In accordance with the plan I laid out a few weeks back, I now resume my survey of the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection. I’ve made good on my word to power through the rest of it, and, as of this writing, I only have two left to watch. But, I still have to write about each of the films. Thus, here is a rundown of the movies from the collection that cover 1989 through 1994:
Driving Miss Daisy (1989): Showing this film to the median 25-year-old in 2022 would be an interesting exercise. This movie depicts what most of us in the 80s and 90s believed to be a positive, hopeful representation of race relations, but today would likely be mocked or sharply criticized as naïve or condescending or worse. I’m not convinced that this shift is “progress.” Still, contemporary critics and the Twitterati would almost certainly pillory Morgan Freeman’s Hoke as demeaning or servile—even though that’s sort-of the point! In 1989, though, critics loved it, and the Academy honored it with a boatload of nominations, including Jessica Tandy becoming the oldest Best Actress winner, and Dan Aykroyd(!!!) getting a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. To date, it’s the last PG-rated movie to win Best Picture. For me personally, it’s fine, if a bit paint-by-numbers. It’s certainly better than some of the other films you’ll read about in a moment, although it’s probably one of the weaker Best Picture winners. The only thing that I actively disliked about Driving Miss Daisy was that I found it implausible that a backwoods highway patrolman would instantly identify the rather uncommon surname “Werthan” as Jewish.
Goodfellas (1990): Here’s where I drift in to heretical territory. Goodfellas is undoubtedly a strong movie. Let me say that at the outset. Excellent performances abound, including the best of Ray Liotta’s career. Here comes the “but.” But, I think Casino is actually a better version of this type of film. Goodfellas has some of the hallmark “Scorcese”-isms, including requiring a voiceover to drive the plot, and having some scenes that clearly include partial improvisation, but Casino handles both of these elements better. Goodfellas gets credit for coming first, but Casino took much the same formula and smoothed out some of the rougher edges. On the other hand, the rough edges are part of what so many people like about Goodfellas. For me, it’s a good movie that’s plagued a bit by the eternal “book-based-on-a-movie” challenge, where time leaps and glossing-over are necessary to fit the story within a three-hour window. But I don’t want it to sound like I don’t think Goodfellas is good. I absolutely do. I just wouldn’t put it in my top three of Scorcese’s movies—which is as much a testament to his work as it is to my opinion of Goodfellas.
Unforgiven (1992): The idea of a credible, critically acclaimed western seemed strange in 1992, as the genre had entered a bit of a dead period following a lengthy heyday up through the 1960s. Yet, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman (again!), and Gene Hackman, among others, brought this story to life in a way that incorporated very traditional genre themes while never seeming cliched or passé. In some ways, this is the flipside of Shawshank Redemption (see below), in that the main character has undergone an off-screen metamorphosis after a life of misdeeds. This film ponders whether such a transformation is possible, and if the elements that created those misdeeds can be tamed and harnessed, if not eliminated. Beyond all of that, though, there’s Hackman’s Oscar-winning performance as Little Bill Daggett. Hackman is superb, and Unforgiven is an enduring, worthwhile movie for anyone who even remotely enjoys westerns.
The Bodyguard (1992): Let’s cut right to the chase: this might be the weakest movie in the entire collection. I think the only reason it’s in this set is because it does boast one noteworthy accomplishment. Namely, The Bodyguard has the best-selling movie soundtrack album of all time. Outside of that, it’s a forgettable thriller marred by illogical character shifts—especially Costner going from ultra-professional bodyguard to a guy who sleeps with his own client at the virtual drop of a hat. Oh, and the sister being jealous and destructive was so obvious that I can’t even call it a “twist.” Certainly not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but, even among the more curious inclusions in this collection (most of which are coming up soon), this one is an outlier.
Natural Born Killers (Director’s Cut) (1994): Oliver Stone’s not-at-all subtle indictment of American media culture (which has only gotten worse since the 1990s) seems almost quaint in most respects from the vantage point of 2022. The first half of the movie is a semi-coherent, famously violent peyote trip of a film, but it gets slightly better in the second half with a strong performance by Robert Downey, Jr. In the end, all of the social commentary and satire seems incredibly obvious (short version: abusive childhoods + sensationalistic media culture = incubator for psychopathy) and the brutality is intentionally excessive, but the core cast is quite strong. I never need to see it again, though. As a side-note, I’m now realizing how many (PG-13) parallels there were between Woody Harrelson’s character in Natural Born Killers and his character in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a connection that escaped me because I saw the latter prior to seeing the former.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994): One of the greatest films ever not to win Best Picture, I’m not sure there’s much I can say about Shawshank that hasn’t already been said. The script is outstanding and the actors are impeccable. What jumps out about Shawshank is how even minor characters with a few lines are instrumental to the understanding of the main characters, because they all reflect the impact of the most important “character” of all: institutional life. The film provides insights into the nature of humanity and what institutionalization can do to that humanity, yes, but what may make the film particularly special is that it’s an exploration of the nature of redemption focusing largely on an innocent man (who, presumably, doesn’t “need” to be redeemed in the conventional sense). Shawshank is in the elite tier of films in this collection.
Whew. I covered a lot of ground quickly, but that wraps up this batch of films. Onward! Next up: The Matrix.