Mystery Train, and six more movies

Today at the movies: Two people who live together but never connect, three days of complete humdrummery, the numbers 2 and 3 make a man go mental, a film that intentionally lacks depth, Screamin' Jay Hawkins in the slums of Memphis, David Niven's pants are on fire, and are you scared enough about Satanists and voodoo?



Dec. 6, 2022

Flatland (2007)
Its Ugly Head (1974)
Jeanne Dielman,
  23 quai du Commerce,
  1080 Bruxelles
Mystery Train (1989)
The Number 23 (2007)
Paper Tiger (1975)
Satanwar (1979)

Best of show (feature length) is Mystery Train. Best of show (short subject) is Its Ugly Head.

The big surprise is the one with the long title, Jeanne Dielman etc. It pushes all my "hate this crap" buttons so I should've abhorred it, but it's seriously good. 

— — —  

Flatland (2007)

This is an animated tale of geometry, with political and philosophical commentary. It's set in a world of only two dimensions, where some people are squares, others are triangles, hexagons, octagons, etc.

The main characters is A Square, attorney-at-law. His daughter is A Hexagon, who's either very stupid or very young, so Dad is teaching her (and us) the elemental basics of their world.

In addition to being limited to two dimensions, everyone's colorless, the story says, so the shapes/characters who have color on their sides are considered big troublemakers, repressed by the government. That bit about color was confusing to me, because every character in Flatland has color, at least on the sides of them that the audience sees, and they're flat, so what other sides are there?

Late in the story, a three-dimensional circle visits Flatland, and takes A Square into a 3D world. It's the grand epiphany of his two-dimensional life; all the limitations of his world have been expanded, his perspectives changed, his eyes finally opened. He's Jack Nicholson in The Trip.

The film is based on the novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edward Abbott Abbott, because one Abbott is never enough. The book is greatly beloved by nerds and impenetrable to others, and the film seems to be true to the novel, at least the impenetrable part. 

It's a brilliant cartoon, I strongly suspect, made by and for geeks. Maybe Flatland is allegory or symbolism or whatever, but nearly every word of the dialogue is about geometry, and no pun intended, a lot of the voice acting comes across irritatingly flat, like a dry first-read-through. It's interrupted hundreds of times for wry wisecracks typed as text on-screen. 

I live in a three dimensional world, and have a withering lack of patience for the two-dimensional thinkers who run it. We're all under the control of people who see everything flatly and oppose anything that isn't flat, and it's frustrating to watch a movie set in such a world.

Doubtless this would be terrific after-hours entertainment at mathletes' competitions, but as a guy who struggled with high school algebra, Flatland is a joyless struggle, and making it to the end without falling asleep is the greatest accomplishment of my week. Rarely have I been so very much not the intended audience for a film.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Its Ugly Head (1974)

Mr and Mrs Anonymous live their lives in separate rooms, with little meaningful contact, it appears. That's very nearly all I can tell you, because just as it's getting interesting, the end credits begin. 

Oh — it's a short, not a feature. Thirteen minutes.

It felt like the beginning of a complex, probably heartbreaking look at a loveless marriage between a closeted gay man and his disabled wife, and it is. It's here and gone very quickly, though, barely taking the time to make its point. Very effective, and too brief.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Jeanne Dielman,
23 Quai du Commerce,
1080 Bruxelles

The British Film Institute publishes a magazine called Sight and Sound, best known for polling critics every ten years, aggravating the numbers, and releasing a consensus list of the best films ever made. When these once-a-decade results are announced, it's usually neck-and-neck between Citizen Kane and Vertigo, but in the latest results, released last week, a new champ was crowned, and this is it — a movie nobody's ever heard of, except esoteric movie buffs.

Clearly, 1,600 professional critics have pranked the poll, but who cares? Not me, not much. I like what I like, not what critics tell me to like. The aforementioned Vertigo, for example, is a competent but exponentially overrated movie, not one of Hitchcock's top ten, and it's not in my top thousand.

No, what grabbed me, reading an article about the poll results, was this quote from the film's long-dead writer-director, Chantal Anne Akerman:

"When people are enjoying a film they say 'I didn't see the time go by'… but I think that when time flies and you don't see it passing by you are robbed of an hour and a half or two hours of your life, because all you have in life is time. With my films you're aware of every second passing through your body."

Well, either I disagree with Ms Akermann about the essence of film, or I don't understand what she meant.

And I took it as a challenge. Like its title, Jeanne Dielman etc is twice the length of most movies — three hours and 22 minutes long. Watching it, would I be aware of every second as it passed, like she said? Would I feel the movie for 202 minutes — 12,120 seconds — passing through my body?


The film follows Jeanne Dielman through three days of her life, which are almost entirely uneventful. There's no plot. There's no music. There are no flashbacks, no laughs, no directorial flourishes, no beautiful scenery. There's only one moment of surprise.

Helpfully, words are flashed on the screen as each day ends, else you'd never know, because every day in Jeanne's life is the same as the day before. Same as any of us, really. Is it a movie, though?

Jeanne makes tea, straightens the bed, takes a bath, and then cleans the bathtub. She reads a newspaper, listens to the radio, knits for thirty seconds and then puts her knitting away. She opens a window for a bit of air, and brushes her hair. She polishes her son's shoes, but he's in his late teens, perhaps early adulthood — if he wants his shoes polished, he should polish them himself, don't you think?

Bizarrely, all this is not as dull as it sounds. If you have the patience for it, it can be interesting to watch as Jeanne sniffs the milk before pouring herself a glass, as she peels potatoes, and then cooks potatoes, as she sets the table, serves dinner, makes empty conversation with her son, and then washes dishes, and then dries dishes. She speaks, but not often, and when she does — it's in French!

In many of the interior scenes, there are reflections of an unseen neon light flashing, a reminder that things might be happening outside Jeanne's apartment, even as nothing much happens inside.

Also, 98% of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles takes place at the titular address, and it's a decidedly middle-class apartment. That's another unusual touch; so many movies give their characters either impossible ritzy or frightfully dreary digs.

Jeanne has gentleman callers who pay for her services, but what we're shown of her work makes it look like any other job, as mundane as the rest of the film.

She also works as a babysitter, and she's terrible at it. She wakes a sleeping baby to hold it, rock it, make goo-goo-da-da baby talk, which only makes the baby cry. Then she puts the baby back in its bassinet and it starts quieting down, so she picks it up to sing at it and it starts bawling again.

She steps out to buy bread from one shop, beef from another. When she gets back, she checks her mailbox and waits for an elevator. Then she goes into the kitchen and starts making another night's dinner, mixing chopped onions into the ground beef. Looks like she's making meatloaf. Mmmm, meatloaf. 

As an artistic choice, though, the film has not shown Jeanne chopping the onions. They were already chopped, waiting on a plate. You have to wonder why the onion-chopping isn't in the film. Is there symbolism in the absence of chopped onions?

Anyone's mind wanders, so presumably Jeanne has an inner monologue going on, but the film isn't narrated and the actress keeps her face blank and unrevealing. What she's thinking remains as unknown as whatever you're thinking while you toast a crumpet or scratch your elbow or tie your shoes. To make this point more clear, Jeanne sometimes sits and stares straight ahead.

That's the way life is. You rarely know what's in anyone's head except your own, and lots of people don't even know that. Movies pretend to let you understand a character, but it's fakery when they do, and refreshingly, Jeanne Dielman etc doesn't offer that kind of fakery.

My best ideas come while I'm doing the kind of ordinary stuff this movie is made of — talking a walk, staring out a window, riding a bus or an elevator. Since those moments are what the movie is largely about, there's ample space for your own inner thoughts while watching this. My mind wandered all across time and space, but kept coming back.

Is this the greatest film ever made? Of course not, and it's a fraud for any critic to claim it is. It's better than Vertigo, though, and it's one of the best experimental films I've seen.

Jeanne Dielman etc is fascinating and boring, often at the same moments, and it's a challenge to your preconceptions of what a film should be. I enjoyed it, sincerely recommend it, and have no interest in ever seeing it again.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Mystery Train (1989)

Mystery Train offers three gracefully subversive interlocking stories set in a dilapidated downtown hotel in Memphis, where three bumbling crooks are on the prowl, two rock'n'roll fans are visiting from Japan, and a rich Italian lady is stuck sharing her room with a drunk.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins is the clerk at the hotel's night desk, and the voice of Tom Waits talks to you all throughout. Steve Buscemi steals each scene he's in, of course, and Joe Strummer is a drunken drifter too easily mistaken for Elvis reincarnated.

Everything here is low-key delightful, except for Hawkins, of course, who's high-strung delightful. The two actors playing Japanese tourists are both enormously endearing, as they argue about who invented rock'n'roll and visit Sun Studios, where some say rock was born (and where most of the songs on the movie's soundtrack were recorded). 

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch weaves all these elements into something that feels very relaxed but is actually intricately assembled. The vibe is zen, and it left me in a chill mood I'd compare to marijuana without the munchies.

Mystery Train was filmed in Memphis, but I'm not sure the Chamber of Commerce would approve. Most of the movie happens in empty lots, on deserted streets, at an abandoned movie theater, etc. It's actually the first time a visit to Memphis has appealed to me.

I don't know what it means and don't have a lot to say about Mystery Train, just — don't miss it.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Number 23 (2007)

This was on my watchlist because I've always liked Bud Cort (Harold and Maude, Brewster McCloud, and a host of other weird stuff), and I'll watch anything he's in.

Since I'd never heard of this movie, my expectation was that it would be a smallish art or indy film. Whoops. It's a big-budget thing directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Jim Carrey, and it bellyflopped at the box office because it's slow-roasted garbage that'll stink up your house.

Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, an animal control officer with a lovely wife (Virginia Madsen) and an impossibly nice adolescent son. Carrey also plays Fingerling, the protagonist of a novel he's reading, and it's the book that convinces Sparrow there's mystical meaning to the number 23. He begins seeing 23 everywhere. For example, the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912 — well, golly, 4 + 1 + 5, plus 1 + 9 + 1 + 2 adds up to 23. Oh my god!

If you're an idiot, you can manufacture insignificant coincidences and find meaningless meaning from such numbers all day every day, and that's what Carrey's dog-catcher does.

That's the part of the movie that I liked — it shows how easy it is to be hornswoggled by nonsense. It would've been a much better movie if it had then pulled a 'gotcha' and explained that it's idiocy. Instead, the movie wants you to take it seriously, as the 23's accumulate and 86 Sparrow's sanity.

My man Bud isn't on-screen long, but he holds the key to this muddled mystery. Curiously, his name isn't in the credits, and do you know why? It's because his initials, B and C, are the second and third letters of the alphabet — 2 and 3 — 23 again! Oh my god!

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Paper Tiger (1975)

This should've been a small movie, a tiny movie, and it might have been interesting. Instead it's a major studio effort, and with all that money spent on elaborate sets, big stars, and location filming, the emptiness of it all is overwhelming.

This is the Disneyesque story of Major Bradbury (David Niven), a very-decorated war veteran full of stories of his heroism, who's hired as tutor to the son of a high-ranking official (Toshiro Mifune) in some Japanese territory where terrorism is a daily occurrence. (Did Japan have a post-war era of unrest like this? News to me.)

You'll suspect almost immediately that all of Bradbury's war stories are bogus. If you've made that guess, you'll probably see the movie's entire plot and resolution before it happens, as this man of tall-tale bravery comes up against the terrorists' bombs and kidnappings.

Niven was always charming, and this is inoffensive but it's piffle, to be forgotten as soon as it's over, or maybe during.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Satanwar (1979)

This is a cheap effort that must've played midnights-only at the drive-in.

It opens with a ridiculous speech about the dangers of the supernatural, accompanied by ominous synthesizer music, fake chanting, and visuals of staged Satanist rituals, narrated by a deep-voiced oh-so-serious but unidentified man who promises all of this is true. For extra fearmongering, the high priest of Satanism is a black man.

That's the first 15 minutes of this, and it's so stupid it's funny.

After a while, the narrator goes to grab a beer or something, but the bad synthesizer goes on, as we enter the movie's midsection. A young couple has unknowingly bought a house where Satanists have cursed the premises, and apparently, Satanists manufacture goo that creeps out of the walls and smells bad. Unlike the opening bit, this middle third of the movie is only tedious.

Then there's some voodoo dancing, with more batshit narration.

Verdict: NO, but the first section is great low-IQ fun.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions:

Cabin Boy (1994)
Night Gallery (1969)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Unashamed: A Romance (1938)
The Wiz (1978)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. Claude Reigns, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 BruxellesDecember 6, 2022 at 2:22 PM

    "aggravating the numbers"

    I assume you meant to type "aggregating" - but this year's results clearly WERE meant to aggravate, so you nailed it.

    That's a very good review of Jeanne Dielman, more thoughtful than the majority of reviews (even the enthusiastic ones, who more often than not bring unnecessarily divisive gender politics into it.) I'll watch Seyrig in anything, and she's been in dozens of my favorite films: Last Year At Marienbad, Muriel, Daughters Of Darkness, Accident, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, etc. Her intelligence and bearing and choice of projects reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck.

    Vertigo: This is also too esoteric to be the "greatest film ever" but I think it's wonderful in every way, easily Hitchcock's best. But then my Hitchcock top ten includes Marnie and Trouble With Harry and Family Plot, which everyone hates -- and I hate Strangers On A Train and Shadow Of A Doubt, which everyone loves. Without Vertigo there'd be no Persona, or Mulholland Drive, or Eyes Wide Shut. Your mileage on those may vary, though.

    Citizen Kane is a much better legitimate choice for greatest film ever made. Maybe the greatest American film ever made, and certainly the greatest film ever made ABOUT America.

    Renoir's Rules Of The Game has to be up there, too. It says a lot about the world we live in.

    Anyway, these lists are generally stupid. The filmmaker's ballots are much more interesting, they give you a clue about their personalities and interests.

    Jarmusch: Not a fan. Seems like he comes from the same milieu as all the late-70s rich kids who slummed around CBGBs and made no-wave music and "underground" film. Something about him just rubs me the wrong way, like he spends too much time on his hair or... I dunno. Dead Man is pretty good, though, but not as good as the various films it quotes.

    Coming attractions:

    Cabin Boy: I kind of like Elliot's shtick, but he's never done anything that sticks with me, and this film is no different. Pretty silly.

    Two-Lane Blacktop: Don't even get me started. I love this film so much it borders on illness. It's like Robert Bresson came to America and made a road movie.

    1. Jeanne Dielman *is* making a feminist statement, obviously, but it's so obvious and obviously so right it didn't occur to me to mention it.

      In your whole list of Seyrigs, I think I've only seen Daughters Of Darkness.

      Hitchcocok: I've never seen Marnie, didn't think much of Family Plot, share your hatred of Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt, *love* The Trouble with Harry, and Vertigo is fine but clichéd, and I could do just fine without its spawn, Mulholland Drive, and Eyes Wide Shut was kinda meh for me. It might've been better without the creepy Cruise and Kidman combo.

      Jaramusch made his three good movies, and sorry but I do like them, but nothing that's caught my attention since.

      Re aggravating, accidental wordplay is the best.


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