While many omnibus films have been made in modern times, hardly any — at least in America — tout the caché of this one, letting directors Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) loose to each tell a story set in the city that has a million of them. It’s finally making a Blu-ray debut, thanks to Mill Creek Entertainment; making that doubly special is that Touchstone Pictures’ own DVD wasn’t even widescreen. For a film with such Oscar-minted pedigree, that’s sacrilege!
Or at least for Scorsese’s segment, the opening “Life Lessons,” which is the only successful one — so successful, in fact, that the 45 minutes sit alongside Goodfellas and After Hours in my Top 5 Scorsese list.
To the uninitiated, “Life Lessons” is like a crash course in Scorsese 101: the zooms, the editing, the music — all that’s missing is Bob De Niro. Nick Nolte (Warrior) stars as a talented painter who’s constantly in search of a muse — in short, a much younger woman who’ll live in his studio apartment, have sex with him, and let him jealously control her. Just watch him go to work on one after his most current one — played by Rosanna Arquette (The Divide) — has wisened up and left:
I’ve seen Scorsese’s segment maybe half a dozen times prior to this Blu-ray release, and it still works for me. Even the seemingly simple scene of Nolte painting up a storm to The Band’s live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” gives me chills, while the repeated use of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” tugs at the heart. It’s masterful short-form filmmaking.
As for the rest of New York Stories? Well, I usually stop after “Life Lessons.” The quality dips greatly from there. Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” segment has its fans, but — in contrast to Richard Price’s screenplay for Scorsese — it feels like something he just dug out of an old file cabinet. Mae Questel (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) is awesome as Allen’s overbearing mother, I’ll give it that, if to the point where the story plays like an Allen parody. It does grant the film a crowd-pleasing end.
The less said about Francis Ford Coppola’s soggy centerpiece, “Life Without Zoe,” the better. While the first screenwriting credit for daughter Sofia, who’d go on to win an Oscar for expert work on Lost in Translation, their collaboration is off-putting, like a couple of 1 percenters flaunting their wealth and trying to get away with it by wrapping it in whimsy.
Just stick with Marty. —Rod Lott