Scorsese, Coppola, Allen... Dueling Blus: New York Stories

I remember impatiently waiting for New York Stories to be released on DVD.  I needed it to complete my Woody Allen collection, and I was reasonably fond of Martin Scorsese's segment as well. But then, when it finally came out from Touchstone/ Buena Vista in 2003, it was fullscreen. Really? That's how the combined work of Scorsese, Allen and Francis Ford Coppola was being treated on DVD? You'd expect an edition of these guys' combined work to be on like a solid gold disc in a boxset with a three hundred page, hardbound photo book. But, no, that was all we got, and subsequent foreign releases were no better. I even looked into going back to score an old laserdisc, but it was fullscreen there, too. And the situation stayed that way all the way through the advent of HD until finally, one blu-ray company picked up the title to finally take a second crack at it: Mill Creek.

Update 3/21/16 - 6/27/20: And now Kino's come along with an all new Special Edition.  Or, well, so they claim...
If you haven't seen it yet, New York Stories is a trilogy, with each director making essentially their own short film connected only by the loose theme of taking place in, and capturing the spirit of, New York. There's no wraparound story or goofy bellhop that appears in each story, one film just fades to black and then the next one starts, with its own set of opening credits. There's a general New York Stories title shot at the front and they share closing credits, but otherwise they're really just three completely distinct short films under one title.
Scorsese is up first with a character study about a celebrated painter (Nick Nolte) and his volatile affair with the much younger Rosanna Arquette. She's an aspiring artist, too, and he uses his position to become her lover and mentor. She's untalented and drives him crazy, but he seems to need the conflict of their relationship to make his art, creating an unhealthy trap for them both. Scorsese's technical prowess is on full display here, from the camerawork to the music. Even the character's actual paintings are compelling. And the story's fine, too, constantly moving in the only direction it can go until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. But at the end of the day, I'm not sure we've really learned much or enjoyed our time with these unpleasant characters. There's a pretty powerful scene where Arquette tests her own power over Nolte in front of some police officers, and then he gives short monologue about how he's nothing to her. But most of the rest of the story is just kind of waiting for everything that we know will happen to play itself out.
Then we come to Coppola's film, which is downright infamous. It's co-written by his daughter Sofia Coppola, and plays like a silly children's fantasy. It almost seems charmingly forgivable that he's filming the story his little girl. It's about a super rich eleven year-old who lives a lavish, fanciful life in the city. She has a giant costume party inside a hotel with elephants and a thousand friends. It's basically one big party rather than a story, except there's some kind of tacked on children's movie plot tagged on where she somehow winds up in possession of a prince's jewels and so some cartoonish thugs, including Chris Elliot, are after her. I used to think Sofia wrote the party stuff as a toddler and Francis added the jewel heist thing, like a necessary adult alteration to make the film more conventional. But then I realized she was fully grown at the time of New York Stories, and they did this just the year before Godfather III.
Still, I don't hate it. If you look past the royal jewels bit, it's still a fun exploration of a child's fantasy life, where her servants are also her friends and everybody performs choreographed dance numbers. She fixes her father's life, helps the homeless by giving them candy and organizes the most opulent party, filmed with all of the production values at Francis's command. The fact that it just stops in its tracks to roll around in celebration of its mise en scene actually reminds me of Sofia Coppola's later film, Marie Antoinette. And of course the biggest criticism is that it's self indulgent wish fulfillment, but just like Asia (who was also in Marie Antoinette) Argento's Scarlet Diva, that's what makes it interesting. Because it lets you see inside their psyche in a way they're probably not even intending. But, on the other hand, it's still pretty bad in a lot of critical ways and often feels like one of a hundred direct-to-video Home Alone knock-offs.
In contrast to that, Woody Allen's segment is everything his fans want in a film. It's delightful. Allen his having problems in his relationship because of his overbearing mother. But when she gets called on stage at a magic show, the magician makes her disappear - but can't make her reappear! At first it's a perfect stroke of impossible luck, but it turns into a nightmare when she reappears as a giant, floating head that looms over the city, taking her interfering nosiness to a God-like level. It's a perfect short film, and has a wonderful cast including Allen himself, Mia Farrow of course, Julie Kavner, Christmas Vacation's Mae Questel as the mother, a young Larry David, and a cameo by Ed Koch as himself. I mean, come on, you couldn't do a film called New York Stories in the 80s without putting him in at some point.
1) 2003 Buena Vista DVD; 2) 2012 Mill Creek BD; 3) 2019 Kino BD.
Yes, Mill Creek has finally released New York Stories in widescreen! The DVD is kind of an open matte pan & scan mess, but it at least gives you some extra picture on the top and bottom for novelty value. But it also cuts a lot off the sides, and Mill Creek's restores that by presenting the film in its OAR of 1.85:1. Colors are also warmer and more natural, and while there's not a wealth of new detail, the picture is stronger and clearer in HD. For example, you can finally read the numbers on that camera's digital display in the second set of shots. Sure, I could see this being improved with a new 4k scan, but this blu here is 1080p, no interlacing, and perfectly respectable.

I guess that's why Kino felt they didn't need to make a fresh scan for their new Special Edition.  They've made the image slightly darker, but that's it.  Same transfer.  They have bumped the disc itself up from single layer to dual layer, but MC's encode was actually fine, so it's hard to pick up any real improvements in the encode.  The slightly darker picture does make grain a little easier to discern in bright areas, but outside of a direct side-by-side comparison, you'll never notice a difference.
One way you can usually trump a Mill Creek release is to give it lossless audio and English subtitles, but Mill Creek actually did New York Stories up right this time and had both, which is more than you can say for the DVD, which just had a lossy version of the English, a French dub and no subs.  So Kino does have the lossless DTS-HD track and optional English subtitles, exactly the same as Mill Creek.

And yeah, unfortunately this film has always been barebones. Sure, Woody Allen has never been one for extras, but Coppola and Scorsese are usually good for them. But it's just not to be for this film, I guess. Mill Creek has at least secured the theatrical trailer, which is something the DVD didn't even have.  And Kino's Special Edition?  Also, nothing but the trailer.  Yeah, you read that right.  When they announced this title and released the specs, they promised an "Audio Commentary by Film Historian Jim Hemphill," which is thin grounds to dub a release a "Special Edition" on its own, but it ain't here anyway.  All they have is the same trailer as the Mill Creek, plus two bonus trailers.  But yes, even after the commentary was dropped, to this day in 2020, Kino still lists this as New York Stories (Special Edition) on their website.
And so concludes The Case Of the Special Edition That Never Was.  Still, Kino's blu is a fine blu-ray edition of New York Stories.  Technically, it's even better than Mill Creek's... I mean, the slightly darker image is a matter of personal preference, but dual-layer beats single-layer, right?  That's just silence.  For a single film with no extras, though, you're probably paying more for the extra peace of mind rather than an actual upgrade.  I mean, do not double-dip.  This is only if you don't already own the film, Kino's is the marginally superior option.  And even then, you may still want to spring for the Mill Creek to save a few bucks.

2 comments:

  1. I'm sure you are well aware, but that's Rosanna Arquette not Patricia. i don't mean to be an asshole.

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    1. Whoops - you're right! In fact, I had to go back and double-check my Lost Highway and Crash posts to make sure I had the right Arquettes there, too. Appreciate the correction; definitely not an asshole. =)

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