Moriarty Reviews THE LIFE AQUATIC and SKY CAPTAIN!!
Published at: June 23, 2004, 6:55 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Originally, I planned to write about each of these films individually, but the more I’ve thought about them, the more they’ve become entangled for me. I’m glad I saw both of them in a semi-unfinished condition because it allowed me a glimpse of the work that went into bringing them to life. Keep in mind... both of these are works-in-progress, so there’s always a chance that further work and changes could take place on either one. I’ll get this out of the way right up front: I enjoyed both of these movies. They are deeply personal expressions by artists at very different places in their careers, and in each case, I’m curious to see what mainstream audiences are going to do when they see these particular, peculiar works of art.
By now, Wes Anderson’s fans (and detractors) have a pretty good idea what to expect when they go see a film with his name on it, so it should come as no surprise that he’s once again used the great cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman or that he’s put together another exceptional soundtrack with the help of music supervisor Randall Poster or that he’s once again enlisted fun performances from Owen Wilson and Anjelica Huston. Still, if you think you’ve already got THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (the film’s full title) all figured out, you’re wrong, because Anderson has admirably expanded his artistic ambitions in some wholly unexpected directions. For one thing, he finally put Bill Murray front and center, giving him one of the best roles of his career. This is a comedy, but it couldn’t be more different from the forgettable knock-offs like THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE and LARGER THAN LIFE that sidelined Murray for most of the ‘90s. Surreal, shot through with a streak of sadness, and even deeply moving in the strangest ways imaginable, this is one of those movies that stands outside genre without really even trying. And Murray’s in pretty much every frame of the film, which should be a real Christmas gift for his fans this year.
Steve Zissou is an explorer, an adventurer, a filmmaker, a blowhard. He is a relentless self-promoter, and his decades of work as the head of “Team Zissou” have essentially been one long dodge of the real world. At the start of the film, he’s showing his new film to a festival audience, giving us a chance to see just what his movies are like. I’ve heard a lot of people draw the Jacques Cousteau parallel, but I think there’s also a lot of Marlin Perkins and Disney’s TRUE-LIFE ADVENTURES in there as well, particularly in the look of the films that Zissou makes. And one could argue that everything, from the opening frame to the last, is another Zissou production, a peek “behind-the-scenes” of what it is that Zissou does, a sort of joke-within-a-joke-within-another-joke structure that makes the whole thing intoxicating to try to sort out. Credit Anderson’s co-screenwriter on this one, Noah Baumbach, with the different energy on display here. His earlier pictures KICKING AND SCREAMING and the bizarro cult item HIGHBALL display a much edgier wit than Anderson’s gentle celebrations of eccentricity, and the mix seems to have paid off.
Zissou’s newest film is part one of a documentary about hunting the “elusive jaguar shark.” Don’t bother looking it up... it doesn’t exist. None of the aquatic life in the film seems to. It’s all been brought to life by the deft touch of animator Henry Selick, and I’m glad they didn’t go overboard with it. Instead, we just get a few scenes where we see sugar crabs or a crayon-ponyfish or funky little lizards that have been seamlessly dropped into Anderson’s world. Do they look real? Not remotely. Is that the point? Most probably. During the making of Zissou’s new film, his most trusted crew member, Esteban (Seymour Cassel in a very funny cameo) is eaten by the jaguar shark. The film is met by indifference and puzzlement by the festival crowd. They’re not sure if it’s a hoax or a joke or serious, and the inconclusive ending does nothing for them. Zissou is despondent, and he’s at the festival afterparty when he runs into a young man named Ned Plympton, played by Owen Wilson.
As soon as they meet, there’s an unspoken undercurrent between them. Zissou’s heard of Ned, although to what extent is something he plays close to the vest. Ned may or may not be his son from an extra-marital dalliance years ago, and in his off-balanced state, Zissou does the most natural thing possible: he invites Ned to come to his island.
Zissou’s having trouble getting funding for part two of the jaguar shark film. His regular producer, Oseary Drakoulias (played by the recently omnipresent Michael Gambon), can’t get anyone to pony up the budget of the new film, and Zissou can’t ask his wife Eleanor (Huston) to put the money up since she funds pretty much every other aspect of his lifestyle. One of the things that Drakoulias suggests is letting a reporter do a cover story on Zissou for OCEANOGRAPHIC EXPLORER magazine. Zissou really doesn’t seem to be able to handle all the pressure, and Murray does a beautiful job of showing us how close he is to simply coming apart. His trademark dry sarcasm is used as a weapon here as he tries to share the pain that is about to swallow him with anyone he comes in contact with, whether it’s a guy asking for a stack of autographs or some random asshole yelling insults from a crowd.
One of the most unusual moments in the film takes place just after the party scene, when Zissou first shows Ned around The Belafonte, his ship. I hope Anderson ends up using Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” on the final soundtrack, because it’s the perfect choice, and worked beautifully on the temp track. This is one of the most deliberately artificial beats in the film, starting on a wide shot of what is obviously a soundstage, where a cutaway version of the entire Belafonte has been set up. You know what it’s like when a kid designs a boat or a train or a rocketship, and they put all sorts of cool but odd compartments in it, extra rooms and secret sections that would never really be part of any practical ship, but that make total sense as far as kid logic in concerned? Well, that’s the way this sequence plays out, and if you’re not hooked by the end of the scene, just go ahead and get up and walk out of the theater, because this film is not for you. On the other hand, if you’re hypnotized by the moment, then maybe you’re tuned to the same strange frequency as Anderson and his collaborators, and there’s a lot here for you to love.
His cast certainly seems to be up for anything. Henchman Mongo once described Jeff Goldblum as perpetually looking like he just walked into a surprise party for him, and his work here perfectly personifies that. He plays Alistair Hennessey, a “slick faggot” and former lover of Eleanor’s who is the successful version of Zissou, internationally respected and acclaimed and financially successful, which of course drives Zissou insane. He gives great smarm every time he shows up, and his rivalry with Zissou is responsible for some of the film’s big laughs.
Willem Dafoe is a revelation as Klaus Daimler, Zissou’s most trusted crew member. I honestly didn’t know that Willem Dafoe could be this funny. He’s overprotective, surly, emotionally shaky, needy as hell, and more than a little insane at times, and Dafoe wrings every bit of humanity from the role that he can. Cate Blanchett works equal miracles in her role as visiting journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson, and she’s as uptight and rigid as Zissou is loose and laid back. Every guy on the boat seems to have a crush on her, and it’s easy to see why. Jane’s pregnant, as Blanchett was during film, and she’s fairly luminous.
Even the crew members with small roles are given room to be interesting. Noah Taylor as Wolodarsky, Robyn Cohen as the frequently topless Anne-Marie, and Bud Cort as Bill Ubell, the “bond company stooge”... they all shine, and they really fill out the world, creating a sense of community around Zissou. CITY OF GOD fans should keep their eyes open for Seu Jorge, who played Knockout Ned in that film. Here, he’s Pele, one of Zissou’s crewmen whose main job appears to be sitting around on-deck playing David Bowie songs on acoustic guitar and singing them in Portuguese.
One of the new ingredients in the creative pot this time around is production designer Mark Friedberg, who hasn’t worked with Wes Anderson before. Anderson worked with David Wasco on his first three films, and the decision to use Friedberg (whose credits include FAR FROM HEAVEN, RIDE WITH THE DEVIL and THE ICE STORM, and IDENTITY) seems to have forced Anderson to rethink the way his world looks, which is a good thing. Despite the almost blatantly artificial qualities of the film, there’s a lot of it that uses real locations in unexpected ways.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Zissou and Ned, and Bill Murray has excellent chemistry with Owen Wilson. Walking that fine line between the absurd and the emotional is a difficult thing, but they pull it off beautifully. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Ned is Zissou’s son or not. What matters is that Ned serves as a mirror for Zissou, causing him to really look at who he is and what he’s done with his life. I’ve been a fan of Murray’s since the first time I saw MEATBALLS in the theater, and one of the things that always made him so amazing is that unflappable confidence, no matter what the situation. Here, we see through him, and so do the characters around him, and the result is something very special.
The film’s one serious false note is the climax of the jaguar shark storyline. As it stands right now, it’s not wondrous or funny or even as touching as I think Anderson wants it to be, and I’m not quite sure why it doesn’t connect. It’s such a profound anti-climax after what comes before that it stops the film cold. I love the resolution that comes afterward when they return to the film festival, and the BUCKAROO BANZAI-style closing credit sequence had the majority of the audience applauding. It’s just the actual “big scene” that falls flat for me. It wasn’t the unfinished Selick effects, either. Sometimes, ambiguity can be more satisfying than getting a concrete answer, and this might be one of those cases. There’s plenty of time between now and December for Anderson to carefully consider this moment and really fine-tune it, since much of the film’s power depends on how this beat plays out. Even with this one major complaint, I’d call THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU a success, and I can’t wait to see it again when it’s done.
Taking your time can be a good thing for a filmmaker, especially when working on a project that isn’t just a repackaged version of the same ol’ thing. Originally, this weekend would have marked the release of Kerry Conran’s SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. The film got bumped to September, though, and having seen it less than a week ago, I can say that it’s still unfinished, and I’m glad they’ve got the time they need to really get this thing right and stick the landing, so to speak.
Because what they’ve got right now is already one of the most beautifully realized fantasy worlds I’ve ever seen on film.
The highway of film history is littered with the smoking wreckage of stylish but hollow films designed to evoke some sort of false nostalgia for bygone film eras. I know people who are fond of THE ROCKETEER or THE SHADOW or THE PHANTOM or DICK TRACY, just to name a few, and certainly there are moments or design elements or ideas or images in each of those that are interesting or compelling. None of them even come close to offering up the same kind of immersive, nearly overwhelming visual feast as SKY CAPTAIN, and none of them work as well as a whole.
So what’s the secret? Hos did Conran pull it off? What makes him so special? I think part of it might be that he doesn’t appear to have a cynical bone in his body. This is one heartfelt effort, a real love letter. He’s also completely without that irritating need to make everything post-modern that mars so much of what gets released today. He never winks at the audience, never tells us to disconnect. He means this film, heart and soul, and it shows. He didn’t make this because he was hoping to cash in on some perceived trend. He didn’t make this so he could strip-mine a dead genre without having to create anything. He made this film because he had to. You can tell this thing’s been rattling around inside of him for decades, just waiting to get out. It’s like something dreamed by a child who fell asleep reading ‘30s pulp magazines and watching Max Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons, so perfect it doesn’t even seem possible.
And, yes, I’m aware that so far all I’ve talked about is the style... the feel of the film. So how’s the story? How are the performances? How is it as a movie?!
Even unfinished, this is a very pure and uncomplicated piece of entertainment. Jude Law couldn’t be more perfectly cast as Joe, the Sky Captain. Captain of what? Working for who? Beats me. All the movie really tells us is that he has flown international missions in the past and that he currently works out of a secret island that somehow seems to be connected to New York City by a very long bridge and surrounded by mountains. He seems to have an entire squadron of men under his command, and he’s got friends around the world who are willing to help him at the drop of a hat. Joe’s terrifically charming, a rogue with incredible instincts and a knack for being right at the heart of whatever trouble is brewing. That’s a trait he shares with pretty, plucky Polly Perkins, played by Gwenyth Paltrow. She’s a reporter who has a history with Joe which comes in pretty handy about ten minutes into the movie when New York City is invaded by giant flying robots.
The way the film begins, Conran gives you a few minutes to adjust to this world he and his brother Kevin have created. Kevin’s credited as the film’s production designer, but I have a feeling you can equally credit both brothers with the insanely lush and detailed look. The film opens with the same images that open the teaser trailer, the Hindenberg III on final approach to the city. Onboard, a scientist waits nervously, checking his pocket to make sure he’s still got two small metal vials carefully stowed there. Before he disembarks, he slips the vials to a porter along with instructions to deliver them to another scientist in the city. Somehow, Polly Perkins ends up dragged into things, summoned to meet a mysterious benefactor at a Radio City Music Hall that looks the way I can only imagine, having never been there. She shows up during a screening of THE WIZARD OF OZ, where she gets the clue that leads her on the adventure that eventually drops her into an island oasis on the other side of the world.
But first, there are those flying robots...
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that your enjoyment of a film like this largely depends on how strong your personal fetishes are for this genre. If you’re not excited by a movie that features giant robots, hand-held death rays, flying fortresses, mysterious ninja hotties, underwater dogfights, last-second cliffhangers, and guest-starring cameos from dead guys, then maybe this movie wasn’t made for you. If you’re so completely out of touch with your ability to bask in pure geek joy that you’ve already decided what you think of this movie based on a single teaser trailer, then do us all a favor and just keep your cynical ass at home.
Two key words I’d use to describe this film would be “innocent” and “ambitious.” Because he never adopts a post-modern attitude to the pulp material he’s playing with, it works to the film’s benefit. RAIDERS OF THE LSOT ARK wouldn’t have worked if Lucas and Spielberg felt like they were above the material, or if Harrison Ford was embarrassed by the role of Indiana Jones. Kerry Conran’s total lack of ironic detachment makes this an inclusive inviting fantasy world that should play to the most well-researched influence-drunk fanboy or even to someone old enough to actually remember all the things that must have been imprinted on the Conrans at an early age. And as you watch how confident the film is, how immaculately crafted each scene is, it’s hard to believe that this is someone’s first movie. Forget about Michael Moore... this is the ballsiest filmmaker that Flint, Michigan ever turned out.
I love that all of the key creative staff on this film are people who have never done anything that would suggest the movie that they’ve ended up with. Sabrina Plico’s editing is mesmerizing, and it doesn’t really feel like a typical action movie. So often, we see films that remind us of other action films that we’ve seen, with these inbred rhythms that become more and more familiar each time they’re used, and eventually, it kills the thrill. There’s a classic sense of montage at work here, so the film somehow manages to take its time to enjoy all the amazing sights while also maintaining a breathless pace as Joe and Polly work to unravel the mystery of the World Of Tomorrow. I haven’t seen any of the films that Eric Adkins shot before, and I’m not entirely sure what a cinematographer does on a film like this, since everything has been digitally graded, desaturated, re-colored, and composited, but it’s certainly a beautiful movie, eye candy so pretty that it makes the real world look ugly when you step out of the theater. And you cannot underplay the contribution of the score by Ed Shearmur. I’m almost embarrassed that I didn’t recognize his name when it came up in the closing credits. He’s scored dozens of movies since 1991, but honestly, I was never compelled to chase down the scores to the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movies or JOHNNY ENGLISH or K-PAX or MISS CONGENIALITY. This time out, you better believe I’ll be grabbing this CD as soon as it hits the shelves. It’s like Shearmur’s been waiting his whole life to write this score, just like Conran’s been waiting his whole life to make this movie.
Is this a perfect piece of transcendent film art that will change you life? No, of course not, although it may well send lasting shockwaves through the industry in regards to the way films are made. There are a few scenes in the cut I saw that don’t really work (“kill me” being the most notably jarring) and some big questions are posed that Conran never answers. For example, we are eventually told what is in those two steel vials, but damn it, I want to see. There’s no “Wrath of God” moment from RAIDERS here. Instead, the ending owes more to the film Polly saw at Radio City Music Hall. Still, if you main complaint about a film boils down to wanting more, I’d say the studio shouldn’t be too worried.
I’ve heard the rumors that the stars of the movie won’t be promoting it, but that’s simply not true. Jude Law, in particular, has every right to be pround of the work he does here. It’s no secret that he’s got more charisma just standing still than the entire casts of some films combined, but he’s never really played this kind of straight-forward heroic lead before. He rises admirably to the occasion. Gwenyth is a little stiff at the start of the movie, but by the end, she’s fully in the swing of things, and they develop a really sweet and playful rapport. Angelina Jolie doesn’t have a lot to do, but she seems to be in the spirt of the film from the moment she arrives. Basically, she’s a really, really hot Lando Calrissian (and there’s an inside geek joke at the start of her scene that will make sharp-eared EMPIRE fans go goofy), and whenever she’s onscreen, she’s great. I’m not normally a fan of Giovanni Ribisi’s work, but he can be really appealing in the right role, and this is one of those times. He plays Dex, Joe’s right-hand man and all-around mechanical genius, and it’s one of those great FX performances where it looks like he believes in this world completely.
One star that won’t be showing up at the junket is Lord Laurence Olivier, who plays the mysterious Totenkopf, the evil genius behind all the chaos that threatens to destroy the world. And, yeah, I know how confusing it must be to read that. It’s even stranger when you’re actually watching the film. At one point, I had to lean over to my friend and say, “Olivier is dead, right? And he did get old first, right?” This is young pretty Laurence Olivier, and even though we’ve all heard talk about how the estates of some deceased movie stars are looking into licensing their likenesses for use in films, it won’t prepare you for how effective it can be. I’m not sure what the hell they did or what footage they used or how they manipulated it, but he’s a real character here. He deserves to have this included in his filmography. It’s eerie, and it’s so flawless that I’m betting many viewers never realize what they’re looking at.
I don’t want to condemn either SKY CAPTAIN or THE LIFE AQUATIC to cult classic status, because I really hope both films connect with mainstream audiences. I’d love to see SKY CAPTAIN sequels, and I hope for many more Murray/Anderson collaborations in the future. In the end, though, these are movies that will be passionately embraced by some of the audience and just as passionately rejected by some of the audience. I’m sure I’ll get yelled at by some of you because of how completely you disagree with me over the relative merits of these films, but I don’t care one little bit. I love these movies, both of them singular visions that are beautifully brought to life, and for those who do get what it is that these artists are up to, you’re going to be the winners when they finally hit screens later this year.
I have to hit the sack now. I’m seeing ANCHORMAN in the morning, and in addition, I have reviews coming up for all sorts of stuff like BUKOWSKI and BREAKFAST WITH HUNTER and MARIA FULL OF GRACE and OVERNIGHT: THE RISE & FALL OF TROY DUFFY, as well as a great interview with Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that I have to transcribe regarding their wonderful new documentary, METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER. No rest for the wicked, eh?