Thank you, Steven Soderbergh: I finally get to review a movie that’s going straight to video. And cable. And, actually, first-run theaters. Bubble, as you might have heard, is “Another Steven Soderbergh Experience,” which actually has little to do with the film itself. Instead, it refers to the director’s decision to release his latest more or less simultaneously in three different formats. “For the first time,” Soderbergh’s Web site trumpets, “consumers will truly have their choice of how they want to watch a new film.”
Of course, the accuracy of that statement depends on what you mean by “first.” And “truly.” And, actually, “choice.” Bubble’s backer, 2929 Productions, distributes its own DVDs; Bubble, listed at $30, is priced above the norm. 2929 also owns both HDNet Movies, the cable channel broadcasting Bubble, and Landmark Theatres, which is offering an exclusive engagement. Reportedly, other chains backed out of the Experience…of surely losing money. Even 2929, which has committed to producing five more so-called “day-and-date” releases with Soderbergh, limited its gamble, allotting Bubble a budget of only $1.6 million.
The movie itself makes even that modest price tag seem bloated. Bubble is as spare as its 73-minute running time in telling the story of a murder in a depressed, lower-middle-class Ohio town. Every dawn, middle-aged Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) wakes and feeds her infirm father before leaving to pick up Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a kid she works with at a doll factory. They get doughnuts in the morning and eat their lunches together. Though their conversations never seem to go beyond awkward small talk, Martha tells Kyle that he’s her best friend. So when an attractive young woman named Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) is hired to airbrush faces onto the dolls’ creepy plastic heads and begins joining the pair for lunch, Kyle gets interested and Martha gets perturbed.
For a film by a notoriously flashy director, Bubble is remarkably low-key—sometimes self-consciously so. (When Martha drives Rose to her second job as a housecleaner and takes a tour of the large but bland suburban home, she reacts as if she’s in a palace, a scene that needlessly underscores the movie’s ordinary-folk milieu.) No one talks much, only a handful of scenes are accompanied by Robert Pollard’s acoustic-guitar score, and what little dialogue there is in Full Frontal writer Coleman Hough’s script is typically delivered in a monotone by the actors, all of whom are nonprofessionals from southern Ohio. Soderbergh fills the time between major plot points—which, after Rose’s hiring, include a date, an accusation of theft, a murder, and an arrest—with silent shots of either rows of freaky doll parts or what day-to-day life is like in this town: Empty streets. Trailer homes. A church full of blank-faced worshippers.
There’s nothing about Bubble that would make its viewing on a big screen seem necessary by anyone but the most dedicated—or business-obsessed—of cinéastes. Someone staring at a TV is a recurring image here, and the tube might be the best medium for this relentlessly modest exercise in mood-conjuring. Soderbergh’s bare-bones approach, though, is absorbing enough to be occasionally hypnotic, the actors are working-class-dejected through and through, and Hough’s script even throws in a tiny red herring or two to make you second-guess the film’s apparent predictability. Bubble’s only significant flaw is its abrupt and simplistic conclusion, which is likely to leave viewers unsatisfied no matter which way they’ve chosen to watch it.
Day-and-date would have been a great way to release Underworld: Evolution—minus the first-run-theaters part. Improbably more tedious than its predecessor, 2003’s Underworld, Evolution continues the story about a centuries-old war between Death Dealers and Lycans (vampires and werewolves, for anyone who’s been blissfully unexposed to the franchise). The scariest thing about this sequel isn’t the bloody, goopy, never-ending fights between the man-beasts, but the poorly written voice-over at the end: “An unknown chapter is still ahead….All I know is, darkness is still ahead.”
It sure is, if we’re to be subjected to Installment No. 3. Evolution’s narrator and main character is again Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a “vampire warrior” who has to wear latex cat suits, keep her hair stringy, and unload a gangster’s worth of bullets to settle some kind of ancient score. (You’d have to go to the film’s writers—returning director Len Wiseman and Danny McBride, with some character contribution from Kevin Grevioux—to get a plot summary less murky.) The movie begins with an explanatory scroll about the offense committed some 800 years ago that makes poor Selene battle Lycans to this day. Helping her, mainly by gazing into her eyes, is Michael (Scott Speedman), a half–Death Dealer, half-Lycan hybrid.
Like the first Underworld, Evolution is all gray-blue darkness and chill. Also like the first Underworld, Evolution is long on looks and short on everything else except portentous, ridiculously costumed characters who speak of “serums” and “bloodlines.” Though some of the undead’s methods remain mystical—a bite of another’s wrist, for instance, gives the nibbler a fast-mo replay of the victim’s memories—these ghouls are not averse to technology: Computers and surveillance equipment play a big part in the hunt, and battles are won not only by old-fashioned flesh-ripping and body-hurling but also by a cache of automatic weaponry large enough to give 50 Cent flashbacks.
It all seemed like a promising, badass twist on the vampire genre back in ’03, especially when centered on the saucy Beckinsale (who, not willing to let a lack of talent get in the way of love, eventually married Wiseman). But the black-haired Brit, who was given, if nothing else, the action heroine’s requisite number of impressive stunts and one-liners in the first installment, is here reduced to a killing machine dull enough to make fans of Tomb Raider yawn. With its overly complicated story, zero-personality characters, and increasingly uninspired action, this Underworld is one that gets very tiresome very quickly, making its 105 minutes feel like a bloodsucker’s lifetime.CP