Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom Movie Review

The whimsical world of Wes Anderson has returned in Moonrise Kingdom, his seventh feature film and just the latest to be populated by characters from a fantasy vision of the world that lies just beyond anyone’s actual experience of it. Anderson likes to set his films in veritable islands unto themselves: a Manhattan mansion that seems part of a fictionalized New York I’ve never seen; a private school that offers a most ambitious student a lot of leeway; a train across the Indian subcontinent; a submarine (that one offered up his most capricious film to date); and now a literal island that looks (on the map presented by Bob Balaban’s on camera narrator) a little like Fisher’s Island, NY.

All the usual Anderson hallmarks are present including his eccentric characters, a set design loaded with bric-a-brac and oddities, and a precious story, this time centering on young lovers on the lam in 1965. Sam (Jared Gilman) is a 12 year old boy who’s just disappeared from his Khaki Scouts troop having decided, apparently, that he’s a little too different to fit in. Anderson’s protagonists are always just this side of eccentric and a little left of center. Scout Master Ward rallies the rest of the troop for a search and rescue mission, although the other boys may have something else in mind as Ward has to advice them it is absolutely not a capture and destroy mission. They take weapons regardless. Edward Norton as the scout master is a finicky and meticulous leader, always looking out for proper Scout decorum and procedure.

Sam’s real mission is to traverse the 16 miles of the island to meet up with Suzy (newcomer Kara Hayward), who lives there with her family consisting of three younger brothers and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand for parents. Murray has been a regular in Anderson’s films since his revelatory as Herman Blume in Rushmore, playing moody and laconic men of quiet desperation. In this case he’s married to a woman who’s having an affair with the only other man on the island who is of their generation. That is Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the island’s police.

While Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward and Suzy’s parents search conduct their search, the two youngsters rely on Sam’s scouting survival skills to set up camp with the intention of making their escape to the mainland. Further complications involve Social Services (Tilda Swinton), who arrives to see that Sam is returned to an orphanage now that his foster parents have cruelly decided they don’t want him, and an impending storm of gargantuan proportions that rivals the earlier-referenced Biblical flood of Noah. Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel turn up in small roles late in the film.

Anderson always collaborates on his screenplays and this time his writing partner is Roman Coppola for the second time. I wonder if Anderson is the one who keeps the eccentricity and coldness in his stories but always works with another writer to keep things somewhat level. I was a great admirer of Anderson’s films right up until The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and since then I’ve mostly been lukewarm on his style with the main exception being The Fantastic Mr. Fox, an animated children’s film that was a perfect match for his sensibilities. Maybe there was something about being in my early twenties that drew me to Anderson’s first films, something about the still budding artistic temperament in me that wanted so badly to believe in the hip coolness of his work.

I just find it very difficult to connect with his characters. They don’t quite behave or talk enough like real people for me to see them as anything other than characters written with specific intentions in mind. There should be great emotional heft to the story of two twelve year olds in love who are held back by their families or lack thereof. Not that I expect Anderson to adopt a melodramatic approach or that every film has to work to make you cry, but I get the sense that Anderson uses his characters more than he cares about them. There’s no affection here apart from what he feels for his own clever filmmaking techniques which includes lots of static shots with character in dead center frame. He loves his symmetrical stagings. The coldness of his storytelling is almost perfectly rendered in his shot setups. Yet strangely and improbably I still thoroughly enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom much more than his two previous live action films. So perhaps there’s still something left of that twenty-something left in me after all.

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