Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Best Film of 2012 so far: Troop 77, Camp Freeland Leslie, and Over the Moon with Wes Anderson

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Director: Wes Anderson

Reviewed: 3 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--****

Being a Boy Scout for me was about a few basic things: learning how to survive away from home in far-away sounding places (Two Rivers, Herrick Lake, Big Timber, McDowell Woods), acting like an adult (or at least try to be one by swearing, cooking, telling jokes), forging friendships with guys older (Tom, Todd, Scott, Marc, Steve...) and younger (Nick, Jeff, Dave, Dan...) than me and also including my brothers (Dan, Pat), learning my place in the hierarchy of a patrol (Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, Troop Guide, Junior Assistant Scoutmaster) and learning my rank (Basic, Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle), and hiking, swimming, chasing others, lighting fires, sharpening sticks, playing cards, and laughing.  An aspect of Boy Scouting that I felt particularly drawn to included earning the merit badges with their panoply of textures and colors and skills displayed on my sash: Wilderness Survival, Personal Fitness, Scholarship, Mammal Study, Swimming...  Obviously that love and interest in badges and requirements and checking off items culminated in my pursuit of the rank of Eagle Scout.  But for me, Scouts went beyond the quasi-militaristic socks (which we hated and never wore), the hats (which we spun into a worship of khaki Australian cowboy hats courtesy of our beloved Scout Master Doc), the Army issue green fatigues or shorts (still have 'em!), and the khaki uniform shirt (only worn for special occasions; you were more likely to find Troop 77 wearing red t-shirts).  Scouting was a special universe for me, and I know that from memory, I could still sketch a pretty accurate map of our sanctuary every summer, Camp Freeland Leslie in Oxford, WI.  I know where the Waterfront is and the two ways to get there (the long, windy, round-about way and the treacherous Suicide Hill way), the Commissary in the center of camp where we picked up our ingredients to cook our meals three times a day, complete with Tradin' Post (our place to send and receive mail for our week away from home, as well as to buy candy and pop), the Gun and Archery Range on the edge of camp, the vague outlines of frigid Lake Emrick with its nonexistent (for me) fish and marshy shores, and our campsites named after Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields (Trenton, Antietam, Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Chickamauga...).  I remember the tradition of CFL where a troop asked a counselor to dinner, taking their totem necklace of sorts, and the thrill of having a cool counselor hang out with you at the picnic tables in your campsite as you cooked chili (sometimes without the chili powder) over a sheepherder stove.

Meetings were important then, as were tactics and rules that we made up in our troop.  There were competitions within and even rivalries among troops.  There was always the vague threat of violence, though usually it was self-inflicted (falling into a fire or out of a tree, cutting yourself sharpening a knife, rolling down Suicide Hill into the lake...).  There was always music: They Might Be Giants and Wilson Phillips in 1990; Pearl Jam and Nirvana later.  There was a puffed-up pride in our troop's fashion sense, panache with Australian hats and patches (American flag on our right shoulders flowing away from our hearts, like the Marines!) as well as in our leaders: Doc, who rarely attended summer camp but sometimes made it up for the last night; Pete, a beloved parent quick with a joke and a smile and a cigar, Bob W. and Bob Van G., two adults deeply interested in letting us figure out how we would survive that week while always being there to ensure that we were okay.  We knew that we had the coolest troop; we knew that we did things the best way, if unorthodox from the official handbook.  We kept a fire burning from Sunday evening through Saturday morning at CFL.  We loved Scouting.  I know I did.

Scouting, exploration, and hierarchy are all at the forefront of the new film Moonrise Kingdom.  Appropriately, Wes Anderson's loving, meticulous, studied qualities as a filmmaker are in full display in Moonrise Kingdom with the island of New Penzance, of ancient trails, hidden inlets, precarious treehouses, and khaki scout badges plastered over waterfront walls.  An extremely detailed review may ruin some of the movie's charms, so let me stick to the edges in my praise.  Anderson's casting continues to be inspired: Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, Harvey Keitel as his mentor Commander Pierce; Jared Gilman as troubled protagonist Sam, Bruce Willis as his mentor Island Police Captain Sharp; Kara Hayward as troubled protagonist Suzy and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as her mentors and lawyer parents Walt and Laura Bishop.  A narrator is played by Bob Balaban with great fun.  A troop of aptly named khaki scouts delight in their roles: Roosevelt, Lazy-Eye, Nickleby, Panagle, Deluca to name a few.  On the surface, this film concerns two kids running away and falling in love, and it concerns survival in all of its forms as both young Sam and Suzy break ranks with their respective troops and meet for an exploration of epic proportions in Anderson's self-contained universe, each with his or her respective baggage (quite literally for Suzy who brings a suitcase of her favorite books with her to read at night and a kitten).  Sam with his coonskin hat, thick glasses, and encyclopedic knowledge of camping, smokes a corncob pipe of sorts, listening intently to Suzy read, telling her when she pauses after removing his pipe, "Go on.  I'm listening."  Naturally, both family and scouts pursue them with both hilarious and violent results.  A massive storm is brewing off the coast of the island.

Anderson's filmmaking resembles the orchestra that bookends the film.  With a wonderful premise, Anderson adds phenomenal sets (Suzy's house, Scout Master Ward's tent) to innovative art direction (fonts for signs, Norman Rockwell-ish lighthouses and colors, neckerchiefs and badges that look and feel just right), as well as wonderfully well-chosen disparate music.  Each performance (a quietly sad Bruce Willis, a straightforward and rebellious Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, a wonderfully bossy Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben) is like an instrument added to the concert, playing a variation on the orchestral theme, separate and distinct yet unified to the overall piece.  Anderson uses maps, handwritten letters, typewriters, badges, and costumes to add a texture to this film, a feel for it that jumps off the screen.  He builds musically, fully integrating bugles and camp songs with  Hank Williams, French songs, and classical.  He never condescends to his lead characters or gives them simple arcs.  Finding a pamphlet entitled "Coping with your Troubled Child," thinking that you're weird is a terrifying thing for anyone.  Suzy and Sam resist easy answers.

A great film, like a great scout troop like mine, is a concert of voices, attitudes, fears, talents, and laughter.  Each person, each instrument, each shot sequence does a variation on the theme, a repetition, a development, a connection.  Wes Anderson's filmmaking embodies this fugue state, fully capturing the anarchic sense of young boys wandering the woods with weapons, the hierarchy of communities like families and troops, the heartbreak of a Scout Master forced to discipline while also acknowledging commendation (a wonderful moment with Edward Norton), as well as people (including the adults) not feeling at home anywhere and searching for the maps and compasses to navigate their ways.  There were times in my life when I felt sanctuary while camping, while being around other scouts and the leaders, while being alone in the woods, while inching across a frozen river on two stretched cables, while earning Canoeing merit badge, Reading, Cooking, Environmental Science, Orienteering...

Moonrise Kingdom is the best film of 2012 so far.  Go on, Wes Anderson.  I'm listening.

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