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New York Stories
★★★☆☆
First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema Screening room Tv laptop

New York Stories is an intriguing little oddity that represents the end of many cinematic trends begun in the 1980s.  First and foremost was the popularity of the anthology film—typified by genre fare like Creepshow (’82), Cat’s Eye (’85), and Twilight Zone: The Movie (’83). These compendiums would often consist of different directors helming shorts loosely connected around a theme. But not since Julien Duvivier’s Tales of Manhattan (1942) was this approach taken with dramatic or comedic material grouped around a city.  New York Stories brings together three famous filmmakers long associated with the city of New York—Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen—with each director contributing a short of 30 to 45 minutes.

Scorsese’s entry, Life Lessons, is easily the best of the three. Nick Nolte stars as Lionel Dobie, an acclaimed Jackson-Pollock-like abstract painter who is freaking out as the deadline of his latest gallery exhibition approaches. His beautiful live-in assistant and former lover, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), has grown tired of his temperament and his affections, but still wants to learn from him and hopes that he will continue to open doors for her. The film explores how the artist fuels his creativity via his dysfunctional romantic relationship, and the various ways both individuals feed off each other. Nolte perfectly captures the type of narcissistic but not untalented painter who achieved cult-like status in the art world during the 1980s, and Arquette—following up her star-making turns in Desperately Seeking Susan, The Big Blue, and Scorsese’s After Hours—creates yet another captivating, comical and sexy character who is headstrong but insecure. 

Made at a critical period between the failure of The Last Temptation of Christ and the triumph of Goodfellas, Scorsese has never seemed as alive and free as he does in this minor effort. Working for the first (and only) time with the exalted cinematographer Néstor Almendros (Days of Heaven, The Blue Lagoon, Sophie's Choice) and the eighth time with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, his most frequent collaborator, the director has a ball experimenting with a plethora of visual and editorial techniques that, unlike in much of his later work, never feel intrusive or out of step with the movie’s themes or narrative. Life Lessons is loosely based on Dostoevsky's novella "The Gambler,” and was written as an assignment by novelist and screenwriter Richard Price (his third collaboration with Scorsese after The Color of Money and the music video for Michael Jackson’s Bad). 

Coppola’s contribution, Life Without Zoë, is also loosely based on literature, in this case, the classic series of Eloise children's books by Kay Thompson. The film stars twelve-year-old Heather McComb as Zoë, a pampered schoolgirl living in a luxury Park Avenue hotel who attempts to reconcile her divorced parents. Coppola’s sister Talia Shire (The Godfather and Rocky series) plays Zoë’s famous photographer mother, and Italian leading man Giancarlo Giannini (Love and Anarchy, Seven Beauties, Swept Away) plays her esteemed flautist father. 

Though the shortest of the three New York stories, this one is a slog, and it pretty much doomed the overall picture in the eyes of critics and audiences. The little-rich-girl story is wildly out-of-touch, even as a fantasy in the wealth-obsessed, capitalist celebration that was the 1980s. It is difficult to get invested in the adventures of an entitled, though perfectly benign, kid as she goes shopping with her friends, throws extravagant parties, and leaves Hershey’s Kisses for a homeless man. One of the few noteworthy things about Life Without Zoë is that it marked the first professional work of Sofia Coppola, who co-wrote the screenplay with her father and designed the title sequence. The themes and milieu of this story are similar to what Sofia Coppola would take on in her far more estimable directing career.

Four generations of the Coppola family participated in this project. In addition to his sister and daughter, Coppola's father Carmine composed the music, and his granddaughter Gia plays Zoe as a baby. The movie also features a charming supporting performance by Don Novello (AKA Father Guido Sarducci), and lively songs by the disco/ska/Big Band hybrid group Kid Creole and the Coconuts. 

The last chapter is Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks, a charming little piece of magical realism centering on a small-time lawyer, Sheldon Mills (Allen), unable to make peace in his relationship with his doting but highly critical Jewish mother, Sadie Millstein (Mae Questel, the iconic actress who voiced Betty Boop and Olive Oyl in the ’30 and ‘40s). While not wanting her to die or suffer any kind of terrible fate, Sheldon wishes aloud that his mother would simply disappear. Miraculously, at a magic show with his new fiancé (Mia Farrow) and her kids, Sheldon gets his wish.

But Sadie returns in a most unexpected, embarrassing, and hilarious way, causing Sheldon to seek the help of a psychic named Treva (Julie Kavner), who tries to bring Sadie back to reality. This light and bubbly material was a welcome return to comedy from Allen, whose previous pictures, September and Another Woman, were serious dramatic efforts that tested the devotion of his loyal fan-base for the first of many times (though I think those are both remarkable films).

There are many joys in Oedipus Wrecks. For one, the pairing of two famous cartoon voices (Betty Boop and Marge Simpson) in a live action movie. And this whimsical effort has the feel of the absurdist short stories Allen use to write for magazines like The New Yorker. But, by the standards of Allen’s ‘80s output—an unprecedented ten amazing features in ten years, all written, directed, and sometimes starring Allen—this was a minor effort. Of course, when compared to the next twenty years of Woody Allen’s output, Oedipus Wrecks looks like Citizen Kane, but in 1989 most audiences expected more from the celebrated filmmaker (who would go on to deliver one of his all-time greatest pictures this same year with Crimes and Misdemeanors).

I have no idea how New York Stories came to be. It was overseen by Allen’s longtime producer Robert Greenhut, so my assumption is that Allen came up with the concept for Oedipus Wrecks, realized it was too slight for a feature film, and then Greenhut hit upon the idea of making an anthology of shorts. If this is the case, it’s too bad the movie didn’t fare better at the box office. Little more than five years later, Allen would downshift from his unmatched attempts at both perfection and fecundity and start cranking out full-length features based on half-baked premises far less substantial than Oedipus Wrecks. 

This movie was chosen as the Opening Night Film of the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where it screened out of competition. Reviews coming out of Cannes were mixed to unkind, but I’m convinced that had Coppola's contribution to this trilogy been half as good as Allen’s (or a quarter as good as Scorsese’s), it would have ennobled the chapter that followed it and elevated the entire enterprise to far greater critical and financial success. Instead, Life Without Zoë undercut Oedipus Wrecks and rendered consensus on the entire collection of New York Stories as more miss than hit.

Twitter Capsule:
An enjoyable but uneven anthology of shorts by three iconic NYC directors: Marty has a ball with dysfunctional artists, Woody makes a welcome return to absurdist magical realism, Francis and Sofia lay an egg. 

Directed by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola
Produced by Robert Greenhut, Barbara De Fina, Fred Fuchs, and Fred Roos

Written by Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola, and Richard Price

With: Woody Allen, Mae Questel, Julie Kavner, Mia Farrow, Larry David, Paul Herman, Kirsten Dunst, Ed Koch, Heather McComb, Talia Shire, Giancarlo Giannini, James Keane, Don Novello, Tom Mardirosian, Gia Coppola, Adrien Brody, Chris Elliott, Carmine Coppola, Carole Bouquet, Nick Nolte, Rosanna Arquette, Patrick O'Neal, Steve Buscemi, Peter Gabriel, Mark Boone Junior, Illeana Douglas, Deborah Harry, Victor Argo, Richard Price, and Martin Scorsese

Cinematography: Sven Nykvist, Vittorio Storaro, and Néstor Almendros
Editing: Susan E. Morse, Thelma Schoonmaker, and Barry Malkin
Music: Carmine Coppola, Kid Creole, and the Coconuts

Runtime: 124 min
Release Date: 01 March 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color