People were really blown away by Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' when it came out back in 1994. God knows I was. It's an undeniable masterpiece and a landmark in contemporary independent cinema, but one of the things people got all hot-and-bothered about, its crisscrossing narrative tangents, seemed like old hat to some. For those with any kind of memory, it seemed an awful lot like 'Mystery Train,' released five years earlier, that bid for the same prize at Cannes that 'Pulp Fiction' ultimately won: the coveted Palm d'Or. (For those that are curious, Steven Soderbergh's voyeuristic 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape,' which officially kicked off the independent movie craze in the mainstream, beat out 'Mystery Train' for the award.)
'Mystery Train,' by oddball American treasure Jim Jarmusch, isn't as upfront about its own cleverness as 'Pulp Fiction,' but it does share a certain reverie with it. Through a trio of loosely connected stories, it explores Memphis, Tennessee and, like Tarantino's opus, is obsessed with pop culture, except instead of crime fiction, Jarmusch's sites are set squarely on Memphis blues culture.
There are three sections to 'Mystery Train,' and they're linked by only the most cursory details (but they become clearer if you watch the movie more than once, which you will, because it's awesome). This movie is a joy, an absolute kick, and it might be the best film in Jarmusch's not-inconsiderable oeuvre. It should also be noted that this is the first Jarmusch film to arrive in high definition, even though last year's beautiful, patience testing, under-heralded 'Limits of Control' should have been (any movie that Christopher Doyle shoots should automatically get a Blu-ray release, no questions asked).
The first 'story' in 'Mystery Train's' atmospheric web is "Far From Yokohama." It's the story of two Japanese teenagers Mitsuko and Jun who arrive in Memphis (geographically, very far from Yokohama, but also culturally) and walk around, talking about their favorite Memphis artists and visiting landmarks. They check into a seedy motel that is run by, since this is the Jarmusch-verse, bizarre soul singer "Screamin'" Jay Hawkins. Not a lot happens in this section, but the relationship between the two kids (played by Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) is really sweet; both their relationship with each other and their relationship with Memphis. Considering how prickly Jarmusch can be, this is an unabashedly sweet section of the movie.
The next section is called "A Ghost," about a young Italian widow Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) who is stranded in Memphis while transporting her husband's body back to Italy. She is scammed by some of Memphis' seedier characters in a series of hilarious vignettes, and befriends Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), who is so down-and-out that they're forced to share a motel room at the same decrepit motel where the Japanese kids in "Far From Yokohama" stays. In the night, our Luisa is visited by the ghost of someone very famous…
The last, and wackiest section is "Lost in Space." It's in this section that we meet Dee Dee's whacked out husband Johnny (played by The Clash's Joe Strummer), who is also known as Elvis. Basically, the whole section is Johnny driving around with his buddies Will (Rick Aviles) and brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi), getting drunk and causing all sorts of trouble. When said "trouble" leads them to murder a liquor store clerk they are forced to hide out in… yes, that's right… "Screamin'" Jay Hawkins' rundown motel!
The stories don't overlap in any profound ways, but that certainly doesn't lessen the fun of 'Mystery Train,' a masterpiece of American cinema as far as I'm concerned. Jarmusch has always been able to tap into a folkloric vein of storytelling, whether it's the western with 'Dead Man' or the samurai story with 'Ghost Dog,' and in 'Mystery Train,' he's examining the magical allure of Southern blues through a handful of colorful characters and bizarre situations. People don't think of Jim Jarmusch as an American treasure, but they should. Other directors can only dream of making movies as good as 'Mystery Train' (or 'Ghost Dog' or 'Dead Man…' or-)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB doesn't auto-play. Since this is a Criterion release, the see-through box is slightly bulkier (inside is a nice booklet, more on that later) and the spine number is 521. It is Region A locked.
Released in 1989, 'Mystery Train' isn't all that old, but the original DVD looked pretty muddy. Mercifully, this MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (in its original aspect ratio: 1.77:1) is sparkly and wonderful.
If you'll allow me to quote from the accompanying booklet: "Supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit HD from a 35 mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction."
Huh. Guess a print can get pretty messed up in just 20 years. Anyway, the transfer is dynamite. In particular, I'd like to point out how amazing the nighttime sequences look (there are many) with black levels being deep and varied and clarity always remaining sharp, almost to beyond belief (you can actually SEE the glass that's poured into the street outside the motel, which was actually debris from the real-life neighbors who were mad at the production, instead of merely hearing it).
Colors and textures pop (like the tacky motel wallpaper in the sequence with the two women), detail looks nice, flesh tones are authentic, and the amount of grain is consistent and level, along with what you would expect from an actual theatrical presentation.
There are no scratches or dirt and there isn't any glitchy technical nonsense either, despite the words "noise reduction" used in the description of the transfer. This is just a dynamite transfer, every bit as alive as the movie itself. Wondrous.
Less impressive is the audio mix. The English LPCM mono mix isn't the worst thing in the world, and probably is the best the movie's ever sounded on home video, but still…
According to the booklet: "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35 mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
So, yes, it sounds great, and a lot of work went into it, but I can't help but think that it could have popped a little bit more, between the occasionally outrageous situations and the great music on the soundtrack, there maybe should have been a little more oomph present in this mix.
Still, it sounds lovely and there isn't anything detectably glitchy. You'll be happy with the audio on this disc, I'm sure, this is just the lowpoint for me and a place that I think could have been improved, if only incrementally.
Also included on the disc are subtitles in English and English SDH. The bits in Japanese are obviously subtitled, you goofball.
All the extras presented here are also present on the DVD version of 'Mystery Train' (which is, shockingly, also a single disc affair).
If you're a serious film fan, buy 'Mystery Train.' Treasure it. Watch it over and over again. The movie deserves it, and this disc, with exemplary video, solid audio, and a hearty little collection of extra features, is outstanding. If you've never seen 'Mystery Train,' but are a fan of brain-bending oddball cinema (or love Jarmusch's other work), then you should pick this up sight unseen. Those who have already delighted in 'Mystery Train' are urged to pick this up. It's only gotten better with age. A must-own if there ever was one.