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‘Subway Stories’ Doesn’t Quite Get There

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the bowels of New York’s subway system, a young woman, on the phone with her dying mother, breaks into a gospel tune. An itinerant sax player listens awhile, then improvises wailing accompaniment. As the woman leaves, a cantor enters, chanting reverently. The sax player adjusts accordingly.

In this snippet of HBO’s “Subway Stories,” the filmmakers capture a fleeting sense of New York’s subterranean transit system, where lives collide and spin apart to the rhythms of clickety-clacking trains, soulful musicians and a million shouted conversations. But there are too few such moments in this star-studded project, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.

These 10 short films--hitched together like subway cars--are based on true tales from underground, which were submitted during a 1995 HBO contest. The project was orchestrated by actress Rosie Perez (“It Could Happen to You”), filmmaker Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and his producing partner, Edward Saxon, based on Perez’s idea.

They put together separate teams for each movie, enlisting such actors as Bonnie Hunt, Christine Lahti and Jerry Stiller, such writers as John Guare (“Six Degrees of Separation”) and Albert Innaurato (“Gemini”) and such directors as Demme and Abel Ferrara (“Bad Lieutenant”).

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It’s a great idea, and the films--shot in the subways--effectively depict the tunnels as a darker, eerier version of the aboveground world. Problem is, most of the stories--selected from more than 1,000 entries--derail halfway through. Nor, in the overall perspective, are they arranged in a particularly dramatic structure.

“Sax Cantor Riff"--featuring up-and-coming Motown star Taral Hicks as the singer and Kenny Garrett as the sax player--is one of the best pieces. So is “Manhattan Miracle,” an almost wordless drama in which Gregory Hines must make a snap decision when he sees a pregnant, despondent young woman (Anne Heche) on another platform, preparing to throw herself onto the tracks.

Mercedes Ruehl delivers a wryly sexy performance in “Underground” as a mysterious, sunglass-clad woman who mothers, then . . . well, let’s just say “does more” with a bruised and bloodied teen angel (Zachary Taylor). And Stiller is an enigmatic presence as a man who rides the “5:24" every morning, providing unerring stock market predictions to a quizzical young Wall Street type (Steve Zahn).

The other films in this hour-and-a-half montage begin promisingly, then falter, including “The Red Shoes,” with Lahti and Denis Leary as a rider and panhandler who end up in an altercation; “Love on the A Train,” in which Perez and Michael McGlone are strangers conducting a silent romance with their bodies pressed together at a standing-room pole; and Jonathan Demme’s own “Subway Car From Hell,” in which the clownish Bill Irwin encounters a malevolent hot dog vendor, jammed subway cars and a noxious, abandoned substance.

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“Subway Stories” premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO. It has been rated TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under the age of 17).


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