Cassandra's Dream is in fact a nightmare

Film “Cassandra's Dream, Woody's next film is slated for a UK release in the new year. Fingers crossed it's a massive success (yeah, right) and then there's a chance that Scoop might yet be seen here and you'll be able to enjoy it for yourself without having to import it from Sweden, like I did.” – From my review of Scoop

It’s difficult to know where to start, so we’ll go skip straight to the end. As the usual cast list appeared at the close of Cassandra’s Dream, even though I was in the comfort of my own freezing bedroom having ironically waited for the dvd release even though this is a Woody Allen film that actually saw a UK cinema release for once, I found myself booing. Boo, I shouted. Boo. Booooo.

I like Woody Allen’s later films. I’m one of the few people who’ll defend Anything Else and thinks that Melinda and Melinda is one of the few watchable Will Ferrell films (other being Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, because he's hardly in it). I know that both Scoop and Match Point have their flaws, but you can at least understand what he was trying to do and it’s fun to watch members of the British acting establishment enjoying the chance to work with the bloke who directed Annie Hall.

But Cassandra’s Dream is rubbish. It might even be offensively bad.

It’s a morality tale, asking whether you would kill a stranger if it meant you could secure your future happiness. Two brothers, Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor are propositioned by their Uncle to do just that when he needs a key witness in a criminal action against him to disappear. Colin’s a gambler, Ewan’s trying to scale the class wall with the beautifully angular Hayley Atwell looking down upon him from the top so both have loads to gain. So when they’re made the offer they wish they could refuse at about minute fifty you can guess what happens, especially if you’ve also seen Crimes and Misdemeanors. And Match Point for that matter.

The story idea isn’t the problem; Allen’s used Greek and Shakespearean tragedy as sources before and both are referenced somewhere in the dialogue. It’s the execution. At no point are you astonished by the turn of events; though individual scenes might surprise and there’s a rather touching moment involving a phone call from the mother of the condemned man, you already know how everything is going to turn out. Woody might be wanting to show that human nature is entirely predictable and I supposed you can’t criticise a tragedy for presenting an expected outcome. Yet that always works within a framework characters you can at least empathise if not necessarily identify with. We love Hamlet.

But Woodyalso does everything he can to stop the audience from understanding. Firstly, he puts us on the back foot by offering a group of South Londoners speaking dialogue that no human person would say. Having covered the London middle class, Woody’s trying his hand with the mockney, but his grasp of the local cutcha seems based on a few viewings of Snatch and the odd Mike Leigh film. Not that this stops him employing his recent interest in stylised contraction-free banter so that in places this sounds like the cast of Eastenders putting on a production of George Bernard Shaw, which at best is interestingly jarring and at worst patronising, since it suggests that equal poetry can’t be found in more realistic speech.

Plus he fails to direct his actors. Atwell’s reliably good as an social climbing actress but given little to do as is Sally Hawkins as the concerned girlfriend. But Colin Farrell offers what could be a career worst and that includes his mumbling Bullseye in Daredevil. Once the deed is done, he’s called upon to show the mental breakdown of his character as booze and drugs and psychosis take hold. Much of this is shown through crumpled shirt, doubled up, smoking acting, and he just doesn’t seem to be able to get a grip on whatever emotion he's trying to portray in each scene. He also somehow looks physically younger, more like the young chap who liked horses and Emma in Ballykissangel.

Woody’s notorious for not giving much direction in terms of his actors. He says, much like George Lucas in fact, that most of that part of the job is done if he selects the right face. But I fear that Farrell was desperate for some guidance here and probably just did his best when none was forthcoming. He’s probably at the epicentre of the film’s issues. It almost becomes half watchable when McGregor story takes precedence; Ewan underplays everything which helps to balance things out a little bit, though even he gets to sweat and sit still in an attempt to depict inner turmoil.

There are some good elements. When he’s allowed to point his camera at more than a two shot of Colin looking deranged and Ewan looking disappointed, some of Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography is amazing, including some absolutely gorgeous shots of the titular boat, bought by the two brothers as a gift to themselves then largely ignored through the rest of the film. The costume design is also conspicuously good but it is a bit worrying that I was marvelling at the fashions instead of wanting to follow the story.

The best scenes are those which have nothing to do with the suspense plot, but are about family – McGregor's guilt at wanting to move on and leave the family business, his Dad's eatery is in some financial difficulties, how they’re all beholden to Wilkinson’s slippery rich uncle. Allen's serious films in the 70s and 80s (Interiors, Another Woman) worked because real human foibles were being discussed in the kind of state of heightened tension which didn't require one of these plot devices we've seen recently, dragged in (presumably wrapped in a carpet) from a suspense thriller.

So my reaction was cumulative. Having read the reviews, including the positive quote on the cover from Jason Solomons (who, let's just say I'm not a fan of), I was prepared for the worst. By minute ten I’d realised it wasn’t great. Philip Glass’s ponderous score dundered on. By minute sixty I was getting angry and wanted to turn if off entirely but soldiered on for old times sake. That only gave way to simple clock watching by ten minutes before the end.

Some films are unwatchable because of a lack of creativity, or conviction, or because it’s a commercial undertaking. Cassandra’s Dream is even more insidious because you know that Woody can be insanely creative, you know that he really means this and that making a commercial film is probably the last thing on his mind. Booo. Booo. Booo.

Still, the benefit of popping out one of these a year means that even though Cassandra's Dream is in fact a nightmare, there's another more critically favoured film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona already waiting for release in the UK again at the actual cinema on 6th February and beyond that his New York return with Whatever Works featuring Larry David this time as his avatar. Perhaps that's what was missing here. I couldn't work out which character would have been played by Woody.

I'm happy to keep Mr. Richer in business.

Life Today has been rather atypical. Here’s why:

(1) My dvd recorder died. The motor on the disc reader finally clattered its last and the misplaced laser began misreading dvds. I do think it should have lasted more than three years, but I’ve probably used it more than most. After some research, I realised it would be cheaper to buy a new one. I now have one of these, though being ‘slightly’ impatient, I visited the local Richer Sound and paid a little bit more than the Amazon price. I can’t imagine how I ever lived without a PVR. Or how I’m going to afford to pay for it. Though I'm happy to keep Mr. Richer in business.

(2) Whilst I was there, someone was returning a television because she said it looked too much like a computer monitor. Because it was a flat screen. Welcome to 2009.

(3) I also noticed that Richer Sound seems to sell more televisions than radios these days. It's the high street equivalent of the Radio Times.

(3) I watched Labyrinth for the first time in years. I still knew the lyrics to all of the songs. Bowie is god as well as a goblin king. The young Jennifer Connelly wasn’t as good then as she is now.

(4) I wondered what happened to Ione Skye and Daphne Zuniga who for brief periods I thought starred in Labyrinth. Turns out Ione had a cameo in David Fincher’s Zodiac and Daphs appeared in all thirteen episodes of the animated Spaceballs and spent eleven episodes on One Tree Hill.

(5) Listened to Jona Lewie’s Stop The Cavalry. He said once it had nothing particularly to do with Christmas. He was wrong, sob.

(6) Evening meal: Asda ‘Extra Special’ Moussaka. Which was nothing of the sort, being instead essentially one of their lasagnes with aubergine and potato instead of pasta and the kind of meat in gravy they use in their pies. It was sad, and tasted like watery cream.

(7) I’ve just received a comment from someone noting that throughout this piece about the Odeon, I somehow managed to call him Oscar Schindler. I'm was mortified. I've also fixed it.

(8) Day ain’t over yet …

there's a big empty shop in Clayton Square

57. Beryl Sebastian

Liverpool Life Since VHS is dead, I recently had another clear out to make some space. I was in Zavvi at Liverpool One early this morning looking for dvd replacements and as I bought Elizabeth and Sunshine, I asked the sales clerk if she knew if the chain was safe, she told me that they'd not heard anything since Christmas Eve.

I thought about her when I arrived home and heard that Zavvi had just announced they were closing a number of its stores and attempting to find a buyer for the others. I guessed since the Liverpool One store was new and under favourable rent conditions that it would the Clayton Square shop for the chop and as the Liverpool Echo's reporting that is the case with a loss of twenty-eight jobs. So her job is safe for now.

The Zavvi in Clayton Square and the Virgin Megastore before it have been in place since the mid-nineties, though my memory is faulty so it might be even earlier than that. I'm less sentimental about this closure than the Odeon on London Road. I have stories; when I was unemployed in '97 standing or sitting at the video screens, headphones on, watching whole new episodes of Star Trek because I couldn't afford the videos. Buying Eva Katler's EP. Wondering when the strawberry milkshake stain would be cleaned from the light inside the lift.

It's the loss of the chain we should really be worried about. With Woolworths gone too, and WH Smith cutting back, it leaves just HMV as the major music and dvd retailer in the high street, which puts the supermarkets in an even greater position to dictate the kind of music going on general release, in other words the kind of thing which can be sold to as wide a market as possible, particularly if its sung by Katie Melua or Coldplay.

Now I know it's partly my fault. As well as actually liking Dido, I now buy most of anything online; it's cheaper, sometimes it'll turn up before the release date, the entire back catalogue is potentially available not what's in store or could be ordered and it's simply more convenient. Yet, there should still be a place for a physical retailer on the high street that isn't Tesco with its limited selection. Sometimes its good to walk into a shop and not know what you want and having the tangible object in your hand.

Neither of the films I bought today were replacements in the end. They were impulse buys which are probably the best kind. I watched Sunshine as soon as I got home which is obviously something I couldn't do if I'd ordered it from Amazon. It'll be that delay which means that in the end HMV at least should survive and when the economy picks up another music retailer might move in to fill the gap.

But for now, there's a big empty shop in Clayton Square for the first time in years. I can't imagine what'll move in, though I suspect it'll be another coffee shop. Liverpool certainly hasn't got enough of those...

Thank the BBC, then, for their new adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps

TV Much as I love the kinds of period dramas Andrew Davies is renowned for, and how much I like to think of myself as a feminist, isn’t it a tad boring that ninety-nine percent are of them are of, well, a girly vintage? They might well be insanely popular, but surely there are only so many times you can watch girls and boys in corsets and cummerbunds leisurely fall in love over six episodes as such impediments as the class system and cash keep them apart? Do we really need the version of Wuthering Heights ITV are bringing us in the new year?

What about the dozens of adventure novels written around the period and since, most of which haven’t seen the screen for decades? Thank the BBC, then, for their new adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (which was on last week), precisely the kind of much needed ripping yarn, in which romance though not entirely forgotten didn’t get in the way of a fugitive with vital information about a German invasion being chased through London streets by spies or a picturesque Scottish moor by dozens of police dogs and their master’s whistles.

Loosely based on Buchan’s novel about espionage in the run up to the First World War and borrowing some elements from Hitchcock’s 1935 film version, Lizzie Mickery’s script offered precisely the kind of adventure which seems like a lost art for television, taking advantage of the period’s antiquated phone and transport systems and demonstrating that with the modern world ringed by satellites and saturated with surveillance, the most exciting way to make a thriller is to set it in the past. There’s no better sight than a wanted man fleeing a train from one of the doors and out onto the tracks under a rail bridge. You can’t do that on a Virgin Pendolino.

In rewriting Buchan, Mickery offered some useful historical perspective, wrapping Richard Hannay’s unlikely mission directly with the reasons for the outbreak of the Great War, drawing extraordinary pathos from the inevitability of conflict, and refreshingly didn’t give in to the recent tendency to somehow make the Germans into sympathetic figures, understanding that this kind of story doesn’t work unless the hero is fighting an insurmountable, one dimensional evil -- though it’s a pity that as the face of evil, Patrick Malahide, couldn’t have been given a bit more to do.

But perhaps that would have detracted from Rupert Penry-Jones’s storming turn as Hannay. RP-J is the BBC’s go to man for upper middle class, buttoned up, establishment educated spies. As well as spending three years leading the Spooks, he played real life agent Donald Maclean alongside the rest of the posher members of the Brit pack in Cambridge Spies, and he was absolutely perfect as this man on the run, realistically charming even as he’s chauvinistic, but bringing the required gravitas when outlining the dangers to the country he’s risking his life to combat. An able comedian too -- I don’t think there are many actors of his breed who could have carried off the scene with the ventriloquist's dummy (and yes, I do realise how surreal that sentence looks if you didn’t manage to watch this).

He’s also especially good with the elements of screwball humour Mickery threw in as part of biggest deviation from the book to evoke some of the sexual politics of the era probably in an attempt to balance out the testosterone at the heart of the novel. It was Hitchcock’s invention to give Hannay a female foil to spar with on his journey, and Mickery’s version, suffragette Victoria Sinclair (perhaps inspired by Mary, Hannay’s wife in Buchan’s later novel The Three Hostages) is just mouthy enough to make our hero question his values, but not so shrill as to become the typical stereotype of a women’s libber.

It helps that Sinclair’s played by the film’s real find, the luminous Lydia Leonard, the kind of actress who seems like she’s been doing this kind of thing years but in reality this is probably her big break (assuming enough people were watching). Previously seen in The Line of Beauty, her sardonic delivery reminded me of the leading ladies of classic Hollywood, the likes of Jean Arthur or Claudette Colbert, giving the midsection of the film the feel of one of those old road comedies like It Happened One Night, especially in the bedroom scene, though we never saw Colbert and Clarke Gable get quite that close.

As the film sped credibly to its conclusion, aided by Doctor Who veteran James Hawes’s sprightly direction, Mickery cleverly tied up this apparently extraneous relationship with the main plot, turning the reveal of the mystery of the thirty-nine steps (surprisingly close to Buchan) into an interesting piece of character drama rather than a simple case of spy versus spy. If the final shock seemed a bit gratuitous, at least it offered the chance to finally tie-up the story with the impending conflict suggesting that the BBC isn’t quite yet ready to leave Hannay and Sinclair to their fates. Buchan wrote four more books about Hannay. Perhaps we’ll be seeing those too.

Lovefilm Fail.

DVD I've been on a holiday from Lovefilm over the Christmas period because there's always something else to watch and there's basically no postal service. I've just received this email which I think is worth some scrutiny:

Lovefilm Fail

(1) It can't add up -- with over a thousand titles in my list it thinks I'm running low.

(2) Look at those recommendations. Given that my thousand choices feature hardly any horror films or Eddie Murphy films, why would it think I'd like the sequel to the remake of The Hills Have Eyes and Norbit? I read Sight and Sound for god's sake.

(3) Is Lucky You any good?

(4) I have Final Destination 2 (Ali Larter) but why would I want to risk seeing Final Destination 3 first?

In other words ...

Lovefilm Fail.

Such a shame.

the suspicious late entry

Vanilla Days reviews 2008
Round-up of some of Pete Carr's amazing (and award winning) photographs from last year.

Eurovision: Your Country Needs You might as well be called Eurovision: We've Already Picked Who We Want.
PopJustice notes the suspicious late entry for someone already known in the business.

Rick Wakeman is hilarious.
Sorry I missed this. Was it simply a voice emerging from the darkness?

London Review of Books tackles computer games
Authoritative enough to mention Lego Star Wars.

Eleanor McEvoy makes comeback
If you received a mix-cd back in the day, she's the one who sang Stray Thoughts.

A Life In Polaroid
This is the kind of endeavour which should be turned into a film.

Do virtual friends count?
Of course they do. Don't you?

The Farther Away You Are From Ludacris, The Sadder You Are
He's the new Father Christmas

English Ways of Saying Goodbye
My habit is to begin a phone conversation with 'I can't be on long, but ...'

Jeffrey Katzenberg on Tru3D
I'd love to see Antz in this format.

Husband fail
For some reason I'm reminded of the 'I'm A PC' electronic billboards.

The Unofficial Theory Of Sci-Fi Connectivity and Just How Is Everything Connected?
FACT! The Seventh Doctor shrunk Death's Head from the giant he was in the UK Transformers comics to a more human size then randomly shunted him off to the 4 Freedom Plaza, and that's how he joined the mainstream Marvel Universe.

Not Review 2008: Television

TV I've contributed to Off The Telly's review of the year which as ever lists a range of programmes I forgot to watch. Here's my original submission:

2008 was the year when I finally realised that I was online more than watching television live. Most of anything useful drama and comedy wise is being released on dvd, and with a Lovefilm subscription I’ve been managing to catch up on a range of programmes. About the only appointment tv for me has been the odd panel game plus Doctor Who and its variants; even Heroes or Merlin have found their way to prerecord first. It’s also been a year where I’ve only seen one ITV1 series – Lost In Austen – and strayed away from Channel 4. The BBC is a treasure that has to be protected, but they need to return to reminding the audience the glories that they offer rather than threatening to prosecute them for not paying their license and giving reasons for the Daily Mail and its readership to ostracise them.

Some of the best live camera work of the year happened during the BBC’s broadcast of Prom 5, which began with an organ solo of Messian’s L'Ascension and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, perhaps the longest example of one of these things outside of Christmas. It began with a long, slow zoom in from the outer edge of the hall to the organist's box which is exactly the kind of arresting, leisurely shot there’s simply not enough of on television these days. It’s just a man sitting at an organ which should be even less televisual than a piano solo, but this still managed to be a visual feast due to the director's willingness to show off the architecture of the pipes, organist Olivier Latry's fingering and the acoustic adjusters in the ceiling.

Ashes To Ashes was a frustrating experience. It wasn’t such a bad idea to spin-off Life on Mars, even if it had that offered one of television’s best ever conclusions and though Keeley Hawes was unpopular with some I thought she was more than a match for John Simm, and it was great to see Gene Hunt back on the beat. No, the problem was that the tension which existed between its core genres, cop show and fantasy failed to cohere with too many appearances from the clown and less clarity in the detective work, often keeping the types of story separate in each episode making it an irritating watch as your attention was cast hither and thither. By the end, I wasn’t sure if Alex Drake was in a coma – in which case was Sam Tyler?

Dawn Goes Lesbian (pictured) was something of a guilty pleasure. Journalist Dawn Porter made a series of documentaries for the constantly struggling BBC Three in which she tried out selection of alternative lifestyles. This was essentially Bruce Parry's Tribe for the Hampstead set, with London’s gay scene instead of the Babongo. Over the course of an hour we watched Porter become the very bestests of friends with a Fenella Woolgar lookalike who she ultimately spent the night with though she was keen to stress that they kept their pyjamas on. Much of the programme was issues led (there's abuse in lesbian relationships too etc). Porter was refreshingly naive but not in with Louis Theroux's irony -- she seemed genuinely honest and natural and confused.

BBC Four’s Pop, What Is It Good For? was one of the best music documentaries of the year. Paul Morley offering a list of his favourite songs of all time, explaining why and interviewing the people who made them. Morley often comes across elsewhere as a rather cynical figure. But here, faced with his heroes, you really saw his passion and the esteem in which he holds their music, even the Sugababes who he attempted to have a serious conversation with during the hub-bub back stage at last year’s Children In Need with Keisha desperate to make him believe that they have a modicum of creative control over their work. This was a musical education for those of us who might have flirted with Smash Hits but ended up with Norah Jones.

Not Review 2008: Film

Film I’ve been working towards putting together a top ten list of films of the year and as I’ve glanced at everyone else’s words something has become abundantly clear – my ten would look boringly like everyone elses. So rather than simply regurgitating I thought I’d instead offer five things which were released earlier which I’ve only just got around to seeing which I’ve equally loved and in some cases more so.

Across The Universe (2006)
What’s particularly clever about Julie Tabor’s film isn’t that it simply throws in some Beatles songs when required, it’s that they’re in chronological release order and she still manages to wrap a half decent narrative around them; you’re not just getting an education in the music of the band but also the history of the period when they were recording, with the emotional complexity of the characters growing along with the musical invention. Perhaps it was just too complicated for audiences, who tend to like a good singalong in their musicals these days. (pictured)

Barefoot In The Park (1967)
Lately, romantic comedies have rarely just been about two people falling in love – there always seems to be some kind of high concept reason for them to meet which more often than not leads to the need for a coherent plot resolution getting in the way of the romance. Not here. New York married couple move into rubbish apartment which is falling apart around them and they rarely leave within the next hour and half. Fonda and Redford haven’t been cuter. This is basically the film a hundred American sitcoms have begged, borrowed and mugged from.

The Man From Earth (2007)
Similarly static in its staging, but no less effective, this sci-fi tale about a college professor who suddenly offers revelations about his past to his colleagues is a great demonstration that so long as you have a clever central idea and good script everything else should fall into place. Just the kind of film which if you catch in the right frame of mind could rock your philosophical world. It certainly did mine.

After Hours (1985)
One of the few films I've saved for a rainy day or when I’m under the mistaken impression that I’ve already seen anything good. Somehow manages to work the horror conceit of anything being hidden in the darkness into a comedy. Incidentally, Linda Fiorentino finally has a new film coming out in 2009, ‘Once More with Feeling’, which does seem terribly apt.

Goya's Ghosts (2006)
Because even masterpieces can be ignored. If this had been release ten years ago it would have been Oscar nominated. But period artist biopics are out of fashion in the English speaking world, Goya isn’t a household name like Mozart and painting -- unless there’s some time lapse action isn’t the most cinematic of pursuits. Yet, this is ripe for rediscovery with its chameleonic central performance from Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd and Natalie Portman in twin roles as a mother and daughter and an exciting historical backdrop, oh and Javier Bardem wearing even funnier hair than he had in the film he made next, No Country For Old Men.