Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 110 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English/Japanese
Release Date: June 15, 2010
Review Date: June 3, 2010
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 hometown of Elvis and his fellow music makers (especially 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 with a series of blackout gags.
The film has been framed at 1.77:1 and is presented in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. Colors and sharpness are very good, especially in the close-ups and medium shots which constitute the majority of the film. A blood red jacket worn by Hawkins comes close to blooming but doesn’t cross the line, and the rest of the color is suitably saturated. There is one hair glimpsed midway through the film, obviously a part of the original photography, but for the most part, the picture is clean, and detail is good though long shots do tend to occasionally display some slight smearing. Overall, the picture quality is very satisfactory for a film of this vintage shot on such a small budget. The 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.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is solid for a mono mix made on a very limited budget. The mix of pop music standards from the 1950s which grace the soundtrack combine nicely with the dialogue and other sound effects crafting a clean sound quality and lacking audio artifacts like overwhelming hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter. This mono track fits the slight nature of the film’s effects rather perfectly.
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 lasting 69 minutes 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 anamorphic widescreen.
A tour of present day Memphis is conducted by the film’s production assistant Sherman Willmott 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 anamorphic widescreen.
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.
3.5/5 (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 DVD of Mystery Train offers solid video quality along with appropriate audio making a good case for this film to be seen and enjoyed by many discerning filmgoers. Recommended!