My Blueberry Nights Review
I am a big fan of a certain singer song-writer, but I hate it whenever she covers someone else's material. It doesn't feel right that such a distinctive voice would choose to sing something that Sting or Ronan Keating would, it also shows woeful taste but that's another story. Getting back to movies, I couldn't think of a modern film-maker who is more justly celebrated for his distinctiveness than Wong Kar Wai. His films are singularly poetic, realised through editing that only he can quite create and infused with a wonderful sense of the temporary explored through pop songs and an abiding sense of loss. Others have tried to copy him, and they have failed miserably. To borrow a football chant, there is only one Wong Kar Wai and, like Shawn Colvin and her music, I hate to think he would ever try to make somebody else's film.
My Blueberry Nights is the director's first American picture and to my mind, it represents a myriad of cover versions. From the actors imitating Wong Kar Wai's usual Asian characters, to Darius Khondji attempting to catch the look of Christopher Doyle's photography, to Wong Kar Wai attempting his own take on the American staple of the road movie. Sadly, the venture fails to capture the authenticity that Wong Kar Wai's films have relied on, and what replaces that different and unusual voice is merely a second hand echo. The basic difficulty seems to come from a failure to come to terms with the location and milieu of America, and the director substitutes the noodle bars and markets of his Hong Kong based movies with all night cafés, diners and pubs. This tactical change relies on the cinematic memory of the viewer and seeks to hide the lack of insight that the story shows for its setting.
Still, the form is definably the director's with interchanging stories and exploration of relationships and notions of love and loss. The music wraps the content, and the editing attempts to create a rhythm to seduce the audience, whilst first person narration draws you in to the central characters of Elizabeth and Jeremy. Simple sentimental tokens are explored for significance and Elizabeth's road journey is presented as a recuperation from a broken heart that will allow her to love again. Time chops and slows, lights blur and fade and the director ensures that his trademarks are obvious throughout.
Despite everything, this does feel like someone else's film. Wong Kar Wai's characters seem like they have been translated into another language with little appreciation for background or accuracy of portrayal. Jude Law plays the Mancunian Jeremy as a wandering accent and a haircut, Norah Jones doesn't know how to react when anyone speaks their lines in her direction and finally opts for a cute stillness with smiles, David Strathairn goes for pathos by the bucket load in a clichéd role, and Rachel Weisz vamps and tramps. It's only Nathalie Portman who seems to fit into the movie and her lost gambler is the sole true note in the acting or story department. With most of the characters far from nailed, Wong Kar Wai's words seem plastic and his pop philosophy enters the dreadful hell that is folksiness.
And the trademark touches are not quite right. The editing is never daring enough, the camera movement is too predictable, and the choice of music is repetitious - I love Otis doing Try a little tenderness, but three times in the same film? However, it is the ideas that feel least fresh and new, where his Hong Kong films have spoken to times of change, here he skims the surface of a culture too large and facile for him to get a handle on. As Noel pointed out in his review, the director has repeated himself before but whilst Fallen Angels may be the off cuts of Chungking Express, this film is the director copying himself for an audience that didn't get him the first time. Where his earlier films often gave the impression that even the director wasn't entirely sure what he would end up with, here the outcome is never in doubt.
My Blueberry Nights is in no way a bad film and if it had come from an American indie source perhaps I would praise its promise, but it is from the great Wong Kar Wai. For a director of his talent this film seems rather too easy, and in being comfortable it flies in the face of the five years he took to make the very difficult 2046. Carefree is sometimes good, but My Blueberry Nights is the same old song sung by a shadow of the singer. There are now two Wong Kar Wais, the one who slaves to produce something as mesmeric as his previous film and the one who seems content with re-heated seconds like this one.
Optimum present the film on a single layer BD 25 with a transfer in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with the same extras as the standard definition release. For all of my criticisms above, I can't ignore the fact that this is a ravishing looking film and that the transfer here retains a beautiful appearance with natural grain levels and impeccable detail. Colours are never muted or excessive, and the contrast is perfect for the environments of the bars and gambling dens of the story. Having not seen the normal release that Clydefro praised for its AV quality I can't comment on how much better this looks, but I would say that I have rarely seen a transfer look so impressive. The edges are not quite as natural as I would like but in reviewing over 150 films for this site, I have rarely seen any transfers left with their natural appearance in this respect. With respect to the sound, this comes via a DTS HD Master Audio Track which is rich in definition and clear in terms of reproduction. The surround effects are distributed well with voices rarely coming from any where but the front of the mix, and the side and rears used well for music and ambience. There is strong use of the sub-woofer to add atmosphere when the characters are driving or in the clubs, and overall this is an impressive AV treatment.
The extras include a sort of making of with the director and cast discussing the film. Norah Jones explains that the offer to act was a surprise and Wong Kar Wai recognises the similarities with his previous films and reveals that the music in the film is often chosen by the actors. A shorter second featurette called Character Study deals with Norah Jones' approach to her first role as an actress, and Jude Law provides unintentional hilarity by describing his arboreal performance as like a "book-end". There is a press conference from Cannes with the director and star speaking in English which covers some of the same ground again, but does include the director speaking about cutting 13 minutes from his original cut of the film. Some of the questions from the press are rather quiet and difficult to hear. All of these extras are presented with some combing and shaky video that seems rather poor for a hi-def release. The theatrical trailer completes the package, which uses 95% of the discs capacity in total.
When I started writing this review, Clydefro's excellent piece on the DVD was posted and I became aware of the irony that my similar opinions would seem a little like a cover version themselves. I may have been undone by my own criticism, but do take it from me that this is underwhelming cinema from probably the planet's most talented film-maker. However, the Blu-ray transfer, if not the extras, is a thing of beauty.