I’d love to have been in the studio executives office to hear the pitch for Bubble Boy: “Okay so basically Jake Gyllenhaal is this kid who lives in a plastic bubble, he’s on a road trip and there’s also a travelling freak show owned by Mini Me from Austin Powers, a singing cult led by Fabio, Asian mud wrestling, twin incontinent geriatric pilots named Pippy and Pappy, a motorcycle gang headed up by Danny Trejo, an Indian who drives a food truck serving ‘Ice cream… and curry’” …if I were the exec in charge I’d have no choice but to green light the thing just for the balls they had to bring it to me. Like how do you say no to all that? Real talk though, this film was actually pretty special, and I mean that sincerely. Yes, it’s this kind of surreal, John Waters-esque parade of uproarious and seemingly arbitrary commotion anchored only by Gyllenhaal’s naive, oddball hero but there’s a message sewn into all that madness too that’s actually really sweet and astute. Born without a self generated immune system, Bubble Boy is kept at home in a pristine plastic environment by his overbearing, Jesus freak mom (Swoosie Kurtz), until he falls in love with the girl next door (Marley Shelton). When she runs off with plans to marry a preening douchebag (Dave Sheridan), he constructs that amazing bubble suit and and it’s off on a bizarre cross country race to find her and fix the misunderstandings of their relationship before she gets married. Things get a little… random along the way and his mom takes hot pursuit with his dad (John Carroll Lynch, excellent) in tow. It may all seem like noise and confusion but there’s a real theme of escaping one’s own personal prison going on beneath the surface. Gyllenhaal has left his eternal quarantine and headed out into the great unknown but in a sense each character he meets is in their own bubble of sorts, stunted by belief, circumstance, past trauma or just lunacy. Trejo is terrific as the rambunctious biker who pines for his lost love and will do anything for Bubble Boy, who he considers his ‘Vato.’ The circus show and all its members (which include the varied likes of Matthew McGrory and Lester ‘Beetlejuice’ Green) are a self ostracized bunch who don’t value their own worth until put to the test. Hell, even a cross country bus ticket vendor played by Zach Galifinakis sits resolute and awkward inside his booth, perplexed at sights he observes around him and unable to engage with the world. When mom catches up to Bubble Boy just when he’s about to reach Niagara Falls and wants to yank him home, Carroll Lynch as his dad gets the subtly subversive, beautiful line of dialogue: “What if Neil Armstrong travelled all that way just to *not* walk on the moon.” This is a balls out comedy peppered with delightfully weird shit but it’s also a film about questioning one’s reality, breaking boundaries imposed by whatever system governs you and finding a place in this world, which I promise you is far more strange than anything any screenwriter could ever dream up. Absolutely great film.
Murder. Cannibalism. War. Treachery. You wouldn’t think that such subject matters would make for any sort of lighthearted film, but Antonia Bird’s Ravenous somehow manages it, becoming a classic in my canon along the way. Despite the dark events that unfold, it’s become somewhat of a comfort film for me, one I can put on any old time for a rewatch and enjoy the hell out of. It’s amusingly disturbing, lively, cheerfully gruesome, well casted, oh so darkly comedic and has wit for days. Guy Pearce plays Boyd, a timid soldier who’s banished to a remote fort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains after a prolific display of cowardice during the Mexican American war. His superior officer (crusty John Spencer) just wants him out of his sight, and Boyd just wants to survive and forget the horror he endured in combat. Even worse nightmares are just around the corner though, when mysterious drifter Calhoun (Robert Carlyle in Charlie Manson mode) shows up at the encampment and all sorts of depraved shenanigans kick into high gear. Calhoun turns out to be a serial killing, cannibalizing, grade-A certifiable madman, and no one in their company is safe from that moment forward. Jeffrey Jones is a jovial scene stealer as the fort’s commander, getting all the best quips and quirks. David Arquette howls his way through a barely coherent performance as the resident peyote hound, and further colour is added by weirdo Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Runningfox and Neal McDonough as the tough guy soldier who discovers he ain’t such a tough guy after all. Again, as dark as this film gets, it never loses it’s sunny, demented disposition. This is largely thanks to one bouncy melody of a score from “, ditching any portentous strains or eerie chords for a purely arcade style, quite pretty lilt that’s catchy, silly, warped and probably the most memorable aspect of the piece. Pearce plays it introverted, keeping his fear close to the chest and using it when desperation creeps in, or whenever there’s a hair raising encounter with Calhoun’s monster. Carlyle is a caffeinated blast in what has to be the most fun type of character to play this side of Freddy Krueger, an energetic goofball psychopath with a lovable side that he jarringly switches off on a whim in favour of his leering demon persona. The gorgeous Sierras provide stunning photography for this peculiar fable to play out in, a perfectly evocative backdrop for a campfire tale of murder and, I should mention, pseudo vampirism. There’s a supernatural element to the consumption of human flesh that runs alongside the vampire mythos, putting a neat little spin on an ages old concept. There’s nothing quite like this film, in the best way possible. Leaking wicked sharp atmosphere and knowingly deadpan performances, while retaining the spooky, blood soaked edge of a great horror film. One of my favourites.
Nothing says the 90’s like Virtuosity, a big hunk of circuit board sleaze and cheese that is so of it’s time that it’s hard to watch it these days without believing it to be some kind of spoof. Re-reading that sentence it sounds like I was making some kind of underhanded compliment, which I suppose is a better outcome for a film to arrive at than some. It could have gotten stale or dated in a bad way. Well it’s definitely not stale (it is dated though), in fact it’s one of the liveliest flicks from back then, thanks mostly to a ballistic characterization from Russell Crowe. Crowe is Sid.6, a virtual reality program molded from the personalities of several different serial killers and designed to basically wreak havoc. This is exactly what happens when he escapes, or rather is let out by one of the maniacs at the research centre (Stephen Spinella). Sid is now flesh, blood and roughly 200 pounds of extremely skilled, remorseless killing material, running wild in the unsuspecting streets. The head of the Institute (William Forsythe) has the brilliant idea to recruit ex-cop whack job Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) to hunt Sid down and destroy him. Barnes has a bleak history with artificial intelligence, one that has left him with a cybernetic replacement arm and a huge chip on his shoulder. This is one mean, mean spirited film, as we are subjected to a manic Crowe as tortures, murders and maims innocent civilians with a grinning cavalier cadence the Joker would applaud. He’s off his nut here, something which clumsy bruiser Crowe rarely gets to do, so it’s a rare and extreme outing for him. Washington is perpetually angry, ill adjusted and violent here, and the lengths he goes to destroy Sid are almost as bad as his quarry’s homicidal antics. The cast is stacked with genre favourites, so watch for Costas Mandylor, Kevin J. O’Connor, Louise Fletcher, Kelly Lynch, Traci Lords and a weaselly William Fichtner. The special effects… well what can I say, this was the 90’s and they look like a computer game that’s been drenched in battery acid, then souped up with caffeine. There’s brief homages to video games in fact, and the opener where Crowe is still inside the program is fairly creative. I don’t know if the creators of the film were trying to say something about the dangers of virtual reality, but whatever it was, it’s sort of lost in a hurricane of unpleasent shenanigans that are admittedly entertaining. One thing that’s evident is that anyone who makes a computer program with the persona of one, let alone a handful of murderers is just begging for an incident. I suppose that’s the point here though, the catalyst for the whole deal. Crowe and Washington are great though, both down and dirtier than their characters in the next royal rumble they’d share, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Fun stuff, if you have a strong gag reflex and don’t take yourself too seriously.