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Moody Blueberry Nights; unhinged (and unbuckled) Redbelt 

Click play to watch the trailer (QuickTime)

It wasn't meant as a wisecrack, at least not a mean one. But coming out of Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights, I told my companion that during the movie's first scene, I realized that I'd had a deep-seated fear of what the result would be if Wong came to America to work—an Alan Rudolph film.

In fact, that comment wasn't even meant as a putdown of Rudolph, whose catalogue in my view includes at least one bona fide masterpiece, Choose Me, as well as other interesting and worthy titles. Yet the Rudolph canon also contains the likes of Trouble in Mind and Love at Large, films that seem to exist mainly as preciously hermetic and highly contrived movie environments, sealed off from the world that exists outside the movie theater and beyond the director's solipsistic imagination.

A similar penchant for creating self-referential, self-enclosed (and too often, self-satisfied) cinematic universes is the primary tendency in Wong's work, one that's conceivably responsible for both his international art-house success and his most salient weaknesses as an artist. In my review of his last feature ("Proving it"), 2005's uneven 2046, I recounted how my initial disdain for the chic hyper-stylization of early Wong features like Chungking Express and Days of Being Wild and mixed reactions to the more eccentric Ashes of Time and Happy Together gave way, finally, to a sense of delighted discovery in a belated encounter with In the Mood for Love, which might well be called Wong's Choose Me—his one unqualified masterpiece to date.

That film not only seemed to sum up and further Wong's passions as a visual stylist and his skills with actors; it also anchored his script, a typically baroque tale of frustrated desire, in the social and political upheavals of a specific time and place: Hong Kong in the mid-60s. That reference to actual events did nothing to undercut the story's lush emotions; rather, it gave them a heightened, almost Proustian poignancy.

But take Wong out of his native Hong Kong context, ship him off to America and what are you liable to get? From Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir down through the likes of Wim Wenders and Percy Adlon, movie history brims with the cautionary tales of foreign directors who come to the U.S. and see their visions diluted in being uprooted from the cultures that originally inspired them. Translated out of a Chinese milieu, could Wong seem anything other than trapped in the hot-house of his own mannerisms?

click to enlarge Norah Jones (left) and Natalie Portman in My Blueberry Nights - PHOTO BY MACALL POLAY/ THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
  • Photo by Macall Polay/ The Weinstein Company
  • Norah Jones (left) and Natalie Portman in My Blueberry Nights

In many ways, My Blueberry Nights confirms the most skeptical of those expectations. Rather than a typical Hollywood or Amerindie film that just happens to be directed by an imported auteur, it plays like a typical Wong film that happens to use Euro-American stars and treats America as a giant studio set, not a country about which the director has any evident insight or curiosity. It is, in other words, more than a little reminiscent of an Alan Rudolph film.

At the same time, it is not simply that. Full of the director's trademark stylistic obsessiveness and brittle melancholy, it casts a sly, insinuating spell that surprised me by lasting days after I saw the film.

Centered on a woman who goes by variations on the name Elizabeth (singer Norah Jones), the movie's story unfolds in three sections, each in a different part of the U.S. In the first, which transpires in a New York cafe-bakery, our heroine has just broken up with her boyfriend but finds solace in late-night conversations with an English cafe worker named Jeremy (Jude Law), who serves her big slabs of blueberry pie a la mode and keeps the apartment keys of various displaced lovers in a jar beneath the shop's counter. Any high school English student will instantly spot both the pie and the keys as the bald-faced metaphors for loneliness that they are.

In the second section, Elizabeth, now the author of frequent postcards to Jeremy, works as a waitress in Memphis, where she observes the rapidly deteriorating marriage of two hard-fighting locals (David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz). In the third, Elizabeth's cross-country odyssey propels her into a road trip with a tightly wound gambler (Natalie Portman) who's bedeviled by a fraught relationship with her father.

In all of this, the only constants besides Elizabeth are Wong's trademark themes of distance and longing. The further people roam, the more they stray from the stability they crave. The more they surrender to desire, the more unhappy and alienated they become. Wong emphasizes the film's aura of solitary reverie by the frequent use of voiceover. The theme of distance he stresses with titles showing how many miles Elizabeth has traveled. Such mannerisms are sometimes mistaken for a style.

Style, in any case, is where Wong puts most of his energy. In the opening section, cinematographer Darius Khondji's camera is constantly peering through the misty glass of windows and display cases. It swoops, pans and skitters from one fetishistic composition to the next, interspersing close-ups of melting ice cream with others of the actors' glamorous visages, moodily sculpted by the hazy interior lighting. And of course, a number of vintage pop songs recur insistently on the soundtrack.

None of this verges on an original vision of the country Elizabeth is traversing. Indeed, Wong's America seems largely borrowed from magazine spreads, TV commercials and other movies. The one place where the director does impress is in his work with the cast. Law, Strathairn, Weisz and Portman all turn in forceful, finely shaded performances—ones, however, that unfortunately tend to throw the central actress' lesser work into relief.

Jones isn't distressingly bad, mind you. She shows a certain degree of promise and, in fact, many of Elizabeth's inadequacies can be laid to the writing of a character that never rises above the level of a romantic cipher. Beyond that, it was a self-evidently bad idea for a director making his first film in English and in a new country to do so with a nonactor making her screen debut. What could the film's producers have been thinking?

My Blueberry Nights opens Friday in select theaters.

Click play to watch the trailer (QuickTime)

If I had to describe David Mamet's Redbelt in a word, I think I'd go with "bizarre." And that's bizarre not in the sense of exotically entertaining but of head-scratchingly inexplicable. Here, from the noted dramatist and idiosyncratic moviemaker, is a true cinematic anomaly—a hybrid art film and martial-arts film that's too corny to be one and not nearly kicky enough to be the other.

But the most bizarre thing about Redbelt is its grab-bag plotting. The tale starts out at the L.A. martial arts studio of Mike Terry (the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), who instructs his students of Brazilian jujitsu that any hold or handicap (such fighting with a hand tied behind one's back) can be overcome. Soon after, a female lawyer, who also happens to be a junkie (Emily Mortimer), barges into the studio and fires the gun of a student/ off-duty-cop, breaking the facility's plateglass window, which leads to a spiraling series of complications. Other complications later emerge from the clothing business of Terry's wife, from a bar fight he gets into while trying to help out a slumming movie star and later from a film producer's offer to executive-produce a war movie featuring that star.

Those are only a few of the plot's elements. If you read a detailed synopsis of the movie, no doubt it would come off as a jaw-dropping mélange of mismatched characters, improbable contrivances and laughable dramatic non sequiturs. Supposedly Mamet has been a student of this form of martial arts for several years, and that interest no doubt inspired the movie's milieu. But its everything-including-the-kitchen-sink narrative mainly suggests he may have been kicked in the head too many times.

click to enlarge Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt - PHOTO BY LOREY SEBASTIAN/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Photo by Lorey Sebastian/ Sony Pictures Classics
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt

The tale's key idea is that a man as innately noble and exceedingly principled as Terry— who will barely lift a finger to save his studio from bankruptcy—has a hard time in a world where virtually everyone else is impossibly weak or corrupt. If that sounds more like the premise for a cartoon aimed at 12-year-olds than a movie for adults, well, the impression is accurate: Since the dramatic kernel leaves no room for moral complexity or authorial irony, it forces Mamet toward one kooky detour and invention after another, all of it leading up to a climactic fight that couldn't be more clichéd or predictable.

Like Woody Allen, Mamet has carved himself a niche in the industry where he can crank out modestly budgeted movies without paying much attention to anything but his own wayward muse. Not surprisingly, that leads to mixed results. Some of the creative challenges he's set himself, such as The Spanish Prisoner and The Winslow Boy, have proved interestingly offbeat and cleverly purposeful. Others are more negligible. Redbelt is the first that strikes me as totally, even exuberantly, out-to-lunch.

Redbelt opens Friday throughout the Triangle.



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