Of all the sub-genres of SF, the one that is hardest to pull off is Modern (or Urban) Fantasy. Two of my favourite authors, Fritz Leiber and Harlan Ellison, excel in this type of story. Some years ago I read a book that essayed the Modern Fantasy sub-genre, without recourse to pyrotechnics or horror effects, and wove a magical tale together charmingly. That it was by a new author and dealt, inter alia, with baseball only increased my appreciation of its success. Yclept Shoeless Joe and written by W P Kinsella, it is one that I have recommended to others, so I was apprehensive when I discovered it was being translated into film.
Wonder of wonders! Not only is it a faithful translation of the book's spirit, it is a great movie.
Now called Field of Dreams, it deals with the consequences of the actions of an Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella, driven by 'voices' to build a baseball diamond in his corn field. As a result, the eight Chicago "Black Sox", baseball stars disqualified for life for throwing the 1919 World Series, start playing ball in his field. The central character of these eight is "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, an enigmatic historic character, rubbed out of baseball despite the fact that his performances in the fateful Series show he made no attempt to throw any games. (Perhaps, he was done for dishonesty in accepting a bribe to throw the games and then reneging.) As the concatenations of Ray's actions expand, they involve a reclusive writer (J D Salinger in the novel; a fictional Terrence Mann in the film), a country doctor, once called up to "the Show" without getting an at-bat, and Kinsella's father.
One of the joys of the film is the way in which everything is treated with innocent simplicity, an acceptance of the magic without any attempt to explain it or justify it. Yet for all its fantasy elements, it is firmly rooted in the mimetic mode and the characters remain absolutely credible. One has to lay the full responsibility for this at the feet of Phil Aldin Robinson, the auteur of this movie. As writer-director, Robinson is responsible for the look and feel of the piece and for its faithful adaptation of the Kinsella novel. The major change, Salinger to Mann, works well and Robinson's naturalistic style complements the narrative development. And he achieves wonders with the cast.
Kevin Costner (Kinsella), Ray Liotta (Jackson) and Burt Lancaster (as "Doc" Graham) are better than good but their fine performances are bettered by two outstanding ones. James Earl Jones, as Mann, delivers another measured portrayal. His voice is the epitome of mellifluous and is certainly the finest speaking voice in film - a pleasure to listen to. The best piece of acting, though, belongs to Amy Madigan, as Kinsella's put-upon but understanding spouse. Her characterisation is spot-on and acts as the anchor for the whole piece.
It's a shame that Field of Dreams came out in the (US) summer because summer releases rarely win the Academy Award but, until something better comes along, this deserves to be the winner of the statue that is said to resemble Margaret Herrick's Uncle Oscar.
If the cast and mode of FoD is clearly mimetic, the protagonists of the two other films under consideration are definitely mythic. The Batman, from his comics origins, has always been larger than life. James Bond has been elevated to the mythos by the aggregation of increasingly incredible heroics over 25 years of film. But both have been given new vehicles in which to display their wares, and, in each case, the mythic character is given more realistic settings than have been heretofore provided.
Tim Burton's Batman takes the ubermensch crime fighter back to his origins and re-explores the creation of the character. In a script that is far more literate than one might expect (Harlan Ellison suggests that Charles McKeown, screenwriter of Brazil and Munchausen, did a re-write to inject the verbal cojones), the Batman dances a duet of dementia with the Joker. In the only startling deviation from the Batman mythos (apart from letting Vicki Vale in on the secret of Batman's real identity), the Joker becomes the gangster responsible for the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents. As they confront each other, they realise that, indeed, each made the other. But the film takes the relationship deeper than that. In essence, it suggests that the Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. Both are deeply disturbed men, scarred emotionally and disguised physically. (Burton re-inforces the connection between the two by having the actor who plays the young Jack Napier appear almost identical with Bruce Wayne.) In fact, the whole film turns out to be very similar to one of Robert Heinlein's early solipsist stories, like "All You Zombies", where everyone turns out to be the same character. The Batman and the Joker share a fascination with the same woman (and from her performance, God alone knows why), a similar ethic (the Batman's wanton destruction of the chemical factory and his devil-take-the-hindmost aerial attack show the same want of care for the average-pleb-in-the-street as the Joker) and an identical recourse to violence as the solution to one's problems.
This level of speculation is justified because Burton has given great depth to the Batman mythos. And his achievement, visually, is equally laudable. The Production Design has created an exceptionally black Gotham against which the confrontation takes place. A sort-of cousin of the dystopic future LA Ridley Scott had made for Blade Runner. And the effects team must have had great fun putting together all those toys for the Batman. It all ties together so well in the movie. With a few minor caveats, the look and ideas of the movie add up.
Obviously, the increasingly large part afforded the Joker meant that the supporting cast was pushed more to the side or onto the cutting room floor. There, in the wings, waiting for the inevitable (and almost certainly bathetic) sequels are Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, the dedicated reporter and an Ed Koch look-a-like Mayor. Here they are a minor sidelight and, at times, their parts are cut so much that it hampers the continuity. Jack Palance's gangster and Jerry Hall's essay at moll also suffer from the necessity to edit, to the detriment of the plot's development. Also on the negative side, as noted earlier, Kim Basinger achieves her usual bimbo level of incompetence and one hopes that the scenarist of the sequel uses Vicki Vale's knowledge of the Batman's identity as justification for her early removal. However, Michael Gough's Alfred is well realised, without the prissiness that portrayal's of the butler have been noted for. And Nicholson is brilliant (as usual). His Joker is an all-stops-out excuse for the sort of theatric turns he does so well. And such is his craft that one can see the development from Napier to Joker clearly. Michael Keaton is a surprise. His Bruce Wayne is a marvel. His inarticulate reticence underlying the sort of difference the suit makes to him when he becomes the Batman. For once, the characterisation justifies the comics cliche of the suited-and-cowled super-hero: it is only in this disguise that he can express the full range of his emotions - as Bruce Wayne he is the almost catatonic case seen wandering aimlessly as the bullets fly around City Hall.
I hope they leave it at one but I fear the worst: sequels that will derogate from the achievement of this non-pareil, re-introducing Robin to satisfy the slaverings of the 'fans' and having a succession of highly-paid guest villains to be dealt with by the Caped Crusader. This film is, if not a great one, at least, a very good one and deserves better than that.
A Real Enemy
For too long, maybe since Goldfinger, James Bond has been fart-arsing around without a genuine opponent to keep him honest. Connery's last few trips to the well were pale shadows and the less said about the Bond essayed by Roger Moore the better. In essence, his character bore no relation to that written by Fleming nor that developed by Connery. George Lazenby could have been interesting but was handicapped by a weak vehicle and even, in his first outing, Timothy Dalton showed more promise than achievement - a result of another too convoluted plot and too much scenery jumping. In Licence to Kill, Bond is back to the standard of the first three films and the major reasons for this are the reality and menace of the villain and Timothy Dalton's performance.
His nemesis is a Latin American drug baron, responsible for the death of Felix Leiter's new bride. This imposition of the real and nasty world of the drug lords brings Bond out of the fantasyland into which he had been consigned by successive films which featured increasingly arcane armaments, incredible villains undertaking unbelievable plots to destroy/maim/badly hurt the human race, and a succession of rapidly changing geographic backgrounds that seem to owe their existence more for the need of variety than plot development. (I blame the success of Goldfinger, the only good Bond movie to incorporate these elements, and the success of which the producers have tried, unsuccessfully, to replicate.) Licence to Kill returns the series to the mimetic background that was the basis for the success of Dr No and From Russia with Love and allows Bond to be convincingly motivated. Dalton is perfect as the driven man, single-mindedly pursuing his target. For once, the viewer can be in sympathy with the espionage superhero.
Also of prime importance here to the overall success of the film is the Second Unit work. For once the stunts really work well within the framework of the Bond movie. The truck stunts toward the end are absolutely eye-popping and amongst the best I've seen. At the session we attended there was spontaneous applause after the climax of this series of actions - an acknowledgment of the admiration of the stunt-team's achievement.
It is only the questionable 'love' interests that lessen the impact of the movie. It would be too much to hope that Bond would be allowed to achieve his objective without the intervention of women to seduce. The conceit here is the good girl-bad girl dichotomy that has been done to death in the Bond series, and its impact is lessened by the undermining of the "good girl" character, a potentially interesting pilot-adventurer, who is made, by the script, to simper and pout in what is supposed to be a jealous snit.
Ultimately, Licence to Kill works well, like Batman, a good but not great movie, and breathes some life back into the moribund Bond series. I hope that future films (and there are bound to be more) use Dalton's thespic ability and some money is thrown at the writers to develop a literate script to complement to derring-do.
[Note: Information about the movies mentioned, including cast and crew lists and all sorts of trivia, is available at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).]
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Last updated: 17 June 2002