Saturday, June 2, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

In the cinematic universe, the arrival of a new film by Wes Anderson brings about a divisive chime.  To some, it's a movie-land dream, to others another picture accentuated by immaculate set decoration in search of story and soul.  I'm on the former front, and Anderson's latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is a wistful ode to youthful innocence, seemingly concocted from very personal, albeit heightened memories, compressed into ninety minutes of slickly and grandly paced joyfulness.  Seemingly filmed as a postcard from another era, one that most certainly never existed, but evocative of a sense of first time love, discovery and adventure, Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson's most vital movie since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums and showcases a deeper thematic maturity of his idiosyncratic strengths as a filmmaker.  The mis en scene at play here is even more striking and luminous, more visually plush, pulsating with a romantic sweetness and melancholia; it's a film that Anderson fans will likely want to get up from their seats and hug.  There's something even more interesting; a naturalistic quality that hangs on to Moonrise, even while the masterfully choreographed aesthetic of the film is taking hold.  Here just might be the smart, much needed anecdote to the summer movie season.

Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan khaki scout member, nearly pubescent, has runaway from his tribe headed by scout master Ward (Edward Norton.)  He's a nerdy young man, an outcast, with diminished popularity in his team of scouts in the waning days of Summer on a fictional New England island in 1965.  Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a wayward youth, ignored by her litigator parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who on a whim for adventure joins Sam along for the journey...the two met a year prior and bonded over correspondence.  What results is a two-fold story of the two kids (both of whom feel ostracized and marginalized by the disjointed grown-ups in their lives)  and their puppy-love crush turned into something special, and the rag-tag group of people looking for the runaway fugitives.  Along with Norton's scout master, and Murray and McDormand, Bruce Willis helps out as the towns police captain, and a team of khaki scouts who are more interested in a cold capture than helping the boy out.

There's a delicacy and poignancy (one that to Anderson's critics would read as overly precocious) to the kids will be kids developing romance between Sam and Suzy.  The film partially plays like a chapter of a children's adventure story; one that Suzy herself admittedly relishes.  However fleeting, there's touches of singular grace as the two interact.  Sam, determined to figure things out for himself, and maybe feel a sense of connection; Suzy, more bored than damaged, in awe of the attention she's never received before, their union, while unlikely, is uniformly sweet.  In a time where romantic comedies feel ever more disconnected from any sort of reality, it says a lot (in good ways and bad) that Moonrise Kingdom feels more authentic in the human spirit than a thousand cliche girl-meets-boys-stories in the past twenty years of film.  Even in the artificially pastel-colored world of scout leagues and impossibly constructed New England home furnishings, Moonrise Kingdom has a soulfulness and aching heart to match every idiosyncratic Wes Anderson quirk.

Impeccably performed by a stellar ensemble, one that matches the auteurial challenges of Anderson's artifice while never outstripping the filmmaker from true star credit.  Gilman and Hayward in particular are impressive for their natural line delivery and non-fuss chemistry, while the starry cast outside of them impressively (and seemingly relish) the poetic, heightened fantasy of summer camp that Anderson (and co-writer Roman Coppola) created.  Alongside first time Anderson co-horts Norton, McDormand and Willis are Harvey Keitel as a rival scout leader, Bob Balaban as a sort of master of ceremonies and Tilda Swinton as a social worker known simply as Social Services.  Anderson-alum Jason Schwartzman pops in as an officiator to Sam and Suzy's primal wedding.  All seem to sparkle and jell to Anderson's wonderfully inventive, weird vision of past-time summer loving and adventure, marking Moonrise Kingdom a seductive art house diversion.  It takes a gifted crew to make something that could come across so arch and overly staged, seemingly natural and playful.

While, alas Moonrise Kingdom likely won't convert those immune to Anderson's charms, it's still a distinctive, and I feel, definitive piece of his cinematic resume.  After the sublime trip into stop motion with his last feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and the diminishing returns of his last two live-actions films, The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and The Life Aquatic (2004), Anderson appears to have returned with a greater cinematic perspective of his offbeat sensibility, distilling what appears to be fragments of lost childhood in the shape an adventure that will likely be more absorbing than any battleship, alien invasion or superhero antic to be offered this summer.  A- 

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