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[REVIEW] MOONRISE KINGDOM @ NZIFF 2012

Following last month’s 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival programme announcement, the film I was most anticipating was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which opened the 65th Cannes Film Festival this year. The festival launched in Auckland last week, and I caught Moonrise last Friday night (followed by The Cabin in the Woods, which made for an unlikely but highly enjoyable double-header). Read below for my review, and keep checking back for further updates and reviews from the festival.

Wes Anderson is perhaps the most idiosyncratic and unique auteur of his generation, and his meticulous, whimsical and hyper-real films tend to inspire divisive reactions of either feverish fandom and adulation or cries of pretension and insincerity. Personally, I love his work and count RushmoreThe Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox amongst my favourite films (I even have a special place in my heart for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). All of which is to say that by now audiences should know whether or not a new Wes Anderson film is something for them. If the answer is yes, then you will find much to love in Moonrise Kingdom, which finds the quirky writer/director at his best.

Although each of Anderson’s films have a timeless quality, Moonrise Kingdom is his first set explicitly in the past, taking place on an island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965. Written by Anderson and The Darjeeling Limited co-writer Roman Coppola, Moonrise tells the story of two 12-year-olds, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop (played by newcomers Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward), who fall in love and run away together into the wilderness, leaving the entire island community distressed and on the lookout as a violent storm brews off-shore. Sam is a resourceful orphan Scout with no one to rely on, and Suzy is a bookish outcast who is the odd one out in her dysfunctional family. The film’s narrator – a bearded Bob Balaban – appears infrequently on the shore and speaks directly to the camera, informing us of the island’s geography and warning us of the serious nature of the impending storm. The remarkable ensemble cast also includes Frances McDormand and Bill Murray as Suzy’s distant parents, Bruce Willis as the “sad, dumb” Police Captain Sharp, and Edward Norton as Khaki Scout Master Ward, as well as appearances from Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel.

As with all of Anderson’s work, the kids seem awfully grown-up here, and the grown-ups awfully childish and melancholy. This has been a defining characteristic of all his films, but Moonrise arguably has more compassion and poignancy – and less of a cool remove from its characters – than anything the filmmaker has done before, finding a perfect balance between the heart and the surreal. Gillman and Hayward both give excellent debut performances, and their unashamedly honest romance is genuinely moving, never venturing into saccharine nor deprave territory. Willis is almost revelatory in his role as the sensitive local cop, and Norton is also in fine form as the earnest yet incompetent Scout Master. Anderson’s inventive use of music is once again superb and worthy of its own review, this time eschewing British pop/rock songs in favour of classical music by Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten (‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ is featured prominently on the portable record player belonging to Suzy’s younger brother), songs of the era by Hank Williams and Françoise Hardy, as well as original music by French composer Alexandre Desplat (who previously worked with Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox). Long-time cinematographer Robert Yeoman delivers the kind of sweeping long shots we expect from an Anderson film, and his soft colours give the film a nostalgic feel.

The film can feel a little rushed in its final act, as it tries to introduce new characters played by Swinton, Schwatzman and Keitel to little effect, but this is otherwise an expertly crafted, frequently hilarious and sweetly moving story of adolescence, romance and family. Moonrise Kingdom is not only my favourite of the dozen or so films I’ve caught at the festival so far, but also one of the very best of 2012, and another highpoint in an already stellar career for Anderson.

RATING: A

For more info and ticketing details on the 2012 NZIFF, head to their website.

As a bonus for Bill Murray fans, watch his rum-soaked tour of the Moonrise Kingdom set below.

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