Night on Earth Review
The best part about being a reviewer for a DVD site is the wide variety of films you get to tackle. Whilst sometimes this can end in disappointment, sometimes it introduces you to a new area of film or a new director you had never experienced before. This is certainly the case with Jim Jarmusch. Prior to this disc I had never heard of him, much less seen his films. The other advantage to this is that it is always interesting to hear a fresh perspective on a director whether you are a die-hard fan or a newcomer.
This film is actually five short pieces with a common setting. The five stories cover five taxi journeys at five points around the world in one night. The linking image of the world clocks showing local time is a simple device to move us from one story to another. The five stories are completely different and in three of them they are in a different (native) language.
Los Angeles is first where Corky (Winona Ryder) is a young taxi driver who is transporting a casting agent to her house from the airport. Corky chain-smokes and swears whilst her passenger is in danger of losing her job because she can’t find the right type of actress for an over-demanding director. This is the weakest of the stories but it is still very amusing.
Next we move to New York where immigrant taxi driver Helmut (Mueller-Stahl) is attempting to take YoYo (Esposito) to Brooklyn. The East German obviously has no clue where he is or even how to drive so YoYo takes over. There is much swearing, arguing and comedy in this one as we follow the unlikely pairing through the streets of New York.
Paris is the next stop and Beatrice Dalle plays a blind woman who is picked up by a taxi driver played by Isaach De Bankole. What ensues is a gentle probing of sexism, racism and general bigotry towards minorities. It is also funny in a sweet kind of way.
Roberto Benigni goes completely doo-lally in the Rome segment. He is an eccentric driver who picks up a priest. What follows is twenty-five minutes of sheer lunacy. Benigni is let loose and proceeds to rant and rave and gurn his way through this sequence. This is very funny indeed, with a couple of fantastic monologues.
We finish with a rather depressing journey in Helsinki. Mika (Pelonpaa) picks up three drunks (one of whom is unconscious) who proceed to explain their friend’s misfortune. Mika then relates his story and the two drunks realise their friend is a happy man in comparison. Doesn’t sound like much but this story is moving, tragic and beautifully played.
Anyone who has read this far should really watch this film. Many people would be put off by the concept of five short pieces or put off by the subtitles in three of the segments. This film is a breath of fresh air (even though it was made in ’91). The fact of the matter is if you find one of the stories boring (none of them bored me) then you know there will be another along any minute. Each of the sections has a very similar runtime of around 20-25 minutes each.
The themes explored in each of the sequences are very different. Rome for instance is a pure comedy piece, whilst Helsinki is the complete opposite and New York falls somewhere between the two. Each of the segments has one thing in common, fantastic writing. The dialogue is naturalistic and almost mundane. Being a great fan of plays and theatre this kind of drama appeals to me and it is done very well here. Each script is finely tuned and timing is of the essence. There isn’t an ounce of wasted screen time here, which makes a pleasant change.
The acting is high quality and high quantity. There are standout performances from Dalle, Pelonpaa, Mueller-Stahl and Ryder. Ryder’s performance is especially good which is a shame as New York is easily the weakest of the segments. In retrospect picking out individuals seems a little unfair as all of the acting here is understated and as a result, superb. I wouldn’t pick out any actor as being weak, which is very unusual for me.
All of the pieces have a similar direction style (Not surprising). It is an understated style that lets the actors do all of the work. The sets are simply a taxi for 90% of the film so there are limited possibilities for a huge range of shots. Luckily the director doesn’t feel the need to use odd angles and weird effects and keeps the action played straight. Most directors feel the need to justify their existence by using the visual element to excess; Jarmusch seems perfectly at ease letting his style come through the performances on screen. This makes a refreshing change and shows great self-control.
It really is very simple. This film is fantastic. None of the five stories are dull, the acting is excellent, the writing is superb and the direction understated. I would recommend this film to anyone and according to what I have read this is the ideal introduction to Jarmusch’s work as it is his most accessible piece.
This disc is a bit of a mixed bag, which is evident from the menu screen. This is a simple but elegant picture with only two options, Play and Scene Selections. The latter option reveals a rather stingy 20 chapter stops, not many given the running time. It should also be noted that the subtitles for the foreign sections are burnt in so you can’t switch them off. Also there are no subtitles for the English sections whether you want them or not. This is fairly restrictive and not at all useful for the foreign speakers amongst us.
The picture is in its original 1.85:1 ratio and is anamorphic. This is a lovely clean print with little or no damage. The transfer itself is reasonable. The detail level and black level are adequate and there is a certain amount of grain throughout. It is always difficult to say whether grain and detail levels are intentional or as a result of the quality of the source. Certainly the grain here gives the film a gritty feel so I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt. The encoding seems to be a pretty good job with very few compression artefacts (surprising given the night time locations).
The sound is a truly unremarkable DD 2.0 track. It isn’t a very exciting mix but everything is clear and audible. This film doesn’t need a whizz bang soundtrack so this track does the job perfectly well
Unfortunately this is where the disc loses out heavily. There are no extras, not even a trailer. This is a real shame. I realise that this release is probably aimed at fans of the director’s work. Even so a documentary about the director or even trailers of his other work may well persuade people new to his work to try other pieces. This is a missed opportunity.
This is a great film and a pretty good disc. It is thought provoking and funny in equal parts. It isn’t for everyone. If you’ve read my synopses and felt the stories sounded a little dull (i.e. nothing happens) then this release is not for you. In a world full of action films and very little attention paid to the art of acting and dialogue, this film is a revelation. The transfer and soundtrack complement the film but the extras let the side down.