City of Ghosts  (2002)


Starring: Matt Dillon, James Caan, Natasha McElhone, Gerard Depardieu, Stellan Skarsgård, Sereyvuth Kem

Director: Matt Dillon

Rating: R

Distributor: MGM Home Entertainment

Release Date: October 28, 2003
Review posted: December 1, 2003

Spoilers: None


Reviewed by Dennis Landmann




After a bogus insurance scam sparks an FBI investigation, front man Jimmy Cremmins (Dillon) flees to Cambodia to meet his mentor, Marvin (Caan). But Jimmy gets more than he bargains for when, against a backdrop of raw, dangerous beauty and ever-shifting loyalties, Marvin draws him into a web of deceit and murder from which there may be no way out!




Atmosphere plays a large role in City of Ghosts, the directorial debut of actor Matt Dillon. Cambodia looks strikingly beautiful at one end of the spectrum and gruesome at the other end. Dillon and cinematographer Jim Denault capture an atmosphere of timelessness, anxiety and compassion. The camera is usually close to the actors, giving viewers an uninhibited view of the characters. Almost every shot in the film is handheld, which gives City of Ghosts a gritty feel and edge. Adding to that edge is the score by Tyler Bates. It works perfectly in conjunction with the film's atmospheric nature.


City of Ghosts consists of an ensemble of characters. They are not cardboard characters or simplistic. They are interesting and have depth. Dillon is the lead, playing Jimmy as a man who finds himself among a group of callous people in a foreign country. At first he's unsure what he wants, but as he spends more time in Cambodia, meeting new people and finding out secrets, he finds a purpose. Two of the supporting characters are sympathetic and friendly, namely Sok (Sereyvuth Kem), who gives advice and helps Jimmy get around Cambodia, and Sophie (Natasha McElhone), an American woman on a trip to study Cambodia's monuments. Both of these characters offer Jimmy a new perspective on life, which in the end becomes a rewarding experience for all three.


Yet Jimmy also comes in contact with some pretty unsympathetic people, those who betray and cannot be trusted. Thirty minutes into the film we meet the infamous Marvin, played very nicely by James Caan, the mastermind behind the insurance scam that prompted Jimmy to come to Cambodia and collect a share of the profits. Marvin is not a villain, but his intentions are obscured. Stellan Skarsgård plays Kaspar, a partner in the scam. He also recently got engaged to a young woman. When complications occur later in the film, he and Jimmy work together to solve the matter. Lastly, Gerard Depardieu is Emile, a frenetic bar owner. Depardieu is perfect for this part and he pulls of a very nice supporting performance, one that is also funny.


The script for City of Ghosts is good and likeable. Dillon and co-writer Barry Gifford construct a story that intrigues, and the setting makes for an interesting twist. However, the script becomes a little unfocused in the middle part. Some scenes feel unnecessary and don't go anywhere interesting. Dillon and his editor, Howard E. Smith, could've cut the 117-minute film by at least ten minutes or so without compromising the story or tension. A few passages in the film also move a bit slow, but overall the pace is pretty good. Yet these are minimal nitpicks for most of the script is well-written. Character interactions are realistic and drive the story. The subplot involving the Russians works as intended, but a little more substance would've increased the tension. The last 20 minutes are especially tension-filled and atmospheric.


Overall, City of Ghosts marks an interesting debut by Matt Dillon as a director. He's created a film with great atmosphere and photography, while tension and intrigue mount every fifteen minutes or so. Dillon has also surrounded himself by a really good cast. In a way the actors form an ensemble, which works for very good effect. City of Ghosts is a recommended rental.


The Video


MGM presents City of Ghosts in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colors are pretty vibrant and well-saturated. The color palette is very nicely composed of dark blues, deep blacks, yellow tones, and others. The film presents a very natural and earthy look. The cinematography aids the video presentation by presenting some great visuals. Color detail is pretty decent, and sharpness is both crisp and well-defined. Compression artifacts do not appear, although minor edge enhancement and little grain does. The print quality is pretty clean except for a few specks. However, these minor problems do not affect the viewing experience.


The Audio


MGM presents City of Ghosts in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Dialogue scenes are clear and easy to understand. They are also nicely reproduced across the two front channels. Surround usage is minimal most of the time. Not a lot of emphasis is placed on making the sound effects come alive through the rear speakers. The sounds that exist, mostly people and cars passing on the streets, can be heard just fine, just not from the surrounds. Sometimes the rear speakers act up, which is better than nothing. On the other hand, Tyler Bates' effective score is nicely accentuated in this soundtrack presentation. Audio quality could've been better, but it's just fine as it is. A decent presentation overall.


Also featured is a French 5.1 Dolby Digital dub.


The Extras


Aside from including a very nice video presentation, MGM's DVD doesn't offer any great extras. The main extra is an audio commentary by Matt Dillon and co-writer Barry Gifford. They talk about the story and the production. Some comments are interesting, others are kind of dry. Both men are well-spoken, however. Overall, it's a decent track, but not terribly interesting. A soundtrack spot and the film's theatrical trailer round out the special features.


You can select to view the film with optional English and French subtitles. The 117-minute feature is organized into sixteen chapters.




City of Ghosts is an interesting debut by Matt Dillon as a director. The film is effectively gritty with mostly hand-held cinematography, yet it's a bit unfocused in the latter half. Video quality is very good, audio is decent. Except for a decent commentary, the extras are severely lacking. Fans of Dillon should check out the film as a rental. Others who like the genre might want to look into a rental also.









OVERALL (not an average)









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