Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Time Code: Special Edition (2000)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - Who do you want to watch?

Time Code is unlike anything you've ever seen. A new and innovative kind of movie for the new millennium! Academy Award-nominated director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), weaves an extraordinary behind-the-Hollywood-scenes drama including a star-studded ensemble cast, featuring Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Weber, Kyle MacLachlan and Jeanne Tripplehorn.

Four separate cameras follow the intrigue, sex, power, jealousy and rage of a diverse group of L.A. players as the action unfolds in real time with no edits and no retakes. Sexy, tense, and unnerving, Time Code builds toward a shocking and disturbing climax.

Director: Mike Figgis
Cast: Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Kyle MacLachlan, Mia Maestro, Leslie Mann, Alessandro Nivola, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Steven Weber
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; rated R; 97 min.; $24.95; street date 12/26/00.
Supplements: Director's Commentary for Version 15; Exclusive Interactive Featurette: Mike Figgis' Video Diary; Exclusive Interactive Audio Mix Option for Version 15; Bonus! Exclusive Full-Length Unrated Version 1 of Time Code in English (Stereo) with Director's Commentary; Theatrical Trailer; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Mike Figgis, Anthony Marinelli

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/A+

Time Code is what we call an “experimental” film. Usually that’s a bad thing, as it generates thoughts of pretentious, unwatchable avant garde fare. While TC shows some of those tendencies, they seemed surprisingly absent as the movie offered a generally interesting and provocative piece.

The method is the madness here. Led by director Mike Figgis, Time Code was shot on four different hand-held digital video cameras, all of which ran simultaneously. It progresses as a running, continuous piece in which we see all four images on the screen at the same time, and the film runs in real time; there are no edits to alter the original imagery.

It’s an interesting concept, but it needs extremely self-assured execution to work. Does Time Code achieve all of its goals? No, but it offers a strangely compelling program nonetheless.

TC doesn’t feature much of a plot. Instead, we watch a roughly 90-minute slice of our ensemble cast’s lives. Although the four stories start off as separate, they slowly intertwine until the finale, when all the pieces have been combined. If I had to choose a main focus, it would be on the relationships maintained by movie producer Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgård). All of the characters ultimately relate to him, though I don’t want to discuss the details since that would give away some surprises. Suffice it to say that in Time Code, all roads lead to Alex.

However, that doesn’t mean that I consider Alex to be the film’s main character. Frankly, TC doesn’t have a lead, as it offers a true ensemble piece. Granted, some roles are more equal than others. In addition to Alex, we find heavier concentration on actress Rose (Salma Hayek), her lover Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and Alex’s wife Emma (Saffron Burrows). The other participants receive more equal footing, though no one really dominates.

Although the movie progresses in a slow manner, it usually remains oddly intriguing. Not a whole lot happens at times, but the sheer impact of seeing four simultaneous storylines makes the entire package more compelling. Structurally, it’s a loose film, and the fact that the actors made up all of their own dialogue sometimes leads to iffy viewing. However, while Time Code technically was improvised, this is only partially true in reality. That’s because the movie found on this DVD is version 15 of the story. Figgis shot the entire film 15 times, and the released edition offered the final iteration of the tale.

That means that while there never was a formal script, and many changes occurred from version to version, clearly the actors had their characters down pretty well by the fifteenth iteration. This makes for a nice combination of spontaneity. The performers and the crew have the style firmly in hand by that time, but enough variety exists to create a fresh piece; the lack of memorized lines means that although many components of the story and the dialogue likely remained similar, some room for change always existed.

Time Code is a difficult film to review simply because it doesn’t hew to many filmmaking conventions. It’s not concerned with tight storytelling or concise visuals, and much of the movie is meandering; with four screens to watch, some of them will often show little of interest. Nonetheless, it provides a fresh and often exciting idea and it works much better than I would have expected. Plus, we get a scene in which Salma Hayek and Jeanne Tripplehorn make out in the back of a limo - what more do you want from a movie?

Note that Time Code is not a DVD for the impatient, and not just because the story unfolds so slowly. Almost all DVD options are disabled as you watch the movie. As such, you can’t pause it or speed ahead (or behind) at any time. You can skip chapters, and you can also switch audio tracks, but otherwise you’re helpless to alter the playback.

Frankly, this decision irked me. I’m sure it was done to achieve some sort of “real-time” effect that’s in the spirit of the film. That’s all well and good, but if that’s the case, then why are there chapters? These violate the playback as well. I dislike it when DVD producers make decisions for me. They may want to make sure I view Time Code as one continuous piece that runs at the proper rate without pauses, but I don’t appreciate being forced into this mode. Perhaps I’m just bitter because this decision made it difficult for me to continuously rewatch the sexy scene between Hayek and Tripplehorn.

The DVD:

Time Code appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This film offered a very unusual viewing experience since the frame was composed of four mini-images, all of which also were 1.33:1. Apparently TC was shown cropped to 1.85:1 for its theatrical showings, but the DVD displays the picture as originally filmed. For a look at how the theatrical screenings appeared, check out the “Video Diaries” area on the DVD; most of the movie clips there offer a transfer cropped to 1.85:1 and taken from the film prints, not from the original video tapes.

As a whole, the image showed a number of problems typical of material shot on video. Most of the time the film looked fairly crisp and accurate, but some problems with softness could also occur. Jagged edges presented a particular concern at times, and some evidence of moiré effects also appeared.

Colors often came across as somewhat drab and flat, another typical problem with videotaped material. The hues never looked tremendously unnatural, but they lacked great depth or vividness. Black levels seemed adequately deep and dark, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick.

Since I noted that Time Code generally appeared pretty bland and mildly fuzzy, it may seem inconsistent that I gave the picture a “B”. I awarded it this grade for two reasons. First, I took into account the source material. The DVD seemed to duplicate the original product well, and that seemed important. Also, the small nature of the four images forgave a lot of problems. Blown up to fullscreen status, the issues would have been more distracting, but since the different mini-pictures were reduced in size, the flaws appeared less severe. Ultimately, Time Code doesn’t offer a very rich visual experience, but it was always very watchable and it seemed to reproduce the original material well.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Time Code provided a somewhat unusual program as well, but it generally seemed satisfying. The soundfield offered a surprisingly active environment for such a dialogue-driven film. That was partially because TC actively used side and rear channels for speech. I can’t say that the majority of the lines came from those speakers, but an unusually large amount of dialogue was distributed in places other than the center, and that created an involving experience. Music and effects also cropped up in the side and rear channels, but the speech was the major component in the soundfield.

Audio quality was a bit of a mixed bag but the film generally sounded good. Dialogue occasionally appeared somewhat thin but it always came across as accurate and easily intelligible. Music was a relatively minor component of the movie, but the subdued score seemed warm and acceptably dynamic. Effects varied between elements naturally recorded as part of the shoot and those that had to be added later. The former were a bit flat but sounded reasonably accurate, while the latter displayed pretty good depth. Some fairly decent low-end emanated in those instances, and when appropriate, the soundtrack offered a reasonable punch. Ultimately, the mix worked well to complement the visual action.

The DVD release of Time Code provides a slew of extras. First up is a running audio commentary from director Mike Figgis. On this piece, he’s accompanied by an unnamed interviewer and we learn a great deal about the production. Figgis covers the history of the project and addresses the technical details as well as issues related to the organization of the film. We hear about the ways in which the movie changed throughout its progress and get a solid overview. Figgis occasionally seems rather full of himself, but it’s still a strong commentary nonetheless.

We also find an interesting supplement called the Director’s Video Diary. This program consists of a series of short segments, and these can be viewed in two different manners. One way to check out these sequences takes its cue from “interactive” DVDs like The Matrix or The World Is Not Enough: when an icon appears on-screen, you press “enter” on your player’s remote and you’ll then watch the appropriate snippet.

The “Video Diary” also can be found in the “Special Features” section, and you can check out the pieces one by one or as a running whole. Taken in the latter manner, we get a total of 19 minutes of footage spread through the eight segments. These mainly consist of interviews with principals - especially Figgis - and we also watch some behind the scenes footage plus clips from “Version 15” - shown in its 1.85:1 theatrical dimensions - and a few shots from other versions. From the project’s genesis to various aspects of the production, the piece covers a nice mix of subjects and creates a brief but compelling look at this unusual film.

Another alternate way to watch “Version 15” appears. The Interactive Audio Mix actually allows you to switch sound tracks on the fly. You can decide if you want to listen to any of the four tracks throughout the film. Essentially this allows you to create your own version of the movie, since you can greatly alter the focus of the piece. This is an extremely cool extra that can offer hours of fun.

Next we get one of the nicest additions to the DVD: Version 1 shown in its entirety. As with “Version 15”, this one comes from its original video sources; the main technical difference stems from its lack of Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, though the Dolby Surround mix works fairly well.

“Version 1” was the gang’s first attempt at the story, and though it shares many similarities with “Version 15”, the two still seem quite different. Some characters take on more prominence in the earlier rendition, and a few plot points change. However, the biggest difference stems from the smoothness of the execution. The later version seemed much better thought-out, and that doesn’t go just for the actors, all of whom appear more natural and believable in “Version 15”. Technical components work less well in the earlier film, and Figgis doesn’t focus the project nearly as neatly. Frankly, “Version 1” feels like the movie “Version 15” could have been: it’s meandering, vague and amateurish. In any case, it’s a very interesting extra since it’s rare we can so directly observe the early aspects of the creative process.

Not only do we get the full 93 minutes of “Version 1”, but it offers another audio commentary from Figgis as well! Also accompanied by the unnamed interviewer, Figgis nicely details the differences between the various editions of the movie, and he sheds a lot of light on more production concerns. It’s another insightful and compelling track that helps give us good information about this innovative process.

Lastly, Time Code finishes with some DVD basics. We get Talent File listings for actors Saffron Burrows, Holly Hunter, Salma Hayek, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgård and Jeanne Tripplehorn plus director Figgis. These provide very brief looks at the careers of the various participants. In addition, we find the film’s theatrical trailer plus some short production notes in the DVD’s booklet.

Did I say “lastly” in the prior paragraph? For those of you with DVD-ROM drives, the fun continues. We find a link to the movie’s website plus two other terrific features. The “Shooting Score” appears in lieu of an actual script. Most of TC was improvised, with the only framework coming from an outline written by Figgis. To cover the four different stories, he composed this on music paper and showed where all four would be at any point in the film.

We see glimpses of this during some of the other extras but the DVD-ROM area provides the “shooting score” in its entirety. It’s linked to the final film and you can zip through it as well. It’s a very fun extra.

Even wittier is the “Peek Inside Red Mullet”. This interactive piece allows you to get additional information about some of the employees of the movie’s film production company. You can click on any of seven different folks, and you’ll then witness some videotaped interviews with them. It’s very entertaining and delightful, and it adds a lot to an already-stuffed package. I don’t often distribute “A+” grades for extras. In fact, prior to TC, they’d only gone to double-DVD packages like Fight Club or the Terminator 2 Ultimate Edition. However, Time Code comes so chock-full of great material that I just had to grant it the highest rating.

No matter how jaded you may be as a filmgoer, chances are slim you’ve ever seen anything like Time Code. Mike Figgis has created an innovative movie that actually manages to provide a fairly interesting experience despite its pretensions and awkward concept. The DVD offers good picture and sound that are restricted due to their origins, and it includes a true treasure trove of extras; I was consistently delighted by the excellent supplements I found here. Time Code definitely merits a viewing, and to fully take in all of the information, a purchase is probably best. I don’t know if this is a movie I’d want to rewatch repeatedly, but the packed DVD means that it takes time to observe all of the information, which means that it makes sense to own Time Code.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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