Thursday, March 18, 2010

Film Review: NEW YORK STORIES (1989, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, & Woody Allen)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 124 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Nick Nolte, Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Peter Gabriel, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Ira Wheeler, Larry David, Talia Shire, Giancarlo Giannini, Adrien Brody, Chris Elliot, Debbie Harry, Victor Argo, Illeana Douglas, Kirsten Dunst. Shot by Néstor Almendros, Sven Nykvist, and Vittorio Storaro.
Tag-line: "One City. Three Stories Tall."
Best one-liner: "I just wanted to kiss your foot. Sorry, nothing personal."

Omnibus projects are never quite as good as they ought to be, yet in the midst of a lot of general dislike for NEW YORK STORIES, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit (obviously, some parts more than others). Now we know there's a great lineup of directors: Scorsese, Coppola, and Allen; but the cinematographic talent on display is equally staggering: Néstor Almendros (DAYS OF HEAVEN, CLAIRE'S KNEE, KRAMER VS. KRAMER), Vittorio Storaro (THE CONFORMIST, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE), and Sven Nykvist (FANNY AND ALEXANDER, THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, PRETTY BABY, Tarkovsky's OFFRET). So despite all else, know that this film is visually immaculate. But on to the films:

Scorsese's LIFE LESSONS is a near masterpiece. Written by Bronx novelist Richard Price (THE WANDERERS), it's sort of a 'portrait of the artist as a bitter, middle-aged egoist.'

Nick Nolte is electrifying as a painter who lives his life on the crest of each wild brush stroke. He lumps together his talent, frustration, and self-doubt as one, non-negotiable 'artistic passion,' which, of course, is above the reproach of mere mortals.

Such as his indentured servant/roommate/apprentice/pseudo-girlfriend, Rosanna Arquette-

–or even his 'talk of the town' performance art rival, Steve Buscemi.

A lifelong VERTIGO fanatic, Scorsese builds a world of dangerous obsession (and no I'm not talking about Eszterhas-ian flavors of the month) and ever-shifting artistic/sexual power dynamics that has rarely been equaled.

Nolte plunges into the depths of compulsion and the mania of creativity (the man himself was on a frenzied hot streak which would continue with Milius' FAREWELL TO THE KING and Lumet's Q&A the next year) and Scorsese presents it all as a flurry of exquisite visuals, crisp edits and rockin' tunes, and the denouement hits just the right note of melancholy and cynicism.

The next segment, Coppola's LIFE WITHOUT ZOE, is the most misunderstood of the bunch. Seen by some as a saccharine bore fit for children's TV, they fail to take into account that it is a satire. It clearly shows the naive viewpoint of a trust fund brat who knows no other life; where homelessness and international intrigue can be solved with Hershey's Kisses and precocious scheming.

After spending much of the 80's telling the stories of children (literally) born on the wrong side of the tracks, I don't understand why everyone seems to think Coppola would sell his ideals up the river to glorify a rich little shit.

Allen's OEDIPUS WRECKS closes the film, and, despite a very clever and original premise which I shan't exactly spoil–

begins to lose steam around the halfway point, and never quite recovers. In all, a solid film, but see it for the Scorsese. Four stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Always up for some Nolte and he's particularly great here as a mercurial artist. There's a reason why people always say that Scorsese's segment is the strongest of the bunch, because it seems so vital and so alive, as if trying to burst from the confines of the film stock.

I certainly feel the same way about Robert Rodriguez's segment in FOUR ROOMS, easily the best of the bunch from that anthology for many of the same reasons.

Sean Gill said...

Nolte is great, and this really makes you wish there was a larger Nolte/Scorsese body of work beyond LIFE LESSONS and CAPE FEAR. Hey, at least he got to work with Schrader on AFFLICTION (another masterful performance). I really need to watch 48 HRS again, too.

And I completely agree- the other FOUR ROOMS segments are absolutely painful to watch, whereas Rodriguez's may well be the short film format at its best.