Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Originally Written & Posted on 12/15/04 with Additional Edits.

Since emerging into the American film scene in 1996, Wes Anderson has churned out complex characters in their quirky ways but with a sense of compassion and innocence. Whether it was the dim-witted optimist criminal Dignan in Anderson's 1996 debut film Bottle Rocket, the romantic dreamer of Max Fischer in 1998's Rushmore, or the scheming savior of Royal Tenenbaum in 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums. With these films that he co-wrote with Owen Wilson, Anderson has made memorable stories filled with sympathetic characters and a sentimentality that reminded everyone of our innocence. Now in 2004, Anderson releases his most ambitious piece to date with the help of co-writer Noah Baumbach of the 1995 classic indie film Kicking & Screaming in the story of a washed-up Jacque Cousteau-like filmmaker who turns into Captain Ahab in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou stars Anderson regular Bill Murray in the title role of a man, who is in a mid-life crisis. The death of his best friend from a Jaguar shark has crippled him along with money-losses, a failing marriage, and everything else around him. Making things more complicated is the arrival of a young man named Ned Plimpton who is supposedly the long-lost son of Zissou while a journalist is planning to profile the famed oceanographer. More ambitious than any of Anderson’s previous films, The Life Aquatic features stop-motion animation and quirks that has all the Anderson touches. With a cast that also includes Anderson regulars like Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, and Seymour Cassel along with Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Sir Michael Gambon, Jeff Goldblum, Bud Cort, Noah Taylor, and Seu Jorge. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a fun, eccentric, and heartfelt film that is filled with worldly ambitions as Wes Anderson scores another hit.

On a port town in Italy, Steve Zissou, along with his entourage that includes his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), producer Oseary Drakoulias (Sir Michael Gambon), and loyal shipmate Klaus (Willem Dafoe), presents a new film about his exploration into the sea where he tries to find a Jaguar shark with his friend Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel). The journey turns disastrous when the shark ate Esteban while the film has received lukewarm reviews at the reception. Though it was only the first part of the film, Zissou asked questions where for the second part of his documentary, he plans to find the shark and kill it for revenge. Zissou's sullen mood only worsens when he's forced to take a picture with his rival and Eleanor's ex-husband Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) and get into a fight with a photographer. Later that night at a party with his crew and interns of team Zissou, he meets a Kentucky pilot by the name of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who is rumored to be Steve's long-lost son.

Steve takes Ned much to the chagrin of Eleanor who has become estranged with Steve as of late while after bonding with him; Steve wants Ned in Team Zissou. Later that night, a journalist by the name of Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) arrives to do a story on Zissou. Jane's arrival only troubles Steve more when Drakoulias tells him he can't fund the new documentary because of Steve's previous docs that have failed. Ned decides to give Steve his inheritance he got from his late mother, who died a month ago from suicide after suffering from ovarian cancer. Ned offers the money with the help of a bonds money stooge named Bill Ubell (Bud Cort) as the hunt for the Jaguar shark goes underway. Joined by film editor/soundman Renzo Pierto (Pawel Wdowczak), cameraman Vikram Ray (Waris Ahluwalia), script supervisor Anne-Marie Sakowitz (Robyn Cohen), and a few other crew members that included Bobby Ogata (Niels Koizu), Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), and Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge) along with some interns.  Ubell, Ned, Jane, and Team Zissou goes shark hunting.

Ned falls for the 5-month pregnant Jane who is dealing with the split of her boyfriend while she has to contend with Steve's flirtations while trying to get a straight interview. On the ship called the Belafonte, the cruise down towards the Pacific Ocean where the shark was scene thanks to a dart shot by Steve. Steve continues to bond with Ned, which makes Klaus jealous while they stop on a base owned by Hennessey to steal things from him for newer equipment to support their outdated equipment on a ship that often has electrical trouble. Things get more troubling when pirates while crossing through unprotected water ambush Steve and Team Zissou. With Ned being the investor, he becomes the likely hostage until Ubell negotiates through their native language with him becoming the new hostage.  Steve goes on a rampage where he kills several pirates leaving the Belafonte damage and crewmembers discussing a mutiny.

After meeting Hennessey who towed their ship, they stop at a port where a mutiny occurs while Steve tries to meet with Eleanor for some needed funding to save Ubell. Eleanor reluctantly does as she joins the team while Steve and Ned fight over Jane who has been trying to write her story where Steve thinks it's a going to be a bad piece. With Eleanor now leading the team and with only one intern (Matthew Gray Gubler) staying on board, Team Zissou marches forward to save Ubell as they learned that Hennessey's ship was attacked and the pirates kidnapped him. Steve and members of Team Zissou go to an old island where they find Hennessey and Ubell as they save him where they continue on trek to find the Jaguar Shark with some tragic results and life lessons.

While The Life Aquatic has several of the eccentricity of everything expected from Wes Anderson, what is different isn't just some of the ambitious storylines and settings in the film but the contribution from co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach. The Anderson directing style is still intact with wonderful one-shot running scenes and moments of downright hilarity along with touching, human moments. The screenplay though doesn't have as much heart in comparison to Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums yet there are characters we do enjoy and love. What doesn't work in the script is that there's so many subplots that though they do gel, there seem to lack a balance for all of it that there were a few things in the film that didn't work. Still, Baumbach's contributions do give a wide range for Anderson's ambitious mind that has touches of Fellini and a bit of Cousteau himself in the docs even though they have a bad but funny style of Ed Wood.

Helping Anderson's quirky directing style is its crew that includes a few of Anderson's regular contributors like cinematographer Robert Yeoman who captures a vast, colorful cinematography that shines in its aerial sequences and interior scenes. Anderson's longtime editor David Mortiz also brings quirkiness to his editing, including a fast, cut-up frame sequence in a few scenes. Mark Friedberg does a great production design job, notably on the Belafonte ship along with several of its touches including its outdated computers and things that don't work along with art director Stefano M. Ortolani. Oscar-award winning costume designer Milena Canonero (of Barry Lyndon fame) also adds a lot of funny touches to the wet suits and hats of Team Zissou. Another great element that makes The Life Aquatic different is the stop-motion animation of Henry Selick in the underwater sequences along with a lot of the sea creatures and animals done in computer really brings a sense of life and humor to the film.

Then there's a great score from Anderson collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh for its hilarious electronic score that makes Bill Murray dance along with elements of jazz and classical. The soundtrack is somewhat diverse with tracks from Scott Walker, Ennio Morricone with Joan Baez, the Zombies, Sigur Ros, and the Stooges while the songs of David Bowie, which are adapted by Seu Jorge in Portuguese, dominate the soundtrack. The Bowie songs brings a strange quirkiness and foretelling of what's going to happen although Anderson doesn't captures some of them in its emotional core though his selection which included several of Bowie's early songs from the Ziggy Stardust era are very fun to listen to.

Then there's the film's huge ensemble cast of actors where each character got to stand out whether its Seu Jorge (who is known to many as Knockout Ned in City of God) singing the Bowie songs in Portuguese, Noah Taylor as the gadgets man, or Robyn Cohen appearing topless in half of the movie. Bud Cort is one of the film's standouts with his hilarious translation of Filipino and nervous stature as Anderson wanted to show the world that Cort is still here. Sir Michael Gambon is the film's most straightforward performance as a troubled producer who is trying to get money while dealing with his own foreign problems. Jeff Goldblum is very funny as the sleazy, narcissistic Hennessey with his high-tech gadgets and annoying presence.

Anjelica Huston is even funnier in this film than in The Royal Tenenbaums with her restrained, deadpan comedic delivery while providing the intellectual aspect of the film since she is the "Brains of Team Zissou". Cate Blanchett is also funny with her frequent bubble-gum chewing and seriousness as a journalist while trying not to curse throughout the film. Owen Wilson is the film's most innocent character as Ned Plimpton by bringing a naivete to his character along with a sense of compassion and charm where he has great scenes with Blanchett and Murray. The film's best supporting performance truly goes to Willem Dafoe, as Klaus with his hilarious determination to be Zissou's right-hand man since he considers him like a dad. Dafoe is like the little brother who needed a bit of love while it’s one of Dafoe's most endearing performances.

Then there's Bill Murray in one of his best performances to date though it still doesn't top his soulful performance of Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola's 2003 masterpiece Lost in Translation. Murray brings a sense of sadness and hilarity to the film as a man trying to figure out if his life is in trouble while being in denial. Murray displays a charm and humor in several scenes while proving himself to be a great action guy and someone who thinks he's losing it. It's easily a great performance from Bill Murray who proves his range to be very limitless. Though it might not get him the Oscar that he was so robbed of earlier this year, he at least proved that he can follow-up something great with something that reminds us why we love him in the first place.

***The Following Content was Written on 8/11/10***

The 2-disc Region 1 deluxe Criterion DVD for The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou is another among the series of DVD releases for Wes Anderson that features loads of special features and commentary from the director. Like the Criterion DVD for Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums prior to the release of this film on DVD, Anderson supervises everything that goes on for the DVD. The film is presented by Anderson in the anamorphic widescreen style that he’s known for while it’s also mixed in 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS Sound.

The first disc includes a full-length commentary track by Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach at a restaurant where the two are watching the film. While the background noise of people talking at the restaurant seemed distracting at times, the commentary is informative but not as inspired as other commentaries before or since in the other Anderson DVDs. Both talk about the production and look of the film as well as what inspired it along with the themes of hero-worship and the disappointment that comes with it. Both Baumbach and Anderson talk about various projects including Baumbach’s The Squid & the Whale and their next collaboration which would be 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Henry Selick is mentioned for his stop-motion work as, at the time, he was going to be the man to design a lot of the stop-motion stuff with Anderson for Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson reflects on the production as well as the cast whom he had high praise for. Notably Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, and Willem Dafoe. Anderson explained why Wilson wasn’t available to write the film was due to the demands Wilson was having as an actor as Baumbach came in after the two had met during the production of The Royal Tenenbaums.

A lot of mentions about Fellini and Antonioni is mentioned throughout while Anderson also talked about the scale of the production which left Bill Murray drained. Mostly because he was away from his family longer than he had in any film which eventually did lead him to take a break from films for a while. Baumbach also reveals that the film was meant to have appearance from a couple of key regular actors from both of their films. Kumar Pallana was supposed to play a cook at the Belafonte while Noah Baumbach wanted to have Chris Eigeman as a man trashing Zissou’s films yet neither were available at the time. Despite the lack of energy and the noise in the background, the commentary is entertaining and informative to hear from Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach.

Also included in the first disc of the DVD is the film’s trailer and a 15-minute special from Starz on the making of the film. The Starz special has interviews with the cast and crew about the film and the production. It’s a fun, entertaining little feature that is mostly a standard TV making-of special that is actually worth watching. Another special feature content in the first disc are 10 deleted scenes and outtakes. Two of which appeared in the trailer that includes Hennessey showing Steve a new fish and another where Klaus tells Steve about a planned mutiny from the crew. Others include Eleanor warning Ned about what’s going on at her writing shed while Steve tells Anne-Marie to get a cost breakdown about the dolphins.

A scene of Ned apologizing to Steve about what had happened with the pirates is shown briefly along an extended scene about Steve covered in swamp leeches where Wally grabs one for scientific reasons. Other extended scenes include Steve saving Bill while another has Klaus on fire from the hotel explosion. One funny outtake is a scene of Steve and Ned talking on the boat to hear something while Klaus and crew members are drinking Mai Tais. An Easter egg appears in the DVD menu which is takes of Bill Murray trying the shoes that is truly hilarious in its many takes.

The second disc of the DVD is filled with loads of additional content about the making of the film as well as several other features. The first of which is a documentary called This Is An Adventure by Antonio Ferrera, Albert Maysles, and Matthew Prinzing. The fifty-one minute documentary chronicles the production of the film where Wes Anderson talks costumes with Milena Canonero with Bill Murray trying on the clothes and wigs he needed to wear for early scenes. Cast members are profiled along with the crew while the ambition of the project is evident throughout. One of the things the doc expose is how hectic making a film as large as this can be overwhelming while there’s shots of the famed Cincetta studios where some of the film’s interiors and sets were built. Overall, it’s a fascinating documentary on the production of the film. There’s also an extra little Easter Egg of Albert Maysles playing golf with Bill Murray talking.

The second big feature is Mondo Monda which is essentially an interview with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach with Antonio Monda, who appeared in the film as a presenter. The 16-minute feature is shot in a 70s-style TV look with lots of errors as Monda is speaking in Italian with Anderson and Baumbach talking in English unsure of what Monda is saying. Yet, through the intentional bad lighting, awkward close-ups, and translation trouble, the interview mostly have Anderson and Baumbach talk about the film, the production, and influences.

A 19-minute featurette on Mark Mothersbaugh, the film’s music composer, is featured where Mothersbaugh essentially talk about his musical influences, his work with Wes Anderson, and how he got into the world of film score. Mothersbaugh also delves into the various instruments he made for the score of the Life Aquatic which was the first time he used electronic instruments. Even as he also played instruments he never played before where shows around his collection as it’s a great little featurette on one of the best music composers out there.

Another behind-the-scenes documentary comes from Matthew Gray Gubler who played Intern #1 while he also served as an intern on the film. The 15-minute feature has Gubler filming everything that is going on at production. Especially since Gubler was an intern of Anderson for a couple of years just before the production began. Gubler shows more of the cast and crew while some didn’t want to be filmed. The video even has Bill entertaining the cast before takes while cast spend most of their time waiting around and goof off playing foosball. The clip has some funny moments involving Noah Taylor and Michael Gambon while Bill Murray gives a toast to the real-life Italian interns on their last day of work. The video journal is truly entertaining and fun to watch from the perspective of a fan.

Small featurettes include the creating of the first film festival scene where Wes talks to fellow actors while a fight scene between Bill and extra is rehearsed as it‘s a fun, short little scene. Another is an eight-minute short on the making of the creatures where visual effects supervisor Jeremy Dawson and Henry Selick talk about the look of the creatures for the film. Even how they created the Jaguar shark and the sea turtles that has electronics inside for their movement. Selick also talks about the brilliance of stop-motion animation which was one of the film’s technical highlights in the age of computer animation.

Other production-driven featurettes include the making of the Belafonte and the costumes by Milena Canonero. For the art direction section, production designer Mark Friedberg and producer Barry Mendal talk about the look of the film. Even as they tried to do the film without CGI while creating sets like the Belafonte as well as the island where Team Zissou lives. Friedberg also talked about how hard it was to find the boat that would become the Belafonte which they got and painted at the very last minute. For the costumes, cast members and producer Barry Mendal talk about the costume work of Milena Canonero as well as the look of the characters that she got involved in.

Other small shorts involve character profiles on Ned, Jane, and Esteban. For Ned, Owen Wilson talks about the character’s sense of innocence and his gentlemanly ways which attracts the character of Jane. Even as Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett talk briefly about Owen’s earnest performance. For the character of Jane, Blanchett talks about her character along with fact that during production, she learned she was pregnant and as production went on, she didn’t have to wear a fake belly for the film. For the character of Esteban, Seymour Cassel travels to Rome for little work as he stops to buy cigars while showing up on set for the underwater scenes. A gallery of behind the scenes photos appear showing the cast and crew on location and on set with people hanging. Another gallery of photos is in the drawings of Eric Anderson including paintings for the characters and drawings for the Belafonte along with a look into the design of the creatures.

The last big feature of the second disc are 10 complete video performances of Seu Jorge singing David Bowie song that later appeared in The Life Aquatic Sessions in its proper form. The performances are the highlight of the second disc as it’s shot on one take on different locations as it is definitely fun to watch as Jorge just sings and plays a guitar to these Bowie classics. The overall content for the DVD is superb as it’s definitely one of the finest collection from the Criterion Collection as well as Wes Anderson despite the film’s shortcomings.

***End of DVD Content***

When it came out in late 2004 with lots of anticipation, the results divided both fans and critics.  While some praised Wes Anderson for taking risks and showing ambition.  Others felt that Anderson was getting too comfortable with his style while the humor and presentation was also criticized.  Though there was a lot of praise towards Bill Murray's performance, the film also received criticism about Noah Baumbach's involvement with speculation about Owen Wilson's lack of involvement in the writing.  Even to the point that some believed that Wilson is the reason for Anderson's success.  The film's box office wasn't great considering it only made half of its budget as Anderson pushed back his plans for Fantastic Mr. Fox for a smaller project which would become 2007's The Darjeeling Limited.

While it falls short of the brilliance of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is still a winner from Wes Anderson and Bill Murray. Thanks to a great cast, Noah Baumbach, and a dedicated film crew, The Life Aquatic still has something to offer in laughs, action, and touching moments. Anderson fans will love the eccentric touches that is so familiar while being introduced to what Anderson might do in the future. Fans of Murray will find another great performance from the talented actor while they will enjoy his scenes with his cast, notably Willem Dafoe. It may not be the film of the year but The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is still one of the year's best.

© thevoid99 2010

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