reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital
Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
2-Disc Special Edition
- 2004 (2005) - Touchstone (Criterion)
Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B+/A-
Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/A-
"Son of a bitch, I'm sick of these dolphins..."
Somebody really needs to give Bill Murray an Oscar or a major
award or something. The guy at least deserves a leg lamp - he's
had a serious career renaissance in the last few years, with
restrained, yet brilliantly comedic, turns in such films as Rushmore
and Lost in Translation.
Here, he plays Steve Zissou, a veteran oceanographer, explorer
and all-around documentarian. Think an American Jacques Cousteau
with a paunch and a droll attitude, and you've nailed it. In
fact, nearly every detail of this film would seem to be a
tribute, in-joke or reference to Cousteau's films, society and
life's work. Actually, forget I said that. Imagine that you hear
a BEEP when you see Cousteau's name from now on (you'll get it
after you listen to the commentary).
Unfortunately, Steve's on the downslope of both his professional
career and his personal life. In an age when people have
seemingly lost interest in such amazing endeavors as space
travel, Steve's filmed explorations of inner space just aren't
the draw they once were. His ship is in dire need of repair, his
finances are a mess, his nemesis (Jeff Goldblum) is hogging up
all the grant money... even his wife (Anjelica Huston) has
soured on him. To make matters worse, his longtime friend and
closest colleague, Esteban du Plantier, has just been eaten (to
death) by a rare and mysterious Jaguar shark.
things finally begin to look up for Steve when a young man named Ned
Plimpton (Owen Wilson) appears, claiming to be the son Steve almost
never knew he had. Steve's also supported by his loyal, red-capped
Team Zissou crew members (and several unpaid University of Alaska
interns), led by ever-faithful engineer Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe,
in a scene-stealing performance). Better still, Steve's got real
motivation to carry on... revenge. He's about to go on an overnight
drunk, then set out to find the shark that ate his friend and
(hopefully) destroy it. And he'll let nothing stand in his way...
least of all bond company stooges, high-seas pirates or
disillusioned, pregnant, overly-emotional female reporters (like the
one played here by Cate Blanchett). Steve IS, after all, the Zissou.
Directed by Wes Anderson, The Life
Aquatic is my favorite kind of film - the kind that more
often goes for the smart joke rather than the obvious one, that's
filled with amusing little details that'll make you smile as much
after the twenty-first viewing as after the first, and that's rife
with subtle (yet off-kilter) performances. Indeed, it's my opinion
that The Life Aquatic is
Anderson's best film to date, and was certainly one of the best of
2004. It's perfectly cast and everyone hits exactly the right note.
The score, much of which consists of Portuguese renditions of
classic David Bowie tunes or (alternately) music that sounds as if
it was performed on a old Casio, is brilliantly executed. Even the
film's underwater footage evokes just the right amount of whimsy,
featuring traditional stop-motion animation of almost, but not
quite, realistic aquatic creatures.
The film is presented on Criterion's DVD release in very good
anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) video quality. Colors are
warmly-biased and accurate to the theatrical experience, contrast is
excellent and the print is clean as a whistle. There's some haloing
that I think is the result of a bit of digital over-compression
(there's quite a lot of material on Disc One in addition to just the
film itself), but it's very, very nice looking overall. Audio is
offered in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround. The Dolby
Digital track is recorded at a louder level than the DTS when you
compare them directly, on the fly. Once you increase the volume on
the DTS, however, it has the slight edge, with the expected
additional measure of clarity and smoothness. Both tracks are quite
good, with the score (by ex-DEVO member Mark Mothersbaugh) in
particular benefiting from each mix.
Extras on Disc One consist of a very thoughtful audio commentary
with Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (actually recorded at the
same New York restaurant where the film was written), a set of 9
deleted or alternate scenes (in letterboxed full frame), the film's
theatrical trailer (anamorphic) and a Starz
On the Set promotional featurette. I'd sure love to know
why that bit with Klaus on fire was cut from the film. That's a damn
funny moment. By the way, for those who appreciate them, there's a
funny Easter egg hidden on this disc as well.
Disc Two brings a wealth of additional material, including the
excellent (and lengthy) This Is an
Adventure documentary on the making of the film, a
behind-the-scenes video journal (produced by one of the actors who
plays an intern in the film), 10 filmed outtakes featuring actor Seu
Jorge performing Bowie songs in Portuguese, featurettes on the
creation of the animated sea life, the characters of Esteban, Ned
and Jane, and the film's costume and production design, a look at
the shooting of the film festival reception scene, an interview with
Mothersbaugh on the film's music and working with Anderson, the joke
Mondo Monda interview with
Anderson and Baumbach (featuring real life actor/film teacher
Antonio Monda, who appeared in the film as the festival host, asking
often absurd questions of his guests in Italian), and galleries of
production photos and artwork. All of this is wrapped with menus and
packaging that feature hand-drawn production art by Eric Anderson
(Wes' brother). The liner notes booklet even includes Eric's cutaway
drawing of Zissou's ship, the Belafonte. All in all, it's a truly
The Life Aquatic is not a
laugh-a-minute comedy and it isn't going to appeal to everyone, but
it sure as hell appeals to me. I love everything about it, from
start to finish. It's a film that you either "get" almost
immediately... or not (if you like Anderson's previous films and
you've seen your share of Cousteau documentaries, I think you'll do
just fine). In any case, it's worth viewing for Bill Murray's
performance alone, which is rife with subtle humor and humanity. The
actor is definitely at the top of his game here. If you think it
might be your flavor, then by all means do give The
Life Aquatic a try. You'll certainly get a few good
chuckles out of it, and you might even be moved a little before it's
through. Highly recommended.
Baa Black Sheep
(a.k.a. The Black Sheep
Volume 1 - 1976
(2005) - NBC/Stephen J. Cannell Productions (Universal)
Program Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/D+
Now here's a show from the 1970s that I'm particularly fond of.
Baa Baa Black Sheep
(retitled The Black Sheep Squadron
for later syndication) first appeared on NBC in 1976, and ran
for two seasons (it's most recently been seen in reruns on The
History Channel). The series chronicles the missions of one of
the most celebrated Marine fighter squadrons of World War II,
the infamous Black Sheep of VMF-214. In fact, Baa
Baa Black Sheep is loosely based on an autobiography
of the same by the squadron's actual commander, Major Greg "Pappy"
Boyington, who served as a consultant on the production before
his death in 1988. The pilots are portrayed, somewhat
inaccurately, as a band of misfits who pulled together under
Pappy to become the terrors of the Pacific. Issues of accuracy
aside, however, the short-lived series remains a helluva lot of
fun, and it's certainly different that most TV fare of the 70s.
addition to Robert Conrad, who played Boyington, the series is
notable for its full roster of supporting players, many (in fact
most) of whom would go on to have much larger roles in later,
longer-lived series. These include the likes of John Larroquette,
James Whitmore Jr., Sharon Gless, Charles Napier, Dana Elcar (who
sadly passed away last week) and many others.
Some 37 episodes of the series were created in all, and Universal
has collected the first 12 episodes on this 2-disc Volume
One DVD set (the packaging says 11 episodes, but the
first episode, Flying Misfits,
is a 2-parter). We can reasonably assume that two more,
as-yet-unannounced volumes will round out the series on disc later
The thing that surprised me most about this set is how good the
episodes look on DVD. In fact, they look great. Presented in their
original full frame TV aspect ratio, the prints have been carefully
handled and transferred for this release. Color and contrast is
excellent at all times, and while you'll see the odd bit of dust or
dirt now and again, the image is remarkably clean, with only light
and appropriate film grain visible. The exception to this is the
occasional use of actual combat film or outtake footage from other
film productions (mostly in the aerial battle sequences). The audio
is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and while it's nothing
dazzling, it's plenty fine. Suffice it to say that the video and
audio quality here is significantly better than what you'll recall
from the original TV broadcasts.
There's little in the way of extras on this set, but you do get a
7-minute clip of archived NBC interviews with the real Boyington.
The first interview features Boyington with actor Robert Conrad on
the set of the series, taken from a 1976 Today
Show segment. The other clip is a vintage 1959 film
interview with the aviator. One thing that's immediately clear, is
that Boyington approved of Conrad's portrayal of him, and the two
got along quite well. On future DVD volumes, it would be cool if
Universal would try to license the interview clips with the real
surviving Black Sheep that often run with the episodes on The
History Channel, and maybe include a historical documentary or
featurette on the squadron's real exploits. FYI, the two discs
included here are dual-sided, and are housed in keep cases that fit
into an outer slipcase.
If you're a WWII film buff, Baa Baa Black
Sheep should be right up your alley. The series was
always entertaining and the recreated aerial combat footage, much of
it shot using real, vintage Corsair and Zero fighters, is
outstanding. If you ARE a fan of the series,
autobiography is a helluva good read. You might also be
They Were Eagles: The Men of the Black Sheep Squadron,
which was written by Frank Walton, VHF-214's intelligence officer.
The books, and the DVDs, are recommended.
2004 (2005) - MTV Films/Paramount (Paramount)
Program Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C+/C+
Okay... there's only so many variations of the sports movie
formula. There's a team or a player that's down and out, and
they have to overcome obstacles to reach greatness. The coach
becomes a father figure to the players. Usually one of the
players has personal difficulties to solve. The team either
pulls together and wins it all, or they lose right at the last
moment, but actually win in the larger sense, etc. You know the
drill. It's The Formula (TM), and it's damn hard to make a
sports movie these days that doesn't play like every other
example of the genre.
This particular sports film tells the story of Ken Carter
(Samuel L. Jackson), a self-made, Black businessman and former
prep basketball star, who is offered the coaching job at his old
high school. Naturally, his old school isn't what it used to be.
It's in the wrong part of town, for one thing, and things have
definitely gone downhill since Carter last walked the halls.
Never one to resist a challenge, however, Carter decides to take
the job. Of course, he quickly realizes that in order to teach
the boys how to be winners on the court, he's going to have to
teach them how to be winners in life. You can pretty much figure
out the rest.
On a Real Story (TM), Coach Carter
is certainly a variation of the expected formula... but the film
surprisingly manages to avoid some of the most obvious clichés.
And even when it does take the obvious turn, the film is just
engaging enough that you're willing to go along for the ride and
accept the convention. For example, just as the team begins to build
up an impressive record of wins, Carter forfeits some of the
season's biggest games because the players are failing in their
school work (a move actually made by the real Carter in 1999, which
was extremely controversial in his Richmond, CA community). That the
film works is mostly the result of another excellent performance by
Jackson (solid in almost every role) and a capable supporting cast.
Veteran TV director Ken Carter (no relation to the coach) also keeps
things moving along nicely, which always helps in a film like this.
Presented on DVD by Paramount, Coach
Carter looks quite good in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
video, with excellent color fidelity and solid contrast. The main
strike against the video is perhaps a little bit too much digital
compression artifacting. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is
somewhat atmospheric, but otherwise rather unremarkable. The
surrounds really only get active during the game footage, and then
not as much as I would have expected.
Extras include short featurettes on the real Coach Carter and the
filming of the basketball action scenes (both in full frame), 6
deleted scenes (in anamorphic widescreen), the Hope
music video by Twista (featuring Faith Evans) and previews for a
bunch of other Paramount films. This disc also features that damned
anti-piracy commercial that makes me want to pop this disc in my
computer and burn a ROM with DVD-X Copy just so I can watch the film
without having to see that damned anti-piracy commercial. I mean,
come on guys... it's bad enough that people have to sit through
forced previews and warning screens after paying their hard-earned
$29. Don't start preaching to your customers as well.
All in all, Coach Carter isn't
a film you're going to write home about, but it's certainly better
than your average sports flick. If you like basketball, the work of
actor Samuel L. Jackson or a decent disadvantaged-kids-make-good
story, you'll definitely want to add it to your viewing list. There
are better examples of this genre, but there are many worse ones
too. If nothing else, I think you'll at least be entertained for 130
minutes. And that's not half bad, right?
The Complete Seasons 1 & 2
- 1981-82 (2005) - Cosgrove Hall/Thames (A&E)
Program Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/C+/C-
Oh, crumbs! Ah, carrots! Danger Mouse
has finally arrived on DVD!
I'm sure most of our U.K. readers will already be familiar with
Danger Mouse, but the
series is much less widely known to viewers here in the States,
despite limited runs on Nickelodeon and in general syndication.
The animated series follows the adventures of the title
character - think of him as a rodent version of 007. D.M. and
his hamster sidekick, Penfold, operate out of a secret London
base disguised as a post box. They receive their mission orders
from the blustery Colonel K (who just so happens to be a
walrus). Together, D.M. and Penfold are the world's first, best
line of defense against a rogue's gallery of evil-doers,
including the likes of Silas Greenback and Stiletto (a toad and
a crow, respectively).
by the same team that created the animated The
Wind in the Willows (1983) and Count
Duckula, Danger Mouse
ran for 10 seasons (or series) in the U.K., from 1981 to 1992, with
some 90 episodes produced in all (technically 89 episodes and a
pilot). This new 2-disc set from A&E includes the show's
complete first two seasons - 17 episodes in all. Disc One contains
the first season (eleven 7-minute episodes) plus extras, while Disc
Two contains the second season (six 20-minute episodes).
As the series was produced on film, one would expect the quality of
the full frame presentation to be very good. Unfortunately, the
episodes on this set could have used a bit more re-mastering (both
physical and digital). On some of the episodes, the color and
contrast is good, but the footage itself looks like it was mastered
from an analog videotape, with an overly soft appearance. Other
episodes are crisp looking, but seem washed out color-wise. All of
the prints used in the original transfers (whenever they might have
been done) have significant dust, dirt and scratches. I would hope
future seasons are given better treatment, because while this is
adequate, the series should look a lot better than it does here.
Thankfully, the audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and
is of more than acceptable quality. There's nothing remarkable or
active about the mix, but it's always clean and clear.
In terms of extras on the set, you get the series' never-aired pilot
episode, The Mystery of the Lost Chord,
and text biographies of the characters. It isn't much, but the pilot
episode in particular is a very welcome offering. For the record,
the discs are packaged in a pair of plastic, Amaray-style keep cases
that fit together in a cardboard slipcase.
Danger Mouse is one of those
delightful imported gems that's well worth your time, especially if
you've missed it thus far. If you're a fan of animation, trust me
when I say that it's entertaining, inventive and original. The DVD
quality could be a little better, but given the budget-friendly
price, it's reasonably deserving of a place in your library.