Subway Stories Review

AKA: Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground
Genre: Slice-Of-Life
Year Released: 1997
Distributor: HBO
Origin: USA/Canada
Running Time: 81 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Tube Tales; Art of the Short Film; New York, I Love You; Human Crossing; Paris, I Love You; Style Wars
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Subway Stories was a concept by HBO where they had a contest for New Yorkers to send in their stories about being in the NYC Subway system and ten of those stories got adapted into this particular anthology film

-Ten directors were chosen for this project. They are Jonathan Demme, Craig McKay, Bob Babalan, Patricia Benoit, Seth Rosenfield, Lucas Platt, Alison Maclean, Julie Dash (side note: this is the 2nd thing I’ve reviewed from her after Daughters of the Dust), Abel Ferrara, and Ted Demme.

-Hip Hop Head Bonus/Hilarious in Hindsight: Hey, rap music fans! Recognize the hot dog salesman in the first segment? That’s none other than KRS-One! Yeah, that actually happened. Anyone who knows anything about that rapper would find his role to be ironic because he’s a vegan in real life. Notice how he never eats the hot dogs in that scene.

-The Honey-Getter segment was written by Danny Hoch. He has done multiple things such as acting, one man shows, and even directing. Hoch has appeared in American Splendor, Ted, Gotham, and the 2005 War of the Worlds remake.

-The Old Man in the 5:24 segment is played by the late Jerry Stiller. Everybody should know him as Frank Costanza in Seinfeld and Arthur Spooner from The King of Queens. In case you’re wondering, he’s also Ben’s father for those who didn’t know (funny how both of them were in the Zoolander movies or how Jerry’s final role was reprising Maury in the Super Model movie).

-Taral Hicks was the gospel singer character in “Sax Cantor Riff”. She’s a singer in real life and had a single a year prior to the release of this film called “Ooh, Ooh Baby” which had a guest rap verse from very certain rapper who was unknown at the time. Who would that be? Missy Elliott!

New York City has always been a prime locale for movies even to this day. I get it. The Big Apple is the biggest city in America and so many media companies as well as creative types live or at least do business there. I have yet to visit that place despite visiting other parts of the state such as Albany and Syracuse as well as some of the countryside of the Empire State (not everything is full of skyscrapers in New York, you know). Part of the reason for checking this out involved Julie Dash’s other works and interestingly enough, she is a New Yorker herself. The concept of all these short stories being filmed and having some well-known actors is intriguing, so I rented the DVD on a whim.

HBO, I’m not exactly the biggest fan of your channel especially when I have been surrounded by Game of Thrones fans at work sometimes, but I’m willing to give this project a shot.

Subway Stories is pretty much what it says in the title. There are ten short films intersecting that involve the New York City Subway system in some shape or form. Each story takes place in a subway or at the very least at a subway station. These stories involve native New Yorkers and visitors who live their lives going from place to place. Some of them are bankers, musicians, students, homeless people, and everyone in between as they get caught up in these fascinating tales despite the mundane elements in the big city. These stories in the station range from dramatic, humorous, dangerous, or scary.

Slice-Of-Life works tend to get a bad rap from some critics (especially with anibloggers, let’s keep it real here), but I thought Subway Stories had a great concept that worked with the stories. I really liked how everything was interconnected despite having a different set of characters for each story. The awkward busking musician in the first segment “Subway Car from Hell” was the only constant as he shows up in the beginning and in the end of the movie. That actor who played that character was Bill Irwin who just nails the right amount of humor and timing with his role. I wondered if he looked familiar and I realized it was none other than Mr. Noodle from Sesame Street minus the mustache (it was so bizarre seeing someone I recognize in my early childhood in an R-rated movie). The ending even breaks the fourth wall with Irwin in character playing with the buskers while you see the crew in the background and the actors getting into the music. The camera work was no-frills, but there were subtle aged film effects in different scenes that were a nice touch. I wouldn’t call Subways Stories a neorealist work, but it did have a sense of realism for a majority of the movie. The segments flowed seamlessly and naturally despite the different tones of each individual story, so good on the editors for making all of that work. One big plus of Subway Stories is that it shows an accurate multicultural portrayal of New York City without either playing up racist stereotypes (Deggans test compliant, Bay Bay!) or god forbid trying to whitewash the city like certain 90s sitcoms I could mention such as Friends or Seinfeld. A lot of the segments never overstay their welcome and were timed just right. I enjoyed them more often then not as many of them were good in their own right.

My favorite ones were “Sax Cantor Riff” and “Manhattan Miracle”. Okay, saying the first one makes me look like a Julie Dash Stan despite only seeing one movie from her. It was almost like a musical, but still fit into the movie in it’s own way. The singing was phenomenal from Taral Hicks as the gospel singer and Czech actor Daniel Rous (of A Knight’s Tale and The Seven Ravens fame) playing a Jewish cantor while Kenny Garrett improvises a saxophone riff while they respectively sing. That was so creative in the filming and execution of it. Manhattan Miracle features the late Gregory Hines as someone who sees a troubled pregnant woman who looks like she’s going to jump off a platform onto an oncoming subway train. There’s rarely any dialogue and the mood is accentuated by Vivaldi’s music which is actually the music playing in Hines’s character’s headphones. The sound design was masterful as he takes the headphones off, the background music switches to a piercing sounds from the subway station as a needed form of whiplash. Those were the stories that stood out to me with their more experimental bent to them.

Subway Stories does get derailed at times. This was made in 1997 and anyone can easily tell this was made in that decade with the fashion, posters and technology. There were multiple scenes of payphones in the station which was a dead giveaway. As much as I loved Sax Cantor Riff, a payphone plays a major part in it as Hicks’s character is singing over that phone. If that happened today, she would be belting on a cell phone while everybody would film that stuff on their smartphones and put it on YouTube later that day. Let’s keep it real. Doing some research, I found out that The Listeners segment is a lot harsher in hindsight. The boyfriend and girlfriend were played by a real life then-couple with Michael Rapaport and Lili Taylor. Literally in the same year Subway Stories came out, Rapaport was arrested and plead guilty to harassment charges from Taylor as well as there being a restraining order on them. Watching that scene where both of their respective characters coming back together at the end of the segment is uncomfortable knowing that now. My least favorite segment was “Fern’s Heart of Darkness”. I understand that the title character isn’t from New York City, so she has some excuse in not knowing the subway stations, but I found her to be irrational like claiming there’s a fire in the subway to get attention from people as she’s stuck in a locked exit. She even tries to Becky her way out of the situation in shallow ways. I refuse to believe she’d be stuck for the whole night. One other flaw involves the fact that you have some big actors who don’t do much. You have Rosie Perez in a prominent role in one segment and she doesn’t say a single word in it? I get there’s supposed to be a wordless element as the guy makes her some subway side chick (it makes sense in context), but that was such an under-utilization of her. It’s also crazy to think that it happened to a then-unknown Mekhi Phifer (Yes, the same person who starred opposite Eminem in 8 Mile as well as being name-dropped in “Lose Yourself”) as he’s just shown walking down the subway station as Fern freaks out about seeing a Black dude who might steal her stuff even though he doesn’t or with Sam Rockwell of Vice, Frost/Nixon, and Iron Man 2 fame relegated as a random man eating Chinese food in the subway station. Couldn’t you find something more for those actors to do for example? I just thought it was so weird of those actors in particular to be unspoken or just bit players (Rockwell being the only actor who does talk although for just a little bit). I get that Subway Stories is a mature collection of stories, but they overdo it with the strong language as well as some of the sexual aspects with male gaze fanservice shots in two of the segments as well as a brief ad on one of the subways about safe sex that involves an anthropomorphic phallus which is facepalm-worthy. One can be gritty without resorting to adult content to earn an R-rating.

This was a nice film to check out. I never thought there would be any kind of contest to make a movie like this, but I still thought it worked. The stories here were fascinating more often than not. The acting is great and the segments really flowed well with each other. Unfortunately, there are obviously dated elements and some parts that are things which are hard to watch when knowing about some of the actors. Subway Stories was a good anthology work involving talented actors, writers, and directors.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you like realistic human stories.
Subtract 1-3 points if you’re not a fan of slice-of-life works.

Pros:
-Great acting
-Seamless editing and cohesion between segments
-Beats the Deggans Rule

Cons:
-The movie screams the 90s for better or worse (unintentional period piece syndrome)
-The Listeners segment is harsher in hindsight with the real life controversy between Rapaport and Taylor
-Some big name actors are underused

Final Score: 7/10 points

Content Warning: Subway Stories is rated R and I can definitely see why. The worst aspects would be the language as a few of the segments have multiple F-bombs in the dialogue. There’s sexuality in it like how the Leyla character in the Underground segment seduces a younger man. Love on the A Train involves a married man cheat on his wife with a woman and there’s fanservice scenes as well as the narration definitely has sexual overtones with the words “pole” and “hand” used in non-subtle ways even though they don’t have sex on the train (the dialogue was so awkwardly-written in that part of the movie). There’s a molestation plot point in Honey-Getter which is extremely uncomfortable even though the woman beats up her assailant at the station. Speaking of which, the violence does get bloody with that and the fight scene in Underground. In Manhattan Miracle, there’s suicidal implications involving a pregnant woman which gets intense. Besides that, there’s smoking and drinking in it.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Subway Stories is property of HBO. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of HBO.

2 comments

  1. Honestly, I’ve always liked slice of life series/movies, and this sounds very interesting to me. I also really like the cast. Don’t have access to this one in my country (yet) but I will keep my eyes open for it. Great post! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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