Monday, April 24, 2023

My Own Private Robert Zemeckis Festival

by Patrick Bromley
Eight days of great films from a great filmmaker.

Over the last week, the Music Box theater in Chicago was doing a Robert Zemeckis series. Because I wasn't able to attend any of the screenings and at my wife's encouraging, I decided to do my own retrospective at home. I love Robert Zemeckis and have loved him for as long as I can remember, but I've probably taken him for granted for the last 20 years because he hasn't delivered a new classic in as many years. Spending over a week going through so much of his filmography, revisiting so many of his films so close to one another (and in some cases seeing some of his more recent films for the first time), gave me new appreciation for just what a special filmmaker he is.  I watched a lot of really great movies over the last eight days. Here they are.

What Lies Beneath (2000)
I kicked off my Zemeckis festival with this supernatural thriller, one of his final films before switching over to the MoCap wilderness of the early 2000s. I was grouchy about this movie a decade ago, referring to it as a "pure exercise" in style designed to employ the crew of Cast Away while Tom Hanks underwent his weight loss transformation. Revisiting it in 2023, I'd kill for more pure exercises like this. It's star-driven, not high concept or IP-driven, and features some remarkable filmmaking. Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford are both great as a married couple whose marriage undergoes some stress when they a) become empty nesters and b) Pfeiffer starts seeing ghosts. I wish it was a little more Tales from the Crypt and a little less Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but I really can't complain. I liked it a lot more than I remembered.

Used Cars (1980)
I followed up What Lies Beneath with Used Cars because that's how the Music Box lined it up on their schedule, but it was kind of fun to chase one of Zemeckis's "classy" pictures with the outlaw craziness of his early work. He didn't make many pure comedies -- there's typically another layer or two on top, usually involving special effects -- making Used Cars the best of them. Casting Jack Warden in a dual role is an inspired choice; casting Kurt Russell completely against type (at the time) is another. It was Gerrit Graham who got the biggest laughs from me this time around. I love how big the finale goes, further proof of just how unafraid Zemeckis and Bob Gale were to take chances from the outset.

Allied (2016)
This was a first-time watch for me. I skipped it in 2016 because I was kind of out on Zemeckis and the WWII spy drama of it all seemed a little dull to me. It's much better than I expected, which isn't to say that it's great but certainly worth watching in a Michael Curtiz programmer kind of way. I wish some of the photography was a little less flat and that maybe a different actor had been cast in the Brad Pitt role (I love Brad Pitt, just not as much in "normal guy" mode), but my issues with it are pretty minor. If anything I struggled a little to see the Zemeckis in it, but that may become more apparent on future viewings. There will be future viewings.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
I went back to Zemeckis's first movie as director so that a) Erika could see it for the first time and b) I could spin our Criterion Blu-ray for the first time. It remains clever and charming but for some reason only about 80% of a movie I really like; I don't know what accounts for the remaining 20%. Wendi Jo Sperber is the MVP and not just because her name happens to be Rosie. I like that the movie showcases some early Zemeckis trademarks, like a predictor of the next 20 or so years of his career.

Death Becomes Her (1992)
I still remember being dropped off at the movies opening day to do a double feature of this and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I liked Death Becomes Her more than Buffy, but I've never liked it more than on this viewing. The energy! The gags! Those three lead performances from Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis! The Tales from the Crypt energy of it all! This is a great example of Zemeckis using zany comedy to push the limits of special effects and vice versa. 

Romancing the Stone (1984)
I know I've told this story many times, but this was the movie my family picked to go see at the $1 theater in 1984. I was a little kid and didn't know the stars or the plot; all I knew was the dumb poster with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner swinging on a vine. I cried. Then I saw the movie and loved the shit out of it, learning a very important lesson about books and covers. This was another one we planned to go see in 35mm at the Music Box but couldn't make it work, so instead I watched it at home Sunday morning. I'll never be able to divorce myself from how much I've always loved it, but that's because it's terrific: funny and smart and thrilling and exciting and sexy and adventurous. It's Zemeckis's first "for hire" job and he knocks it out of the park, so much so that it was his last "for hire" job for a number of years. This is the one that got Back to the Future made and bought him much of his career. Every movie should be at least this good.

Back to the Future (1985)
Still the best movie ever made.

Roald Dahl's The Witches (2020)
Another first time watch, and the first big disappointment of the festival. There's not much that's obviously wrong with Zemeckis's remake/updated adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book, but there's not much that feels right about it either. Anne Hathaway is having fun in air quotes but the performance didn't work for me, and while Zemeckis seems to be having fun with the special effects and the camerawork, the fun doesn't really translate to the audience. Nicolas Roeg's adaptation might have been less faithful, but it's the better movie for sure.

Back to the Future Part II (1989)
For many years, my friend Doug (remember Doug?) had an ongoing debate about which Back to the Future sequel was better. I argued for II; he preferred III. After revisiting both for the first time in many years, I can concede that we are both correct. I like II because it's so goddamn clever and exists fully within the world of Back to the Future (I seriously think we've come to take for granted just how smart it is that Zemeckis and Gale have the characters in the sequel revisit the events of the first movie). I don't like it because it's super dark and angry and makes Marty into kind of an asshole. The good ultimately outweighs the bad, but if I'm being honest I don't need any sequels at all. I'm good.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)
I've actually seen Part III way fewer times over the years than I have Part II. I saw it when it was released in 1990, I watched it once when it came out on Blu-ray, so this was probably only my third viewing and maybe my best yet. Don't get me wrong -- I still don't love it because it feels like an episode of a Back to the Future TV show -- but it at least restores the heart of the original, something missing from Part II. There's really good stuff in it; I just happen to be more interested in Marty than Doc and this is much more of a Doc movie. Marty's only arc continues to be that he doesn't like being called 'chicken,' which is still stupid.

Welcome to Marwen (2018)
Thanks to Adam Riske for pushing me to watch this one, another of my few remaining unseen Zemeckis movies from the period after I had already given up on him. This and Allied prove I was wrong to do so. Marwen is kind of a mess, but it's a fascinating one and arguably the most personal movie Zemeckis has ever made in terms of addressing how and why he creates art and how the switch to MoCap affords him total control over his domain, for better and for worse. The effects are very cool -- this is a Zemeckis movie, after all -- and all the supporting performances from the women are a lot of fun. I'd rather he keep making 10 more Marwens than whatever competent live action remake he's going to end up doing next.

Forrest Gump (1994)
I'll tread carefully here, because this movie gets a lot of hate, which I think is undeserved. I'm glad Zemeckis has an Oscar winner and a Best Director statue, but that was the worst thing to happen to Forrest Gump because it made everyone cynical about it. There are plenty of problems with it, to be sure, but it has become such a punching bag that anything good about it gets overlooked. I still think there's a lot of good to be found. I also think Zemeckis is still such an iconoclast that this isn't so much a movie about how "anyone can succeed in America" as it is a movie about how anyone can succeed in America.

Beowulf (2007)
Zemeckis's second foray into pure MoCap animation (following The Polar Express) is more ambitious and more adult, using the technology to bring a full-throated fantasy epic to life. This was my first time revisiting Beowulf since seeing it in theaters in IMAX 3D, and I'm sure those gimmicks helped back in the day because it was the first movie I ever saw that way. The animation is still a little clunky and can't compare to what would be done in, say, Avatar two years later, but I've never really been bothered by that stuff. I like that Zemeckis was willing to use animation as a tool to tell different kinds of stories and not just to make children's films...even if two of his three MoCap movies are children's films.

There were a handful of films I didn't get to that I wanted to. I recently revisited Who Framed Roger Rabbit for a class and liked it more than ever (I used to be so grouchy about that movie and I have no idea why), so I wanted to include that. I intended to watch Flight for the first time since the theater and planned to end the festival with a long-overdue rewatch of Cast Away. I still haven't seen The Walk or his remake of Pinocchio, but the party's gotta stop sometime. It was a good party.

Who should I do next?


  1. Who should you do next? Renny Harlin of course!

  2. Rob Reiner

    I really like THE WALK in part because of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s over the top performance. But it’s also just a fun caper movie where the crime is a spectacular feat of human daring. I really wish I’d seen it in a movie theater.
    And, I haven’t watched Used Cars or I Wanna Hold Your Hand for 35+ years and now I want to because I remember them so fondly.

  3. I'm glad to see some appreciation for Allied! In his YouTube retrospective on Zemeckis, Patrick H Willems dismissed it with an offhand crack about how Pitt's face was digitally smoothed throughout. (I'd noticed how youthful Pitt looked while watching the movie, but I'm afraid I didn't make that leap myself.) And, thank gosh, I had no idea about the plot swerve halfway through the flick, which really took things up a notch.