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THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
Special Edition Two Disc Set

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort
Director: Wes Anderson
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion/Disney
Features: See Review
Length: 118 Minutes
Release Date: May 10, 2005

“You must swear, legally swear, that you will not kill that shark, or whatever it is, if it exists.”

“I’ll fight it, but I’ll let it live. What about my dynamite?”

Film ***

It started in 1996 with a little film called Bottle Rocket, and since then writer/director Wes Anderson has become the master of the quirky, carefully observant character comedy. He progressed in 1998 with the outstanding Rushmore and in 2001 with the superb The Royal Tenenbaums. He could very much be considered Woody Allen, but with a more eccentric touch.

Now Anderson has delivered his most ambitious film offering in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Like Royal Tenenbaums, the film has assembled a most terrific ensemble; led by Bill Murray in a wonderful performance that can easily be matched with his Oscar nominated turn in Lost in Translation. Where as Anderson’s first three films were pretty much straight up comedies, The Life Aquatic does go in some unexpected areas.

Murray stars as the title character, Steve Zissou, a famed oceanographer. Zissou, with the help of a documentary film crew, captures his underwater expeditions on film. The latest film piece, titled “The Jaguar Shark”, is presented before an audience in Italy. This film stands out for the sole reason that one of Team Zissou’s members, Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by the very shark they set out to find.

Following the film’s premiere, Zissou takes questions from a speechless audience. He then announces that he will immediately proceed back to the ocean to find the shark and kill it, preferably with dynamite. He then gets an unexpected surprise following the premiere upon meeting a young man named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be Steve’s long lost son.

Ned is a pilot from Kentucky whose mother just passed away. Before she died, he was then told that Steve Zissou was indeed his father. No matter what the case is, Steve invites Ned to become a member of Team Zissou during this expedition/suicide mission. While he doesn’t immediately admit to being Ned’s father, he is eager to know more about this stranger.

Steve’s mighty boat vessel is named The Bellafonte, which harbors a most eccentric crew of divers and filmmakers. Among this crew is Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) who happens to be Steve’s ex-wife in addition to being the former wife of Steve’s arch rival, Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum). There’s also German diver, and long time Team Zissou member Klaus (Willem Dafoe), a financial representative named Bill (Bud Cort), dubbed by Zissou “Stooge”, sent to oversee that the crew stays on budget, and cameraman named Pele (Seu Jorge) who also performs David Bowie songs in Portuguese.

Also along for the ride is Jane (Cate Blanchett), a magazine writer who intends to profile Zissou for an upcoming issue. Zissou discovers that she’s come to ask the hard-hitting personal questions instead of traditional ones for a puff-piece, and then regrets that she was invited in the first place. Jane, who happens to be pregnant, also ignites an unexpected fling with Ned, which stuns Steve since he was attracted to her as well.

One of the first stops Zissou makes is by is a station owned by Hennessy to steal some equipment. While en route to the Jaguar Shark’s location, Team Zissou hits a bump in the road, or water, when they come across a band of pirates. The crew’s vault is stolen and the Stooge is taken hostage. Zissou, whose team is each supplied with a glock before shipping off, soon fights back in a funny and  unexpected sequence.

While I liked the film, I must say that, given Anderson’s track record thus far, that I had higher expectations for it. The story does occasionally wander, while not having a central focus. However, the film makes up for that with a splendid production design, terrific directing, some nice little moments of animation involving the marine life that is examined, and some individual laugh out loud moments. And like all of Wes Anderson’s films, there is some terrific music provided, this time around mostly by classic David Bowie tracks. The closing scenes are accompanied by one of my all time favorite Bowie songs, “Queen Bitch”.

So while The Life Aquatic might be something of a step back for Anderson following the back to back gems Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, it is still an exceptional piece of filmmaking from a true original. Murray and the ensemble cast are simply dynamite, and it is one film that is certainly unlike anything out there.

Video ****

The collaborative efforts of Criterion and Disney have resulted in yet another fantastic looking presentation. Wes Anderson has always had a unique vision, and that vision always resonates brilliantly on DVD, as is the case with The Life Aquatic. Everything from the splendid sets, to the outstanding colors, to the frequent wide-angle shots made for the widescreen format result in a fully detailed picture that is certain to go on record as one of the best looking discs of this year.

Audio ***1/2

With the option of Dolby Digital or DTS, the 5.1 mix delivers enough bang to elevate this dialogue driven piece to an unexpected level. A few sequences, such as two gunfights, provide some magnificent surround sound power. The biggest factor of the presentation is the music, whether its songs by David Bowie, Big Brother and Holding Company or the score by Mark Mothersbaugh (who’s scored all of Anderson’s films). The closing credit sequence, backed up by Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” is one of the most outstanding music bits I’ve ever heard in this format.

Features ****

There are two editions being offered for this release, a single disc and a double disc, but anyone who is familiar with Criterion will want to dock with this marvelous two disc set edition. You will definitely get a lot more for your buck. To start with, it comes in a wonderful looking package, where under the slipcover you will see yet another distinct cover design for the film, courtesy of illustrations by Eric Anderson.

Disc One includes a commentary track with Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach, ten deleted scenes, a “Starz On-the-Set” featurette, and a theatrical trailer.

Disc Two goes underneath the water surface and beyond the movie in true Criterion fashion. There’s a lengthy production diary titled “This Is An Adventure”, which chronicles the entire production of the film, “Mondo Monda”, an Italian talk show interview segment with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, a video interview with composer, and Devo member, Mark Mothersbaugh, ten complete video performances of David Bowie songs in Portuguese by costar and musician Seu Jorge. Also featured is an Intern video journal by actor and real-life intern Matthew Gray Gubler (Intern #1 in the film), and multiple interviews with the cast and crew with behind-the-scenes footage. Lastly, there are behind the scenes photos and original artwork from the film.

Summary:

The Life Aquatic continues the streak of original and uniquely funny films from the hands of Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who doesn’t just make movies, but creates worlds, and delivers another monumental performance from Bill Murray. In addition, this 2-Disc set from Criterion and Disney is one of the best loaded packages you will come across all year!

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