Moonrise Kingdom – After his auspicious beginning with Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, writer/director Wes Anderson went into a bit of a funk as far as I was concerned. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited were aimless efforts that were hung up on delivering the sort of quirky characters and situations the filmmaker was becoming known for instead of telling sincere, poignant stories, which is what made his first three films distinctive. With his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson is back on solid ground, effectively combining his distinctive visual and narrative sense with a heartfelt story of two children who run away and in so doing, bring together a group of disparate people who are intent on finding them. The cast assembled here is top-notch, what with Frances McDormand and Bill Murray as two dissatisfied marrieds, Edward Norton as a flummoxed scout leader and Bruce Willis as the only police officer on the island where the film takes place. These four create a kind of magic as they bring to life these slightly broken people who are each trying to find a bit of happiness but newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the two children who set off to find a home of their own steal the show with their unaffected performances. Anderson and his cast pull off a rare feat here as they’ve made a sweet film that’s not overly sappy, which leads to a satisfyingly honest and tender conclusion.
People Like Us – The premise to Alex Kurtzman’s feature debut as a director seems a bit trite but that it is was based on a true experience of his own does help, as you can feel how heartfelt he is about the project through his writing. Chris Pine stars as a young, aimless man who returns home when he finds that his father has died and gets quite a surprise. He finds out he has a sister (Elizabeth Banks) that he and his family know nothing about and he’s been charged with delivering a large sum of cash to her, which would come in handy where solving some of his own financial woes are concerned. This could have come off as a bit of a soap opera but strong performances by the two leads save this as does a supporting turn from Michelle Pfeiffer, whose character is forced to readjust her memories and feelings for a man she only thought she knew. Watch out for the ending – it’s a keeper.
Savages – Overlooked amidst the many empty blockbusters from last summer, Oliver Stone’s look at the modern drug trade finds the master in fine form. Based on the novel by Don Winslow, this violent tale centers on two young California drug dealers (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) who step on the toes of a Mexican kingpin (Salma Hayek), who kindly asks them if they’d like to come to work for her. When they refuse, she sends her head goon (a genuinely frightening Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap their mutual girlfriend (Blake Lively). When the boys head south of the border to get back their main squeeze, double-crosses and fireworks ensue, all done with the brand of excessive violence Stone has become known for. Adding to the fun is John Travolta delivering his best performance in years as a crooked DEA agent who has no problems using any one to advance his career.
The Queen of Versailles – One of the most intriguing documentaries of the year, this feature from director Lauren Greenfield charts the rise and fall of David and Jaqueline Siegel, a married couple with far too much money and time on their hands. With little to do, Jackie decides to build a new mansion based on the Palace of Versailles, a multi-billion dollar undertaking, measuring at 90, 000 square feet, that runs into a hiccup or two when the financial crisis hits and David’s time-share empire goes belly up. Whether you end up sympathizing with these one percenters is up to you but it must be said that Greenfield catches these two at their most human as they scramble about not just to save their riches but to simply survive. Short and to the point this will either infuriate you or get you to laugh at the absurdity of it all.