Poison (1991), Pride of the Yankees, The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Poison (1991) * Todd Haynes’ Poison is three movies in one. Word to the wise, though: When your movie is only 85 minutes, maybe splitting it into thirds ain’t such a hot idea. What you’re left with is just an anthology of unrelated short films.

“Hero” is about a strange seven-year-old boy who murders his father and then flees; “Homo” is about (surprise!) a relationship between fellow prisoners; “Horror” is about a whiz-kid scientists who somehow drinks a potion containing the human sex drive – and inexplicably turns into a murderous leper.

None of these sounds like a “normal” movie, and that’s all well and good. “Hero” is shown in documentary style, trying to lend an air of authenticity to the story. “Horror” is told in fifties’ sci-fi style, with the usual theme of “science run amuck.” Each is very well filmed; with “Homo,” a real lurid atmosphere is created. You can almost feel the actors breathing on you.

That’s about it as far as positives go. “Horror” might have worked if it had been played as a parody of those old films. Instead, it took itself completely seriously; instead of mocking, it was mockable. And to tell the truth, I wasn’t the least bit interested in the characters of either of the three stories.

Some may look at this as fine independent film-making. All I see is a tortured, inescapably dull undertaking.

Pride of the Yankees: ***1/2 In today’s era of greedy athletes and their employers, the story of Lou Gehrig seems almost quaint. Here’s a young man who by all accounts was selfless, kind-hearted, and rather introverted. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that he was also a very good baseball player too. Put him on a lineup card today and he might not be the same player. Up until a few years ago, Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played was a record, a record that many thought would stand forever. For 16 years he was in the lineup as the Yankees’ first baseman, never asking out for any reason. That alone should show you how special a person Gehrig was.

This biography is pretty straightforward. Unlike many of its kind, it doesn’t show its protagonist somehow succeeding against all odds. Gehrig didn’t have an abusive mother, he wasn’t beaten up by kids at school, he wasn’t learning-disabled, he didn’t have attention-deficit disorder, he didn’t come from abject poverty. He was simply a son in a working-class, immigrant family, as many were during the early decades of this century. And that’s why Gehrig is so special to so many people – he symbolises their own hopes.

Gary Cooper is aces as Gehrig, and Teresa Wright is wonderful as his wife, Eleanor. If there’s anything imperfect about the movie, it’s that it is…well, a little predictable. That’s something biopics can’t avoid, of course, so it’s no big problem. But even if most of the film doesn’t impress you, the final speech at Yankee Stadium – when Gehrig was suffering visibly from the disease that would eventually be named after him – will move you past tears. And even better, when Gehrig’s done his brief speech, he walks offscreen. If that movie were written today, he’d play another game and hit a game-winning home run. It’s this film’s honesty and sincerity that win you over.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) ** Ordinarily, you would think a movie adaptation of a Neil Simon play starring Jack Lemmon as a very harried New Yorker would be perfect cinema – and ordinarily, you’d be right! Think of The Odd Couple and you have a good idea of a ‘good’ Simon film.

Lemmon’s character, Mel, is a Manhattan businessman who’s going through a bit of a midlife crisis. We’ve seen this sort of thing before in the movies – Lord knows we have!! – but the problem is, we’ve seen it much better. There’s a fine line to be walked here between maudlin and funny/touching, and sadly that line is crossed early on in the movie and never recrossed.

Mel suffers through a lot of problems in this movie, and your closeness to NYC life will dictate just how much sympathy you have for his plight. But be warned: Simon doesn’t combat these problems with wit and wisdom; to me, Mel just yells and screams and basically is thoroughly obnoxious – only Anne Bancroft as his suffering wife gives an appealing performance.

Bottom line is that unless you’re a diehard Simon or Lemmon fan, you might want to avoid this collection of angst, agita, and aneurysms waiting to happen.

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