Tag Archives: 15/20

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: A subway train is seized by four armed robbers who take eighteen passengers hostage and cause New York Transit Authority police officer Zachary Garber a massive headache. As the callous leader of the gang demands $1 million and threatens to kill a hostage for every minute the money is late, the authorities race to get them the cash without loss of life. However, the gang of four are unpredictable, fractious and as dangerous to each other as to the passengers.

Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walther Matthau) of the New York Transit Authority Police has a pressing excuse to cut short a tour he’s giving to Japanese visitors when the subway train designated Pelham One Two Three makes an unscheduled stop between stations. As Garber quickly discovers, a group of robbers have taken the train, or at least part of it, hostage.

Though they are dressed identically, the colour-coded robbers are a disparate group: clear-thinking, ruthless leader Mr Blue (Robert Shaw); taciturn Mr Brown (Earl Hindman); edgy ex-mafia man Mr Grey (Hector Elizondo), who shows an unsettling relish in his work; and sniffly Mr Green (Martin Balsam), who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt and worries that he’s not going to see out the day.

When Garber calls to find out what’s going on, Blue explains their demands: they want $1 million from the city, and to make sure they get it, they will kill a hostage for every minute the money is delayed. Garber tries to reason with Blue and keep his mixed bag of hostages alive, but it’s not as if those around him have a single objective either: Coordinator Frank Correll (Dick O‘Neill) just wants to keep the train network running; Garber’s boss Rico (Jerry Stiller) just wants to read his paper; and the beleaguered, bed-ridden mayor doesn’t care what happens as long as it improves his poll ratings. With the clock ticking, Garber has to keep Blue in the dark about the slow progress of the money, all the while hoping that a plain-clothes officer on the train will spring into action. In any event, he doesn’t see how the robbers can possibly get out of the subway system alive: for some of them, he’s absolutely right.

The thing that instantly hits you about James Sargeant’s adaptation of John Godey’s novel is how completely unfussy and unshowy it is. The ‘taking’ of the train happens early on and the drama unfolds in an uncomplicated but effective manner, the action presented in a fluid, matter-of-fact fashion and delivered with a sly sense of humour: ‘What do they expect for their lousy 35 cents,’ Correll says as the drama escalates, ’to live forever?’

As it rolls along, the film introduces a host of colourful characters, from the woman in the control room whose sanitary needs have caused no end of trouble, to the mayor’s pushy deputy, Warren (Tony Roberts). Nobody stops to explain themselves or the situation, they just get on with the job (I wish I could say the same about many of today‘s bloated blockbusters). Matthau (grumpy) and Shaw (chilling) are excellent, and they are amply supported by their colleagues and cohorts. Not all of the extended cast are equally effective – the mayor in particular is treated as a figure of fun and quickly forgotten about – but in general there’s an organic and natural feel to the story, with a wonderfully brash and authentic New York quality to the performances (including those of the hostages, none of whom are particularly developed but who represent the diversity of New York’s population).

Because it’s presented so briskly, it’s that much easier to get swept along with the story as the minutes tick down and the money is counted, then driven at high speed through Manhattan. In truth, the climax is not as effective as it might be, as Garber joins Inspector Daniels (Julius Harris) to chase the robbers overground whilst they squabble amongst themselves (and the train speeds along with the help of obviously sped-up film). Also, the ‘what happened to Green’ coda makes for a strangely low-key ending, although the very satisfying pay-off sends you away with a smile.

I’ve tried not to mention Tony Scott’s stony-faced remake as it quite obviously has nothing to do with the making of this film. It may well be the case that I need to revisit my review of that film and put all this there, but the points of difference are obvious and nearly all of them are in the original’s favour. Scott (or scriptwriter Brian Helgeland) reworks the story to suit the casting of two major stars, combining Correll and Garber into a single personality and loading him with a redundant corruption backstory, whilst Travolta is the whole gang of bad guys rolled into one sweary madman. Denzel Washington’s Garber gets himself into the action in a much more direct way, which works according to the demands of the modern action film, but it comes at the cost of personality, atmosphere and audience involvement. In this film, you have a real sense of the city and feel for the hostages, for Garber, even a little for Green: in the remake, there’s only room for the egos of the two stars – and you don’t really care much for either of them.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three contains pretty much everything you could ask of a heist movie, which explains why so many films (not least Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) have copied it, though rarely with the same success as the original. It’s not perfect, with a slightly uneven tone and elements that date it – even allowing for its underground location, the film looks murky, and it’s really not nice to call people ‘monkeys’ – but it’s skillfully written, acted and put together, without a single editing trick in sight. I’d take this Pelham over Scott’s version any day.

Frozen

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Elsa’s magical abilities with snow and ice come at the heavy price of loneliness for her and younger sister Anna. When Elsa’s coronation results in the revelation of her secret, she flees, causing a perpetual winter that paralyses the kingdom of Arendelle. Anna must use all of her resourcefulness, and seek help from some strange companions, to find her newly-free sibling.

Like most sisters, Elsa and Anna, princesses of Arendelle, love playing with each other; however, Anna has special reason to love Elsa, as the older girl can magic up snow and ice from her hands at will. An accident injures Anna and although she’s healed by mountain trolls (who also remove her memories of Elsa’s gift), the King and Queen are scared enough to close their castle gates and separate Elsa from Anna. Even the loss of the parents doesn’t reunite the girls, with Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) reaching out to Elsa (Idina Menzel) only to be rebuffed.

Coronation day arrives and Anna can’t wait to meet people, while Elsa can only repeat the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ in an attempt to control her growing powers. Anna meets the handsome prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and they seize the moment by agreeing to marry; Elsa, however, refuses to give her blessing and, as Anna argues, Elsa’s magic bursts out, plunging Arendelle into a freezing winter. Elsa flees to the mountains to embrace her freedom, while Anna races after her, forced to lean on ice harvester Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his friendly reindeer Sven for support; they encounter charmingly naïve snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) on the way. Surely Hans will only think of Anna’s well-being as he assumes control of Arendelle on her behalf? And surely learning of Arendelle’s plight will be enough to bring Elsa back to make things right?

There are so many pleasures, great and small, to be found in Frozen that it’s tempting to do nothing but list the good stuff. More than anything, the characters really live in both the excellent vocal work and expressive animation, from fretful Elsa and the wonderfully optimistic Anna – estranged sisters with thoroughly believable emotions – to surly Kristoff and too-good-to-be-true Hans, plus the fascinating quirks of Olaf and minor players such as Wandering Oaken and the Duke of Weselton.

The screenplay for the most part treads exactly the right path, providing laughs, scares and (forgive me, no other phrase will do) heart-warming entertainment that can truly be enjoyed by all ages, bolstered by witty and tuneful songs. The climax in particular provides high-quality drama, with a novel denouement that subverts the traditions of resolution through ‘true love’, supplying a message without being at all heavy-handed.

Frozen is amusing, moving, thrilling and charming by turns, and then – of course – it has its Big Moment. Let it Go is the showstopper to end all showstoppers, a stirring, powerful number that begins with Elsa’s despair and builds – lyrically, musically and visually – to a defiant statement of self-empowerment. It’s really that good, and if it doesn’t quite have the bounce of the similarly-themed Hakuna Matata or the warmth of Beauty and the Beast’s main theme, a billion girls and boys will tell you that it’s as catchy as hell.

All of which said, as someone who’s seen Wicked, it would be remiss not to mention Let it Go’s relationship to that musical’s Big Moment, Defying Gravity. I don’t think you could reasonably accuse the writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez of copying Stephen Schwartz’s music or lyrics; but there is a definite sense that both songs are serving exactly the same self-affirmative purpose within the larger piece. How much this sense is driven by Idina Menzel’s soaring voice, and how much by conscious decisions on where the story should go, is anyone’s guess.

Futhermore, while it’s not the case that the song is too good for the rest of the movie, Let it Go certainly casts a long shadow over the remaining musical numbers: Olaf’s In Summer is good fun but comes at a point where the film doesn’t need to stop for yet another song, while Fixer Upper has a host of issues. Musically, it’s a strange, frenetic mixture of gospel, show tune, all kinds of chord changes and everything bar the kitchen sink; and its (perfectly decent) lyrics and upbeat tone are at complete odds with what’s happening to Anna, as demonstrated by the jarring gear shift as soon as it finishes. Frozen could easily be 10-15 minutes shorter without losing anything of real significance.

I’m not too keen on the duets (if that’s the term) where Anna and Elsa are singing their own lines in the same song either, but that’s by comparison with great examples such as The Confrontation in Les Mis.

I do have other nits to pick – specifically, I’m not convinced by Kristoff being ‘adopted’ by the trolls (where were his parents?) – but these have to be seen in the context of an overwhelmingly positive experience, and one which (amazingly) doesn’t pall on repeat viewings. Weary adults may feel the need to pop out of the room from time to time, but in general you’d have to have a cold, cold heart not to get a kick out of Frozen.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Uptight marketing executive Neal Page, desperate to fly from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving, is thrown into company with slobbish shower curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith. The flight home curtailed, the two men endure each other’s company as they try to get back to their families by any means they can.

John Hughes, best known as writer of teen-centred movies like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, here writes and sits in the director’s chair for a film focusing on two very different adults’ efforts to get back to Chicago in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. Although family is the core theme and motivation behind the story, giving the film something of the feel of updated Frank Capra, it wisely avoids showing too much of the family eagerly awaiting Daddy, concentrating instead on the tribulations of the mismatched travellers.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is essentially a two-hander, pitting Steve Martin’s repressed achiever Neal Page against John Candy’s affable average Joe, Del Griffith. The two are chalk and cheese and most of the comedy comes not from the outlandish situations they find themselves in – though these are plenty funny – but the relationship they develop through the nightmare journey. At times content to rub along together, at others rubbing each other up the wrong way, Martin and Candy are chalk and cheese, and inspired casting. Martin explodes with apoplectic rage when the world doesn’t work exactly as it should; Candy rolls with the punches and, for a very good reason, lets nothing upset him. But more of that later.

From the start, Griffith gets in Page’s way, Del’s trunk causing Neal to lose a taxi to the airport. The flight they both ultimately get is re-routed and circumstances lead to both men staying in the same hotel room overnight. This whole scene sets the film up beautifully, as the pair first display their resentment towards each other, then cosy up unconsciously overnight. The reaction of the men to discovering their intimacy next morning (Martin: ‘Those aren’t PILLOWS!!’) is fondly remembered as a classic scene in film comedy.

The tortuous progress home contains a lot of laughs and not too much contrivance (the swapped credit cards and young burglar spring to mind), but one scene, at the car rental desk, sticks out as out of character with the rest of the film. Martin’s constant swearing when venting his suppressed fury at the desk clerk was something I had not seen before – the film is usually considered suitable for early evening broadcast, with this bit heavily edited – and the joke adds very little, in my opinion. If the rest of the film were like Trainspotting it would be entirely in context, but then it would be an entirely different sort of movie.

Anyway, it’s not all laughs. The tragedy behind Candy’s character is not that he will be late to see his family, but that he does not have a family to see, his beloved wife having passed away eight years previously. Hughes displays his skill as a writer in dropping clues throughout that lead the viewer and Neal to this discovery at about the same time; and it is a testament to John Candy that he conveys and conceals this sadness at the same time as, on the surface, coming across as a good-natured oaf.

It’s a triumph, too, that the story is resolved without dissolving into hopelessly mawkish sentimentality; and whilst schmaltz isn’t entirely avoided (would the Pages really welcome a stranger into their house with open arms?), none of the emotion is forced on the viewer, Martin and Candy showing restraint and honesty which marks them out as not only great comic actors, but good actors full stop. While the film is perfect viewing for ‘The Holidays,’ the two central performances make Planes, Trains and Automobiles a worthwhile experience at any time.

Edward Scissorhands

WFTB 15/20

The plot: Brought down from his gothic retreat by well-meaning Avon lady Peg, a young man with scissors for hands causes a rumpus in Peg’s insular, gossipy community. Some of the locals eye Edward with suspicion, others with lust, while others still just make use of his incredible creativity. Edward himself only has eyes for Peg’s beautiful daughter Kim, but she is wary of his soft personality and sharp accessories.

A career as an Avon lady may not be everyone’s dream, but good-hearted Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) gives it everything she’s got, even if her friends and neighbours aren’t always delighted to receive her calls. After a particularly frustrating day, she notices the enormous, brooding castle at the end of the close and pays it a visit. Within, she finds Edward (Johnny Depp), a strange, pale young man in appearance but the creation of inventor Vincent Price, who died before he finished the job, leaving Edward with razor-sharp scissors where his hands should be.

Edward is welcomed with equanimity by Peg’s husband Bill (Alan Arkin) and enthusiasm by young son Kevin (Robert Oliveri), but when teenage daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) comes back unexpectedly from an outing with oikish jock boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), she’s unsurprisingly terrified to see the freakish-looking Edward in her waterbed. Edward, meanwhile, is smitten by Kim, and despite the keen attentions of the amazed townsfolk, not least Kathy Baker’s voracious Joyce, he only cares about her as he becomes the centre of attention for the town’s topiary, dog grooming and hairdressing needs. Driven by jealousy, Jim frames Edward for a burglary at his house; and as he loses his innocence, his passion for Kim escalates with tragic consequences – and all around Christmastime, too.

It may now seem hard to believe, but once upon a time a Tim Burton gothic fantasy starring Johnny Depp as an unworldly hero, complete with idiosyncratic Danny Elfman score, was a cause for keen anticipation rather than weary eye-rolling; and if you’re not pre-disposed to enjoy fantasy movies, you will find plenty to pick at in the pair’s first collaboration. The plot is a pretty thin affair, the characters moving around in not always convincing ways to advance the tale. It’s particularly dismissive of Jim – bad lad or not, presumably someone loves him – and nice though it is to see Vincent Price (for the last time), Edward’s backstory doesn’t entirely hang together; the evolution of the inventor’s machines, from vaguely humanoid food preparation tools (and for whom exactly is the food being made?) to a speaking, thinking being with the sharp blades still attached, requires the viewer to suspend all their reasoning faculties.

On the other hand…the Princess Bride-like framing device, which sees an aged Kim retelling the tale to her sleepy granddaughter as the reason it snows every Christmas, firmly roots Edward Scissorhands in the realm of fairytale, a modern one in which Pinocchio meets Frankenstein via Nightmare on Elm Street. The idea of a pure ‘love above all’ may seem soppy, but the theme is appropriate and Ryder is perfectly lovely as Kim, even if she’s barely stretched as an actress.

However, the real emotional pull of the film comes from Edward’s infinite sadness at being denied physical contact with his creator, his beloved, or anyone else, conveyed effectively in Burton and Caroline Thompson’s script (consider the exchange during Edward’s appearance on TV: ‘If you had regular hands you wouldn’t be special’ – ‘I know’; or the heartbreaking, immortal lines ‘Hold me’ – ‘I can’t.’) Depp disappears into the role and winkles every ounce of anger, longing and comedy from a nearly mute role in wonderfully Chaplinesque fashion, even if that description also embodies the great man’s occasionally saccharine pathos. To offset its sweetness, the film keeps the viewer on edge, repeatedly reminding them of the sharpness of Edward’s blades and keeping them in constant suspense that he’s going to harm someone or, more probably, himself.

As well as its love story, Edward Scissorhands revels in the idea of the outsider and the mainstream, the majority’s mistrust of non-conformity, religious conservatism’s sanctimonious hatred of difference and the way a crowd’s fascination can turn, through spite and misinformation, into a baying mob. It also represents the artist’s struggle to be different in a world where the masses accept what they’re sold (and thereby, if you subscribe to the theory that Depp is essentially playing Burton, the director’s struggle for acceptance of his quirky vision).

It’s also a story of the corruption of [childhood] innocence, through alcohol, sex, violence, capitalism and what have you. However, the film somehow avoids feeling overloaded, due to the apparent ease with which Burton creates images that are both striking and meaningful. There are too many examples to list here, but Winona dancing in the snowflakes of the ice sculpture and the gothic castle perched at the end of the wonderfully-designed housing estate are amongst the more obvious.

Of course, the questioning viewer has every right to ask why the inventor’s dilapidated pile has been left undisturbed for so long, but the absurd, brilliant juxtaposition of the idealised, pastel-coloured houses and forbidding, monstrous castle is surely all the answer you need. Anyway, there is a psychological answer, namely that Peg, bored out of her mind, is prepared to visit the dark places that the town’s other residents shun in favour of the familiar and quotidian. Wiest is excellent, while Arkin plays Bill with a hilarious disregard of Edward’s uniqueness.

Edward Scissorhands is almost certainly a case of the whole being greater than its already commendable parts, a mixture of mood, setting, subject and theme which comes together to incredibly impressive effect, helping to obscure the fact that the story itself is ultimately a corny mash-up of B-Movie material, I was a Teenage Frankenstein’s Monster’s Lover if you will. It’s lazy to trot out the line that Burton and Depp make the same film over and over again, since Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow are different beasts to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Ed Wood. Nonetheless, they have rarely bettered their first collaboration, so who could blame them for – just now and then – revisiting the old stomping ground for a smidgen of inspiration?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: When cartoon prop-provider Marvin Acme is murdered, suspicion falls upon Roger Rabbit, clumsy Toon and jealous husband of voluptuous chanteuse Jessica. Brought in to take incriminating photos of Marvin and Jessica, private dick Eddie Valiant has personal reasons for ignoring Roger’s desperate pleas for help; however, something about the case – most importantly Acme’s missing will – lures Valiant away from the bottle and into the path of the terrifying Judge Doom.

It’s 1947, Tinseltown’s Golden Age of animation; cartoon stars like Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) work cheek by jowl with the humans and live a short ride away in nearby Toontown. Once upon a time, private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) was a reliable pal of the Toons, but since one of their number dropped a piano on his brother Teddy’s head, he’s steered clear of them to concentrate on boozing his life away, much to the dismay of sometime ladyfriend Dolores (Joanna Cassidy).

So it’s with little enthusiasm that Eddie accepts a job from studio boss R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to tail Roger’s comely wife Jessica (Betsy Brantley’s movements, Kathleen Turner when speaking and Amy Irving when singing Why Don’t You Do Right?) to see if she’s playing around with Toontown’s owner Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye); and even though he’s knocked out by Jessica’s seductive allure, Eddie takes little pleasure in passing on photos of the pair playing pattycake.

The next day, Acme turns up dead and the finger points at Roger, making him a target for Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), an intimidating lawmaker with a gang of vicious weasels and barrels full of Toon-erasing ‘dip’ that he’s itching to use. Initially, Roger’s pleas to Eddie to help fall on deaf ears; but Roger’s such an unlikely murderer that the detective starts asking questions, especially about Jessica’s part in the crime. He needs answers fast, because by midnight Toontown will belong to the shadowy Cloverleaf Industries – unless Acme’s missing will turns up and reveals the rightful inheritors.

Let’s get the easy bits out of the way first. Firstly, whether you’re nostalgic about the cartoons or not, it’s such a joy to see so many famous characters sharing the same screen that the odd omission – no Popeye? – hardly matters. From Fleischer studios we have Betty Boop; from Tex Avery, Droopy; from Walter Lantz, Woody Woodpecker; from Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes there’s a host: Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and cameos from the likes of Tweety Pie and Yosemite Sam; and there’s naturally a generous complement of Disney’s finest, including Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, several Dwarves and most of the cast of Fantasia. Although (as I’ve said elsewhere) I have no particular affection for Mickey or his friends, it would be foolish to ignore their vital place in animation history; furthermore, the sequence between Donald and Daffy Duck is a brilliant reminder of what cartoons can do at their best.

Secondly, the film is assembled with great skill. Films combining animation and live action are far from new, of course – Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks come to mind – but Roger Rabbit takes the concept to new levels of interaction, using puppetry to move solid objects around in a pleasingly three dimensional way (though some computer wizardry is no doubt used here, another year or two and the whole thing would’ve been done with soulless CGI). There’s also a lovely contrast when Valiant visits Toontown and becomes the sole ‘real’ character in a crazy cartoon world.

Hoskins is perfectly cast as Valiant, heavyweight enough to convince as a world-weary private eye (a beautifully economical sweep of the office fills us in on his past), yet nimble enough to play the clown when necessary, while Lloyd makes for a terrifying Judge Doom and Cassidy provides a robust love interest. Mel Blanc is thankfully on hand to provide Bugs and co. with their voices, while Kathleen Turner oozes danger and passion as Jessica, not least in the immortal line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”. Charles Fleischer makes Roger an endearingly screwy optimist, though you might argue that he’s close to being sidelined in his own movie.

So what’s not to like? Well, there’s the tricky issue of the film’s tone. Who Framed Roger Rabbit leans heavily on corruption movies such as Gilda and Chinatown, and while this movie isn’t as brutal as the latter, it’s certainly not without violence – and I don’t just mean the cartoon violence dished out to Roger by Baby Herman. Maroon gets shot in the back – twice – while Doom’s execution of a cute cartoon shoe, leaving the Judge with a blood-red glove, is so disturbing that it’s always cut from television broadcasts.

More troubling, perhaps, is Jessica’s irrepressible sensuality; it’s natural for a cartoon to emphasise prominent features, but Jessica’s body shape and sultry manner are not exactly kiddie-friendly (Baby Herman, not a character I particularly like, also makes a tasteless sexual joke). She was certainly too hot for Disney, who shifted the film to its Touchstone division because of its risqué content.

On the whole, though, the movie gets it right: better to anticipate a discerning audience (and let TV cut bits out if they wish) than play safe and have the film turn out twee and saccharine; who says cartoons have to be for kids anyway? However, parents of younger children charmed by Roger’s inoffensiveness should be aware that the film has a few distinctly adult moments, Lloyd’s intense performance in particular containing plenty of nightmare fuel.

Much more than just a work of technical prowess, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands as a loving tribute to Hollywood animation, with a decent film noir story and some surprisingly adult elements. Time only adds to its reputation: subsequent failures Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action have proven how tricky it can be to get live-action/animation movies right. Personally, I think it’s a shame that Robert Zemeckis has moved on to working with motion-capture; Roger Rabbit may be overly scary and overtly sexy at times, but most of Polar Express is a lot more disturbing than this funny and exciting offering.

Field of Dreams

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Iowan farmer Ray Kinsella does the bidding of a mysterious voice he hears in his fields and builds a baseball diamond, which is soon inhabited by ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and other ghosts of players past. However, building the park is just the start of a voyage which introduces Ray to intriguing characters, both living and dead – to the potential detriment of his family’s financial prospects.

‘If you build it, he will come.’ So says a persistent voice in the head of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who is also troubled by visions of a baseball field taking the place of much of the corn on his farm. Ray’s wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann) are surprisingly supportive when Ray tells them what he has been tasked to do, and they create the pitch, complete with bleachers* and floodlights, even though the project wipes out their savings and reduces the yield of their land.

Before long, Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) turns up, bringing along the rest of the infamous, disgraced Chicago White Sox team of 1919; yet the voice is not finished with Ray, and following an ambiguous command to ‘ease his pain’, he sets off for Boston to meet retired writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), a leading light of the 60s who has become embittered and reclusive. Luckily, the pair bond over baseball and they both witness the lowly statistics for Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham flashing up at Fenway Park.

Ray meets ‘Doc’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) despite the fact that he’s been dead for some time, but fails to tempt him back to Iowa to play with legends; however, on the road Ray and Terry meet up with a young Archie (Frank Whaley) who joins the ever-growing roster of players on the farm. The only problem is, as Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield) is at pains to point out, a field full of ghosts hardly anyone can see doesn’t exactly rake in the cash.

A sentimental, fantastical tale of characters searching for redemption, filmed in the golden, glowing light of countless Iowan sunsets, was always destined to be cornier than the fields in which Ray unquestioningly builds his diamond – and that’s without the father-son issues running riot through the movie or the climactic drama which unfolds around long-haired moppet Karin. However, Field of Dreams miraculously spins its magical yarn without drowning in treacle or feeling overly glib (Tom Hanks, originally offered the part of Ray Kinsella, would surely have given the film an inappropriately comic sensibility).

Part of the reason is the film’s unfussy acceptance of the supernatural, which helps us to absorb the fantastical element of the story and understand why Ray’s wife goes along with his plans, rather than packing him straight off to the doctor – there’s a clever reference to Harvey too. Another part is the sturdy acting of all concerned: Costner is very good as the ordinary man driven to do extraordinary things by forces he doesn’t understand, while Madigan is almost his equal as Annie, her acquiescence driven by a free-spirited belief in following her instinct, rather than a simpering determination to stand by her man.

‘Okay…’, I hear you say, ‘but a two-hour movie about dead baseball players? Really?’ Were Field of Dreams adequately summarised this way, I would agree; however, Robinson’s film (really, W.P. Kinsella’s story) cannily escapes the confines of the sport during Ray’s journey to find Terrence Mann, and James Earl Jones plays the part with gravity, aggression, humour and intelligence, offsetting Costner’s earnest pursuits.

Together with the touching story of ‘Moonlight’ Graham’s frustratingly abridged career, the film builds up to an emotional climax which works well, even if you don’t buy Mann’s emotive description of baseball as a metaphor for the American nation. Field of Dreams transcends its subject and reveals itself as a moving meditation on choices, loss and regret; subjects that will inevitably have some reaching for sick bags, but for many a slice of satisfyingly tear-jerking wish-fulfilment – and that’s without the final reveal which sends the whole thing over the top.

The story, the golden light and James Horner’s pretty score are all plentiful compensation for elements that don’t hang together so well, such as the cheap presence of Busfield as Annie’s money-minded brother representing ‘The Man’, all the baby boomer stuff about the 60s, or the jarring time-travel mechanics when Ray meets Doc Graham in 1972.

I’m completely lukewarm about baseball and the American Midwest, but I really liked Field of Dreams. It is by definition unrealistic, and in the end exists only to tug at the heartstrings as hard as it can. On the other hand, there are a host of warm performances from the likes of Liotta, Lancaster, Whaley, Madigan, Hoffmann and especially Costner, before he became the all-conquering hero of Dances with Wolves and the egomaniacal spender of other people’s money on guff like Waterworld and The Postman. He’s no Jimmy Stewart, and Field of Dreams is no It’s a Wonderful Life, but as fantasies go this is one of the finest to emanate from Hollywood in many years.

NOTES: Seats, for non-American audiences. I know, I thought ‘seats’ was a perfectly good word too.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Snow White is tolerated as a maid by her stepmother, the wicked Queen, until the day the young woman’s beauty exceeds her own. Lucky to be alive but cast out into the woods, Snow White falls upon a house owned by seven dwarfs who succumb to her charms and take her in. Hearing of her survival, the Queen disguises herself as an old crone and sets off for the woods with a poisoned apple in her basket.

A long time ago in a land far away, cartoon maker Walt Disney had a dream: to make a feature-length animated movie, in colour, with sound. ‘It can’t be done!’ those around him said, but Walt pressed on with his ‘folly’ and after three years’ work Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a new type of cinema, were born.

‘Lovely little princess’ Snow White lives as a scullery maid in the employ of her stepmother, charming the birds from the trees and attracting the attention of a handsome prince, much to the displeasure of the Queen. Wildly jealous that (in the opinion of her magic mirror) Snow White has become the fairest in the land, the Queen commands a huntsman to kill the princess and bring back evidence. The huntsman cannot bring himself to do the deed, however, and tells the princess to run to the woods, where she is beset by perils but brought back to her senses by the woodland creatures who take her to an empty, cosy cottage.

Believing it to be inhabited by children, Snow White and the animals clean the house and everything in it before she is overtaken by fatigue; the actual owners, seven diamond-mining dwarfs, return and are originally spooked by the invader before she reveals herself to be benevolent and also a cook and dancing partner.

The dwarfs – even irascible Grumpy – fall in love with the princess, but their warnings for her to be careful cannot save her from a trick played by the Queen, who magically disguises herself as an old crone and persuades Snow White to bite a poisoned apple. The dwarfs race back to deal with the Queen, but are they too late to save their new friend from the ‘sleeping death’?

It would be a miracle for any seventy year-old film not to have a few issues, let alone one that was the first of its kind; and there are issues, though by and large these come down to personal taste. Firstly, the backgrounds, whilst charming, are largely static (except for the waterfall and the imaginative use of a reflective surface for a river).

Secondly, some of the facial characteristics are odd, by which I mean that Snow White and the prince are too realistic (their lips, noses and eyes don’t look quite right), and the contrasting long, oval eyes of the dwarfs are also strange, as they are always looking straight up or straight down. Of course, large eyes give the dwarfs a certain expressiveness whenever they’re looking coy or ashamed, but they also make them look twee – for my taste, anyway.

In terms of the story, a great deal of time is spent showing the dwarfs at work, being afraid of whatever’s invaded (and tidied) their house, then being introduced to Snow White, washed for supper and so on; and though this offers much in the way of comedy, it does slow down the pacing of the film and the telling of the tale. I would happily have sacrificed five minutes of the dwarfs’ antics to give more depth to the prince and a fuller explanation of his efforts to locate the sleeping princess in her glass coffin. As it is, a caption does this job, so the time that elapses between Snow White’s ‘death’ and her revival is very brief: you hardly have time to mourn with the dwarfs before they have cause to celebrate again, and the film ends very suddenly.

But these are nitpicks compared with what Walt Disney’s team have done brilliantly. Snow White is appealingly positive, and even if her facial movements don’t always convince (especially when she speaks) she is otherwise animated beautifully, the fluidity of her movement still impressing today (she was closely modelled on dancer Marge Champion).

The delineation of the seven similar-looking dwarfs is also impressive, with Grumpy bagging the best lines. I don’t like Dopey very much, his mute nature, sagging clothes and big ears occasionally making him look more the dwarfs’ pet than one of their number, but he has the lion’s share of the physical comedy.

Best of all, though, is the characterisation of the Queen, a malevolent, frightening presence in both her forms whose threat is real and dark, reflecting more of Grimm’s fairy tales than modern sensibilities might be comfortable with: not only does the Queen order Snow White’s death, she demands her heart in a box as proof.

Perhaps the best compliment to Snow White is that it feels like a normal animation even to modern audiences. However basic some of its attributes may be, the heroes and villains are established, as are the comic/action sequences and musical interludes. The style of the singing may be dated but the songs themselves – I’m Wishing, Whistle While You Work, One Day My Prince Will Come and of course, Heigh-Ho – have stood the test of time extremely well.

I am not enamoured of everything Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has to offer, and because it’s a little sugary and old-fashioned for my senses I would prefer to watch Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, given a free hand. But when I say Snow White is a significant achievement, it’s in no respect meant to patronise Disney’s work; for not only is it a pioneering film which established the formula for feature-length animations for decades to come, it is also very good on its own terms.