What the Bleep Do We Know!? (Fox, 2004) D: William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, Mark Vicente, w/ Marlee Matlin, Elaine Hendrix. Rating: NNN
Spirituality is probably the single most difficult thing on earth to talk about at the best of times - and these are not the best of times. Even if you get past the spirit-draining trinity of rationalist blockhead, fundamentalist wacko and New Age weenie to reach the averagely thoughtful, open-minded populace, you're still likely to find people whose closest connection with Spirit (however you wish to name or imagine it) is probably the Force.
You doubt? Pick a spiritual concept, say, "qi" - thousands of years old, central to Chinese philosophy and religion. Bring it up with a friend. Odds are, if the blank stare fades, you'll hear, "Oh, the Force," and see a look that says, "Why are you taking this silly space-opera notion seriously?"
So it's a wonder this film got made at all, let alone as well as it did - which is very well indeed, given that it's a talking-heads documentary that periodically flows into drama with animation to illustrate its points.
The talking heads aren't identified till the end, when they're revealed as quantum physicists, a biochemist, psychiatrist, psychologist other scientists and a professional mystic. What they've got to say, and pardon me for dumbing it down, is:
External reality isn't solid, says quantum physics, and isn't external. It relies for its existence on our observation and participation. You may be in two places and/or times at once, only you can't perceive this because, like everyone else, you're reacting not to reality but to your map of reality, says psychology, which is limited by your lifetime of chemical dependancy on your own emotions, says molecular biology, which further restricts your ability to react to reality.
But since the mind calls reality into being, you can change it with your mind, say the mystics, some of whom are quantum physicists, psychologists and molecular biologists.
Without a pause button, movies are a weak medium for abstract thought. There's a lot of that here, and it goes by fast. The animation helps, but it's really the drama that gives it meaning, and Marlee Matlin who makes the drama work.
She plays a photographer recovering from a bad marriage who's assigned to cover a wedding, and this is the day she steps into expanded reality as it steps into her. It's a role with a lot of range, and she makes the most of it, particularly in the high-energy hormone-driven slapstick-with-animation of the wedding reception.
While the extras fill us in nicely on background and audience response to the film, they're weak on supporting data. A quick Web search on one scientist, William Tiller, shows that he is legit, but printed bios would've been good, and a reading list better still. That stuff's on their website ( whatthebleep.com), but since the filmmakers' stated intent is to get us thinking, and since some of these ideas are hard to comprehend, let alone accept, on first hearing, it would have helped if they'd given us some titles to get started thinking with.
Extras Arntz, Chasse, Vicente Q&As at screenings; interviews with Matlin, filmmakers, other actors; music video; trailer. Wide-screen. English 5.1. English and Spanish subtitles.
Ladder 49 (Disney, 2004) D: Jay Russell, w/ Joachin Phoenix, John Travolta. Rating: NNN
Good intentions do not a good movie make; they can, in fact, make matters worse. On the other hand, a good subject, structure and moviemaking technique can sometimes overcome the best of intentions. That's the case with Ladder 49. Director Jay Russell wanted to make a movie honouring firefighters. Good idea: lots of built-in danger, suspense, thrills and character exploration. Who would do this job every day, and what does it cost them? It's the "honouring" part that causes trouble.
Firefighters are on one level ordinary working-class people. So Russell and star Joachin Phoenix make protagonist Jack Morrison as ordinary a man living as ordinary a life as possible. So we get ordinary scenes shot in an ordinary way: first day on the job, firehouse pranks, friendship, love, marriage and the baby, wife's job fears, death of a colleague.
Individually, these scenes are well constructed and very well acted, though John Travolta, as the avuncular captain, can't fully suppress his movie-star style. But they're mundane, predictable and going nowhere in particular. The script could have been jazzed up, but the purpose is "to honour," so the dark side of firefighters is touched on lightly, if at all.
Structure and skill save the day. Morrison's life is laid bare in a set of flashbacks, memories that come as he's injured, trapped in a giant warehouse fire and struggling to save himself as his team tries to find and rescue him. It works beautifully; Russell cuts back to the perilous present whenever the flashbacks threaten to sag, and we've seen enough fires in the flashbacks to know that sudden death is a real possibility.
The visuals are totally convincing. The fire is all practical (no CGI, no miniatures), with cast and crew right in the middle. The extras make much of everyone on the film attending Baltimore's fire-fighting school, and their work pays off in hard-edged realism that joins with the stellar effects and a fine climax to lift the film well above the mundane.
Extras Russell and editor commentary, making-of doc, firefighters doc, deleted scenes, music video. Wide-screen. English and French 5.1. Spanish subtitles, English captions.
The Chiefs (Seville, 2003) D: Jason Gileno, w/ Mike Bajurny, Mike Henderson. Rating: NNN
Here's the other side of hockey, light years away from whiny NHL millionaires. Les Chiefs are the pride of Laval, Quebec, and a force to be reckoned with in the Quebec Semi-Pro Hockey League. They're also serious on-ice fighters, something that players and fans alike love. That love of fighting and pride in toughness fuels the first part of this lively documentary, which focuses on the team's goon squad and pretty much excludes the actual game of hockey. It's fast, its funny, and the players are likeable, happy hooligans. But the boxing match at midpoint signals a shift in tone, when the players' makeshift lives and the goon squad's benching as the team tries for league championship take on a darker tone.
Without preaching, the movie says a lot about the game, the men who play it and our national obsession. And you don't have to be a hockey fan to like it.
Extras Gileno and producer Dave Bajurny commentary, three hockey fight docs, hockey cliché doc, bios. Wide-screen. English, French 2.0.
Charly (MGM, 1968) D: Ralph Nelson, w/ Cliff Robertson, Claire Bloom. Rating: NNN
The classic 60s tearjerker holds up very well thanks to great restrained acting from Cliff Robertson - he won the best-actor Oscar - and Claire Bloom, a strong, resonant story and quiet, graceful visuals. The science may be wonky, but the tale of a developmentally delayed man - the movie calls him a "retardate" - who's given an operation that boosts his mental powers beyond normal, but only temporarily, focuses on the emotions and leaves the metaphoric interpretation up to the viewer.
Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies Of The Field) keeps the camera simple, and even the obligatory 60s-isms - split screen, the freak-out sequence - are deployed in the service of the story rather than as eye candy.
Extras Wide-screen and full-frame versions. English mono sound. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, March 15
The Gospel Of John (Disney, 2004) Philip Saville's attempt to shoot the book of the Bible word for word.
Deep Crimson (Homevision, 1996) A Mexican take on the crimes that inspired 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers.
Eclipse (Criterion,1962) Alain Delon and Monica Vitti star in an Antonioni classic with scholarly extras.
The Pretender, Season One (Fox, 2001) Paranoia, alienation - who could ask for more?
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb