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Sharks and Snarks: A Bland Cuban Documentary and Unfunny Noir Parody Inspire Shrugs

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Within weeks of the Obama administration’s announcement last December that it would resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Internet nearly sank under the weight of new pages urging everybody to “see it now before it changes.” Because, apparently, a poverty-ridden, one-party police state teeming with cheap hookers and expensive mojitos would quickly be vulgarized by an influx of American tourists once U.S. travel restrictions eased.

The new fascination with all things Cuban (except, of course, its boorish political prisoners, still ignored in polite progressive society) has now been officially enshrined in American popular culture with the inclusion of Tiburones: Sharks Of Cuba in the Discovery Channel’s venerable Shark Week programming. You will know the trend has run its course and become unhip when the Syfy network announces production on Sharknado 4: Fidel Bites.

The point of the documentary, says its narrator, is “to see if Cuba really is a hotbed of monster sharks.” This is not, as you might suspect, an ironic Cold War reference to the Castro brothers, but to the 70-year-old tale of El Monstruo (The Monster), a great white shark who in the waning days of World War II haunted the waters off Cojimar, a Cuban fishing village a few miles west of Havana.

When local fishermen got tired of having their catches decimated by El Monstruo, they went out hunting him in a small boat, which he promptly chewed a big hunk off of, just like the great white in Jaws. Though this might might sound like a bit of delusionary, pre-revolutionary false-consciousness, the fishermen eventually harpooned El Monstruo and hauled him ashore (where he checked in at 21 feet in length and 7,000 pounds) to be properly photographed. Thus was born ichthyologist porn, rumored to be the subject of next year’s Shark Week lead documentary.

This all sounds promising, but Tiburones mostly turns out to be all hype and no hook as it follows a joint expedition of American and Cuban scientists as they observe and electronically tag some sharks in the waters surrounding the island. They see plenty, but they’re mostly an undersized and rather mellow lot. Cuban divers even swim up to the sharks, grab their fins, and massage their bellies, which the sharks seem to regard as amusing, at least until tags are punched through their fins, and even then they simply swim away, miffed rather than vengeful.

Tiburones has its moments, particularly in its gorgeous underwater photography of sharks gliding silently and inscrutably around the coral reefs in Cuba’s blue waters. It’s also plenty entertaining to listen to the inane commentary of American environmentalists along for the trip.

“It’s pristine!” gasps one as the boat moves along the Cuban coastline. “It’s beautiful, like the Florida Keys was 80, 100 years ago, before all the people,” of whom maybe a million or so would be in Cuba making unsightly clutter if the Castro regime hadn’t sent them scrambling aboard inner tubes in hope of floating to Florida.

But all’s well that ends well. One of the Cuban scientists in Tiburones says enough sharks were tagged that his government can now collect “the data that is necessary for sustainable management and use of sharks” and embark on the island’s first National Plan of Action for Sharks. If previous national programs on the production of milk and sugarcane are any indication, Cuba should be shark-free in a year or two.

Unlike those in Tiburones, the laughs in IFC’s The Spoils Before Dying are intentional, but only slightly less sporadic. This three-hour miniseries (it airs on three consecutive nights) from Will Farrell and some of his Saturday Night Live buddies is a send-up of 1950s film-noir that more closely resembles another classic Hollywood product: an overinflated boob job.

The first Spoils project, 2014′s The Spoils Of Babylon, lampooned TV miniseries of the 1980s. This one takes on hard-bitten 1950s detective flicks. (The pentimenti of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil are particularly prominent.)

Michael Kenneth Williams (who played memorably murderous gangsters in both Boardwalk Empire and The Wire) plays Rock Banyon, a scuffling jazz pianist being framed for the murder of his singer girlfriend Fresno Foxglove (SNL‘s Maya Rudolph). He flees to Mexico to team up with another of his former singers, Delores O’Dell (SNL‘s Kristin Wiig). You soon can’t tell the double- and triple-crosses without a scorecard.

The bad jokes, however, are unmistakable, and should you miss one while looking around for something sharp to jab in your eye, fear not: It will be beaten like the world’s biggest and deadest horse. A Mexican gangster with a Transylvanian accent is pretty funny the first time he speaks; by the 10th, not so much. And a jump-jazz number with lyrics consisting of nothing but “give me some booze and pills” goes from ironic to homicidal in record time.

The funniest notes in Spoils are inevitably struck in the background, particularly in its opening credits, which include screen credits for “inner-ear collages” and “Bastille-o-Vision” cameras. Then there’s the framing story, with Farrell as novelist-turned-director Eric Jonrosh (think of Welles in his lard-bucket “sell no wine before its time” incarnation), introducing Spoils as his long-lost masterpiece of “post-post-post-modern neo-French fake-ism.” What do you bet that turns up on a Wellesley course syllabus this fall?

Tiburones: Sharks Of Cuba. Discovery Channel, Tuesday, July 7. 10 p.m. EDT.

The Spoils Before Dying. IFC, Wednesday, July 8. 9 p.m. EDT.


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