Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 8, 2004
Marlee Matlin has an enlightening encounter with an alternate-universe version of herself in ‘What the #$*! Do We Know?’
What the #$*! Do We Know?
Starring Marlee Matlin. Directed by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vicente. Written by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Matthew Hoffman. Not rated.

Starring Addie Land, Cara Seymour, and Noah Fleiss. Written and directed by Enid Zentelis. Rated PG-13.

September Tapes
Starring George Calil and Wali Razaqi. Directed by Christian Johnston. Written and directed by Christian Johnston and Christian Van Gregg. Rated R.
Discount Showings

Low-budget movies rule this week, but do they give you bang for your buck?


Early September is usually a dry period for Hollywood movies, a lull between the summer blockbusters and the Oscar contenders. This year’s proving no exception, even with the release of Vanity Fair (which wasn’t distributed by any of the “major” studios). That’s why this week’s openings are mostly low-budget indies, and I’m tackling all of them in one big round-up.

Let’s start by clearing up a bit of confusion, and believe me, our first movie could use any kind of clarification. The title is What the #$*! Do We Know?, though if you’re referring to it in conversation, you’re supposed to call it “What the Bleep Do We Know?”

The working title was Sacred Science, which gives you more of a clue as to what it’s about. Inspired by the salient aspects of Koyaanisqatsi, Waking Life, and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, the movie combines computer-animated sequences of stars, atoms, and chemical processes with interviews with experts in various spiritual and scientific disciplines, all trying to answer the fundamental questions of human existence. It lays out a view of the world in which scientific principles are just as good as scripture at helping a person live a moral, fulfilling life. The film wants to be a religious experience, which hardly makes it unique among movies, except that the religion here is quantum physics.

You don’t need a degree in physics to watch this movie, but it sure wouldn’t hurt. I’ll let viewers with more of a background in physics winnow out the good science from the junk (in addition to professors from Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA, the movie also interviews Ramtha, “channeled” by J.Z. Knight). Overall, though, the movie’s attitude is useful. Many people think of science and religion as natural enemies. What the #$*! reminds us that the outer reaches of physics are full of mystery and wonder, inexplicable events, and things that have to be taken on faith. Quite a few scientists believe in God in some form, and the film goes a long way toward showing how those disciplines can harmoniously co-exist.

Still, the big question bugging me is: What does Marlee Matlin have to do with all this? She stars in a fictional storyline running throughout as a stressed photographer having a bad day. Her story is supposed to illustrate the various points that the film and its subjects are making. This portion is much less successful, even though Matlin gives the part a good whack. The backstory is cheesy, and she gets heavy-handed lectures on the shape of the universe from a basketball-playing kid (Robert Bailey Jr.) and a guy in a subway station (Armin Shimerman). Some halfway decent comic material surfaces when she’s assigned to photograph a wedding, but it’s played too broadly. Three different directors have a hand in this, presumably each directing his or her own section of the film, so it’s no wonder that the parts aren’t smoothly integrated.

Still, there’s enough substance here to make the fictional part of the storyline worth sitting through. What the #$*! Do We Know? demolishes a few intellectual paradigms, and it’ll be indispensable viewing for devotees of Cinema of the Weird. (Although if you really want something strange, watch this space in a couple of weeks for a truly crazy British import.)

On a much less interesting end of the spectrum lies Evergreen. It’s supposed to be a film about young people who are just becoming aware of how their wealthier friends’ lives are different from their own. Class envy is a good subject for a low-budget movie to take on honestly, but this one doesn’t have much to say about it except that it exists. Almost every Hilary Duff movie has addressed the same issue in more complex terms. That isn’t good.

Addie Land stars as Henrietta, a teen whose mom (Cara Seymour) has just moved her in with her grandmother (Lynn Cohen) in Seattle. It’s the latest stop in a peripatetic existence, as Mom keeps moving from place to place to escape her sordid past and a series of guys, including Henri’s dad. The apartment is cramped, and the roof leaks, which is no small issue in Seattle. It’s no wonder that when Henri draws the interest of Chat (Noah Fleiss), a boy at school whose family has money, she wants to spend all of her time at his house. She doesn’t notice anything odd about Chat’s dad (Bruce Davison) leaving the house at all hours for “business meetings,” while his mom (Mary Kay Place) never leaves the house at all.

The movie avoids the structural clichés of teen drama, but it doesn’t have its own structure to replace them, so it’s prone to long, boring stretches. In what’s supposed to be a character-driven piece, writer-director Enid Zentelis doesn’t seem to have much idea of who her characters are — Chat comes off as a good guy one minute, and then in the next makes like a guy who’s bored with Henri or wants to use her for sex. The relationships are hardly there at all. Henri ends up running back into her mom’s arms after discovering that Chat’s family isn’t perfect, and the movie doesn’t bother to acknowledge that their imperfections don’t make them bad people.

The acting isn’t good enough to generate any juice. (Although Seymour looks as convincing as a blowsy, overweight mom here as she did as a ripe, sexy English musician in Adaptation, a pinched housewife in Dancer in the Dark, and a maniacal killer in Gangs of New York.) Like many movies that try to look gritty and realistic, Evergreen crosses the line into “crappy.” Like many movies in general, its good intentions are negated by its lack of accomplishments.

My fellow critics were up in arms over September Tapes and the way this faux documentary used the war in Afghanistan and the events of 9/11 for fictional purposes. One of my esteemed colleagues said it was the most offensive movie he’d seen in the past five years. Really? Call me insensitive, but I don’t see the difference between this and the episode of Law & Order last year in which the murderer of the week was a schmuck who killed his wife on the night of Sept. 10, 2001, then — realizing as the terrorists struck that he’d just been handed a whopper of an alibi — placed part of her body at Ground Zero, and got her written up as a victim of the attacks. Artists always have the right to respond to any terrible real-life event as they see fit. And since the people in the White House are putting the terrorist attacks to cynical use, why shouldn’t a filmmaker do the same?

You may find the debate more stimulating than the movie itself, though it definitely has its moments and is a better example of a micro-budget digital video movie than Open Water. The film’s set in July 2002, as documentarian Don Larson (George Calil) prepares to travel into Afghanistan and hunt down Osama bin Laden with his camera. As “Lars” himself acknowledges, this is a fairly stupid thing to do, and he’s given to doing things like provoking a confrontation with Kabul police so he can get thrown in jail and obtain a lead on Osama’s whereabouts from the inmates. His Afghani-American guide/translator Wali (Wali Razaqi) tries to extricate him from sticky situations, but even Wali is lost in a place where the rules are made by the nearest guy holding a Kalashnikov. Their exploits are recorded by a cameraman (Sunil Sadarangani) who exhibits no personality whatever during the course of the movie.

The movie was filmed on location, and local Afghanis appearing in the movie were frequently unaware that the people they were speaking to were actors improvising their way through a script outline. The cast and crew, including director Christian Johnston, were on a mission nearly as crazy as the main characters. They risked their lives to make what amounts to a version of The Blair Witch Project that substitutes Afghanistan for the Maryland woods. The lawless atmosphere is nicely captured, and makes an effective backdrop for a thriller. There’s a particularly good sequence in which Lars and Wali find themselves in the middle of an ambush and have to shoot their way out with an AK-47 that a sympathetic warlord has given them.

Yet it doesn’t add up to all that much when everything’s finished. The ending is supposed to be a big twist, but it falls conspicuously flat. It’s a tricky job giving the proper dramatic shape to these heavily improvised films — even Mike Leigh doesn’t always pull it off. September Tapes fails, but at least it shows us something of what life is like in an unstable part of the world that we don’t pay enough attention to.

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