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Wes Anderson and the American West of the 1950s in ‘Asteroid City’

A man and a woman look at each other from the windows of two different motel bungalows.
Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson star in Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City.”
(Focus Features)
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Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

By now pretty much anyone reading this has interacted with a streaming service in some way — which ones to subscribe to, where to find certain shows and movies, etc. — so we at the L.A. Times have pulled together what we are billing as the Ultimate Guide to Streaming. It (hopefully) will answer all questions, fill in the blanks and leave you feeling like a better, more informed user.

First, what would such a project be without a ranking of various streaming services?

Meredith Blake looked at the broken promises of the streaming revolution, how creators and consumers are frustrated by what the ecosystem has become. As Meredith put it: “A decade after Netflix disrupted the industry, the initial promise of streaming has given way to frustration and fatigue for consumers and creators alike. Peak TV is in retreat and in its place is a new era of discontent: Call it Pique TV.”

Josh Rottenberg got into why certain shows and movies, such as “Moonlighting” or “The Heartbreak Kid,” are not available on any streaming service.

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Other stories in the package include the impact of streaming on sports docs, stand-up comedy, animation, Spanish-language programming and awards season. And that’s not even everything!

I took a look at how all of this is affecting how viewers get their movies, both in theaters and on streaming platforms. As Scott Schooman, president of IFC Films said: “Streaming has changed things, but what we want to make sure is that streaming is not a boon for mediocrity. … I think people have to make decisions between not only what movie do I go and see on a Friday night, but who is giving me the most regular cadence of awesome s— to watch.”

Juneteenth at the movies There are various movie-centric Juneteenth events happening around town on Monday the 19th. The American Cinematheque will be showing Channing Godfrey Peoples’ 2020 film “Miss Juneteenth” preceeded by a panel discussion sponsored by the African-American Critics Assn.

Vidiots will be holding a mini-fest presented by Ify Nwadiwe that will include a screening of Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman,” a live version of Moses Primm’s “Primm’s Hood Cinema” and a screening of Weldon Wong Powers’ “It’s a Party.”

And while not actually a Juneteenth event, it feels worth mentioning that our former LAT colleague Tre’vell Anderson will be appearing at the Academy Museum on Friday the 23rd for a conversation and signing about their new book, “We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film.”

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‘Asteroid City’

The latest from filmmaker Wes Anderson, “Asteroid City,” sharply divided critics when it premiered recently at Cannes. With a sneaky story-in-a-story structure, the movie is about a group of people who come together in a remote town in the 1950s for a science celebration, including a photographer (Jason Schwartzman) and a movie star (Scarlett Johansson). The cast also includes Tom Hanks, Maya Hawke, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Norton and lots more people. There is a whole other story line about a group of actors staging a production for television told with much of the same cast. The film is in theaters now.

There is also a wonderful companion book, “Do Not Detonate Without Presidential Approval,” edited by Jake Perlin, that mixes new essays by the likes of Kent Jones, Gina Telaroli, Matt Zoller Seitz and Imogen Sara Smith with vintage pieces by Molly Haskell, Lillian Ross, Serge Toubiana, Hilton Als, Sam Shepard and others to further the film’s examination of the worlds of 1950s stage and screen and visions of the American West.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “For Anderson’s admirers — and I count myself among them half the time — [his] style is a deliberately self-imposed obstacle, one that doesn’t conceal so much as magnify the emotions that his characters feel but can never properly express. … Scientists and artists, he suggests, are driven and indeed united by the same restlessly inventive spirit, the same desperate desires for human connection. That notion admittedly comes together more coherently in your head afterward than it does on the screen in front of you, which isn’t necessarily a knock. Some great movies do play better in the memory, even if ‘Asteroid City,’ light-fingered and leaden by turns, never quite ascends into their company. It soars, stalls and sometimes alienates. It also lands on a conclusion as moving as it is undeniable: We are not alone.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “The interplay between the familiar and the strange, like that between the theatrical and the cinematic, is a foundational theme in Anderson’s films, which, like most movies, look a lot like life yet are always different. What makes that difference is art — the voice, sensibility, technique, craft, money, luck and how the thrilling, terrifying mess of existence is gathered, organized and then set loose upon the world. … Part of what makes his work memorable and often unexpectedly touching is that his filmmaking — the stylized way he orders the world with his richly populated cast of collaborators — expresses how he navigates the world’s confusions. When Augie shows Midge a bald patch on his head where he was wounded by shrapnel while on assignment, he is sharing a reminder of the horrors that he’s seen. It’s an emblem of his pain, but it’s also an invitation to another person and to us — an appeal to our sympathies.”

For the Ringer, Adam Nayman wrote, “There’s a difference between being drawn into a film so deeply that it feels like a waking dream and simply tuning out. ‘Asteroid City,’ for all its formal brilliance, feels muted, unwilling to rouse itself from its own narcoleptic torpor. “The world will never be the same,” observes one character in the wake of the town’s close encounter with alien intelligence, but the line falls flat. Instead, you’ll leave ‘Asteroid City’ secure in the knowledge — or perhaps a little frustrated — that Anderson’s cinematic universe remains fundamentally unchanged.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’ is what happens when a filmmaker’s world of wonder and whimsy becomes a prison. … Even as Anderson purports to delight his audiences, he always holds them at arm’s length. He’s not the warmest of filmmakers; there’s an inherent exclusivity in his style. Many of his fans don’t seem to mind that, and probably even like it — he can make you feel like part of a secret club. But ‘Asteroid City,’ as extravagant and hermetic as one of King Ludwig’s crazy castles, is more excessively mannered than any other Wes Anderson picture.

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For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote, Anderson’s obsessively constructed dioramas explore the very human need to organize, quantify, and control our lives in the face of the unexpected and the uncertain. … ‘Asteroid City’ might be the purest expression of this dynamic because it’s about the unknown in all its forms. Death, the search for God, the creation of art, the exuberance of love, the mysteries of the cosmos — in Anderson’s telling, they’re all facets of the same thing.”

A man in a white suit and straw hat stands in the desert, directing a movie.
Writer-director Wes Anderson on the set of “Asteroid City.”
(Focus Features)

‘The Blackening’

Directed by Tim Story from a screenplay by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins, the horror-comedy “The Blackening” slyly examines the long-standing thriller trope that Black characters die first. An all-Black group of friends go for a vacation to a cabin in the woods, only to be confronted by a killer who insists they rate their levels of Blackness to determine the order in which they die. The movie is in theaters now.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “We think we know what happens next — but ‘The Blackening’ seeks to test our assumptions, using a slasher movie formula as a vehicle for fast, funny and whip-smart cultural commentary. … The social commentary swings from pop to political, all with the same light but incisive tone, which is what makes ‘The Blackening’ both entertaining and trenchant. But in terms of suspense and horror filmmaking, the movie is lacking. It’s not scary, the villain seems obvious from the jump, and there are a few missed opportunities and loose ends, storywise. It succeeds as a comedy but not quite as a horror film, the genre merely a setting and style for sending up insidious character stereotypes.”

For the New York Times, Lisa Kennedy wrote, “The quandary of what ‘Blackest’ means puts this movie squarely in the company of others that have used genre tropes to make sense of race in America. (Yes, ‘Get Out’ gets a nod.) It is a deft gesture to have the question turned on its head as the characters leverage what they think of as their whitest credentials. ‘The Blackening’ comes with a horror movie’s requisite skittish and stalking camerawork, its creaks and breath-holding hushes, its gore and payback. But it is the friends’ flee, fight, freeze — or throw under the bus — banter that makes the film provocative fun.”

For NPR, Aisha Harris wrote, “Most refreshing is that these characters are far and away among the smartest would-be victims of a deranged movie stalker. That doesn’t mean less-than-ideal choices aren’t made sometimes or that everyone makes it out alive — you can place your bets ahead of time if you’d like — but it seems safe to say many Black viewers have yelled at the screen for the preposterous decisions made in countless movies like this one. ‘The Blackening’ will be a different experience. … ‘The Blackening’ meets the moment, and it doesn’t feel like a spoiler to say that it boldly imagines a world too few horror movies dared to depict for years — one where Blackness survives and triumphs.

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A group of people look intently forward, listening to someone off-camera.

“The Blackening” cast: From left, Melvin Gregg, Grace Byers, Antoinette Robertson, Sinqua Walls, Jermaine Fowler, Dewayne Perkins and Xochitl Mayo.
(Glen Wilson / Lionsgate)

‘Blue Jean’

Written and directed by Georgia Oakley, “Blue Jean” is a timely look at a chapter from the history of gay people in Britain. The 1980s-set film follows a semi-closeted schoolteacher, Jean (Rosy McEwen), who struggles with how to live her life at work and at home in the face of then-new legislation banning the teaching of homosexuality. The film is in theaters now.

For The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “[The legislation] would eventually be fully repealed across the U.K. by 2003, but the gurgling late ’80s atmosphere of scaremongering that writer-director Oakley evokes won’t seem so long ago to anyone outraged by the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill Florida passed last year and, in our current political era, its noxious influence across right-wing America. That framing makes ‘Blue Jean,’ while set in the past, an unnervingly present movie. But in its specific character study, it also suggests a potentially dangerous future as well if things worsen — mostly because our protagonist finds herself ill equipped to fight, either for herself or for those in her sphere of influence whose protection from harm is in her job description.”

Emily Zemler spoke to Oakley and McEwen about the film. As Oakley said, “In the past five years, the relationship between the story of ‘Blue Jean’ and what is going on in the world around has taken a whole new trajectory. It’s impossible to watch the film without thinking about these new laws.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “The film’s writer and director, Georgia Oakley, has made an accomplished movie in many ways. ‘Blue Jean’ looks fantastic, and the period details are pitch perfect, from the moppish 1980s haircuts to the New Order music choices, all the way down to the neon gender symbols at the lesbian bar. Yet the film’s most impressive quality is its nuanced understanding of how political circumstances create different spheres of life. Jean is a character who moves both discreetly and discretely between worlds that cannot acknowledge each other. Her public and private lives are stacked, and Jean carries both like fragile cargo. One dish too many, and the whole tray could come crashing down.”

For IndieWire, Jude Dry wrote, “Though ‘Blue Jean’ has a contemporary sensibility, especially with the colorful low lights of the club and stylish short-haired characters, the story is undeniably steeped in lesbian history. The film combines artfully the legitimate need to show authentic queer life on screen — breathy sex scenes and all — with the vital importance of telling political stories during a time of renewed discrimination. This being 2023, ‘Blue Jean’ finds a defiant finale worthy of charming Jean’s good heart. Oakley is not out to punish her characters or belabor her points for the sake of drama.”

A woman stares into a mirror.
Rosy McEwen in “Blue Jean.”
(Magnolia Pictures)
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