ASTEROID CITY: Wes Anderson, the Universe, and Everything

Wes Anderson is known for his precision, to understate matters. So it’s striking when, early in Asteroid City, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) tells his four children that they’re going to stay with their grandfather on their recently deceased mother’s side for “an unspecified period of time that has yet to be determined.” This fumbling redundancy isn’t a one-off verbal joke, either, or confined to just this one character (though he does it again at least once more). Throughout the movie, characters add extra clauses and repetitions onto their sentences (“I wonder if I wish I should’ve”), even more noticeable than Anderson’s favorite go-to words and phrases (a nonchalant “anyway” being perhaps the most frequently used).

This inexactitude, exactingly portrayed, could be chalked up to an affectation of fictional playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), but even this is uncertain: The framing device is not precisely a production of Earp’s play Asteroid City, but a theatrical-style live-television production of a play about Earp writing Asteroid City. So, we see black-and-white TV-square footage of a host (Bryan Cranston) introducing various scenes of Earp and his associates, and then we see most of the action of Earp’s  Asteroid City, portrayed in full widescreen color – and what color! Some of the most vivid pastels and richest yet lightest sky blues I’ve ever seen! – as a feature film unencumbered by the physical limitations of a TV set.

Though of course, all of this was still performed on an actually-elaborate film set meant to create a kind of hyperreal version of the American desert in 1955. Scarlett Johansson’s character is a movie star – which means she is an actress, playing an actress, playing an actress. And on it goes. Is Anderson, following the nested stories of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the magazine construction of The French Dispatch, performing the narrative equivalent of his newly redundant sentences? How many hats can balance on top of how many hats?

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PAST LIVES Is Secretly an Internet Movie (and a Great One)

Movies have had an uneasy relationship with the internet since at least the days of ubiquitous American Online diskettes. Whenever a movie (especially a clunkily humanist one like noted non-classic Men, Women and Children) expresses any alarm about the pitfalls of digital technology, anyone with online levels of medium or above tends to point and laughs—and not for nothing do so many members of a particular subgenre have the adjective “paranoia” inserted between “internet” and “thriller.” Really, though, who can blame the movies for their paranoia? Anyone who spends a reasonable (read: unreasonable) amount of time online will readily admit what a cesspool it is, then gaslight any movies that agree with them—and that was before the internet enabled a haphazard half-dismantling of the already-fragile big-studio movie pipeline. This makes it all the more impressive that Celine Song’s new movie Past Lives sees the internet, particularly social media, with such clarity, and depicts it with such restraint.

That’s typical of the movie of the movie in general, which is not principally about digital technology, but rather a pair of young friends with middle-school crushes on each other who are separated, then reunited decades later. If the movie is a romance, it’s one of bittersweet small gestures and longing looks—the small spaces in between major life decisions.

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YOU HURT MY FEELINGS Review: A Sitcom Premise with Real Bite

It’s a premise that could have inspired a sitcom episode, and probably has: Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer who has been working on draft after draft of her new novel, accidentally overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) offer his honest opinion of her work, which he’s repeatedly praised to her. The truth is, he doesn’t much like it, and he feels like it’s too late for him to tell her this. What makes this seem like a potential sitcom episode is also, oddly, what makes the movie seem true to life: This revelation isn’t just an embarrassment for Don or a surprise for Beth; it spirals into a crisis of confidence for both of them. The rawness is right there in the title: You Hurt My Feelings, a phrase that (unless I’m misremembering) no one in Nicole Holofcener’s new movie actually directly says out loud. Beth doesn’t need to; it’s all over her face, whether accompanied by anger, sadness, or uncertainty (over her career, her marriage, her family… you name it).

You Hurt My Feelings is, to be clear, very funny – I laughed out loud repeatedly, especially in scenes involving Beth, her sister Sarah (a perfectly cast Michaela Watkins), and their fussy mother (Jeannie Berlin, ably and hilariously impersonating someone five or ten years older than her actual age). Those laughs feel fuller because the movie allows the truthfulness of that hurt to burn through the mild shenanigans of sneaking up on your spouse while he’s sock-shopping and hearing something you shouldn’t. Rather than letting her movies turn into farce-lite trifles without the wherewithal for full slapstick, like some later-period Woody Allen pictures, Holofcener only gets sharper and more precise as she moves through her career. Feelings, along with Enough Said, her decade-ago previous collaboration with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (whichI see I also described as deceptively sitcom-ready back then) and Please Give, from a few years before that, sits among her best.

One of Holofcener’s gifts is her ability to casually, convincingly fill out what could seem like a cloistered upper-middle-class New York City world. Though Beth and Don are the film’s focal points, we also spend time with Sarah and her actor husband Mark (Arian Moayed), as well as Beth and Don’s son Elliott (Owen Teague), himself an aspiring writer, who expresses discomfort over his parents’ closeness and, eventually, their loving encouragement. Is he actually good at all the things they tell him he is, or does he just have a doting mother, desperate to reverse her own, less nurturing upbringing? All of the characters ultimately struggle with forms of this question, and while Holofcener clearly has affection for all of them, she’s unsparing enough to allow for the very real possibility that none of them are particularly good at the things that they’ve self-designated as their skill sets, their passions, their callings. Maybe no one is? Maybe even a calling is subject to the muddling-through mediocrity of everyday life? That’s not exactly the point she’s making (at least not explicitly), but it’s tantalizing to watch a movie that itself seems cautious about providing too much encouragement, too much coddling for its audience. This is a comedy, not a therapy session.

Although, as it happens, this is a comedy that contains multiple therapy sessions, because Don is a therapist, and, in keeping with the artier aspirations of his friends and family, something of a flailing one. He catches himself mixing up patients’ backgrounds, he sees a couple (real-life spouses David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) who seems comically incapable of positive change, and, in a devasting social exposure to match Beth’s, he even overhears someone else muttering about the sessions’ – about his, really – uselessness. In the starkness of these low moments, it’s hard not to ruefully think of how many movies and TV shows trend in the opposite direction, earnestly espousing the benefits of therapy and emotional openness. It’s hard not to think specifically of Ted Lasso, a feel-good workplace sitcom where every character seems to eventually arc toward moral instruction for the viewers, apparently in such dire need of guidance that they not merely laugh at Ted’s culture-clash antics, but laugh with them, and, worse, learn from them. In Holofcener’s films, even moments of understanding can sting: “Leave him alone,” Tamblyn’s character says when her husband criticizes Don for not helping them enough. “He looks tired.”

It would be a stretch to describe You Hurt My Feelings as a rebuke to the fact that Ted Lasso’s second and third seasons have kinda sucked. It’s a bigger achievement than that, and bracingly alive all on its own, all the more impressive for existing near-exclusively in an Allen-ish world of privilege without using that world as a narrative problem-solver. (It’s a little vexing that no one in the movie seems to have any financial concerns, but the writer-director of Friends with Money can probably be granted a pass there – and anyway, the fact that Don and Beth are potentially well-compensated for their work only makes questions of their competence cut deeper.) But it’s still a relief to see that starting with sitcom simplicity doesn’t have to mean a bunch of squishy revelations that engulf comedy and attempt to decompose it. It can, instead, build out into something exacting and almost anthropological in detail. And even so: funny, too.

The Podcast Oscar Special 2023!!!

Welcome to the 95th Annual Oscar Special! True, our podcast has only been around for nine years (!), but the Oscars have apparently been at it for 95, and one day they’ll get it right! Will that happen for the 2022 movies, including Everything Everywhere All At Once facing off a bunch of challengers including The Banshees of Inisherin, Top Gun 2, Avatar 2, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Fabelmans, and a bunch of Talking Women?!? Tune in to our Oscar special to find out what “getting it right” would even mean for Sara, Jeremy, Marisa, and Jesse, who offer their selections for who will win, who should win, and who was SNUBBED in each of the big eight categories! You can download our Oscars ep here or listen below!

The Podcast: Best Movies of 2022

Movies! Now more than ever! For this late-but-not-that-late episode on the Best Movies of 2022, the movie core of Marisa, Sara, Jeremy, Jesse, and Nathaniel each submitted a list of, yes, their 20 favorite and/or best movies of 2022, aggregated into a single list. Four of us then run through those collective choices in this loose countdown, which means talking about movies that are and are not actually about the magic of cinema. Musicals, multiverses, Hitchcockian thrillers, dark comedies, and emotional devastation… this year’s best movies of 2022 had it all! Along with our group’s consensus choices, we offer occasional dissent with each other’s picks, plus a quartet of outliers that only made certain individual lists. There’s a lot to enjoy here, so get to listening!

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“Worlds within worlds.” That’s the well-worn descriptor—Quotation? Catchphrase? Cliché? Really, that universal catch-all-three “from the comics”—one character uses to characterize the primary setting of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The characters are goggling at the previously glimpsed and now heavily explored Quantum Realm, a beyond-microscopic section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reachable only by advanced (and dangerous) shrinking technology. Ten years ago, though, this phrase might have applied to the MCU’s numerous overlapping mini-franchises, Iron Man’s world not quite the same as Captain America’s which was not quite the same as Thor’s—until they pulled a few narrative threads together and converged into The Avengers. Now, it could also apply to the way the MCU seems obligated, whether by due dates, artistic conviction, or pure high-roller self-confidence, to paste together its wonders with green-screen, dim lighting, and suspiciously empty one-shots. Whenever it’s possible to look at Quantumania and idly wonder whether anyone on screen was actually in a room together during shooting—which is often!—you may be peeking at the worlds-within-worlds built by visual effects artists and actors’ conflicting schedules. In other words: a Zoom call with (somewhat) better backgrounds.

Which is not to say Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania entirely lacks for sights. Previous looks at the Quantum Zone somewhat resembled the spongy insides of Fantastic Voyage crossed with a lava lamp; this time, we see cityscapes that look like a more gelatinous Star Wars, and creatures to populate them. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), also known as Ant-Man, is on accidental extended visit there, along with his girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), his teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), and Hope’s parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer). The whole family gets sent there in a sequence of admirable expediency and perhaps not a lot of sense; the stakes may be higher in this third Ant-Man movie than they were in the previous palate-cleansing adventures, but returning director Peyton Reed seems to vaguely recall the crispness of his best comedies like Bring It On and Down with Love (if not their colorfully winking wit), and attempt to bring things in around the two-hour mark. (For a contemporary superhero movie, this is the equivalent of 91 minutes.)
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The Podcast: Best Streaming TV of 2022

You may have heard of a coming streaming recession or TV apocalypse, but regardless of what the future may hold, right now, there is still a hell of a lot of streaming TV out there for your consumption, whether your streaming provider is Netflix, Hulu, Paramount, Apple, Disney, Tubi, or all of the above (or just Tubi because Tubi is the best). Sensing a need for categorization and consensus in this vast streaming TV landscape, Ben called an emergency session of the podcast crew to talk about our favorite shows of 2022, sorted neatly into a series of categories: workplace shows, relationship shows, fantastical shows, funny shows, animated shows… all the types of shows, as favored variously by Ben, Jeremy, Sara, Marisa, and even TV agnostic and confirmed “movie person” (ugh) Jesse. So before you just shrug your shoulders and fire up that new season of Mad About You that you missed a few years ago, why not listen to us stump for our favorites (and run down a few of our anti-favorites)? We’ve got something for just about everyone, and if you watch all of these shows already, you can hear us praise and/or debate them. Happy listening and watching!

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80 FOR BRADY is a Fancy Grandma Adventure That Works

Plenty has been written about the enabling of the streaming-era ubiquity of geezer teasers, direct-to-video action movies that tantalize older viewers with heavily advertised appearances, often brief, from stars of yesteryear like John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone, or Bruce Willis. But for women of a certain age who aren’t particularly associated with crime thrillers or gunplay, there’s a parallel track involving more screentime, less (though not zero) nefarious marketing, and actual theatrical releases: Fancy Grandma Adventures, wherein a group of actresses (usually four) with storied careers (usually at least two Oscars) get together for a groove-reacquiring girls’ night that lasts around two hours.

The Robert De Niro of this emerging mini-genre—the workhorse who seems to really enjoy working—is Diane Keaton, whose close associations with Nancy Meyers made Book Club (also starring Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen) into a stop-gap solution for anyone craving cream sweaters, copper pots, and post-menopausal reclamations of purpose. A sequel is coming this spring. Steven Soderbergh even made a vaguely art-house version of this story with Let Them All Talk, where Bergen, Dianne Wiest, and Meryl Streep play old friends reuniting on a cruise ship.

80 for Brady is a Fancy Grandma Adventure based on a true story—
presumably in the sense that at least once, a group of older women went to the Super Bowl together. (A real-life photo is provided as the credits roll; no other details accompany it.) Keaton is inexplicably absent, but Book Club’s Fonda appears, joined by her frequent co-star Lily Tomlin, plus Oscar winners Sally Field and Rita Moreno. After becoming diehard fans of the New England Patriots later in life, the four women decide to get themselves into NRG Stadium in Houston to watch what could be Tom Brady’s final Super Bowl appearance in 2017. Being in his 40s, they reason, he is “80 in people years,” just like them.
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The Podcast: Avatar 2 and the Films of James Cameron

Avatar is back! Everybody brace for cultural impact! James Cameron’s special-effects extravaganza Avatar: The Way of Water has finally made it to movie theaters — in fact, it’s now topped the domestic box office for seven weekends in a row, garnered a Best Picture nomination, and raked in over $2 billion worldwide. In light of this stunning failure to attract any kind of substantial audience or acclaim, your crew hopped in their submersible and did a deep-dive podcast on the films of James Cameron, in all their water-y, tech-y, earnest glory. The Avatars, the Terminators, the Aliens, the various boats and choppers and motion-captured Na’vi… they’re all here in this two-hour-plus extravaganza that is still shorter than the runtime of Avatar: The Way of Water. Discussion points include high frame rate, 3-D, sending Bill Paxton to explore the real Titanic, the names of characters in Avatar, Cameron’s facility with sequels and what sets the Avatar follow apart, Titanic opening-night memories, and more. Jesse, Marisa, Jeremy, Nathaniel, and Jeff are your guides through the floating mountains of Pandora and beyond! And if you feel the need to do some penance following this epic appreciation of megablockbuster entertainment, we did do a podcast about a bunch of recent indie movies!

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The Worst Movies of 2022

Best Movies of the Year lists seem to pop up earlier and earlier, but you don’t see quite as many Worst of the Year equivalents. I understand why: It seems mean, it flirts with Golden Raspberry-level cluelessness, and it doesn’t seem worth the effort telling people to avoid a few movies they might have already seen (or, as with smaller movies, would probably never come across anyway) rather than telling them to check out any number of gems. And yet: There is something satisfying about rounding up a motley crew of the year’s most annoying, inexplicable, and/or painfully inept cinematic experiences, if only to see where the bad trendlines are headed (and maybe compile some writing that hopefully justified the critic’s investment of time). This year, perhaps owing to my co-hosting a horror movie podcast, I saw plenty of bad horror movies (and this was a very good year for horror in general). I also saw a lot of movies rolling the dice on Get Out-style social commentary, and then watching as the dice skipped down the sidewalk and fell through a sewer grate. So take a look at my least-faves of 2022, check out some writing and podcasts from the past year, and be glad that I left off Resurrection, and see how they compare to 2020 and 2021.
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