SCREEN TIME: Close Encounters of the Wes Kind

‘Asteroid City’ shows how Wes Anderson defies imitation

#1 Asteroid
Photo credit: Focus Features
PHONE HOME: Jason Schwartzman calls Tom Hanks from ‘Asteroid City,’ directed by Wes Anderson.

Wes Anderson is the kind of filmmaker who lives up to the description “Often imitated, never duplicated.” With every release, the acclaimed director of The Royal Tenenbaums reaffirms a filmmaking style that’s become so familiar, mimicking it has gone viral. The #WesAnderson hashtag on TikTok is devoted to ersatz Anderson clips, while YouTube videos use A.I. to create fake trailers for Andersonized takes on The Lord of the Rings and the like.

It’s easy to see why: beginning with Rushmore 25 years ago, Anderson has been dedicated to symmetrical compositions, pastel colors, rapid line-readings and deadpan acting, often telling stories that juxtapose young love with mid-life crises. It’s hard to think of a contemporary filmmaker so committed to such an affected house style.

But Anderson’s latest film, Asteroid City, shows how his seemingly rigid control can have playful, joyous results. The titular town was the site of a meteor strike in the Southwestern desert, delightfully designed to emulate a 1950s postcard aesthetic: The desert backdrop looks gloriously fake, the sky an unblemished painting, the distant mountains clearly oversized props.

When Asteroid City holds its annual Junior Stargazers convention in 1955, it hosts such guests as scientists, the U.S. military, young geniuses and their parents, even movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) brings his four children, but hasn’t them told that their mother died three weeks earlier, adding a somber note to the town’s celebration of the Space Age. After an otherworldly event disrupts the convention, Asteroid City is put under military quarantine (in a nod to the Covid-19 era), but after a few days, state secrets and other passions start to bubble over.

Despite having the superficial sameness of all his films, Asteroid City is Anderson’s funniest and most inventive effort since the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox. And even though the huge ensemble cast commits to the buttoned-up acting style, an essential tenderness comes through. As Augie’s father-in-law, Tom Hanks brings more warmth than we may have seen from Bill Murray (an Anderson regular who usually takes on the remote father figures).

Perplexingly, the film includes a complicated “behind the scenes” framing device, filmed in black and white, that adds further layers of artifice and self-awareness. It’s distracting and often puts the viewer at a further emotional remove. A climactic scene, however, pulls the different narratives together in a transcendent moment that conveys one of Asteroid City’s central ideas: that art, science and religion are all equally helpless at explaining the purpose of life. Despite the arch performances and elaborate jokes, Asteroid City comes across as a deeply personal work.

Asteroid City can also feel like the director looked at Hollywood’s vogue for science fiction and special effects to deliver the most Wes Anderson-style take on a sci-fi movie imaginable. I won’t spoil details of the whimsical encounter that turns the town upside down, but I predict it’ll be remembered as the most delightful scene of 2023. Unlike imitations from real people or AI, a true artist can surprise you with things that you didn’t know you needed.

Return to Tara

About a week before seeing Asteroid City, I saw trailers for it and The Royal Tenenbaums back-to-back at the newly opened Tara Theatre. Unexpectedly closed earlier this year, the Tara has now been purchased by Plaza Theatre owner Chris Escobar and other equity partners.

Refurbished and reopened in late May, the Tara looks much the same, but has renamed its four screens to honor its own history and film exhibition in Atlanta. “The Eddie” is named for general manager Eddie Parrott; “The Jack” for landlord Jack Halpern, who worked with Escobar to reopen the theater; “The Kenny” for Atlanta Jewish Film Festival executive director Kenny Blank; and “The George” for art-house impresario George LeFont.

The Tara has announced plans to continue the theater’s longtime role of booking arthouse and independent films, and in addition to new releases, has been programming classics: for my first visit to the new Tara, I saw Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story, a famously quiet, still family story that’s significantly diminished on the small screen. If you care about the best in cinema, now’s the time to show the Tara your support.

Fri., July 7


GIRLS TRIP: Sabrina Wu, Ashley Park, Sherry Cola and Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu take a Chinese road trip in the comedy ‘Joy Ride.’ photo credit: Ed Araquel/Lionsgate

Joy Ride A young woman (Ashley Park) visits China to find her birth mother and discovers raucous comedy in Joy Ride, co-starring Sabrina Wu, Sherry Cola, and Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu.Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter Adele Lim makes her directorial debut. — Curt Holman
Opens Wed., July 12. Atlanta area theaters

The Prestige Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play feuding Houdini-era stage magicians in this dark, twisty drama Christopher Nolan made between Batman movies. Look for David Bowie as inventor Nikola Tesla. — Curt Holman
Fri.., July 7. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306.


Wed., July 12


THE HUNT IS ON: Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt in ‘Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.’ photo credit: Paramount Pictures and Skydance

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One Is Tom Cruise pursuing a second career as his own stunt man? The Mission: Impossible franchise offer compelling evidence. The seventh installment re-teams Cruise with director Christopher McQuarrie for another action epic that promises some of the most breathtaking stunt work Hollywood can deliver (and hopefully a less interchangeable story). — Curt Holman
Opens Wed., July 12. Atlanta area theaters

Mommie Dearest  “No wire hangers!” became a camp catch-phrase thanks to this 1981 adaptation of Christina Crawford’s tell-all memoir about how her mother Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) was an abusive careerist as well as an icon of the silver screen. This screening is co-hosted by Wussy Mag. — Curt Holman
7 p.m. Wed., July 12. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306.


Sat., July 15

Jawbreaker — In this dark comedy from 1999, three popular high schoolers (Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart and Julie Benz) accidentally kill their friend, then try to cover up the crime. Wussy Mag co-hosts this 70mm screening featuring writer/director Darren Stein. — Curt Holman
7 p.m. Sat., July 15. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306.


Sun, July 16 and Wed., July 19

National Lampoon’s Vacation Load the kids in the Family Truckster and set course for Wallyworld with the classic comedy’s 40th anniversary. Chevy Chase makes his first outing as harried family man Clark Griswold takes his loved ones on a disastrous road trip. Featuring Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron and hilarious turns from Randy Quaid and John Candy. — Curt Holman
Sun., July 16 and Wed., July 19. Atlanta area theaters.


Fri., July 21


COME ON BARBIE: Ryan Gosling’s Ken takes a backseat to Margot Robbie’s Barbie in director Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie.’ photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Barbie Actor/director Greta Gerwig goes from her acclaimed adaptation of Little Women to some really little women with this fanciful comedy based on the Barbie toy line. When Margot Robbie’s Barbie has an existential crisis, she and boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) journey to the real world, where fish-out-of-water comedy will presumably ensue. — Curt Holman
Opens Fri., July 21. Atlanta area theaters.



PARTICLE MAN: Cillian Murphy plays the inventor of the atomic bomb in the Christopher Nolan biopic ‘Oppenheimer.’

Oppenheimer Was J. Robert Oppenheimer “the most important person who ever lived?” Inception and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan makes the case in this twisty historic drama based on the Manhattan Project, starring Cillian Murphy in the title role and an all-star cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh and Tom Conti as Albert Einstein. — Curt Holman
Opens Fri., July 21. Atlanta area theaters