'Bubble' bursts onto TV, video, and the silver screen

A film about a murder in a toy factory has Hollywood on edge. Here's why....

Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble," featuring a nonprofessional cast, is an unassuming little drama about a small-town murder and yet it may represent a turning point in how movies are exhibited in this country. The reason is simple: "Bubble" is the first feature film to be released simultaneously in theaters and on cable (HDNet Movies), with the DVD available just four days later.

Soderbergh is one of the few Hollywood directors who has been able to straddle the studio system and the independent-film arena without losing his balance. The same director who made "Erin Brockovich" and "Ocean's Eleven" (and, alas, "Twelve") also gave us the wonderful "King of the Hill" and the ghastly "Full Frontal." Win or lose, he seems genuinely committed to playing both sides of the fence.

"Bubble" is one of his more successful ventures into indie-land. The local atmosphere, filmed on the Ohio-West Virginia border, is rigorously authentic and so is the cast, none of whose members have acted before.

Debbie Doebereiner, who was working at KFC when she was hired, plays Martha, a plumpish 30-something redhead who lives with her ailing father and works at a plastic-doll factory alongside the younger, unassuming Kyle (Dustin Ashley). When footloose single-mother Rose (Misty Wilkins) is hired as a temp, Martha's jealousies simmer, especially when Rose asks Martha to babysit while she goes out on the town with Kyle.

All this may sound banal and, in fact, Soderbergh does overemphasize the "little-people" dreariness of it all. But there is much low-key humor here, too, albeit on the dark side. The key to the movie's comedy - and horror - is Martha's growing realization that she is being supplanted (if only in her fantasy life) by a tart.

The decision by Soderbergh and Mark Cuban, the financier and distributor of "Bubble," to release the movie almost simultaneously on several formats, has caused quite a stir in Hollywood. This is especially true among theater owners and cineastes, who see this development, ostensibly an accommodation to the changed viewing habits of audiences, as the death knell for the theatrical viewing experience.

Of course, "Bubble" loses very little in visual quality on the small screen. The real question remains: Will audiences prefer to see a new Hollywood epic at home instead of at the multiplex?

I would hate to lose the communal experience of seeing movies on a giant screen, but undoubtedly time and technology will overrule my objections. As director Michael Mann said of the simultaneous release, "Once you can download 'Desperate Housewives' for $1.99 onto your iPod, we're there." Grade: B+

Rated R for some language.

Sex/Nudity: 2 instances of innuendo. Violence: 2 scenes. Profanity: 17 harsh expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 10 scenes of smoking, 2 scenes of drinking, 1 scene of marijuana use.

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