My Blueberry Nights Review

At this point, following a semi-disastrous debut at Cannes in 2007 and delayed theatrical release that saw the film trimmed by about 16 minutes, it's hardly original to call My Blueberry Nights, the English language debut of director Wong Kar-wai, something of a misstep. Plus Noel essentially did just that here at DVD Times last year in his theatrical review. Despite a reluctance to pile it on, I mostly agree that it's a disappointment, though not one without its charms. The Wong-approved cut that's now become available on DVD from Optimum is all there is to work from, but I may have nonetheless managed to sniff out some of the Hong Kong director's typically brilliant lyricism amid thicker goings-on. The trial and error type of exhaustive shooting that Noel referenced as Wong's strong suit may indeed have sidled the filmmaker with less time than he'd have preferred, but, of course, the counterpoint to that would be Chungking Express, which was shot quite quickly and resulted in one of his strongest films to date. That's probably the film of his that My Blueberry Nights most closely resembles, but it's less a specific retread than a return to Wong's favoured theme of wounded love.

Even so, there's still a feeling of near-parody at work here. Easily recognised faces one would hardly associate with Wong Kar-wai are in a film entirely reminiscent of his earlier, better efforts. Sometimes the face or voice fits, but when it doesn't, the film suffers its own distractions. Fans of Wong who aren't quite apologists may find it difficult to warm to Jude Law instead of Tony Leung and those just looking for a romantic drama will wonder why everything plays out in neon slow-motion. Some of the mysticism is gone, too. My own naivety has frequently led me to wonder whether Wong's films would be so entrancing had they been made in English (or a language I understand) instead of relying on his subtitled voiceovers. My Blueberry Nights doesn't make a particularly strong case in the affirmative. The majority of the film certainly resists any sort of argument that Wong has progressed thematically. He instead seems content on dipping his feet into familiar territory while still finding new shades of his own idiosyncratic spectrum.

To be sure, there's a beautifully damaged array of emotions lurking along that spread. A third of what he reveals in My Blueberry Nights amounts to an exceptional chapter in Wong's oeuvre, while another third is charming, if familiar. The remaining portion is, to put it bluntly, embarrassing. Trying to reconcile these inconsistencies in quality is a job best left for Wong's most strident admirers. This simply seems to be how he works, something of a one-man omnibus filmmaker. Previously, the judgment has been there to either discard the less compelling potential episodes or expand them enough to spin out something of great value, even brilliance. Not so here. The film moves along three main points in geographic time with Norah Jones serving as participant and unofficial guide. She begins in New York City as Elizabeth, moves to Memphis under Lizzie, has a stopover in Arizona as Betty and winds up in Nevada as Beth. Yet, the Elizabeth we see first isn't too far off from the Elizabeth we see last.

She begins broken-hearted after piecing together that her boyfriend is cheating, and drops off a set of keys with Jude Law's Jeremy at his cafe. The perpetually end of the night blueberry pie meets the down and blue Elizabeth as she drowns her sorrows in dessert night after night. Jeremy has a set of keys of his own, which goes a bit underexplored in the film since Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) briefly enters as the mystery woman only to exit much too quickly. Elizabeth abruptly leaves the city, ending up in Memphis as a diner waitress by day and bartender by night. She encounters Arnie (David Strathairn) at both establishments. He's a cop when the sun's up and a drunk lamenting the separation from his wife (a horribly miscast Rachel Weisz) when it's down. From there, it's on to Arizona briefly and, then, Nevada, where she encounters Natalie Portman's Leslie, a poker addict with daddy issues. The final turn takes Elizabeth (and Wong) back to familiar territory where she once again indulges in a slice of blueberry pie, a circular motif that doesn't entirely align with her supposed personal growth.

If the opening segment hits all the buttons of the Wong archetype, despite a shaky Jude Law, the following one exhibits just how far the director can fall when his comfort zone is disrupted. He gets the Memphis milieu mostly right, accentuated by a bluesy soundtrack, but the story is weak and sorely underdeveloped, while the performances hardly help matters. Strathairn seems wrong for this part, even though his acting remains, as ever, first-rate. Rachel Weisz fares much worse. She neither looks nor acts nor speaks like the white trash role she's been given. The glamour she exudes has no place in the deep south bar atmosphere. Her forced volatility is awfully overwrought and belongs about five decades previous. In all, she makes Jones' wooden, non-actor performance comparatively effective.

But just when you're about ready to write off Wong's film as that misfire it's been reported as being, along comes Natalie Portman. This may be the best work she's done on screen since Leon, a bold statement for several reasons, but entirely justified. She nails the role. Out of all the performers in the film, Portman seems to be the only one actually trying to create a character. I'd gladly watch an entire movie focussing on Lesley. If Wong and co-writer Lawrence Block had stepped back for several months to look at their screenplay, they might have recognised the sequence as the stand-out entry and shifted the entire story to centre on her. A combination of factors - Portman's performance and the character as written, but also the shimmering image of desert amid bright blue skies - almost demands the conclusion that it's the most memorable and interesting piece of the film. Whereas the other episodes sometimes feel awkward or rushed, this one leaves the viewer impressed while still wanting to know more. It's the only segment that really lifts the film into something encouraging for Wong's fans.

Indeed, the creeping doubt of what trajectory Wong's career will move from here is probably a concern. My Blueberry Nights is pleasant enough most of the time, and I'd hardly categorise it as a "bad" film, but it's below the director's considerable standard. With Christopher Doyle possibly gone for good as his director of photography, one wonders how Wong's stylistic signatures will continue to evolve. Darius Khondji's cinematography here is visually appealing, but the neon smears are entirely calls to the past. It's largely complacent instead of building on the strong potential of Wong's previous films. And this is the thrust of disappointment inevitable for My Blueberry Nights. It's almost certainly destined to be a minor work from a vital filmmaker. That doesn't make it horrible. To the contrary, I quite enjoyed it except for the nagging idea that it could and should be better. But if Wong's next project or the one after that returns the director to fine form, then this film will seem comparatively innocuous. If, however, he continues this kind of slash and burn method of creating movies, it may look like a sadly misguided point of demarcation in his career.

The Disc

My Blueberry Nights is released in the UK on a PAL R2 dual-layered disc by Optimum. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is progressive and mostly excellent. Possibly due to the filming process, there are several scenes with a good deal of grain. This does seem inherent in the movie instead of any flaw on Optimum's part, though. Colours are handled beautifully, with Wong and Khondji's images flourishing in great detail. Late nights take on a Hopperesque effect in the cinematography and Optimum has reproduced it all quite nicely.

A pair of English Dolby Digital tracks, 2.0 and 5.1, are offered up. The DD 5.1 option is predictably fuller and should be the preferred choice for those with external sound systems. I heard nothing problematic in either, but the DD 5.1 does a nice job balancing easily heard dialogue with an interesting mix of Ry Cooder's score and a few selected songs. Wong has traditionally excelled in music placement (forgiving him for As Tears Go By) and the tracks and cues he's chosen here continue to build on his reputation as a master conveyer of emotion through sound. Cat Power's song "The Greatest" is particularly used to great effect. There may be a richness lacking in even the DD 5.1 mix, in terms of the music, but it's a relatively minor nitpick. Only English for the hearing impaired subtitles are offered. They're white in colour.

A few nifty extras are tacked onto the Optimum release. Anyone who's ever listened to Wong speak at length on his films will completely recognise his charming rambles in a Cannes Press Conference (20:36) where he's joined by Norah Jones in a question and answer session that seems to end abruptly on this disc. The director has this way of making his thoughts seem perfectly reasonable and understandable, no matter how strange or disjointed they may initially seem. He continues the discussion in "10,279 Miles Since Hong Kong" (20:59), a making-of featurette that also includes interviews with all of the principal cast members. I'm not sure there's anything exceptionally compelling there, but I managed to enjoy it a great deal all the same. A shorter bonus, called "Character Study" (8:03), is less helpful and retreads much of the same ground (even using identical footage and interviews) as the longer making-of piece. A theatrical trailer (2:04) is thrown in for good measure.

Trailers for other films (Golden Door, In the Valley of Elah, and Brick Lane) play when the disc is inserted, but are individually skippable.

Final Thoughts

I think it's important to keep in mind how special the films of Wong Kar-wai have been. Only when compared to the sumptuous beauty of Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046, among others, would My Blueberry Nights feel so disappointing. It's still a marginally good film, one that's evocative of Wong's previous work, but in a teasing way where, afterwards, the viewer may long for another watch of his earlier efforts. The poetic dialogue we've grown accustomed to suddenly has turned banal and the rich, luscious cinematography here feels somewhat soulless. It may improve over time, or with subsequent viewings, but I'm afraid that, at least for now, we're left with a semi-satisfying imitation of much stronger films. Those keen to explore the film for themselves should be happy with Optimum's release, though a few more extras would have been welcomed.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:08:44

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