Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton

There is no filmmaker in the business with a distinct and personal style quite like Wes Anderson.  From frame one, there is no doubt you are in a Wes Anderson film, and that fact is often exciting (but sometimes annoying, depending on the one’s personal tastes).  For myself, a new Wes Anderson film will always be exciting even though I have found his career thus far to have both considerable highs and lows.  His debut, Bottle Rocket, is one of my all-time favorite comedies, and the two follow-ups, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums rank close behind.  While The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited had that undeniable “Anderson-flair,” his touches did not make up for what I thought were a lack of compelling stories (though I am interested in revisiting both films).  However, his stop-motion animation film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, was the step back in the right direction that made me once again excited to see what he was capable of next.  I couldn’t wait to find out if Moonrise Kingdom would be Anderson’s full-fledged return to glory or a continuance of his mid-2000s lull.

Moonrise Kingdom takes place during the 1960s in the fictional island of New Penzance.  We quickly learn a lot about this island in true Wes Anderson fashion from the town historian (Bob Balaban) who lays out its history, geography, and culture.  New Penzance is an odd little community where everyone knows each other and the town rallies to make things return to the status quo.  Two young people, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), interrupt that status quo by fleeing their respective homes to follow their hearts and reunite.  Obviously, in such a tight-knit community, there are people quickly on their trail.

In setting up the situations that Sam and Suzy are leaving, Anderson is given an opportunity to showcase his visual style.  Sam is an orphan whose strange tendencies have labeled him as “troubled” and without any friends at the Khaki Scout camp where he is spending the summer.  Suzy is another friendless loner, receiving that “troubled” label, who is stuck in a giant home amidst her loveless family.  The film begins with classical music playing on Suzy’s record player as she walks around her giant dollhouse of a home in complete boredom, with her only solace coming books and binoculars.  When we are (almost) introduced to Sam, it is through Edward Norton’s Scout Master Ward’s thorough and hilarious check-in at every station of the camp, until we learn that Sam has left to put his scouting skills to use in the wilderness as he reunites with Suzy (she escaped from home with her books and binoculars packed for the adventure).

In the world of New Penzance, Wes Anderson’s unique touches always work perfectly.  The camera slides from room to room in Moonrise Kingdom’s opening, following Suzy around her architecturally impossible homestead.  Life in the Khacki Scout camp similarly defies logic, but that poses no problem in a Wes Anderson film.  His characters and settings always feel like they are from an alternate universe, and if its story is interesting, that Anderson universe is somewhere I want to be.  Moonrise Kingdom’s story of two kids doing anything for love and the community uniting to find them worked on every level for me.

Moonrise Kingdom’s success largely hinges on its two first-time actors playing the kids, Gilman and Hayward.  Under Anderson’s careful direction, their performances work so well as they match the many cinema greats in supporting roles (such as Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton) when delivering Anderson’s trademark dialogue that is so stilted and deadpan.   Sam and Suzy bring a lot of laughs to the film, and most importantly, the love story between the two is very beliebable.  From the set up of their love through a series of letters and reunion in the meadow to the culmination of their love as they awkwardly dance and kiss on the beach, every beat in this relationship is fun to watch.  Moonrise Kingdom has a lot of experienced talent in its cast, but it remains at its best when the two most inexperienced actors take center stage.

Though the stars of Moonrise Kingdom are the kids, its supporting characters are all strong as well.  As Suzy’s lawyer parents, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, are excellent as two people whose love has soured and lives have become dull.  In the beginning, they are under the same roof but very distant until Suzy’s disappearance forces them to awkwardly reconnect.  Murray is especially funny every time he appears on screen.  Two actors new to Wes Anderson, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, also shine as lonely men who are given the opportunity to show their worth in the search for the missing children.  Both men, Scout Master Ward (Norton) and Captain Sharp (Willis), love their jobs and are great at what they do until Sam’s plan throws a wrench in their lives.   Throughout the search, their capabilities are questioned and reaffirmed and their lives improve in the process.  They will make you laugh a lot during that time too.

All the characters in smaller roles are also really good:  Tilda Swinton’s Social Services, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel as two Scout Masters at a rival Khacki Scout camp, Bob Balaban’s town historian, and all the other young scouts who help chase down Sam and Suzy.  The scope and skill of Moonrise Kingdom’s ensemble cast is on par with Anderson’s great film, The Royal Tenenbaums.

I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of Moonrise Kingdom’s whimsical and sometimes impossible story.  Anderson’s direction and his cast were excellent, the cinematography was appealing (mimicking an old 16mm print), and his musical choices were, as always, perfect.  I cannot wait to reemerge myself in the world of New Penzance and notice even more riches it has to offer.  With Moonrise Kingdom, it is clear that Wes Anderson has returned to his earlier days of glory, which is great news to film buffs everywhere.

When thinking about how I would “mark” this film, I initially thought it would be an easy 8.  But it has stuck with me more and more in the days since seeing it.  I cannot wait to watch it again and truly believe that it will be one of those films that get better and better with every viewing.  Therefore, it’s getting bumped up to the next level...

Mark it 9.

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