Down By Law
"Down By Law" (1986)
“My mama used to say that America's the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top,” a character says in Jim Jarmusch’s third feature, and certainly, Roberto (Roberto Benigni), Zack (Tom Waits) and Jack (John Lurie) are not the finest citizens the New Orleans jail in which they meet has ever seen. Yet in it’s own curious, sweat soaked, humorous and elegiac way, “Down By Law” quietly makes the case that even outsiders and fuckups can find friendship, hope, love and opportunity. Arrested individually, but brought together in the same jail cell, this rag tag trio form an unlikely alliance, bonded by Roberto’s hilariously broken English (the actor really was learning the language at the time, and the notebook of phrases he carries was his own) and optimistic spirit. When they manage a jail break, their escape into the swampy bayou finds them evading the law while hoping to make a fresh start. Moving at a languid pace perfect for its deep south setting (aided by Robby Muller’s utterly gorgeous black and white photography), and following a loose narrative that is more built on their interaction than any particularly plot-driven motivations, “Down By Law” follows Jarmusch's previous efforts in tracking a journey that moves in no predictable direction. But its characters are equally driftless, with Zack, a radio DJ escaping a rotten relationship; Jack, a pimp on the run, and Roberto, a misunderstood stranger in a strange land. But by the end, each find, if not redemption, a glimmer of hope at the very least, with the open road full of opportunity for both Zack and Jack, and love for Roberto that is “like in a book for children.” Exceedingly charming and heartwarming, “Down By Law” is a satisfying jazz riff of a movie, an endearing little song that finds both melancholy and joyful notes of lives moving with no particular purpose. [B+]

Mystery Train
"Mystery Train" (1989)
While its importance cannot be overstated, it's funny to think that Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape," largely considered to be the starting point for the current state of American independent cinema, was released the same year as Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train," a movie that, structurally and stylistically, now comes across as bolder and more influential all these years later. Temporally unmoored, "Mystery Train" follows a group of disparate characters through an interconnected series of events, all surrounding a shabbily rundown hotel in Memphis (manned by singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins and an almost velveteen Cinque Lee). The first story, "Far from Yokohama," features a pair of Japanese teenagers as they search for the essence of American music (only to find the aforementioned hotel); "A Ghost" concerns a widow dealing with taking her husband's coffin back to Italy, sidelined by an emotionally upset young woman staying in the hotel (and Elvis Presley's ghost); and the third story, "Lost In Space," is a  totally unhinged comedic crime opus starring Joe Strummer and Steve Buscemi. We kid you not. If you've never seen "Mystery Train," it might be (barring his appearances on "Fishing with John" and "Space Ghost") the most purely pleasurable thing Jarmusch has ever been involved with – a rollicking rockabilly song of a movie that predates the chronological jumble of Quentin Tarantino and the bold stylization that would come to define independent cinema in the coming decades. But don't think about that stuff. Just watch. And turn your TV up really, really loud. [A]

Night On Earth
"Night On Earth" (1991)
Sticking with the international portmanteau feel after "Mystery Train," the low-key, confined "Night On Earth" is arguably Jarmusch's most unfairly undervalued picture. Following five cabbies and their passengers -- Winona Ryder driving movie agent Gena Rowlands in L.A.; Armin Muller-Stahl driving Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez in NYC; Isaach De Bankolé driving Beatrice Dalle in Paris; Roberto Benigni driving Paolo Bonacelli in Rome and Matti Pellonpaa driving Kari Vaananen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Tomi Slamela in Helsinki -- at the same point in time, the film gets off to a slightly rocky start with the L.A. section. It's immaculately written as ever, but Ryder is firmly miscast as the world's least likely cab driver. The rest of the segments are terrific, however. The warm and funny New York section feels like an extension of the mutual admiration society between Jarmusch and Spike Lee, thanks to the casting of Esposito and Perez. The genuinely hilarious Rome segment, with Benigni in top form, and finally, the strange, bleak-yet-hopeful Helsinki scene (arguably our favorite of the five) are also standouts. There's a particular poetry to the nighttime cab-ride, and Jarmusch captures that romance without forgetting the alienation of city life outside the windows. The actors, Ryder aside, are uniformly terrific, Tom Waits' song-score is lovely, and the film is oblique and yet strangely accessible -- it's a fine entry point for anyone new to Jarmusch's world, and one that we wish his fans discussed more. [B+]