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Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
Ladder 49Shark Tale

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Ladder 49
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

About a year ago, I was driving home from work and spotted a column of smoke on the horizon. Letting my curiosity get the better of me, I veered off my normal commute route and found myself parked a block away from an abandoned apartment on fire. Kansas City firefighters were already on the scene and three teams were quelling the blaze. The pure power of what they were battling was stunning.

It was the first time I had ever seen firefighters working at an actual fire, and I was blown away. I had an image of what these people did, but to actually see it unfolding in front of my eyes was a phenomenal experience. In that moment, reality cancelled out the fantasy.

Ladder 49 is one of a handful of films made in the last twenty years that explores the firefighting career. It attempts to pay homage to firefighters by following the career of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) from the first day he enters a firehouse in Baltimore to a moment when his life is put in great jeopardy.

While Phoenix desperately attempts to flesh out his character, John Travolta revels in the pomp and circumstance. Travolta gains popularity when he injects energy and sexuality into his roles, but his performance as the stoic Captain Mike Kennedy is dull and lifeless. Both actors are weighed down heavily by a very predictable story that has about the same amount of depth as an article from Boy’s Life.

What is most disappointing about Ladder 49 is it does more to pay tribute to the stereotype of the fireman than reality. There’s the corny Irish flute that permeates every scene. When things are good the firefighters are laughing it up at the firehouse, playing practical jokes on each other, bonding at barbeques or getting drunk at the friendly neighborhood bar. When things are bad, they’re stoically mourning the loss or contemplating the maiming of a firefighter, and struggling with the worries of their families.

Granted, these are some aspects of being a firefighter, but they should not be the defining factors. To choose to be a firefighter is to choose a life of stress, exhaustion and exhilaration. When one is in a profession that provides a service that 99% of humanity wouldn’t know how to handle, it attracts incredible personalities and amazing stories. Ladder 49 does glorify firefighters but it doesn’t offer any insights to help us understand these heroes.

The tagline for Ladder 49 is “Every Hero has a Destiny,” and this reveals to biggest flaw in the film. Firefighters don’t have destinies. They have a job and they do it damn well. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 10/1/04

Shark Tale
Reviewed by Deborah Young

It’s hard to match the cute factor of animated characters like Shrek and The Lion King. But cuteness alone begins to wear thin as minutes pass.

Such movies can transcend mere cuteness if the screenwriters choose the right words to put into the mouths of the characters and show the complexity of the characters and story line. Funny one-liners or smart observations not expected from animated creatures can take the characters from cute to entertaining. Characters that represent a co-mingling of grouchiness and glee, of silly and serious, can ascend from cartoonish to lovable.

The animated film Shark Tale definitely has the cute factor and enough witty lines to elicit a few belly laughs. And the film’s story is a classic: a have-not envies the alluring world of the haves and longs to become one of them.

In this case, the main have-not happens to be a jive-talking fish named Oscar (the voice of Will Smith). Oscar works in a whale wash, just as his late father did. He scrubs the whales’ tongues, and he’s good at it. But he longs for the glamorous life at the top of the reef, where he would be a “somebody.”

Oscar’s life begins to change when a shark, Frankie (voice of Michael Imperioli), one of the sons of feared gangster shark Don Lino (Robert De Miro’s voice), meets an untimely death. After Frankie dies, Oscar decides to take credit for his death. The lie boosts Oscar to the esteemed status of “shark killer.”

Frankie’s brother, Lenny (voice of Jack Black), becomes Oscar’s co-conspirator in the lie because he wants a way to escape his unhappy lot. He’s a vegetarian shark, an embarrassment to his gangster father.

The movie is full of allusions to gangster movies and pop culture past and present. Oscar bops into the whale wash to the upbeat tune of the ‘70’s song “Car Wash.” A large TV screen broadcasts reports from newsfish Katie Current (with the voice of Katie Couric). At the top of the reef, sea creatures party in a spacious room that has a floor-to-ceiling lava lamp in its center.

It’s great material, but at times it seems to be trying too hard to be witty. The film also moves too slowly. There are too many gaps in meaningful action, which might cause viewers under 10 years old to grow a bit restless.

Shark Tale is aesthetically pleasing, with its muted blues and sleek underwater architecture. And, it has an all-star cast of celebrity voices that includes Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger and Martin Scorsese.

But the film seems to have an identity crisis. It’s hard to tell whether its creators were trying to create a children’s film or an animated spoof for adults.

The film is certainly entertaining, but it’s not the fast-moving, jest fest of a film like Shrek, and it lacks the multiple layers of meaning needed to make it a timeless hit with audiences of all ages. But it is pretty and, at times, darned amusing. (PG) Rating: 2.5; Posted 10/1/04

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

IAre you in need of an antidote to the muckraking commercials from the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? If so, a new documentary by George Butler (Pumping Iron, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition) may be just what the doctor ordered.

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry focuses on the young Kerry as well as other Vietnam vets who campaigned against the war after returning to the US. Written by Joseph Dorman (who based much of it on the book Tour of Duty by Douglas Brinkley), Going Upriver is a heart wrenching and enlightening work.

Butler artfully combines harrowing war footage with talking head interviews, home movies and film of Kerry’s activities with Viet Nam Veterans Against the War.

Among the notable participants are Brinkley, former Georgia U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, former Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrook, Time columnist Joe Klein and historian and former UPI Viet Nam correspondent Neil Sheehan.

Also included are observations from Kerry’s Viet Nam band of brothers, as well as other vets who attempt to explain how their wartime experiences changed their perspective and compelled them to voice their opposition to the war.

Some of the most powerful moments come from a summit of Viet Nam vets as they confess to wartime atrocities. Other footage focuses on vets throwing away their medals and ribbons, and excerpts from The Dick Cavett Show pitting Kerry against John O’Neill, an ambitious Republican recruited by the Nixon administration in an effort to discredit Kerry. O’Neill is now the driving force behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Some things never change.

Perhaps most effective is Kerry’s noted appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His passionate but restrained and thoughtful speech ably reflected the anguish felt by veterans who saw the war’s continuation as a colossal waste.

Going Upriver is the latest in a string of documentaries that attempt to counter what many perceive as a domination of the Right in certain media. It lacks the pizzazz of the work of Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11) and the single-minded ideology of Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, Uncovered). It isn’t flashy, hurried or overtly preachy...just like Kerry himself.

Like those other films, it is unlikely to change many minds because too few people (the ones most in need of the information) will ever see it. That’s unfortunate, because Going Upriver is a skillfully made and sincere attempt to set the record straight. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5; Posted 10/1/04

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