Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kingdom Come

When it comes to Wes Anderson (no relation) films, there are two kinds of people: those who think his are the best movies ever, and everyone else.

Okay, that's an oversimplification. It certainly does seem though that those who love the works of the independent director do so with every fiber of their being. How many people like that have you known over the years? These are the ones who stand aghast that you have not seen The Royal Tenenbaums, and hold Rushmore as an unheralded classic. They insist that Anderson's 1996 feature film debut Bottle Rocket is his best, and that The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a better animated movie than Up in 2009. They've even seen The Darjeeling Limited, which I dare you to admit you even KNEW was a real thing. Anderson's deadpan style of humor and narrative criss-crossing are well known to his fans, but as he trends away from the style of most modern comedies, many don't get on board, making Anderson's a cult fandom at best. His latest hit theaters this past week, and Moonrise Kingdom certainly looked like an interesting movie-going option. The only one of his films that I've seen before was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and while I hoped that Moonrise would at least be better than that, I honestly had no idea into what I was getting.

"Wes Anderson needs YOU."
The year is 1965, on a small island in New England. Two twelve year olds have packed up and left their unhappy homes, determined to make a life together. Orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) recently left a letter of resignation to the Boy Scouts of America, and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is leaving a family whose issues she cannot stand. As they attempt to flee and begin anew, a search is orchestrated by the island's Sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Scout Master Randy Wright (Edward Norton), and Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Little does anyone know that a monster hurricane is on its way, and none of the island's inhabitants will be safe, let alone two runaways in the wild.

Now THAT'S a story they'll tell the kids someday...
It's difficult to describe exactly what I liked about seeing Moonrise Kingdom, mostly because the damn thing's so quirky it defies explanation. Anderson infuses several themes - including abandonment, infidelity, family infighting, anger issues, and intolerance - into the screenplay he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, and the result is not the illiterate mishmash you would get from lesser directors, but a cohesive, multi-staged narrative that properly builds the film's story from perfect beginning to poignant ending. One Anderson staple is to have his characters display little, if any, emotion, and while that might not be very realistic overall, it's an interesting allegory on how we censor ourselves around others, even in moments of distress and frustration. Moonrise Kingdom is smart most of the time, and silly only when it absolutely needs to be, creating a dynamic that pushes it far ahead of where Life Aquatic could reach.

She sees you!
The cast does a great job of telling that tale, and not just those actors like Murray and Jason Schwartzman, who have worked on films with Anderson in the past. Murray is of course amazing as usual, managing to play the practical father figure who occasionally allows signs of his mental depression and anger issues to pass his screen, making for one of his best performances in years. In fact, this might his best work since the excellent Lost in Translation. Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand are also impressive in their Wes Anderson debuts, with Willis actually playing it somewhat subtle as the island's Sheriff, who is also having an affair with McDormand. As for the actress, how McDormand hasn't appeared in one of Anderson's films before now is a mystery; seeing as she is all-around wonderful, delivering each line (whether normally or through Laura Bishop's trademark megaphone) perfectly. Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton round out the cast; Norton plays the squeaky clean Scout Master with the level of talent we are all used to from him, while Swinton is positively delicious as the woman considered so reprehensibly wrong that she doesn't have a name, referred to only as "Social Services".

All we need is a butcher, a baker and a candle-stick maker.
It's the preteen stars Gilman and Hayward who make the biggest impact, however. While their introductions are perhaps a bit slow, they quickly become the center of the whole film, and Anderson wisely uses them to their fullest abilities without stretching them too thin. These are their first appearances in movies, after all, and from their performances as outcast lovers, I'd be shocked if either failed to make it work with real Hollywood careers sometime in the future, should they so desire. As the our heroes, their story of finding their first love is spectacularly told, and the acting of the two kids helps properly convey their attraction, their similarities and their differences. Their outward fight against those that would keep them apart is the same as the struggle of new lovers to discover common ground and compromise, all while learning new things about the other. While Anderson does his best to make the supporting characters stand out, it is these two who are rightfully the heart and soul of Moonrise Kingdom. You could argue that twelve year olds have no real clue what love is, but this movie just wouldn't be the same without their innocence to carry it.

Because kids running off to get married is totally cool.
Obviously I can't really compare this to the best of Wes Anderson's films; I've only seen the one, and Life Aquatic has nothing that Moonrise Kingdom does not easily overpass on its way to becoming the year's #4 Film. Anderson takes a deft hand to what can be best described as the most artistic movie so far in 2012, and he is helped both by his amazing screenplay and the excellent acting of all involved. I honestly wasn't sure what I was getting into when I went to see this, but if it comes to a theater near you, do yourself a favor and check it out. It may not be for everyone, but it is a film everyone should try, just for the sake of seeing something different.

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