The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, April 4, 2016

Field of Dreams

I love baseball and everything about it. The Chicago White Sox to the fantasy leagues, going to games to listening on the radio and watching on TV. It is and hopefully always will be my favorite sport. Naturally then, baseball movies have to be the best, right? My list starts with a classic, 1989's Field of Dreams.

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is a 36-year old man who owns a farm in Iowa and lives with his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan) and their young daughter, Karen (Gaby Hoffmann). One day while he's out in the expansive cornfields, Ray hears a voice tell him multiple times 'If you build it, he will come..." He doesn't know what to make of the voice and its mysterious message. What could it possibly mean? After hearing the voice repeat itself several times over several days, Ray thinks he's figured it out. Somehow, some way, Ray is supposed to build a baseball field in his cornfield. His reasoning? He thinks if he builds that field, his father's hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, will get a chance to redeem himself for his actions with the 1919 Black Sox. He builds the field and waits...and waits but nothing happens. Then one night as he mulls over their future with Annie, a man appears out on the field. It's Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) himself. That's only the start though. There's much more to come.

Ask 100 sports fans 'What's your favorite sports movie?' and who knows? Maybe you get 100 different answers! I don't know if it is my favorite, but it's certainly in the conversation with Hoosiers, Rocky, and a whole bunch more I can rewatch over and over again. The TV description of the 1988 film from director Phil Alden Robinson (he also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay) describes it as 'Capra-esque' -- as in Frank Capra -- and it's an incredibly apt description. It's an American story of family, baseball, hopes and dreams, and without being heavy-handed, believing in something mystical, something bigger than us that doesn't necessarily need to be explained. You just take it on faith and go for a ride.

I like The Natural, love Major League and The Sandlot, and swear by any number of other baseball flicks, but 'Field' is up there at the top. Why? Maybe more than any other baseball movie, it loves and respects the game. It appreciates the history, the unspoken connection people have with the sport, and maybe most importantly, the simple beauty of the game. In a late monologue, James Earl Jones explains the power of the game in one of the movie's most effective scenes. Far earlier as Ray meets Joe Jackson, the famous Shoeless expresses his personal love of the game in a simple, eloquent, authentic monologue. The story loves the history of the game, especially the 1910's and early 1920's. Watch it for that love and respect, the classic uniforms, those famous players, the infamous 1919 Black Sox, and so much more.

Who better to lead the way through our mystical baseball story than Crash Davis himself, Kevin Costner? Just a year off Bull Durham (another excellent baseball flick), Costner returns to the sports/baseball genre and delivers -- for me -- one of his all-time best roles. He's a 30-something farmer who knows little about farmer looking for some answers out of life. Instead, he gets a mysterious voice imploring him 'If you build it, he will come.' Costner's Ray doesn't always know where the road will take him, but he believes. Simple as that, he believes. He believes something good is down the road, and that him building a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield has a higher meaning. It has to, right? When everything seems to scream at how illogical the whole thing is, Costner sticks with his gut and keeps believing. Madigan is excellent as his ever-supportive wife, Annie, with him through thick and thin, while 6-year old Hoffmann is equally solid.

Three supporting performances help take the movie from really good into the classic stratosphere, Ray Liotta (relatively unknown at the time) as Shoeless Joe Jackson, James Earl Jones as reclusive writer Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster (in his final role) as Doc Graham, a former baseball player who became a doctor in his Minnesota hometown. I don't want to give away too much -- for the 6 people who haven't seen this movie by now -- but these performances are pristine. They're perfect. Liotta brings some edge to Shoeless, the mysterious ex-ballplayer who was banned from baseball even though evidence indicates Jackson did nothing wrong. He's got some cards up his sleeves for sure. Jones as Mann makes it look so freaking easy. Based on J.D. Salinger, Mann has retired from public life and is looking to live a quiet, peaceful life. His chemistry with Costner is pitch perfect from scene-to-scene, dramatic and funny. And, oh yeah, Burt Lancaster, a halfway decent actor in his own right (I guess). He's on-screen for maybe 4 or 5 minutes and steals every second he's in. Three great performances.

Also look for Timothy Busfield as Mark, Annie's brother in the real estate business who's trying to convince his brother-in-law to...ya know, not be nuts, and Frank Whaley as Archie 'Moonlight' Graham, a much younger version of Lancaster's Doc Graham. Dwier Brown has a quick but brutally effective part as John Kinsella, Ray's father. As for other players from the '19 Black Sox who show up, look for some familiar faces who make the most out of their quick, but highly effective parts.

The movie itself is a road picture once things get going, the story of a journey both for Ray but also the people and individuals he meets along the way. We see how Ray's decision to build the baseball field affects one person after another, somewhat like the universe is laying out the groundwork for him -- testing him of sorts -- and seeing if he'll follow along. As for the movie itself, it is a visually subtle but very good-looking movie. Always seems to be shot at sunset with all sorts of beautiful light. If not that time of day, that field o' dreams always is bathed in sunlight without a cloud in sight. Composer James Horner (one of the all-time bests) delivers an Oscar nominated-score that is an additional character there all along the way for the story.

So what is baseball best suited for? As 'Field' shows, it is a sport often shared between father and son, the crux of the story here itself. This is a sport with the subtle, charming ability to bring people together. That sentiment leads to one of the all-time great endings ever with a ridiculously strong final 20 minutes. It's one memorable moment after another, one great line after another, all of it leading to one of the more iconic closing shots ever if you ask me. Is it heaven? No, maybe not, but it's a perfect sports movie and just a great movie all-around. Must watch for sports fans and non-sports fans alike!

Field of Dreams (1988): ****/****

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