BubbleReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/27/06 00:14:49
(Worth A Look)
Much of the advanced discussion of “Bubble” has centered not on the film itself but on the events surrounding its distribution. For the first time, a film is going to be released in movie theaters, on cable (on HDNet) and on DVD simultaneously. This is not entirely unheard of in the world of contemporary film exhibition–the film version of “The Pirates of Penzance” premiered in theaters and on cable on the same date and the vagaries of independent distribution have led to circumstances, such as the recent “Café Lumiere,” where a film turns up in some theaters at the same time that it hits the shelves at Best Buy–but it is the highest-profile attempt to date. Understandably, most exhibitors are up in arms over this (which explains why the Landmark chain of theaters, part of the consortium behind the experiment, are virtually the only places you can see the film theatrically) and fear that if it succeeds, it, coming on the heels of the alleged “box-office slump” that obsessed the industry last year, will lead to the death of the moviegoing experience as we know it. After all, they argue, if a person is offered a choice between spending $10 a head to see “King Kong” in a multiplex or $25 total to bring it home on DVD, they will go with the latter every time. As for the studios, they fear this development as well because they fear losing money as the result of possible piracyMy feeling is that these worries are pretty much groundless and if they are that worried about losing audience members, the theater owners might want to be more concerned about cleaning their theaters, hiring people who actually know how to work the equipment (I was at a recent screening where a speaker blew and it took me forever to even convince someone that there was a problem in the first place) and getting rid of the pre-show commercials (not trailers) that have quickly become the worst thing to happen to the moviegoing experience since they began tearing down the lovely old palaces in order to build ugly multiplexes in their place while the studios should concentrate on making films that are good enough that people would actually want to bootleg them in the first place. Although the technological details may change and evolve over the next few decades, I believe that there will always be a hunger among people for the communal experience of sitting down in a theater with other people in order to absorb amazing new sights and sounds. True moviegoers are not going to forsake seeing the likes of “King Kong” on a big screen in order to experience it on their own home theaters, no matter how elaborate their set-ups might be.
In fact, this particular distribution system is designed more as a lifeline for smaller films that don’t get booked into 3000 theaters at a shot and don’t feature stars who appear on the magazine covers or chatting with Dave or Conan. Thanks to the Internet, more people can hear about these smaller films but unless they live in a major city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, it is unlikely that they will get the opportunity to see many of them. By making these smaller films available on DVD and cable at the same time, the filmmakers have a chance of finally getting their work seen by a larger audience than they might have had access to in the past. At this level of the film industry, bootlegging is less a crime and more a strange form of word-of-mouth publicity.
Whether this distribution plan will make “Bubble” a surprise success or just the answer to a future trivia question remains to be seen. However, this is the kind of film that would benefit the most from such an innovation–it contains no recognizable stars or any shocking or controversial moments and it tells a story that doesn’t quite lend itself readily to 30-second commercials or one-line descriptions. On the other hand, it is an original and intriguing little film that has a lot to offer those weary viewers looking for something a little more satisfying than the likes of “Big Momma’s House 2" or “Underworld: Evolution.” Since these people don’t necessarily live only in the big cities, the multi-level release means that they will finally get a chance to experience a film such as this at the same time as everyone else.
Set in the small and economically depressed town of Belpre, Ohio, “Bubble” tells the story of Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a pleasant-seeming middle-aged woman–the kind best described as “matronly”–who spends her days painting the faces on dolls in the run-down factory that seems to be the town’s only industry and her nights sewing clothes and taking care of her elderly father. She is friendly with a younger co-worker named Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), with whom she shares rides to and from work and lunches in the incredibly depressing break-room. Early on, Martha refers to Kyle as “my best friend” and it is fairly obvious that her feelings for him run far deeper than that, even though you get the feeling that you could torture her for years before getting her to actually admit such a thing. For his part, Kyle doesn’t seem to notice this either–to his credit, though, his inability to gauge her actual feelings is borne less of thoughtlessness and more from the fact that he is just too tired from working two jobs to notice much of anything around him.
That dynamic changes when a young single mother named Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) is hired to work at the factory. Almost immediately, she is joining Martha and Kyle for lunch and chatting away with Kyle during the occasional smoke break. Soon, she asks Martha if it would be possible for her to babysit so that she can go out on a date one night–Martha agrees and, for her troubles, is quietly humiliated to discover that Rose’s date is Kyle. Later on that night, Rose returns and is visited by ex-boyfriend Jake (K Smith), the father of her child, who loudly accuses her of stealing money and pot from him. After he leaves, Martha politely inquires about him and Rose impolitely tells her to shut up. I won’t reveal what happens next, except to say that a serious crime is committed against one of the people and a local cop (Decker Moody) doggedly interviews the others in an effort to discover whether there is more, or less, to what happened than what meets the eye.
“Bubble” has been directed by Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker who has always punctuated his glossier Hollywood efforts (such as “Erin Brockovich” and “Out of Sight”) with quirkier indie fare like “Schizopolis” and “Full Frontal.” Before “Bubble,” his previous film was “Ocean’s 12,” a big-budget, star-filled extravaganza that wound up being a lot more conceptually intriguing than something designed primarily to be a money-spinning sequel had any right to be. In every way, shape and form, “Bubble” serves as that film’s opposite. While “Ocean’s 12" was filmed in impossibly glamourous locales throughout the world, “Bubble” was shot in the real-life town of Belpre and used authentic locations–the doll factory we see is an actual doll factory. Where that film had enough top-shelf stars to supply six month’s worth of “Entertainment Weekly” covers, Soderbergh cast this film entirely from a pool of locals who have never previously acted before–I learn, in fact, that the guy playing the cop is an actual police officers and the girl playing Rose’s daughter is the real-life child of the woman playing her. And where the earlier film reveled in its complex and subversive plotting, “Bubble” is almost shockingly direct and to the point–so much so, in fact, that even those who have encountered Soderbergh’s previous experimental films are likely to be surprised by how straightforward this one is.
I admit that I was one of those who was surprised and, as a result, I found myself curiously unmoved by “Bubble” the first time I saw it. At that time, it struck me as a film that existed only so that Soderbergh could prove to his peeps that he could follow up the likes of “Ocean’s 12" with a tossed-off bit of extreme neo-realism. However, images and ideas from the film kept nagging at me and when I was given the opportunity to see it for a second time, I took it. This time, perhaps because I already knew where the story would and wouldn’t take me, I was able to concentrate on the characters and their environment, clearly the elements that intrigued Soderbergh in the first place, and realize for the first time just how accurately he was able to capture them.
More so than most films, “Bubble” gives us the genuine sensation of following a small group of people around for a few days and finding ourselves as astonished at what happens to them as they are. (Apparently, Soderbergh was able to maintain this illusion by shooting the film in sequence and by keeping the actors in the dark as to what would happen for as long as possible.) Much of this comes from the quietly brilliant work from the unknown actors, all of whom seem to be playing themselves even though they obviously aren’t. Some may deride the no-star cast as just another Soderbergh stunt but I disagree. Certainly, I could a version of this movie featuring, say, Kathy Bates as Martha, Peter Sarsgaard as Kyle and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rose; those three are talented actors and could have turned in excellent performances but none could ever hope to produce the weary authenticity that Doebereiner, Ashley and Wilkins convey just by standing there and saying nothing.“Bubble” is not a perfect movie–the final scene, for reasons that I cannot hint at, comes off as a bit of a muddle–and I suspect that the financiers of the film (for whom Soderbergh has already agreed to shoot six additional films, all under the same circumstances as here, over the course of the next five years) were hoping that they might be getting something closer to the ground-breaking “sex, lies and videotape” than they wound up with. However, this is one of those films that sneaks up on you and buries itself into your mind in a way that most movies today don’t even attempt to do. Speaking honestly, I’m not entirely certain that I would want to see it for a third time anytime in the immediate future but I am certainly glad that I did get to see it and that others will have a better chance than normal to experience it for themselves. Perhaps one of those potential viewers will notice that such a resolutely non-commercial film was able to reach them and become inspired to grab a digital camera and tell his or her own story. If enough people do that, it could inspire a new wave in filmmaking that could put butts back into the theaters all by itself.
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