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Friday, March 26, 2010

'Cassandra's Dream'

More like filler than a Woody Allen thriller

Woody Allen has often commented that "making a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world." While he's got a point, some days I wish he'd take up model trains or something else instead. You don't make films just to pass the time (unless you're Andy Warhol); you should be driven by a need, an urgency to create.

Cassandra's Dream Rating: (2.5 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Finding bugs: Sho Aikawa as the Insect Detective in "Konchu Tantei Yoshida Yoshimi" © AOZORA DAICHI KODANSHA / KONCHU TANTEI SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Woody Allen
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: English
Now Showing (March 26, 2010)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

A quick examination of Allen's past decade or two of films reveals a few gems — "Sweet and Lowdown," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" — and a whole lot of filler, films like "Scoop," "Celebrity" or "Anything Else," which seem driven more by Allen's need to keep the production ball rolling, or the availability of cast or financing, than by any real passion to tell a story. It's hard to believe that this is the same Woody who said in 1985: "I'm not making films because I want to be in the movie business, I'm making them because I want to say something."

Allen's latest to open in Japan, 2007's "Cassandra's Dream," clearly falls into the filler category. Part of Allen's British trilogy — which began with the excellent "Match Point" and sputtered with "Scoop" — "Cassandra's Dream" features an impeccable cast wedded to a threadbare script, a Hitchcockian tale of murder and money that ultimately fails to take off.

As he did in "Match Point," Allen — who writes as well as directs nearly all his features — offers us a parable on the temptations of class, wealth and sex — and how far one is willing to go to attain them. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play a pair of "cockney" brothers living in London; Ian (McGregor) is upwardly mobile and looking to break out of the family's restaurant business, while Terry (Farrell) seems a bit dim and supplements his meager mechanic's income with gambling winnings.

McGregor's wannabe yuppie is eager for the trappings of wealth, prattling on about his investment opportunities, scraping together the funds to buy a small sailboat and borrowing luxury cars from his brother's garage to impress his dates. He soon adds a very expensive habit: an actress girlfriend (Hayley Atwell) whose heart seems open to the highest bidder.

Terry has a more down-to-earth partner (Sally Hawkins), but a bad night at the poker tables leaves him deeply indebted to loan sharks, just as his brother also comes to hit him up for some cash. Salvation seems to arrive in the form of rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), back from the United States, who promises to help, but in return for a favor. A business partner is about to reveal some secrets that could leave him doing jail time; could the boys possibly help by removing him from the equation?

Wilkinson is suitably Luciferian in his proposal, and the brothers split as we expect: Pragmatic success-obsessed Ian sees no choice but to just do it, while Terry agonizes endlessly before being pushed into it by his brother. The outcome, as one can predict, is not pretty.

So what does Woody want to say here? "Cassandra's Dream" is Allen at his darkest, without a trace of his roots in comedy. Like so many of his films, there's a distrust of wealth and the things people do to obtain it. (Just recall Patricia Clarkson's loveless marriage in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona.") There's an even grimmer view of family, suggesting that blood ties can corrupt as easily as they can comfort. Yet miserabilism is hardly anything new from Allen, and he's stated it more eloquently before.

What does stand out is Allen's lackadaisical approach to script. The film builds up nicely to the attempted murder, and then has nowhere to go, running in circles with repetitive dialogue before finally ending all too prematurely. Allen is served well by his collaborators, though, with a shimmering score by Philip Glass, and the burnished visual sheen of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

One's appreciation of this film may weigh largely on one's distance from London; the British press loathed the film for its lack of convincing local color as well as the unsteady accents of its Scottish and Irish leads. This is less problematic for non-British viewers, but the film still fails to sell its characters or their motivations in any convincing manner. Allen can still direct just fine, but one suspects he needs a little time actually living life, not just creating cinematic fictions of it, if he wants to keep writing scripts. (His next film, "Whatever Works," was made from a dusted-off leftover script from the 1970s.)

Typical here is the film's title, which suggests a mythic dimension — name-checking the Trojan prophetess who was cursed to be ignored — but winds up being nothing more than the name of the brothers' sailboat. Now there's a hobby to pass the time: boating. You don't need anyone to watch it either.


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