WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW?
The ideas expressed in the New Age-y pseudo-doc What the Bleep Do We Know? are inherently intriguing and endlessly debatable. What a shame that the movie itself is such a spectacular mess.
Yet, surprisingly, this has proven to be a minority opinion. What the Bleep ... ? was one of 2004's more unexpected successes - after making an art-house splash in larger markets this past autumn, the film has finally reached our area, currently playing at Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas - and several people whose opinions I respect feel a strong connection to the work. (Besides, any movie that can make the concepts behind quantum physics accessible to a mass audience must be doing something right.) But I think that accessibility is key to the movie's failure. Directors Mark Vincente, Betsy Chasse, and William Arntz struggle so hard to make their ideologies audience-friendly and cinematic, with much visual trickery and obvious gags and a group of "funny" animated blobs that wouldn't seem out of place in a Ghostbusters flick - What the Bleep ... ? is like a Nova special produced by MTV - that they inadvertently cheapen everything about the work; I was hoping to leave the theater feeling smarter, and instead, I think the experience of viewing the film caused me to lose brain cells. Getting your head around all the theories behind quantum physics would take several lifetimes, but the filmmakers present their material like simpletons; you can be on-board with a lot of what What the Bleep ... ? has to say and still find the movie borderline ridiculous.
In detailing the movie's "theories of possibility," the filmmakers incorporate three distinct methodologies for their presentation (which might explain the need for three directors), and none of them winds up working effectively. One involves interviews with a series of quantum-physics analysts who expound on their theories, yet this talking-head format would work infinitely better if we were given the interviewees' credentials in advance; the film, bizarrely, doesn't tell us who these experts are until the end credits, so it's all too easy to write them off as rambling, book-smart eccentrics. (Once you do receive the identities of the subjects, you begin to understand why the filmmakers went this route: Though several regarded physicists are among the interviewees, one of the more well-spoken "experts" turns out to be a graduate student, and another, an engaging blonde named J.Z. Knight, is identified as actually being Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old mystic now channeling his voice through this woman. Um ... ooookay ... .)
These interviews are interspliced with scenes that try to replicate the theories behind quantum physics through visual means, and these sequences are slightly more successful; the film's centerpiece, which takes place amidst the longest wedding reception outside of The Deer Hunter, features moments of ingenuity. These bits are undone, however, by What the Bleep ... ?'s underlying crudeness; in an attempt to illustrate some of the parameters behind quantum physics, the reception sequence takes far too many potshots at the obese and emotionally imbalanced, and it's grossly unfunny to boot; it feels like you're watching an educational film from the '50s on the perils of overeating and binge-drinking. (The only laugh I got from the movie was when one of the learned scientists let slip the term "mediocracy.")
Perhaps in an attempt to make What the Bleep ... ? feel less like homework, the moviemakers wrap their quantum-physics meditations around a framing device, wherein Marlee Matlin, playing the world's most easily distracted photographer, uses the concepts of quantum physics to snap out of her cranky mood and appreciate the beauty of her thighs. It's always a pleasure to see Marlee Matlin, and she's well-cast in a role that calls for a lot of subtle reaction shots - I applaud the filmmakers for treating Matlin's deafness as a given and not a plot point. Yet the scenes involving the photographer and those she connects with - including her roommate, a friendly nerd at the reception, and a sitcom-cute kid on a basketball court - are so poorly performed and hopelessly phony (that kid seems destined for a career in Pepsi Twist commercials) that they feel like impediments to the film's theses. In What the Bleep ... ?, the random stylistic elements don't come together in any satisfying way, and even though I occasionally appreciated the material - especially the film's detailing of brain synapses, showing how one memory is irrevocably tied to another - I was incredibly put off by the relentless cheesiness of the endeavor. Of course, the movie's still a hit. What the bleep do I know?
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13
The brashly, trashily enjoyable Assault on Precinct 13 will do nothing to further the state of American cinema, and thank God for that; Jean-Francois Richet's remake of John Carpenter's 1976 potboiler is a speedy, seedy shoot-'em-up, and absolutely up-front about its limited intentions. This tale of beleaguered cops and thugs caught in a full-scale war is as B-movie as they come - all the characters have tics instead of personalities, the dialogue basically consists of variations on "Shut the f? up!!!," and the Detroit precinct where the action takes place appears as removed from the actual world as Brigadoon; despite the numerous shoot-outs, car crashes, and explosions, no Detroit residents notice the continual shock-and-awe attacks, and there's a bucolic forest nearby for the film's where-are-the-gunmen-hiding? finale. (I kept awaiting the appearance of the Blair Witch.) Still, Richet stages the action with hard-edged verve, and the cast seems to be having a great time playing lowlifes; the movie is little more than a serviceable genre piece, but with a list of players that includes Ethan Hawke, Brian Dennehy, Maria Bello, Drea de Matteo, John Leguizamo, Dorian Harewood, Gabriel Byrne, and the effortlessly cool Laurence Fishburne, there are plenty of less entertaining lowlifes to be stuck with.
Some actors have to work themselves into a state of spirited, self-righteous indignation; that's Samuel L. Jackson's default mode. Hollywood's latest inspirational-mentor flick, Coach Carter, is as predictably "touching" as they come, and, as most works in this genre are, filled to the brim with tired subplots, exhausting expository dialogue, and one-dimensional characters that would have appeared flimsy on The White Shadow nearly three decades ago. (The young basketball players that Carter leads into manhood are given exactly one character trait each, and the movie's adults - Carter excepted - don't even rate that many.) Yet every time you're ready to give up on the movie, Mr. Jackson delivers one of those exquisite Sam Jackson soliloquies that are all but designed to make you weep for the actor on the receiving end; with his unflinching stare and hammily entertaining you-think-I'm-angry-now? cadences, Jackson is capable of chewing up and spitting out any performer within shouting range. After seeing Jackson perform this shtick in movie after movie, you'd think that it would grow tiresome, but Coach Carter is so devoid of any other brand of cinematic life - even the on-court scenes, which should be the film's aces in the hole, are indifferently executed - that you eagerly await each new outburst; Jackson never reaches the heights of greatness he scaled in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, or Changing Lanes, but in a middling piece of feel-good blather such as this, near-great is almost good enough.