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Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The

The Criterion Collection // R // May 27, 2014
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted May 18, 2014 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
Back to the depths, this time on Blu-ray

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Jeff Goldblum, The Criterion Collection
Likes: Bill Murray, Wes Anderson, most of this cast
Dislikes: Getting no new extras
Hates: Not a whole lot about this movie

The Movie
Currently sitting at six, but likely to reach eight with the inevitable releases of Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson isn't likely to ever reach the number of Criterion titles of Kurosawa (36 spine numbers) or Bergman (29), but his style is probably as close to a "Criterion style" as possible. An incredibly creative visual director with a sure handle on the subtleties of human dynamics, Anderson has no real comparison in film today. Whereas Robert Altman begat P.T. Anderson (who would be a Criterion lock if his work didn't receive mainstream acceptance), there doesn't seem to be a direct line to an cinematic ancestor for this Anderson. When one considers how original his films are, in terms of both story and look, it just makes perfect sense that he would emerge from nothing, yet seem like he's always been there.

Clearly inspired by the films of Jacques Cousteau, the character of Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an underwater adventurer sliding fast on the downside of his career. Leading his Zissou crew on the Belafonte, a rusting old submarine chaser equipped with state-of-the-'70s-art technology, he looks for new and unusual life under the sea, even if people are much less interested in watching his adventures than they once may have been. When he loses his best friend to a massive beast that may or may not exist, it pushes him to leave his science behind, and seek revenge instead.

In case you're wondering, Jaws this is not. The story will go in directions you won't predict and will introduce characters you couldn't expect. That's the key to an Anderson film: the characters. There may be a story going on that links the scenes, but it's the unique characters and how they relate to each other as people that make his movies so wonderful. When the final credit rolls by, you will remember characters with four lines just as vividly as the leads, because they were so distinct and fleshed out.

As Zissou, Murray is fabulous, creating a paradox of a man, a guy who is at the end of his rope, but refuses to accept that, even when his shortcomings are laid out in front of him by Jane (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant reporter following his every move. Were Zissou's adventures the reason that children like Ned (Owen Wilson) idolized him, or did the idol worship of the children make him the adventurer he was? Issues with identity inform most every relationship in this film, especially Zissou's two father-figure connections, with Ned, who is possibly his son, and Klaus (Willem Dafoe), who just wishes he was. When you build your life around one externally-defined aspect of your persona, you're asking for trouble, and Zissou has found it.

As good as Anderson is, without the performers that make up his troupe, this movie wouldn't be nearly as good as it is. Murray, who gave voice to Garfield the same year, continued his second-wind run with yet another rock-solid performance, forcing his supporting cast to raise their game another notch. Wilson responds with a nuanced performance as a man slowly putting himself together, while Dafoe is sublime as Wilson's foil, a jealous German with enough insecurity for the rest of the cast.

Outside of the Zissou daddy strife, Blanchett and Angelica Houston (as Zissou's wife) are hardly surprising, delivering the type of strong performances they have built careers around. The same goes for Jeff Goldblum, who, on the cusp of a grand return as a cult hero, plays Zissou's greatest foe in a hilariously over-the-top role. Add in great supporting performances by veterans Bud Cort, Michael Gambon and Seymour Cassel, and you have a dream cast that fits Anderson's quirky world perfectly. That Anderson is able to blend this massive cast into the film he created, while not turning smaller parts into props or stereotypes, shows just how good he is.

The Life Aquatic looks and sounds like a Wes Anderson film right from the top. Looking older than its age, thanks to choices made in film technique, costuming and set design, the film achieves a sense of timelessness, and an unusual beauty. Even little things like the fonts used in the opening titles, something of a signature for Anderson now, have an effect on the overall feel of the film.

One of the more unique creative choices was the decision to create the imaginative undersea life Zissou discovers in the decidedly low-tech stop-motion animation style, calling on the master craftsmanship of Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). They could have gone with the more integrated look of CGI, but the unnatural feel of stop-motion fits the overall tone of the movie. Anderson has such a cohesive overview of his film that nothing seems like it doesn't go together; it's all part of the story that spills from Anderson's beautiful mind.

The Disc
The landmark spine number 300 returns on Blu-ray in a one-disc release, as has become the custom for Criterion's high-def re-releases.The disc comes in a clear blu-ray keepcase with a two-sided cover, featuring the cross-section of the Belafonte and a fold-out insert with an interview with the brothers and a chapter-stop listing (which is a bit of a disappointment considering some of Criterion's recent great booklets. The disc features almost identical artwork to the first DVD of the original set..

Criterion's beautiful menu system sits over animation of a cutaway of the Belafonte, with options to watch the movie, select scenes, listen to the audio commentary, check out special features and adjust the subtitles. Unlike the DVD, which had English Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks, and English, French and Spanish subtitles, this disc has no audio options and only English subtitles.

The Quality
It's been nine years since Team Zissou first came to home video. When I watched that first DVD, I thought it was gorgeous. My words at the time: "I've rarely seen an image so crisp and colorful." Well, the DVD looks like hot garbage compared to the beauty that is this newly restored 4K transfer, created under Anderson's supervision. Just for the level of fine detail alone this release is a wonder. During the early screening scene in the theater, the meticulous features of the set are stunningly rendered, along with everything else in the shot. Color that previous was fantastic is now basically perfect, with the brighter tones, more earthy hues and the fleshtones all coming off gorgeously, helping truly nail Anderson's unique look. Black levels are deep throughout and there are no evident concerns about digital distractions. Though the DVD transfer looked clean, this release has undergone a tremendous restoration, creating an almost blemish-free image (with just a few exceedingly minor defects still present (not including those intentionally included in Zissou's films.)) Anderson's films were made to be appreciated in this level of quality.

The film returns with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (the DVD offered DTS and Dolby 5.1 tracks) and though the movie isn't going to blow you away aurally (even during gun fights the sound sticks mainly to the center channel), there's enough going on to please you, with a continual flow of atmospheric effects in the surrounds, along with some quality enhancement on the music. which features another of Anderson's eclectic, fantastic movie mix tapes. Dialogue is clear and crisp, but the sound design doesn't lend itself to a flashy, dynamic mix. A solid job all around.

The Extras
Before we dive in (sorry…), it's worth noting that there's nothing new here for those who own the previous two-disc DVD set. The bonus features get started with a feature-length audio commentary by Anderson and his writing partner Noah Baumbach, a unique track recorded the track at the same table where they wrote the film, in a restaurant in New York City. They didn't shut down the restaurant, so the effect is like sitting with the writers at dinner watching the film. It's interesting and not too annoying, though Anderson and Baumbach aren't the most electric of personalities. They do deliver plenty of info about the film and their thoughts on the process.

Nine deleted (and alternate) scenes are up next, running 4:35, which can be viewed one at a time or together, using the play-all option. These scenes may have been cut, but they really could have stayed in. There are some very funny moments in here, especially an expanded take with Cort's character that's so deadpan it hurts.

The nearly 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (titled "Starz on the Set" on the DVD) is better than the usual cable-channel promo material. Done in the style of a Zissou film, it features plenty of interviews with the cast and crew, and a bundle of footage from the set, including a good amount of focus on the cross-section set.

The content on Disc Two kicks off with a fun and unique musical extra, as 10 full-length performances by cast member Seu Jorge are included, as filmed on the set. Brazilian Jorge translated and adapted some of David Bowie's hits, which just proves how great Bowie is. Even when you can't understand the words, the songs sound great. The songs were a big part of the feel of the movie, and it's nice to be able to listen to them in their entirety, which you can choose to do one by one or as a 40-minute set.

Three of the characters are examined in a small amount of depth, via three short featurettes. Ned (2:57), Jane (3:38) and Esteban (7:09) are discussed or observed during the shoot, with thoughts about their parts are shared by the actors. Similar, but longer featurettes cover the stop-motion animation used in the film (7:54), filming a scene (4:42), the production design (5:30) and the costumes. In these featurettes are some wonderful off-camera moments, and they help put Murray in one hell of a favorable light, after years of stories about him being a diva, as here he is light-hearted and fun.

One of the best featurettes on this collection is a 19-minute interview with composer Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo. His thoughts on how he comes up with music, his themes and his processes are fascinating and help explain exactly what a composer can bring to a film if they are truly involved in the production. The discussion about how he scored the last three Anderson films is especially interesting.

"Intern Video Journal" (15:22) is an interesting little fly-on-the-wall pieced where Anderson's former intern Matthew Gray Gubler (who plays an intern in Life Aquatic and hadn't yet had his breakout on Criminal Minds) annoys the cast and crew with his questions and camera. There's a lot of candid footage of the cast, including Gambon and Dafoe goofing off and Murray speaking in Italian.

Gubler does a fine job, but the real coverage comes from veteran documentarian Albert Maysles, who co-directed the 51:23 This is an Adventure, a behind-the-scenes look at the production. How many directors have Criterion-quality directors follow them around? Maysles, joined by his co-directors on "The Gates," delivers an intimate look at the production, utilizing his very simple documentary technique.

A gallery of design work that was used in the film, including the paintings and advertisements in the movie, is included for your perusal (and you should peruse) while an unbelievably deep series of photos from the set, shot by set photographer Phillipe Antonello and Anderson. Unlike your standard behind-the-scenes photos, these images are beautiful works of art. I considered capturing them to put as desktop wallpaper on my computer (and likely will at some point.) Take the time to flip through this massive gallery.

The final extra is an interview (16:23), but there's no "Charlie Rose" this time. Anderson and Baumbach stop by "Mondo Monda," an Italian talk show, hosted by Antonio Monda. The Americans have some trouble with the language, but the joke is bigger than that, and if you watch the supplements, you'll catch on quick. This is well made and very funny.

The film's theatrical trailer, which is a work of art, is also available to watch.

On the Hunt
Thanks to reader Derek J. Power, we learned that the Easter Eggs from the DVD have in fact been ported to Blu-Ray, though they are harder to find. However, searching through the supplement menus won't leave you feeling "blue" (check the comments below for info on ho to find the three clips, two of which are quite a hoot for fans of Murray and Maysles.)

The Bottom Line
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou fits in perfectly with Anderson's other work in terms of tone and character, but it is unique when compared to those movies as far as laughs go. The adventure aspects require the film to maintain a tinge of real-world seriousness that's been relatively absent in his other movies, making them more humorous than The Life Aquatic. That doesn't mean this film isn't funny. There's just more in terms of actual plot that needs to be developed. Though the Blu-ray doesn't add anything as far as bonus features go in comparison to the previous DVDs, the presentation of the film rises from flawless for a DVD to gorgeous for high-definition. No fan of Anderson's films should be disappointed, and if they are, the blame falls on them, because he's just as creative here, just working on a different kind of canvas.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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