After two decades at the top of the best-seller heap, Stephen King is still churning out the same kinds of stories. Namely, we’re talking about tales in which mostly interchangeable characters go up against virtually identical villains caught up in literally the same themes.
And the formula continues to work. King annually sells hundreds of thousands of books, both in hard cover and paperback.
So ask yourself: Why does a guy who has enjoyed such literary success continue to stumble cinematically?
Think about movies such as “Firestarter,” “Cat’s Eye,” “Children of the Corn” or “Silver Bullet.” Even those that he has had more of a hand in producing, including “Maximum Overdrive” - which he actually directed - typically fare worse than the literary sources from which they sprung.
These box-office (and arguably artistic) flops act as counterpoints for uneven, if occasionally brilliant, films such as “The Shining,” “Misery” or the television miniseries “Stephen King’s ‘It”’ and “Stephen King’s ‘The Stand.”’
And even for the best films, such as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Carrie” or “Stand By Me.”
The two “Lawnmower Man” adaptations are a perfect case in point. As examples of the King oeuvre, they rank just above compost.
“Lawnmower Man” was so bad that King had his name removed from the title. The loose adaptation of a King short story involves a developmentally disabled man (Jeff Fahey) who, with the help of a brilliant scientist (Pierce Brosnan), becomes a virtual reality superhero.
As with most of King’s plots, what occurs is mostly predictable, with revenge against the obligatory bully a requisite part (this, in fact, is so much a King staple that you have to wonder just how much abuse he himself suffered at a younger age).
The computer graphics of “Lawnmower Man” are impressive, but this makes the silliness of the rest just that much harder to take.
In the sequel, “Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace” (which is available on video this week), the connection to King is even more tenuous. Matt Frewer (“Max Headroom”), who without explanation takes over the role created by Fahey, comes back to life in the form of a double-amputee named Jobe who has been hired to create a powerful computer network.
The trick is that network exists in virtual reality, where Jobe can become king of the gigabyte. Even as a story of a low-I.Q. guy who gets smarter through science, this is a step down even from the overhyped original.
Then again, can anything bearing Stephen King’s byline ever be anything but overhyped?
“Lawnmower Man” Rated R * 1/2;
“Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace” Rated PG-13 *
Blue In the Face ***
Not as much a real movie as it is a mock documentary, this Wayne Wang sequel-of-sorts to his movie “Smoke” offers a variety of characters, plots and celebrity cameos (Roseanne, Madonna, Michael J. Fox, Lily Tomlin, etc.). Some are so-so, but some are hilarious, especially those featuring rocker and cultural philosopher Lou Reed and film director Jim Jarmusch. Rated R
Sabrina ** 1/2
A playboy (Greg Kinnear) is set to marry until he begins to fall in love with the chauffeur’s daughter (Julia Ormond), a situation that his millionaire brother (Harrison Ford) tries to disrupt. A remake of the 1954 original that starred, respectively, William Holden, Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, this Sydney Pollack feature seems a bit dated for the 1990s (and Ford seems a bit old for schoolgirl Ormond). But romantic sorts likely won’t notice, and there’s always Kinnear to watch. The former host of cable television’s “Talk Soup” is refreshing in his big-screen debut. Rated PG
Two If By Sea ** 1/2
As good as Sandra Bullock is at creating a sympathetic character, you’d think that this pairing of her and Denis Leary would be a natural success. But something is missing. It could be Leary, who is trying to change his hard-edged MTV image, but most likely it’s the script, which ends up sacrificing character for cuteness, plot quality for the same old thing. Leary and Bullock are working-class types who, because he moonlights as a particularly poor thief, end up in possession of a $4 million Matisse - and chased by the cops. Then they argue, she meets a handsome guy whom Leary mistrusts … and so on. The “gang” pursuing the couple does add a laugh or three. Rated R
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