Incident at Loch Ness

Also: Head in the Clouds, Ladder 49, Last Life in the Universe, Monumental: David Brower's Fight for Wild America, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Shark Tale.

Incident at Loch Ness

Opens Fri., Oct. 1, at Varsity

This fake documentary starts out like Jaws without a shark. In the Robert Shaw role, we have director Werner Herzog, infamous for behaving like Ahab on the set of movies like Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. But Herzog's not calling the shots in this film within a film within a film. On the first level, he's the subject of a documentary. On the second, he's directing a documentary about the Loch Ness monster, but he's constantly being undermined by his inept producer, Zak Penn (Incident's writer and director). On the third, he's just an actor in this wryly low-key comic debut feature by Penn—the writer of Hollywood fodder like Last Action Hero and Suspect Zero.

If you think that's a lot of meta-movie references for one paragraph, you're right. And if you're an NYU film student or Scarecrow employee, you'll probably get all Incident's backstage jokes and on-set humor, while less-informed viewers will wonder why this mockumentary isn't funnier—and why it turns toward horror in the end. The Blair Witch Project it's not, though there are parallels as the two film crews stranded on a boat on Loch Ness gradually succumb to fear, paranoia, and infighting. (Only here, it should be noted, the shots stay crisply focused.)

Yet there are some laughs on land and loch. Penn, clearly a Hollywood insider, convenes a B-list party of industry types at Herzog's home—including John Bailey (the great cinematographer, who's supposedly making the Herzog doc), Jeff Goldblum, and Ricky Jay, the magician and illusionist (hint-hint of things to come). Penn also makes himself the butt of every joke once the two crews reach Scotland; he's a conniving coward who arranges for everyone to wear matching Jacques Cousteau–style jumpsuits and surreptitiously slips a remote-controlled Nessie into the water to add "drama" to Herzog's dry, factual account.

By the end, Herzog is fuming, "It's a hoax. I'm smelling a rat. Against the wind." (OK, I don't understand that last bit either.) But as the boat is sinking and the first two films are collapsing, the third—Incident—isn't buoyed to the level of film-world satires like Living in Oblivion. The process of moviemaking is often absurd, yet Incident isn't absurd enough to appeal beyond the industry pals Penn invites to his next Hollywood dinner party. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Head in the Clouds

Opens Fri., Oct. 1, at Guild 45

A showbiz insider swears to me that then-married Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger were doing it for real back in their 1994 The Getaway. No wonder their sex scenes were so lame, fake, and painfully self-conscious! Now, present-day couple Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend have the same problem with the many naughty bits in Clouds—and the nonsex scenes in this World War II melodrama are even lamer.

The gauzy story reminds me of Jules and Jim, only it's about two girls and a guy, and writer-director John Duigan is more like Stanley Kramer than François Truffaut. As a decadent flapper minx who seduces an earnest Irish student (Townsend) at Cambridge in the '30s, Theron destroys all the acting cred she earned in Monster. She slinks unconvincingly, mumbles unvampishly, and maximizes the implausibility of Duigan's halfwit script. Townsend is a chunk of waterlogged wood with fuzzy eyebrows. Tyrone Power would have more chemistry courting Deanna Durbin in a deep coma.

Our boho duo lands pointlessly in Paris, where Penélope Cruz becomes the third wheel in a third-rate romance à trois. Her voice is as squeaky as a hamster huffing helium. The characters yammer and quarrel to no apparent dramatic purpose. After what seems like hours, the film morphs into an amazingly clichéd but at least barely watchable French Resistance drama. Truffaut said it was impossible to make an antiwar movie, because war is such an exciting subject you wind up rooting for it. War is none too exciting here, but it's a big improvement over watching these three stiffs listlessly simulate group sex. (R) TIM APPELO

Ladder 49

Opens Fri., Oct. 1, at Metro and Meridian

The acclaim for Denis Leary's new F/X Network firehouse psychodrama, Rescue Me, will likely draw some overflow to this forgettable, if good-natured, facsimile. It took a catastrophe of 9/11's magnitude to remind a nation of the extraordinary courage of the firefighter—and maudlin, feature-length fire department commercials like this to gloss over the whole lot as interchangeable everyday superheroes. Thankfully, that tragedy is never exploited—or even referenced—here, and director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) manages to hold off until the coda's painful, endless montage before blowing his load of gossamer hero shots. The real problem is that he simply has no new insight into what compels and inspires this unique fellowship.

Ladder is really only worth ascending in that the unpretentious, straight-arrow storytelling mirrors its characters' unyielding drive to—as we're incessantly reminded—run into a burning building while everyone else is running out. Baltimore probie Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) recollects his entire firefighting career via flashback as he lies injured and helpless in a blazing 20-story building, and Ladder transforms, adeptly enough, into a collection of stark, well-composed snapshots. His predominantly Irish Catholic colleagues are a wacky bunch, natch, suckering naive transfers into divulging sexual blunders via staged confessions, downing Irish car bombs like eggnog on St. Patty's Day, and even lighting into each other once in a while.

At the end of the day, of course, they're A Family, and every conflict is solved efficiently; grizzled Robert Patrick is the only character remotely resembling an antagonist, which means that he and Phoenix must bond (nonbiblically) over flame and share begrudging respect. So, duh, the human element is undeveloped, but the actual infernos are unpredictable and fierce, while station chief John Travolta's screen time is scant. In that sense, at least, Ladder gives you what you came to see—and not see. (PG-13) ANDREW BONAZELLI

Last Life in the Universe

Runs Fri., Oct. 1–Thurs., Oct. 7, at Grand Illusion

Much of this brilliantly atmospheric, sweetly nutty film unfolds in and between two Bangkok homes color-coded to reflect the temperaments of their residents. One, squeaky-clean, neat as a pin, and very, very blue, is the sort of pomo pad you might find in an upscale whiskey commercial. The other, a sprawling country shack, is a total dump, strewn with litter and as green with chaotic life as the first is spiritless and, as it turns out, reeking with death. The inhabitants of these two houses, both marginal types in their own madly eccentric ways, are destined to meet and fall for one another as only radical opposites do in the movies. In its freaky, pan-Asian pop-cinema way, Last Life is an endearing, tonally complex tale of love, sibling rivalry, and the clumsy ways in which people try to rise above grievous loss—with, it goes without saying, some brutal yakuza business wedged in between.

The blue house occupant, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano of Zatoichi), is a shy, mild-mannered, and suicidal expatriate Japanese librarian. Just as he's about to slip a noose around his neck, the door buzzer rudely interrupts, and his loudmouthed brother barges in and inquires offhandedly, "Hanging yourself this time?" and makes himself at home while Kenji serves drinks.

The green house occupant, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), takes longer to meet. Thai wunderkind director Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Mon-rak Transistor) quickly cuts away from Kenji to a Bangkok bar whose pretty young hostesses, one of whom is glued to Kenji's brother, are kitted out in school uniforms or bunny outfits. One of them is Noi, who later happens by as Kenji is crouched on a bridge, ready to jump. This time he's interrupted by a car crash involving Noi and her sister, who've just been having a big fight over Kenji's brother. Pretty soon, Kenji winds up in Noi's ratty house, at once appalled and attracted by the vital disarray that is her natural state.

Last Life is plotted by frank contrivance and blithe excursions into magical realism, not to mention liberal helpings of the chortling toilet humor that's de rigueur in certain quarters of the Asian film scene. Ratanaruang shifts moods, genres, and realities with the nonchalant ease of a juggler, and though he's unabashedly showing off, and though I'm not at all sure what all of this adds up to, somehow it comes together beautifully. Last Life is dreamier and more soulful, more visually and emotionally worldly, than his previous work (most of which has played at SIFF). Noi and Kenji may be opposites—she's a free spirit and a pragmatist, he's inscrutable almost to the point of stereotype. But they're both willing refugees—she's learning Japanese in preparation to emigrate to Japan, while he came to Bangkok in the futile hope of escaping a shadowy yakuza past. Their love is a wacky form of cultural and emotional exchange. (NR) ELLA TAYLOR

Monumental: David Brower's Fight for Wild America

Runs Fri., Oct. 1–Sun., Oct. 3, at Northwest Film Forum

The American environmental movement can be divided into its Old Testament and New Testament phases, and David Brower (1912–2000) was one of the last of the stern eco-patriarchs. As leader of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth, he won allies and enemies alike with his no-compromise approach to protecting America's national parks and wilderness areas. In his five-point Sierra Club action plan for the '60s—which might as well have been inscribed on tablets of stone—was the creation of our own North Cascades National Park. We should be thankful that he succeeded there (aided substantially by local organizations like the Mountaineers), and this short, laudatory documentary includes clips of his family hiking around Cascade Pass. Indeed, Monumental is rich with old movies from Brower's and the Sierra Club's archives— including 1939 color footage from the first ascent of New Mexico's Shiprock, one of the last "unclimbable" peaks of its day.

Yet, as one of his old climbing buddies says of the man (in new interviews interspersed with the vintage footage and old audio recordings of Brower), "He could be a little dictatorial at times." That approach served him well in securing federal protection for redwoods, beaches, and other national treasures via Washington, D.C., lobbying. He won over Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, JFK, and Lady Bird Johnson, though he remained bitterly haunted by the loss of Glen Canyon to dam builders. By 1969, however, his messianic tendencies got him booted out of the Sierra Club, and his unyielding positions greatly reduced his subsequent political efficacy.

Monumental doesn't do a great job laying out the facts of Brower's life and legacy (biographical detail is particularly scant), but the wilderness scenes are always lyrical and lovely. Director Kelly Duane—who will be on hand for all the weekend's screenings—is often content to let the mellow indie-rock soundtrack and images do the talking, which actually makes for a fairly persuasive argument. Her film is sure to stir some viewers toward the wilderness, which might be called the Church of Brower. If they're also inspired to act— and vote—in accordance with his conservationist creed, his sermons were not in vain. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

The Motorcycle Diaries

Opens Fri., Oct. 1, at Guild 45 and Meridian

The only violence in this portrait of the revolutionary as a young man is comic, not communist. No landowners get machine-gunned. No petty bourgeoisie are driven off their farms. Instead, as we follow future guerrilla leader Che Guevara and a buddy on their six-month odyssey through South America, they take down a duck with a lucky pistol shot—they're starving—and are later chased out of a dance by some drunken, jealous Chileans. It's 1952, and Che is merely a clean-shaven 23-year-old med student, Ernesto, played by Gael García Bernal of Y Tu Mamá Tambíen. His buddy is chubby biochemist Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna), a little older and a lot bolder with the ladies and on the dance floor. The two Argentines set out from Buenos Aires on a very unreliable old Norton 500, intending to see the continent from south to north.

Based on Guevera's own journals and numerous other accounts that have contributed to the legend of Che, Diaries does everything possible to strip the myth away from an unfocused young man. The product of a haute bourgeois home, Ernesto clearly hasn't an ounce of political consciousness as the journey begins. His first stop is his rich girlfriend's house, where his main concern is getting inside her blouse—not land reform. All she yields are 15 bucks, American, to buy her a new swim suit if he should venture as far north as the U.S. (Alberto, sensibly, wants to spend the windfall on food and booze.)

Director Walter Salles (Central Station) obviously reveres the champion for social justice that Ernesto will become, but he doesn't rush his hero's maturation. There are almost no speeches or foreshadowings of future actions (fighting in Cuba and the Congo, dying in Bolivia in 1967). Mainly, Ernesto just listens—a position perfectly suited to Bernal's limpid brown eyes. Even when he's not doing much, he's doing a lot. Happening upon some migrant workers in the Chilean desert, Ernesto and Alberto ask questions, share their food, then visit the American-owned mine where workers—all of them darker-skinned Indians—hope to catch the foreman's eye for a dangerous day's pay. Here, Ernesto is moved to throw a rock at the company truck, a gesture he knows is futile. Later, as the two weary travelers lie against the ancient stones of Machu Picchu, they debate how Indians might rise above their feudal subjugation. Solidarity is fine, Ernesto concedes, but guns will also be necessary. Alberto looks surprised at the thought.

Since Ernesto eventually will espouse a kind of pan–Latin American revolutionary movement to erase old colonial borders, the land itself is essential to Diaries. If nothing else, it's a lovely travelogue with an impeccable sense of period details. There's drama in the changing light, winding road, shifting clouds, and rising dust. That said, the movie relies too heavily on Ernesto's platitudinous voice-overs—which we read in subtitles—and lacks much incident or action. Apart from the duck, the chase from the dance hall, and sundry motorcycle crashes, too much camera time is devoted to Ernesto simply looking, well, noble, compassionate, and thoughtful—admirable qualities all, but not very cinematic ones. One studies Bernal, who gradually sports more and more stubble, trying to imagine how he'd resemble the iconic T-shirt figure with a full beard. Maybe Benicio Del Toro, slated to star in a biopic directed by Steven Soderbergh next year, will better fit the heroic profile. Regardless, as prologues go, Diaries quietly and effectively sets the stage for the bloody second act to follow. (R) BRIAN MILLER

Shark Tale

Opens Fri., Oct. 1, at Metro and others

Cancel those plans to buy DreamWorks stock! It's apt to take a dive after this pale imitation of archrival Disney's Finding Nemo finds its way to Davy Jones' box- office locker. Not that it's a bad movie—it's cute, inoffensive, and full of smallish pleasures. But unlike Nemo, it has no strong central story or emotionally involving characters. Even more than the more entertaining Shrek 2, it's not so much a tale as a random collection of disconnected episodes and unclever references to other movies.

Though it's star-studded, Shark Tale still lacks star power. As a live-action actor, Will Smith is as lively as they come; voicing Oscar, a bitty fishie with a big mouth and big-time ambitions, he's a tepid presence whose riffs sound like rehearsal, not full-on performance. Oscar scrubs smelly cetacean tongues at the undersea Whale Wash, which works like a car wash. The soundtrack, partial to over-obvious oldies, reprises the 1976 Car Wash soundtrack, which once again serves to give a false semblance of narrative drive to a desultory movie.

Oscar vaguely looks like a noseless, unsexed, de-coolified Smith. Angie, Oscar's angelic angelfish Whale Wash co-worker with a secret crush on him, doesn't resemble Renée Zellweger a bit, and you can barely hear her distinctive vocal stylings. Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres came across loud and clear in Nemo, but Smith and Zellweger are snuffed out in DreamWorks' turbid waters. As aggressively unangelic dragon fish Lola, the gold digger who steals Oscar from Angie, Angelina Jolie is still more remote from the quality that makes her worth millions.

Lola wants Oscar because he wins overnight fame as the Sharkslayer, but he's not really a slayer; he just happened to be there when an anchor crushed the skull of Frankie (an unrecognizable Michael Imperioli from The Sopranos), the son of the shark Godfather Lino (an all-too- recognizable Robert De Niro, again parodying himself like some fat loser has-been doing dinner theater in Dubuque). So now all the fish revere and sharks fear Oscar, except Frankie's brother, Lenny (Jack Black, suppressing his entire persona), a vegetarian shark hiding out with Oscar in the fish community to avoid his dad's wrath. (Also in the random aquarium are Martin Scorsese, Peter Falk, and Ziggy Marley.)

While Nemo brilliantly depicted sharks as addicts battling their urge to view fish as food, not friends, Shark Tale bungles the whole shark-fish relationship, and muddies it by superimposing worn-out Mafia clichés on top. Nemo taught an honest lesson about finding yourself. Shark Tale is a clichéd and sleazy showbiz fable about defying sleazy showbiz values.

Shark Tale also breaks little ground in animation art. Its Times Square–like seafloor milieu looks fakey, like its characters' motives and actions. Nemo looked like a real place where we saw real (if finny) people tackle real problems. Shark Tale is more like bait and switch. (PG) TIM APPELO

The Yes Men

Opens Fri., Oct. 1, at Harvard Exit

We dutifully chuckled (and cringed) through Fahrenheit 9/11. We snoozed through sections of The Corporation, Bush's Brain, Outfoxed, and Uncovered. And the question remained: In this Year of the Political Documentary, why couldn't a nonfiction film be both pointed and hilarious without the Moore imprimatur? The Yes Men manages this rarely attempted feat.

Its premise is simple: Two activist performance artists, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, mastermind increasingly outrageous pranks as members of the Yes Men, a collective of malcontents who believe that the emperors of our age—Dubya and the World Trade Organization (WTO), for instance—should be denuded by pretty much any means necessary.

Their preferred method: impersonation—or, as they put it, "identity correction." After snapping up the Internet domain name —justa suffix away from the then-official WTO site—Bichlbaum and Bonnano begin accepting invitations to speak at trade meetings on behalf of the WTO. With his loyal assistant at his side, Bichlbaum—a handsome, smart-looking fellow who shape-shifts brilliantly— gives talks at conventions in Finland and Australia; he also appears solo on a major British news program. Using a colorful array of pseudonyms, Bichlbaum makes the WTO look buffoonish and callous at every turn. (The Yes Men started their ongoing WTO satire just before our own 1999 protest/meltdown.)

The Yes Men reaches its climax at a 2002 accounting conference in Sydney, where the duo announces that the WTO is shutting down in order to construct a much less exploitative business model; afterward, several conventioneers say the move is long overdue. It's a poignant scene, suggesting that almost everyone wants, deep down, to value people over profits. It's also moving because Bichlbaum delivers his speech so sincerely that part of you wishes his wonderful lies were true. (R) NEAL SCHINDLER

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