TITANE (2021)

(Cinemas) TITANE is the second feature from Julia Ducournau, who previously wrote and directed the sisterly cannibal tale RAW (2016), and while RAW was exquisitely executed, TITANE is a masterclass in controlled filmmaking.

I won’t describe the plot — I personally don’t believe in spoilers, but while TITANE is deadly serious (although it does have a number of quality laughs), it’s also an extremely wild ride that I think is best viewed without knowledge of a plot summary — but I will give two very sparse character sketches of the two protagonists: 1) Alexia (newcomer Agathe Rousselle, who plays this role like a seasoned pro) is a 32-year-old dancer who had a skull injury when she was young and still lives with her parents. 2) Vincent (Vincent Lindon) is the captain of a large firefighter group whose young son went missing a number of years ago.

What Ducournau does with TITANE is nothing less than astounding. You may see something onscreen or hear something that has you scratching your head, wondering why that was there, and a few minutes later, it becomes very aware in a way that makes you feel like the film respects you, as opposed to the film thinking it’s so clever.

It’s also surprisingly concise — apart from a few indulgent (with a reason) scenes, the film has very little fat. While at first that facet is a bit jarring, it creates a tempo that unnerves.

It’s impossible to discuss the film without noting how difficult it can be to watch, for a litany of reasons. I can’t remember the last time I so extensively averted my eyes from watching a film. However, those moments are not exploitative — they are meant to be uncomfortable, they are there for a reason. I simply felt that I was able to glean that reason by listening, instead of watching.

This is a work that film scholars will inevitably be discussing for some time to come, for better or for worse — frankly I’m still unpacking the film — but it is definitely memorable.

The trailer is properly enigmatic, but maybe don’t watch it if you’re going to see it within the next few days. (Slightly NSFW):

SHOOT ‘EM UP (2007)

(VOD) I’ll preface this entry by saying: this is not a great film, but it is a gonzo film.

SHOOT ‘EM UP came out at the tail end of the early naughts stream of batshitcrazy action films — films that dispensed with anything like plot or narrative and just immediately leapt into a bunch of crazy stunts — which popped around the time of THE TRANSPORTER, then hit a high note with CRANK, then ended around the time that SHOOT ‘EM UP and CRANK 2 was released, when more gritty vengeance action came back into vogue. (I’m no action film expert, so my apologies if I’m painting this time with broad strokes.)

This is a film where the lead, Smith (Clive Owen), is introduced sitting on a bench, chomping away at a ridiculously large carrot Bugs Bunny-style, watches a pregnant woman in dire straits, clothed in The Bride yellow, walk down an alley. Smith sees a man gleefully follow her, brandishing a gun with a grin.

I’m going to leave the rest of the scene here because, while I’ve previously tried to type it out, it’s too dense. I will say: this is probably the first gunshot umbilical cord removal ever seen on film. Also, ingenious use an oil pan, and showcases that even carrots can be a deadly weapon.

It only escalates from there.

While this was filmed in the mid-naughts, it’s really a 80s cartoonish action film that is self-aware, and somehow got a number of amazing actors: the previously mentioned Clive Owens (probably only here because of CHILDREN OF MEN), Paul Giamatti (clearly loving his role), and Monica Bellucci, who probably should’ve bowed out because there’s not enough for her here, but she still gives it her all.

It’s a very dumb, very masculine action film, but cripes, the set-pieces are divine. Again, it’s not great, but it’s deliciously gonzo.

BUG (2006)

(epix/VOD) One of the few screenings I was able to catch last year before lockdown was a special 35mm screening of William Friedkin’s BUG, featuring actor Michael Shannon and writer Tracy Letts for a post-film discussion. Before both became relatively big names, they worked together on Letts’ lurid, often horrific, small town stage plays, such as BUG and KILLER JOE. Both film adaptations arguably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Friedkin as, according to Letts, Friedkin hounded him to adapt BUG after seeing it on the stage, and Friedkin also volunteered to take on KILLER JOE, requiring that Letts write the screenplay for each film.

A quick summary: Agnes (Ashley Judd) is a troubled waitress who works at a gay bar in a small Oklahoma town who drinks and snorts away her loneliness. One night she meets a fresh face, Peter (Michael Shannon), who reluctantly says he’s a freshly discharged solider. The two get to bonding, and before long he’s crashing in her ramshackle hotel room. What follows is an expertly balanced grimy, disturbing tale about abuse, paranoia, mental illness, and co-dependence.

While I’d previously seen BUG a few times via DVD, and several years later I’d attend a production of it at Steppenwolf — Letts and wife Carrie Coon are members, and Coon played Agnes in that production — nothing compares to seeing a print of it in a sold out theater full of fans and fans who dragged their unknowing friends to it.

Friedkin ramps up the claustrophobia, leans more on the characters’ perspectives, and tightens the screws with some manic editing and montage work, making it far more effective on a big screen than viewing at home. Also, when watching a film as gonzo as BUG, the audience’s emotions roil through the theater, amplifying some of the more absurd moments the film throws at you. At the screening, after a particularly confusing array of images and sound that are followed by relative silence, someone simply shouted out ‘WHAT THE FUCK’ and the theater burst out laughing because how the hell else do you react to BUG?

Sadly, chances to view BUG under my 2020 conditions don’t roll around too often, so don’t wait as it plays just as fucked up on a small screen. Arguably, thanks to being in lockdown, the horror of it may play more effectively when one watches at home after a year of lockdown.

There’s a trailer and, while it doesn’t ruin anything exactly, it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.

THE GUEST (2014)

(IMDbTV/Netflix/tubi) YOU’RE NEXT’s Adam Wingard gave us this absolutely gonzo departure for DOWNTON ABBEY star Dan Stevens. A modern THE STEPFATHER that goes balls-to-the-wall in the final act, liberally cribbing from THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Also features an unappreciated Lance Reddick and one hell of a moody goth soundtrack.