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 storyline 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 could be classic.

More later…

Nitpicking On NetFlix

I recently received the 1st DVD of season 1 of the much buzzed about HBO show Flight Of The Conchords from NetFlix. The 6 episodes on the disc were very funny with crazily catchy songs by the kooky kiwi folk/rap duo – but trouble was that I had waited for it for 3 months! That’s right – since it was released on December 17th, 2007 it had been at “very long wait” in my queue. I enjoyed it but can’t quite say it was completely worth the wait. During this “very long wait” I had composed a rough draft list of 10 complaints about NetFlix but abandoned it because it wasn’t really thought out and also the next day my next DVD came broken in half – so I thought karma was against me. And I hadn’t even posted it! So being newly frustrated with the DVD mailing program I decided to refine the list of pet peeves and pair it down to 5 complaints. Now, don’t get me wrong – I love NetFlix and think overall they provide an excellent service. I do think some other high volume users and film buff geeks like me will find something to relate to in this persnickety list which I call:

5 Snivelling Bitchy Beefs About NetFlix

1. Lack Of New Release Special Editions Of Undeniable Classics – I noticed that the 50th Anniversary Edition of 12 ANGRY MEN – the 1957 Sidney Lumet Best Picture winning cinematic standard – has just been released on March 4th and contains 2 hours of bonus material. There’s a new transfer of the best available print, a commentary by historian Drew Casper, and 2 “making of” featurettes. Sounds pretty sweet, huh? Well, NetFlix doesn’t carry it. They only have the 2001 non-anamorphic Vintage Classics release that has only the trailer as bonus material available. Wha? Also, NetFlix doesn’t carry The 40th Anniversary Edition of THE GRADUATE, The WALL STREET (20th Anniversary Edition), and even the 26th Anniversary of THE JERK is nowhere to be found! Okay, so maybe they have something against anniversary editions but Criterion re-releases are often dissed too – THE ICE STORM – Criterion Collection, set to be released tomorrow (March 18th), is nowhere on their schedule. The idea that NetFlix doesn’t upgrade from the old original releases to the new enhanced editions with better transfers doesn’t give the impression that they are catering to the real film fan. Seems like these titles would get more action if their definitive new models were available. To their credit they did have BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT available right off the bat.

2. The Removal Of Their Upcoming New Releases page – What gives? When I previously went browsing under the tab that says “New Releases” I used to have the option to see upcoming releases on a page that wasn’t flashy, just informative about all the releases coming out the next week. Now that page is gone with just a basic showcase, movable by arrows, that shows 4 titles at a time – none of which are either brand new or upcoming just labeled as “Popular New Releases”. It seems like they don’t want us to know what to put in our queue in advance – the lack of a release date on say, GRACE IS GONE (Availability – Unknown) when Amazon lists it as May 27, 2008 seems a bit suspicious. Just sayin’.

3. No Saturday Service – Yes, they specify this on their website that they process “rental returns Monday through Friday, except holidays, via the United States Postal Service”. Okay, but damnit for the “world’s largest online movie rental service, providing more than seven million subscribers access to more than 90,000 DVD titles plus a growing library of more than 5,000 choices” – shouldn’t Saturday be added to the workweek? I mean I hate that if I mail a disc on Friday (or sometimes Thursday) they won’t get it until Monday and I won’t get my next movie til Tuesday or Wednesday possibly! I mean, I just hate that.

4. Odd Inventory Practices – Sometimes as a heavy user a transaction can be a bit baffling. I had FACTORY GIRL, a movie that was not a hit or critical success in my queue at “very long wait” last year and it’s status kept changing – availability: “short wait” then “now” then back to “very long wait”. I got many releases in the meantime that were much more popular and sometimes sent to me on the Monday before their release while FACTORY GIRL kept hanging back. When it finally came the actual disc had printed on it: “Sale copy – not for rental”! Uh, NetFlix – is that even legal? I mean, I’m just wonderin’.

5. They Turned My Site Down To Be A NetFlix Affiliate – Yep, sour grapes.

Okay! So that about sums up my issues with the San Francisco based corporation that is successfully annihilating Blockbuster as well as Ma and Pa videostores across the map. And I’m all for that – videostores are pretty anachronistic and irrelevant these days and will soon be extinct for a lot of technological advances they can’t adapt to. From the point of view that to truly love something one can see its flaws all the more and shouldn’t be afraid to point out what could be improved I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way. Otherwise I just may have to get used to an empty mailbox.

More later…

Catching Up With The Classics

A young filmmaker recently put this forth to Roger Ebert’s Answer Man column:

Q:As an aspiring young filmmaker, I watch and rewatch as many films as possible, around seven to 14 a week (which is tough with college and work). A lot of the time I feel like because I haven’t seen every classic or obscure film, I’m less of a director because I never gleaned that knowledge. I‘m young, but I love film and I hate when that love is questioned because I haven’t gotten to a certain film. What are your thoughts on this whole neurotic mess of mine? Can someone of this generation, so far removed from the birth of film, still make something as good as “Citizen Kane,” even if they haven’t seen it? (And yes, I’ve seen it several times. And no, I do not think I could match Welles’ genius.)”
Roy Hatts, Warwick, N.Y.


Ebert’s Answer: “Join the club. I feel the same way you do. Friends of mine like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr seem to have seen every film ever made — and David Bordwell, Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Rissient probably have. There is a suspicion in Chicago that members of the University of Chicago’s Doc Films, the first campus film society in the nation, are born having seen every film. But keep on watching good movies. And don’t feel insecure when you make them. After all, Orson Welles watched John Ford’s “Stagecoach” 100 times before making ‘Citizen Kane.'”

This Q & A hits upon a point I’ve been noticing a lot lately – we, that is film buff folk, are just as obsessed with what we haven’t seen as we are with what we have. This is, of course, silly – there will always be movies we’ve never seen – many of which will be essential classics to uh, somebody out there so fretting over it will get you nowhere. Better to enjoy the process and keep on watching like Ebert says.

I usually mostly write about new movies, whether they are at the theater or new release DVDs but I thought I’d catch up a few older films in the spirit of trying to round out my film education. First off, a film I caught last week on TCM:

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (Dir. John Sturges, 1955)

The opening has a powerful modern (for the mid ’50’s that is) steam engine storming down the tracks shown from every conceivable angle. The vivid urgency of each shot immediately pulls us in to this undoubtable classic. There is one incredible full-on “how the Hell did they do that?” shot in the train opening montage that I won’t reveal because even though it’s a film well documented from over 50 years ago I still promise no Spoilers. The train, we’re told for the first time in 4 years, stops in a tiny town literally out on the middle of nowhere and Spencer Tracy gets off. He is a well dressed one-armed man with a stern determined nature and immediately is noticed by the townfolk. An ominous group of cowboys led by Robert Ryan attempt to intimidate him. When you roll with a posse that includes such heavies as Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine you can be sure that intimidation of a high order comes pretty easily.

Tracy ignores any obstacles and checks into a hotel. We don’t know what his deal is – is he a cop? A detective? An insurance salesman? What? We just know he is trying to find somebody – a Japanese farmer named Komoko. We know from the reaction to his arrival that his inquiries threaten to shine a blinding light on a dark secret and will place his life in danger. What we don’t know is how much of a badass Tracy is under his calm demeanor – but again I won’t give anymore away. The town isn’t all scary hoodlum types; Tracy does makes a few friends – Walter Brennan as the jaded town doc, Dean Jagger as the alcoholic town sheriff, and Anne Francis as well, the only woman in town it seems.

Howard Breslin’s screenplay, adapted from the Don McGuire short story “Bad Day At Hondu” is excellent with great lines like: “Tim, you’ve got the body of a hippo but the brain of a rabbit; now don’t overtax it” and “You’re not only wrong. You’re wrong at the top of your voice.” Building on a brilliant beginning the second half of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a scorcher with no wrong turns. If you see this coming up on TCM’s schedule make a note of it. It’s definitely more that worth a rental too – I may put it in my Netflix queue to watch again especially since I heard director Paul Thomas Anderson praise the DVD commentary by film historian Dana Polan. Sturge’s film looks great for its age (it was the first MGM production in Cinemascope) and in these days of likewise lawless desert epics (NO COUNTRY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD et al) it holds up incredibly well.

THE NAKED PREY (Dir. Cornell Wilde, 1966) This film just got a fancy schmancy Criterion collection special edition with a newly restored high-definition digital transfer, commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, soundtrack cues, original theatrical trailer, and the icing on the cake – the original 1913 written “John Colter’s Escape”- a document of the trapper’s flight from Blackfoot Indians which was the inspiration for the film read by Paul Giamatti. These bells and whistles decorate what is a pretty dated exercise – the opening credits tells us “The music in this motion picture is African Music, played by Africans on African instruments.” I can’t imagine seeing that notation in a film today.

The plot has a 50’s B-movie thing goin’ on but fleshed out with real locations rarely seen before on the big screen. In Africa, called “the land of aboriginal tortures”, an ivory hunter (Wilde), who is only identified in the credits as “The Man” gets captured by a large tribe and after watching his fellow men tortured (one is covered in mud and baked alive) is stripped down except for his tied hands and given a running head start before the tribal warriors catch and kill him. He outwits them one by one and fares equally well against the harsh jungle animals and terrain. Colorful and creative in it’s use of the before mentioned African music – THE NAKED PREY is ultimately a contrived conceit, I mean there’s no way this guy would escape alive in this world better known by his pursuers. Still it’s a fine ride through what would soon be action movie clichés and the Criterion treatment yet again works it’s magic on its claim to classic status. It is impressive that Cornell Wilde was 50 years old when he made it. His lean killing machine of a body almost adds plausibility to this star vehicle vanity piece. Almost.

Post Note: According to Wikipedia “As teenagers, Joel and Ethan Coen shot their own version of THE NAKED PREY on a Super-8 camera. They called it Zeimers in Zambia and cast a neighbor, Mark Zimering, in the lead role.” Man! I’d Sure like to see that!

OTHELLO * (Dir. Orson Welles, 1952)

I’ve been on an Orson Welles kick for the last several months. I’ve been plowing through Simon Callow’s lengthy bio “The Road To Xanadu” (which at 578 pages is only Volume 1!) and ordering up DVDs from his canon that I hadn’t seen before including essential classics as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE TRIAL, as well as lesser known treasures like THE STRANGER and F FOR FAKE. The crucial thing one learns over and over in reading Welles’s story is that his filmography has been horribly mishandled and few of his films were truly finished. They were either taken away from him and retooled (mostly mangled more accurately) by the studio (best example – MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS ** which isn’t available on DVD in any version) or he ran out of money during production and had to scrounge around to complete the project most likely not to his satisfaction. Put this epic Shakespeare adaptation in the latter category. It was filmed over 3 years during which Welles took acting work in other’s films to pay for the project. The DVD I got from Netflix (from Image Entertainment) had only a photo gallery as a bonus feature and an awful transfer. The picture is often blurry and the sound is so bad that a lot of the dialogue is indecipherable. Much of it was latter dubbed and redubbed by Welles and the synch is often way off.

If you can get past that, and that is quite a task, this is a grand albeit hammily acted production with much of the picturesque style of CITIZEN KANE in its wide shots and deep focus (murky as it is in this edition). Welles stalks through the shadows and chews scenery with a cagey charisma that only a trained Shakespearean stage actor could possess. His sweaty wide-eyed performance is far from flawless, mind you – in some cringe worthy moments he appears to be wrong at the top of his voice (as Spencer Tracy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK would say) as if he’s trying to reach the patrons in the cheap seats. His fellow cast members Micheál MacLiammóir as Lagos and Robert Coote as Roderigo also overact but this material calls for it, actually it broadcasts for it like on a megaphone. As the object of Othello’s obsession Desdemona, Susan Cloutier pretty much just lies there but she’s a victum of the Bard’s weak writing when it came to strong female characters as much as she is a victum of the plot conventions. This particular edition of the film has the feel of a work print rough cut – reportedely Welles’s much criticized business mogul daughter Beatrice Welles had her paws all over this reissue. Well, there’s a great movie in there somewhere so when it comes to a proper restoration I hope next time out somebody will take a better stab at it – pun intended. Paging Bogdonavich…

* Full Title: THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO: THE MOOR OF VENICE
** MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is on TCM on February 26th at 8:00 AM. Pencil that in!

Okay! Next time out I’ll cover some movies actually made this decade.

More later…