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Week of September 29, 2004

End of the Century Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia. (unrated) This Ramones doc plays like standard VH1 fare, but it's also a history about the twin mysteries of how two guys who hated each other (the no-shit Johnny and the no-chin Joey) stayed in a band for more than two decades and how the Ramones managed to influence a million kids to start 250,000 bands without ever having a hit. It's got all the usual stuff and all the usual suspects: a bassist on junk (Dee Dee), the woman who came between guitarist Johnny and singer Joey, the important drummer callously treated like an afterthought (Tommy), the nobodies who became bigger somebodies than their role models (members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols), and the managers and hangers-on and enablers who stayed in orbit awaiting the blast-off that never quite came. It builds, with tension and humor and sloppy charm, toward the band's formation and first gigs, then rushes toward its inevitable unhappy ending, as if to avoid the horrible times by concentrating on the merely lousy times, during which the Ramones made some of the greatest music ever used to sell light beer. Opens Friday, October 1, at the Tivoli. (Robert Wilonsky)

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry George Butler. (unrated) This documentary, made by Kerry pal and Pumping Iron director George Butler, will frustrate even the most forgiving Democrat, who wishes the candidate projected half the fortitude and charisma he radiated when he was a disillusioned 27-year-old protesting the Vietnam War. What we see here, in archival footage and talking-head interviews with old Swift Boat mates, is the magnetic and memorable Kerry -- the Yalie who speaks of "commitment" in 1965, goes to Vietnam and returns covered in medals and the blood of his friends and enemies, then preaches to Congress in 1971 about the sacrifices made by soldiers fighting a fraudulent war. It's hagiography, yes, but also powerful and poignant; the movie's as much about the open wound left by Vietnam as it is Kerry's difficult decision to lead the battle against the war and to throw away his medals. But ultimately Butler presents us with a Kerry who was fearless, who said what he believed no matter the cost to his burgeoning political career -- the same Kerry who has now crawled to the center, where he threatens to disappear just when there's another war in need of an end. Opens Friday, October 1, at the Plaza Frontenac. (Robert Wilonsky)

Ladder 49 Jay Russell. (PG-13) It's taken Hollywood three years to capitalize on America's sympathy and admiration for the 9/11 firefighters, but here we are. Jay Russell's action-packed, flame-broiled valentine to the firehouse fraternity, set in Baltimore, features bulky, thick-necked Joaquin Phoenix as a heroic household saint named Jack Morrison, John Travolta as his wise mentor down at the firehouse, Jacinda Barrett as Jack's long-suffering wife and a band of brothers (Morris Chestnut, Robert Patrick and others) without warts. This resolutely old-fashioned movie is less a drama of the streets than a kind of recruiting film, as befits a time when firefighting ranks as one of the most esteemed occupations in the land. The fire sequences are exciting, the human behavior safe and sanitized. Opens Friday, October 1, at multiple locations. (Bill Gallo)

Red Lights Cédric Kahn. (unrated) Contentious drunkard Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) heads out on a road trip with his hostile wife (Carole Bouquet), only to lose her when he enters his fifth bar of the day and she bails. There's also been some really obvious foreshadowing up to this point, in the form of radio and TV broadcasts telling us how bad and potentially lethal traffic is and how there's an escaped killer on the loose. You don't suppose the killer might cross paths with Antoine or Helene, do you? Cédric Kahn's French flick is being promoted as "an edge-of-your-seat thriller in the tradition of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock," but it's far from that. Save for one fakeout scare more than two-thirds of the way through, it's hardly a shocker. More frequently, it plays like a parody of suspense movies, then occasionally becomes serious, then boring, then makes a jarring 180, then frustrates, then gets vaguely interesting again. If the tonal attempt is to imitate rush-hour traffic, it succeeds. But traffic sucks. Opens Friday, October 1, at the Plaza Frontenac. (Luke Y. Thompson)

Shark Tale Bibo Bergeron and Vicky Jenson. (PG) This is an animated film, though after you see it you might wonder whether the term is intended as oxymoronic in this instance; put simply, it's lifeless. A little fish named Oscar (Will Smith) dreams of escaping his graffiti-covered ghetto 'neath the sea and movin' on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky. He works his crap job at the whale wash, scraping tongues and chatting up his lovestruck best friend, Angie (Renée Zellweger), whose affections Oscar doesn't notice. On the other side of the reef, Robert De Niro's Don Lino is putting the protection squeeze on whale-wash owner Sykes (Scorsese) and trying to teach his son Lenny (Jack Black, playing Italian but sounding vaguely Irish) to be a killer, when he's just a softie vegetarian. In short, it's just a Godfather parody with limp pop-culture jokes -- Shrek 2 without smarts or heart. It's stunning, really, to consider how much time and expense went into something so chintzy and dull -- a script full of non-sequiturs shouted by a screen full of chum. Opens Friday, October 1, at multiple locations. (Robert Wilonsky)

 
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