Tag Archives: B+

BUBBLE

It’s been the habit of Steven Soderbergh, who after all started in independent film, to cleanse his cinematic palate after directing big-budget rubbish like “Solaris” and the “Ocean’s” movies by returning to his much more modest roots. It hasn’t always worked out terribly well–“Full Frontal,” anyone?–but with “Bubble” he’s fashioned an almost ascetically plain portrait of small-town, working-class existence that turns abruptly into an inexplicable American tragedy (Dreiser among the proletariat). Made utterly without frills using non-professional actors, HD digital cameras, straightforward cinematography and authentic settings, it captures the pathetic ordinariness of its characters’ lives, and deaths, without condescension; yet it employs some startling techniques toward the close to indicate there’s more to what happens in this story than meets the eye. Some will argue that these closing moments give an overblown touch to the picture, an effort to add a transcendent feel to a tale that’s until then been resolutely, even ostentatiously earthbound. But even if that criticism is considered valid, it doesn’t alter the fact that for the most part, at least, this is a fascinating depiction of the proverbial lives of quiet desperation, lived unnoticed and always on the edge, and–one expects–all too common.

The central figure here is Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a middle-aged woman of ample size and helpful demeanor who works on the assembly line in a small doll factory on the Ohio-West Virginia border. She lives a very low-key life, serving as caretaker to her aged father in their modest home; her only real interest, it seems, is in her co-worker Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a darkly handsome but reserved and laconic youngster who lives with his mother in a trailer. He rides with Martha every day to the factory, and has taken on an extra job to save money for a car; she enjoys sharing a coffee-and-doughnut stop with him each morning, as well as a table in the vending-machine room at lunch. Their lived-in routine is altered by the factory’s hiring of Rose (Misty Wilkins), a flirtatious young woman, separated from the father of her daughter, who quickly hits up Martha for a few favors while chatting with Kyle and inviting him out for smokes after lunch. When Rose asks Martha to baby-sit for her one night while she goes out on a date, Martha’s surprised to learn that Kyle’s the one taking her out; and after Rose returns home, Martha witnesses an intrusion by her estranged ex, Jake (K. Smith) before leaving the shabby apartment; he accuses Rose of stealing from him. The next morning one of the characters is found dead, leading to a police investigation that has none of the drama of those in television procedurals. And while there’s initially a sliver of uncertainty about the killer, the identity is confirmed by the simplest of means. But while the “who” is revealed, the “why” remains obstinately obscure.

There’s a dour simplicity to Soderbergh’s work here (and Coleman Hough’s script) that’s both convincing and oddly unnerving. The flat dialogue, punctuated by not so pregnant pauses, and the deliberately bland, unvarying style of performance, with the leads and supporting players conveying a much greater sense of authenticity than professionals could ever have done, make for an absorbing portrait of people living from paycheck to paycheck and barely making ends meet–and help one to comprehend how even the most minor bumps in their routine can seem intolerable and bring explosions of rage. The plainness of the cinematography (ascribed to Peter Andrews, Soderbergh’s nom de camera), the found locations, and the use of natural light enhance the almost neo-realist look. The result is a picture that belies its ostensibly prosaic feel to give a touch of offbeat poetry to these deceptively humdrum lives.

Much will be made of the fact that “Bubble” represents a sort of revolution in film distribution: it’s being released simultaneously in theatres (by Magnolia Pictures, in Landmark cinemas throughout the country) and on cable television (on the HDNet Movies channel), and only a few days afterward on DVD. All that is well and good, but it wouldn’t matter much if the picture weren’t worth seeing in one way or another. As it happens, it is.

THE MEMORY OF A KILLER (DE ZAAK ALZHEIMER)

What might have been a fairly standard combination of revenge tale and police procedural is sparked by a flashy style, a neat narrative twist involving mental disintegration and a great lead performance in “The Memory of a Killer,” aka “The Alzheimer Case,” from Belgian director Erik Van Looy. Jan Decleir, whom you may remember from his sinister turn in the 1997 Dutch Oscar winner “Character,” makes a powerful impression as Angelo Ledda, an aging hit man assigned by his French boss to kill a couple of witnesses in an Antwerp sex ring. With his methodical, unforgiving style, Ledda’s a formidable fellow, even if he is beginning to suffer the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s. But he’s disgusted to find that one of his intended victims is a thirteen-year old girl, and refuses to finish the job, certain that none of his colleagues will, either. He’s mistaken, and when his boss comes from Marseilles to kill not only the girl but him as well, Ledda rebels. Disgusted by the failure of the police to bring down the ring of powerful men behind the sex operation, he undertakes to dismantle it himself against great odds, since the governmental establishment is protecting those behind the scenes. While doing so he knocks heads with honest cop Eric Vincke (Koen de Bouw) and his young partner Freddy (Werner de Smedt), who are stymied in their effort to crack the case by layers of bureaucracy and competing jurisdictions. The last act of the picture is a fairly cerebral cat-and-mouse game, with several feints and turnabouts involving Ledda’s deteriorating condition, that surrounds the attempt to bring down a former minister of state and his thuggish son.

“The Memory of a Killer” is a clever piece of work, constructed by van Looy and Carl Joos with considerable dexterity. There are, of course, a few ruses that seem rather feeble–one scene, in which the cops rush to a place where they know Ledda’s been hiding, intercut with shots of him apparently hearing their arrival, turns out to be a pretty cheap trick. But most of the sequences in which the hit-man disposes of his various quarries are neatly choreographed and smartly shot. And if de Bouw and de Smedt prove disappointingly ordinary as the two cops (though the script tries to spice up their relationship by sewing seeds of discord between them), Decleir certainly compensates with a towering turn as the driven hit-man. Though the twists involving his increasing forgetfulness in the last act strain credulity, he’s so convincing that he almost carries even them off. And the style of the picture, shot in glistening, near-metallic widescreen images by Danny Elsen, is striking.

It’s reported that like so many high-profile European films, “The Memory of a Killer” has already been optioned for an English-language remake. The result is likely to be lamentable, so check out the original on the big screen before it’s defaced by Hollywood. Decleir’s performance alone would be reason enough to see it, but the clever script and nifty execution are added attractions.