Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Moonrise Kingdom

A Quirky Paradise

Come Sail Away
I think I'm forever destined to not quite get the backlash against Wes Anderson. Obviously I'm aware that his style borders on self-parody at times. And there's no denying that he's somewhat of a one-trick pony. But it's a good trick, and despite some of his films being altogether less successful than others, they're still charming, funny and gleefully eccentric. And now he's made what may be his best film since Rushmore. I say that with reservations, but it's easily his most wholly satisfying film in a while (and that includes Fantastic Mr. Fox: the title of which contains the only really appropriate adjective).

Anderson's core narratives will never be accused of great originality, and that's the case here too. What we have instead is a simple, innocent childhood romance. Twelve year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) is a scout who escapes his camp on a New England island in the middle of the night, to the great distress of his timid but enthusiastic scout master (Ed Norton). We discover that Sam has gone to meet Sally (Kara Hayward): the duo met briefly at a play (recalling some of Max Fischer's elaborate productions in Rushmore) a year previously, and have been secretly corresponding ever since. The two decide to run away together, traveling to a cove on the other side of the island. Meanwhile, the town residents - including Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Sally's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) - and the scouts desperately try to track them down. We find out what drove the two young lovebirds away from their respective homes, and a series of chases and elaborate escapes follow. But - as chorus Bob Balaban informs us - there's a storm a-comin'. 

Mostly, I just loved the tone and atmosphere of Moonrise Kingdom. The pacing is just spot on, and really just felt like I was sucked into the world. From the relaxed first half to the more frantic second, I really think Anderson does a great job at keeping things moving. Obviously, the visual and audio design is second to none. It opens with a technical marvel of a prologue that is a natural progression from the set sweeping 'side shots' in Darjeeling and Life Aquatic: hypnotic and beautifully choreographed pans, tilts, zooms and cranes through a complex, tightly designed set. It's almost like Rube Goldberg cinematography as you wonder where the camera is going to swoop to next. It's the best shot in the film, but that's not a complaint. The rest of it is composed almost mathematically anyway: perfect symmetry, gorgeous yellow hues, lots of camera movement and loaded with genuinely hilarious visual gags (subtle and not so subtle - the bit with the trampoline is priceless). Robert Yeoman easily remains Anderson's most important collaborator, and few films are as visually distinct and ambitious as Moonrise Kingdom. Alexandre Desplat provides a tremendous original score, supported by an offbeat collection of pre-existing tracks (lots of Hank Williams and Benjamin Britten): what else would one expect? The music and visuals lend the film a nostalgic, romantic tone, and it's hypnotic from beginning to end.

What gives it a kick above recent Anderson joints is the attention lavished on the two young protagonists. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman lend the film a genuine warmth and soul. Both give superb performances, and you're rooting for them to overcome their 'oppressions' throughout. It's a film that more or less wears its heart on its sleeve, and while they obviously aren't immune to the typical Wes Anderson quirks, they feel more 'genuine' and likeable than most characters he's created over the years. It gives the film a warmth I thought was lacking in, say, Richard Ayoade's Anderson-influenced Submarine, and the simple, charming romance elevates the film beyond a mere whimsical nostalgia piece. The arrogance of Mr. Fox and the over-quirky nature of the brothers in Darjeeling meant you could never truly get on board the emotional bandwagon. Here, resistance is futile. (A semi-interesting contrast is Sion Sono's recent Himizu: both see occasionally removed auteurs finding genuine warmth through teenage romance. The delivery couldn't be more different, but a fascinating double bill to compare and contrast.)

There are a few niggling concerns that bother more in hindsight than anything. While the 'adult' characters had some nice moments, I can't help but feel some of them were underused - Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel, particularly, feature in little more than cameo roles. Willis and Norton are given the most to work with, but even Bill Murray - who has been granted some almost career-defining roles by Anderson over the years - is only given relatively limited material to interpret (Murray does get one of the film's funniest moments though, involving a tent). It's still nice to have such a rich cast, and arguably a testament to Anderson's reputation to have such major character actors in tiny roles. But the kids are undeniably the stars. As mentioned earlier, the story, all said and done, isn't remarkably original either, and the resolutions and beats are predictable (not necessarily a new complaint with Anderson). If you're a fan, this shouldn't bother you too much, but may be of concern to others. The most bothersome for me, though, was one or two moments in the otherwise frantic but engaging third act that just took a step too far into artificiality, drawing unwelcome attention to the film's inherent absurdity. I'm talking Spoiler: the lightning strike, the hanging off the steeple, the 'tent' explosion. This reviewer just thought that these were gags that weren't delivered with the confidence evident in the visual punchlines of earlier scenes (and - just to re-emphasise, lest we forget - this is mostly a very, very funny film). These handful of moments felt like they belonged in Mr. Fox rather than here. Of course it's a Wes Anderson film, and of course it's artificial as fuck. But these moments to me just felt out of place, or not realised effectively enough.

That said, I still thought the film on the whole was infectiously charming. The time absolutely flew by, and tonally, visually and musically it's an absolute treat. I genuinely felt disappointed to leave the Kingdom, because it was so affectionately realised. The predictable quirky and whimsical streak may not win over new fans, but I think it has more warmth and enthusiasm than his last few films. That quietly emotional streak is always there in a Wes Anderson film, but here it really resonates and pushes it very near the top of his filmography. A joyful little film then, and one that makes every effort to ensure you don't hate it. The Anderson cynics will surely remain cynical, but for fans this is a treat.

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