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That's the great thing about documentaries. They are capable of carrying you away to worlds you'd never otherwise know while introducing you to subjects and situations which, for the most part, fall far outside the mainstream. Sure, on occasion, said efforts are nothing more than creatively disguised propaganda, the makers hoping to push their specific agenda with carefully chosen words and images. And then there are titles like Skull World, which does little except shine a brighter than it's used to light on the world of box wars. Never heard of it. Don't worry - many in contemporary culture haven't. Like any other fringe activity (the live action Kaiju Big Battles are a personal favorite), it has its own unique rules and roles, as well as organizations which see that all the participants play by said mandates. The basic idea is that individuals create costumes and armor out of cardboard, and then partake in a big deal battle royale to declare a champion. The goal? De-amour your opponent. If you are successful, they are out. If you manage to keep your kit on for the duration of the battle, you win.
Director Justin McConnell decides to focus on Greg Sommer, the Canadian head of his specific Box Wars chapter (the activity started in Australia) and he's a card carrying member of made for movies character set. He has all the earmarks of someone we'd celebrate as a true blue blooded outsider. He loves heavy metal, eschews "regular" employment for a job at the local cemetery, and lives a life of veiled vicarious thrills in his mother's basement. If there weren't already a cadre for geeks everywhere, he would be it. His passions match those of others in his sphere of influence. While these Box War advocates talk, you can see their various comic characters action figures and genre movie posters in the background. In essence, this activity is Dungeons and Dragons for the too cool set, Cosplay for the cynical and irresistibly arrested adolescent. The film goes on to show Sommer working to build his "sport," responding to his detractors, and more or less living his life in the manner he, and his obsession, deem best.
From an audience perspective, Skull World works because of the more or less unknown quantity nature of the material. If Sommer were to show up in a still frame photo fully decked out in his corrugated battle suit, various homemade paper weapons at the poise, you'd probably take one look at the image and opine, "Jeez, when did Gwar get suck crappy costumes?" There are elements of that notorious metal band in Box Wars aura, but for the most part, it's the imagination of the participants on full display, and some are very creative indeed. On the other hand, McConnell misses a golden opportunity. Since we are looking at this activity from the inside out, there is no external commentary worth of mention. Sure, there's the occasional jokes and jibes, but it would be interesting to hear from someone, especially those who love to argue that violence begets same and that aggressive activities lead to similarly strong behaviors, to at least provide some perspective. Perhaps such contrary conceits are not necessary, since this is really just a celebration of one man and the novel movement he loves.
As events are staged and victors crowned, as Sommer spews his often confused conspiracy theories and crackpot beliefs, Skull World swings from something solely informative to an often intriguing character study. Unlike American Movie, which offered up Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank as examples of clueless indie filmmaking and then found the real story of their equally sad lives underneath, Skull World does not go deep enough. Instead, it believes that novelty alone will carry us across the many unanswered questions and concerns, and for the most part, McConnell et. al. are right. Box Wars is the kind of 'sport' that inspires a kind of "I could do that" mentality which must fuel most of the movement's meaning. While some of the participants warrant their own personalized overview, Sommer makes a sound, if slightly incomplete, focus. We would never know about this activity if it wasn't for his passion and personable exterior. But one sense something a bit more disturbing in his personality, a facet Skull World avoids in order to show more thirty-something's running around looking like rejects from Mad Max's own renaissance fair.
Indican does a decent job with this DVD release, though the uneven way in which McConnell made the film shows up often throughout the 1.79:1 anamorphic transfer. Here's word of warning to all you young filmmaking wannabes out there. If your project is going to take years to complete, try not to change cameras and technology during the shoot. Here, the director clearly went for an upgrade somewhere along the way, and the difference in footage is obvious. Not bad, just showing up some of the material he shot before. Similarly, the sound situation suffers from a lack of sophistication. We get a nice Dolby Digital 2.0 mix which does a decent job of balancing out the camcorder recording of conversations with the more professional talking head sequences. Finally, the film is supplemented by two commentaries, one featuring Sommer and McConnell, one featuring Mr. Box Wars solo. The former is fascinating. The latter can be a bit grating. Add in an hour or more of deleted/extended scenes, a photo gallery, and a trailer, and you have an above average DVD package.
Underworld subcultures are perfect documentary subjects. As long as you can get the participants to play to the camera and not for or at, you end up with something both informative and evocative. Sommer and his sport are both intriguing and off-putting. Luckily, McConnell gives Box Wars a friendly and open hearted face to forward its agenda. Earning an easy Recommended rating, you'll be entertaining by this man and his mission. On the outside, Skull World is selling brute force and fighting. Dig beneath the cardboard and you'll find much, much more.
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