Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Blu Ray Review: MYSTERY TRAIN (1989)

MYSTERY TRAIN (Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1989)

There are several notable elements that Quentin Tarantino took to the bank a few years later heavily on display in Jim Jarmusch’s 3rd feature film MYSTERY TRAIN, now out on a special edition DVD / Blu ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

First off, there’s the non linear story-line that gives us three different scenarios that happen at the same time from different perspectives.

Second, there’s the hipster soundtrack that posits Elvis Presley (of course, it being a Memphis movie), Otis Redding, and the Bar-Kays to decorate the film’s scrappy edges. Third, there’s an ultra hip disc jockey who is heard throughout the movie (think: Steven Wright in RESERVOIR DOGS) spinning that cool soundtrack - Jarmusch regular Tom Waits does the duty here. Fourth, there’s Steve Buscemi.

MYSTERY TRAIN is an independent gem that was for a long time endangered to be a forgotten film. This spiffy new Criterion Collection edition not only saves it from that fate; it presents it as the classic that anybody who saw it in the last 20 years knew it was all along.

It’s a movie in which the locale is as much a character as any of its cast. Memphis comes off as a ghost town with dilapidated buildings, dive bars, and a very decrepit hotel – the Arcade Hotel which was raized the year after the film finished shooting. All 3 separate storylines, the names of which are “Far From Yokohama”, “A Ghost”, and “Lost In Space”, take place on the same hot night in Memphis, Tennessee.

In the first story, Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase play a young couple on somewhat of a religious pilgrimage – they want to visit the old stomping grounds of the King of Rock and Roll and his minions. Their tour of Sun studios tasks them and they constantly bicker about who’s better: Carl Perkins or Elvis Presley.

The next narrative involves Nicoletta Brasch as a recent widow stranded in Memphis while escorting her husband's coffin back to Italy. At a diner she listens to a creepy Tom Noonan telling a story about the ghost of Elvis and later with Elizabeth Bracco as a woman fleeing an abusive ex she re-tells the story. Bracco reacts harshly: “Is this the one where the guy has to go to Graceland and it turns out to be Elvis? I think I’ve heard this a hundred times. I think almost everybody in Memphis has picked up Elvis’s ghost hitchhiking.”

In the third storyline, Steve Buscemi, Joe Strummer (of the Clash), and Rick Aviles navigate through a drunken criminal night ending up at the same hotel as the previous protagonists. The ghost of Elvis lingers as Strummer is referred to as “Elvis” much to his chagrin: “Don't call me Elvis! If you can't use my proper name, why don't you try 'Carl Perkins, Jr.' or something?”

The details concerning a gunshot that is heard in the preceding stories are made clear in the final story and with it the arc is complete. As the night clerk and bellboy of the Arcade Hotel, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee are the most consistent characters in the movie – they encounter all the movie’s players in all 3 scenarios and handle them with memorable flair. “Mystery Train” concerns the intertwining stories of foreigners in a quintessential American city.

Like in many of his other films Jarmusch comes off like an American film maker who makes foreign films about America. In my humble opinion this is his best.

Bonus features or as Criterion calls them – Supplements: A rambling but highly amusing Q & A with Jarmusch in lieu of a commentary (his words there not mine) and a couple of cool featurettes including a documentary on the film’s locations and Memphis's musical history and on-set photos by Masayoshi Sukita. 

There’s also an excerpt (19 min.) of a 2001 documentary on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins entitled “I Put a Spell on Me”. All excellent extras on an essential indie classic.

More later...


Tom Brown said...

hmmmm... I may have to check this out then :P

Napier's News said...

I am ashamed to admit that I am not familiar with this movie. From your review I think that I will check this out.

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!

entertainment news said...

Thats interesting post ! There are very less site where we get movies of 80's. Thank you very much !