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Scaling new heights

‘Ladder 49’ a new kind of firefighting flick; adults will enjoy ‘Shark Tale.’


Too bad for me — especially given how often Hollywood plucks this particular string — but since 9/11, I’m a sucker for a hero. Daddy, do we HAVE to shoot Ol’ Yeller? Pass the Raisinets. Life is like a box of chocolates, Forrest, and by the way: I’m dying? All quiet on the Depresstern Front. Show me some firefighter rushing through flames with a child in his arms, though, and suddenly it’s "Lifetime Intimate Portrait" night at the sorority house, and I’m mouthing "Something in my eye" to the people snickering at me while I suck back snot. Given all that, I knew there was a good chance I was going to spend a large portion of the new firefighter flick "Ladder 49" with the lower two-thirds of my face looking like a glazed doughnut. On the other hand, given Hollywood’s attempts at canonizing the brave, I also knew there was a good chance "Ladder 49" would be an overblown, grandstanding, smoldering piece of crud, the latest big-budget effort to convince me that watching John Travolta’s slowly expanding head is still worth my $7.50. The bad news is, Option No. 1 came to pass, though I was able to mostly keep my dignity intact. The good news is, the cheesefest I expected wasn’t on the menu. Instead, "Ladder 49" turns out to be a carefully wrought and utterly human story about friendship, courage and the lengths people will go to save others. Rather than taking the prescribed route for movies like this — the long, getting-to-know-you intro sequence before we drop our hero into hell — "Ladder 49" begins with a firefighter’s nightmare: Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), lost inside a 20-story grain mill that has become a towering inferno. With the mill a maze of staircases and rooms, Morrison gets separated from his crew while looking for a trapped survivor. Just after he finds the victim and lowers him to safety, the floor collapses, dropping Morrison two stories into a pile of jagged concrete. Broken up and unable to escape, he calls out for help on his radio and reaches his old friend and mentor, Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who is calling the shots from the ground. Morrison then slips into unconsciousness — and the first of several funny and touching flashbacks, which tell the story of his early days as a firefighter, under the tutelage of his friend. From there, as Morrison struggles to get to safety and Kennedy barks orders to the men trying to find him, we get more and more of the young man’s life: Fighting his first fire, falling in love with his wife, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), the births of his children, the deaths of his friends, his bravery in saving a young girl from a row house fire. But unlike most prefab Hollywood hero tales — which would use this as the "mushy stuff" between slo-mo shots of guys diving into lakes of gasoline — director Jay Russell uses these glimpses into the past to make us fully understand who Morrison is and why he does what he does. The result is a kind of heart-wrenchingly lovely homage to the men and women who fight fires, the ones who do a job that single-handedly proves that society still cares. Where it could have easily been a cheap tear-jerker or a hokey adrenaline flick, we are rewarded instead with a movie that is to firefighting what "The Natural" is to baseball: A film that shows us why men keep doing what they love, even when what they do doesn’t love them back. — By David Koon "Shark Tale," the latest in the recent run of ambitious and entertaining animated features from the likes of Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks and others, is a playful send-up of "The Godfather," "Car Wash" and "Jaws" (among others) that, oddly, may be better enjoyed by adults than the children they bring to see it. Will Smith "stars" as Oscar, a colorful blue and yellow fish who works at a Whale Wash with the lovely Angie (Renee Zellweger). The clueless and self-absorbed Oscar is too busy figuring out advancement schemes to notice that Angie wants to be more than just friends. Plus, Oscar has other problems. The Whale Wash is actually run by a mobbed-up pufferfish named Sykes (Martin Scorcese) who is tied into the local godfather, a shark named Don Lino (Robert De Niro). Oscar owes Sykes 5,000 clams (literally) and is faced with the prospect of a session with Sykes’ Rastafarian jellyfish goons unless he pays up. Meanwhile, Don Lino has problems of his own. He wants to turn over control of the reef to his two sons, Frankie (Michael Imperioli) and Lenny (Jack Black). Don Lino assigns the fierce Frankie to show his peace-loving, vegetarian brother the ropes of the reef and force him to off a fish. It’s at just this moment that the Rastas are about to do in the hapless Oscar, offering Lenny a perfect opportunity to make his bones. Lenny, however, tries to free Oscar, infuriating Frankie, who decides to make the kill himself. At which point a stray anchor from above crashes down, killing Frankie. When the dust settles, there’s Oscar standing over a dead shark, and bystanders immediately determine that Oscar is the Shark Slayer, destined to protect the reef from Don Lino and his goons. Oscar sees this as his way to the top, and a star is born. This web of deception, of course, is the first step to catastrophe and then, natch, redemption. You’ve seen this same plot a thousand times before, but that’s not the point. In "Shark Tale," the delight is in the details. The animation is intricate, beautiful, clever beyond words and filled with outrageous sight gags, pop culture references and puns. Adults will eat it up. And there’s the rub. Most younger kids will see bright colors and lots of action, but the humor will likely escape them. There’s enough of the former to keep them entertained, but I’m not sure how magical they’ll find "Shark Tale." "Monsters, Inc." this is not. Bottom line: While "Shark Tale" has a vast array of individually wonderful parts, the whole is less than the sum of them. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. — By Ralph Patterson

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