New reviews: ‘My Blueberry Nights’ a la mode and ‘The Forbidden Kingdom’

Wong Kar-wai’s English language debut My Blueberry Nights has been getting pummeled by the critics. Maybe it’s just me, but I loved this film.

my-blueberry-nights-poster.jpg
The delirious poster to a delirious film

It’s classic Wong, circa Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and 2046: the short story format for tales about impossible relationships, unrequited loves, damaged loves, broken romances, and wounded hearts traveling to distract from the hurt. This is a kind of storytelling I love, about moments captured in time, about the sensuality of image, about the overwhelming emotional assault of loving and living. Norah Jones is no Faye Wong, but she has a face just as lush and open and Wong loves to look her and redirect our perspective through her wide eyes.

What is it about the American road movie that so attracts foreign directors? Blueberry isn’t anything like Paris Texas, except perhaps for the broken relationships and a score by Ry Cooder, but both are visions of America from the eyes of a foreign filmmaker making a first-time English film, complete with the romanticized baggage they bring. For Wenders, it’s the frontier, the myth of the cowboy loner in a civilized world, and the responsibility of the man to repair his family and own up to the damage he’s done. For Wong, it’s the confounding world of broken relationships and messy emotions that drive us to either smother or flee the ones we love. It’s no coincidence that Jones’ character, Lizzie, changes the name on her name tags with every new job.

Darius Khondji’s cinematography pushes the signature style that Christopher Doyle created for Wong, super-saturated colors and skip-frame effects that momentarily freeze images to isolate fleeting moments, with even more discreet camerawork, shooting through windows, from behind display cases, around furniture, as if eavesdropping.

I review the film for the Seattle P-I:

The heightened melodrama is, in some ways, as corny as the awkward title, which reads like a bad cultural translation of a greeting card sentiment. But that wary romanticism and exaggerated Americana of a distant observer is also the film’s heart and joy.

Norah Jones (in her film debut) stars as Lizzie, a spurned lover who flees New York and loses herself in a succession of waitressing gigs. She’s more expressive as a songstress than an actress but her melancholy face and doe eyes are a marvelous landscape for Wong’s lens. He uses her open expression as a mirror to the stories she witnesses: Arnie (David Strathairn), a Memphis cop drinking his nights away in self-pity, and Leslie, a calculating Nevada gambler (Natalie Portman) who guards her emotions like a hold card.

my_blueberry_nights_05.jpg
Jude Law and Norah Jones

The script, co-written by Wong with American crime novelist Lawrence Block, is more a suggestion of stories than actual drama, and it almost unravels in the tinny, emotionally tone deaf (and fortunately brief) tale of a brassy baby-faced gambler, that Portman clomps through with little conviction. It’s the texture and atmosphere that holds it together.

Wong romanticizes urban New York with the same woozy color and retro glamour as his yesteryear Hong Kong of “In The Mood for Love.” The neighborhood outside storefront diner, where Jeremy (Jude Law) offers the jilted Lizzie a sympathetic ear, is no realistic stop on a city tour but a dreamily idealized location, not so much lived in as warmly remembered.

The complete review is here.

Also reviewed this week: The Forbidden Kingdom, a fun, entertaining, and surprisingly unembarassing merging of Hong Kong action fantasy and American adventure filmmaking.

An American production with plenty of Chinese talent on both sides of the camera, The Forbidden Kingdom, plays like a tribute to classic Hong Kong martial arts movies and adventure odysseys by an appreciative American fan. Michael Angarano is the American kid dropped into the middle of the Chinese legend, a South Boston teenager and martial arts movie buff swept out of his neighborhood and into ancient China. It’s his own kind of Wizard of Oz adventure and he’s accompanied down his yellow silk road by a drunken poet and martial arts master (Jackie Chan, revisiting his famous Drunken Master character), a silent monk (Jet Li), and a young woman (Liu Yifei) with throwing knives and a wicked arm. Instead of ruby slippers he has a magical staff which will free the cheeky Monkey King (also Li) from the story’s wicked witch, the Jade War Lord.

jackie_chan_in_the_forbidden_kingdom.jpg
Jackie Chan

Disney veteran Rob Minkoff would hardly seem the natural choice for this project – he’s hardly elegant and hasn’t the eye for magnificent imagery – but he gets the conventions of the material. Cinematographer Peter Pau (an Oscar winner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) follows the fights with discreet camerawork and Minkoff resists cutting the sequences into action editing confetti. By American action movie standards it’s downright restrained, and it lets us see the grace and integrity of the martial arts spectacle.

Chan, who too easily falls into mugging slapstick, is reigned in Minkoff and his performance even allows for deadpan humor. The film could do a better job at showing how his moves become more swaying and rolling as he drinks, but it gets the job done and it’s fun to hear Chan and Li shout out the styles like an old kung fu movie. Li is the opposite, usually completely inexpressive (which is used by smart directors to show thoughtfulness, determination, and calm). As the Monkey King, he mugs shamelessly and seems to be having quite a time playing around. As the Silent Monk, he’s more restrained, but he has surprisingly good chemistry with Chan.

It’s about time somebody finally teamed up the clown prince of kung fu and the self-possessed wu shu champion in the same film. Yes, Jackie Chan (who turned 54 earlier this month) is no longer the youthful stunt daredevil and acrobatic dynamo, and 45-year-old Jet Li is aging past his days as the gentle master of gymnastic precision and control.

Yet when the two finally meet in “The Forbidden Kingdom,” an American take on the classic Chinese “Monkey King” tale, the result is joyous and exhilarating. Their moves are confident and natural and the action choreography by the Yuen Woo-Ping plays to their strengths so that they feel neither old nor young. They are ageless.

Read the P-I review here.

Also reviewed: Backseat.

In Bruce Van Dusen’s American indie road movie, “Backseat,” the uptight intellectual who digs into psychology and philosophy for his small talk and the 10-watt buddy who embraces urban legend as cultural fact hit the road, in the ugliest car on the planet, to meet actor Donald Sutherland in Montreal.

Along the way they go through the checklist of indie road movie conventions: meet eccentric characters (including a guy who communicates solely through text messaging), get sidelined by random distractions and argue over Colton’s ill-advised idea of smuggling a brick of cocaine (ingeniously concealed in the glove box).

Read the review here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

3 thoughts on “New reviews: ‘My Blueberry Nights’ a la mode and ‘The Forbidden Kingdom’”

  1. I loved the film. So visually striking! I thought Cat Power and Norah Jones made splendid acting debuts and their songs on the soundtrack are beyond lovely. Def one of my fav soundtracks in a long while!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *