SIFF Review: Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” – A triumphant, romantic caper

Poster for "Moonrise Kingdom"

If I were to categorize Wes Anderson, I would place him in a similar camp to Tim Burton. They both have a distinct and instantly recognizable vision for the bizarre worlds in which their films take place, and they both tend to work with an abundance of the same actors. But while Burton’s recent contributions have been marked by a nearly linear decline in quality and coherence, Anderson’s films have taken a far more regrettable route… They have become utterly forgettable. While I have seen [and modestly enjoyed] every one of Wes Anderson’s films since Rushmore, I can scarcely recall a single moment from any of them since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. While Anderson’s quirk and theatricality has remained as distinctive as ever, his overall vision has somehow become completely unremarkable.

Until now.

Moonrise Kingdom is a triumphant return to form for Anderson (along with co-writer Roman Coppola), meticulously crafting a rich and memorable world in the fictitious island of New Penzance off the Atlantic Coast. The story kicks right into gear as a young Khaki Scout, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) leaves a hand-scrawled letter of resignation in his jamboree tent and strikes off into the wilderness in a purloined canoe. At the very same moment, his preteen sweetheart Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) runs away from home on the other end of the island, leaving her parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), at a loss to explain her disappearance. An immediate search begins as both the local police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Khaki Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) both rally their respective posses to search for the wayward couple.

The film takes a bit of time to find its footing, owing to the bizarrely precocious dialogue of its young, first-time leads. Their initial line readings have an almost wooden theatricality, with drawn-out banter so improbably delivered that it seems like Shakespeare in the Park as read from a teleprompter. But as their chaste and cordial romp gets into full swing, the two actors somehow find an accord. They become a fascinating romantic screen presence, even as the overall plot starts to take on a flavor none-too-dissimilar from the first Rambo film. An early “showdown” ensues between the young couple atop a hillside and some unrelenting Scouts who have happened upon them. Without grownup supervision, the Scouts are tenacious in their pursuit, armed with absurdly dangerous homemade melee weapons, an archery kit, and a lead Scout primed to charge the young lovers on his dirt bike. It’s all a great deal of fun, but the romance starts to make a bit more sense when viewed through this adversarial lens. These kids are determined to skip ahead to grownup life, bidding farewell to their erstwhile families and making a life for themselves in the wilderness. They are the embodiment of “us against the world”, even if their oppressive world is like something from the mind of Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling.

Still from "Moonrise Kingdom"

In fact, the entire cast plays the film remarkably straight, even as the stakes continue to ramp absurdly upward. An on-screen narrator (Bob Balaban) informs us that a hurricane will strike in three days’ time. In fact, he tells us that this has already happened. By playing the entire film as a historical document, the various perils that befall the characters take on a tense fatalism. As the film goes on, any time a character steps onto a boat or seaplane feels like it might be the last time they’ll ever been seen alive. In this way, Moonrise evokes another much more adult film – Shutter Island. While Suzy will simply be returned to her parents if caught, Sam faces potentially greater peril, as it is revealed early on that he lives in a foster home that will not be welcoming him back, due to his unspecified “emotional problems”. The specter of Social Services (embodied by a hilariously dry Tilda Swinton) hangs over the proceedings at all times, along with all the potential horror of 1960s psychiatric practices. If Sam manages to survive his adventure, his life will get irrevocably worse.

Slightly less interesting are the marital problems of Suzy’s parents. Murray and McDormand are amusing together – a pair of attorneys who sleep in separate beds and speak of little else but their cases – but Murray and Willis, both rivals for the lady’s affections, are the real standouts. They each give their best comedic performances in years, engaging in a relentless duel of nonchalance and quiet resignation. Edward Norton is also brilliantly straight-laced, although the film seems to run out of practical use for him by the final act (not counting a bizarre stunt with Harvey Keitel). Given that Willis’ arc is probably the most underdeveloped in the film, it almost seems like the ending of Norton’s storyline was chopped and given to Willis instead. It was an odd choice, but it did feel just barely earned, as the film gives each character just enough setup to justify their final choices. Except, perhaps, for Jason Schwartzmann, who shows up just long enough to be awesome and underused as Cousin Ben, the obligatory helpful rogue. As an Anderson vet, Schwartzmann is so well-equipped to handle this material that I couldn’t help but want a bit more of him.

This would seem to be as far down the quirky path as Wes Anderson can delve without diminishing returns. Not everything in this film worked – as much as I was enjoying the meticulous opening cinematography of the Bishop home, I found myself rolling my eyes at its more superfluous elements, including Frances McDormand’s rather grating use of a megaphone to call for her children. But once the story got started, I was completely swept up in it. There is so much in this film that I’ll fondly recall, from the ridiculously tall treehouse to the Terabithian splendor of the titular Kingdom. This film is a sweet and nostalgic chronicle of the wondrous worlds that we create in childhood, and even manages to delve into the dire consequences of growing up, without ever losing a bit of its charm.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

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SIFF Review: “Earthbound” – A schizophrenic mess of alien romance

Poster for "Earthbound"

Earthbound is a mess, plain and simple, which is doubly disappointing given all the awesomely schlocky B-movie promise of the pre-credits sequence. We learn the tale of Mathius and Jace, the sole refugees of a distant planet called Zalaxon, which has been torn apart in a civil war. Mathius fled the planet with his son, who was due to be sacrificed by the enemy in order to win the war…somehow. Jace lives on as the “Last Son of Zalaxon” in exile. Presumably this is also a symbolic title, as his warring planet is still awaiting his return by way of a signal beacon visible through a wormhole that opens every few years between Zalaxon and Earth.

And you know what? All of that is just fine. This film takes an absurd space opera and spells it out via a dazzling series of colorful comic book panels, leaving the audience begging for more. But all of the delight and incoherence of this premise could have only succeeeded if this film had the slightest idea of what tone it was going for. If I’m to judge by Liam Bates’ oppressively cloying musical score, the film is trying to be a grown-up version of E.T., replacing the earnest and childlike alien relationship with that of a pair of desperately lovestruck adults. Joe, the 10-year-old boy formerly known as Jace, loses his father Bill (né Mathius) (David Morrissey) at the age of 10. Before dying [of unspecified causes], Bill lets his son in on his extraterrestrial origins, leaving behind a collection of retro-futuristic children’s toys and otherwise human-looking objects as evidence. But more on this collection later.

Fifteen years later, Joe (Rafe Spall), now working as a clerk in a comic shop, instantly falls for fellow sci-fi fan Maria (Jenn Murray) by way of an electronic wristband that instantly informs him of their 93% genetic compatibility (well past the 85% that he needs in order to knock up one of those easy Earth girls). While “you’re the only hope for my people” might have actually had some success as a pickup line, Joe wisely conceals his true identity when asking Maria out. But what we get instead are some of the most insipid attempts at romantic dialogue this side of Attack of the Clones, made even more obnoxious by the score’s various attempts to make me think I’d felt something for these star-crossed lovers. The two performances are individually decent, but weren’t remotely believable as romantic partners, with Murray’s earnest sadness and Spall’s unrelenting quirk making an incredibly poor match when sharing the screen.

Still from "Earthbound"

This film had all the elements of a successful piece of sci-fi, but no earthly idea how to fit them all together. Among Joe’s gadgets was a holographic projection of his father – a device that served virtually no purpose beyond exposition and plot contrivance. This is neither Jor-El nor Obi-Wan. While there’s a chance of poignancy in the idea of Joe conversing endlessly with an affectless husk of his dead father, the various attempted emotional beats in this “relationship” utterly fail to land. When Joe is potentially forced to give up on seeing his projected father ever again, the dilemma inspired nothing more than a tepid yawn, and was over just as quickly. If Joe doesn’t care, why should I? And his choices don’t seem to matter much anyway. Each of Joe’s mundane-looking alien devices had to stop working at just the right moment to prevent anyone from believing his story, and start working again just in time to be useful or muddy the waters further. The film tries to delve into psychological thriller territory by forcing Joe to doubt the veracity of his tale, but given the clunkiness with which his doubts are established, it doesn’t remotely succeed. Apart from a hilariously dark performance by Stephen Hogan as the world’s worst psychiatrist, there is very little to redeem this act, and it attempts so many unsuccessful twists and reversals that it all becomes downright tedious.

But the final sequence very nearly saved it. Some vague spoilers will follow. By the time we reached the third villainous monologue, in which the baddie just can’t kill the hero without first talking his ear off about how thoroughly he has been beaten, I thought perhaps the film had found its footing again. The final sequence would feel right at home in a 50s sci-fi romp, and it was this loving and old-fashioned treatment of the genre that made me lament just how much of a missed opportunity this is. Earthbound is actually quite well made, and everything – from the production design and effects to the majority of the performances – seemed just adept enough that it all should have coalesced into something just a bit more watchable. But for a film that only has enough plot to fill perhaps a single decent episode of Doctor Who, the rest just feels like the disorganized cutting-room bits of a different project.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #23 – “Liberal Arts” (dir. Josh Radnor) (SIFF)

Still from "Liberal Arts"

Back at SIFF and back to school! Glenn and Daniel hit the books with college nostalgia as they review Liberal Arts, the latest film from How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor. Take in their worthless intellectual blather while you can! They’ve both got work in the morning that is utterly unrelated to their majors.

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5/10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is a pair of classical pieces that appear in the film. The first is Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 6 Pastorale as performed by Istanbul’s National Conservatory Orchestra (free download in link). The second is Soave sia il vento, from Mozart‘s opera Così fan tutte, which I’ve included in its entirety at the end of the podcast. Listen to it while walking down the street and watch as everyone becomes more attractive.
  • Regarding the age question that both we and the movie raise – Elizabeth Olsen was around 22 when this film was shot. Josh Radnor was 37, and Allison Janney was 52.
  • The book shop owner is played by Elizabeth Reaser of Twilight fame. And it all comes full circle.

Listen above, or download: Liberal Arts (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).