Friday, June 5, 2009

FIELD OF DREAMS - Blu-Ray (Universal 1989) Universal Home Video

Except for a few locations photographed in Boston, most of the action in director Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams (1989) takes place on adjoining farms in Jo Davies County, Illinois – the fictional home of Ray (Kevin Costner) and Annie Kinsella (Amy Madigan). It's a good life, idealized in that necessary bucolic way Hollywood tends to admire the agrarian lifestyle from a safe distance, unencumbered by pesticide spraying, dry rot, drought and all the other tragedies that readily befall the American breadbasket. 

It's difficult to quantify exactly what makes Field of Dreams work so beautifully; the understated screenplay and acting by virtually all of the principle cast; John Lindley's sumptuous cinematography and James Horner's poetic underscore conspiring to create a truly unique, expressive and heartfelt sojourn for the viewer down a memory lane we all secretly yearn for; the 'going home again' wish fulfillment working overtime and delivering its home run into our hearts; bases loaded and with a tear memorably caught in our eye. Based on the novel ‘Shoeless Joe’ by the real Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams is both a fond valentine to the sport of baseball and a poignant homage to familial bonds transcending time and space. 


Too many movies merely resurrect the past from a visual standpoint - the production values impeccable but nevertheless bending to the artifice rather than seeming to genuinely exist at least for an hour or two. One can admire such detail at a glance from a purely visual perspective, and quite possibly even appreciate it for the run of the story. But it does absolutely nothing for the heart, mind or soul.  Field Of Dreams is undeniably different. It moves the viewer in almost unexpected ways, sneaking up and then gently tugging at the heartstrings without ever becoming maudlin or contrived. It is a rare movie that can do this unabashedly and seemingly without making us feel manipulated in the process. Field of Dreams is that movie; tenderly realized by craftsmen both in front of and behind the camera who so obviously have the rosin and dust of natural turf coursing through their veins. 


Ray is a novice farmer, his current crop of corn the envy of his neighbors. Residing on the land with Annie and their young daughter, Karin (Gaby Hoffmann), Ray’s life is serene and peaceful…that is, until he hears a mysterious voice repeatedly, and rather cryptically whispering to him from the cornfield, “If you build it, he will come.”  
To be sure, Ray is not a mystic, and yet almost daily he finds himself being compelled to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn. Ray is determined to not become complacent as he believes his late father did after his dreams of playing pro baseball were cut short.

Although skeptical of Ray’s decision, Annie is supportive. Ray’s neighbors, however, clearly feel that he has lost touch with reality. As the year passes without incident Ray and Annie are forced to face the fact that their investment in the baseball diamond has severely impacted their personal finances. Ah, but t
hen, the miraculous happens. Karin sees a ball player dressed in 1919 garb pitching on Ray’s field. The man turns out to be the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta); a stellar Black Sox pitcher whose dream of playing ball has been resurrected. Over the next few months, Joe returns to the field, each time bringing more of the 1919 Black Sox team with him.

However, Ray and Annie are the only ones who can see Joe and his team. Captivated by the magical time warp that has come to their property Ray refuses to plow under the field, even at the behest of his brother-in-law Mark (Timothy Busfield). After a heated discussion at their local PTA Ray is compelled to contact reclusive author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) whose own confession of having seen the Dodgers play on Ebbets' Field is shrugged off as scandalous imagination by the others. 
Embittered, Terence initially rebuffs Ray’s invitation to come to his farm. Eventually, he softens - enough to help Ray seek out 1920's baseball legend, Archibald Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster).

Here’s where the plot gets a little unsettling. Ray and Terence discover that Graham – who lived in later years as a county doctor - has died sixteen years earlier. However, that evening Ray is teleported back in time to 1972, the year of Graham’s death where miraculously Graham meets with Ray and confesses that he still has dreams about playing baseball one last time. 
Ray offers to fulfill Graham's dream on his farm. But Graham declines, returning Ray to the present instead where, together with Terence, they begin the drive back to Ray’s farm. All is not lost, however. On a lonely stretch of road, Ray and Terence decide to pick up a young hitchhiker (Frank Whaley) who introduces himself as Archie Graham – the reincarnated younger version of Moonlight.

The last act of Field of Dreams is a superb 'lump-in-the-throat' melodrama tinged in the supernatural. The trick and the majesty of it is that nothing ever seems weird, out of place or lacking; Robinson sustaining our disbelief in ways we can all believe in and root for. It's all an act, of course, but the magic lantern illusion is working overtime, the joy mirrored in the character's eyes exponentially mounting with our own satisfaction for having been supremely entertained. 


Returning to his farm, Ray and Terence are astounded to learn that the 1919 team have been making regular appearances to play ball on Ray’s field of dreams. The young Graham joins the roster. Unfortunately, Mark arrives – having bought Ray’s mortgage – to declare that either Ray plow under the field or sell the farm to him. In an ensuing struggle between Mark and Ray, Karin is knocked to the ground, choking on the hot dog she was eating.

Recognizing that the child will die without his intervention, Graham crosses the invisible barrier between the past and the present. He is instantly aged into old Doc Graham, resuscitating Karin and thus saving her life. For the first time, Mark is able to see all of the players and understands what the field means, not only to Ray but also these ghosts from the past. Tragically, the time/space continuum cannot be reversed for Graham. He departs the field for the last time.

The players encourage Terence to join them as Moonlight’s replacement. At first, Ray is hurt at not being invited, but then realizes that to partake in the game he would have to leave his wife and daughter behind in the present. Instead, Shoeless Joe approaches Ray to reveal the true identity of the team’s catcher – none other than Ray’s late father whom Ray introduces to Annie as ‘John’. Humbled at the sight of his father as a vibrant young man – something Ray never considered before – he emotionally addresses John as ‘dad’ – realizing that it was his father’s voice he heard in the cornfield all along. 


On every level, Field of Dreams is masterful entertainment, the screenplay also by Phil Alden Robinson delivering a groundswell of emotion with all the grace of that bygone era in sports left intact when personal integrity and athletic prowess went hand in mitt. This is a poignantly told generational melodrama with subtly nuanced performances by Costner, Jones and Lancaster, and a remarkably intuitive turn from Liotta. Sports movies are not usually this satisfying, and it is saying much of Robinson’s carefully paced action that he does not allow the narrative to degenerate into a cliche of that fuzzy ‘feel good’ in the last act. Instead, like Ray, the audience are left with contemplative sadness brought on by the inevitable passage of time and the loss of people, traditions and ways of living that seem so much more vibrant and enriching than our own. 

Universal Home Video’s Blu-Ray bests the two previously issued DVD releases, though not without its own anomalies. Flesh tones that were pale on the first DVD and slightly too orange on the collector’s edition are now a very pronounced brown/orange on the Blu-Ray. The green husks of corn take on a slightly brown hue. Overall, color saturation seems a tad too robust.

The Blu-Ray benefits from a higher bit rate with fine details more prominently displayed. Contrast levels seem to have been slightly boosted, however, for an unnatural appearance overall. We also get some very annoying edge effects. I sure wish Universal would reconsider redoing this disc. It needs it. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and satisfying, though hardly distinguished among acoustic renderings. 
Extras include several featurettes directly imported from the Collector’s Edition, an audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
3

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