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On the 'Bubble' Soderbergh's experiment with multiple releases overshadows his movie

"Bubble" is a strange little film, especially for one at the center of so much controversy.

You may have already seen the film, even before its theater debut in Buffalo. It has already been available on DVD via mail-order and in video stores. Or you might have watched it on HDNet, one of the high-definition channels available on some cable and satellite systems.

It's that multiple-format rollout by director Steven Soderbergh and Internet billionaires Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner and their companies that has scared the bejesus out of theater chains. It has also drawn flak for Soderbergh from film brethren like M. Night Shyamalan, who has accused him of contributing to the destruction of the film industry.

"Bubble" will not destroy the industry. In fact, if not for the hubbub about its release, it would probably be almost unnoticed, a little character-driven drama that relies on subtleties and craft rather than big-bucks effects or stars. In short, it's made for the art houses and screens like the Emerging Cinemas at the Market Arcade.

Soderbergh has had major success, working with big-name actors in films such as "Ocean's Eleven," "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," but he chose to use non-actors (a tradition, by the way, that includes Roberto Rossellini, Jean Rouch and "Battle of Algiers") in "Bubble," with its 18-day shooting schedule and $1.4 million budget. The film's promotion may cost nearly as much as its production.

Shot in high-definition video in Parkersburg, W.Va., and across the river in Ohio, "Bubble" captures the feel of low-expectation small-town America better than any film I can remember. The low-intensity performances are more realistic for their lack of acting craft, with Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) mumbling his lines and Martha (Debbie Doebereiner, who the filmmakers found working in a local KFC) hovering like a mother duck over Kyle and her father. The film is full of open spaces, long gaps in conversations that mimic real life rather than movie repartee.

The plot revolves around the relationships between them and Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), the newcomer to the doll factory where they all work, and there's a murder. But it really isn't very complicated, or even all that dramatic. There's tension, but Soderbergh is reaching for something between reality TV and documentary, not Hitchcock.

In fact, Soderbergh seems to have worked hard at keeping expectations low for "Bubble." It didn't cost much, and since its national release the film has sold more than $5 million in DVDs, so it's already in the black.

But at the same time, the filmmaker has made a film that's beautiful to watch. The DVD sales are driving the project, but it seems a shame to watch it on a regular TV. It would be particularly beautiful on a big screen, since it's got a classic film 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio -- or screen shape -- even wider than the 16 to 9 "letterbox" format that many films use.

It's films like "Bubble" that are showing video is finally ready for the big screen, moving beyond the jagged edges and harsh contrasts that used to characterize it. Soderbergh takes advantage of the setting in a real factory to insert sequences of lurid visual poetry amid the story, and the high-definition production handles it. In fact, viewers won't even know it's not film, which is just about the highest compliment you can give video.

There have always been two Soderberghs: the pop director who produced "Ocean's Eleven" and the more experimental one who did "sex, lies, and videotape." This one is the latter, but with an emphasis on experimental over edgy.

2.5 stars (out of 4)


STARRING: Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley, Misty Dawn Wilkins

DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh

RUNNING TIME: 73 minutes

RATING: R, for minimally rough language

THE LOWDOWN: The relationship between a middle-aged woman and her younger co-worker changes when a beautiful young woman enters the workplace. Murder follows.


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