Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream


It may seem surprising that I chose to review  a movie from 2007 in this post. Arent’t there any new movies good enough to deserve more updated commentaries? Well, the advent of NETFLIX blurred time lines, and today, at the tip of your fingers, you can access and pick either the latest episode of House of Cards, or immerse yourself as easily in a classic movie bringing your laptop or any other device to bed, and then not being able to sleep. Going to bed with your e-devices is, after all, considered one of the main causes of the prevalent insomnia and sleep deprivation most of us suffer these days. The flickering light will stay on in your brain for hours even after you switch the machine off and try to invite Morpheus in. I believe the god gets jealous of being relegated to a second post in your bed priorities, or third, if you take sex into consideration, and, as a consequence, will resist your call as long as possible – despite all the Ambien you might use to entice him.

The movie

Speaking of Morpheus, the movie we are discussing today has mythology and classic literature at its center (Cassandra and Dostoyevsky) and also dreams in its title and themes. Cassandra is a mythologycal  figure who, in the best known version of her story, rejects the advances of Apollo and is cursed with the power of prophecy which will not be believed by anyone. Tragic: you try to warn people against their foolish ways, foretelling their fateful outcomes, yet no one takes your predictions seriously.

Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream

Well, Woody Allen’s movie is a cautionary tale about ambition and the use of short cuts and quick fixes to get what you want. It’s a warning for those who cross forbidden and dangerous lines to achieve their dreams and aspirations. At the same time, we know humans will never change no matter what Cassandra says. Excessive ambition will always contaminate countless souls and the lure of short cuts is too strong to resist, despite its consequences.

In this respect the story is not new, it has been told innumerable times, we read about it in the papers every single day. Nevertheless they do not usually rely on charismatic actors such as Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell embodying the fateful ambitious brothers on their tragic path to destruction, stopping at nothing to get what they dream about, nor with the help of a great supporting cast to help tell the story, which is not uncommon in any Allen movie. Cassandra’s Dream would never be this strong movie if we could not count on the superb performances of this team.

The plot

The movie starts with the brothers, who have a very close bond, excited at the prospect of purchasing a small boat and trying to negotiate the price down with its owner. From the very first dialogue we realize they are not guys who play straight and are always trying to take advantage. Terry (Colin Farrell), a pill-popping, compulsive gambler with a drinking problem, works as a mechanic in a garage and is always lending expensive cars to his bother Ian (Ewan McGregor), who works in the family restaurant while trying to save money to start a hotel business in California. The story takes place in modern-day London, which, together with another Woody Allen movie set there, Match Point, makes the most of the amazing sights of the city in the beautifully photographed scenes.

The whole family – the two brothers, father and mother – is always shamelessly sucking up to a rich uncle – with shady deals all over the world – who visits them a couple of  times a year, and lavishes the relatives with presents and, sometimes, cash. Well, now, however, the stakes are higher: Terry owes a lot of money to hard-core gamblers and might have his legs broken if he fails to pay them back. Ian, on the other hand, can’t wait to get away from the greasy restaurant business and break free from his suffocating family to move to America with a newly-acquired theater actress girlfriend, who dreams of becoming a successful Hollywood star.

Greed

The uncle has the means, the power and the connections to make all this come true. All they need is to ask him. After all, they are family. Blood is more important than anything else, isn’t it? But blood costs blood: the rich uncle will lend both brothers the money and work his powerful connections to turn Ian’s girl friend into a star in exchange for a huge favor: he claims he can only count on Terry and Ian to get rid of  a business contact who knows too much about his shady deals and may send him to jail for the next 10 years. They must kill him.

Crime and punishment

In this Crime and Punishment kind of plot, the brothers decide to cross the line – there is no return – and do the deed. They kill the man. Before long, however, the Raskolnikov’s syndrome of not being able to live with the burden of the guilt overcomes Terry, who threatens to go to the police and surrender. Uncle Rich and Ian will not let that happen. Terry has to be stopped. Another line to be crossed.

Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream

The end

The face-off between the two brothers takes place against the backdrop of the Thames – the water playing the eternal metaphor of hidden and dark subconscious compulsions –  inside Cassandra’s Dream, the fateful boat they acquired at the beginning of the story, in a breathtaking sequence, where the bond and love felt by the two brothers get mixed up and destroyed by the ambition of cold-blooded Ian and the weakness of unstable Terry. The already stunning  actors’ performances rise a couple of notches for the grand finale – which, as a plot point, is even a bit anticlimactic.  Maybe this is on purpose, as we are mainly left with the facial expressions of Colin and Ewan forever engraved in out minds and wishing for more as the final credits roll on.

Human beings will never change, but Netflix viewers of Cassandra’s Dream will never be the same after watching acting of this caliber.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

5 features that make a movie or TV show great


In this day and age of superhero movies, I’m going to dare to give you guidelines on how to judge the quality of a movie. Great movies don’t make money, this is a fact. The reason commonly given is the populace is too dumb and unsophisticated to appreciate their merits. I don’t want to go into this discussion as it spills way beyond the scope of this humble post. However, the opposite is not true either: don’t think that just because a movie delivered a poor box office it deserves any praise. It may be simply because…well…it’s crap. Good movies usually:

1. Focus on character not on plot. Despite the well-known structure of storytelling dug out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and turned into a simplified manual for Hollywood scriptwriters, spelling out all the steps that need to be present in the hero’s journey for a story to resonate with the audience, writers and directors still need to highlight characters. The plot needs to be there, its phases followed in new and  creative ways, but strong characters are what we remember about the best films we see. We may not remember details of the story, but Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in the Godfather, Robert De Niro’s Trevis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards  are unforgettable.

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

2. Have complex characters. These great characters have the following common characteristics: they don’t comply to black and white codes of ethics, they tend to develop their own morality and follow it consistently; they show either superior intelligence, or charisma or beauty. Or all of them together. Understatement is their main weapon. They do not say everything: a lot needs to be inferred by their eyes, their turn of head, they way their mouths hang open for slightly longer than necessary. They are subtle and complex. We never get to understand their inner agenda to the full.

3. Have scenes played against the grain. Great movies catch the audience off guard, surprise them. They use, for example, as the commentary for a acene, a song  or piece of music that means its exact opposite or that does not belong to the historic period or place the story takes place. The use of LA CUMPARCITA in Woody Allen’s  Alice,  which takes place in contemporary Manhattan – the music plays as Mia Farrow’s and Joe Mantegna’s characters, after taking a magic potion that makes them invisible, pay the taxi driver and the doors of the car open for them to leave completely unseen; the voice over quips: “nothing shocks NYC cab drivers”  – enhances and adds to the humor and oddity of the situation.

Mia Farow as Woody Allen's Alice

Mia Farow as Woody Allen’s Alice

4. Let emotions emerge naturally. These movies do not manipulate their audience to make them weep. Sentimentality makes films that could otherwise be great syrupy and corny. Emotions must reflect real life and its poignancy to work as art. Think of the scene in Walter Salles’s Central Station in  which the character played by Fernanda Montenegro is shown, in a montage, writing a series of letters to relatives of people who are illiterate and therefore can’t write themselves. They are real people in this particular case  – but might as well be actors – from a small city in the northeast of Brazil, and the succession of short scenes showing these people dictating their messages breaks ones’ heart with their truth, simplicity and beauty.

Fernanda Montenegro in  Walter Salles's Central Station

Fernanda Montenegro in Walter Salles’s Central Station

5. Don’t show or say everything.  Life is not neat. Great movies reflect life yet show it through a more interesting angle. But not all must be solved in those two hours a movie lasts. Life is a flow and conflicts are rarely resolved in their entirety. There is no need to explain every character’s motives or reactions or  tie all the loose ends of the story by the conclusion of the movie or TV show. Let the audience wonder. Give them opportunity to use their imagination. Take the typical end of the iconic 2001 a Space Odyssey. If you haven’t read the book, and there’s no need to (it was written to go with the movie), the last 15 min of the movie are all up to you. What is going on? What does that trip to Saturn really mean metaphysically? What’s this guy shown in progressive stages of aging. Who’s this fetus in the intergalactic womb? The viewer will keep those images for a long time in their minds (in my case,  for decades!) and neve stop trying to figure them out.

2001 A Space Odissey

2001 A Space Odissey

Well, great movies are not supposed to follow recipes. So now throw all I said before out of the window and make your own rules.

Good luck

Jorge Sette.