motel manager), Matt Dillon (Hank), Hong Chau (Polly Green), Willem Dafoe (Saltzburg Keitel), Margot Robbie (Steenbeck’s deceased wife and actor), Jake Ryan (Woodrow Steenbeck), Sophia Lillis (Shelly), Rupert Friend (Montana)
Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste, like loving anchovies or dark hard chocolate or oysters on a half shell. Not everyone enjoys them and the people who don’t, often accuse those who love such exotic tastes of being willfully outré. It’s best, in my opinion, to take everyone at their word. I’m married to someone with great taste who despises Anderson’s cinema. We simply have agreed to disagree. And so, dear readers, should you. If you have watched Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums or Moonrise Kingdom or The French Dispatch and left puzzled and somewhat dissatisfied, I doubt that this mostly favourable review of his latest, Asteroid City, will change your mind. Still, I hope that you’ll let me try. And for those who appreciate the wry deadpan sensibility of Anderson, let’s just say that you won’t be disappointed in the new one—although there are things about the film that are worthy of questioning and discussing.
Asteroid City is a genre-busting film, a dark comedy which incorporates an encounter with outer-space aliens, a family melodrama, a sky watchers contest for adolescence, a critique of American military culture, an old-fashioned TV drama, and a slapstick styled nod to Hollywood westerns and road films. Like most of Anderson’s recent films, it is set in the past though it’s not a period—America in the ‘50s–that he romanticizes. Small town America isn’t Mayberry in Anderson’s vision: it’s Asteroid City, a tiny burg made up entirely of turquoise carbon copy houses set in a desert made famous for its proximity to nuclear bomb tests and the ancient meteorite from outer space whose landing has bequeathed its reputation to the village. For Anderson, no small town is complete without a diner, a motel and a line of vending machines that sells everything from coffee and chewing gum to local real estate (available for purchase by tourists who want to buy a piece of paradise, U.S.-style) and so we see them all in Asteroid City.
Small towns need an industry in order to survive and for Asteroid City, it’s the U.S. military. This is the ‘50s so dropping atomic bombs in Arizona and New Mexico for testing purposes seems the right thing to do. With General Grif Gibson (a stalwart Jeffrey Wright) leading the soldiers and Dr. Hickenlooper (an absurdly sincere Tilda Swinton) heading up the scientists, all seems right in the crazily cozy little America.
Even a Wes Anderson movie has to offer a semblance of a plot and this one is a doozy. A group of self-acknowledged brainiacs, the cream of the crop in American science classes, arrive in Asteroid City for a Junior Stargazers convention followed by an entourage of devoted grade school kids accompanied by their lovely schoolteacher (Maya Hawke) and a quintet of singing cowboys led by a man named Montana (Rupert Friend).
The brainiacs have brought their parents, or at least one each, including Midge Campbell (an acerbic dialed-in Scarlett Johansson) a film actress with her daughter Dinah and Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman, a sad but charismatic documentary photographer) and his son Woodrow. Steenbeck, his father-in-law (Tom Hanks) and the children are dealing with the loss of his wife, whose remains are being taken across the land in a Tupperware container. Even so, movie-star Midge and photographer Augie develop a relationship defined through their increasingly intimate conversations across the windows of their accompanying bungalows, their reactions effortlessly captured in an old-fashioned set of American-styled cross cuts.
And, yes, there is an event. An alien arrives, which is only to be expected in a ‘50s style sci-fi film. He’s a perfectly rendered animation figure arriving in a flying saucer, tall and thin with bug eyes taking in the humans around him. And nothing happens after his eerie appearance. The U.S. government tries to shut down word of the encounter but they’re unsuccessful. Life continues blandly, in this version of the paranoid ‘50s when Communists and UFOs both existed in America, at least in the public mind.
Asteroid City has a film within a film structure. While the drama with the Stargazers and their families and the military and the beautiful movie star is shot in colour, the framing story is rendered in black and white with an impassive narrator (Bryan Cranston) reciting his lines in stentorian tones. A playwright (Edward Norton) is attempting to make a statement with the film, but what is it? There’s a funny scene where Willem Dafoe channels legendary Method Acting coaches Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg and a powerful one with Margot Robbie playing Augie Steenbeck/Jason Schwartzman’s dead wife offering a moving interpretation of a deleted scene from the play. We understand that the director of the play (an incisive Adrien Brody) and the writer had intense problems making the piece.
More than in most Anderson films, there is a lot of peripheral noise but it’s hard to tell that the film is saying anything. Of course, Anderson is too cool, too deadpan, to make us feel anything specific. But his best films leave us with something, whether it’s an appreciation of The New Yorker in The French Dispatch or the innocent joy of running away with a friend in Moonrise Kingdom. Here he offers us very little, just a grin at the woeful fates of those who enjoyed America in its heyday during the ‘50s. As always, Wes Anderson has made a stylish film that touches on so many of the excesses of our society and culture. We laugh and we appreciate the artistry, but Asteroid City will add few converts to the league of Anderson supporters.
Georgia Oakley, director and script
Starring: Rosy McEwen (Jean), Kerrie Hayes (Viv), Lucy Halliday (Lois), Lydia Page (Siobhan)
Let’s start off with a history lesson since the new British lesbian drama Blue Jean is set during the Margaret Thatcher era in ‘80s UK. and not everyone will remember the period. It was a time when radical conservatives in the UK and US exhorting free market capitalism overturned the humanist proto-socialist agenda which had dominated Western society since the end of World War Two. Along with Thatcher’s friend and political compatriot in the White House Ronald Reagan, the world was remade in the 1980s, with unions crushed while the industrial regions in England, the north from Manchester and Liverpool to Newcastle and Sunderland and the north-east and mid-west in the US (Pennsylvania to Indiana), the so-called Rust Belt, were systematically destroyed of their fiscal and populist prowess.
You need to know that to appreciate what Georgia Oakley’s debut film wants to do, which is to dramatize that era. In Blue Jean, she recreates a time and place where people with good intentions were silenced while democratic thought and action was forced underground by a gradually stronger reactionary force. The film’s titular lead, Jean, is a physical education teacher in a northern English school, trying her best to appear sexually straight in order to hold onto a job she loves in a time when Thatcher’s grip is growing tighter in England. Specifically, the Conservative government was in the midst of passing Section 28 in the Local Governments Act forbidding the promotion of homosexuality in schools and by local authorities. It was the first anti-gay legislation in a century in England and was eventually the subject of an apology by Conservative Prime Minister Cameron in 2009.
Throughout Blue Jean, the radio and TV broadcasts are about Section 28, which was vigorously opposed by artists and socialists before it was passed into law. It’s clear that Jean, a fit attractive divorcee will be able to keep her job only if she can continue to appear “normal.” Rosy McEwen is perfectly cast as Jean, a brilliant phys-ed teacher to girls by day and, dressed down, a billiards-playing, cigarette smoking, quick quipping woman at a local lesbian club at night. She’s in a relationship with Viv (Kerrie Hayes), an out dyke, who enjoys her life and opposes the patriarchy that dominates their lives. At one point, she says to Jean, “Everything is political,” whether it’s sex or work or food. Jean doesn’t agree but the film’s trajectory forces her to eventually accept that dictum as reality.
Jean is able to keep her bifurcated world in place as long as nothing puts the agenda askew. But suddenly she has to deal with Lois (Lucy Halliday), an awkward athletically gifted 15-year-old lesbian, who refuses to acknowledge Jean’s boundaries. Lois starts showing up at Jean’s favourite bar at night while angering her fellow female classmates by refusing to deny that she’s a lesbian. It all leads to a confrontation between the girls, the teachers and the school system, which dramatically reveals how difficult it was for women and men under Thatcher’s repressive regime.
Blue Jean is a stylish debut film, which benefits greatly from a compelling performance by Rosy McEwen, who conveys the difficult nature of compromising in an increasingly divided world. We’re there with Jean as she tries to negotiate her way out of a trap brought on by her true nature as opposed to a reasonable desire to keep a job and a way of life, which she deserves.
Like Jean, the film feels stuck between its radical theme and the reality of making something that mainstream audiences will embrace. Too often, Blue Jean feels problematic, not willing to play out its inherent contradictions. Like Lois and Viv, this viewer wants to shake Jean out of her ennui. As a director-writer, Georgia Oakley has made a film that outlines the issues of a terrible time without offering a solution. Perhaps there wasn’t one.
Not entirely a successful drama, Blue Jean is a worthy effort which conveys the heartbreak of a recent time in Britain. Rosy McEwen is fabulous as Jean, and one hopes to see more of her in the future. The same goes for Georgia Oakley, who has made a worthwhile first feature.
To learn about advertising opportunities with Classical FM use the link below: