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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: The Criterion Collection

The arrival of a new Wes Anderson film offers more than a brief respite from any given year's formula Hollywood titles and overhyped indie movies — by now, it's more akin to watching a Fellini or Godard picture for the first time. And not simply because the young American director compares (favorably) with his European forebears, but rather because seeing Anderson's work for the first time requires patience, attention, and a willingness to be a bit dumbfounded. He doesn't bother with the screenwriting mannerisms that make common films easily digestible, and often, the small, unnoticeable miracles his camera and his actors create aren't apparent until a second, third, or even later viewing… an odd turn of phrase, a glance, a pause — all combine to create a particular universe that is unique to Anderson's films. The University of Texas-Austin grad didn't burst onto the scene in 1996 as much as he slipped in with the loopy Bottle Rocket, which also managed to launch the acting careers of Owen and Luke Wilson. Rushmore entered and exited theaters in early 1998 with little fanfare, but later became a cult hit on home video, where fans were free to pore over its many small details. The ambitious The Royal Tenenbaums (2002) collected several of Anderson's favorite actors in a sprawling, bittersweet tale of familial dysfunction. And while The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) often finds the writer/director's characters miles from dry land, he recreates his universe once again, filling it with an ad hoc family and their half-forgotten dreams.

Bill Murray stars in The Life Aquatic as the title character, Steve Zissou, a oceanographer/adventurer/filmmaker whose career has seen better days — his longtime collaborator Esteban recently died in an attack by a "jaguar shark," and Team Zissou's latest film has come across as a disappointment. Even worse, the entirely dejected Zissou announces that he plans to return to sea on his research ship the Belafonte, in part to undertake another movie, but also to find the jaguar shark and kill it. However, Zissou's funding is threatened after his wealthy ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) withdraws her support. He's continually irked by Eleanor's first husband, the more-successful oceanographer Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). And Team Zissou is joined on their voyage by two new members — American pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be Zissou's son, and British reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who is preparing a cover story for her magazine that the publicity-strapped Zissou needs, badly. Forced by his new financiers to take along a "bond stooge" (But Cort), Zissou sets sail for open water. Ned even backs the enterprise with $275,000 he recently inherited. But before long, a love-triangle develops between the antisocial Zissou, earnest Ned, and temperamental Jane — who happens to be five months pregnant from an illicit affair. And when Zissou rashly decides to enter unprotected waters in search of his jaguar shark, the boat is seized by pirates, who steal Ned's money, not leaving until they take one hostage.

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is tale told on the ocean, but one would be hard-pressed to describe it as a seafaring adventure. Rather, Wes Anderson prefers to sublimate any milieu to his thematics — like The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson's foremost concern is with his characters and their interpersonal dynamics, and for that, Aquatic is as much about oceanography as Tenenbaums is about New York. In fact, most of the "science" in the film is bogus, simply a series of small, creative inventions. Anderson delights in continually reminding his audience that he's telling a story, from the throwaway on-screen titles ("Day 9: Towed into Port-au-Patois Harbor") to the formal, Kubrickian line-readings, to the cutaway set of the Belafonte that oddly reduces the massive vessel to an equally massive doll-house. It's a surreality that only belongs on screen, bolstered by the director's penchant for intricate, often lavish production design. As with any auteur, Anderson revisits ground he's gone over before, albeit in a new light — as with Rushmore, a young man (whose mother has died) seeks out a father figure, only to find himself locked in oedipal conflict. As with Tenenbaums, a father figure worries he's lost credibility with those who depend on him the most. The pervasive sense of melancholia is oddly offset by Anderson's love of uniforms — every one of his films to date features uniforms of some sort (here, powder-blue nautical track-suits), which always suggest a psychology of insecurity, as if clinging to a uniform implies a family that may or may not exist, or order to a universe that has, in the past, appeared fundamentally chaotic. If the uniform suggests a spiritual defeat, Murray's starring role only hints at the passion of Ahab. As with his previous appearances in Anderson's films, his dejection isn't as comic as it is utterly human — and one has to believe audiences wouldn't have accepted his Oscar-nominated ennui in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003) if Wes Anderson hadn't spotted it first.

The Criterion Collection's two-disc DVD release of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou offers a perfect anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Disc One includes an informal commentary with Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach, nine deleted scenes, and a "Starz on the Set" featurette (14 min.). Disc Two is packed to Criterion's standards, starting with "This Is an Adventure," an on-set documentary directed by Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera, and Matthew Prinzing (51 min.), while an additional "Intern Video Journal" was created by actor Matthew Gray Gubler (15 min.). Anderson and Baumbach are seen in an awkward interview on the Italian television program "Mondo Monda" (16 min.). Composer Mark Mothersbaugh discusses the musical direction in a new interview (19 min.). Also on board are the additional featurettes "Creating a Scene" (4 min.), "The Look Aquatic" (5 min.), "Costumes" (4 min.), "Aquatic Life" (7 min.), "Ned" (3 min.), and "Jane" (3 min.), Photos and Designs galleries, and the ten David Bowie songs performed in the film by co-star Seu Jorge — in their entirety, in Portuguese. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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