Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Anderson (2012)

7. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s films are, if nothing else, exquisitely constructed. “Moonrise Kingdom,” his best film in some time, might be his most finely constructed picture. The film begins with a rather fantastic sequence in which a family of young siblings sits down to listen to a record. The record breaks down the parts of the orchestra, displaying each instrument's role in the song. As the recording goes on, we see different members of the family in their rooms. This is actually a bit directorial misdirection on Anderson’s part. Yes, like many of his films, “Moonrise Kingdom” is about family, at least partially. However, the opening scene actually isn’t establishing each person’s role in the family, the most obvious allusion. Instead, it’s showing the group apart. At the end of the film, the recording is played through to the end, when the instruments come back together, to form a full song. Ah, I see what you did there, Wes. Of course, “Moonrise Kingdom” is only partially about family. It’s perfect presentation of tone, time, and place, as well as a tale about young love.

Set in the early 1960s on the fictional island of New Penzance, off the coast of Rhode Island, it follows a pair of lonely, alienated pre-teens as they run away from their homes. Sam is an orphan, his new foster family not working out, and bullied by the other kids in his Khaki Scout group, his surrogate family. Suzy is the oldest of several kids. Her parents are distant, with their own problems, and Suzy has trouble making friends. Set out in the wilderness, the two decide to make their own world, their own family. Of course, the adults try to keep them apart. There are other problems, conflict among the grown-ups and scout masters, the island threatened by an in-coming hurricane. Some of this information is presented to us by Bob Balaban’s omniscient narrator who also interacts with the story on a coyishly undetermined level.

There has always been a level of precision to the way a Wes Anderson movie is shot. It’s very clear every framed is planned out far in advance. However, “Moonrise Kingdom” is expertly designed on a level previously unseen even from a filmmaker this precise. The camera frequently stays in long shots, the characters in the middle distance. The camera slides smoothly to the side, following them as they walk to their destinations. The scenes are constructed the same way someone reads a book, the narrative flowing left to right. Slow dramatic zooms emphasize character’s focus or their placement in a scene. Occasionally, Anderson shifts to a shaky, handheld camera, placing himself right inside the action, on his cast’s level. A few times, Anderson pauses on a particular tableau, a moment isolated like one of Sam’s painting or a classic comic frame.

Anderson is also famous for his exact production design. “Moonrise Kingdom” is as beautifully designed as any of his previous films. Some would say the detailed production design does nothing but feed into Anderson’s various ticks and fetishes. However, the detailed design also makes the film’s world more real, more realized. Our characters live in these places. Their personalities, thoughts, loves, and ideas reflect themselves in their surroundings. A perfectionist Cub Scout trope leader lives in a meticulously furnished pup tent, not exactly realizing the absurdity of that. Suzy’s library books, each one designed by Anderson, speak to her particular likes and dislikes. The rickety tree house is suspended above the world on a single, slender tree, a little world isolated above the bigger one. That “Moonrise Kingdom” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for its production design is a major oversight. This is what good production design is supposed to do, to reinforce and inform the film’s themes and concepts.

Of course, “Moonrise Kingdom” looks incredible. That’s to be expected, considering the pedigree involved. Being the best looking film in the world wouldn’t help if the story wasn’t worth writing about. The love story between Sam and Suzy forms an emotional backbone that drives the entire picture. The two are just old enough to know what sex is, to be aware of their budding desires and changing bodies. However, physical desire doesn’t drive them. The physical intimacy they share is an awkward pantomime of adult rituals. Instead, it’s an emotional bond that connects them. Sam has no real family of his own. Suzy feels left out of her’s. They fill a need within the other, both providing understanding of a different sort. In a montage, Anderson shows their relationship forming through letters. We only hear the first few lines of each letter before cutting way. This, somehow, gives us a better idea of their connection and mutual understanding then getting all the details would, not to mention much more quickly. Sam and Suzy have the purest love. When the two get married in a mock ceremony, it feels sincere, not absurd. Of course, these two will stick out and be together. How couldn’t they?

“Moonrise Kingdom” has a fully realized world. Sam and Suzy’s love and struggle form the main story. Amusingly, a bunch of other stories are going on in the background of the film. These are the obvious ones. Suzy’s mother is cheating on her father with the sorta’ sad local police officer. Bruce Willis’ police officer has his own story, not much informed by the love story, forming a bond with Sam. Her father, played by an off-handedly eccentric and hilarious Bill Murray, has an inner life all his own it seems, only half-way explored. Each of the other Khaki Scouts has distinct personalities, one in an eye patch, the other with a rivalry with Sam. Jason Schwartzman is a head officer at the other camp, runs the place like a back-alley grafter, trading services for tennis ball tins of nickels. What’s the story of the kid on the trampoline or the boys with the model rocket? “Moonrise Kingdom” presents an interesting world, where all type of things are happening the background. By far the funniest side-story involves Edward Norton’s high-strung camp leader. There’s a miniature movie in here, about him loosing the respect of his commanding officer and then regaining it through an absurdly high-pitched action movie scenario.

Still, I don’t know if Anderson could make a film that didn’t feature at least a little musing on family. Sam’s search for acceptance or Suzy being designated as the dysfunctional among equally dysfunctional adults are the obvious aspects. But how about the surrogate family of the Cub Scouts? At first, the other boys look down on Sam, treating him like the outcast he is. Midway through, they have an about face, realize they’ve been treating their fellow scout lousy. Suddenly, their on the boy’s side, helping him on his mission. One of the movie’s best reoccurring jokes is Suzy reading from her books, pausing to ask if her devoted audience wants her to continue. The boys being together as a family becomes obvious when we see all of them gathered around Suzy, listening intently. Could this be the whole film’s thoughts on family in miniature? We might fight but we’ll always come back together. Maybe.

The usual Wes Anderson soundtrack of classic sixties Britrock is traded out here for a more esoteric sound. Hank William’s bluesy country informs a great deal of the story, connecting with the film’s rural setting. Alexandre Desplat’s rich orchestral score fits the film’s particular mood, with Anderson regular Mark Mothersbaugh occasionally powering the more openly eccentric moments. My favorite musical piece used in the film are those of Benjamin Britten. In the penultimate scene, the subtle melancholy of “Songs from Friday Afternoons, Op. 7 (Cuckoo!)” takes the movie out on an appropriately bittersweet tone. Because even if that perfect moment is gone, we will always have our memory of it.

Anchored by two exceptionally intelligent performances from young Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, “Moonrise Kingdom” sees the director conversing with his usual films in a bold, reenergized way. By returning to childhood and the rush of first love, Wes Anderson has found new ground for his unique style and execution. It might be his best film. [Grade: A]

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