MOVIE REVIEW: Moonrise Kingdom

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MOONRISE KINGDOM-- 5 STARS

For the most part, Wes Anderson has had a tough time connecting with mainstream audiences, but has always given us surprising work.  His first full-length feature, 1996's Bottle Rocket,  introduced the world to the Wilson brothers, Luke and Owen.  Rushmore, two year later, gave us Jason Schwartzman, began the career resurgence of Bill Murray as a serious actor, and brought Anderson a cult following he carries to this day.  That initial appeal peaked with 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, starring a who's-who of people (Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, among others) dying to work with the hot commodity Anderson and his muses (Murray and the Wilsons).  The film earned Anderson a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination.

Since then, his movies (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Hotel Chevalier, The Darjeeling Limited, and the animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox) have attracted unique talent (Brian Cox, Willem Dafoe, Natalie Portman, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, Meryl Streep), but have dived more and more into the obscure quirkiness and weirdness that defines him.  To many audiences, myself included, Anderson's films are too strange, too dry, and almost unwatchable.  To his fans and cinema aficionados, he's brilliant every time.  No matter what, you can tell Wes Anderson is a true artist and not someone who's in this business for the money (only The Royal Tenenbaums has crossed $50 million).  

For all of the strange tones, weird performances, and inherent precociousness that one associates with Wes Anderson, his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, is an absolute winner and crowd pleaser.  With a story driven by two unknown child leads, Wes has made his most accessible and approachable feature to date.  As a guy who wasn't a fan of of his before, Moonrise Kingdom has changed my opinion of him.

Set on the fictional New England-like island of New Penzance during the late summer of 1965, our tale, narrated by a knowledgeable local (Bob Balaban), follows two troubled pre-teens on a fateful summer week before a cataclysmic storm.  Sam Shakusky (first-timer Jared Gilman) is a lonely orphan attending "Khaki Scout" summer camp on the island.  With a trained-to-the-nines troupe led by Scout Master Ward (an eager Edward Norton), Sam is the outcast with no home to go back to.  One morning, he skips the bugle call and runs away from camp, leaving a note of resignation.  He's off to find his adventure.

That adventure is running away with Suzy Bishop (fellow first-timer Kara Hayward).  She's the oldest child in a depressing household of two lawyer parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (the stellar Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), on the other end of the island from camp.  Labeled as "troubled" and keen at looking at the world through binoculars, Suzy longs to change her situation as well.  Sam and Suzy hit it off the summer before and sparked a deeply romantic pen pal romance where they shared their expressed love and plotted this escape plan.  

Now together and toting only a few cherish belongings, the two are on the run from Scout Master Ward and his Khaki Scout search party, Captain Sharp (an excellent Bruce Willis) of the Island Police, Suzy's parents, and, soon, Social Services (Tilda Swinton) bent on delivering Sam to a juvenile institution.  In their days on the run, Sam and Suzy share secrets, connect beyond their courtship letters, and bond as soul mates.  These two, without a doubt, make up the best cinematic love story so far this year.  

The movie has to be seen to be believed.  The trailers don't do it justice.  Shot with bright summer colors and deliberate linear camerawork from cinematographer Robert Yeoman, the film looks and moves wonderfully.  Aided by Alexandre Desplat's darting score and supported by the British classical music of Benjamin Britten, Moonrise Kingdom has a tone all its own and a sense of the times.  

Co-written by Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola), Wes Anderson really has something significant going on here with this endless entertaining story filled with surprises, budding romance, and subtle twists along the way.  You will have a hard time catching yourself not smiling through this movie's 94 minutes.  The two young newcomers, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, are the strength and core of Moonrise Kingdom.  Both are definitely odd-ball characters, but they really grow on you as the film goes on. 

Their romance is daring, yet genuine, and its comes through in their performances.  You could almost say that the film loses a little something when the focus leaves Sam and Suzy and goes to one of the adult characters played by Murray, Willis, McDormand, and Norton.  Previous Wes Anderson films obsessively followed far-fetched and quirky adult leads that audiences couldn't connect with.  Because well-known actors were playing odd roles, they were unique performances (take every Bull Murray role he's done with Anderson), but too obscure from our existing expectation and comfort level for those performers.  By casting two unknowns, that mistake isn't made here.  With the rawness of Jared and Kara, we see the imperfect Sam and Suzy and not a pair of cute Hollywood faces.

Moonrise Kingdom takes a great step to put the point-of-view on Sam and Suzy.  Though still uniquely quirky and still unequivocally Wes Anderson's style, the film succeeds in giving us a pair of characters we can identify with and really root for.  In our own individual worlds, sitting in our theater seats, we each had a young love from youth that comes to mind while watching Moonrise Kingdom.  That's the power of this adventure and romance.  I'll even go so far as to say that this passes Prometheus as the best movie I've seen so far this year.  Like I said, it has to be seen to be believed.

LESSON #1: LESSONS IN COURTSHIP-- Us men can learn a few things from Sam's courtship repertiore.  His old-fashioned use of compliments, flowers, love letters, emotional understanding, taking an interest in his love's interests, and a chivalrous eye for her safety is something many guys don't do anymore.

LESSON #2: THE RESOURCEFULNESS AND VALUE OF GOOD SCOUTING SKILLS-- Sure, there are still Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in this world today, but how many of them really see the value or get the chance to put their many trained skills to use?  While Sam may have been looked at as the least-liked and least-devoted among his troupe, he sure paid attention and put his knowledge to good use.

LESSON #3: HOW FAR YOUR WILLING TO GO FOR THE ONE YOU LOVE-- With their shared sense of adventure to get away from their crummy daily lives, both Sam and Suzy go great lengths to get together, support each other, reunite when split, defy authority, and stay together.  In their small world, that's across boundaries of rivers, forests, islands, storms, life-and-death situations, and parental and law enforcement hurdles.  Though this story only takes place on a pair of islands, you can tell these two would cross space and time if that was their world.

LESSON #4: THE VIGOR OF YOUNG LOVE-- No offense to those old married couples who have stayed together for decades, but there is a different level of vigor for young love and first love.  Young love is unbridled spark and, like Romeo and Juliet before them, Sam and Suzy have it.  Unspoiled by previous loss or previous relationships and supported by a veil of naivety, that first love of our lives, whether it worked out in the end or not, was something we tackled with a full head of steam, reckless abandon, blind devotion, and unequaled passion.