Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

The Death of Stalin (2017)

In new releases this week, there’s a limited release for Chinese documentary Present. Perfect., which I’ve already reviewed, so do check that out if you are able to, because I liked it. The big film out this week, though, is Armando Iannucci’s new film which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival, The Personal History of David Copperfield, so naturally I’ve been doing a themed week of adaptations of Dickens… That’s not actually true; I just forgot to set up any posts to go out this week. That said, I haven’t seen all that many Dickens-themed films recently — though the Criterion Collection has David Lean’s 1940s ones of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and there was that Ralph Fiennes film which touched on his life, The Invisible Woman (2013). So here’s a review of Iannucci’s last film.


I like Armando Iannucci’s comedy quite often, and here I laughed (or at least smiled) quite a bit. The performances are fantastic, and there’s more than one candidate for stealing this film (Rupert Friend or Michael Palin are highlights, and Jason Isaacs is just brilliant), while Simon Russell Beale as Beria and Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev are just as strong and consistent as ever. And yet, there’s a dark heart to this blithe blustering comedy of political ineptitude that’s barely ever hidden: the idea that when murderous despotic regimes are allowed to run their course for decades, the moral vacuum that results amongst those who remain is so total that even as we want to cheer for those who are most sure of themselves (and Isaacs’ Zhukov is surely chief among them), at the same time these characters all behave with utterly repugnant immorality. I suppose the way that Beria’s sexual depravity is woven into the comedy is a case in point — hardly hiding it, but also making it something of a throwaway sideshow to the comedic japery of authoritarian power struggles. I liked it, and I admired it as filmmaking, but seemingly in spite of my better instincts.

The Death of Stalin film posterCREDITS
Director Armando Iannucci; Writers Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin (based on the graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin); Cinematographer Zac Nicholson; Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Paddy Considine; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 23 October 2017 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 2 November 2019).

Criterion Sunday 40: Armageddon (1998)

If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi; Length 153 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.