MYSTERY TRAIN Criterion Blu-ray Review

     July 11, 2010

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Jim Jarmusch will always be cool. Though his films may no longer have the cultural prominence – as he is no longer one of preeminent voices in independent cinema – Jarmusch was the guy who brought hip to indie cinema. With Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, there was a sense of affectation, deadpan droll, dissociation, and self-aware irony that came to define his style, but was without question outsider art that had the creative power to pose with a swagger. Mystery Train was his third feature film, and it tells three stories of people in Memphis, the first about two Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who gawk at the home of Elvis, the second about an Italian woman on layover (Nicoletti Braschi), and the third about a newly single man (Joe Strummer) and his friends (Steve Buscemi, Rick Aviles) all spending a night on a bender. All three groups end up at a hotel (run by Screaming Jay Hawkins, and Cinque Lee) where their stories slightly converge. My review of Criterion’s edition of Mystery Train on Blu-ray after the jump.

MYSTERY TRAIN Criterion Blu-rayThe first segment is the cutest as the two Japanese tourist visit Sun Studios and go a hotel room to make love. It also sets the tone as all the stories of the night happen at the same time, so there’s a gunshot heard, only for that to be paid off later. In the second Braschi encounters a stranger (Tom Noonan) who tells her about Elvis’s ghost, and gets a roommate from a recently single woman (Elizabeth Bracco), only to stumble upon the real ghost of Elvis. And then in the third section, Strummer’s Elvis gets drunk over his break up and his friends try to console him, but the gun he has makes him both depressed and violent, which ties all the stories together, as the roommate in the second part is Strummer’s ex.

There’s very little at work here, and though the film has a breezy enough charm the film is about a certain attitude. I would say this is a minor work, and a playful one, but it doesn’t add up to much. Jarmusch has his cadence, it serves his stories well and I like his movies well enough, but it helps when he has a little more to dig into, or stronger comic performers. Here, there are mostly moments: Screaming Jay Hawkins and Cinque Lee make for a great couple, Tom Noonan has a showcase scene, and things are never boring. It’s observational, not everything has to be a masterpiece, but it’s just a very small slice of life movie with a lot of jokes that are subterranean in their humor – there’s not a lot of laugh out loud moments, so much as things that make you smirk.

MYSTERY TRAIN movie imageOn the whole, I find this to be the case with much of Jarmusch’s career, in that I think he makes good films, but I don’t understand the passion he often elicits. Especially when a film like Ghost Dog is all posture and homage. I like those movies too, and I would rather watch them. Occasionally, I think he transcends this stuff and delivers a great film, like Dead Man, or Down by Law or the Roberto Benigni sequence in Night on Earth. Though I’m not faulting his observational style, or denying his grasp of cinema, the end total leaves me wanting more.

The Criterion collection’s Blu-ray is magnificent, though. The film comes in widescreen (1.77:1) and with a 2.0 monaural soundtrack. The transfer is miles ahead of any previous home video release. The film also comes with a Jim Jarmusch Q&A (69 min.) as the director says he doesn’t like doing audio commentary, so he answers questions culled from the criterion website. Jarmusch is excellent in this format, and does a great job answering the questions to the best of his ability (a cheeky question about getting Wynona Ryder’s contact information yields bitter fruit for one questioner, though). There’s an excerpt from a documentary about Screaming Jay Hawkins called “I put a Spell on me” (18 min.), a tour of locations in Memphis (18 min.), and two still galleries.

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