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Sunday, Jan 20, 2008


It’s so high concept and gimmicky that it should crumble under the weight of its own ambitions. It takes an already tired approach - the first person POV perspective milked to death by all the surrounding Blair Witch hoopla - and channels it through a much more coherent and creative ideal. Some have called it an event film, a rollercoaster ride through a city under monstrous siege. Others have referred to it by another, less flattering name - the bile express, perhaps in reference to the motion sickness inducing cinematography. But there’s no denying one fact - the J.J. Abrams produced monster movie Cloverfield is poised to become a true phenomenon. And in these dog days of January, the most lax time for cinematic excellence, that’s an amazing fact.


Yet this has also been a divisive affair, one that has just as many complainers as champions. All appreciation is opinion based, as is consensus. Majority rule does not determine a film’s final assessment as art, nor does the amount of money made instantly mandate a rejection reconfiguration. Basically, people are entitled to their view of the film, even if they use some specious reasons in support of their disdain. As a matter of fact, reading over the initial reactions to the film, certain constants can be gleaned. Aside from the purely physical responses (more on this in a moment), the various grounds for grousing deserve some discussion. In looking them over, one by one, we begin to see how expectations can undermine any entertainment experience. We also see that Cloverfield can create incredibly passionate feelings on either side of the summation. 


Issue 1 - The Camerawork
This complaint is actually a dangerous double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand people who didn’t like the handheld shaky cam POV because it made them ill. Both Blair Witch and the last two Bourne films claimed many a queasy stomach on their way to box office fortunes. So a clear caveat should come with every ticket sold - “Warning: This Movie May Cause You to Lose Your Lunch”. But barking about it afterwards seems like an aggravation sticking point, an “I got sick so it sucks” rationale that just doesn’t float. No, the real noggin scratcher comes from those who don’t like the approach from an aesthetic standpoint.


Now, no one hid the fact that Abrams wanted to make the movie this way. The trailer offered nothing more than starring at the lens logistics. In interviews, he explained that the film was inspired by a trip to Japan where he saw thousands of Godzilla toys. He speculated that it would be interesting to create an American version of said monster, yet handle the narrative in a novel, contemporary fashion - from the perspective of the petrified citizenry, lets say. So anyone mad that the movie ended up as a camcorder creation is misguided. It’s like arguing that a chocolate bar was horrible because it was made with cocoa. Huh? If you don’t like sugar, don’t eat candy. If you don’t want to see grainy, digital photography, you picked the wrong flick.


Issue 2 - The No-Name Cast
Remember the pretense here - a realistic depiction of New York being overwhelmed by a giant creature. It’s the event, not the individuals that are important. Sure, we have to warm up to the characters a little before the chaos occurs, if just to keep us locked in during the many action scenes. But why would famous faces make this any easier? Some, including this critic, would argue that recognizable actors would ruin the atmosphere. Being identifiable is one thing. Having sure superstar impact is another. For those who’ve seen the film, imagine the Army triage sequence with someone from The Hills as the victim. Aside from the vicarious thrill inherent in such a fatal set up, such a vacuous celebrity space saver would destroy everything Cloverfield has going for.


Issue 3 - The Running Time
By most accounts, this is an 80+ minute movie that ends up being about 70 minus credits. That breaks down to 15 minutes of party-based premise, and 55 minutes of bedlam. The complaints, however, have ranged from the film being too short (arguable) to being WAY, WAY too long (what?). Many argue that the send-off could be clipped by at least half, and that there needed to be more sci-fi stunting and action. Granted, there is a little down time in between bouts of monster madness, but to say that the film needs more of this material is ludicrous. Again, the intention of Abrams and his crew was not to make the same old horror show. Instead this was a real time type story strategy, letting events play out over a few heart stopping hours instead of several days and night. While it’s possible to argue over the allotment, the movie really seems perfectly paced.


Issue 4 - The Lack of Monster
This is a real deal breaker. You either like the way director Matt Reeves handled the numerous creature reveals, keeping the beast locked in its carnage and not posing or pussyfooting for the camera, or you’re flashing back to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and cringing in CG-ire. Frankly, the subtle approach has never endeared itself to the masses. Spielberg devotees will never get over the way he handled War of the Worlds’ many army/alien confrontations. One big battle took place completely off screen. Similarly, M Night Shyamalan’s Signs had an extraterrestrial invasion and then went and forgot most of the little green men. The idea of keeping the mayhem money shot just out of reach is one of the reasons Clovefield works. It was also the reason why Frank Darabont’s The Mist was so masterful. Jaws kept its fiend underwater for most of the movie. Doing the same with this skyscraping scrapping entity only amplifies its impact. Still, in the ‘show me’ state of the mainstream, this apparently wasn’t good enough.


Issue 5 - The Downer Ending
It’s SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER time. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to go in 100% untainted as to major plot developments, leave this part of the piece NOW. There, now that all the neophyte tenderfooters are gone…you just know that our main gang of survivors is not going to come out of this intact. We are going to loose a few along the way (and we do) and the death of the beast (if it can be achieved) will come with lots of character collateral damage. We do see a couple of the kids take off in a helicopter. There is no follow up. Of course, our hero, his buddy Hud, and plot catalyst Beth all end up in Central Park, their transport torn apart by the creature. There’s a close-up, a crunch, and some last minute monologuing. We leave our couple cowering as jets fly overhead, delivering an inferred nuclear payload. There’s an explosion, and then silence. Now, ‘Net rumors have unearthed a garbled bit of dialogue that plays over the final credits. Unscrambled, the ominous line has a faint voice whispering “It’s still alive”. Slam! Sequel!



Come to think of it, Cloverfield appears purposefully set up to tweak many a moviegoer’s most cherished viewership clichés. It’s not filmed particularly well, presents actors that don’t inspire a preconceived notion of heroics or hindrance, offers a monster movie with minimal monster, and gets its business over and done with in a short, succinct, and very somber manner.  To many in the plebian viewership (not all audiences, by the way), this will truly cramp their celluloid style. Epics aren’t erratic and scope should come from carefully controlled compositions, not the haphazard luck of a wavering camcorder. And yet it’s these very things, these bows to the You Tube/MySpace generation (to quote craggy members of the older generation) that make Cloverfield a flop. Oddly enough, to others, they’re the reason the film feels like a revelation.


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Saturday, Jan 19, 2008


As a rule, melodrama and martial arts don’t really mix. Sure, it seems like, every kung fu classic utilizes hyper-stylized heroism and ample Asian tradition to tag its subtext, but pure Hollywood hokum is never the best battle support. It just seems so silly for a champion, capable of the greatest feats of physical force ever seen by man, to play the schlub in a lover’s triangle or find himself manipulated and taken in by a faux femme fatale. Oddly enough, this is the recipe used by Hong Kong filmmaker Dennis Law for his 2006 fight club crime saga Fatal Contact. With up and coming star Jacky Wu Jing in the lead, and some astounding hand to hand combat at its core, this is the kind of flamboyant fisticuffs that genre devotees dig. Too bad the narrative keeps tripping over into potboiler country, applying a campy kitchen sink formula to an otherwise wonderful bit of brawling.


When we first meet Kong, he is a member of the Chinese Opera. His obvious skills attract the attention of gamblers who want to use him as part of their underground boxing ring. Initially reluctant, our hero has a change of heart when a young woman named Tin wanders into his life. Carrying a deep, dark secret and angry at her impoverished lot in life, she hears the amount of money the mobsters are offering and tries to convince Kong to join up. But it takes a public dressing down at a fancy restaurant before he finally concedes. Instantly successful, his undefeated ways get the attention of some very high rollers. They stage bigger and bigger contests with larger and larger purses. Eventually, Kong is taking on the reigning martial arts campaigns with millions of dollars changing hands. But when the stakes get too high, no one is safe - not Tin, not the former kung fu master known as Captain, and definitely not our stalwart warrior.


For all its hang wringing theatrics and convoluted plotting, Fatal Contact has some amazing fight scenes. They crackle with the kind of energy that only comes from professional martial artists performing at the top of their game. Set-up like chapters in an otherwise overwrought story, Jing manages to make each one different - especially when you add in the calculating bit where he begins to LIKE hurting people - and we sense it all building to a major climax. While the good vs. evil element is present, as well as the decent vs. the depraved, it’s hard to really figure out what the character of Kong gets out of all this. He definitely has feelings for Tin, but they are muffled by money. And while he worries about his position on the National Team, he ends up taking on some one of similar stature. And many of his bouts end up in the paper. Wouldn’t that undermine his position automatically?

But the biggest problem with Fatal Contact is the kept woman/prostitute subplot. We learn that Tin’s friend is a hypocritical harlot, the kind of ‘woe is me’ character used to influence audiences just as easily as she does rich men. Just as we’re about to see another sequence of man-on-man face smashing, along comes this dolled up drone and - ZAP - the energy and life is literally leeched out of the movie. It’s not that we don’t care about this sad woman’s lot in life. It truly is horrible that she believes her fate lies in serving abusive tycoons for cash. It’s just that it plays like nothing more than a narrative tangent meant to give depth to a basically simple story. The underground crime tale should take center stage. But director Law lets the sidelights subvert his intent.


There’s also a problem with the basic setup, something mandating a SPOILER warning. If you don’t want to know where the story goes, skip this paragraph and move on. During each fight, we learn that Kong is, more or less, invincible. Even the best combatants in his camp fall to the enemy (during wonderful “street fighter” style sequences). But not our semi-superhuman hero. He can take several nail gouges to the face and still kick ass. He is so good, so flawless in form and execution, that he can more or less call his own shots. And then, when the murderous urge overtakes him, he is like a comic book caricature, a Hong Kong Hulk that no one can defeat. So there is little suspense in each action scene, a knowledge that Kong will triumph even within the most outrageous odds.


With this new DVD from Genius Entertainment and The Weinstein Group’s Dragon Dynasty Collection, some of these stumbling blocks are acknowledged and addressed. Thanks to this two disc set, we learn about the volatile state of Asian cinema, the needs of the producers, and the waning interest from audiences. The full length audio commentary from Law and film scholar Bay Logan details the problems with bringing untried talent to the screen, the reason for added dramatics, and how this type of entertainment compares to the past glories of the genre. On the second DVD, we get interviews with the female stars, learning from them the need to draw a divergent viewership and the hardships of working in the industry. Even Jing explains the tenuous position of such spectacle.


And it’s sad, especially when you consider the status of this rising action hero. We want to understand more about Kong’s lot, about his National Team backstory and the reasons for his quiet gullibility. He’s an intriguing character, inherently interesting because of his physical agility and geniality. But when we see the sudden shift over into killer mode, when he gets that murderous glint in his eye and goes primal, the lack of context throws us off. We’re supposed to read it as instinctual. It comes across as insane. Because of the attention paid to factors swirling around our lead, we never learn enough about Kong to keep him center stage. It’s an issue that concerns Jing as well.


Through these conversations, we discover that all is not well in the once thriving Hong Kong arena, that Western conventions and other influences have taken the filmmaking in directions that the creative element doesn’t agree with. In attempting to ‘modernize’ or cater to this new ideal, some of the standards used to make their movie magic have been lost. Indeed, a good way of describing Fatal Contact is as an epic battle of physical proportions constantly brought back down to earth by standard archetypal dramatics. The undeniable grace of the body ballet, the well choreographed majesty of a martial arts tussle have been cast aside for more mindless character pursuits. Between the comedy of the Captain (who’s taken freeloading to a whole new level of laziness) and the dour hooker histrionics, there’s very little room for our champion to shine. And that’s a shame. 


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Friday, Jan 18, 2008


Star power is everything. That’s how it used to be back in the golden days of the Tinsel Town studio system. Acting was never priority number one. Instead, the way a man or woman commanded the camera, the direct connection with the audience beyond the character or the performance, were the key to cinematic success. Few in the current crop of celebrity have this special trait. Most get by on a combination of publicity and hype-enforced popularity. But if you’re looking for a post-modern example of this old school ideal, then Amanda Bynes is your amiable icon. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features.


With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween to Pinkberry set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. Now available from Universal on an excellent DVD release, this wonderfully effective film is her first foray into quasi-adult fare. As a result, it functions as a future career gauge, measuring how much true star staying power she really has.


By the looks of it, the answer is quite a bit. Based (intermittently) on the famed fairytale - the film’s title should provide the necessary hint - and featuring a cast of fresh faced newcomers, George Lucas in Love director Joe Nussbaum takes something that could be cloying and pat and really makes it hum. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how the Olson Twins, or anyone else in the Hannah Montana demo, passed on this project. The simple storyline – tomboy Sydney heads off to college and pledges her late mother’s snooty sorority – lays the groundwork for moments of ‘meet-cute’ comedy and standard Tri-Delt dementia. It’s all very Revenge of the John Hughes Nerds in its make-up and manipulation, and the last act confirms our current laugh-along love affair with geek nation.

This is a film that relies on Bynes’ innate ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president (and future beau) Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the resident rejects of the all dork Vortex House reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. Yet our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous circumstances with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of freshness. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook.


Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar snap. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. As the rightly named Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven likeable losers, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.


In fact, it’s proper to compare Sydney White favorably to the classic college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the middle school marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. A few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative can’t help but follow traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.


As part of the DVD package, Universal includes some interesting extras. Director Nussbaum gets an opportunity to explain his motives and what drew him to the project in a sitdown Q&A, while he’s also around to introduce a collection of intriguing deleted scenes. Many in the cast, including Bynes and the dorks, get a chance to play EPK with the film, praising each other and their efforts. From specific set design choices to dealing with the various personalities on set, the material here all leads to one conclusion - everyone here tried really hard to make a sunny, successful comedy. And they succeeded.


In fact, it’s clear that what we wind up with is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.


It also provides proof that Amanda Bynes is the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. And pure star power is the foundation. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.


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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


For the weekend beginning 18 January, here are the films in focus:


Cloverfield [rating: 9]


Cloverfield is the first great film of 2008


Hype - specifically the viral, Internet marketing kind - has been under the gun recently, thanks in part to the failure in 2006 of Snakes on a Plane. Pimped and overplayed by fans who felt the title alone indicated a pure kitsch confection, the resulting benign b-movie was very good. But compared to the web-based blitzkrieg that came before, excitement and expectations were bound to clash and then be dashed. The failure forced studios to reexamine its information superhighway strategies. It didn’t stop Lost legend J.J. Abrams from embracing the concept for his latest production - the monster destroys Manhattan home movie Cloverfield. Now, after months of speculation and backwards ballyhoo, the novel genre effort has arrived - and it definitely lives up to the propaganda.  read full review…


Cassandra’s Dream [rating: 3]


Trying to balance the demands of his well-meaning motives with the requirements of the genre leaves Allen unsettled and ineffective, two words that encompass the creative draught evident in Cassandra’s Dream.


Remember back when the ultimate Woody Allen reference regarding his recent film output went a little something like this - “I prefer his early, funny films.”? Well, there’s a new movie mantra one can use in association with the former American auteur - “I prefer his earlier films, period.” During a self imposed European exile where one return to form (Match Point) has been masked by a series of substantial disappointments, Allen has indicated he will soon return to the US to overhaul is oeuvre. And if Cassandra’s Dream, his latest underperforming offering, is any indication of his motives, the man clearly recognizes the aesthetic slump he is in. read full review…


There Will Be Blood [rating: 9]


When you remove the turn of the century pretext, There Will Be Blood is really nothing more than a battle between two ancient religions - Christianity and Capitalism.


This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own signature style. All reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil! became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium. read full review…


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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


Remember back when the ultimate Woody Allen reference regarding his recent film output went a little something like this - “I prefer his early, funny films.”? Well, there’s a new movie mantra one can use in association with the former American auteur - “I prefer his earlier films, period.” During a self imposed European exile where one return to form (Match Point) has been masked by a series of substantial disappointments, Allen has indicated he will soon return to the US to overhaul is oeuvre. And if Cassandra’s Dream, his latest underperforming offering, is any indication of his motives, the man clearly recognizes the aesthetic slump he is in.


Ian and Terry are two working class blokes from London. Both dream of a better life. Ian works in their father’s restaurant, hobnobbing with businessmen who promise him part in their lucrative real estate deals. Terry is a mechanic, hands constantly dirty and mind stuck in a spiraling cycle of gambling and drink. When he looses £90,000 one night, he goes to his brother for help. Their decision? Seek some financial backing from their benevolent Uncle Howard. He runs a series of successful clinics, and always seems to have large amounts of cash to give the family. But when they ask for his help, Howard turns the tables. Seems he’s under investigation for unethical - even criminal - activities. He needs the boys to do him a favor. He needs them to kill the board member that’s ratting him out. Stunned, Ian and Terry weigh their options. One wants to take care of his pregnant girlfriend. The other wants the money to break out of his desperate life. Together, they must decide what they are - men, or murderers.


Though he’s tackled crime and misdemeanors before, Allen is the last director you’d imagine capable of creating a tense, interfamilial suspense thriller. There’s just too much classicism in him, too much Greek tragedy meshed with hours spent in Manhattan arthouses absorbing every Bergman riff imaginable. Trying to balance the demands of his well-meaning motives with the requirements of the genre leaves Allen unsettled and ineffective, two words that encompass the creative drought evident in Cassandra’s Dream. It’s not just the overdone angst, the push me/pull you problems in the storyline, or the odd sensation of hearing English actors spout the filmmaker’s patented New York-isms. No, the real problem with this talky, turgid exercise in moral ambiguity is that Allen has finally found a cinematic category he can’t fully handle - and the resulting awkwardness is undeniably dull.


While stars Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are both accomplished actors, it’s only the latter that makes an impact. Though he chain smokes to the point of distraction, Terry is the weaker member of the conspiracy, and as a result, the one we feel the closest bond toward. McGregor’s Ian is so smugly sure that he’s destined for business acumen greatness that we can’t connect to his perplexed pipe dreaming. At least Farrell’s flawed sibling uses realistic vices - gambling, drink, lying - as a means of making sense of his lax life. If they are supposed to represent two sides of a similarly dispirit coin, we don’t see the connection. Instead, it’s like watching Slack and Slacker complain about their miserable existence in clipped British accents.


Even worse, those around Ian and Terry are like specters, ill-conceived one note supporters that never provide a foundation for their feelings or flaws. Tom Wilkinson’s Uncle Howard, supposedly rich and successful, comes across as vague and poorly written. He has enough money to buy and sell his relatives out of their ever increasing financial worries. He can jet set around the world and keep high living arrangements in three very expensive cities. Yet the minute his ethical lot is challenged by a whistleblower, he has no other option than to ask his nephews to commit murder. If it was a matter of counter comeuppance, a kind of challenge to his young charges to put their morals where their mouth is, Allen needed to run his screenplay through the typewriter a couple more times. As it stands, the half-assed hitman angle feels like a necessary narrative catalyst, nothing more.


Equally uninspired are the other personalities floating around the boys. Claire Higgins mother character is so whiny (‘we’re poor, and it’s all Dad’s fault’) that when Allen tries something novel with her toward the end, we don’t respond. Similarly, there are so many clues and connections being expressed by Terry’s gal pal Lucy that we wonder why she hasn’t called the police and turned the brothers in. Yet the worst offender is Sally Hawkin’s Kate. Spewing lines that would sound arch even coming out of the circa ‘70s mouth of Diane Keaton, she’s the spoiled, slutty actress whose muse is the excuse for her bed hopping indistinctness. We never really care for her, so we don’t see Ian’s fascination. Oddly enough, Allen lets both girlfriends drop at the end, hoping something poignant comes from it. It doesn’t work.


Indeed, all of Cassandra’s Dream is a moody, maudlin miscue. Whereas previous Allen efforts revolving around good people doing bad things had a stigma of social relevance to them, the entire narrative plays like so much UK jive. There is nothing particularly English about what Allen is up to, nothing indicating an insight into people or place. Instead, this is a clear case of locational locomotion - taking a bland, baseless story and sticking it wherever the travel agency takes you. Perhaps in a US setting, without the ephemeral ambience of a European perspective, this material might work. But one senses Allen treading water here, waiting for his next bout of inspiration. Clearly, it’s been a long time coming and has yet to arrive.


Which all leads back to the opening thought. Is Allen helping or hurting his legacy by pumping out the product - ANY product - every 18 months or so? Would his already wounded reputation benefit from a little artistic hindsight, a banishment both creatively and continentally? When something like the incomplete experimentation of Alice or September appear like masterworks in comparison, Cassandra’s Dream really shows its fatal flaws. The only true tragedy here is that a once vital and important filmmaker has apparently lost his way. Whether he finds it upon a return to his native soil remains to be seen. Clearly, the move abroad was a mistake. Cassandra confirms this. 


 



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