Friday, May 13, 2011

2011 Cannes Marathon: My Blueberry Nights

(Opening Film at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival-Competition for the Palme D’or)

After the release of 2046, Wong Kar-Wai achieved another international hit though the film’s production and last-minute changes for its 2004 Cannes Film Festival release was troubling. Even as the audience at Cannes got to see a rough version of the film. The film also marked Kar-Wai’s last collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle as the two parted ways though Doyle would work with Kar-Wai again for a new version of Kar-Wai’s 1994 film Ashes of Time. In 2007, Kar-Wai decided to change gears by going to America in making his first English-language film called My Blueberry Nights.

Directed by Wong Kar-Wai and written with Lawrence Block based on Kar-Wai‘s story, My Blueberry Nights tells the story of a woman who falls for a British café owner as she goes on a road-trip across the U.S. Along the way, she meets various characters during her trip while dealing with her own issues on love. While it would recall a lot of the themes of longing from Kar-Wai’s previous films, it is also a change of pace and cultures as Kar-Wai takes his tricks and put them into a different world. Starring Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, and in her film debut, jazz singer Norah Jones. My Blueberry Nights is a stylish though sort of uninteresting film from Wong Kar-Wai.

Elizabeth (Norah Jones) has just been dumped by her boyfriend as she walks into a New York City café owned by a British émigré named Jeremy (Jude Law). Elizabeth finds comfort in Jeremy’s café as the two befriend each other while she wonders about a bowl of keys that he has since she put her ex-boyfriend’s keys in the bowl. Jeremy tempts Elizabeth into eating an un-eaten blueberry pie as she takes a piece. After a week of seeing each other as they were each assaulted by assailants, Elizabeth leaves New York to deal with her break-up as she finds herself in Memphis, Tennessee under a new name in Lizzie.

Working two jobs at a diner as a waitress and at a bar as a bartender/waitress, Lizzie befriends a cop named Arnie Copeland (David Strathairn). Arnie is dealing with his own break-up as his wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz) has left him as Arnie drinks his sorrows while revealing he’s an alcoholic who has tried to quit. Even as he has a hard time seeing Sue with another guy as Lizzie watches from afar. Even as Sue’s visits bring a lot of trouble where something horrible happens as Lizzie learns about the troubled relationship. Though she writes letters to Jeremy, Jeremy wants to find her but is unable to as he gets an unexpected visit from his ex-girlfriend (Chan Marshall).

Moving to Nevada in her hopes to save money for a car, Lizzie becomes Beth as she becomes a waitress in a casino where she meets a young gambler named Leslie (Natalie Portman). Beth is intrigued by the sassy Leslie who despite her talents manages to lose big. When she meets Beth, they talk as Leslie makes a proposition about borrowing the money Beth has saved. If she wins, Beth can have her money back plus some of the winnings but if she loses, Beth wins Leslie’s car. Leslie loses again as gives Beth her car as they both go to Vegas to meet a man Leslie knows that can help her with money. During the trip, Beth learns more about Leslie where she makes a revelation about herself and her feelings towards Jeremy.

The film is the story of a woman trying to deal with the break-up by taking a trip across America while dealing with her feelings towards a British café owner she met on the day of her break-up. During this personal journey, she would meet a few characters that would shape her idea about love and the world. It’s an interesting idea from Wong Kar-Wai and co-screenwriter Lawrence Block. The problem is that for anyone who had seen Kar-Wai’s films would find it to be familiar in comparison to his other films. Since it’s presented in a different style and in a very different world. It’s a story where it does have some moments of interest but doesn’t really hold itself together.

Known for not really using a script and often making things up as he goes along, the looseness that Kar-Wai is known for with his approach to storytelling is definitely lost. While Kar-Wai’s previous films did have structure and ideas, it’s always presented naturally where in this film. It has these moments where it feels staged and the dialogue that’s written doesn’t really come across naturally. Even though there are moments such as Sue Lynne’s monologue about how she met Arnie or Jeremy’s story about the keys. It’s just that Kar-Wai creates scenes and dialogue that flows freely where in an American context, he seems to have a hard time trying to make it feel natural.

Kar-Wai’s direction definitely has all of the elements that is expected in a Wong Kar-Wai film. Lush images, half-frame speeds, wandering shots of skies and objects, and compositions featuring two people in some form. All of these trademarks are great but at times, it becomes overbearing such as the half-frame speed shimmers and things moving slowly. It’s as if Kar-Wai is becoming a parody of himself as if he doesn’t know when to hold back with some of those trademarks.

For an audience that had never seen about Kar-Wai, it would be an awkward experience as they’re wondering about some of these compositions and stylization that Kar-Wai presents. Yet, there is a foreign tone to the direction as since it’s Kar-Wai’s first time in America. The way he sees America is very hypnotic in its presentation while some of the ideas he approaches goes a bit overboard. Despite the flaws in that presentation, he does create some gorgeous images such as the driving sequences in Nevada or the nightlife in Memphis. There is enough good moments of the film that does make it a worthwhile film but its overuse of trademarks and rigid story also makes it a bit of a frustrating experience to watch.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji, along with Pung-Leung Kwan, does a wonderful job with the film’s colorful yet hypnotic photography. While it may not have the grittiness of Christopher Doyle’s work, Khondji does create a lot of images that are beautiful that plays to Kar-Wai’s style. Even as he captures world of the Memphis bar scene to the dazzling world of Nevada casinos. Many of the scenes in the exterior deserts of Nevada are truly beautiful as Khondji’s work is a real highlight of the film.

Longtime Kar-Wai collaborator William Chang does a pretty good job with the film‘s editing, production, and costume design. Chang’s editing is good for its stylized approach to transitions and pacing as he uses fade-to-black to move from one section to another. Even though the over-use of half-frame speeds does get overbearing. Chang and art director Judy Rhee does create some fantastic set pieces such as Jeremy’s diner with its bluish look to the low-colored look of the bar that Lizzie works at. Even the casino where Beth meets Leslie is really amazing as it plays to the hyper-stylized world that Kar-Wai enjoys.

For the costume design, Chang and Sharon Globerson do a fabulous job with the costumes from the officer uniform that Arnie wears to the dark dresses that Sue Lynne wears. The dresses that Leslie wears is definitely a highlight since it plays up to her wild personality while the rest of the costumes for Jeremy and Elizabeth represent their own feelings. Sound designer Claude Letessier does an excellent job with the sound from the noisiness of the Memphis bars to the chaos of the Nevada casinos. Letessier’s sound work is definitely another of the film’s technical highlights as he also captures the intimacy for scenes between Jeremy and Elizabeth.

The film’s soundtrack is another of the film’s highlight as it features an array of American-based music ranging from plaintive score pieces by Ry Cooder along with a mixture of jazz, blues, and soul music. Among the soul music contributions include songs by Otis Redding and Mavis Staples along with blues tracks from Amos Lee and Ruth Brown Other tracks include material from Gustavo Santaolalla, a bluesy cover of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme by Chikara Tsuzuki, a cover of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon by Cassandra Wilson, and a haunting guitar-driven track by Hello Stranger. Norah Jones also contributes a smooth jazz song to the soundtrack while there’s a couple of cuts by Cat Power from her album The Greatest whose title track serves as the love theme for Jeremy and Elizabeth.

The casting by Avy Kaufman is really good as it features some memorable appearances from Frankie Faison as the Memphis bar owner, Adriane Lenox as a bar waitress, Michael May as Leslie’s poker rival, and Chan Marshall aka Cat Power in a cameo appearance as Jeremy’s ex-girlfriend. Natalie Portman is excellent as a sweet-talking yet manipulative gambler who takes Beth under her wing while showing her the ropes about what to do with people. Even as she is a flawed woman who does some bad things yet it’s only because she needs to play up to a certain lifestyle. Rachel Weisz is very good as Sue Lynne, a woman wanting to leave her husband to have a life of her own only to realize that she might still have feelings for him. David Strathairn is brilliant as Arnie Copeland, a cop who drinks at night to drown his own sorrows over his broken relationship with Sue Lynne while finding some comfort in Lizzie’s company.

Jude Law is superb in his role as Jeremy, a charming café owner who is attracted to Elizabeth while dealing with his own café along with his own issues of love when his ex-girlfriend makes a brief visit. Finally, there’s jazz singer Norah Jones in her acting debut as Elizabeth/Lizzie/Beth. It’s a really good performance from Jones as this somewhat aloof woman who is dealing with heartbreak while finding herself through the people and places she encounters. While Jones may lack of some the dramatic weight her character needed, she does excel in hitting the right notes needed for her character as it’s a performance worth noting.

My Blueberry Nights is a decent though uninspiring film from Wong Kar-Wai that features a superb cast and an excellent soundtrack. While fans of Kar-Wai might enjoy the film for its look and presentation, they might feel disappointed due to the fact that it’s derivative of his other films as he doesn’t really do anything new. Audiences new to Kar-Wai might be better off seeing his other films like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love to prepare for a film like this. It’s a film that has some good moments and some noteworthy performances. In the end, My Blueberry Nights is a worthwhile film from Wong Kar-Wai but not a great one that allows him to take more risks.

© thevoid99 2011


Unknown said...

That is a very good analysis. This had all of the style we expected, I especially love the soundtrack, but not enough of the captivating magic present in his previous work.

thevoid99 said...

Thank you for the comment. I had a very frustrating time watching it because I love Wong Kar-Wai but couldn't enjoy the film because I felt it was a re-hash of everything he had done but with an actual script. It didn't have the looseness that I loved in his films.