Criterion Re-issues ‘The Life Aquatic’ and ‘Ace in the Hole’ on Blu-ray

by Eric Melin on May 19, 2014

in Blu-ray/DVD Reviews,Reviews

I’m not sure if the term “cult classic” applies to the two superb movies that Criterion has recently re-issued on Blu-ray, or whether they were just ahead of their time. Either way, both movies have grown in stature with the film community since the time of their release.

Not only do the new 2K restoration of Ace in the Hole and new 4K restored digital transfer of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou look fantastic, but the films themselves seem timeless now.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Inspired by two real-life events, Billy Wilder’s dark, pessimistic satire Ace in the Hole (released under the title The Big Carnival by Paramount Pictures) could be considered a companion piece to Sunset Boulevard, which he had just released the year before. Both films use film noir techniques and have cynical themes, but neither are traditional noirs in the plot department. Whereas Sunset Boulevard was a critical and commercial success, Ace in the Hole was a flop in both respects.

Today however, the idea that a man would sell his soul, manipulate the facts, and hurt anyone in his way for a scoop isn’t so hard to swallow — it’s a way of life. Kirk Douglas is as intense as he’s ever been as Chuck Tatum, a right bastard and newspaper reporter on the outs, who sneers at everyone he meets when his car breaks down in Albuquerque. He stumbles upon a huge developing human interest story (human qualities being the thing he lacks the most) : a man is trapped in a cave collapse.

Over 60 years later, Ace in the Hole has lost none of its sharpness. The only thing that’s hard to believe about the movie is that Wilder and co-screenwriters Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels could have been this far ahead of the curve in their criticism of the media. There aren’t just hard-charging reporters and editors who will fabricate and manipulate the truth for their own devices, but there’s a willing and eager public waiting to lap it up. Ace in the Hole is a searing indictment all the way around and the fact that it leaves neither side of the issue untouched is probably the reason it failed so miserably on its original release.

The  Criterion Blu-ray includes some great special features, such as an hour-long Billy Wilder doc from 1980, with specific coverage of Ace in the Hole, a 25-minute AFI interview with Wilder from 1986, a 15-minute Kirk Douglas interview from 1984, excerpts from a 1970 interview with Walter Newman, a 6-minute afterword from Spike Lee, and the 2007 audio commentary with film scholar Neil Sinyard from Criterion’s previously released DVD.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

At the time of its release, Wes Anderson’s damaged father-son tale The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou seemed like a strange misstep in the filmmaker’s canon. Following the success of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums which — unusual as they may be, still had fairly conventional narratives — the wandering storyline and overtly “unreal” nature of The Life Aquatic was jarring.

Viewed 10 years later with Anderson’s colorful, widescreen symmetrical visual flair firmly established, his melancholy overtones undercut with bitter humor, and a full knowledge of his knack for tragicomic characters that behave like real assholes, The Life Aquatic seems like a deeper and more fully realized than ever. The clarity provided on Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray transfer is something else, too. It made me wish for an even bigger television.

Bill Murray was the perfect choice to lead this ship, because he may be the only person alive who could maintain the level of brittle, dry humor in Anderson and Noah Baumbach‘s screenplay and still have it come off as sympathetic at times. Of course that sympathy comes from downright pity for the man who exhibits such passive-aggressive parental behavior. The passage of time also softens the character of Ned (Owen Wilson), who doesn’t carry the baggage of seeing Wilson’s everyman schtick in so many films of the era. Wilson feels right at home in Anderson’s world, and there’s something comforting about his presence.

When I first saw The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in the theater, it was perplexing and the plot itself seemed flat. I had been waiting around for some serious forward movement to kick in, and when the plot finally provided me with a climax (the unexpected death of one of the major characters), it angered me. The movie now feels like it has a slow and natural progression, as Anderson’s oceanographer searches for the shark that killed his partner, getting sidetracked by every possible diversion along the way. The diversions are kind of where it’s at.

The extra features are identical to the DVD release, but there’s a lot:

  • Audio commentary by Anderson and cowriter Noah Baumbach
  • This Is an Adventure, a documentary chronicling the film’s production
  • Mondo Monda, an Italian talk show featuring an interview with Anderson and Baumbach
  • Interview with composer Mark Mothersbaugh
  • Singer-actor Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in Portuguese
  • Intern video journal by actor Matthew Gray Gubler
  • Interviews with the cast and crew
  • Deleted scenes

Unfortunately, this newly filmed “reflections” featurette is not on the disc, so I’ve included it here:

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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