MGM // 1989 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // April 4th, 2000
Elebis is King.
Jim Jarmusch films are always interesting to me. Sometimes they can be a bit challenging to watch even for someone like me, since his style is decidedly low-key. His films often don't have anywhere to go, and aren't in a hurry to get even there. But, all the ones I've seen have had something unique about them that I liked. Mystery Train in particular I just loved when I first watched it quite some time ago. This was long before I moved to Silicon Valley and became enamored of all things Asian and female, so I'm pretty sure the appropriate organ was involved in this decision.
This film was made back in the ancient times when the US economy was in the pits and the Asian economies were that big bubble that later burst. But, while it was good, it was good and Jarmusch got his funding for this film at least in large part, from some Japanese backers. At least this is the explanation for the Asian connection that I heard at the time, though the liner notes say it was mostly due to wanting to work with actress Youki Kudoh. After seeing her performance, its not hard to believe the latter theory either.
Mystery Train does have somewhere to go, though its not in any hurry to get there, and doesn't do a whole lot once it does. Its presented in a format that these days has been overused, but at the time it was pretty fresh. Basically, its the "multiple lives connected without knowing it" approach, where we see different episodes presented serially, though they happened simultaneously in real time, with a few side bars thrown in for fun.
The first story line, which is to me by far the funniest, involves a young Japanese couple traveling to Memphis, as one stopping point on their tour of the shrines of rockabilly. They are both completely enamored of Elvis (Elebis as she calls him), Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and so forth. Jun, played by Masotoshi Nagase (Beautiful Sunday, Flirt, Cold Fever), is a complete rockabilly wannabe. He has the clothes, the shoes, the pompadour, and the "strong, silent, coolness" thing completely down cold. His girlfriend, Mitzuko, played by Youki Kudoh (Crazy Family, Picture Bride, Heaven's Burning), is bubbly, talkative, and sweetly pouty, and I fell immediately in love with her.
These two are perfect Jim Jarmusch characters. They play it absolutely deadpan, and its completely hilarious to seem them coming from the sparkling clean, high tech Japan of the time (Yokohama in their case), and seeing run down, seedy Memphis as some kind of Holy Land. Youki Kudoh in particular is immensely funny. She has some lines that had me rolling around on the couch. They have a great "believable couple" rapport that is ripe for dry silliness. And, to his credit, Jarmusch never attempts any "stupid foreigner" type cheap shots. It's all very sweetly silly.
One really cute scene has them going to Sun Studios, and being given a tour by a woman who talks so fast and with such a heavy southern accent that even English speakers would have trouble. During this Evelin Wood style tour, she continuously moves them "forward" on the tour of the studio, which is about as big as a small bedroom.
The second thread of the story follows an Italian woman, Luisa, played by Nicoletta Braschi (Life Is Beautiful, Son of the Pink Panther, Down By Law), who gets stuck in Memphis during a layover. Though the reason is never explained, she is flying with her husband's body in a casket. She has to stay the night and ends up in the same hotel that Jun and Mutzuko stay in. She also ends up sharing a room with another woman who is leaving the next day and just needs a place to stay until the morning. It turns out also that this woman, Dee Dee played by Elizabeth Bracco (Trees Lounge, Analyze This, Household Saints), is the (now ex-) girlfriend of one of the characters in the next thread, though we don't know it at the time.
The hotel clerk is played by the famous musician Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who does quite a good job I thought. Together with the night clerk, played by Cinque Lee (School Daze, Three Days, Nowhere Fast), they have some of the driest and funniest lines in the film, such as, "But...what about on Jupiter?" "At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would have weighed...648 pounds."
The third leg of the story follows three local guys who start out going down hill, and go downhill fast from there. One, a British import with a bit of the rockabilly look himself, is Johnny, played by Joe Strummer. You might recognize him as a member of the famous band "The Clash." Johnny and his friend, Will Robinson played by Rick Aviles (Ghost, Waterworld, Carlito's Way), have just been laid off, and Johnny's girlfriend, from the previous episode, has dumped him. They go on a drinking binge, shoot a liquor store clerk, and end up back at the hotel hiding. They are joined by Charlie, Johnny's almost brother in law (Dee Dee's brother), played by Steve Buscemi (The Big Lebowski, Trees Lounge, Fargo), who is recruited to try to keep Johnny from going off the deep end, but obviously fails.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic video was of quite high quality. I was very much encouraged that a smallish film like this would be given the anamorphic treatment. I don't recall seeing any significant flaws that drew me out of the action. There are a good number of night scenes, which, according to the liner notes were actually shot at night, contrary to film tradition I guess. So it has a lot of dark, high contrast scenes to test your video calibration.
The audio is just standard Dolby 2.0, which is probably good enough for this type of film. But, we always like to a discreet surround track anyway.
If you don't like your comedy either bone dry or slapstick silly, you might not like Mystery Train. I guess it's not for everyone, despite my fondness for it. If you can't stand subtitles, the parts with Jun and Mitzuko are subtitled since they speak Japanese mostly.
As with so many off-the-beaten-track type discs I review, this one has nada for extras, which is really too bad. You'd think that for this type of film by a director who obviously loves film enough to reject the big bucks of Hollywood that he would really want to do at least a commentary track.
I don't see how you can go wrong with this one. Its probably one of the most accessible, funny, and mainstream films Mr. Jarmusch has ever made. It's just a couple hours of light hearted silliness, unlikely to offend anyone except perhaps Memphis city boosters. And, unlike most films of this size and ilk even in the recent past, it's a great looking anamorphic transfer.
Acquitted, out of respect for The King.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Jim Jarmusch Resource Page
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