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Thursday, May 23

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Bubble
I barely know where to begin when discussing Steven Soderbergh's hyper-minimalist new film, Bubble. It may be his finest and most effective work, despite the fact that the cast is made up of unknown, first-time actors, his camera barely moves within a given scene, and the plot's biggest "action" moment actually happens off-camera. The quiet yet powerful, 74-minute Bubble offers up a side to Soderbergh heretofore untapped. His understanding of the characters' lives and ability to capture the authenticity of their subdued existences is extraordinary. As in life, people's motivations go unexplained, yet we know exactly what they are thinking and feeling. If Soderbergh had released this film in 2005, it would have easily landed in my top 10 of the year, and I hope I remember this film at the end of 2006.

Bubble is being discussed by many in the industry for reasons other than how good it is, and that's a shame. Its release strategy is an experiment. Today, it comes out in theatres (opening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema in Chicago) and premieres on the HDNet Movies cable channel. On Tuesday, January 31, the DVD of Bubble hits stores, and I'm okay with that, although I am an enthusiastic supporter of watching movies on the big screen, (despite all the drawbacks such venues present these days: high prices, chatter, commercials, cell phones, screaming babies, etc.). The bottom line is that Bubble is worth seeing in any format.

Bubble is about people in isolation, not because they are hiding or scared of people but because it's the way they've lived their entire life. Change of any sort scares them, especially when the balance of their small universe of existence is thrown off. The people in question include Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a middle-aged, unmarried, childless woman who looks after her ailing father and works in a small-town Ohio factory that makes toy baby dolls. Her best friend at work (and probably in life) is 20-something, sleepy-eyed Kyle (Decker James Ashley). The two don't seem to have much to talk about, but Martha seems more than willing to drive Kyle wherever he needs to go after work just for his company. Although their age difference would indicate she might think of him as a son, clearly she has more romantic feelings for him—feelings that in all likelihood she will never express.

Into the doll factory comes the young, pretty Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a single mother whose outgoing personality and dreams of getting out of this fallen town appeal to Kyle, and it isn't long before the two go out on their first date. It would be criminal to reveal too much about the limited plot of Bubble, but I will say that a crime is committed in the town and a police investigator (real-life detective Decker Moody) attempts to solve it, bringing many of the same prejudices into his investigation as we do (we don't actually see the crime until the very end of the film).

The only question Soderbergh forces us to contemplate is whether or not these lives were tragic even before the crime was committed. He doesn't judge these folks, but I'm pretty sure audience members will. These are the people we see on a long road trip, sitting at another table while we have lunch at a greasy spoon. Their conversations don't mean anything in the grand scheme of things, and we tend to look down on them. Soderbergh does not. He treats their lives with as much significance and dignity as he would if George Clooney or Julia Roberts played the characters. Thank heaven they are not. And just because these are non-actors doesn't mean they can't act; the performances here are wonderfully authentic. It's refreshing to see actors who don't know which side is their good side (or even if they possess a good side), who don't know exactly what lighting makes them look better, or how much makeup to pile on to look younger or less flawed. Bubble is a film that embraces flaws while managing to be completely flawless. I recommend seeing Bubble in a darkened theatre (as I do all films), but you have options this time. The choice, however, is not whether to see it or not (you must see it); the choice is only what format you choose to view this exceptional work.


Nanny McPhee
The last time Emma Thompson adapted a book for the big screen (with 1995's Sense and Sensibility), she won an Oscar. Six years later, she adapted the play "Wit" for an HBO movie and earned herself an Emmy nomination. And if the rumors are true, she even did an uncredited script polish on the current version of Pride and Prejudice. My point in this preamble is to make it clear that, in addition to being a tremendous actress, Emma Thompson is a great adapter of other mediums. Further proof of this is her stellar reworking of Christianna Brand's famous Nurse Matilda books, which Thompson is now calling Nanny McPhee.

I loved this movie to death and beyond. I enjoyed it more than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, more than Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, more than Finding Neverland, more than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, more than just about any family film aimed at a slightly older child audience. Nanny McPhee doesn't rely on special effects or truckloads of special makeup (although the film has bits of both). No, this delightful work gets its power from some strong acting and an even stronger script. It doesn't attempt to insert modern humor into what I'm estimating is its early 20th-century English setting. Nanny McPhee gets everything right because it isn't trying ridiculously hard to impress and wow us. Did I mention that I just realized I have an intense crush on Emma Thompson? You will too after seeing this movie.

Most of the film takes place in the run-down Brown residence, headed by funeral home owner (yes, corpses play a part in this film, hee hee) and recent widower Cedric Brown (Colin Firth). He has seven children who have no more important mission in life than to torment and chase away every nanny Cedric hires to look after them. The children seem to get along better with the pretty young housekeeper, Evangeline (Gosford Park's Kelly Macdonald), and cook, Mrs. Blatherwick (Vera Drake's Imedla Staunton; I'd hate to find out what's in her soups), but they have something against mommy substitutes. Along comes the mysterious, hideous and apparently magical Nanny McPhee (Thompson, complete with facial warts, unibrow, bad skin and engorged nose). She makes it clear to Mr. Brown that she will teach the children five (unnamed) lessons, and then she will leave. He doubts she'll fare any better than the 30-some other nannies before her, but somehow she manages to get the children to bed on time and hope is born.

Although the Brown family is shamefully poor, they are able to stick together thanks to a benefactress in the form of Cedric's Great Aunt Adelaide (the priceless Angela Lansbury), who threatens to cut off the family's income if Cedric does not remarry within the month. So while Nanny McPhee is busy tapping her magic cane as a means to teach the children to behave, Cedric is scoping for marriage prospects.

The character of Nanny McPhee never raises her voice or her hand to the children (other than to tap her cane to the ground). She has a series of grunts she evokes depending on how troubling a situation appears to be. And while she never uses her magic to make the children do something (she needs them to actually learn their lessons), she does use it to manipulate things like time and the weather and gravity to assist in her teachings. And if I'm not mistaken, as the children start to learn their lessons, Nanny McPhee's unsightly facial deformities start to disappear.

Director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) has done something remarkable. He's made a film filled with children that children can watch, but avoided all of the painful trappings associated with so many kids' movies. Aside from the aforementioned dead bodies, there is a (clean) joke about incest; bosom references abound, especially concerning those belonging to Mr. Brown's potential marriage prospect Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie); and the relationship between Brown funeral parlor employees (played with determined glee by Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow) might not be out of place on Brokeback Mountain if you sniff my drift. All of these elements made me love the film even more.

Although the Brown children—led by Simon (Thomas Sangster, who played Liam Neeson's son in Love Actually)—aren't holy terrors, there's something a little more sinister about their behavior, as compared to the wimpy siblings of films like Yours, Mine & Ours. Granted, the presence of a food fight at the end of the film doesn't exactly scream sophistication, but there is so much in Nanny McPhee to enjoy and appreciate that the occasional tossed cream puff is forgivable. Even the color scheme here (of both the sets and costumes) seems particularly inspired. Never have pink and green looked so hideous side by side. I could go on and on. Maybe I was just in the right mood, but I think it's more than that. Nanny McPhee (the person and the movie) is not a pretty sight; it isn't supposed to be. But much like the nanny, the film gets better and better as it goes along, and it's impossible for me to imagine anyone not falling head over heels for this one.


Annapolis
After wowing us so completely with his mesmerizing performance in the recent Tristan and Isolde, James Franco (a top graduate of the How's-My-Hair-Look? School of Acting) once again stuns and amazes us with his pouty talents in the military drama Annapolis. Upon the recommendation of a fellow critic, I rewatched the trailer for Annapolis the day before a screening of it, and, sure enough, all the fighter planes and explosions featured in the advertisements are nowhere to be found in the actual movie. Even the poster for the film has a flying formation of fighter jets that are never seen. But more importantly, every clip and ad I've seen for Annapolis has excluded what the movie actually is: a boxing flick. Sure, there are sequences of Franco's Jake Huard going through rigorous training at the U.S. Navel Academy at Annapolis, a place that Jake grew up across the Chesapeake Bay from. He eventually gets a job building Navy battleships with his father, but Jake has always longed to get into the academy, if only because no one thought he could.

Annapolis features not one, but two scenes in which Jake quits or nearly quits the academy only to have someone make an emotional plea for him to stay the course. And, not once, but twice Jake attacks a commanding officer (the same one in both instances, a nasty on-loan officer from the Marines played by Tyrese Gibson) and suffers no consequences. The logic and sense of Annapolis is non-existent. Then there's Donnie Wahlberg as Lt. Cmdr. Burton, who mentors Jake and trains him for a boxing tournament that ultimately pits Jake against (you guessed it) Tyrese Gibson. Jordana Brewster is also on hand as one of Jake's instructors and eventual love interest. The film would have been far better served (and mercifully shorter) without her involvement.

But I don't entirely blame the actors for the failure of Annapolis to generate any emotional response from me. I blame director Justin Lin, the promising young Taiwanese-American director who made the remarkable, stereotype-shattering 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow. I've noticed that Lin is already filming the third Fast and the Furious movie (which will, in all likelihood, suck) and is signed to direct the American remake of one of the best film of the decade so far, South Korea's Oldboy. It appears that Lin has sold his soul to Hollywood, and Annapolis proves that Hollywood has sucked Lin's unique vision right out of him. The fact that one of the major characters (Roger Fan as Loo) in the movie is Asian-American doesn't make up for the fact that Annapolis is creatively and spiritually bankrupt. There isn't a single character I really cared about, or a single conflict or dramatic moment I bought for one second. I think the lesson learned here is that, with the exception of the Spider-Man movies, all of James Franco's films deserve to come out in January. He is my new target, my new bitch, my new Freddie Prinze, Jr.


Roving Mars
It's rare that I even bother to attend, let alone review, a film released solely on IMAX screens, and after seeing Disney's 40-minute "Mars adventure," I may never do so again. Here's the problem. The film is a scam. Now, I know in my heart of hearts that the most recent Mars rovers did not have gigantic IMAX cameras strapped on them; that would be silly. So instead what we get is about 25 minutes of NASA propaganda about the building of the two rovers (launched two weeks apart), followed by 15 minutes of CGI-created images of what the rovers' life on Mars must have been like. The CGI is very good, and filmmaker George Butler (Pumping Iron; the retelling of Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, The Endurance; and Going Upriver, about John Kerry's time in Vietnam) does his best not to sensationalize the long road to placing two working roving geologic labs on the red planet. But 25 minutes of 40-foot-high rocket nerds hugging and high-fiving each other was more than I could take.

Spending the inflated IMAX price of $12 to see a 40-minute movie that offers mostly false images of Mars seems like a rip off of the highest order. Real or not, Roving Mars' worst crime is being boring. With the exception of a loud, IMAX-worthy rocket-launch sequence (and even some of that is CGI!), this film has little genuine entertainment value. Watching Roving Mars made me long for the tripod attackers from War of the Worlds to come out from behind a crater and crush those little roving bastards.

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