REVIEW: A Field in England

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A Field in England
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Written by: Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley (screenplay)
Starring: Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt and Peter Ferdinando

Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is, at once, the most exciting and the most perplexing film that he has made so far. That is saying quite a lot. It is a period piece set during the 17th-Century, while England is in the midst of a Civil War, but defining it as a “period piece” seems almost crude. It is so far removed from the films often associated with that stuffy genre, residing much closer to the mystical movies helmed by Spanish director Alejandro Jodorowsky. It is a cult film in the making, with its pleasures largely derived from the sheer mind-trip opacity of the direction—the film, much like Wheatley’s other work, takes us in one direction and then throws us in another.

Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is an alchemist’s assistant who meets up with three other travelers after fleeing his master during battle. The travelers—Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), and Friend (Richard Glover)—are on a search for the nearest ale-house. Eventually, however, the group comes across a sinister man named O’Neil (Michael Smiley), who holds them captive and forces them to find a treasure in the eponymous field.

The twist in all of this is that the field is full of hallucinogenic mushrooms, and O’Neil uses them to control the men while they dig. The plot, at least in writing, seems relatively easy to grasp, but Wheatley adds an excess of psychedelic flourishes to keep the viewers in as much of a daze as the characters.

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The film can be obscure to the point of bewilderment, but that is mainly why it works. Wheatley, just like in his masterpiece Kill List, does not expect the audience to connect every dot together. The joy to be had while watching this is to simply ride along with Wheatley, even if some of the ideas will remain locked inside the director’s mind. It is enough, in this case, to enjoy the pure auteur vision at work.

And what a vision it is—the film is shot in gorgeously lush black and white and contains some of the most impressive and understated effects seen in any recent film. From the sun slowly being blotched out into black, to the plot halting at random in order for the characters to hold poses that convey their psychological states, to the flurry of whirling and spinning editing that washes over the screen during the men’s mushroom trip (which, surely, has to rank as one of the most impressive drug sequences of all time).

Wheatley uses more classical techniques in his editing, which is part of the reason his film looks like nothing else out there right now. The visual aspects of this film are simply stunning. That is not, however, to be flippant about the metaphysical aspirations at play here. This is a film with a dark heart beating at the center, and its concern with human nature is part of what lifts above standard midnight-movie fare.

This keeps in line with all of Wheatley’s work, which is too frequently reduced down to violence and incomprehensibility by critics. The point of Wheatley’s work, if there is an overarching one, is to use his, clearly vast, knowledge of genre films to explore the outer limits of these films and their relation to audience expectations. “Kill List” is a hitman film, but it isn’t just a hitman film, just as “Sightseers” isn’t just a comedy and “A Field in England” isn’t just a period piece. They are all very dark and visceral exercises in movie subversion and have a whole lot to say about humanity. Dismissing Wheatley as a director who solely relies on violence and confusion would also be dismissing an important and major talent.

Grade: B+

Editor’s note: As you may have noticed from the byline, we are excited to add Sam Tunningley to our writing team with this post.  He will be contributing reviews and other posts occasionally.  You can read more about him on the Writers page.

REVIEW: Something in the Air

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Something in the Air
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Written by: Olivier Assayas (screenplay)
Starring: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand and Carole Combes

In many ways, Something in the Air is an extension of the conversation that French auteur Olivier Assayas started with his astonishing 2010 masterpiece Carlos. That five-and-a-half hour epic charted the rise and fall of Carlos the Jackel, a terrorist best known for raiding an OPEC meeting in the mid-seventies.

There are none as radical as Carlos in Assayas’ latest film, but he is still fascinated by political ideology manifesting itself in physical, and sometimes violent, ways.  The teens at the center of the movie begin as anarchists, vandalizing their school and handing out pamphlets about police brutality.  Watching the police fire tear gas at and beat them in one of the very first scenes justifies their cause.

Assayas doesn’t dwell for very long on their movement.  He is toying with the limits of activism here; with the extent people are willing to go to support a cause.  Gilles (Clément Métayer) is an aspiring artist and activist, but he also wants to be a filmmaker… maybe.  His indecisiveness is of course a by-product of youth, but it also shows Assayas’ own indecision when it comes to the point he wants to make with this material.

All of this confusion is rooted in Paris in 1971, three years after intense labor strikes in May of ’68.  There is still protest going on, but Assayas is showing it to us at a very early and quite innocent stage.  Each of the chief characters involved in that opening police beating are forced to compromise political intent with economical reality. Gilles, who Assayas based somewhat on himself, ends up working behind-the-scenes at a sci-fi movie with Nazis bye the end. Christine (Lola Créton), the more engaging of his two love interests, is involved with politically radical documentary filmmakers who she finds to be less open-minded than she thought when it comes to feminism.

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In between that exhilarating protest sequence and the somewhat sober conclusion is a lot of country-hopping, sexually-inspired art and hair-dos.  Assayas is masterful at sustaining atmosphere while still maintaining levels of visual spontaneity.  The filming style is rooted in realism, and attuned to the subtleties in the character relationships.

None of the performances are showy or outlandish, despite the amount of drugs many of them consume.  Gilles is often very quiet, and though he is meant to be a brooding artist, at times his silence and lack of emotion in certain scenarios is more awkward than it is revealing about his character.

Thankfully this isn’t a movie that’s dependent on any single character to carry it.  Assayas creates a filmmaking rhythm that feels aimless but always arrives at a situation that somehow enriches the characters.  I was completely unfamiliar with the labor and social protests that the movie shows the aftermath of, and by the end I didn’t really have more of an understanding about them.  What I did have was the sense that I’d witnessed that period in time exactly as Assayas pictured it, from the way the characters move through the world to the way that that world looks.  It just didn’t really explore or expand on much else besides that.

Grade: B-

REVIEW: The Princess of Montpensier

The Princess of Montpensier
Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier
Written by: Bertrand Tavernier, Jean Cosmos & Francois-Olivier Rousseau (screenplay), Madame de La Fayette (short story)
Starring: Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Gaspard Ulliel

In America, it’s hard to write a review of a good foreign movie without feeling obligated to include an excuse for someone to watch it.  Many of the different styles in pacing and filming, in addition to the inclination toward moral ambiguity turn off audiences who favor the opposite.  The Princess of Montpensier is a lavishly filmed French spectacle chock-full of sex and gruesome violence, but injected with those aforementioned “handicaps.”

Directed and co-written with exceptional talent by Bertrand Tavernier, Princess is a period love triangle set amid the turbulent violence of the Catholic/Protestant wars of the 16th century.  It opens with an epic sequence of men on horseback slaughtering men on the ground.  This image is indicative of the unfair advantages that infect much of the rest of the story, which finds young Marie (Mélanie Thierry) married off to the wealthy prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) who is given favor over the man Marie truly loves, her cousin Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel).

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