Monday, 22 August 2016

Mystery Train

Year of Release:  1989
Director:  Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Starring:  Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Rick Aviles, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi,
Running Time:  113 minutes
Genre:  comedy-drama

This film collects three separate but connected stories, all set during the same 24 hour period in Memphis, Tennessee, linked by a run-down hotel, a single gunshot and the legacy of Elvis Presley.  A teenage Japanese couple visit Memphis on a rock 'n' roll pilgrimage, Mitsuko (Kudoh) is crazy about the King, while Jun (Nagase) is more of a Carl Perkins man.  A young Italian widow, Luisa (Braschi), is stranded in Memphis during an unexpected 24 hour layover while escorting her husband's body back to Italy. A hapless barber, Charlie (Buscemi), is unwittingly involved in a liquor store robbery by his drunk, English brother-in-law (Strummer).

This is a slow, melancholy movie.  It's funny but it is comedy of the most deadpan sort.  Jarmusch once commented that he makes films out of the parts that other directors cut out, and this really feels like that.  It's a film full of long pauses, meandering conversations and long sequences of characters wandering around.  It is strangely affecting and haunting though.  The stories with the Japanese couple and the Italian widow capture the feeling of being in a strange city, far from home, and the story about the barber features one of the best scenes of drunkenness on film.  The story with the barber is probably the most mainstream segment, and is Tarantinoesque before Quentin Tarantino, including a conversation about Lost in Space that could almost have been written by Tarantino.  The stories are connected by scenes with Screamin' Jay Hawkins as the night manager of the hotel and Cinque Lee as a porter, who provide some of the film's funniest moments, with Hawkins being able to bring the laughs and express so much with just one look.  There are some great performances from Kudoh, Nagase and Braschi.  Buscemi's put-upon barber and Strummer's aggressive Brit are hilarious together.  Music is ever present in the film, Elvis Presley is referenced in all three of the stories, the Japanese couple are fascinated by American rock 'n' roll, and there are several musicians in the cast:  Soul singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer who was frontman for British rock group The Clash, and Tom Waits lends his gravely tones as the voice of a late-night radio DJ.  

Jarmusch's brand of cool, deadpan whimsy won't appeal to everyone.  It is slow and not much happens for a lot of the film, but it is one of Jarmusch's most accessible films and the epitome of American indie cool.  If you think you might have a taste for underground or more indie films, this is a good place to start.  It's also a haunting paean to American pop-culture which will resonate in the mind long after the end credits have rolled.

   Late Night Grande Hotel:  Cinque Lee and Screamin' Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train

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