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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

Layer Cake: Special Edition

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Layer Cake
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.

Jimmy, 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 of business.

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 Ritchie's work.

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.

Bottom of the Sea

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Bottom 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.

So, 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 substance.

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.

Three Men and a Cradle

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Three 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.

While 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 predictable.

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.

Peter Schorn
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