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CITY OF GHOSTS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Matt Dillon, James Caan, Natascha McElhone, Gerard Depardieu, Stellan Skarsgard
Director: Matt Dillon
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 118 Minutes
Release Date: October 28, 2003

"I was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Yeah, you seem like that type."

"Which type?"

"The wrong place, wrong time type."

Film ***

Some movies have a distinct capability of making you feel as if you are nothing short of taken by the atmosphere and all around feel of the story. City of Ghosts, an absorbing and ultimately atmospheric crime thriller, is just such a film. After watching it, I became convinced that even if there wasn't a consistently engrossing story going on, I'd still be overcome by the look and feel of Cambodia, a place that, as far as I can tell, hasn't been covered that much in cinema. With the help of this hauntingly beautiful setting, Matt Dillon has constructed a much exceptional directorial debut.

The film is a pure achievement of style over substance. The central plotline involves the usual elements of a contemporary film noir, but that's hardly the reason to experience this film. The setup, though, is most intriguing, as Dillon portrays shady insurance company head Jimmy Cremming, whose insurance company is based out of New York City. The movie opens with news footage of Hurricane Gabriel wiping out a good portion of the East Coast. As Jimmy finds out about this, the first thought that goes to his head is what he will do when the homeowners come asking for claims.

His situation garners even more heat when the FBI comes to Jimmy asking questions concerning the emptying of two offshore accounts belonging to an alleged overseas contact. Though claiming to have absolutely no knowledge of the situation, Jimmy is soon on the first available plane out of the country, and lands in Cambodia to meet up with a longtime mentor and business associate. It's clear at this point that Jimmy was indeed doing some shady business.

The associate in question that Jimmy is searching to meet up with is Marvin (James Caan), who is in fact the owner of the insurance company. He's been living in Cambodia for some time, having left the U.S. in order to let this plan come into play. Marvin's goal is to use all the stolen insurance money to build a hotel/casino for the village residents of Phnom Penh. Little does Jimmy know that what lies ahead is a series of unexpected turns and double crosses.

A good portion of City of Ghosts is Jimmy's journey to locate Marvin's whereabouts. This leads him to a few shady characters, including Emile (Gerard Depardieu) the uptight owner of the town bar/hotel, and the ever so paranoid Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard). Kaspar is an alleged associate of Marvin's and insists to Jimmy that rival Russian mobsters are also looking for Marvin. Jimmy also finds some unexpected romance with the eye-catching Sophie (Natascha McElhone), who's an archeologist.

As I mentioned earlier, the joy in watching City of Ghosts consists of simply being swept away by the beauty and haunting qualities of the atmospheric setting. Dillon shot the movie almost entirely in Cambodia, where the only other movie to be shot there was 1965's Lord Jim. From scene to scene, you feel as if you're right there with Dillon's character, as he ventures from one hypnotic area to another. Having never been to Cambodia, I can safely assume that my reactions to the goings-on would very much equal that of Dillon's

Loaded with endless style and a good enough story to hold our interests, City of Ghosts is superb revelation of Matt Dillon as a visual filmmaker. Very few films are able to convey the simple feel of a place that is largely unknown to most people outside it, and Dillon has accomplished this task effortlessly. It adds up to a much memorable, and sense-startling experience.

Video ****

MGM's transfer of the beautifully shot film results in one beautifully perfected DVD transfer. The glorious anamorphic picture embraces Matt Dillon's unique vision, along with the stunning work of cinematographer Jim Denault, and the turnout results in nothing but sheer beauty for the eyes. Image quality is at a constant high, with no flaws detected at any point, along with the most vibrant of colors. Day and night scenes both look tremendous. High marks all around.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix supplied by MGM hits the absolute perfect note for a cool, laid back thriller such as this one. The highpoint of the presentation is the wonderfully haunting music score by Tyler Bates, which also plays a huge factor in conveying the feel of the atmosphere. Dialogue is delivered in strong clearness, and the brief scenes involving gunfire play off nicely, too.

Features **

Included on this disc is a commentary track by Matt Dillon and co-writer Barry Gifford. Also featured is a soundtrack spot, a trailer, and bonus trailers for It Runs in the Family, Together, and Dead Like Me.

Summary:

City of Ghosts marks a strong directorial debut for Matt Dillon, who incorporates every inch of the exotic beauty of Cambodia into this top-drawer of a noir thriller.