Judge Mike Rubino agrees that "family is family" and "blood is blood." He would also like to add "a ham sandwich is a ham sandwich."
Family is family. Blood is blood.
Over the past decade, Woody Allen has been extremely prolific, pumping out a film a year since getting into the business back in the '70s. And while not every film is as incredible as Crimes and Misdemeanors or Annie Hall, they belong in a class all of their own. Cassandra's Dream is Allen's third consecutive film made across the Atlantic, and while good in its own right, must rest in the shadows of its similar, and superior, brother, Match Point.
Facts of the Case
Two brothers, Ian and Terry, have a dream of breaking free from the chains of their lower-class existence. Ian (Ewan McGregor, Big Fish) is stuck working in his father's restaurant while entertaining the idea of hotel investments. Terry (Colin Farrell, Alexander) is an auto mechanic hooked on pills, booze, and high stakes gambling. The most significant thing they have between them is their small sailboat, "Cassandra's Dream." While each of these men are aiming for the high life, they go about reaching their goals in different ways. Terry's gambling addiction soon gets the better of him, and now he's owes a good deal of money to a loan shark. Meanwhile, Ian's obsession with a California hotel chain and a young actress cause him to enter into a lifestyle that requires a heck of a lot more money than he has.
The boys retreat to their rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton). Howard is in a bit of a fix himself: his former employee is going to testify about some corporate crimes he was involved in, which would send Howard to jail for the rest of his life. Because they all live by the strict code of "family first," Howard agrees to help the boys if they can murder the man who will testify against him.
Cassandra's Dream is Woody Allen's third London-based film, and has quite a lot in common with his first film in the U.K.: Match Point. Like its Oscar-nominated predecessor, Cassandra is a suspenseful thriller about class envy. And while Match Point was fresh, devious, and vaguely Hitchockian, Cassandra feels slightly like a retread with some pacing issues.
The film opens with Ian and Terry purchasing a sail boat with some money that Terry had won at the dog races. They name it "Cassandra's Dream," which not only sounds cool but sets the tone for what is essentially a Greek morality play about guilt, loyalty, luck, and greed (but what Greek morality isn't about that stuff?). The first act of the film establishes Ian and Terry's relationship and economic status quite well; by the time they are up to their elbows in debt, their idea to ask Uncle Howard seems logical. What doesn't feel logical, however, is their unending devotion to family, which seems to emerge from just about nowhere and drives them to do insane things for each other. The bulk of the second act finds the brothers mulling over the idea of killing a man in order to protect their uncle and make some money. I see where Woody was going with this, the tribal idea that family loyalty should trump all basic ethical standards, but in this day and age it doesn't quite fit (at least for characters that aren't associated with the mob).
The plot of Cassandra's Dream is actually quite engaging at times, with more than a few moments of suspense. The slow-paced street chase when the brothers actually do decide to kill is wonderful. Unfortunately, the overall pacing is off. Much of the conflict arises from Terry's concern about murdering, which is then stretched out for a good portion of the movie. The dialogue becomes redundant, and all I want is for them to do the deed so that the next event can occur. Of course, after the murder, there is another long stretch of anguish and guilt. If the events had been compressed a tad more, with some of the more redundant aspects left on the cutting room floor, then perhaps we would be calling this a "taught" thriller.
The other central theme of the film, aside from loyalty, is luck. Both brothers are gambling men, with Terry more of the traditional wagerer and Ian into high-stakes property investments. Woody Allen continues to build on his idea that everything in this world is brought on by chance; it works in this film, but again not quite as well as in Match Point.
Although the story falters at times, the actors excel. Ewan McGregor plays the older, more ambitious brother who borrows expensive antique cars just to create the illusion that he's already rich. He's manipulative, greedy, and not as smart as he pretends to be. He also is a great counterpart to Colin Farrell, who plays the younger, more naive brother. Farrell gets a chance to exhibit his full dramatic range as he goes from the high-riding gambler to the guilt-ridden drunk. Farrell, perhaps more than any other character, transforms throughout this film. These two heavyweights are supported by a great cast which includes Sally Hawkins (Layer Cake), Hayley Atwell, and the ever-awesome Tom Wilkinson. Woody Allen never has any trouble getting big names for his films, but I give him credit for his unique casting choices this time around (and for not shoving Ms. Johansson in there).
From a technical standpoint, Allen isn't showing his age one bit. The film looks great, with simply-framed shots and slow, deliberate camera pans. Allen famously has said that he tries not to do more than a few takes for each scene, so his technical proficiency in capturing everything on the first go-round continues to impress. It seems to me that Allen enjoys taking more time to craft the visuals in his recent dramas as opposed to his comedies (like his second British film, Scoop), which seem to flow from his fingers with carefree abandon. His scripts may vary in terms of success, but I find his filmmaking style to still be just as good as his Annie Hall days.
One departure for Allen is his use of an original score by minimalist Philip Glass (The Illusionist). Rather than filling the movie with his trademark ragtime jazz and Gershwin, Allen went with a modest and compelling score. Glass's music doesn't work well for every film, but it fits nicely in Cassandra. The film's standard Dolby stereo track captures the music wonderfully (this isn't really a film that demands 5.1 surround or anything).
The film's video transfer is also better than average. There are a few scenes where I thought the colors and lighting were balanced perfectly, like the rainy-green scene where Ian and Terry first talk to Uncle Howard; then there are other instances where I felt the blacks weren't as rich and dark as they could be. Aside from that, things looked good.
As usual, Woody Allen is already on to his next two or three projects and can't be bothered with special features of any kind. Not a surprise, but always a disappointment.
This certainly isn't one of Woody Allen's top ten films, but it's far more interesting than some of his prior dramatic efforts. Match Point was an incredible and stirring thriller that showed a different side of Allen; Cassandra's Dream falls under the law of diminishing returns in terms of suspense.
The emphasis on luck and loyalty is interesting, and when viewed through the lens of a Greek morality play it's a little more enjoyable (or at least the outlandishness of certain aspects is easier to swallow). It still has more thought and skill in it than most modern thrillers, plus the cast is excellent, so I would definitely recommend it as a rental for the casual movie watcher. For Woody Allen buffs, however, file this one under "minor success."
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