Sunday, August 03, 2008

review: cassandra's dream
dir. Woody Allen, 2007

Just over a decade ago, "The Beatles Anthology" was released on CD in the form of three two-disc volumes. Reviews were, by and large, positive. Unsurprising, I guess. Can you really pan The Beatles? What struck me as interesting, though, was the fact that many critics had the where-with-all to admit that these albums are not necessarily "must-have" items; the Anthology, it has often been noted, along with the earlier "Live at the BBC" compilation, is more likely to be of interest to die hard Beatles fans who long to hear every scratch and pop, every unused take, every variation on a song, and a whole lot of studio chatter, than it will be to the (comparatively) casual listener.

With the notable exception of 2005's Match Point, a similar critique is useful in reviewing the films that Woody Allen has released over the past decade. Allen has long been a polarizing figure in cinema-- a broad sector of film-goers hate his work, few are ambivalent, and those who like him, like him a lot. But even hardcore fans would be hard pressed to convince themselves that recent titles like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Melinda and Melinda, and Scoop are anywhere near as satisfying or relevant as the thirty-some-odd films that precede them. As one of these fans, however, I find that I am perpetually drawn to Allen's films regardless of how minor, mediocre, and/or odious they may be (relative to his canonical high points). I think this has something to do with the fact that the writer/director's most disappointing misfires reveal more about his working process than some of his masterpieces.

For instance, his comedies of late seem to be thrust into production before their screenplays are fully fleshed. Lines of dialogue that appear to be leading towards classic Allenesque punchlines tend to peter out as if the intended jokes were missing from the typewritten page, and the actors were too intimidated to improvise. One almost gets the sense that Woody has a drawer filled with outlines, "Idea for a comedy...", and early drafts that he can turn to when writer's block threatens to disrupt his yet unbroken track record of releasing (at least) one movie every year. It's possible that an avid fan will derive some pleasure from watching these skeleton films to discern what trade mark elements are missing when compared to Allen's more accomplished works, and ultimately develop a deeper appreciation for his process and style. Others are likely to feel as if they have simply wasted their time watching a crummy picture.

Cassandra's Dream, on the other hand, is neither a misfire, nor does it reek of incompleteness. Still, I think it is an Allen film that will appeal almost exclusively to Allen fans. This dramatic story of two brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), wrestling with the moral consequences of a violent crime they have committed does not stray far from the themes that Woody Allen has explored in previous films such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. The latter was quite successful in breaking through to audiences who were never much keen on Allen's oeuvre, but are these viewers willing to watch a movie that explores the same material with minor variations? I'm not convinced that a similarly wide demographic will be interested in Cassandra's Dream, but I do believe that this film will satisfy Woody Allen aficionados who are drawn to the filmmaker's penchant for revisiting grand questions of scruples and attempting to formulate answers.

Just because I think that Cassandra's Dream is more likely to resonate with Woody Allen fans who are interested in seeing how his exploration of familiar themes will play out within slightly different circumstances does not mean that I would discourage newcomers or (those rare) on-the-fencers to seek out this film and give it a look-see. It is a cohesive and sophisticated movie that has the potential to entertain and provoke thought, a combination that is far too rare in films these days. It is, however, a film that benefits from a certain amount of foresight from its viewers:

What you might like: There are some great performances in this film... and not just great "Woody Allen" performances (i.e. John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway or Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You). Colin Farrell reminds us that he is not the vacuous Hollywood star that films like Daredevil and Miami Vice have made him out to be, and Ewan McGregor sheds his Jedi robes to reveal that he is much more comfortable in a psychologically driven role than in front of a green screen. Their combined charisma goes a long way towards ensuring that we are emotionally invested in the characters' interests when the film takes its dark turn. And the story is compelling enough to warrant our investment in Ian and Terry's fates.

What you might not like: It is not unusual for those who dislike Allen's work to attribute some of their negative feelings towards his nuanced dialogue. Cassandra's Dream is very much a writer's piece, and it is fair to assume that some viewers will find the rhythm and repetition of the line readings off-putting. Also, depending upon one's threshold for slower paced films, this character study may come across as a bit of a gloomy bore.

What you might consider: This film isn't really crying out for attention from those who would sympathize with these criticisms. Like any filmmaker, Woody Allen probably yearns for his work to reach the largest possible audience, but he doesn't often compromise his artistic integrity in pursuit of mass appeal. A film like Cassandra's Dream might resonate the most with an exclusive group of Allen anthologists who are familiar with the larger context of the auteur's work; but, like an alternate take of a Beatles' song, this film remains a solid (if slightly unpolished) piece of work with chords that may entice some new fans, as well.

links to imdb:
Woody Allen
Cassandra's Dream

links to purchase:
Match Point
Crimes and Misdemeanors

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