Saturday, July 14, 2012

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

          I've had several conversations recently regarding Tom Cruise. "He's the same in every movie," the other person says. "He's always Tom Cruise." Usually they cite a couple of his characters from different decades and smile at me: the argument, for me, is futile. And perhaps they're right. But I don't really believe in the every-good-actor-disappears-into-a-role thing. I believe in the theory of characters and stars, and Tom Cruise, obviously, is a star.

          Let me explain-- since the beginning of cinema, movie studios have invested huge amounts of money into recognizable stars for their films. The star was the connection between good movies, and people often made (and continue to make) their decisions based on what they already knew about the film going in. Oh, Buster Keaton is funny, let's go see the new funny Buster Keaton movie. Oh, Cary Grant is handsome and charming, let's go see the new romantic Cary Grant movie. And so on.

         These early stars weren't even allowed to disappear into their roles because these clearly defined roles were necessary for the film's income. Flash forward a few decades. The star-power theory is relatively unscathed. Sure, there are films starring unknowns that do well in the box office, but that is almost always because of genre-power or director-power, subsidiaries of the star-power theory. Paranormal Activity might not have any stars in it, or a popular director, but horror films are their own stars-- people go in expecting the formula to deliver.

        So when people tell me that Tom Cruise is the same in every movie, I usually vehemently agree. The problem with disagreeing is that I don't have very many roles to choose from to support my stance. Sure, there's Tropic Thunder and Magnolia, but these are only small attempts by Cruise in becoming a different kind of actor. Maybe, in another world, he could have been. But he isn't. He's a star.

I thought this was a Moonrise Kingdom review?

        There are two kinds of actors, the star and the character. We're all familiar with these terms. The star has his/her name above the title of the film. We go into the movie expecting what we've seen of this person, and if we're lucky, they will deliver the goods. For example, I love Will Smith movies. I can't help it. I find Will Smith to be effortlessly, brilliantly charming. Even in a bad movie, I will always like Will Smith. However, with only one or two exceptions (just like Cruise), Will Smith is always the same person. Always. George Clooney is the same way. As is Emma Stone (shock!).

          Calling a star a star is not an insult to me. It's just calling it as it is. The people I just mentioned are excellent at being stars. These are people who appear in several movies of various time periods, tones, and intents, and always come out of the other side satisfying that desire in us to get more of our stars. Sometimes they play their roles a little straighter, or a little looser, but they're always instantly recognizable. And don't act like you don't love this. It's comfort. It's home. Why else do we desire to see them again and again?

      The character is a whole different kind of animal. These are people who thrive on audiences not knowing their names. Plenty of stars have transitioned from being characters, but very, very few stars have transitioned into characters (see: Tropic Thunder). This is because stars have more at stake. They have empires built around their product. Characters do not. They often play small, but important, roles in big movies, and large, significant roles in small movies. These are people like Dylan Baker, Harry Dean Stanton, and Gary Oldman. These are people who make their living in becoming other people. They are there to help create the believable world for our star, whether that star be a genre, an actor, a writer, a director, or a franchise.

This is where I talk about the movie--kind of 
            You often hear the same kinds of criticisms about directors. "He always makes the same movie," they say. Again, I nod and smile. No other director in cinema today (besides maybe Tyler Perry) gets this criticism more than Wes Anderson. Anderson's star-power is palpable now that he has reached a Tom Cruise level of haters. Of course, he also has a Tom Cruise level of supporters. Wes Anderson has essentially made the same movie seven times. He has used the same jokes, shots, actors, themes, and moods throughout his career. Like Tom Cruise, Wes Anderson might perform at different speeds, but he is always Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is a star-- his name is always above the title. However, as is the case with absolutely everything on the planet, some people do not like what he has to say.

         This is because people have lumped Wes Anderson into the same category as Tom Cruise. They say he's always the same, and is incapable of surprise. Even Anderson's stop-motion kid's film (his Tropic Thunder) has the hallmarks of his live-action counterparts. Does this mean that Anderson is lazy, or does this mean that Anderson is fulfilling the desires of his fans? Does he have any real reason to change? His movies do well critically and commercially (commercially not as much, but the films make money) and he has placed himself firmly into a niche from which he'll probably never want for anything.

        Anderson's detractors want him to be more like Michael Winterbottom-- eclectic and versatile and impossible to recognize. But Anderson can't be Michael Winterbottom; people already know who he is. He has already become a star, and stars have a hard time disappearing.

Okay, Okay. The actual review

       I'll confess that I wasn't all that excited about Moonrise Kingdom when I first heard about it. This is odd to me, because in my teens I was all about Wes Anderson. I particularly loved The Life Aquatic, which was, to me, one of the most interesting character studies I'd ever seen. And one of the most beautifully shot and art directed, to boot. I also loved The Darjeeling Limited for its slower, more serious delivery. It was Wes Anderson moving in a different speed, and I liked it. I saw both movies opening day and loved every second of them. I saw both movies multiple times in the theater, with different groups of people, and watched their reactions. To me, everybody was thinking "who is this guy making these weird little movies, and who is giving him the money to build those sets?"

      I heard the same thing last night, watching Moonrise Kingdom, in my own head. I asked myself around the halfway mark how this movie got made. The sets are spectacularly realized. Real money was spent on the look of this movie, and I couldn't, at first, wrap my head around it. And then I remembered that Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, and Tilda Swinton star in this film. I'm sure they had something to do with it. But then another voice asked me, in a much more confused tone, why is Bruce Willis in this movie? Bruce Willis is a star. He doesn't need to be a supporting player in a limited release film starring unknown child actors. But then I thought, yes, this is his Tropic Thunder. This is Bruce Willis holding on to the character actor buried inside of him, as he often does every few years, and in this case the gamble paid off. Bruce Willis is the heart of Moonrise Kingdom. 

      At the start of the movie, I realized two things: it is filmed in an aspect ratio Anderson hasn't used since Bottle Rocket, and he is using a different font for his opening titles. These changes may seem innocuous to those who are unfamiliar with the Tom Cruise Smile that is Anderson's visual style, but for those of you who follow the director, these are huge changes. Monumental, even. And I was listening once I realized these changes.

     Moonrise Kingdom follows the plot of two twelve-year-olds, Sam and Suzy, as they run away and try to make a life for themselves in the wilderness using Sam's Khaki Scouts skills. The two quickly fall in love and seek a life of adventure as fugitives. We follow two stories, the story of the lovers and the story of the adults who look for them. And, in keeping with perfect Anderson tradition, the irony here is that the adults act like children and the children act like adults. We get a very real love story between the leads, acted and blocked like a classic Jean Luc-Godard film (using a tripod), and the scenes are filled with warmth and unusually deep emotion. We also get a very real search-and-rescue story, complete with split-screen phone calls and perilous cliff-side chases.

     However, those looking for a truly different Wes Anderson movie will have to look elsewhere. His star power shines so brightly in every shot of this film that detractors might as well call it a parody. We have extravagantly designed sets, cameos from all the major players (excluding the Wilson brothers), the use of correspondence stock, a fantastic, eclectic soundtrack, warm, autumnal colors, and deadpan delivery of every funny line of dialogue. We get the classic Anderson conversations beats, such as "Aren't you concerned that your daughter is missing?"
"That's a loaded question."

       Those of you who are on the fence about Anderson's movies might not find much to be surprised by in his new film, but I will say that Moonrise Kingdom is much more fun than I anticipated, especially in its unusually cartoony third act, where any hint of realism is completely thrown out the window. I found Anderson's total departure from realism charming, and the finale helped me get on board with the movie. I also can't say enough good things about Edward Norton and Bruce Willis. Norton has the gee-whiz attitude necessary to make his character believable as an innocent and excited scout leader, and Bruce Willis has the world-weary exhaustion necessary to make him believable as a bored, depressed police officer stuck on an island with no easy exits.

       Bob Balaban also offers an interesting performance as the film's narrator, who guides the movie like he's part of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and I found his costume to be one of the highlights.

       It's hard for me to judge a star for using his gifts. I often find myself defending them vehemently at social gatherings, and sometimes I get exhausted at the very mention of Nicolas Cage or Tom Cruise. So when somebody mentions Wes Anderson, and another person inevitably sighs and says he keeps making the same movie, I sigh too. It's true, Anderson seems to be stuck, maybe even obsessed, with a very particular style of filmmaking and a very particular story, but let's stop expecting him to change. For me, he is good at what he does, and if you don't like it, you're not wrong or stupid or out of the loop, you're just not a fan of this particular star. It's okay. There's an infinite number of stars.

I give Moonrise Kingdom 8/10 vacant, deadpan stares into the camera.


  1. Great review, Cam. I always enjoy the perspective in your reviews. This one reads unlike any other reviews of MK. "8/10 vacant, deadpan stares into the camera." Hahaha. I have been trying to see this for a while and now I've got to make time for it.

  2. Thinking back, I might have have felt inclined to give this film a slightly higher ranking (9/10 at most), but now I'd say your take is spot on. I wasn't totally sold on the cartoonish ending, but I loved the ending credits music.

  3. It was cute, and also made me want to die a little bit. Typical Anderson formula, but it keeps me coming back so I've no complaints.

    I'm going to start rating my entire life based on vacant, deadpan stares.

  4. If I had written and directed this exact film. No matter how many people I showed it to. it never would have gotten out of my apartment. The $16,000,000 spent for tickets should be refunded

    Feasant Plucker