Robert Zemeckis

Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)

There are so many easy targets in Flight. Not really the acting, even though a lot of the supporting cast is phoning it in. They’re good actors–Don Cheadle, John Goodman (doing a riff on Big Lebowski)–and they’re capable at phoning it in.

It’d be impossible for them to do anything else, however, given director Zemeckis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a feature film where the famous songs playing in the background always directly inform the action. It’s either incredibly condescending to the audience or it’s just supposed to be the most obvious movie ever made.

Occasionally, because the acting from Denzel Washington and Kelly Reilly is so good, I thought there might be a chance it was all a ruse and Zemeckis and writer John Gatins were lulling the audience into a false sense of security. Flight isn’t about a happy ending, it’s about Denzel Washington, movie star and good guy, playing a fundamentally decent human being who has a lot of problems. But he can overcome those problems… because he’s Denzel Washington, good guy.

The film savors each moment of Washington’s failed attempts at redemption, every time he goes lower into the depths–it’s telling Flight skips ahead during what would have been its most difficult section dramatically.

Ignoring the trite foreshadowing, the manipulative writing, the general cheapness of the film overall, Flight is incredibly watchable. Both for Washington’s performance and, sure, to bemusedly regard Zemeckis’s vapid pseudo-sincerity. It takes major hits in the third act before going down.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by John Gatins; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Nelson Coates; produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey and Zemeckis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Whip Whitaker), Don Cheadle (Hugh Lang), Kelly Reilly (Nicole), John Goodman (Harling Mays), Bruce Greenwood (Charlie Anderson), Brian Geraghty (Ken Evans), Tamara Tunie (Margaret Thomason), Nadine Velazquez (Katerina Marquez), Peter Gerety (Avington Carr), Garcelle Beauvais (Deana) and Melissa Leo (Ellen Block).


Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

Back to the Future gives the impression of being very economical in terms of its narrative… but it really isn’t. Zemeckis just does such a great job immediately establishing the fifties setting, even though there’s less than fifty minutes before the third act, the film feels more immediate.

It takes a half hour to get to the past (until that point, of course, the title doesn’t make much sense) and Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale establish the characters. Well, not the characters, but the cast. No one in Future has much of a character, just a distinct, likable persona. Even Thomas F. Wilson’s menacing thug.

Without the establishing front matter, Michael J. Fox’s trip to the past wouldn’t work, at least not with his parents, Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson. Actually, it might work with Glover, since he’s fantastic. Thompson is not; Zemeckis has problems with female actors–both Thompson and Claudia Wells are weak. Wendie Jo Sperber is good in her cameo though.

While Fox holds the film together, his performance concentrates more on likability than actual dramatic heft. Christopher Lloyd is much stronger; he gives a physical comedy performance some of the time, but also acts as the viewer’s entry into the extraordinary situation. He does quite well.

Of particular note are Dean Cundey’s photography and Alan Silvestri’s score. Silvestri’s score isn’t subtle, but it’s effective. And Cundey does great work, even though Zemeckis’s composition is pedestrian.

Though sometimes painfully shallow, Future is a lot of fun.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), George DiCenzo (Sam Baines), Frances Lee McCain (Stella Baines) and James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland).


Romancing the Stone (1984, Robert Zemeckis)

So much of Romancing the Stone is perfect, when the film has bumps, they stand out. Even worse, it closes on one of those bumps. The finale is so poorly handled, one has to wonder if it’s the result of a rewrite.

Anyway, on to the glowing stuff.

The film’s a technical marvel. Zemeckis’s Panavision composition juggles the story’s action, its character moments and the beautiful scenery. Plus, he’s got Dean Cundey shooting the film. It’s stunning to watch; there’s not a single unrewarding shot.

But Zemeckis also gets how to integrate the humor. Even when the characters are in danger–for example, when villain Manuel Ojeda is fighting with protagonist Kathleen Turner–Zemeckis finds the right mix to make the threat viable yet comical side situations appropriate.

The same balance works for Danny DeVito and Zach Norman, who are also villains (Norman’s even scary sometimes), but they’re always hilarious. DeVito’s role in the film is just to give the audience something else to enjoy. Stone is big on its amusement value, starting in its first few moments with a good joke.

Turner’s excellent in the lead, though at some point her character arc about coming out of her shell thanks to Michael Douglas’s vaguely criminal, but still swashbuckling expat, falls through. It’s like a scene or three are missing.

Douglas has a lot of fun. DeVito’s hilarious. In small roles, both Alfonso Arau and Holland Taylor are outstanding. Especially Arau.

Plus, Alan Silvestri’s score’s infectious.

Stone‘s a great vacation.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Diane Thomas; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Donn Cambern and Frank Morriss; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Michael Douglas; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Douglas (Jack T. Colton), Kathleen Turner (Joan Wilder), Danny DeVito (Ralph), Zack Norman (Ira), Alfonso Arau (Juan), Manuel Ojeda (Zolo), Holland Taylor (Gloria), Mary Ellen Trainor (Elaine) and Eve Smith (Mrs. Irwin).


Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, Robert Zemeckis)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit, even with the absolute mess of a final act, would have really benefited from a better director.

Oh, Zemeckis isn’t bad. With Dean Cundey shooting the film, it’d be hard for it to look bad and it doesn’t. But Zemeckis doesn’t–apparently–know how to bring all the elements together. The film opens as a Chinatown homage and sort of falls apart once it deviates from that model.

The big problem is Bob Hoskins, his performance and his character. The performance isn’t the fault of screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, but the fully contrived backstory for the character is sure their responsibility. Roger Rabbit‘s so diverting–the animation mixes beautifully with the live action and is always visually engaging–the end credits are rolling by the time it’s clear Hoskins’s character is more cartoonish than the cartoons.

Since any judgment about character development can be delayed, Hoskins’s performance is the film’s bigger problem. He’s charmless in a role more appropriate for Humphrey Bogart. He does, however, work really well (without speaking) during the cartoon effects.

The rest of the supporting cast is very strong–Christopher Lloyd and Joanna Cassidy are both excellent. Voicing the cartoon leads Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner do well… though there aren’t enough great lines from Turner. There are like four, which are all outstanding, but no more.

The derivative Alan Silvestri score gets old immediately and Arthur Schmidt’s editing is bad, but, otherwise, Roger Rabbit‘s fun stuff.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; animation director, Richard Williams; screenplay by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, based on a novel by Gary K. Wolf; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Arthur Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designers, Roger Cain and Elliot Scott; produced by Frank Marshall and Robert Watts; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bob Hoskins (Eddie Valiant), Charles Fleischer (Roger Rabbit / Benny The Cab / Greasy / Psycho), Christopher Lloyd (Judge Doom), Kathleen Turner (Jessica Rabbit), Joanna Cassidy (Dolores), Alan Tilvern (R.K. Maroon), Stubby Kaye (Marvin Acme), Lou Hirsch (Baby Herman) and David L. Lander (Smart Ass).


Back to the Future Part II (1989, Robert Zemeckis)

Back to the Future Part II, while front heavy with special effects, ends up being a small picture. The first half or so deals with the sequel setup from the first movie’s finale but then Part II tells a side story set during the first film. Time travel franchises can be, it turns out, rather economical.

Unfortunately, these economies mostly just show off how Bob Gale’s creatively bankrupt script. The film is reductive, not expansive, with most of the cast wasted. Christopher Lloyd, for example, disappears for large sections, occasionally popping up for a comical line reading. Michael J. Fox and Thomas F. Wilson are the whole show and neither do well. Neither are bad, but both have all new character quirks to incorporate. These incorporations are a tad difficult… since the original film looms over this one. And not just because whole sections of the first film’s footage is reused or because the second half involves Fox acting “alongside” himself.

Gale and Zemeckis continue to waste female talent. Elisabeth Shue actually has some decent screen time in the first half, being the viewer’s entry into the future of she and Fox, but then she literally gets knocked out for the rest of the movie. Lea Thompson shows up for a few scenes, does a lot better than Shue (who mugs constantly), before evaporating.

Gone are the first film’s likable characterizations. Part II is an ugly film; nastiness is apparently easier to write. The abject lack of story is shocking.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; screenplay by Bob Gale, based on a story by Zemeckis and Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Neil Canton and Gale; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly / Marty McFly Jr / Marlene McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen / Griff Tannen), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland), Jeffrey Weissman (George McFly) and Charles Fleischer (Terry).


Back to the Future Part III (1990, Robert Zemeckis)

Apparently, all Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale needed for a Back to the Future sequel was a story. Part III, unlike the second installment, has a lot going on and it’s not all tied into the original’s storyline. Instead, Michael J. Fox finds himself in the Old West, trying to save Christopher Lloyd.

Zemeckis and Gale finally reward Lloyd for his time with a good part in this one. Fox’s story is boring–he’s up against Thomas F. Wilson again (Wilson is utterly fantastic)–but Lloyd’s romancing Mary Steenburgen while playing cowboy. There’s also a nice bit for Lloyd set after the first movie. This entry really makes it clear Zemeckis and Gale don’t know what works in these movies.

They include some more nonsense details, with Fox playing his ancestor. Lea Thompson shows up for a scene or two as Fox’s great-great-grandmother or something… it’s unclear if the filmmakers mean to imply the family tree has crossed branches. Probably not; Part III, until the awkward ending (it’s an ending to Part II, not this one), is rather genial.

The Dean Cundey photography is great and editors Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt do excellent work, especially on the unbelievably tense finale. Unfortunately, Alan Silvestri’s score is either repetitive or weak. It’s a small quibble in an otherwise excellent production.

There are nice minor performances from Matt Clark and James Tolkan.

While it finishes the series, Part III does show what works in Future sequels–tight writing, inventive setting.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; screenplay by Bob Gale, based on a story by Zemeckis and Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly / Seamus McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Mary Steenburgen (Clara Clayton), Thomas F. Wilson (Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen / Biff Tannen), Lea Thompson (Maggie McFly / Lorraine McFly), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), Matt Clark (Chester the Bartender), Richard Dysart (Barbwire Salesman), Pat Buttram (Saloon Old Timer), Harry Carey Jr. (Saloon Old Timer), Dub Taylor (Saloon Old Timer), James Tolkan (Marshal James Strickland), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly) and Jeffrey Weissman (George McFly).


Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

Back to the Future has become a detached experience. It isn’t really dated, it’s just hard to interact with the film in the same way one could when its content was more contemporary (in seven years, it’ll be like watching Michael J. Fox as the parent and Crispin Glover as the grandparent). The scenes set in the 1950s, which defined–in modern cinema–the portrayal of the period, feel a lot more “real” than the scenes set in 1985. It’s an odd relationship, one possibly even worthy of some consideration (especially given the film’s–somewhat forgotten–importance in popular culture and Hollywood cinema).

On its own, the film’s still a competent, well-meaning diversion. It doesn’t bear too much examination or consideration–the ending is incredibly problematic–but it’s a fine time. The humor–from Fox’s observations to Glover’s entire performance to Christopher Lloyd’s mugging for the camera–holds up, but feels a lot more comfortable than it should. It might be because the film’s become so engrained in the filmic consciousness–it’s familiar to a point similar to television programs (its stars being primarily television actors notwithstanding). It’s a passive viewing experience… there’s little new for it to offer.

This condition has nothing to do with its age or popularity, there just isn’t much to the story. There are a lot of little details, but the characters are rather shallow. Fox is engaging because he’s Fox, not because his character has any depth. Glover is just the same–I mean, the film never explores Glover’s home life, which is quite telling (Gale and Zemeckis knew they didn’t have room). Lea Thompson, who probably gives the worst performance–she’s okay and effective in parts, but compared to her co-stars, she’s the pits–is only interesting because of what she does, not who she is. Gale and Zemeckis set the tone for future blockbusters here–the actors aren’t playing people, rather personifying caricatures who do amusing things. These aren’t people who live off-screen.

During the way too classy opening credits–they suggest a technical craft Zemeckis simply isn’t capable of applying to narrative scenes–when I saw Dean Cundey was the cinematographer, I got ready for some beautiful shots. There aren’t any. All of the shots are nice and well-lighted and so on, but nothing really grabs. Zemeckis isn’t interesting in that factor (the wonderment factor… there’s never a moment where Fox reflects on the weight of his situation). Cundey does have some beautiful outdoor shots though, even if they’re incidental.

The film’s special effects are solid–the best special effect is the 1950s setting, which feels perfect throughout. The editing is problematic, occasionally revealing the stunt or skate-boarding doubles. Alan Silvestri’s score, which is basically the same as all his other scores, is occasionally annoying, but usually all right. The make-up is first-rate–Crispin Glover practically looks more realistic as a forty-seven-year-old than he does a teenager.

Besides Glover, the best performance has to be Thomas F. Wilson. His villain is evil, but also produces a lot of laughter, mostly because of Wilson’s physical performance. It’s the film’s most difficult role. To be a somewhat lovable bully.

At the end–the much remembered teaser, the one I found so compelling as an eight-year-old–Back to the Future loses its way. It’s already on a shaky path (the narrative takes way too many short-cuts, a forerunner to blockbuster trailer moments instead of actual scenes) but the end just makes it too much. There’s too much to consider, from Lloyd’s future clothes to the quick gag about the garbage. It’s a great set-up for a sequel, but it’s a poor conclusion for a movie.

Worse, it reveals there isn’t any possible conclusion to Back to the Future. Fox doesn’t have an arc (he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t change) and no one else really exists….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), George DiCenzo (Sam Baines), Frances Lee McCain (Stella Baines) and James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland).


Scroll to Top