Media Armchair cinephile 

Straight-to-video/boob tube/silver screen

The big news in DVD this week — in all of Filmdom, in fact — is Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble (Magnolia). `See “Too real to feel good,” Issue 06_04.` As a film, it’s not such a hot story: Again, Soderbergh has stepped back from Hollywood gloss to experiment; this time the result is a love-it-or-hate-it look at three working-class folks whose lives are deathly dull until near the end when one kills another. Shooting in the genuine Midwest with honest-to-goodness non-actors lends the movie a convincing soul-crushing monotony, even if some dialogue and action feels like a city boy’s idea of life in the flyover states.

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The news is that, in the span of one week, Bubble has shown on pay cable, arrived in video stores, and been released nationwide through the Landmark chain of theaters. Hitting TV and disc near-simultaneously isn’t new (recall the recent Dylan documentary, or the Dickens miniseries Bleak House, which will be released by BBC on February 28, right after its TV run), but the theatrical release is a stunt — which some see as the wave of the future and others fear spells the death of theatrical distribution — that hasn’t been pulled before.

At least not on purpose. As cinephiles far from NYC know, scarce distribution means that art and foreign films often hit video stores around the same time as their brief cinematic runs (sometimes before). Take Jia Zhangke’s acclaimed The World (Zeitgeist), which goes on sale a week from now but just finished its regional engagement at Austin’s Dobie theater.

Others, such as Michael Gilio’s filmmaking debut Kwik Stop, have taken the Bubble route, without the theatrical release. Gillo’s comedy, released by ifilm.com, is essentially straight-to-video, but doesn’t fit in with the low-rent genre and exploitation fare that usually defines that arena. In all likelihood, fans of truly independent film are going to see a lot more of these unusual release strategies, even if Soderbergh’s venture doesn’t cause a ripple in the world of mainstream distribution.

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The New Release shelves of your local video store present two double-feature opportunities right now that are too good to let pass unmentioned.

The obvious one, in which both titles are heavily publicized recent features, teams Flightplan (Touchstone) with Red Eye (Dreamworks). Sure, they’re both thrillers set inside jet planes. But they also have a remarkably simpatico tone — always a step or two away (intentionally or not) from self-mockery, but successful in their pursuit of the little jolts and drawn-out tension that go so well with popcorn. They also feature exceedingly fun-to-watch casts: creepily androgynous Cillian Murphy and current It Girl, the winning Rachel McAdams, in Red Eye; dependable Sean Bean, ever-sleepy Peter Sarsgaard, and Jodie Foster (determined to bring some dignity to what could be a real piece of hack work) in Flightplan. Don’t rent ‘em right before a vacation.

Digging into the vaults, we have another two titles that, divergent tones aside, demand to be viewed together. In 1956’s Lust for Life (Warner), Kirk Douglas (under the direction of Vincente Minnelli) throws his heart into a portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh. (Anthony Quinn plays Gaugin.) As you might expect from a ‘50s film, genius is portrayed as a heavy cross to bear, and little about the movie is subtle, but Lust is well worth seeing.

From 1990 comes a wholly different take on Van Gogh’s life, Vincent & Theo (MGM). Here Tim Roth is the painter and Paul Rhys is his brother. With Robert Altman behind the camera, you’d be right to expect that the focus is less on the showy aspects of a famous artist’s life and more on the messy relationships between human beings.

Vincent Van Gogh has been portrayed in more movies, of course, one of which came out the same year as Vincent & Theo: Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Warner Brothers) has been available on disc for some time. Film buffs who’ve already rented that but would still like a Kurosawa fix should consider the new The Bad Sleep Well (Criterion), which like Dreams is a world away from the samurai epics we normally associate with the master filmmaker.

The Bad Sleep Well does share some elements with the samurai films: at two and a half hours, it takes more time setting up its drama than some Westerners would like, and once set in motion, events follow a deliberate pace. Kurosawa’s favorite swordsman, Toshiro Mifune, plays the lead — although with a clean-shaven face and a pair of conservative spectacles, it might take a while to recognize him. Allow me to suggest that interested parties grab the film and hit “play” without reading the disc’s packaging. This is a tight little revenge drama that plays best when you don’t know quite what’s going on.

By John DeFore


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