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"Moonrise Kingdom"

While most filmgoers will see this as a whimsical drama or a coming-of-age romantic comedy, what knocks me out about it is its usage of the technique called - from the French - mise en scene. In effect, what that means, is that there isn't a single element or detail that's not under the control of accomplished artists in every craft it takes to make a film, most importantly, of course, the director who, in the French terminology may be called metteur en scene. "Master of the scene."

As Wikipedia defines it, mise en scene "refers to everything that appears before the camera and its [studiously designed] arrangement: composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, lighting, the positioning and the movement of actors on the set." Plus a camera that is locked still... as much as possible.

Director Wes Anderson hasn't ever done anything quite like it. But, maybe you could say that films like "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and "The Darjeeling Limited") brought him to it as a process of maturing in his art. To me, it's the best and most accessible work of his career. "Moonrise Kingdom" makes me a fan. Like I never was before.

The style is altogether artificial, what with the actors immersing themselves into building a world of human speech and conduct that wouldn't be recognized as normal in a nuthouse. Still, the nuts there would likely love the stylization and intuitively understand the world it formulates. Besides, doesn't artificial start with art?

In this case, the art is in using the medium of film to tell a story in a way that suggests a fable or a fairy tale in a book. Each scene is a tableau of characters and setting -- as if to say "once upon a time there was this town and, in it, there were a boy and a girl who, though very young, decided that they wanted to be together for the rest of their lives -- beginning now."

The narrative isn't linear. It uses the shifting of time to explain some key actions and behavioral idiosyncracies, and it raises the level of suspense and drama. We wonder, for instance, why 12-year old Suzy Bishop (pubescent Kara Hayward in a debut), the elder daughter of mom Laura (Frances McDormand of "Burn After Reading") and dad Walt (Bill Murray of "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," so avidly trains a pair of binoculars on the outside world from her window. She's at an age when hormones are beginning to assert themselves as the guiding principle in a tween's life, but what's this voyeurism from the sanctity of her home about? Well, besides accidentally catching mom in a nighttime encounter with the local police chief, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis, "Surrogates"), her real target remains elusive.

Meanwhile, in Anderson's and screenwriter Roman Coppola's eccentric visions, one of the activities that the town of New Penzance off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965 takes very seriously is the boy scout troupe under the stalwart leadership of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, "The Incredible Hulk" and, of course, "Marvel's The Avengers). And, when 12-year old rebel scout Sam Shakusky (debuting Jared Gilman) is reported missing from his scout troupe, his recovery becomes an all encompassing town mission. And, then Suzy goes missing, the town is really jarred into action -- which isn't necessarily all that competent, including when cold, bearucratic Social Services (Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton") steps in to provide no comfort.

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Providing perspective and his own absurdist presence to all this like an omniscient oracle, Bob Balaban narrates the drama with unflinching objectivity, Anderson style. When things get out of hand, Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel, "Little Fockers"), Ward's senior officer in the BS of A, shows up to throw his forces into the mix with the scout master's future in question. Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") enters the pic with a juicy if brief part in this original take on magical realism.

The deadpan wit is as constant and focused as the compositional power and it all deserves a high order of praise. It gives every character the singularity of an icon. As for the history of the technique, we've seen the like of it from Jeanne Moreau in her much more serious "Lumiere" to the Coen Brothers "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" to which it's closely related. But this level of commitment to a style that contains a surprising emotional depth given its static compositions and level of amusement is all Anderson's. And, when he's done, we're all going to know what Suzy is so avidly looking for through those binoculars.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  
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Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky
Listening, but following their own star.

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