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DVD Review: Mystery Train – The Criterion Collection

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Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors I should pay more attention to. I have only seen a handful of his films, but they always entertain. They all come from a distinct and unique perspective and feature interesting characters in odd dream-like settings. I find it hard to describe but easy to visualize. Among the films I have seen are Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Broken Flowers, and Dead Man. Now I can add Mystery Train to the mix, although I am pretty sure this is a revisit as I remember bits and pieces throughout, although they all seem to come from the first story with the Japanese tourists.

Jarmusch has a way of looking at American landscapes through the filter of an outsider, romanticizing the mundane, seeing beauty in shabby sadness, and allows his shots to linger and be directed by what the characters are doing. Mystery Train is a bit of a love song to Americana, a look at Memphis drenched in the spirit of Elvis. It is a trio of loosely connected stories that have a delicious pace that just draws you in.

The first story centers on Jun and Mitsuko (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh), a young Japanese couple on a rock ‘n’ roll odyssey through America. We catch up with them as they ride a train listening to one tape player and argue over her love for Elvis and his preference for Carl Perkins. They walk through the lonely looking streets of Jarmusch’s Memphis, with boarded up storefronts and almost complete lack of pedestrians. We follow them as they carry their suitcase suspended between them on a stick as they talk about going to Graceland and find themselves at Sun Studio. They wind up in a hotel room (without a TV) and hear a random gunshot as we move onto the next story.

The middle segment introduces us to Luisa (Nicolletta Braschi) and Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco). The former is visiting from Italy to retrieve the remains of her dead husband. The latter has just broken up with her boyfriend and is looking to stay somewhere for a night before getting out of town. The two meet in the lobby of the same hotel the Japanese couple are in and share a room. They both hear a gunshot as we move to the third story.

The final third of the film features “Elvis,” (Joe Strummer) a man nicknamed so due to his perfectly sculpted sideburns and pompadour. We was recently fired and his girlfriend left him and he is seeking solace at the bottom of a bottle, but when he produces a gun things shift and the night takes a couple more turns that also find them in that same hotel once again.

Mystery Train is a movie to get lost in. As the movie starts you just sort of get caught up in the current, floating along with these characters as they go about whatever they are doing. There is a very dreamy quality to this that I just really love. The way the shots are composed and locations used are just fantastic, seeing America in a way that few films can.

I do feel the movie diminishes the deeper it goes, but that just may be because the first chapter, “Far from Yokohama,” is just so good. It features the best dialogue and characters that have a rather unique view of American culture that is not possible in the other stories. Still, when Steve Buscemi shows up in the third story, he is all kinds of great.

This is an easy movie to recommend from the good writing to the solid performances to the fantastic cinematography. This is just an all-around fine film that is easy to follow just as it does not adhere to the normal rules of storytelling.

Audio/Video. The Criterion release is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.77:1 and the only way for this to look better would be to get the Blu-ray. In all seriousness, this is a really good-looking DVD. The detail is high throughout and the colors are all bright and sharp. I particularly enjoyed the bits of the Japanese tourists walking through the near empty streets. The audio is likewise very good. The audio track is the original monaural and it sounds perfectly fine.

Criterion always does a great job on their releases. They always ensure the technical specs are as good as they can be. I cannot say I have ever had a reason to complain about it.

Extras. 

  • Q&A with Jim. This was made in lieu of a commentary, which Jarmusch says he hates to do. Criterion had fans send in questions. It runs nearly 70-minutes and has Jim Jarmusch reading the questions and answering them. He has a very dry delivery that should probably be boring but isn’t.
  • I Put a Spell on Me. Excerpts from a 2001 documentary about Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who is in Mystery Train as the desk clerk at the hotel.
  • Tour of Memphis. Documentary about the locations in Memphis. Lot of history here.
  • Polaroids and Photographs. Two collections of set and behind the scenes photos. 
  • Booklet. The enclosed booklet contains informative essays on the film.
Bottomline. No doubt this is a great film. It is another example of why Criterion is among the best at DVD releases; they take care of the material and ensure that anything that comes with it is worth the time and effort. Even if there were no supplements, this is a movie to savor and enjoy.

Highly Recommended.

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