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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Satire > The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - Criterion Collection set

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: The Criterion Collection Set


Picture: B+†††† Sound: B+†††† Extras: A†††† Film: A



There are precious few directors today who, upon utterance of their name, have a style and look intrinsically associated with them.Quentin Tarantino is one, David Fincher is another.And though Wes Anderson is also a part of the modern class of auteurs, his work is something entirely different.


Like Jean-Luc Goddard, Stanley Kubrick, and Federico Fellini before him, Andersonís films are visually individual.His characters populate a fully realized alternate reality, complete with the problems and distractions of ďrealĒ life but filtered through the prism of the cinema.


In a film like The Royal Tenenbaums, the characters we meet are wholly believable despite their seemingly fantastic idiosyncrasies and neuroses, a testament to not only the acting of Gene Hackman, Danny Glover, Anjelica Huston, and the rest of the cast, but also to Andersonís ó and, indeed, co-writer Owen Wilsonís ó ability to make these characters resemble as closely as possible those eccentric millionaires that pop up in our lives from time to time.


Similarly, in Rushmore, arguably Andersonís best and most complete work, overachieving Max Fischer and depressed Herman Blume are simultaneously abhorrent and sympatheticóor, in other words, humanóbecause both Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray bring the requisite gravitas to their roles.But more importantly, Anderson and Wilson craft characters that are two halves of the same whole. Max is a younger Herman, and Herman sees in Max the wide-eyed idealism that once filled his existence.


With both filmsóas well as the underrated Bottle RocketóAnderson creates worlds and people that are familiar, but, like with the great auteurs of the past, adds strokes of whimsy and otherworldly-ness to make these films literally his own, with every frame stamped with his signature.


Andersonís latest work, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, comes on the heels of his widely-regarded Tenenbaums.And while there was some criticism of The Life Aquatic because, as many people have noted, ďit isnít ĎThe Royal Tenenbaums,íĒ such thinking misses the point.


Rushmore isnít Bottle Rocket.Tenenbaums isnít Rushmore.And The Life Aquatic isnít Tenenbaums.Andersonís films are always an exploration into the new, which, regardless of the results, is something Hollywood could certainly use more of.


And this new film is quite literally explorative, centering on the erstwhile Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his crew (Willem Dafoe, Seu Jorge, Noah Taylor, and Anjelica Huston, among others) as they hit the seas to film documentaries and explore the oceanic depths.On his latest adventure, Zissou sets out to track and kill the jaguar shark that ate his friend and first mate Esteban (Seymour Cassel).Problem is, Zissou is flat broke and canít find anyone to bankroll his documentary, which heíll film as a pretext for revenge.


Enter Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Southern gentleman who claims to be Zissouís son.Thereís no proof that he is, other than the truth that Nedís mother is someone Zissou had bedded in the past.But Zissou chooses to believe Ned is his long-lost son, more because he longs for the companionship of a best friendówhich was lost when Esteban was eatenóand inducts Ned into the crew of his ship, the Bellafonte.


Luckily for Zissou, Ned has some inheritance money that he wants to use to help his new father fund his documentary.But taking it comes with some previsions: the film canít go over budget, Zissou canít kill the shark, and he must take a bank employee (Bud Cort) on his voyage to ensure the other conditions are met.


After, again, slight hesitation, Zissou and crew set off to track the jaguar shark.Along for the ride is Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a reporter wishing to profile Zissou for a ďNational GeographicĒ-style publication.And she gets more than she bargains for on the voyage after she discovers that the Zissou she idolized has been replaced with a bitter, angry, depressed man who is hell-bent on revenge; the Bellafonte is attacked and ransacked by pirates; Zissou locks horns with his nemesis, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum); and the Bellafonte crew stages a crazy search-and-rescue operation to recover the bank officer, taken hostage by the pirates who attacked them.


While all of that sets up Andersonís best film since Rushmore, it canít top the performance Bill Murray gives, who delivers some of his best work this side of Lost in Translation.Murray plays Zissou as an extroverted introvert.His Zissou is a bastard, crass and cruel normally, but also someone who has a great deal of hurt and sadness bubbling just below the surface.The moment that he and the crew of the Bellafonte encounter the jaguar shark is one of such emotional resonance that that alone should have secured Murray an Academy Award.


Similarly, the rest of the cast is pitch perfect.Everyone on the Bellafonte takes a backseat to Murray, with the exception of Wilson, who turns in one of his finest performances, Blanchett, whose work here was overshadowed by her amazing turn as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, and Willem Dafoe who, as Klaus, the loyal German who wants to be Zissouís second in command, nearly steals the show.


On the visual end, Andersonís direction of what could be considered at times his first action film is flawless.The intimate moments are as magnificent as sweeping ocean panoramas, and his handling of the larger action set-pieces ó the pirate invasion, the Ping Island rescue ó are cleverly done, true to the spirit of the action but done with a mischievous wink to the audience that this isnít their typical boom-boom action scene.


Naturally, this isnít whatís most important to the look of the film.Itís the reality of it all; the believability.The Bellafonte is an actual ship on an actual body of water; the crazy animal wildlife, while not real, was created through stop-motion animation rather than computers; and the sets were all hand-made and to scaleóthe interiors of the Bellafonte were constructed on soundstages and the green screen work is minimal.


All of that creates a throwback feel to the film.It looks like something that could have been shot in the Ď60s or Ď70s, but all of Andersonís films feel that way.This film is different.The Life Aquatic has the energy of a French New Wave film and the sensibility of a Fellini work.


But there is truly nothing like The Life Aquatic.Itís Andersonís most accomplished film, and the one that firmly establishes him as todayís cinemaís auteur.His best film remains Rushmore, purely for the intimacy of the story and the filmmaking.With Aquatic, though, Anderson demonstrates that he can direct large pictures and still keep his distinctive traits.


Is this The Royal Tenenbaums? No. Itís better, and hopefully a sign of bigger things to come from one of cinemaís most exciting, interesting, and eccentric auteurs.


As with Andersonís previous two films, The Life Aquatic comes to DVD in a dazzling two-disc set from the Criterion Collection (spine number 300).And like his previous films, the quality of the presentation and the extras afforded the film are amazing.


On disc one, the film is presented in a new, high-definition 2.35 X 1 anamorphic widescreen that brings out the beauty of the filmís cinematography.Watching the film, itís as if youíre on the Bellafonte with Zissou and crew.The sky blues and yellows that dominate the film are brought brilliantly to life, and the wild colors of the underwater life are bright and vibrant.One of the strengths of the film is that cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman used real anamorphic Panavision instead of inferior Super 35 for the film, and that brings the film up to a visual level worthy of the documentary films they are subtly sending up.It is an argument on why more films should be shot on film, and real scope films with richer scope squeeze lenses.


Aurally, The Life Aquatic isnít a ďloudĒ film, so as such the quality of the sound of the DVD is as good as it needs to be.Dialogue is understandable and the ambient noises of the ocean and boat life are subtle and textured.When there is a large set piece, like the explosion that punctuates the Ping Island rescue, itís loud and booming, utilizing the entirety of the surround sound set-up.The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is good; especially the way Criterion has done the transfer.


Also on disc one is a commentary from Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach thatís as informative as past Anderson commentaries, but is interesting in that it was recorded where the duo did the bulk of their writingóa restaurant in New York.This is a neat change of pace, and itís good to hear a commentary taken out of the booth.


Completing the extras on disc one is the filmís original theatrical trailer which is, truth be told, slightly underwhelming as far as trailers go; ten deleted scenes which are, more or less, little extensions to scenes in the film but are all interesting; and a ďStarz on the SetĒ behind-the-scenes featurette that is pretty redundant once you get through extensive extras on disc two.


The marquee bonus on disc two is the ďThis is an AdventureĒ documentary shot by Antonio Ferrera, Albert Maysles, and Matthew Prinzing following the production of The Life Aquatic.Murray and Anderson are at the center of the documentary, which runs upwards of an hour, and itís great to see two masters of their crafts at work.There isnít a hint of that promo nonsense in the documentary that usually marks making-ofs; rather, itís a fairly even look at the trials and tribulations of shooting such a complex and interesting film.


Another extra on disc two worth noting is the video interview with Mark Mothersbaugh concerning not only scoring this film but his working relationship with Anderson.There is more substance in this featurette than in any of the others, primarily because Mothersbaugh is the focus and we never stray far from that.And he talks about more than just The Life Aquatic.Mothersbaugh discusses how he works with Anderson at the beginning of the production rather than the end, how both their musical tastes have influenced the otherís, and even how his work with DEVO and why that band formed has made Mothersbaugh such a successful film scorer.Itís one of the most-fascinating looks at composing for the movies you can find, and, if nothing else, makes this set worth picking up.


Also included on disc two are fairly mundane character/actor featurettes focusing on many of the actors in the film and their characters.The most interesting of these behind-the-scenes looks is the one centered on Cassel.Heís one of the coolest cats of modern cinema, and he shows why here.The others pale in comparison, especially because thereís so much glad-handing involved with them about how great so-and-so is.Not with Cassel.He talks about acting, working with John Cassavetes, cigars, and the film at hand but never sinks into that pat-fill-in-the-blank-on-the-back territory.


Additionally, there are ten Seu Jorge interpretations of David Bowie songs; an intern video journal that is fun but contains, again, more glad-handing; The Look Aquatic making-of about the production design of the film; and the Aquatic Life documentary about the work of Henry Selick and the stop-motion characters of the film.


What all that amounts to is one of the best presentations of a Wes Anderson film yet.Neither the Rushmore nor Tenenbaums DVDs can match The Life Aquatic disc in terms of the sheer amount of extra features.And while quantity doesnít always quality, it does so here and Criterion should be commended for its commitment to the work of Wes Anderson and continually presenting his films on DVD in ways befitting a filmmaker as interesting and talented as Anderson is.



-†† Dante A. Ciampaglia


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