Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Director: Wes Anderson

****

The opening shot of Moonrise Kingdom is of a wall with a picture of a house mounted on it; we then travel around this cosy yet well-appointed two-storey and are introduced to its inhabitants in a series of camera pans and long dolly shots. Why yes, Wes Anderson IS the director. How’d you guess?

Few directors can inspire such strong responses in both his admirers and detractors as Wes Anderson. His critics see his repetitive camera moves and offbeat plots as being overly quirky with little going on underneath. His adherents will bask in the warmth of the storytelling, the minor insanities of his characters and his clear love of the French New Wave. Moonrise Kingdom will do absolutely zilch to convince his critics otherwise, but why change now? His last feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox, saw Anderson apply his trademarks to the stop-motion animation process. With its abundance of beiges and determined lack of swearing, Moonrise Kingdom feels like a cartoon made flesh. Imagine if Russell from Up were a few years older, was put on Ritalin and had earned all his merit badges, and you’d get Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman). An orphaned boy scout, he goes on the run from his island scout camp with local lass/pen pal/soulmate Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). In their debut film roles, their underplayed delivery is perfect, since no-one except Bill Murray ever knowingly overreacts in a Wes Anderson film.

Murray plays the father to Hayward’s young tearaway, and is just one of a number of folks searching for the star-crossed non-lovers (They’re only 12, after all, though they do share one of the most hilariously awkward kissing scenes to come along in quite a while). Also looking for them are Mrs. Bishop (Frances McDormand), the local police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) and his ever-prepared troop. The adult actors clearly relish the chance to send up their images (Willis and Norton are a long way from Die Hard and Fight Club here), whilst the children are all utterly engaging, brimming with scary levels of confidence. A cartography-inclined narrator, played by a bearded Bob Balaban, is the icing on a sweet little cake. Seriously, you’ll want to pop him in your pocket and take him home as a pet.

Anderson and Roman Coppola’s script imagines a sweet little island haven in 1965 that borders on the twee (No roads, only dirt-tracks, switchboard communication) but has such an attention to detail that you just can’t help but fall for it. It may see Anderson at his most Anderson-esque, but Moonrise Kingdom’s simple story of young love also sees Anderson at his warmest and most accessible. If you do have a prejudice against the overhead shots and samples of ‘60s French pop, your loss.

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Review: This Must Be The Place (2011)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

***

This Must Be The Place is blessed and cursed by a dichotomy; it features sights and sounds that must be seen and heard to be believed, but the film as a whole is not an essential view. It’s a portmanteau of tones and quirks that threatens to be derailed by its own self-awareness, yet is held together by Sean Penn’s taste for eyeliner.

Penn plays Cheyenne, an aging rock star based heavily on The Cure’s Robert Smith (right down to the fear of flying) and sounding like Bill Murray in Ed Wood. Slow of walk and slower of speech, Cheyenne seems burnt out by excess gigging and narcotics. There’s a melancholy surrounding him that belies his wealth, his happy marriage to firefighter Jane (Frances McDormand, kookily lovable as always) and his penchant for lipstick. This eccentric sadness is also clear in Paolo Sorrentino’s direction. The acclaimed director of The Consequences of Love and Il Divo makes his English langage debut with a film that is so bafflingly and self-consciously bizarre that its impossible to forget, yet just as impossible to define. Picture, if you can, Cheyenne traipsing around Dublin, childlike, depressed and looking for definition. Where can this story go?

It’s unlikely you’d guess ‘Nazi hunting’. Cheyenne returns to the US for his estranged father’s funeral, and ends up finding the opportunity he’s been looking for: to hunt the Nazi commandant (Heinz Lieven) who humiliated his father in Auschwitz. This unexpected turn takes Cheyenne across the US in a beautiful but episodic trip that plays like The Straight Story as directed by Terry Gilliam. Along the way, Cheyenne befriends a fellow Nazi-hunter (Judd Hirsch), a diner waitress (Kerry Condon), plays ping-pong in the desert and gets under the nose of suspicious old ladies (“Would you like to kill me, dear?”). It’s Sorrentino’s outside view that makes this dive into the depths of Americana a decidedly different trip. Played straight, it’d fall apart; This Must Be The Place’s aspirations to curio status may not bind Sorrentino’s vision together fully, but you’ll rarely be bored. Stare agog as giant bottles of whiskey and men dressed as Batman flit across the screen. What does it all mean? Damned if we ever find out, but hey, at least we got a laugh! Once we do, however, the Nazi hunt continues and we’re left unsure what to think.

Right from the start, This Must Be The Place is doomed to be cinematic Marmite. On the one hand, it’s pleasantly weird and flirts with deep ideas. On the other, it’s tonally awkward and uneven, reverting constantly back to the self-conscious efforts at artiness. The story begins in Ireland and hints at tragedy in Cheyenne’s past, but is then dropped like a hot potato as Cheyenne hits the road. At least Penn is an excellent constant. Appearing in practically every scene, his performance is understated but full of off-kilter presence and likability. Supports are underused but well-acted (Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson is of note as Cheyenne’s daughter), and the whole affair looks great (DP Luca Bigazzi keeps things crisp and clear). Best of all is the soundtrack; the film’s title comes from the Talking Heads’ classic song, and David Byrne’s performance of the song is a high point of the film. Byrne and Will Oldham also contribute several songs to the soundtrack under the guise of a band named The Pieces of Shit. Admit it: you’d buy the CD just for that band name.

Flitting back and forth between plots and tones, TMBTP is too distant to be embraced, yet too interesting to be ignored. Cheyenne observes that “Life is full of beautiful things”. This Must Be The Place is also full of beautiful things, but this beauty is in dire need of a stronger context.