Apologies for the slightly unorthodox nature of these thoughts, but I suppose it was inevitable that my procrastination with putting words down on the page would come back to haunt me at some point. It’s been a few weeks now since I watched the latest film from promising British director Ben Wheatley, and I’m finding that the finer details of it have already faded from my memory. Here’s what I do remember: it has a spare narrative that follows a small handful of men into a malevolent English field during the time of the English Civil War of the 17th century, and watches as they fall victim to the influence of psychedelic mushrooms and gradually sink into madness. It involves the clash between the rational and irrational, between measured scientific reason and the animalistic nature of man, and all sorts of metaphorical actions abound. It descends occasionally into imaginatively-edited hallucinogenic freakouts (an introductory title card provides a warning to viewers sensitive to strobing lights). It positions its characters from time to time in a series of deliberately-composed tableaus. And it features a tremendously unnerving shot of a hypnotized/possessed man emerging from a tent with a demonic grin plastered on his face not dissimilar to what you’d see in an Aphex Twin music video.
It probably isn’t entirely fair for me to criticize a film I have so little recollection of sitting through, but in a way, that lack of a lasting impression speaks to the shortcomings of A Field In England. It’s a film seemingly destined to be remembered only in fragments, in flashes of arresting and unsettling imagery. At the very least, Wheatley and regular co-writer Amy Jump deserve credit for not settling on something more conventional after their previous collaborations Kill List and Sightseers. The film is almost experimental in its approach, with stark black-and-white cinematography and eerie sound work turning something as ordinary as a windy field into a nightmare world. That in itself is something of an achievement, and it’s why Wheatley will continue to be an interesting director to watch going forward. He can conjure up a surprising amount of power in even the simplest of images. But A Field In England is all about those images; the rest of the production feels too ethereal to have the same kind of impact. 5/10.
The eleventh film in the Zatoichi series. There comes a point in most every long-running series, whether it be in film or television or literature, where a little self-awareness starts to seep into the material. Turns out this series is no different, with Zatoichi And The Doomed Man coyly acknowledging established conventions and having a good deal of fun in the process. At the start of the film, Zatoichi finds himself waiting out a brief incarceration period in a local jail. On the night before he leaves, Zatoichi meets another inmate, the titular doomed man, who relays to the blind swordsman his sad story. After hearing the man’s plea for help, Zatoichi departs from the jail initially unsure of whether or not to get involved. Soon enough he’ll find himself thrown into the thick of things, but not before showing off his skills with a bow in a local archery contest. Bearing witness to this impressive display is a conniving man named Hyakutaro, who goes on to steal Zatoichi’s identity for a time, at least until the blind swordsman catches on and puts a stop to that nonsense in short order.
I’ve always felt that, especially in television, when that self-awareness starts to appear, it’s a sign that either a drastic reinvention is in order or it’s time to wrap everything up before things get too embarrassing. It will be interesting to see how the Zatoichi series fares going forward, but I feel the ribbing going on in this film is light enough so that it shouldn’t cause too much of an issue in future entries. It’s also key that the winking nods never get in the way of the business at hand. Even with the scenes now and again of Hyakutaro playacting as Zatoichi (which are fun mainly because of the actor’s mimicking of Shintaro Katsu’s mannerisms), the main thrust of the plot is treated seriously. And the final swordfight, a fog-ridden seaport showdown, is a real showstopper. So for now my impression of Zatoichi And The Doomed Man is a positive one. Time will tell though if I’ll look back on the film and see the initial festering of what will grow to become a fatal disease. 7/10.
Alfred Hitchcock’s second Hollywood feature (after the Oscar-winning Rebecca) attempts a deceptively tricky combination with solid, but not quite perfect, success. While not quite old enough to be called the prototypical Hitchcockian thriller, this 1940 film contains many of the classic elements history has come to associate with the Master of Suspense. Joel McCrea, while not the biggest name, makes for a charismatic and charming lead protagonist. The action hops around to multiple countries and features several thrilling setpieces (sometimes strung close together, like in a long middle stretch beginning with a violent courthouse stairway encounter and ending with a tense infiltration of the villains’ secret windmill hideout). Dialogue is quick and snappy, loaded with the requisite amount of barbs and witticisms (having George Sanders present in a supporting role is an added bonus in this regard). If it weren’t for the looming and inevitable threat of war hanging over the production, Foreign Correspondent would have fit perfectly in line with Hitchcock’s other “Wrong Man” classics.
But it would be nonsensical to write about the film without bringing up just how intrinsically tied it is to World War II. Along with being a globe-trotting thriller, Foreign Correspondent is also something of a “message” picture, a desperate cry out for people to pay attention to the unstable state of the world around them. That subtext gives the film its own distinctive feel, but it also hobbles it somewhat, creating an unconventional last quarter that takes the narrative to different, and not entirely satisfying, places. It’s in this last quarter where the taut intrigue takes a permanent backseat and propaganda takes over the wheel. The intent is worthy but the execution is strange, with the film discarding its suspense almost entirely to relay its blunt message: “We don’t have time for these cheap thrills! Not when there’s a war a-coming right around the corner!” Arguing for the expected over the unexpected is not a position I’m all that accustomed to taking, but in the case of Foreign Correspondent, I’m not sure Hitch had as sure a handle on the conclusion as he did with everything that came before. 7/10.