Criterion // 1996 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // December 16th, 2008
They're not really criminals, but everybody's got to have a dream.
I first saw Bottle Rocket more than ten years ago when it arrived on home video, and was immediately taken by its quirky yet un-ironic charm. Since then, I've been waiting for it to get its due with a proper special edition. The Criterion Collection has come through.
Shortly after "escaping" from his voluntary stay at a mental hospital, Anthony (Luke Wilson, 3:10 to Yuma) and his enthusiastic best friend Dignan (Owen Wilson, Shanghai Noon) set off to live a life of crime, brazenly holding up a bookstore and hitting the road with their getaway driver, Bob (Robert Musgrave, S1m0ne). While holed up at an out-of-the-way hotel, Anthony falls in love with a Portuguese housekeeper named Inez (Lumi Cavazos, Exposed), but before long the gang is back plotting again, this time with master thief Mr. Henry (James Caan, The Yards).
Bottle Rocket was as assured and remarkable a debut film for Wes Anderson (Rushmore) as Reservoir Dogs was for Quentin Tarantino and Sex, Lies and Videotape was for Steven Soderbergh. It announced the arrival of a talented new voice in American cinema through the somewhat surreal exploits of three remarkably un-hip wannabe thieves. The characters in Bottle Rocket inhabit a world where one might choose to replace one's wardrobe with yellow jumpsuits, or opt for a small bookstore as an ideal target for a robbery, disguised only by a piece of white tape across the nose. Why? Exactly.
Bottle Rocket also introduced us to Owen and Luke Wilson, both of whom have become major Hollywood stars without altering their acting styles all that much. Owen's big-talking, naive portrayal of Dignan contrasts and supports the more introspective character of Luke's Anthony -- the pair are often in opposition, yet it's easy to see how they became, and why they remain, friends. As much as anything, Bottle Rocket is a love story between these two.
Much of what makes Bottle Rocket a wonderful film is its meaningful compositions, often using deep focus to give equal weight to objects in the foreground and the background. Clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket), Anderson's film alternates between Steadicam and locked-down shots; the actors move within the frame to create subtext, part of a classical film style unusual for such a young auteur (Anderson was only twenty-seven when Bottle Rocket was released). Blu-ray is an ideal format for deep focus photography, as so much detail can be appreciated at the higher resolution, and this Criterion Blu-ray release is a gloriously film-like presentation. Natural grain structure remains intact, and the deliberate color palette -- with lots of reds and yellows -- is vibrant and true. Flesh tones are spot on, and no ringing or edge enhancement is visible. A very few shots show an minor print damage -- a scratch or odd color idiosyncrasy -- but nothing that takes away from this restored transfer that was supervised by director of photography Robert Yeoman (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
Also an important part of Anderson's style are his musical choices -- as is pointed out by Martin Scorsese (The Aviator) in an excellent essay included with this set. The score, by former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh (The Dog Problem), perfectly sets the upbeat tone of inspired mayhem -- neither Anthony nor Dignan have a malicious streak, with their crimes stemming more from boredom and curiosity than any anarchist streak, and the music embodies this perfectly. The few songs are masterfully placed, and foreshadow Anderson's use of Rolling Stones tracks in future projects. The DTS-HD Master Audio reproduces Bottle Rocket's soundtrack probably as good as it's ever been heard, with a natural airiness to the instruments and extreme clarity. Dialogue has a crisp, organic timbre with no tearing or clipping. There are relatively few Foley effects in the film, so this is not going to give your surround system a major workout, but it is a successful and pleasing sound mix nonetheless, showing how higher bitrate audio can enhance low-key films as much as it can Hollywood blockbusters.
Extras are copious and of typical Criterion quality. The highlight is a fantastic 25-minute making-of documentary produced just this past spring. All of the major players -- Anderson, the Wilson brothers, James Caan, producer James L. Brooks (As Good as it Gets) -- recount great stories of how Bottle Rocket came to be. Brooks agreed to produce the movie but insisted major work needed to be done to the script, so co-writers Anderson and Owen Wilson were flown to Los Angeles and set up with an office, making $100 per day. Wilson recalls trying to exchange his first-class ticket for a coach seat, hoping to pocket the cash, while Brooks speaks of some anxiety from the men never seeming to take any notes during meetings. It's an excellent portrait of newbies hitting the big time; if it were the only extra in this set, it would still earn high marks from me.
That's not all, though: a long list of deleted scenes reveals how much of Bob's storyline was cut out of the finished product; the 13-minute original short film Bottle Rocket shows the story's humble, black-and-white beginnings; and "The Shafrazi Lectures" offers a somewhat bizarre appreciation of the film. Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson provide a friendly, if not overly prepared, commentary -- the pair admit they haven't seen the film in a long time, and sometimes struggle to recall details, but they still have lots of interesting tidbits to share. Also included are photo galleries, an anamorphic test, and a 1978 short film about Murta Cycles that was influential on Anderson. The packaging includes a reproduction of Dignan's "75-year plan" notebook, inside of which are the aforementioned Scorsese essay and a longer piece by James Brooks.
Bottle Rocket has become a cult classic, and The Criterion Collection has put a lot of love into this special edition. The top-notch picture and audio quality afforded by Blu-ray make this an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary
* The Making of Bottle Rocket
* Original Short Film
* Deleted Scenes
* Anamorphic Test
* Location Photos
* Behind the Scenes Photographs
* The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1: Bottle Rocket
* Murita Cycles
* Booklet with essays