What To Watch: Go Wes, Young Man

"Asteroid City" and "Blue Jean" in theaters, "Maggie Moore(s)" and Christian Cooper's "Extraordinary Birder" on VOD.

What To Watch: Go Wes, Young Man

In Theaters: “Asteroid City” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐,  opening today in New York and L.A., expanding next week) is a return to grace for Wes Anderson after “The French Dispatch,” a movie that collected the director’s most irritating, anaerobic mannerisms into one unwatchable chore. The melancholy that animates every Anderson project – the languorous sigh for a lost world or a lost innocence – has to have room to breathe if it’s to connect with an audience outside the erector set in his head, and “Asteroid” gives us an entire desert in the American Southwest, circa 1955, where a group of brainiac high school students and their variously sad parents have gathered for a Junior Stargazers convention overseen by a US army general (Jeffrey Wright). The central characters are Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan), a gawky STEM kid, his recently widowered war photographer father Augie (Jason Schwartzman), fellow teen scientist and apple of Woodrow’s eye Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards), and Dinah’s movie star mother Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson, above).

This being Anderson, of course, a galaxy of well-known actors are arrayed in concentric circles around the main quartet: Tom Hanks, a newcomer to Andersonville and tamping down his joie de vivre as Woodrow’s grandfather; Tilda Swinton (bien sur) as a scientist; Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, and Stephen Park as fellow parents; Maya Hawke and Rupert Friend as a schoolmarm and singing cowboy sweet on each other. Further out toward the rim of the galaxy are actors like Matt Dillon, Steve Carell (below), Fisher Stevens, and Anderson mascot/garden gnome Bob Balaban, and surrounding them – because this filmmaker can’t rest until he has embedded a story in a series of Russian nesting narratives – is the film crew making what we’re watching: Adrien Brody, Hong Chau, et al. All of which is being re-enacted as part of a black-and-white 1950s anthology show hosted by Bryan Cranston and starring Edward Norton as the Tennessee Williams-esque playwright of “Asteroid City” and Willem Dafoe as a gloss on acting guru Lee Strasberg. Somehow Margot Robbie is airlifted into this baked Alaska for one scene, and Jeff Goldblum appears in a role I can’t bring myself to spoil. (You’ll need to check the end credits.)

It's all a little exhausting, and I can envision the long line of actors who want to have a Wes Anderson movie on their resume but didn’t get into this one queued up outside his production offices, ready to take a number. Now that Woody Allen has become radioactive, there’s no other filmmaker who can sprinkle the stardust of indie cred over a performer – whose imprimatur alone ushers them into a very special, very hip club of ironic yet emotionally plangent (be)longing.

That sounds overly cynical, I guess, and “Asteroid City” certainly has its rewards. While never reaching the vast, hard-earned weariness of what is, to me, Anderson’s finest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), it lands nicely between the monomaniacally fussy world building of “The French Dispatch” and the tender sorrows of “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012). It is, of course, about grief; about how we build little artisanal walls around our hearts to keep them from breaking and how love comes in to acknowledge those walls before tearing them down again. The kid actors are terrific, and Johansson’s performance is truly remarkable when you consider she’s an actress playing an actress playing an actress playing an actress. (I may need to check my math on that.) Like “Moonrise,” “Grand Budapest,” and one or two others in the filmography – and unlike “French Dispatch” (and one or two others in the filmography) – “Asteroid City” feels its emotions rather than set designing them.

But it’s a tight horse race at times. That fake stop-motion roadrunner popping in and out of several scenes is a reminder that the Anderson aesthetic – human passions Zip-locked into hermetically sealed environments – is forever in danger of coming down with the cutes. Whatever childhood traumas (parental divorce, too much J.D. Salinger) he feels compelled to rework through his art, they seem to hold him back as much as push him forward. I’ve always been waiting for the day Wes Anderson became a real boy, but on the evidence of “Asteroid City,” he seems more content than ever to remain an odd, invaluable combination of Pinocchio and Geppetto – the toymaker who became his own toy.

Now in its second week of release, “Blue Jean” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) is a strong, keenly felt pressure cooker about the perils of the closet, with Rosy McEwen (above) very good as the title character, a lesbian gym teacher in 1988 England, when the Thatcher government was passing the notorious Section 28 laws prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality.” Happily out and about the Newcastle gay bar scene with girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes), Jean is restrained to the point of paranoia at the secondary school where she teaches PE; the arrival of a new student (Lucy Halliday) in both arenas undoes her scrupulously maintained double life to the point of collapse. Writer-director Georgia Oakley plays it as an emotional suspense film with an undercurrent of righteous rage that’s only slightly tempered by the warm portrayal of queer sisterhood, and if the lighting and score sometimes make you think you’re watching a monster movie, it’s worth remembering that the monster is Maggie Thatcher. “Not everything is political,” Jean says to her lover at one point, to which Viv scornfully and properly replies, “Of course it is.” Recommended.

On Demand: I have an affection for mid-level comedy-dramas that go sideways, maybe not intentionally but with less predictability and more human curiosity than bigger budget affairs. “Maggie Moore(s)” (⭐ ⭐ 1/2, available for rent on Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu, and elsewhere) is one such animal, and if you think the presence of Jon Hamm and Tina Fey (above) are a guarantor of pleasure, you’re right – just not in the way you expect. Hamm plays Jordan Sanders, chief of police in a small New Mexico town where two seemingly unconnected women, both named Maggie Moore, have been murdered; Fey is the first Maggie Moore’s neighbor, a lonely divorcee with an itch to solve crimes and maybe see more of the police chief.

Since we’re in on the plot from the beginning – it involves one of the Maggies’ husbands (Micah Stock) and a hulking deaf hitman (the inaptly named Happy Anderson) – “Maggie Moore(s)” initially plays as a low-rent “Fargo” before heading into flukier territory. Did I mention that Nick Mohammed, Nathan Shelley from “Ted Lasso,” is here as the chief’s deputy? (His British accent is explained away in a line of dialogue that I bet was improvised on set.) Or that Hamm’s old “Mad Men” cast mate John Slattery directed? The entire movie has a loosey-goosey sense of play that occasionally falls flat and occasionally turns brutal, and Slattery isn’t always successful at navigating the script’s trickiness of tone. (Can you make a Coen brothers movie if you’re not a Coen brother?) But every moment of Hamm and Fey onscreen together is a prickly delight; as the police chief and the divorcee negotiate two awkward people’s dance of love and sex, we get to witness adults being adults and actors on a working vacation. They could be speaking Esperanto and we’d still be entertained. “Maggie Moore(s)” is the sort of affable B-project that feels at home on VOD, where you trip over it almost by accident and start smiling as you rub your toe.

For worse and for better, here’s a very 21st century American success story: Black birder gets harassed by a racist dog owner in New York’s Central Park, his video of the incident goes viral, the dog owner loses her job, and the birder … gets a TV show. Honestly, on the basis of the host’s immensely likable presence, “Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐) couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. (Cooper’s also a fine writer, as a recent New York Times essay showed.) “Extraordinary Birder” debuts at 10 p.m. tomorrow (June 17) on National Geographic’s Wild channel and goes to Disney+ on June 20; subsequent episodes will appear weekly. I previewed the first two episodes, in which Cooper tags along with ornithologists and other avian experts in Puerto Rico and New York City; the shameful run-in that brought him to the world’s notice is mentioned only obliquely during a birding jaunt through the Park’s Ramble. Otherwise, you can see why the producers thought Cooper would be the person to broaden the culture’s notion of who birders are and can be; as a young(ish) gay man of color, he’s pretty much the opposite of the stereotype (which would be, uh, me). He’s also handsome, outgoing, and proudly nerdy about his love for all things feathered, and as an enthusiastic amateur, he’s our representative in the field. When Cooper sees a tiny Puerto Rican tody up close for the first time or visits a peregrine falcon’s nest at the top of the George Washington Bridge – holding the squawking chicks as they’re banded – his awe is a mirror of ours, and vice versa. Future episodes will journey to Hawaii, Palm Springs, Washington D.C., and Alabama. “Extraordinary Birder” is a slick package, sometimes to a fault, but the host is more than genuine enough to make up for it.

Enjoy your weekend and don’t hesitate to weigh in with any thoughts, stray or otherwise.

If you enjoyed this edition of Ty Burr’s Watch List, feel free to pass it along to others.

If you’re not a paying subscriber and would like to sign up for additional postings and to join the discussions — or just help underwrite this enterprise, for which the author would be very grateful — here’s how.