Water World

Diving headfirst into a wave of soggy summer movies

Florida in August is basically too hot to sustain human life, and a trek to the seaside can often wind up feeling about as pleasurable as a root canal. This week, however, it's possible to enjoy your very own virtual beach while relaxing in air-conditioned splendor, thanks to a trio of movies opening around the Bay area.

There's no escaping the elements in Open Water, a little film that begs the question, "What do we want in a summer movie?" If you answered "Sex," you'd be right, of course, but the response we're actually looking for here is "Sharks." And Open Water provides us with more sharks than you can shake a bloody, severed limb at.

This ultra-low budget, seat-of-your-pants production has been hyped as a sort of Blair Witch meets Jaws affair, but it falls somewhat short of that description. The film strives for a documentary-like authenticity and a premise of Blair-ish simplicity — a young couple left behind by their charter boat find themselves stranded in the middle of a shark-infested ocean — but Open Water isn't The Little Movie That Could that many are hoping for.

After opening with the all-but-obligatory legend "Based on True Events," the movie gives us 10 minutes or so of vacationing yuppies Daniel and Susan (Daniel Travis and Ryan Blanchard) wandering around doing the things vacationing yuppies typically do, before depositing them in the water. It might sound like Open Water knows how to cut to the chase, but it's really every bit as much a waiting game as Blair Witch, with a lot less going on both above and beneath the surface. We basically just watch the couple growing apprehensive as they experience a variety of increasingly gnarly obstacles including stinging jellyfish, leg cramps, nausea, fatigue and finally (in what is very nearly the movie's final gasps of breath), the main attraction — sharks.

Mostly, though, Daniel and Susan just float around bitching at each other, so that the movie frequently seems like a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in scuba gear. The camerawork, for what it's worth, is fairly effective at communicating the couple's plight, sometimes bobbing right along with the characters just inches from their faces, other times pulling way, way back for long shots that isolate them in the middle of the vast, empty ocean. Chris Kentis, who shot, edited and directed Open Water, does his best to give the film an energy that belies its low budget, but the thrills here are ultimately as minimalist as the movie's premise, and the film sinks under its own lack of weight.

It's a distinctly sunnier side of summer that we get in Riding Giants, a surfing documentary that presents an exhaustively researched and thoroughly romanticized vision of the sport. The way Riding Giants would have it, in fact, surfing is less a sport than a way of life — a subculture dedicated to, as the great seers Brian Wilson and Mike Love so succinctly put it, "Fun, Fun, Fun."

"It's not just something you did," says one enthusiast, "it's something you became. It's a statement."

The movie begins with some IMAX-worthy footage of towering waves accompanied by the sort of awe-inspiring harmonies you'd find in a cathedral, music that abruptly shifts to the over-amped crunch of a relentlessly racing electric guitar. It's a clever use of sound to establish the twin defining aspects of the surfing experience — the ethereal, mystical side and the pure, adrenaline rush of it all — after which Riding Giants proceeds to provide a history lesson on virtually every aspect of the sport, beginning with its founding fathers.

It's those old-school guys who give the movie its personality, starting with legendary hotdogger Greg Noll, a flamboyant adventurer-entrepreneur whose raunchy eloquence is a constant pleasure throughout Riding Giants. Noll and his pals, a bunch of half-slacker, half-subversive merry pranksters who first popularized the sport in the '50s and '60s, get an awful lot of screen time here, and their stories are lively enough that we rarely find ourselves fidgeting at the over-abundance of talking heads on display.

Director Stacy Peralta, an enthusiast whose previous doc, Dogtown and Z-Boys, went a long way toward immortalizing skateboarding, charts the course of Noll and company from their California digs to the shores of Northern Hawaii in search of ever bigger waves. The homage to surfing's original royalty eventually gives way to an extended section on Northern California's Jeff Clark, who amplified and extended Noll's techniques in the '70s and '80s. Then, almost as an afterthought, Riding Giants concludes with a brief look at Laird Hamilton and other contemporaries who through skill, technology and a willingness to try anything, have transformed surfing into something that has begun to resemble an Xtreme sport.

If there's a flaw to Riding Giants, it's that the movie is too damned encyclopedic for its own good. Peralta provides such a comprehensive examination of the how's, when's and why's of the sport — sort of an Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Surfing (but were not really motivated enough to ask) — that he often forgets it's OK occasionally to just shut up and let the images speak for themselves. That rarely happens in Riding Giants, a film that could easily stand to lose a good 20 minutes of info-based footage. But that doesn't diminish the fact that what remains is a totally bitchin' tribute to the challenge of climbing every mountain — even those made of water.

The final movie on our plate for this week is Without a Paddle, and the only surfing going on in it is a brief interlude in which one of the characters fantasizes about catching a wave to the strains of the Beach Boys' "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)." Still, the movie's as water-logged as they come.

The plot, which practically reeks of mildew, is a worn-out, wishy-washy synthesis of Stand by Me, The Big Chill and Deliverance, all transparently swiped and filtered through your choice of idiotic, cookie-cutter comedies. A trio of Generation Whatevers (Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard) star as childhood chums who reunite at a funeral and vow to honor their dead pal's dream of locating a lost treasure. The movie quickly devolves into a road trip down river, in which our heroes encounter man-eating bears with maternal urges, evil gun-toting hillbillies, sexy neo-hippie chicks, and Burt Reynolds as a scraggly-bearded mountain man.

It's every bit as stupid as it sounds, and considerably more annoying for its attempts to fuse the uninspired slapstick with overbearingly "sensitive" moments of male bonding, secret-baring and soul-searching. For every time that a character in Without a Paddle talks about his unfulfilled dreams, though, there's a moment where we're supposed to laugh at a dirty redneck kid riding a pig down Main Street, or where the bad guys get pelted with bags of human feces. That may have sounded like money in the bank to whatever studio exec green-lighted this wet blanket, but from where I'm sitting in the audience, it looks like water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

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