reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits
Special Edition -
2004 (2005) - Gaumont/Sony Pictures Classics (Sony)
Film Rating: C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/C+
As producer of the Guy Ritchie's Lock,
Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch,
Matthew Vaughn had participated in the post-Pulp
Fiction Renaissance in British underworld films. When
Ritchie was unavailable to tackle author J.J. Connolly's novel
Layer Cake, Vaughn stepped
up and decided to make his directorial debut and in the process
show why Ritchie is a superior director.
A confused, contrived, chilly, derivative and dull
cut-and-paste job of a slew of prior and better crime films,
Layer Cake follows an
unnamed - he's listed as "XXXX" in the credits -
higher-class drug dealer (Daniel Craig) who acts as a processor
of cocaine - "turning two kilos into three", he
explains - for his boss, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) He's made a
tidy sum, has a partnership in a legit rental agency and has
decided to get out of the business.
of course, has other plans. "People like you make people like
me too much money," says Jimmy who gives XXXX the tasks of
locating the daughter (Nathalie Lunghi) of a old friend, Eddie
Temple (Michael Gambon), who's gone missing in the drug scene and
also to broker the sale of a million Ecstasy tablets. The latter
were stolen from Serbian war criminals turned gangsters in Amsterdam
by a gang led by a hot-tempered and dim-witted wannabe who calls
himself The Duke (Jamie Foreman) and is precisely the type of crook
XXXX wants nothing to do with.
As the story drags out, we're introduced to secondary and tertiary
criminals who seem more a parade of stereotypes than interesting
characters. As brutal instances of violence occur to demonstrate how
edgy this is all supposed to be, it plays as more manufactured than
organic. If we'd never seen cross-cutting, timeline-jumping and
ironic music choices (e.g. Duran Duran's "Ordinary World")
before, perhaps their appearances here would've carried some
visceral charge. Instead they just seem rehashed from an old bag of
tricks. So many details are borrowed from so many prior films in an
obvious checklist fashion - a gimmick from Fight
Club, a title design bit from Panic
Room, some narration from Trainspotting
- they could've called this movie Chinese
Menu for all the difference it would've made.
Another structural problem is that XXXX is set up as a savvy dealer
and then rapidly becomes everyone's bitch to the degree that
whenever he tries to proactively regain control, his unseen
tormentors remain one step ahead until the end when he suddenly
seems to get back on top, though it's unclear as to where he got a
crystal ball of his own. And the less said about the ludicrous
ending, the better. (For those who've seen the film, it's not so
much what happens but how it happens that I quibble with.)
While the story is bollocks, there are a few good things to be
found in the frosting. The stark glass-and-steel production design
and arty widescreen cinematography are slick and reminded me of the
original Steve McQueen version of The
Thomas Crown Affair, a film that was obviously a
touchstone for Daniel Craig's look, from his haircut to the emphasis
on his piercing blue eyes. Craig had been talked up as a contender
to play James Bond and he'd have been a dreadful choice - as if Jude
Law is any better - but he's quite good here, especially when he
copes with the emotional devastation following his murdering of a
turncoat. But in a movie full of casual slaughter, it's an odd bit
The supporting cast is mostly unfamiliar faces to American
audiences outside of Colm Meaney and Micheal Gambon who'll be
recognized by Star Trek: The Next
Generation/Deep Space Nine
and the last and next Harry Potter
films, though their roles here are miles away from that territory.
Sienna Miller's performance in the useless role of the girlfriend of
the nephew of The Duke does little to replace her current tabloid
notoriety as the woman who lost Jude Law to a nanny. She's
generically attractive, as most blondes in lingerie would be, but
she serves little purpose except to be a distraction and to set up
the lousy ending.
As I watched the movie lurch and drag its tired arse over the
finish line, I was musing about what made this so inferior to the
better, albeit overrated, films of Guy Ritchie and in the extras,
Vaughn gives a good hint: In an effort to avoid making "Lock
Stock III", he stripped out most of the comic
material from the novel and in the process, I believe, drained away
many opportunities for some of the random anarchy that spiked
On the technical side of the ledger, the 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer
is a mixed bag due to the digital-intermediate color-timing process
involved which results in deliberately unnatural hues and tints.
Occasionally the highlights are blown out, but I believe that was a
deliberate choice instead of a mastering error. Details are
generally good, but there is occasional softness in some shots.
Aliasing appear along with some minor macroblocking in solid color
areas and there is some jitter on camera pans. Skin tones are
natural within the constraints of the color-timing and the overall
image is good, if not breathtaking.
Audio is in your choice of English Dolby 5.1 Surround or French
Dolby 2.0 Surround with subtitles in English, French, Korean,
Chinese or Thai. (What? No Esperanto?) The audio level balancing is
one of the weaker examples I've heard. While it literally started
off with a bang and good surround activity, it rapidly revealed its
true uneven nature. Dialogue was so quiet that I had to
substantially crank the volume to make it audible. This resulted in
gunshots and the pounding music score and fists to be too loud in
relation. It's too bad because there's a nice dose of low end thump
on the track to give your subwoofer joy and even when it gets loud,
there's no distortion or hiss. But having to rewind and watch scenes
frequently with the subtitles on due to low volume and heavy
accents, well, that's not much fun.
The feature-length commentary track by Vaughn and Connolly is a
casual affair - at one point Vaughn loudly opens a bag of potato
chips - with each speaker panned to one side of the stereo field,
despite their voices being dissimilar enough to make this
unnecessary. It's the usual sort of stuff about the development and
shooting of the film. One revelation is that Vaughn is color-blind
and that led to the need to digitally recolor a sucker an actor was
eating in one scene because no one noticed on-set that he changed
colors between takes.
Continuing in the talk-talk vein is a half-hour-long Q&A
with Michael Vaughn and Daniel Craig that was taped after
a screening with a moderator in front of an audience and a brief EPK
featurette, The Making of Layer Cake.
(If Robert Rodriguez had made this film, he would've likely done a
10-Minute Cooking School bit
on making a layer cake - another strike against Vaughn!)
A hefty 16 deleted scenes (running about 22 minutes altogether) are
included with optional commentary audio. While a few scenes have
their moments, most drag and repeat info from other scenes,
something the comments cop to. The alternate endings are even worse
than the existing lousy ending and the how and why of all these
versions are explained. (They tricked Sony by logging the final
version as "no good" on the dailies sheet so no one looked
at it until they screened the first cut.)
A pair of storyboard comparisons which use the Angle button to swap
between the boards and finished scenes and a gallery of poster
explorations wrap up the extras with a quartet of trailers, none of
which are the features. (Why are studios doing this - leaving out
the feature trailers?)
Layer Cake could've been so
much more in nimbler hands. Unfortunately, Vaughn muffs it and after
seeing his debut, I'm taking the news that he's not going to be
directing the next X-Men film
as good news indeed. Heist and caper are fairly predictable with
everyone screwing each other over until the end credits roll, but
done properly, they can still entertain. Despite its style, this
cake lacks substance.
of the Sea
2003 (2005) - Aeroplano/Home Vision Entertainment (Image)
Film Rating: D-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/D-
The Bottom of the Sea is
an excruciatingly pointless and tedious waste of celluloid which
takes an irretrievable hour-and-a-half to tell its tissue-thin
tale of jealousy and scuba-diving.
Toledo (Daniel Hendler) is a scruffy and frustrated
architecture student whose girlfriend, Ana (Delores Fonzi), is a
working architect for a big firm who has become distant from
him. Visiting her one morning, he sees an out-of-place man's
shoe near her bed and a hand slowly reaching out to retrieve it.
Without acknowledging why he's leaving, he departs and proceeds
to stake out her apartment and tailing an older man who he
determines is the one under the bed.
This older guy, Anibal (Gustavo Garzon), is an odd duck with a
brusque manner and a habit of switching price tags. As Toledo
grows more and more brazen in his pursuit, it leads to the
inevitable showdowns and one of the more pitiful explanations of
what was really going on.
where does the scuba diving come in? Well, the pointless middle of
the film is bookended with meaningless scenes of Toledo attending a
scuba class and then going out on a dive. He also has an idea for a
hotel with an undersea lounge and there are other moments and
symbols of aquatic life pop up now and then, but they add nothing of
The 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is adequate with
sufficient detail, but weakness in the black levels and shadow
details. Colors are accurate as far as the beige and brown color
palettes will allow and night scenes resist collapsing entirely into
mush. A fine grain gives a consistent filmlike appearance and an
appropriate level of grit.
The audio comes in nearly identical sounding Dolby 2.0 and 5.1
Surround mixes which give your overworked rear speakers an
opportunity to catch up on their sleep. The overall sound levels are
OK, but it's a quiet film without many moments of sonic excitement.
The couple of moments where surround activity occurs were startling
because I'd grown accustomed to the silence until then. No hiss or
distortion was noted.
The only extras are a deleted scene which could've been left in as
it occurs toward the end of the film and actually provides some
resolution for a pair of characters and the original trailer which -
in the tradition of the false advertising that signifies fine movie
trailer craft - almost manages to make The
Bottom of the Sea look like a place you'd might want to
see. You don't.
Men and a Cradle
1985 (2005) - Flach Film/Home Vision Entertainment (Image)
Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/B-/D-
Before Hollywood dealt with its endemic inability to produce
original films - resorting to remaking old TV series or Asian
horror films - they remade French films like La
Cage Aux Folles (which became The
Birdcage) and The Return
of Martin Guerre (the non-smash Jodie Foster/Richard
Gere remake, Sommersby).
One of the more popular remakes was the Tom Selleck/Steve
Guttenberg/Ted Danson comedy Three
Men and a Baby, transplanted from the Continental
smash by Coline Serreau, Three Men
and a Cradle, now coming to DVD.
Anyone who's seen the remake already knows the plot: Three
swinging bachelors living the high life as roommates in a posh
Parisian pad suddenly have an infant left at their apartment
door by her model mother, who has gone to America to work for
six months. The father, an airline attendant is in Thailand for
three weeks and unreachable.
the other two experience the scatological joys of comic film child
care - you mean showing kids peeing all over the place isn't a
recent cinematic innovation? - a secondary plot about a package of
heroin that's also been delivered to the apartment brings the
attention of the cops, forcing the two pseudo-daddies to cope with
that as well.
With the drug sub-plot easily disposed of, the balance of the film
is comprised of the men alternately cursing this little intruder's
effect on their free and easy lives and alienating their fellow
shallow friends for daring to be so domestic in their presence.
Eventually the mother comes home and takes the child, but you know
it's not just going to end that way, do you?
Overall the film is a sweet, harmless trifle, though a little bit
of attention to the ramifications of selfish living and
responsibility would've been nice. The performances are broad, in
keeping with French style, and the sight gags and dénouement
For fans awaiting a nice clean DVD to replace any old taped copies
they may have, disappointment awaits in the form of a dingy 1.78:1
anamorphic transfer. Dark scenes are a muddy mess and in the light,
grain is quite evident. The print has a slight dark scratch in
several places running down the middle of the screen.
The French mono soundtrack is clear, but most viewers will be
relying on the subtitles to follow the dialogue. If you want any
pounding music during this film, put on a Daft Punk CD.
Extras are very slight, starting of a 6-1/2 minute interview with
the writer/director Coline Serreau in which she generally discusses
the themes of the movie and what its success meant. Lullaby:
Au Clair de la Lune is a montage of clips set to the song
the trio sing to put the baby to sleep and Toy
Giraffe in which a trio of uncredited people, one
Serreau, discuss whether they had a squeaky giraffe toy like
pictured in the film, wrap up the extras. All in, they run less than
ten minutes and are presented in full-screen.