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Blu-ray Reviews


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#1 of 4 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

Matt Hough

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Posted May 23 2010 - 09:43 AM

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Mystery Train (Blu-ray)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1   1080p   AVC codec
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: PCM 1.0 English/Japanese
Subtitles: English

Region: A
MSRP: $ 39.95

Release Date: June 15, 2010

Review Date:  May 23, 2010

The Film


Another of his offbeat yet loving films concentrating on a host of quirky characters, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train celebrates Memphis, Tennessee, in the same cinematic grab bag fashion that made Stranger Than Paradise and especially Night on Earth so unusual and so alluring. As usual, there isn’t much plot here, but the character studies are the real story as we’re introduced to three different batches of them as the film winds its way toward an open-ended conclusion that some may find frustrating but in its own undemanding way is rather satisfying.

Three groups of unusual individuals find themselves in adjacent rooms in the Arcade Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. In Room 27, there are Japanese tourists Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh) who have come to Memphis to see the home of Elvis and his music (along with the music of Jun’s more favored Carl Perkins). Room 25 finds the odd couple of Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) en route to Rome to bring home the body of her husband and Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), estranged from her alcoholic, unemployed British husband Johnny (Joe Strummer), and on her way to a new life in Natchez. And on the lam after a bungled liquor store robbery is that very same drunk Johnny along with his brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) and pal Will (Rick Aviles) all hiding out in Room 22.

The story by director Jim Jarmusch is a measuredly-plotted, three-pronged affair in which the various participants accidentally end up at the same hotel through an assortment of ironic circumstances. Though the three casts of characters don't interact with each other in the film until the very end, the film does manage to weave a sort of semi-spell with a mysterious gunshot heard in an early morning hour which holds our attention long enough to find out who fired the shot, at whom, and why. Much of the film, however, is comedic in nature with the almost Buster Keaton-like Japanese couple walking through the streets of Memphis deadpan yet absorbed by its mythic musical history. The ladies of the second story are amusing in their polar opposite personalities: the shy Italian and the motor-mouthed American who, despite their different backgrounds and objectives,  nevertheless make for delightful roommates. The third segment "Lost in Space" (appropriately titled for a variety of reasons) meanders though its mindless tale with only sporadic success. The characters are also a bit oddly paired, but their at-odds personalities don’t always make for bracing comedy, more often being strained and rather unappealing. Tying the three stories together are the desk clerk (the legendary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and the bellhop (Cinqué Lee) whose own odd coupling provides the film with another cachet of comedy.

Though each of the actors only gets a half hour of screen time in which to develop a character, all of them make the most of their opportunities. Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase do some wonderfully lithe stuff with his lighter, and her wide-eyed wonder at what she sees along with his deadpan reaction to everything is almost always funny (it helps that their segment doesn’t run any longer than it does). Elizabeth Bracco does just fine with a rather stereotypical Southern chatterbox while one’s heart goes out to the recently widowed Luisa of Nicoletta Braschi as she’s taken advantage of by almost everyone she comes into contact with, never losing our sympathy or good will. Of the three drunken morons of the third segment, Joe Strummer makes the strongest impression. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee have a merry rapport holding down the hotel lobby.

Video Quality


The film has been framed at 1.77:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Color and sharpness is as nearly perfect for a vintage film as it’s been my pleasure to witness. (A blood red jacket worn by Hawkins comes close to blooming but doesn’t cross the line.) There is one hair glimpsed midway through the film, obviously a part of the original photography, but for the most part, detail is thorough, and the image has that stunning quality of making one seem to be right in the picture with the actors. There is really never a moment where one feels this film is more than twenty years old. The pale white subtitles are easy to read during the moments when the Japanese tourists are speaking their own language. The film has been divided into 11 chapters.

Audio Quality


The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) audio track is surprisingly forceful for a mono mix made on a very limited budget. The mix of pop music standards from the 1950s which grace the soundtrack combine beautifully with the dialogue and other sound effects crafting an impressive quality of sound and lacking audio artifacts like overwhelming hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter. The mono track fits the slight nature of the film’s effects rather perfectly.

Special Features


Writer-director Jim Jarmusch doesn’t do audio commentaries (he says he can’t stand to see his films again after they’re finished), but he does contribute an audio Q&A session responding to questions sent in to the Criterion website about the movie. Recorded in January 2010, he has observations to make about world conditions as well as responding to questions about the movie which have come in from all around the world and go into quite some depth with his motivations, his casting, his work routine, and his relationships with many of the actors cast in the film.

“I Put a Spell on Me” is an excerpt from a 2001 documentary made on the famous blues man Screamin’ Jay Hawkins who had died the previous year. In it, Jay talks about his experiences making the film, his comments amended by comments from director Jim Jarmusch. It runs 17 ¾ minutes in 1080i.

A tour of present day Memphis is conducted by the film’s production assistant Sherman Willmontt revisiting locations used in the film (or places where the locations previously were) and commenting on production problems experienced during the original filming. It runs 17 ½ minutes and is in 1080p.

There are 63 Polaroid photos of the actors, crew, and locations used in the film which may be stepped-through by the viewer.

There are 56 luscious color and black and white photographs taken of the stars and crew used in a book advertising the film on its initial release. They, too, may be stepped- through by the viewer.

An enclosed 24-page booklet contains the chapter listing, cast and crew lists, some stills from the film, and celebratory essays on the movie by writer Dennis Lim and the film’s music by author Peter Guralnick.

The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in, Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

In Conclusion

4/5 (not an average)

As with all of Jim Jarmusch’s carefully crafted but modest films, one must be in the right mood to take what he’s offering; in this triptych of stories centered around some rather endearing misfits in Memphis, the Blu-ray of Mystery Train offers astonishing video quality along with strong audio making the best-ever case for this film to be seen and enjoyed by many discerning filmgoers. Recommended!

Matt Hough

Charlotte, NC

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#2 of 4 OFFLINE   David Wilkins

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Posted May 24 2010 - 07:45 AM

Thanks for the review, Matt.

I never got around to watching this one, and I'm looking forward to it with extra anticipation due to your glowing description of Criterion's handling of it.

#3 of 4 OFFLINE   Marko Berg

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Posted May 24 2010 - 11:47 PM

Good review. Thanks, Matt.

A minor correction: The musician's name is actually Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

#4 of 4 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

Matt Hough

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Posted May 25 2010 - 03:09 AM

Originally Posted by Marko Berg 

Good review. Thanks, Matt.

A minor correction: The musician's name is actually Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Of course it is. How can one look at a cast list, see one name and type another? [sigh]

Anyway, thanks for catching the mistake.