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The Criterion Collection presents
Ned Plimpton: Who locked us out?
DVD ReviewAfter viewing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in the theater last December, I was left with a feeling of disappointment. I had high expectations for this latest installment in the filmography of Wes Anderson, following up on his marvelous The Royal Tenenbaums and the even better Rushmore. I simply did not like the movie and felt that it misfired continuously during its 118-minute running time.
About a month after my initial viewing, I began to think that I should see it again; that it was a mistake to look at this as a comedy, but rather as a somber character study of a miserable man, oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). So now, nearly five months later, I have seen The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou a second time and must admit that it is truly a brilliant piece of work.
Captain Zissou is a has-been, as evident from the flop of his most recent documentary, "The Life Aquatic, No. 12: The Jaguar Shark". Despite its failure at an Italian film festival, Steve is motivated to find this mysterious jaguar shark—if in fact it exists—to avenge the death of his good friend, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel), whom it ate. Things are only complicated when Steve brings his recently discovered (alleged) illegitimate son, the 30-year-old Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), on board Team Zissou's vessel, the Belafonte. Seemingly stuck in the 1970s, the Belafonte and its crew—consisting of the heavily Germanic Klaus (Willem Dafoe), topless script girl Anne-Marie (Robyn Cohen), Steve's rich wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), and a host of others—are as concerned with making highly indulgent documentaries as they are with studying the ocean's lifeforms.
Struggling financially to bankroll the continuation of his documentary, Steve and his producer, Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), enlist Ned's recently inherited fortune to finance the expedition. Team Zissou sets sail, accompanied by the bank's stooge, Bill Ubell (Bud Cort), and an investigative journalist, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett). The pregnant Jane becomes the object of affection for both Steve and Ned, causing tension in the still fragile would-be father-son relationship. This ensemble of characters is arguably the most eclectic yet assembled by director Anderson. Working with his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, Anderson creates a subtle comedy mixed with tragedy that requires complete attention from its audience in order to pick up on the nuances of its acting, writing, plot twists, and filmmaking.
As over-the-top as it may seem, considering Steve's struggle with nemesis oceanographer Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) and a sequence involving an attack by Filipino pirates, this is an amazingly complex motion picture. Steve is the most intricate character created by Anderson to this date, both being audaciously charming and pompously arrogant. His fear of maturity and being a father are superbly captured by Bill Murray's performance (every bit as good as his turn in Lost in Translation), which brings intense drama and dry humor into perfect matrimony. The closing ten minutes of the film are brutally honest about Steve—as he is himself—and may be a bit too melancholic for most viewers, but they bring a fitting conclusion to this picture.
In addition to Murray's tour-de-force performance, Owen Wilson is cast in an unusual role as the naēve Ned. Adopting an accent that—if it ever actually existed—probably belonged to a Southern gentleman prior to the Civil War, Wilson plays the straight man in the picture, allowing comedy to flow from his character's juxtaposition to the extravagant cast around them. Cate Blanchett once again delivers a sublime characterization, adding a human touch to Jane that other actresses might not achieve. While some of the supporting roles—especially Dafoe's flamboyant Klaus and Sue Jorge's Portuguese-speaking, David Bowie-singing Pelé—are likely to come across as overly manufactured (that was one of my original complaints about the film), they are perfectly absurd for this story. Steve lives in a semi-fictitious world and it only follows that his crew would be far more surreal than our rigidly logical viewpoints want to allow.
Aiding the acting is the music, mostly comprised of Sue Jorge's renditions of David Bowie songs, also includes a unique score by Mark Mothersbaugh. Mothersbaugh's score passed almost without my notice when I first viewed the film, but it's a delightfully unpredictable synthetic score, sounding almost as if it was performed on outdated Casio machines. Combined with the stop-motion animation of the aqua life, the score furthers the ludicrousness of the script. Featuring some truly stunning dialogue—Jane's initial attempt to interview Steve literally had me keeled over in laughter—and a wild storyline, this screenplay is one of the best of the past few years. It doesn't go for cheap puns and force a punchline at a constant rate; instead, Anderson and Baumbach allow the comedy to unfold naturally as Steve fails to connect with the darkness of the world around him.
And that may be the most brilliant part of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It's not a drama by any stretch of the imagination, but a poignant comedy about a man living a depressing life. That, I think, is the point of this film. We can enjoy Steve's pretense and live vicariously through his escapades, but as the credits role we too must become adults along with him.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a stunning representation of the theatrical experience. Depth is strong and contrast is astonishing, creating a film-like look. Detail is excellent, particularly during the opening scene at the film festival. Blacks are luscious and the colors are beautiful. It's no wonder Wes Anderson put his stamp of approval on this picture.
Image Transfer Grade: A+
Audio Transfer Review: The DTS 5.1 sound mix is a nice, juiced-up treat. Sound separation and directionality are abound, but never to a point where they become distracting. Dialogue is well balanced and always audible. The score's bizarre rhythms permeate the sound system and are contagious (go ahead, I dare you not to dig those vibes!). The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is an adequate substitute, though the DTS is preferred since it reflects the original theatrical mix. The Dolby mix is not as engaging, but it still delivers quite efficiently.
Audio Transfer Grade: A+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 10 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
9 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Packaging: Amaray Double
The first disc contains an audio commentary by Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach. The two decided to record it at the same restaurant where they met to write the screenplay, which makes it awfully difficult to make out what they are saying half the time (especially for Anderson). The two of them cover nearly every aspect of the creative process, talking about the actors and their inspiration (the opening scene is, much to my surprise, stirred by Fellini's 8 1/2). What the two of them discuss is highly informative, but you will have to strain to make out what they are saying thanks to the background noise from other customers.
Also on the first disc is the featurette Starz on the Set (14m:31s), containing interviews with cast and crew. This is mostly a promotional fluff piece, but it has enough behind-the-scenes footage and insightful sound bytes to merit its inclusion. Following that are nine deleted scenes (for some reason the packaging says there are ten) that can be played together for a total running time of four and a half minutes. By and large these are just minor extensions to already existing scenes and were wisely cut. However, those who have wondered about the bizarre lifeform featured in the trailer that does not appear in the final cut should check out the scene Hydronicus Inverticus (Rat-Tail Envelope Fish) to learn more about it. Each deleted scene is shown in nonanamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen and Dolby Stereo sound. The theatrical trailer is also included on the first disc, presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen.
The second disc features material only available from Criterion and is packed with great extras. I also suspect that the insert, featuring the transcript of an interview by Wes Anderson and his brother Eric Chase, is probably only available with this set as well. The two of them discuss Eric's cover art and other drawings, but there's nothing major there. A video introduction to the disc by actor and film professor Antonio Monda (:11s) kicks things off and is followed by a photo gallery of stills from the set. Anderson took the Polaroids, however, most of what is shown here are pretty photos of the cast and crew in Italy and on the ocean. An additional gallery of conceptual art is also included.
There are six featurettes included. The Look Aquatic (05m:29s) details the design of the ship with an interview with production designer Mark Friedberg and footage from the set. Friedberg smoothly takes us through the different aspects of the film's design, making for an interesting feature. Creating a Scene (04m:41s) is a detailed look at the on-set activity concerning the movie's opening scenes. The next, Aquatic Life (07m:53s), examines the process of creating the sea life via stop-motion animation. Some of the tricks revealed here are quite ingenious and definitely make this a welcomed bonus to the disc. Ned Plimpton (02m:56s) examines Wilson's performance. A lot of what is mentioned here is a repeat from the Starz featurette. Esteban du Plantier (07m:09s) follows Anderson regular Seymour Cassel around as he prepares to shoot a scene. Cassel comes across as a rather interesting person and the featurette contains an interesting portion where Anderson, who is above water at the time, directs him underwater. The final featurette is Costumes (04m:37s), which focuses in on Milena Canonero's contribution to realizing Anderson's perfectionism. Some interesting details are pointed out, so check this one out.
Following the host of featurettes is an interview with Anderson and Baumbach for Italian television, Mondo Monda (16m:23s). The whole thing appears to be just an elaborate in-joke and drags on for too long, with host Antonio Monda asking the English-speaking filmmakers questions in Italian. For those enamored with Seu Jorge's coverage of David Bowie's tunes, there are ten songs available for your listening pleasure (40m:01s in total). My personal favorite is Starman.
Finally, there are three documentaries. Mark Mothersbaugh (19m:03s) is a look into the contribution the former Devo band member made to the score. You may be surprised to learn how he came up with the main theme for The Life Aquatic.
Then there is the highlight of the supplemental features, This Is an Adventure (51m:22s). Made by famed documentarian Albert Maysles, it touches upon all aspects of the shoot. A lot of what is included here is new, though some of the interviews are retreads of earlier extras. Nonetheless, it's an excellent making-of documentary. Last on the disc is The Intern Journal, made by Anderson's former intern Matthew Gray Gubler (who plays "Intern #1"). His narration becomes a bit tiresome, though this is still a nice addition to the set with even more behind-the-scenes footage.
Criterion's excellent bonus materials make this a must-have for Anderson fans.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsOn a level with The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson's most recent comedy is a sad, humorous experience that is likely to divide audiences. With time, this may well be recognized as the young director's most important motion picture, thanks in part to Criterion's amazing special edition set.
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