The question that must be asked about any movie based on a television show is why. What combination of themes and cultural synchronicity makes this moment the right one for, say, a movie based on the sci-fi adventure show Lost in Space, which ran on CBS from 1965 to 1968? The answer, in this case, doesn’t lie in any natural affinity between the zeitgeisten of the ’60s and the ’90s. Lost in Space, the movie, appears to have been made because 1. somebody at New Line held the rights, and 2. another somebody at New Line perceived a market for family-oriented adventure movies.
Those reasons for existence don’t result in passionate, original works of art, and as a result, Lost in Space lacks conviction. Its story repeats the TV series’ pilot episode, in which the Robinson family blasts off on a mission to find a habitable planet for the population of a depleted earth. A saboteur named Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman) winds up stranded aboard the mission, and after a jump through hyperspace, the Robinsons wind up piloting their ship through uncharted alien stars.
A family adventure can’t be pitched too ironically or the little ones will be lost (and the little ones haven’t seen the cheesy TV show anyway), so Lost in Space ditches the kitsch and goes for a serious tone, some seriously creepy giant spiders, and an utterly serious William Hurt as pater Robinson. Hurt provides what’s supposed to be the emotional punch of the movie by playing an absentee father, wrapped up in his work, who learns during his life-and-death struggles that he needs to be there for his son Will. An adventure story thrives on primitive survival stuff: man against nature, man against man. The father-son bond, threatened by the breakdown of the American family, doesn’t cut it as a gripping theme.
Despite some very slick special effectshalf the film seems to take place inside a computerLost in Space feels cobbled together from recycled bits of more eminent sources. Jupiter Two, the Robinsons’ saucer-shaped ship, was a simple UFO reference in the TV series; here, it spins through exploding planets with moves copied from the Millennium Falcon. The bulbous, impractical set design is pure Fifth Element, and the techno dialogue is straight out of Star Trek. Which is ironic, since Star Trek’s debut on NBC signaled the advent of serious science-fiction on television and the death knell for Gilligan’s Island-in-outer-space goofs like Lost in Space.
At least the movie has revitalized the market for the TV series’ old episodes, sending some fresh royalties to hardworking professionals like June Lockhart, Billy Mumy, and Dick Tufeld (the voice behind “Danger, Will Robinson!”). When they walked among the Styrofoam rocks of each week’s planet set, those folks knew what they were doing, and why. The same can’t be said of the confused and conflicted motives behind this interstellar retread.
The powers that wannabe
Professional pundits had the release date of Primary Colors flagged on their Microsoft Schedulers from the moment the project was announced. Based on Joe “Anonymous” Klein’s thinly disguised account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Primary Colors was supposed to offer columnists and commentators a chance to show how smart they areto flaunt their “insider” knowledge, to talk about who the characters are supposed to be, and to discuss how the audience will never look at Clinton the same way again.
Then something happenedor rather, someone happenedand the media-appointed experts showed that they don’t always know how to read the country they analyze for a living. The Monica Lewinsky situation and the attendant public indifference caught opinionmakers with their pants down (so to speak). Who would’ve guessed that the American peoplefed scandal for almost a centurywould be underwhelmed by rumors of consensual sex?
Similarly, the world has hardly been set afire by Primary Colors in the three weeks since its release. It’s been a steady moneymaker, but the talk around the water cooler has been about Titanic, or March Madness, or actual headlines, not some mild topical satire. And despite all the predictions, the people who see Clinton parodied on late-night TV seven nights a week haven’t had their confidence irreparably shaken after seeing him aped by a cute, paunchy John Travolta. Now that the political bomb has dropped with no fallout, we can evaluate Primary Colors as a movie rather than as fodder for the punditocracy.
Directed by Mike Nichols from Elaine May’s script, Primary Colors stars John Travolta as Jack Stanton, the governor of an unnamed Southern state, who’s trying to overcome his weakness for a well-turned ankle during a campaign for the presidency. Emma Thompson plays his long-suffering wife, and his advisers and managers are played by Maura Tierney, Billy Bob Thornton, and Adrian Lester (whose Stephanopoulos-styled aide serves as the audience’s guide). Along for the ride is Kathy Bates, who plays Stanton’s personal scandal sniffer-and-squelcher.
Nichols’ name on a picture connotes a certain level of class and quality, and sure enough, Primary Colors has a slick snappiness that makes it easy to watch. For the first hour or so, as the film deals with the daily chaos of a presidential campaign, May’s clever dialogue and Nichols’ knack for choreographing actors’ movements create a real buzz. The audience gets to be a fly on the wall as the staff maps out strategy, rides out the bumps in the press, and cheers on its man during speeches and debates. As we watch Stanton work the crowd at a photo-op, we begin to get an inkling of the arrogance and vision of a would-be leader. Too often, these “men of the people” seem too much like celebrities or fictional characters; ironically, a movie star playing a fictionalized Bill Clinton makes the real-life Clinton more human.
But the film takes a wrong turn in its final third, as the racing pulse of the campaign is left behind for an ill-considered ethical quandary involving some dirty data on another candidate (a dignified Larry Hagman). This sets up a forced, preachy climax“highlighted” by a thuddingly heavy Bates monologuewherein the filmmakers imply that the only choices we have in America are between mediocrities and bastards. (Isn’t there a Paul Tsongas in the house?)
There are other flaws. Nichols and May can’t ever quite reconcile Klein’s broadly farcical elements (a hairdresser named Chartreuse, for example) with their own desire to make a smart analysis of modern politics. Meanwhile, the emphasis on farce overshadows a deeper consideration of what Richard Ben Cramer called “what it takes”the intestinal fortitude and take-no-prisoners mind-set required of a successful politician.
Still, Primary Colors will survive the already yellowing op-ed pages, for three reasons. First, the performances are witty and compelling; both Thompson and Travolta move beyond mere impersonation to become fully realized characters. When Travolta is onscreen, even if he’s just sitting in the corner while others are talking, his starpower catches your eye the way a president’s presence would. Second, the long first segment of the film is so exciting and believable that students of political cinema will be watching it years henceif only to learn how issues took a backseat to media handling in pre-millennial politics.
Finally, Nichols and May develop some cogent observations about the level of political discourse in this country, where sound-bite quips and standup monologues are taken seriously as political barometers. Late in the film, a candidate pulls out of the race rather than risk becoming “a national joke”; and despite attempts to hide Stanton’s promiscuity, mere rumors are enough to turn him into a talk-show punch line. The Mahers and Lenos can be excusedall is fair in comedy, after allbut now even editorialists hide behind moral superiority as a way of scoring easy points off the powers that wannabe. Primary Colors says a modern leader must subject himself to one-sided scrutiny from a media pack that thinks it knows the right angle on the storywhen in fact it can’t see the story at all.
Happy Together If there’s a music-video director in town who hasn’t scoped out Wong Kar-Wai’s dizzying pinball-wizard style, he hasn’t done his homework. Of course, this is the first of the Chinese director’s films to show locallyhis Chungking Express whizzed right past Nashville a couple years backbut this gorgeously melancholic meditation on cultural dislocation and romantic disentanglement makes a fine introduction. In Buenos Aires, a world away from their native Hong Kong, feuding lovers Lai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Ho (Leslie Cheung) make up, break up, awkwardly share living space, and gradually spin apart.
As in Chungking Express, that wonderful Wurlitzer jukebox of a movie, what Wong conveys so well is the sense of life as a series of missed connections, the sensation of feeling alone in a crowd, and the havoc that loneliness wreaks with timein one indelible shot, speeded-up motion allows us to see a half-hour of life zoom by in 15 beautiful, irreplaceable seconds. The fragmented editing (which mixes Christopher Doyle’s brilliant high-contrast black-and-white with hot-neon color) is initially hard to follow, but stick with it: This stylistically audacious road movie lingers in your head like a memory-laden pop song. Happy Together shows Monday through Wednesday at Sarratt; please, somebody, bring Wong’s Fallen Angels next.
Love and Death on Long Island As Giles De’Ath, an “erstwhile fogey” of a British novelist turned romantic obsessive, John Hurt gives a comic performance so finely tuned that he gets laughs just by reacting with surprise to an edit on a TV screen. In writer-director Richard Kwietniowski’s very funny homage to Death in Venice, Hurt’s De’Ath wanders by mistake into a multiplex screening of Hotpants Summer 2 (“This isn’t E.M. Forster!” he exclaims) and finds himself transfixed by Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), the movie’s bland, fifth-billed ingenue. Soon the elitist De’Ath is gobbling takeout pizza and Bostock’s crappy straight-to-video oeuvre, all the while devising a plan to get closer to his beloved.
Not all of director Richard Kwietniowski’s writing measures up to the sophistication of his intentthat’s the peril of riffing on Nabokov and Thomas Mann. But the film’s climactic section, which basically restages Humbert Humbert’s odyssey through motor-court America in Lolita, offers several inspired moments, some of them provided by a greasy spoon called Chef D’Irv. And Hurt gives this comedy of obsession and abasement real poignancy. Seated rapt before a VCR, caught in the agonizing thrall of Hotpants Summer 2, he’s every movie lover who ever sifted through obvious junk looking for scraps of illicit fantasy material.
Mercury Rising The kind of movie in which a top-secret government code is printed in a mass-market puzzle magazine; in which an autistic 9-year-old cracks the code instantly and calls the government’s top-secret phone number; in which the government has a top-secret phone number that comes with an alarm and a blinking “INCOMING CALL” sign. In other words, this makes Lost in Space look like gritty realismespecially when haggard, pill-popping FBI man Bruce Willis ends up stashing the kid with a total stranger (Kim Dickens, that cool former Nashvillian from Zero Effect). Ignore the dumb plotting, the use of autism as a high-concept grabber, and the ugly, unnecessary violence, and you’ll discover a lot of first-rate acting here, from Willis and bad guy Alec Baldwin (whose line readings are dazzlingly precise) down to the many bit players.
Swept from the Sea In a British coastal village, gruff doctor Ian McKellan and dying patient Kathy Bates reconstruct the tragic romance of outcast Rachel Weisz and shipwrecked gypsy Vincent Perez. Awful writing turns this into a Masterpiece Theatre rendition of Edward Scissorhands, with shearless Perez filling the part of the outsider too noble and delicate for our uncouth world. McKellan and Bates are customarily good; Weisz is lovely and does a lot of heavy breathing; Perez’s Ukrainian accent sounds like a man with a head cold speaking through a mouthful of blintzes. Notwithstanding Dick Pope’s starkly handsome cinematography, this is a dismal two-hour slog through miserably predictable events in a grubby village outfitted with the usual orthodontically impaired squires and harridans. For masochistic Anglophiles only.
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