Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania (2017)

I might be the most forgiving audience in the world above the age of seven when it comes to WWE Studios’ animated children’s media, having given positive reviews for all four of the pro wrestling empire’s crossovers with Hanna-Barbera so far: WrestleMania Mystery, Stone Age SmackDown, Curse of the Speed Demon, and Robo-WrestleMania. Unfortunately, I could not extend my enthusiasm into the company’s latest animated crossover business venture, a sequel to the long-forgotten CG monstrosity Surf’s Up. Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania picks up the pieces of that middling work, which barely made back its budget, by continuing its age-old story of penguins who love to surf. Whatever conflicts the CG penguin surfers overcome in that first film will forever remain a mystery to me, as I’ve already suffered through one too many Happy Feet films to have any desire to catch up with their knockoffs. Still, there was something oddly appealing about the absurdity of watching a years-late, direct to VOD sequel to that nonsense where recognizable voice actors like Shia Labeouf & Zooey Deschanel were replaced by WWE Superstars. I was willing to give WaveMania a chance solely based on the potential novelty of pro wrestling personalities voicing muscular penguins who get off on the adrenaline rush of X-Games style sports. Instead of the penguin-themed Point Break I was hoping for, however, I mostly got a feature length screensaver, one that couldn’t even satisfy my own notoriously undiscerning tastes.

Jeremy Shada (Adventure Time‘s Finn the Human) replaces Shia Labeouf as a surf-happy penguin & Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite‘s Napoleon Dynamite) returns as his stoner chicken friend. They seem to have beef with a bully penguin & funny feelings for a Hot Lady penguin who lives on the same beach. Whatever relationship issues or internal obstacles that were overcome in the first film mean absolutely nothing here. These few holdovers from the original Surf’s Up film mostly just serve to inflate the egos of the pro wrestling Superstars that invade their franchise space. Their never-ending beach party is crashed by The Hang Five: penguin celebrities who have a taste for X-Games style thrills and suspiciously familiar names like Hunter (HHH), Paige (Paige), The Undertaker (The Undertaker), and J.C. (which either stands for Jesus Christ or John Cena; I can’t decide). Besides these sexed up muscle penguins, the crew is also followed by ring announcer Michael Cole in seagull form and lead by a perverted otter voiced by Mr. Vince McMahon himself. How do we know that this silver haired otter-daddy is a pervert? He repeatedly​ fantasizes onscreen about milking a fish’s udder with his mouth. The Hang Five crash the beach scene both looking for a legendary surf spot and covertly sizing up the original Surf’s Up crew for new members to possibly join their ranks. Along the way Shada’s protagonist penguin learns to control his anger in the face of bullies, the crew indulges in some X-treme sports, and McMahon drools over the thought of those sweet, sweet fish udders.

Of course, the real draw here for anyone who’s not a a surfer who’s suffered one too many concussions or a child with early stirrings of a sexual fetish for anthropomorphic penguins is the novelty of seeing pro wrestlers’ in-ring personas adapted to the equally unreal environment of an animated kids’ picture. For the most part, their individual personalities are coded in a fairly rigid, one dimensional way: J.C. is the face, Hunter is the heel, Taker is spooky, Paige is all about Girl Power, McMahon is the boss/sexual deviant. Watching this dynamic play out is especially strange in this particular moment for a couple extratextual reasons (namely Undertaker’s recent retirement at WrestleMania & Paige’s recent sex tape scandal), but the novelty of that context will only fade with time. Besides McMahon’s fish udder sucking, the most notable contribution to the film is made by J.C./Jesus Christ/John Cena. Cena’s an interesting presence here. His penguin surrogate delivers a lot of the child- pleasing buffoonery that keeps unshaved Redditors awake at night: he sports dog tags & sweat bands, shows off his “You Can’t C Me” five moves of doom routine, and makes eyeroll worthy statements like, “Eat right, exercise, and never give up . . . on being awesome!” There’s something a little self-deprecating about doing all this through the mouthpiece of a CG penguin, though, and he occasionally pokes fun at himself with lines like, “Wanna hear about the time I fought off a shark with only my camo shorts?” I don’t know if I’m warming up to Cena because of the excellent in-ring work he’s put in over the last three or so years or his sudden string of top notch cameos in mainstream comedies, but I found him to be the only significantly memorable presence in WaveMania that doesn’t involve sucking off a fish.

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania‘s main flaw is a structural one, oddly enough. Instead of chasing the over-the-top absurdity of its pro wrestlers as X-Games penguins premise, the sequel attempts to normalize the scenarios by framing it as a mockumentary. Over-familiarity with recent mockumentary-style television like The Office, Modern Family, Parks & Recreation, the latest version of The Muppets, and so on makes the casual interview structure of the film feel stale and oddly forgettable, which shouldn’t be possible in any property where John Cena is a muscular bird who surfs and Vince McMahon sucks down “fish milk” (I refuse to drop how jarring that is). I am typically very lenient with WWE Studios cartoons relying on the basic absurdity of their premises, but the results were just too flat & uninteresting here, primarily due to that increasingly ubiquitous mockumentary style of comedy. If the company’s going to continue down this path of teaming up with financially-shaky children’s properties to promote their wrestlers, however, I’d like to suggest that they hook up with Laika next. Not only could Laika use the money most, but I’d be very much down for the stop motion sequel Kubo and the Two Tickets to WrestleMania. That at the very least has the potential to be a memorable watch.

-Brandon Ledet

The Shallows (2016)




In the four decades since Jaws first stalked theaters & nightmares, shark movies (along with a sharkless brand of Jaws knockoffs) have become something of a summertime tradition. The 2016 version of the giant shark creature feature is smart to recognize its place within this trashiest of cinematic traditions. The popcorn thriller The Shallows is brilliant in the way it keeps things simple. It’s Blake Lively in a neon bikini fighting off a CGI shark for 90min. What do you need, a road map? The film makes a few moves to update the summer shark flick formula for 2016 tastes, but for the most part keeps it simple as a lean, mean, and above all campy survival horror that plays surprisingly fresh in its earnest adoption of stale tropes & cheap surface pleasures.

In the opening scene a mysterious GoPro washes up on a secluded Mexican beach revealing footage of a vicious shark attack. Anyone conscious of horror trends over the last 15 years would be smart to worry in that moment that The Shallows might devolve into some dreadful found footage territory, but that mistake would make it a hangover from the post-Blair Witch aughts, when this film is very much concerned with being up to date (and instantly dated) with the cultural markers of 2016.The GoPro footage is just one aspect of a modern digital tapestry of Instagram, FaceTime, text message scrolling, and what have you. There’s a small pinch of cellphone addiction shaming mixed in that cocktail as our shark bait protagonist finds herself staring at a rectangular screen instead of the picturesque beach that surrounds her, but given the dangers that are lurking in that jaw-dropping slice of paradise, there isn’t much of a viable alternative to modern living presented. There’s also a vague metaphor about learning to fight against the odds in which battling the film’s gigantic shark antagonist is likened to battling cancer, but even that’s just a weak excuse for a visual feast of CGI shark mayhem, totally rad surfing montages, an sick ass pop music beats.

Watching a bodacious babe rip some waves in a neon bikini on a gorgeous beach setting at first recalls something like a Baywatch horror, but The Shallows has no problem delivering sheer terror when it has to. There’s so much swinging The Shallows in the direction of goofball camp: a couple especially silly encounters with CGI dolphins & jellyfish, a gratuitous explosion, a hideous model of a whale carcass, a caricature of a witless drunk so over the top it could’ve existed in the 1930s, a puke-eating sidekick named Steven Seagull (who’s easily up there with Black Phillip for Animal of the Year), etc. Even the film’s basic 1-shark-vs.-1-woman premise has a campy appeal to it. However, the shark attacks do have a real gravity to them as well. There’s intense gore in the film’s moments of self surgery & genuine heart-racing thriller beats when our hero & her friend the seagull have to stave off real-life dehydration & cabin fever. The Shallows is satisfied relegating itself to a 100% trashy surface pleasure ethos, but it doesn’t let up on the practical results of its central scenario’s violence & confinement and that dual goofy/scary balance is what makes this such effective summertime schlock.

It’s also worth noting that this woman-vs.-shark surf pop horror flick is also elevated by a really sharp, vibrant style of cinematography. The film’s set can look a little artificial in a corny way at night, as does its onscreen smartphone gimmickry, but its daytime photography can be strikingly beautiful, especially underwater. It’s tempting to give some of the credit for that effect to the scenic locale, but cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano (who also shot the minor cult classic Timecrimes) certainly deserves credit for affording this film a distinct sense of style. In certain moments of Blake Lively surfing or water turning blood red, Labiano’s lens recalls Spring Breakers hedonism turned into straightforward genre fare and the film looks way better than it has any right to. On top of being a surprisingly efficient little summertime thriller with killer shark mayhem & seagull humor, The Shallows is also purty to look at, however vapid its genre trappings may be. As far as escaping the season’s oppressive heat goes, there’s certainly far less satisfying ways to spend 90min enjoying darkness & the AC and, since this seasonal subgenre will likely never die, you’re sure to see way worse examples of shark horror in the future. You might as well enjoy one of the better examples we have in recent memory.

-Brandon Ledet

Point Break (2015) Wasn’t All That Bad . . . As Long As You’ve Never Seen Point Break (1991)


Okay, it’s shameful confession time. I saw the Point Break remake, released just a few weeks before this past Christmas, before I saw Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 original. It was always a given that I’d see the original Point Break eventually, but twas a task I had been putting off despite the enthusiastic recommendations of friends (& Nick Frost’s bumbling cop in Hot Fuzz) who rank it among their favorite films of all time. A free movie ticket & a convenient showtime, then, lead me to the curious position of having seen the little-loved remake of Point Break weeks before I saw the original (also on the big screen, thanks to Indywood). The shameful part is that I actually enjoyed the remake. As a dumb action movie packed with bad writing, overwrought performances, and over-the-top stunts, it’s  nothing particularly special, but it’s also nothing especially awful either. It’s pretty okay & might’ve even flown under the radar as a half decent genre pic . . . if it hadn’t purported itself to be a remake of Point Break (1991) in the first place. Point Break (1991) & Point Break (2015) are so far apart in terms of style, intent, content, plot, and central philosophy that there’s no reason the 2015 version should’ve bothered calling itself Point Break in the first place. With a couple minor tweaks & a title change it might’ve even been able to sidestep accusations of being a ripoff. The two films are worlds away from one another.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break is a laugh-a-minute action vehicle for Keanu Reeves & Patrick Swayze (not to mention wildcard Gary Busey in unhinged Under Siege mode). The script is overloaded with jokes & the mood is surprisingly light considering that its two most tense action set pieces – a police raid & a bank robbery – are some of the most brutally severe I’ve ever seen. The Point Break remake, on the other hand, is easily recognizable as the post-Dark Knight kind of re-imagining that believes a grim, self-serious mood is what the people want in their over-the-top action cinema. It’s a thoroughly dour affair, especially for a film about bank robbing surfers. Just about the only thing that transferred from the original to the remake were the surfing & the homoeroticism (between an undercover FBI agent & the lead criminal).

What the remake does instead of retracing Bigelow’s steps is focusing on & amplifying particular details of the original & turning those isolated aspects into a feature film. The criminals in the original Point Break are really into surfing, but occasionally dabble in a parachute jump or some beachside football. That’s not X-treme enough for the remake, which makes a point to include every Red Bull-fueled sport you can think of: snowboarding, base jumping, kayaking, whatever. The bigger difference is in the two film’s philosophy, however. The surfer bros in the original may occasionally muse about “the spiritual side of the sea” or how surfing is “a state of mind”, but at heart they’re just thrill seekers & thieves for whom bank robbing is both an adrenaline spike and a source of income. The remake, on the other hand, posits its “extreme poly-athletes” (ugh) as “eco warriors” (double ugh) who steal from “the system” in order to “give back” to a “dying” planet in some 21st Century version of Robin Hood justice. Their thrill seekers as well, but their main concern is achieving nirvana through cutthroat vigilantism . . . and X-treme sports.

Both Point Break films are, admittedly, quite silly. The difference is that you laugh with the original & laugh at the remake. Kathryn Bigelow’s film is loaded with enough snarky one-liners to give any Joss Whedon script a run for its money and, surprisingly enough, they all land. The 2015 version is funny in a different way. Lines like “A tree falls in the forest & no one puts it on YouTube. Did it ever really happen?” & “So, you live off the grid?” “No, we live on it. Just on our own terms,” are downright hilarious, just perhaps not intentionally so. The action sequences in the 1991 Point Break achieve a kind of shocking gravity bucks the film’s humor in an interesting way. The 2015 Point Break‘s action sequences often play directly into the film’s (unintentional) humor. For instance, my first laugh was when a dude bro fell of a cliff while dirt-biking in a bid to earn sponsorships & YouTube hits. I know that’s pretty harsh of me, bro, but the film never truly earns the right to be taken seriously, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

All things told, the 2015 Point Break is a lot more akin to an X-treme sports version of The Edukators than it is to Kathryn Bigelow’s film. If it hadn’t been pitched as a remake it might have never been greenlit or it might’ve been underfunded, but it also would’ve stood a better chance as a critical success. Watching a bunch of bank-robbing anarchists try to achieve nirvana by skateboarding off a yacht to shitty EDM is pretty damn amusing, but it’s nothing in comparison to what any ten minute stretch of the original achieves. If you have any chance of enjoying Point Break (2015) as is, it’d be in seeing it before you check out its far superior source material. Either that, or pretending it has a different title & functioned as a blatant ripoff. As a standalone product, it’s an occasionally fun trifle of mindless action cinema. As a point of comparison, the outlook is much less flattering.

-Brandon Ledet