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We took care of the first half of our quadruple bill last time. This time around, let’s take a look at the final two: Agora and Sharknado. You’d think this would be an easy fight to predict. In many ways…you would be correct.

Agora Movie French Poster

Sometimes, the weight of expectations for a particular film (or director, for that matter) can be a heavier burden than the actual film (or person) can bear. For every Wes Anderson, there’s a Tobe Hooper. For every Terry Gilliam, a Tarsem Singh. As someone who fully subscribes to the auteur theory of filmmaking, I have a tendency to stick with directors I admire, believing them to be less capable of disappointment than those that I don’t tend to idolize.

While I won’t claim to be his number-one super booster, I’ve always been a big fan of Alejandro Amenabar’s films. My first experience came with The Others (Amenabar’s English-language debut), a chilling, elegant Nicole Kidman chiller that managed to put a very fresh and grim spin on traditional ghost stories. Once hooked, I sought out Abre Los Ojos (later remade as the far inferior Tom Cruise vehicle Vanilla Sky), Thesis and The Sea Inside, which has to rank as one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. I’ve always been impressed with Amenabar’s range, so when I heard that he was tackling an epic set in Roman Egypt, I was particularly excited. Alas, Agora would end up being my least favorite Amenabar film yet.

Were it not for the weight of expectations set by his other films, I might not have been so disappointed with Agora. For one thing, the film has a cheap look that seems to belie a tight budget. Rather than work within the constraints of this, however, the film constantly feels like it’s straining to be more than it can be. Imagine if Star Wars featured one spaceship or Lord of the Rings featured one Orc and you begin to get the idea. As the film progresses, there are some big setpieces that are actually handled very nicely, particularly the scene where the Christians rampage through the library, destroying everything in their path.

The acting, as a whole, is good but certainly nothing extraordinary. Rachel Weisz is quite good as Hypatia of Alexandria, the philosopher that serves not only as protagonist but also as moral center. In some ways, however, it almost feels as if Weisz plays her character as too driven, pounding away any of the subtle humanism of her character. The closest that we get to real human emotion from Hypatia is the jaw-dropping scene where she responds to a student’s public declaration of love with an equally public, if much more gynecological, gift. It’s not that Weisz is bad: quite to the contrary. My problem with her performance is that she, essentially, reduces Hypatia to a one-note character, even if that note is rather resonate.

Ultimately, the film boils down to an intense discussion on tolerance, most of which is related to the inherent conflict between the Christians, pagans and Jews of the era. It’s to the film’s intense credit that it never seems to choose a side. The Christians come off looking the worst, mostly because of their whole destruction of the famed Library of Alexandria but there’s plenty of blame to spread around to the pagans and Jews. Anti-Semitism makes up a large part of the conflict and it’s interesting to see how the film develops the idea that long-held prejudices can gradually grow until they’re unbeatable.

My final takeaway from the film, however, is how massively depressing and hopeless it ultimately is. We know that no one can stand against the tide of history but for over two hours, we get to witness Hypatia scorned, mocked, humiliated, assaulted, subjugated and marginalized. It’s giving nothing away to say that the film does not end happily, for any of the players. While it may be too long and rather disjointed, it’s the ultimate feeling of hopelessness that colors my experience of this film more than anything else. Here’s to hoping Amenabar’s next film, which is currently in pre-production and stars Ethan Hawke, finds the right balance of hope and hopelessness.

Anthony-Petrie-Sharknado-2

In 2006, a cheesy, completely self-aware B-movie managed to leave a mark (no matter how inconsequential) on the cultural landscape. This film featured production values that made SciFi Channel fare look like Lawrence of Arabia, more stupid action than you could shake a wiffle-ball bat at and Samuel L. Jackson uttering the soon-to-be immortal line, “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” Yes, the film was Snakes on a Plane and, for a brief moment, it was the talk of the town. Was the film any good? I personally disliked it but it obviously struck a chord with plenty of folks.

Fast forward seven years and we witness the attempted birth of another legend: Sharknado. Now, as far as concept goes, Sharknado features some pretty next-level kind of stuff. Essentially, a hurricane has swept over Los Angeles, flooding the area like cutting-room footage from Roland Emmerich’s home movies. Since just a hurricane, by itself, can’t possibly be bad enough, the storm picks up what must be every shark in the ocean and carries the teeth-with-fins around: we get to watch the cute little CGI critters fly around a funnel cloud like so much of Dorothy’s furniture in Kansas. This does, of course, beg the question: doesn’t getting carried around in hundred-mile-an-hour winds, miles above the earth (and away from any water) and then getting unceremoniously flung about cause any discomfort to the sharks at all? Truly nature’s killing machines!

Since this is, ostensibly, a horror film (I guess), the filmmakers know that we’re going to need a more ferocious monster than mere flying sharks to scare us. Therefore, they enlist the services of an obviously mentally unstable Tara Reid to really shake things up. When Tara first appears, reading her lines like a tent-revival preacher might speak tongues, I’ll admit that I was fascinated: had she been lobotomized? Was this actually like a real life version of The Sixth Sense and we would all come to realize that Tara Reid has been a ghost THIS WHOLE TIME? My fascination quickly turned to terror, however, as I realized that I would be spending the next 80 minutes desperately fearing the moment that she would pop up, jack-in-the-box style, to deliver pithy lines like “We need a bigger chopper,” all while projecting the aggressive confidence of one who has learned the best way to conceal medication under one’s tongue.

Let’s see, let’s see…what else do we get here? Well, we get an awful lot of violence for what is, technically, a PG-13 TV movie, although most of it is of the “There’s a CGI shark overlaid on my foot! Aargh…this must be pain I feel!” variety. There’s also a chopper pilot that wiggles his arms so much that I got seasick, which is a perfect complement to the driving scenes that feature more arm waving than a beauty pageant.

But who am I fooling? Anyone who walks into this steaming pile of cinema expecting 2001, much less Jaws, has rocks in their heads. The moment you see the “The Syfy Channel and The Asylum Presents…” hit the screen, there should be absolutely no doubt that you’ve booked a first-class cabin on the S.S. Caca. The only question that really matters is: is the movie fun? Is this a Megalodon-level of stupidity or a Master of Disguise-level of stupidity? Will this plumb the depths of Tromaville or just be another lame Clash of the Titans remake? This, friends and neighbors, should be the only concerning factor: is this movie a guaranteed good time?

Alas, at least as far as I’m concerned, it really isn’t. Snakes on a Plane at least had the benefit of featuring Samuel L. Jackson whereas the most we can say about Sharknado is that it features an obviously crazy Tara Reid stumbling through a performance that I’m sure she doesn’t even recall. There aren’t any badass or, to be honest, really likable characters to latch on to, which gives this something of the air of an anonymous ’80s slasher: many will die, few will care. Sharknado’s worst sin, however, the same sin that killed Snakes on a Plane, is its complete self-awareness. This isn’t an Ed Wood film or a cheesy ’80s actioner where the creators assumed they were making art: this is a modern film that deliberately sets out to imitate the inept, shoddy silliness of actual B-movies like Carnosaur and Galaxy of Terror. As such, nothing about the film feels authentic, which is kind of like trying to learn about history from an Old West re-enactment.

As an unabashed fan of Z-grade cinema, I really wanted to like Sharknado and, in all honesty, did find myself smiling a time or two. I also, unfortunately, spent a pretty fair amount of time looking at my watch. For a movie that runs less than 90 minutes and is supposed to be all about “fun fun fun,” this seems pretty unforgivable. Come to think of it, maybe being boring is a greater sin than being self-aware…especially if you’re an Asylum film.

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