Perhaps the most extraordinary experimental film ever unleashed outside the confines of the art house circuit, "Time Code" is a confident and daring attempt by director Mike Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas," "The Loss of Sexual Innocence") to plant his flag on the barely-explored shores of 21st Century filmmaking.
Shooting on hand-held digital video in four continuous takes all running at once, Figgis splits the screen in quadrants like a security camera monitor and fiddles with the audio to draw your eye where he wants it. Then like an orchestral conductor, he unspools a precisely synchronized 93 minutes of raw, unedited, real-time footage, tracking multiple, largely-improvised narratives about a sampling of misanthropic, self-absorbed Hollywood denizens.
Packed with talented, name stars starving for something original to chew on, "Time Code's" has several stories -- some tense and emotional, others cynical and facetious -- unfolding simultaneously and often crossing paths.
One major track features Salma Hayek as a wildly untalented starlet trying to sleep her way into the biz and in the mean time using her charms to sponge room, board and wardrobe off an angry L.A. power lesbian, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn ("Mickey Blue Eyes").
Another follows Stellan Skarsgard ("Ronin," "Breaking the Waves") as a morose production company VP going through the motions of his job in a cloud of booze and disdain.
Saffron Burrows (a towering, intense and icy beauty who lives with Figgis in real life) is another key player as Skarsgard's estranged wife, and the cast -- which was given only an outline of events and emotional cues to follow and created their dialogue live -- also includes Holly Hunter and Steven Weber ("Wings") as soulless production company execs, Leslie Mann ("George of the Jungle") as another hungry starlet, Julian Sands as a masseuse who ends up reading for a film role, Kyle MacLaughlan, Glenne Headly, Alessandro Nivola ("Mansfield Park") and about a dozen others.
While the individual stories are only mildly interesting and some of the actors seem at times strained in their improvisation, Figgis' ability to mix them like a nightclub DJ (to the beat of his own score that somehow consistently captures the mood of all four scenes) makes the cumulative effect fascinating to watch.
The director has no end of fun underhandedly mocking the shallowness of Hollywood filmmaking (it's no coincidence "Time Code" is set within the industry). Even more amusing, he mocks himself when the production company takes a meeting with a performance artist who pitches the concept for the very picture you're watching.
"My film has the ability to go beyond collage," the supercilious artist says with exaggerated import. To which Skarsgard replies, "This is the most pretentious crap I've ever heard!"
To a few it may seem that's just what "Time Code" is. Although it's surprisingly accessibly for such a wildly experimental film, it's still not a movie for the blockbuster crowd. But Figgis' employment of cutting-edge techniques and technology in a whole array of brand new ways pushes the envelope and demonstrates undeniably what's possible in cinema's next wave.
By the way, the four-screen technique downsized to video will make watching "Time Code" on tape pretty much pointless, so if I've tempted you at all with this review, do yourself a favor and see it now.