Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Wes Anderson Hits His Whimsical Peak with Moonrise Kingdom

     At this point in director Wes Anderson's film career, it's very clear that your opinion of his movies are not going to change one way or the other: either you appreciate his ironic and quirky efforts, filled with his signature style, wit and life-size dollhouse sets, or you find his cinematic efforts the creations of a pretentious poser, films directed by a man who is unwilling to alter his technique or stories and is instead stuck in his idiosyncratic ways, never to be released from the casting of Bill Murray or Jason Schwartzman. I fall somewhere in the middle, always enjoying his films but never really loving them, unlike some of my close friends or many critics. After exploring loneliness, the need to escape, and familial tension in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson tried something different, directing a stop-motion animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, that turned out to be a funny breath of fresh air. The animated form fit perfectly with Anderson's directing techniques.
     So now, in 2012, Anderson returns to live-action films with the wonderful Moonrise Kingdom. It seems his break into animation sparked a new kind of creativity, because Moonrise is a film that not only contains one his best enclosed worlds (something he was already great at creating), but also a story about young love that rings more true than the rest of his back catalog. The film is set in 1965 on picturesque island off the coast of New England. It focuses on two parts of the island (from watching the film, you might think these characters are its only inhabitants): Suzy (Kara Hayward) lives with her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three younger brothers in a lighthouse called "Summer's End". Her parents are lawyers, and when Suzy starts exhibiting some troubling tendencies, instead of parenting they rely on a book about dealing with a troubled child. Sam (Jared Gilman) is a member of a scout camp led by Ward (Edward Norton). Sam's an outcast who wants to plot his own adventure to put his scouting skills to a real test.
      Sam decides to leave (escape) the scout camp with a great allusion to The Shawshank Redemption. Suzy leaves her dysfunctional family behind too. You see, Sam and Suzy had met the previous summer, plotting their escape from their respective too-many-rules homes. They have plotted a reunion in a desolate field on the island, the start of an adventure that leads them through love, danger, violence, and a natural disaster. They bring along things that are essential to them: Sam, ever the obsessed scout, can pitch a tent (in more ways than one) that would make Bear Grylls growl with jealousy. He has all of the things to survive in the wilderness.  Suzy, on the other hand, has brought a few of her library books, a little kitten, and a record player. Her wardrobe isn't quite suited for wandering through the brush or getting bitten by ticks, either.
     The young lovers follow an Indian trail that leads them to plenty of picturesque places, most notably a secluded beach where each of them first experience the loss of innocence and gaining of maturity. But I'm getting ahead of myself: obviously, Scout Leader Ward and Suzy's parents have launched a search party and contacted the authorities, mainly Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis, in a nice, charming change-of-pace role for the actor). Even the other scouts, who once picked on the runty Sam, get in on the action of trying to find the young couple. It doesn't give anything away to say that a hurricane is approaching that could wreck the island or grab Suzy and Sam and tear them apart from each other. We learn this within the first few seconds of the film's run time.
     One other thing is also certain within the first few seconds of the film's run time: this is--unquestionably--a Wes Anderson film. All of his usual winks and wit are present almost instantly. But this time, they are coming from his gut and heart instead of just his head. Yes, all of the characters in the film sometimes seem as though  they know they are in a Wes Anderson film, with their sarcasm, oddball humor and quizzical looks. But Sam and Suzy, with their nervous tension and will to break free from their families, provide a solid lightning rod to ground all of the exciting electricity from Moonrise Kingdom, one of the best films so far of 2012.     (A-)

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