At long last, after eight years, I’ve reached the home stretch of the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection. The list below covers all but the very last film in the collection, which I decided to save for a final post. This group continues the “wildly uneven” phase of the collection, with some very strong movies mixed in with some selections that probably made sense when they originally sold this set, but seem a little curious in hindsight. Here we go.
Million-Dollar Baby (2004): I like Clint Eastwood a lot. I like Morgan Freeman a lot. They’re both great, as is Hillary Swank. But what begins as a much-better-than-usual underdog sports movie turns into bummer Oscar-bait. Granted, it worked like a charm, as Million Dollar Baby took home four major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Actress for Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Freeman. All three of them were deserving. But there’s a difference between tackling difficult subjects and emotional masochism, and I think this movie crosses that line. Like, to the point where it comes off as a Simple Jack-type parody. To cite one example: Maggie’s cartoon-character mother, wearing attire from a trip to Disney earlier that day, trying to get Maggie to sign over her fortune (by placing the pen in her mouth, since Maggie is paralyzed), but nonetheless stopping to remind Maggie “you lost!” This is bad. Bad. Flat-out. Over the top. To say nothing of the fact that she wouldn’t have “lost” the match in real life. And that’s before we get to the suicide attempt and, ultimately, the case for euthanasia. That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have great performances (it does), but it’s absurd and eyroll-inducing.
The Departed (2006): There is so much to like about this movie. It’s easy to write it off as just another Scorsese crime picture, but the distinctive hook of two entangled sides with opposing spies in their ranks makes for a riveting, tight film. With a lot of movies like this one, even good versions, there’s a sense of inevitability about what will ultimately happen. Heat (which is quite good) is a little like that. This one keeps dropping pieces of the proverbial puzzle into place, taking some unexpected turns right through the final scene. I’m not even bothered by Nicholson’s on-again / off-again accent. Great movie, and a well-deserving Best Picture winner.
The Dark Knight (2008): In the decade-plus since The Dark Knight, the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has established a fairly straightforward template for what a successful, high-quality superhero movie looks like. Even DC has attempted to emulate that template (albeit less successfully). The Dark Knight is almost jarring to watch now, with the benefit of 20-odd MCU films and another several DCU films that didn’t exist in 2008. It is much more adult, serious, and sometimes disturbing. The movie’s events create lasting consequences for nearly every major character, including Bruce Wayne himself. And, in this way, it’s less like a children’s comic book than the MCU films are—and I say all of that as a big fan of the MCU. But the intensity, action, and realism of The Dark Knight almost puts it in a different category. As it is, this is probably the best example of this kind of film. No major quibbles, although Alfred’s consistent depiction as some kind of philosopher is always a bit strange.
The Hangover (2009): I’ll get the basic review out of the way. This movie is still good for some solid laughs and a bunch of memorable comedic moments. I do think that it loses some of its potency on repeat viewings because (1) some of the comedy relies on shock value, and (2) there’s a mystery element to the plot that likewise changes a second viewing experience more for this movie than for most comedies. But watching The Hangover more than a decade after it came out, it’s still easy to see why it was such a wild, word-of-mouth phenomenon, tremendously boosting the stock of the three principles, if, unfortunately, slotting Zach Galifianakis to play versions of this character indefinitely. What jumps out at me most, though, is the number of times I thought to myself, “They couldn’t do this today.” This isn’t Blazing Saddles. This is a film released in 2009. And the 50-film set came out in 2014. I bet if Warner Bros. had been releasing it in 2022 instead of 2014, The Hangover wouldn’t have even been included. I don’t see this as a positive development.
The Blind Side (2009): This is one of those movies that falls into the category of “the real story is actually more interesting than the movie version.” Here, The Blind Side does a serviceable job of telling Michael Oher’s tale. The football scenes are almost all ridiculous, but, otherwise, it’s fine. I’m not sure why Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for this. Gravity, to name one, was a better, more demanding performance. But whatever. The most interesting part of the plot might have been the element of the NCAA investigating whether Oher’s trajectory might be exploited as a loophole to funnel underprivileged recruits to the almas mater of high-dollar donors. It’s barely discussed, here, but that’s a wise decision. I’m in a tiny minority who would have found that element fascinating. Overall, pretty forgettable. Other than his hair, Tim McGraw may have been the most realistic and charismatic character in the film. I also liked that Lily Collins played a character named “Collins.”
Sherlock Holmes (2009): In a vacuum, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes would be reasonably good. Downey is obviously a terrific actor, and he plays this part well, albeit with a fairly weak English accent. The problem is that we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a world in which Jeremy Brett existed. And Jeremy Brett didn’t play Sherlock Holmes, he was Sherlock Holmes. His is perhaps the greatest single inhabitance (is that the right word?) of a character I’ve ever seen in an extended television series. So, we’re left with the Downey version, and, as a result, this film comes across as a rich man’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen when compared to the Granada series, which was usually based on a faithful adaptation of the Doyle works. That’s not to say this is a bad film. It’s perfectly acceptable entertainment. Downey is solid, and Jude Law is an enjoyable, if unconventional, Watson. But I would still rather watch just about any episode of the Brett series than this movie or its sequel.