City of Ghosts
Film Length: 117 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, and French
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1
City of Ghosts, Matt Dillon’s eccentric, atmospheric directorial debut has the distinction of being the first American film shot on-location in Cambodia in several decades. Sadly, despite a cast of extremely talented character actors, this unusual distinction is about the only positive thing this film has going for it. Basically, City of Ghosts is a slow, plodding pseudo-thriller, in which Dillon stars as Jimmy Cremmins, a seedy low-life who oversees the American branch of the Credible Trust insurance company.
As an officer of the firm, the FBI, which is actively conducting a fraud investigating into Credible Trust, contacts Cremmins as they suspect that the insurance firm is a front for illegal activity and money laundering. This sad, disturbing fact is unearthed after a huge hurricane causes massive devastation on the Eastern seaboard, and homeowners are unable to collect on claims because Credible Trust has an empty bank account. As mentioned, FBI agents question Jimmy during their probe, but he is subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing (despite the fact that he is indeed involved).
After being cleared, Jimmy travels to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to see Marvin (the always wonderful James Caan), the owner of Credible Trust, for his cut of the insurance scam. Unfortunately for Jimmy, he finds more than he bargained for, and ends up encountering a cavalcade of unusual persons, including Marvin's second-in-command Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgård), British art expert Sophie (Natascha McElhone), a bizarre barkeep named Emile (Gerard Depardieu), and a helpful, resourceful native named Sok (Sereyvuth Kem) during his trip to mysterious and dangerous Cambodia.
As time passes, Jimmy tracks down Marvin in a run-down mansion, and discovers that he is in league with organized crime lords from Russia. Jimmy also discovers that Marvin is planning on establishing a luxurious hotel/casino property with the aforementioned Russians’ help. As you might imagine, once Jimmy learns of all this, and that there is no place in it for him, things take a turn for the worse, and his focus shifts from collecting his cut to survival.
You know, while I am re-reading what I have written above, it does sound like an interesting (if recycled) premise. The problem is that City of Ghosts does not go beyond what has already been done in countless other films of this nature, and is mired by such slow, deliberate pacing that it quickly becomes boring. Wisely, Matt Dillon chose not to shoulder the entire load, and have everything revolve around his character, since the rest of the cast has proven to be quite capable of delivering memorable performances over the years. It is not that Matt Dillon is not an adept actor (I loved his demented turn in There’s Something About Mary), but how do you overshadow the likes of Caan, Depardieu, or Skarsgård?
Although his tale ultimately falls flat, Dillon the director does do a remarkable job of ensuring everyone receives a fair amount of screen time, which is great news for fans of James Caan, Stellan Skarsgård, and Gerard Depardieu. The ever-lovely McElhone also receives plenty of time on-screen, but she is largely confined to serving as a treat for the eyes (which is not all bad) ! Strangely, the presence of this star-studded ensemble cast does not help matters much though, as the screenplay penned by Dillon and co-writer Barry Gifford never rises to a level commensurate with these fine actors’ talents.
So, How Does It Look?
Presented by MGM in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), the images on this 5” disc are really quite lovely. Since much of Phnom Penh’s architecture and infrastructure is dilapidated, colors are not vibrant, but that is the reality of the location, not a fault of the transfer. Aside from that, flesh tones look very good, and accurately depict the subtle skin tone differences between the actors in the film, who hail from divergent ethnic groups. The transfer also does a fine job of reproducing the earthy color palette of the Cambodian environment. In addition, black level is rock solid, allowing for a considerable amount of detail during the film’s nighttime sequences.
On occasion, the picture becomes a bit soft, which obscures fine detail a touch. This is noticeable in the background of some sequences in the film, manifested in the form of a slight blurriness in the background of the shot. A bit of edge enhancement is present as well, but unless you are really looking for it, you probably won’t notice it, or more importantly, be distracted by it. On the other hand the gritty, decayed appearance of buildings in the foreground of City of Ghosts’ Phnom Pehn locations is brought home so clearly that it brings home the sad realization that people actually live in these conditions.
Summing it up, this is not a reference quality, eye-popping transfer, but aside from some minor softening of the image during certain sequences, and a very modest amount of edge enhancement, it is certainly a little more than I had expected. Jolly good show!
What Is That Noise?
City of Ghosts audio track is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1, with English being the only available language. As you might expect from a character-driven thriller, the mix is decidedly front-heavy. However, although imaging between the left/right/center is decent enough to provide a fairly wide and engaging soundstage through most of the film, several annoying problems are also present throughout, making this a rather unspectacular soundtrack on the whole.
Unfortunately, the Dolby Digital track for City of Ghosts is subverted by having the dialogue being mixed too low in several spots. In scenes containing a lot of audio information, such as when the characters are out on the streets of Phnom Penh, it can be fairly tough to discern what the characters are conversing about. There is also an audible reverberation (echo) in several of the film’s scenes, which proved quite distracting. Both of these drawbacks were disappointing, especially considering the fact that this type of film relies so heavily on dialogue to advance the plot.
In terms of surround use, there is not much audio information routed towards the rear channels, so they are largely silent. Essentially, the rears channels are confined mostly to the reproduction of buzzing crowds, city traffic, and the pitter-patter of rain. Likewise the LFE channel is not used until the climax of the film, at which point it provides some impact in the lower registers of the audio spectrum. I should point out the obvious though, namely that the lack of LFE usage is not necessarily a problem with the mix, but a product of the source material.
My final thought on this audio track is that it is the embodiment of mediocrity, especially given the lack of clarity that affects the ability to make out dialogue in a few scenes. For a recent production, the audio quality on this release is somewhat disappointing!
Feature Length Commentary
As disappointed as I was by the film, I cannot overstate how bland and uninteresting this commentary track, which features Director/Star Matt Dillon and Co-Writer Barry Gifford, is. Unfortunately, since this is the only substantial extra on the disc, there are no slickly produced documentaries, gag reels, or deleted scenes that can offset it.
During their commentary, Dillon and Gifford offer their observations on different sequences in the film, discuss how the film originated, and so forth. In all honesty, there is little that would be of interest to anyone but hardcore fans of Dillon, Gifford, or this film (are there any?) . What really hurts this track is not just that the information provided is terribly generic, but both gentlemen’s delivery is incredibly dry. I triple-dog-dare you to sit through this commentary track without falling asleep (I don’t even know how I did it). Sorry for the obscure A Christmas Story reference, but I just watched it and couldn’t resist!
Promotional material for the soundtrack has been included.
Original Theatrical Trailer
MGM has included the original theatrical for City of Ghosts as an extra, but after sitting through this film, I suspect that most will elect not to watch it. On second thought, some friends of mine do like tracking down trailers to movies they did not like, to see if the marketing campaign made the film look better than it really was, so I suppose there may be other gluttons for punishment out there! If you really must subject yourself to more of this film, you might want to watch the trailer first, as I did. Interestingly, I think the trailer for this film did make it appear to be a more effective film than it ultimately ended up being.
The Score Card
The Last Word
City of Ghosts is a disappointment, both as a film and as a DVD. Maybe I expected too much from Matt Dillon, whose lengthy career has proven that he is a good entertainer, but his directorial debut simply lacks much in the way of entertainment value. Although it has a couple of issues, the transfer looks nice enough, but that probably won’t help anyone enjoy this film any more than they would (or would not) otherwise. Unfortunately, the audio quality is just average, and the complete lack of worthwhile extras is truly disheartening.
I have to give Matt Dillon a solid ‘B’ for ambition and effort, but City of Ghosts is just not a very entertaining film. It is as simple as that. On the whole, Dillon ambitiously endeavored to craft an atmospheric tale set in an exotic location, but the setting adds nothing to the final product, and the plot never transcends the ordinary despite the participation of a really talented group of actors. Instead of making the Cambodia setting a central plot point of the film, Dillon and Gifford simply spin a rather tame yarn, with the exotic nation serving as mere window dressing.
Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that this type of fare has been offered many times before, by filmmakers with far more experience and better stories to tell. Dillon’s City of Ghosts is surely atmospheric, but that atmosphere is ultimately incapable of sustaining any life. Skip it!
October 28th, 2003