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Mystery Train
BLU-RAY disk
06.18.2010 By: Mathew Plale
Mystery Train order
Director:
Jim Jarmusch

Actors:
Youki Kudoh
Nicoletta Braschi
Joe Strummer

Rating:
Movie:
Extras:
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WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Jim Jarmusch's ode to Memphis, told through three stories involving Japanese tourists (Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase), an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) and a gun-wielding "Elvis" (Joe Strummer).
IS IT A GOOD MOVIE?
Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989) is filled with disappointed souls, barren landscapes and misplaced dreams. It may be the most characteristically Jarmuschian in his catalog.

The film is made of three tales: In “Far from Yokohama,” two Japanese tourists (Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase) make a pilgrimage to Sun Studios and Graceland while debating, Who is better, Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins? (Answer: Roy Orbison). In “A Ghost,” an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who is twice swindled in her first hours in Memphis, is haunted by the ghost of Elvis and shares a room with a chatterbox (Elizabeth Bracco) who just left her boyfriend. In “Lost in Space,” the chatterbox’s ex (Joe Strummer of The Clash), nicknamed “Elvis” for his hair, has also just lost his job and flaunts a revolver to his brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi).

There is, of course, overlap: the characters walk the same empty Memphis streets and occupy the same crumbling buildings (namely the Arcade Hotel, which they all stumble into by story’s end), they all hear an early morning gunshot, and all feel the presence of Elvis (the title, aside from serving as a perfect metaphor, takes its name from the 1955 Presley cover). They all haggle or address the bellboy (Cinqué Lee) and clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, wild man) and groove to whatever Elvis or Rufus Thomas (who has a cameo) the radio DJ (voice of Tom Waits) has to spin in the 24-hour span of their tales.

This is not a Memphis anyone would want to visit. Planks take the place of windows, Graceland is practically nonexistent. And as much as Jarmusch has a passion for the music and culture for the city of Sun Studio, Beale Street and Johnny Cash, that may be the point. Mystery Train, like most in the Jarmusch canon, is about foreign land and lost travelers (the tourists by train, the widow by plane, “Elvis” by pickup truck).

This is Jim Jarmusch’s Memphis, his country, his world. Jarmusch once said that he looks at the United States “through a foreigner’s eyes.” He can’t help it. Neither can we when watching one of his films.
THE EXTRAS
Q&A with Jim Jarmusch: In lieu of a commentary track (which Jarmusch is not a fan of), the writer/director fields fan-submitted questions in this audio-only addition recorded in January 2010. After orally skimming The New York Times for listeners, Jarmusch answers dozens of questions over the course of an hour or so. Topics include his various inspirations (from Samuel Beckett to mycologist Paul Stamets), working with the late, great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and specifics of Mystery Train, such as the international cast, the Sun Studios soundtrack, and the color palette.

I Put a Spell on Me (17:40) contains excerpts from the 2001 documentary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me. Though the full feature would have been a great addition, these clips will hopefully inspire many to (re)visit the work of the late, wild Hawkins.

Memphis Tour (17:36): Sherman Willmott, production assistant on Mystery Train, takes viewers on a tour of the various locations of the film, including the Arcade Restaurant, the Arcade Hotel and Sun Studios.

Polaroids and a Photo Gallery.

Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 24-page booklet with an essay titled “Strangers in the Night” by Moving Image Source editor Dennis Lim and another titled “Memphis Blues Again” by Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick.
FINAL DIAGNOSIS
With their fourth Jim Jarmusch release, The Criterion Collection has done a very good job. In addition to selecting one of his better films, they include a handful of great substitute features (a Q&A in lieu of a commentary; snippets instead of the full Screamin' Jay Hawkins documentary) and very fine video and audio transfers. A must-have for Jarmusch fans.
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