Let’s talk about Cassandra’s Dream.  Remember that one?

Why focus on this film and its titular skiff?  I’ve seen a lot of other films recently, but only this one drove me to extended pro/con, credit/debit internal wrangling over its merits.  The kind of wrangling which usually indicates that one is trying to convince oneself to like something.

I saw The Harvey Girls, a film that tries to make the audience happy, in a way we see today only in animated films and movies about rivalries among high school dance teams.  After the astonishing “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” production number, its scope gets narrower and narrower, from “Diaspora of young women move from East to West”, to “Burlesque house: Den of sin, pit of catty vipers, or not so bad?”, to “This town ain’t big enough for both a restaurant and a burlesque house”, to “Why haven’t Judy Garland and the unlikeable guy fallen in love yet?  They need to fall in love.”  Ray Bolger’s slow, loose, precision tap dancing is worth seeing [he’s the Gerry Mulligan of tap dancing], as is his only other scene [I think] as the cowardly blacksmith.

I saw Moon, which is beloved by all including me.  All I can add to the conversation is that if anyone sees the whole film and doesn’t realize the difference between Kevin Spacey’s emotionless robot and superstar Vietnam-era emotionless robot HAL, that’s a person who is trying hard to view things superficially.

I saw Red in the theater [or as film podcasters say, “I saw it in theaters”].  It’s not as morally abhorrent or gratuitously ridiculous as Wanted, but it’s up there with Mr. & Mrs. Smith in terms of sheer lack of ordinary people sharing the same universe with our heroes.  In, say, an airport in the middle of the day, the only people either in the concourse, or on the runway, or in the loading area where all the exploding boxes are stored, are people it’s safe to kill because they are trying to kill us.

I saw Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr, which really is sort of like medicine at this point in history.  It has sound, but the sound is superfluous.  Characters talk to each other about important sounds that the audience didn’t hear.  The screen is filled with page after page of a book that the protagonist is reading.  All I appreciated was the haunting and unique shadow effects in the first third of the movie.

So, starting out with a bang: A post about a film that has inspired little commentary, or emotions, or strong responses at all.  Cassandra’s Dream: Woody Allen’s most forgettable film ever?  I can’t say for sure, as Alice, September, and Another Woman are before my time, but he did make more now-forgotten dramas a couple decades ago than is acknowledged by the “steady slope downhill since 1986, nadir in 2001, somewhat better since then” consensus view of his career.

Still, this film was loved by few.  Why?  The actors are so great, and they’re clearly struggling against the script.  Very early in the movie you start thinking “If only that scene had maybe…40% less words in every line…it would have been so much less…dumb.”  And that feeling recurs again and again.  Allen’s scripts are rarely full of ambiguity or important unspoken moments, or memorable single lines [except comedic zingers], so there’s no reason to expect it to be The Man Who Wasn’t There.  But here…characters spell out exactly what they think, recapping things we already know, recapping things their interlocutors already know, just in general saying too many uninteresting words.  This may be a hazard of writing characters who aren’t based on real people.

A lot of the lack of interest in Allen’s 21st-century films comes from the forgettable, stereotypical characters, which may have been inevitable now that he’s moved past basing stories on the experiences/feelings of himself, his friends, his acquaintances.  This is pretty brave [compare to the recent work of Philip Roth], but isn’t it sort of surprising that he’s made so few period pieces since the mid-1980s?  Sweet and Lowdown was so great.  Bullets Over Broadway was so much fun.  Why, now, so many movies about people born in the 1970s and 1980s?

The irritatingly prosaic nature of the script seems intentional.  The central two brothers are dumb guys, who have no subtlety to them, and no interest in coming up with witty quips.  They have an interesting relationship, dependent on each other, and this leads to irrational decisions, with which the viewer empathizes unreservedly.  One of the best reasons to see this film is to compare Colin Farrell here to Colin Farrell in In Bruges. He’s inarticulate, and sad and worried a lot of the time, and although he looks like a caricature of a sad and worried guy, when he talks you just feel so bad for his plight.  A minor distinction: in In Bruges he can’t handle not being allowed to kill people, and in Cassandra’s Dream he can’t handle killing people.  Ewan MacGregor’s character sometimes seems confident, and sometimes he is confident, but he’s just as desperate.

The brothers are kind of dumb and they talk all the time.  Their parents are kind of dumb too.  And so is Colin Farrell’s girlfriend.  Ewan MacGregor’s girlfriend the high-maintenance actress seems to be a few steps ahead of him, but she doesn’t have any good ideas either.  The setting is bland, albeit great to look at [all the scenes with boats, the parties, the grove of sheltering trees, the FANTASTIC wallpaper around the 95-minute mark]. The averageness of the characters is not played for laughs or stereotypes. It’s just the milieu of the film.

I’m curious now about how many other Allen dramas are like this.  I imagine all his serious films [those that aren’t period pieces] taking place among the educated, the sophisticated, the creative, but is that just what I think because of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters?

Cassandra’s Dream has a simple noir story, about a character who decides that he can’t avoid committing a certain murder.  It’s very different from Match Point, though.  The characters went through a lot more twists and turns in Match Point, but the script was sparer.  Some important things happened in silence!  You had time to contemplate how the characters were being buffeted by the world, and what they must be thinking!  Cassandra’s Dream is basically about two guys who never stop talking when they’re with each other, like an old-fashioned comedy duo without the jokes.  And when they aren’t with each other they are sort of at a loss and talk a lot out of insecurity.  They’ve learned this from their parents, who snipe at each other in the most predictable way possible.  It’s surprisingly sweet and memorable when the parents embrace each other.

This is a distinctly talky movie about people with nothing interesting to say.  There are very good noirish crime dramas that could be described that way [The Last Seduction, We Own the Night], but the dialogue here isn’t tense.  There are hardly any verbal confrontations between people who don’t like each other.  The two older, urbane men [Tom Wilkinson as the brothers’ uncle, Philip Davis as his estranged colleague] bring unpredictability and risk.  We don’t see Wilkinson much but he’s the most energetic thing about the film, bursting with urgency as he uses the force of his personality to manipulate.

How does it do with suspense in general?  The suspenseful scenes are the only ones that lay off the constant conversation, and are the only ones in which surprises happen.  We’ve gotten to know the two brothers well, but we cannot predict what they’re going to do in the rare do-or-die moments, and that for me made the film more exciting than Match Point, which was all about the intersection of inevitability and luck.  Basically, Cassandra’s Dream starts out with a bunch of obvious scenes that go on too long, then we meet Tom Wilkinson’s character, and then it gets real.  The scenes still go on too long, but the authenticity of the acting wins out. And like Match Point, it ends at exactly the right moment.

Am now looking forward to Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, and Another Woman.  Why are my expectations so high?  Why am I so sure they will all be better than this one?  I guess it’s because this seems so minor.  And I can’t forgive it for the way Hayley Atwell’s character is introduced, leaning over a car engine while directing a vacant gaze straight into the camera, in an eerie presage of the iconic scene from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Does Another Woman maintain a taut atmosphere of tension, instead of consciously making suspense hard to achieve because of loose, leisurely conversations and a general aura of warm sunniness?  Is any of the imagery in Husbands and Wives evocative of Barb Wire?  Soon we will know.

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