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‘New York Stories’ (PG)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 03, 1989

There are said to be 8 million stories in the Naked City (though that particular count was taken long ago), and three of them are in "New York Stories," an anthology of short movies by esteemed filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen -- all of whom have a previously noted thing for the Ultimate City. "New York Stories" is a novel and fascinating foray into highly stylized, highly personal filmmaking (Coppola's segment in particular is a family affair), but the endeavor is really won by the three brilliant cinematographers the directors have chosen as longtime collaborators.

In the first story, Scorsese's "Life Lessons," the director focuses on Manhattan's microcosmic art world and, as usual, blurs the line between overblown romance and needling satire. In a beauty-and-the-beast story written by hip novelist Richard Price, Nick Nolte is a shaggy, aging lion of the art world (he's even named Lionel) who's obsessed with his ambitious assistant (Rosanna Arquette).

Nolte and Arquette create a convincingly tense emotional tug of war (and watch for cameos by Deborah Harry, Peter Gabriel and Steve Buscemi), but the real star is Nestor Almendros' mesmerizingly sensuous camera work, tracing slow arcs around the actors and concentrating reverentially on the wet paint and glistening colors and violently expressionist brushwork of Nolte's character (painted by artist Chuck Connelly).

Coppola's up next, with "Life Without Zoe," a whimsical remake of the "Eloise" stories about a poor little rich girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel. In the script cowritten by Coppola and his daughter Sofia, Eloise has become Zoe, precocious daughter of a world-famous flutist and an artist manque' mom who's always flitting around the globe. So sweet, spoiled Zoe amuses herself in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, and it's amusing (and sometimes horrifying) to observe the Chanel-clad 12-year-old's innocent decadence.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro gives the film a lavish look and a golden glow, particularly the outrageous scene at a kids' costume ball, but the film has an annoyingly distracted structure. Heather McComb is a breezily confident Zoe, and Don Novello (better known as Father Guido Sarducci) is endearing as Zoe's solicitous butler, but the other grown-ups, including Giancarlo Giannini and Coppola's sister Talia Shire, fail to make much of an impression. The Coppola-heavy cast also includes Gia Coppola as Baby Zoe and poppa Carmine Coppola (who composed some of the score) as a street musician.

In his "Oedipus Wrecks," the most successful of the three (and, even at a mere 45 minutes, the most satisfying Woody Allen offering in several years), Allen seems to be sending up the people who demand that he be funny again -- he seems to be saying "So this is what you want?" And he's spoofing himself, too -- there are elements of the technical wizardry of "Zelig" (helped immeasurably by cinematographer Sven Nykvist), the neurotic romanticism of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," and the eternal conflict between Allen's vibrant Jewishness and the beige WASP surroundings that permeate his recent "serious" movies.

It wouldn't be fair to divulge the swiftly snowballing story of "Oedipus Wrecks." Suffice it to say it involves the biggest Jewish mother joke in cinema history. The perfect cast includes an angsting Allen, Mia Farrow as his comically colorless shiksa fiance'e, Julie Kavner as a sensually frumpy psychic and the marvelous Mae Questel (the voice of the original Betty Boop and Olive Oyl) as Woody's Ur-Mama. Worth the price of admission all by itself.

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