Bottle Rocket Blu-ray ReviewDecember 08, 2008
I originally saw Bottle Rocket at an art house theater upon its release in 1996. At the time I had no idea who brothers Luke and Owen Wilson or director Wes Anderson were. Each has gone on to achieve their share of notoriety in Hollywood, yet I think some of their best work is in their initial collaboration here. This film is where Anderson got his start, and it showcases most of his signature talents including witty offbeat dialogue, the use of music intertwined with the motion of his on-screen imagery (following in the Scorsese and Tarantino books of filmmaking) and purposeful visual arrangements.
Anderson's films are populated with eccentric characters that are slightly out of synch with everyday life. They live in a reality "all their own" yet are not that hard to relate to, fascinating to watch and often produce comedic or poignant emotional responses. The beauty of the characters is that they are not cynical or jaded and in spite of their often misguided ways (Dignan is a perfect example as seemingly ignorant as he is) have a lot of heart that makes them endearing. For every slightly "off" exchange or just vaguely peculiar setup that enforces Anderson's style of pervasive humor, there are moments when you find yourself emotionally moved as well.
Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson) are friends who orchestrate various robberies. I do not know what they hope to gain from their thefts and am not sure the characters exactly know either. Considering they are fairly inept at their craft, it appears they are mostly enamored with the idea of being in a "gang" and pulling off heists (most specifically for Dignan to be accepted back with a previous crew who masquerades as a lawn care company led by Mr. Henry (James Caan)).
They begin with a "test run" by robbing Anthony's parent's house where they already have the key, and Dignan is supplied with a list of items he is not allowed to take. They soon move onto a bookstore (the most lucrative location for most criminals) utilizing tape on their noses as a disguise along with the help of friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) who is allowed to join, as he is the only member with a car for the "getaway." If this sounds interesting yet absurd, it is indeed both.
Reviewers who have criticized Bottle Rocket for its loose narrative structure, lack of character evolution or prominence of the romantic subplot not balancing against the "heist" story are missing the point (for my tastes, some of the best moments are in the romance between Anthony and Inez (Lumi Cavazos) the housekeeper at the motel where they stay when "on the lamb."). If you are watching to only see how the story plays out, you are not really "watching" the movie. The plot is mostly an artifice to tie together the unconventional situations and subtly hilarious conversations, which are the real heart of the film. Bottle Rocket works as more than the sum of its idiosyncratic parts and supplies consistently offbeat humor and emotionally moving situations poised against Anderson's picturesque screen composition and musical choices.
Since Blu-ray won the HD "format war" early in 2008, there has been much speculation over when and how The Criterion Collection would enter the high-def market. Criterion is renowned for their meticulous and thorough presentation of a diverse range of movies for home video beginning in 1984 with laser disc and continuing with DVD in 1998.
I have been a big supporter of the company's DVD releases for the last nine years always knowing I could expect the best quality and most extensive editions available for any particular movie. I was curious what to expect from them for Blu-ray and am happy to say based on their release of Bottle Rocket that they are continuing their much lauded efforts.
Bottle Rocket is the only Anderson film I do not own on DVD as the Sony disc had a less than stellar transfer and was a bare bones release. I was actually waiting for an edition from Criterion as they have released the director's other films with great results (though Darjeeling Limited still needs a special edition) and expected they would eventually get around to tackling his initial effort. It turns out that by the time they got around to a DVD of this title, they concurrently are doing a Blu-ray release which is now my home video format of choice.
Criterion gives Bottle Rocket a 1080p AVC encoded transfer supervised and approved by director Wes Anderson that maintains its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Long story short this film looks beautiful in high-def. It is not scrubbed, hyper-realistically sharp or artificially polished like many recent releases. I do not wish to sound like I am in any way making apologies for this transfer, as it presents a gorgeous film-like quality.
I imagine that a lot of modern digital purists will complain at the level of grain present, and they just need to get over it. This is the way the film was shot, and Criterion deserves kudos for presenting the video as it was intended and not applying any obvious digital noise reduction or edge enhancement (no halos or ringing noticed). The grain structure is heavy with a nice sheen across the image that preserves the cinematic appearance and inherent detail of the transfer.
Add to that a solid color palette exhibiting the benefits of Technicolor processing. Anderson's use of distinctive color is brought out well with nice saturation against consistently stable hues and especially vibrant reds. Contrast is excellent with bright whites and deep blacks having no distracting resolution issues. Rounding out the video presentation is a good sense of depth and dimensionality to complement the detail in the image.
My only real complaint is rare print damage in the form of minor nicks and pops. Honestly most will never notice this, and it is barely worth mentioning. Criterion's 1080p Blu-ray transfer is an excellent example of how to pull the most quality out of a low-budget catalog title. Seeing this film in HD is an awesome way to "rediscover" it.
Though the back cover lists the audio as "Stereo", the only option is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48 kbps/24 bit). This follows Criterion's policy of only providing audio in the language originally used for a film. I am very glad to see the studio embracing lossless audio on their initial Blu-ray releases. Bottle Rocket does not support a particularly dynamic soundtrack but works well for what it is. There is decent directionality, and this track brings out the best that the source elements have to work with which turns out to be quite good.
Dialogue, which is the heart of Anderson's films, is presented with distinct clarity anchored in the front channels with support in the rears. Songs by artists such as the Proclaimers, Love and the Rolling Stones, and the score by former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh come through with good fullness and separation and provide the only real prominent surround envelopment. For the most part, this lossless track gives a satisfying audio experience. Subtitles are available in English (SDH).
I am not a "packaging" person as far as home video releases go; meaning I do not normally appreciate slipcovers, special cases, etc. I will say that of the 1000 plus DVDs I own, the Criterion Collection produced the majority of ones that stick out in my memory as far as packaging is concerned. The studio has delivered some of the most unique and collectable cases for the format and look to be bringing a similar sensibility to their Blu-ray editions.
While Bottle Rocket does not compete with the DVD packaging for such Criterion titles as Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas or Dazed and Confused, it is a step above your generic plastic blue snap case. We get an environmentally friendly cardboard case (with minimal plastic only used to hold the disc in place) and slipcover with artwork from Ian Dingman who cleverly illustrated Anderson's other editions for Criterion. Included is a collectible booklet fully reproducing Dignan's "75 year plan" from the movie and essays by director Martin Scorsese (originally published in Esquire in 2000) and producer James L. Brooks (related to the submission of the script for Rushmore).
All of the bonus features on Criterion's Blu-ray release of Bottle Rocket duplicate what is found on their concurrent DVD edition and are presented in HD. The majority have MGEG-2 encodes with the exception of the deleted scenes which are encoded in AVC. The audio is in either 1 or 2 channel Dolby Digital.
There is also a Timeline feature that can be accessed with the red button on your remote (I assume all Blu-ray remotes have a red button as that is how the on-screen instructions state it). This shows you which chapter and how far you are in the film and allows you create or delete bookmarks.
Audio Commentary – Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson (co-writers of the movie) provide a feature-length audio commentary specifically for this release. The two were not in the same room and recorded the track over the phone. If I had not been made aware of this fact, I do not think I would have guessed, as they stay in synch and play off each other well. The longtime friendship between the two is palatable and makes for enjoyable listening.
This is a good but not great commentary. The reason for that qualification is there are moments of dropout that the participants recognize and even joke about (they actually have a set of questions written down to talk about when they realize there have been moments of silence). A few times they find themselves absorbed in the film (as they admit not having seen it for a long time before this viewing) and forget to keep talking.
They also get distracted and lose focus. There are times where they were giving insightful input, and I found myself looking forward to what they would say about an upcoming scene. Then they suddenly start joking about something unrelated to what is on screen.
When they stay on track, we get some interesting background context for Bottle Rocket (the poor critical reception, forced re-shoots, writing of the script) and Anderson's film style in general (I found the talk about the random wardrobe choices very cool). The topic of the film's title comes up but is not definitively answered (though Anderson gives James Caan's interesting thoughts on it). I suspect Anderson did not have any exact reason for the title much like many of the quirky moments in his works. Overall it is an entertaining and worthwhile listen, and fans of the movie and the director/actor will appreciate it.
The Making of Bottle Rocket (25:43, HD) – An original documentary created for this release by filmmaker Barry Braveman, longtime friend of Anderson and the Wilson family. When I first saw the runtime of slightly less than 26 minutes, I was worried I was in for another fluffy promotional piece that we get so often these days. Once I started watching, I remembered this is Criterion who does not provide useless special features to pad a release.
While I would not call this feature exhaustive by any means, it packs an impressive amount of content into its short length. There are snippets of interviews from Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Andrew Wilson (the third "Wilson Brother" who played "Futureman" in the movie), Wes Anderson, Robert Musgrave, producer Polly Platt, James Caan, Kumar Pallana, executive producer James L. Brooks, executive producer Richard Sakai, composer Mark Mothersbaugh along with the gun salesman from the film, the set decorator, production designer and director of photography.
We learn about how horribly the test screening went with some of the lowest scores in Columbia's history. The critical reaction to the film apparently was not very good at first with even Siskel and Ebert not being fans. Even Sundance turned the feature length film down yet having screened the original short three years earlier. Producer Polly Platt details the difficulties in getting Anderson to edit the film in a manner that would help with the flow and runtime. The many participants recount their memories from the making of the movie. This feature could have been longer for my tastes, but I am pleased with what it presents.
Audio is provided in 1 channel Dolby Digital with the majority of the video looking detailed and sharp in high-def. Footage of Anderson and the archival shooting scenes are of lower quality than the rest.
Bottle Rocket: Original Short (13:55, HD) – Anderson's black and white short film that inspired the movie and originally screened at the Sundance film festival in 1993. It is framed at 1.33:1 with 1 channel Dolby Digital audio. The short piece revolves around the initial robberies by Anthony and Dignan including their witty exchanges with the later heist and romance angle absent. Luke and Owen Wilson and Robert Musgrave star in the respective roles they would reprise for the full-length film.
The "test" robbery at the house looks strikingly similar to the same scene in the movie while the bookstore heist is not filmed but rather recounted. The description given is humorous, but I am not sure how it would hold up without the visual imagery from the eventually filmed scene to mentally reference. The soundtrack is composed of jazz pieces by artists such as Artie Shaw and Chet Baker.
Deleted Scenes (18:56,HD) – Eleven deleted scenes which, through encoded in AVC with 2 channel Dolby Digital audio, still have a fairly low video quality. Based on the commentary and documentary, it appears there were other deleted scenes (part of one is even shown in the documentary) not included for whatever reason.
These are very interesting for fleshing out some of the existing scenes in the movie (one scene gives the reason for Bob's brother being called "Futureman"). However, their exclusive was a good decision, as they would have thrown the pacing off (which is excellent in the final product).
Anamorphic Test (2:33, HD) – Anderson originally considered using widescreen anamorphic lenses for filming. This is a test from that proof of concept. The video is very detailed, clear with a lot of depth (except the final seconds which have horrible visual quality). However, it is definitely a different visual feel (being framed at 2.35:1, the ratio he has used to shoot his later films) than what he eventually ended up with.
The visual composition has a much less intimate feel than the 1.85:1 framing used. Plus the color palette is more muted (which is probably the result of the post-processing lab work done) and has a much lighter grain structure. While this definitely looks good from a technical perspective and has worked well on his later work, I think the director made the correct decision by not utilizing this shooting technology for Bottle Rocket.
The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1: Bottle Rocket – (10:32, HD) – Video of lecture/interview by New York Gallery owner Tony Shafrazi. I was previously unfamiliar with him and not sure if the feature was meant to be humorous or serious. He is very enthusiastic about the movie and gives a rambling yet interesting commentary (the beginning where he talks about constructing a homemade lens for movie projection seems to be unrelated).
Since the title indicates this is lecture "No. 1, maybe he will be showing up on future Criterion releases. The aspect ratio switches between 1.33:1 (when he is being interviewed directly) and 1.78:1 (when he is shown lecturing over a screening of the movie against either a wall or a makeshift screen). The audio is in 2-channel Dolby Digital.
Murita Cycles – (27:12, HD) – 1978 short film by Barry Braveman who is also responsible for the interesting documentary included. It revolves around the filmmaker's eccentric father who owned a bicycle shop on Staten Island. This is a charming little piece that supposedly inspired Anderson and the Wilsons during the making of the original Bottle Rocket short. The film is framed at 1.33:1 and has 1 channel Dolby Digital audio. It looks to have been shot on maybe 16 mm and does not have a lot of depth or detail to the image but more of a home video style (though the HD encoding helps the colors and what sharpness there is).
Storyboards – Pictures of the storyboards for the movie. These are amateurish but interesting to look at for the unique artistic style. The feature is maneuvered by using the left and right navigation buttons on your remote control.
Photos – Laura Wilson, Owen, Andrew and Luke's mother, took photographs over the span of the making of the original short and the movie. There are pictures of rehearsals, filming, Sundance and the editing of the film. They are all in black and white and prefaced by a short description for context. The feature is maneuvered the same as the storyboards with the left and right navigation buttons.
Watching Criterion's Blu-ray release of Bottle Rocket reminded me how much I absolutely adore Wes Anderson's debut film. It has now leapfrogged over Rushmore to become my second favorite Anderson movie (Tenenbaums still holds the top spot for me, though I keep hoping the director will best himself in the future). The movie showcases everything we love from the director including ingenious dialogue, eccentric characters, great soundtrack and distinctive visual composition.
The Criterion Collection have officially engaged the Blu-ray format, and based on their showing with Bottle Rocket, the results are impressive. The 1080p transfer is top notch delivering a beautiful film-like quality (with all the glorious grain intact). The studio is backing lossless audio from the start, which supports the film well.
Continuing Criterion's tradition of producing well rounded releases, they provide a good amount of extras that while not the most diverse I have seen are very interesting and still fairly thorough. They easily trump the previous bare bones DVD from Sony, and it is nice to finally have the original short film. My biggest complaint is the documentary could have been longer and the commentary a bit more focused. Considering the beauty of the high-def transfer, I think I will get over it. Now I am impatient to get Anderson's other films on Blu-ray (hint, hint).
- Robert Searle
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