Instant Video Spotlight: Robert Zemeckis

These days, Robert Zemeckis is primarily known as the producer or director behind such high-tech, hyper-realistic animated hits as Disney’s A Christmas Carol, Beowulf and The Polar Express. But he used to direct a lot of live action movies too, including the Tom Hanks -starring Cast Away and Forrest Gump.

But before moving into such dramatic and then CGI-filled waters, Zemeckis was the go-to guy for bringing fun, supernatural and sci-fi -tinged comedies with snappy scripts and surprising casting choices to the screen. It’s a pity, because that type of film is sorely missed among today’s broad, star-vehicle comedies and R-rated grossout comedies. Here are a few Zemeckis comedy treasures from the vault – now available as Amazon Instant Videos:

Death Becomes Her – If you’ve only ever thought of Bruce Willis as an action star and Meryl Streep as an Oscar-winning star of dramas, you’re in for a surprise because they’re both pitch-perfect in this dark comedy. From IMDB:

Helen, a writer, and Madeline, an actress, have hated each other for years. Madeline is married to Ernest, who was once Helen’s fiance. After she recovers from a mental breakdown, Helen vows revenge by stealing back Ernest and plotting to kill Madeline. Both rivals have secretly drunk a miracle cure for aging; they accidentally discover, when each tries to eliminate the other, that they have become immortal and that “life” will never be the same again.

The Frighteners is a real treat for film buffs, as it was one of director Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings Trilogy) first major motion pictures (Zemeckis produced). Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer E A Solinas says:

Just before doing “Lord of the Rings,” director Peter Jackson (who can be seen in a cameo as “Man with Piercings”) made an off-kilter horror/comedy movie called “The Frighteners,” the tale of the undead and the guy who makes a living off of them. Though “Frighteners” was barely in theaters at all, this cult flick is funny, creepy, well-acted and wonderfully directed.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has seen spirits and apparitions ever since the car crash that killed his wife. Now he operates an amateur “ghostbusting” operation that is supposed to exorcise ghosts from people’s houses — the problem is that the ghosts who haunt those houses are in league with him (Chi McBride as the opinionated afro-ed Cyrus, Jim Fyfe as the nerdy Stuart, and most of John Astin as what is left of The Judge).

Frank’s business certainly isn’t hurt by the fact that for years after a serial killer’s murderous spree, people have died mysteriously of heart attacks. Then Frank starts seeing fiery numbers emblazoned on the foreheads of people who will die, including the husband of doctor Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado). As if trying to stop a specter of death weren’t hard enough, crazed FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) believes that Frank is the one murdering people. But the evil specter is still killing — and Lucy is the next victim.

And of course, there’s the sci-fi comedy classic Back to the Future, also starring Michael J. Fox, which spawned two sequels, a TV series and countless pop culture references.

In this film Fox plays Marty McFly, whose eccentric, mad scientist friend Doc Brown has just succeeded in inventing time travel. When Marty travels back to 1955, he meets his then-teenaged mother, who promptly falls for him (instead of his future father, another student at the same school), putting his future existence in jeopardy.

Amazon reviewer Michael Harbour says:

This movie holds up amazingly well after all these years. Marvelous economy of storytelling. Lively, committed performances. A joy to experience.

Finally, check out Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis’ masterpiece of blended live action and animation. In this noir-spoofing comedy, Bob Hoskins plays a gumshoe occupying a world where “toons”, animated characters, co-exist with human beings. The smart script takes aim at Hollywood tropes and stereotypes, segregation and big business, and the animation blends amazingly seamlessly with the live action backgrounds and actors. Vine Voice reviewer Gary F. Taylor says:

The concept and story are well known: cartoon characters are not drawings, but are living entities who work in the film industry, and when Maroon Cartoon star Roger Rabbit is accused of murdering Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), he turns to private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) for help. Trouble is, Eddie hates “Toons.” After all, one of them offed his brother, and Eddie hasn’t been sober since. The concept is a clever one, and the story could have gone in any number of directions–but ROGER RABBIT hops down a completely unexpected trail.

Set in 1947 Los Angeles, the film uses classic “noir” elements (and references everything from THE MALTESE FALCON to CHINATOWN); it also makes considerable sly social commentary on racism, with the “Toons” performing in a Cotton Club-like nightclub, literally working for peanuts at the studios, and more or less confined to living in “Toontown,” which might easily be read as social ghettoization. And all of these sidelights are interesting and entertaining. But the most attractive thing about ROGER RABBIT is that it is just plain fun to watch.



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