Notes from the back row 

Don’t drink the water, fish screw in it.

Hollywood, for all its glitz and glamour, is a pretty simple place with one basic rule: If it works, milk it. Copy it, rehash it and do it death. This week, almost too late to ride Finding Nemo’s popularity, we have another animated underwater kids’ movie and, tapping into the post-9-11 public love-affair with firemen, Ladder 49 opens Friday, proving Milk Duds isn’t just a popular candy but also a Hollywood technique for making money when they have no fresh ideas.

The cool thing about fireman movies, or rather the hottest, is the actual fires themselves. Fire is scary, unpredictable and stunningly beautiful to look at. So they’re the perfect villains. Ladder 49 has great fires, really savage, flowing, gorgeous fires. Perhaps the best fires ever to grace the screen. Unfortunately, other important movie devices like character depth and plot complexity are decidedly missing from this picture.

A pudgy Joaquin Phoenix stars as, you guessed it, a fireman who plummets though the floor of a burning 22-storey building while trying to save a trapped worker. Predictably, his life flashes before his eyes, well it doesn’t exactly flash seeing as how this is a two-hour movie told almost completely through flashbacks. We get to watch his transition from fresh rookie in the Baltimore firehouse to seasoned pro and hero.

Director Jay Russel,( My Dog Skip) portrays a squeaky clean fireman world – lots of joking around with the boys, no swearing, and everyone goes to church. It’s not that this movie is terrible, the fires look great, but the supporting characters (even pudgy John Travolta as the mentor/father figure) aren’t developed enough to make us care about them when they die. (Funerals are a big part of a fireman’s life. As are weddings and any chance to sing group karaoke.) The problem is that the firemen in this movie are only interesting when they’re fighting fires. Ladder 49 is missing a few rungs and firemen, true heroes in the real world, deserve a better tribute than this.

Starting right about now and continuing right through to the new year, we’ll be bombarded with animated features. It has something to do with keeping your children happy so they’ll stop whining and demanding things for Christmas. First up, Shark Tale the cutesy underwater story of mafia vengeance killing that you’ve all been waiting for. OK, maybe not all.

Shark Tale stars Will Smith as the voice of Oscar, a lowly bottom-feeder fish with hip-hop dreams of fame, riches and bitches. After a mean, mafia shark gets killed by an anchor, Oscar takes the credit, dubbing himself "Shark Slayer." Lenny, the dead shark’s borther, helps Oscar deceive all the other fishes. Lenny’s gay, I mean vegetarian, and is afraid to come out of the closet due to his father being the shark crime lord (Robert De Niro.) Adding to the payroll are Renee Zellwegger as Angie a cute friend fish who secretly loves Oscar and Angelina Jolie as the gorgeous, money-hungry soul sucker who jumps on Oscar’s bandwagon, seeking fortune and fame of her own. (She steals the show too.) Plus there’s some weedsmoking Rastafarians, Jack Black, and Martin Scorcese as Oscar’s demented carwash boss.

My main problem with this film: I just didn’t find it very realistic. Ha. Actually, I found it gets mired down with too many filmic and pop culture references and stupid product placement puns (Coke, Gap, etc.) It’s too convoluted for young kids to really understand and any adult with even a bit of cognitive thought capabilities will see the characters as such clichéd racial stereotypes it’s almost insulting. (Unless you’re white and middle class, in which case it’s fine.) Sure there’s the good family-values messages tacked on to the end about telling the truth and being tolerant of others and how true happiness is about being yourself but you have to wade though an ocean of fish crap to get there. For a movie containing too many lame puns, I’ll offer a few of my own. Shark Tale bites. Or, For a movie starring a vegetarian shark, Shark Tale sure eats a lot of ass.

Luckily, the DVD of the week is a really good one. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind written by Charlie Kaufman ( Adaptaion, Being John Malkovich) and directed by Michel Gondry ( Those cool Bjork videos .) Eternal Sunshine is a poignant and realistic love story told in reverse as Joel (Jim Carey) sits through a medical procedure erasing ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) from his memory. Full of sweet-ass visual effects and solidly acted, Eternal Sunshine is an emotional tale about the ups and downs of love, the power of human chemistry and why Charlie Kaufman is perhaps the only superstar screenwriter. Go rent this with your sweetheart, light the fire, lock the door and let things work themselves out naturally.

At Village 8 Oct. 1-7: Shark Tale; Ladder 49; Garden State; Wimbledon; First Daughter; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; Resident Evil; The Forgotten.

At Rainbow Theatre Oct. 1-7: Bourne Supremacy.


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