Tuesday, 19 March 2013

SKULL WORLD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Feature Documentary Offers Mild Entertainment But Shies Away From The Tough Questions

Skull World (2013) **1/2
dir. Justin McConnell
Review By Greg Klymkiw

Maybe it's just me, but if I was going to spend two years shooting a documentary about a 30-something gravedigger living in a godforsaken suburban wasteland where he and other like-minded and mostly single men of a similar age engage in Box War role playing games, chances are pretty good I'd be looking for some answers - REAL ANSWERS. To do that, I'd have to be a prick - like most reporters and documentarians, really. At first, you're their best friend, but you use that to whatever degree you have to in order to yank shit out of your subjects that's going to go way beyond the surface. I have no problem with that approach at all - when you're making a documentary focusing upon oddball (some might say aberrant) activities - you need to go the distance in order to truthfully examine certain elements of the human condition.

With Skull World, director Justin McConnell delivers a straight forward, amiable look at Greg Sommer and his pals as they construct elaborate costumes and play-weapons out of cardboard boxes. On weekends, scads of similarly adorned enthusiasts meet in the great outdoors and whack each other with cardboard. Eventually, Greg gets super serious about his hobby and begins to build a Canadian league of box-wearing combatants.

Fair enough. Different strokes and all that. God bless them, everyone.

But seriously, a 100-minute uncritical ode to these guys?

Look, the last thing one would want to do is make fun of them, right? Well, actually - WRONG! It'd be good for quite a few hearty guffaws and knee-slaps, but after awhile, this approach would start feeling super stale, super fast. Making fun of these guys would ultimately be like shooting cows tethered to a post with a rocket launcher - way too easy and rife with potential to get repetitive and dull.

McConnell takes his subjects seriously enough that he treats them with respect and genuinely wants to understand, and subsequently allow us to have some insight into their activities. It seems to me though that he's almost going out of his way to put them in a positive light, though as the film's on-screen "host" and narrator I do think he's completely on the level. He's a nice guy, not without talent and he so seriously wants to get his subjects' perspective that he even straps a camera to his head and jumps into the fray of a Box War.

Look, no problem. The movie has decent and occasionally exceptional production value, but there are so many loose ends that are touched upon, then left dangling. One of many examples is Sommer's job at the graveyard. Okay - let me at him. This is phenomenal stomping grounds for some serious lines of questioning. Even Sommer eventually quits the job to concentrate on his freelance work and the Box War activities which makes total sense, but he fleetingly mentions the vibes, the dark spiritual emanations that weigh him down emotionally.

Call me the biggest spoil sport in the world, but this is way more interesting than any of the Box War stuff. So interesting that it could have actually shed light on the Box War activities in truly incisive ways. We occasionally get shots in the early proceedings of Sommer at work - actually in freshly dug open graves. I longed for the filmmaker to dive in there with the camera and just start talking to the guy about his job. After all, Sommer's Box War persona is the "Skull Man" and he even admits how much he enjoys some of the darker, supernatural elements of heavy metal music.

God, this Greg Sommer guy is, to my mind, far more interesting as a human being than his hobby, but by focusing upon his obsessive involvement in the game itself and his need to legitimize it has only surface resonance. Sommer is clearly an artist. There's nothing "weird" about him, he's trying to push the boundaries of life - have fun, make art and furthermore, live his life as if it WAS a work of art.

For some, what's on display will be enough. Again, aside from feeling a touch longer than it needs to be, it's well crafted, BUT... a BIG BUT - it falls short of its potential.

The movie finally feels like an extended pilot for a speciality channel TV series rather than a theatrical documentary with real scope - one that finds truth and substance in Sommer's journey to the extent that it does him the justice I believe he deserves as a very complex individual and furthermore allowing the audience opportunities to examine their own lives by holding up the lives of Sommers and his cohorts as strange mirror images of all of us.

What's even more frustrating is that Sommer's work at the graveyard is just ONE of numerous interesting tidbits in his life beyond the Box Wars that are thrown at us and dropped. I wish the director had plumbed this stuff with far more diligence and intensity. I suspect he might have found himself with a movie that bordered on the kind of depth and importance that would have placed it well beyond its current ephemeral and meagre entertainment value, but his very approach hemmed him into a position that he perhaps had only one was to go with it - the one we see now.

For me, it's a major league drag. The movie dabbles with aspects that are potentially harrowing, but never delivers beyond what is served up on the surface.

Skull World gives us the bones, a genuine structure and story arc, but where's the real meat? The stuff we can REALLY sink our teeth into?

"Skull World" is playing at Toronto's Canadian Film Fest at the Royal Cinema on March 22.