Indie Snapshot: Morgan Spurlock Goes to Comic-Con

You don't have to be in San Diego to get your geek on.

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope
If you've ever been to the annual geek-stravaganza officially known as Comic-Con International, Morgan Spurlock's ungainly titled documentary so vividly captures the energy and pageantry of the three-day event that you'll feel as if you're actually on the ground in San Diego's massive convention center, breathing in the stale, recycled air and dodging convention-goers that have stopped to gawk at the umpteenth "Slave Leia" cosplayer. Spurlock and his team of cameramen embedded themselves at the 2010 edition and filmed all of the action through the eyes of five main characters, each of whom were smartly cast to represent a different aspect of the wildly diverse collection of interests that make up the contemporary Con. (Despite the name, it ain't just about comics anymore, as any longtime attendee will gladly -- or sadly -- tell you.)

Take Holly Conrad, an amateur costume designer and video game fan who has made the trek to San Diego to participate in the Masquerade, where she and her pals will act out a scene from the game Mass Effect 2 while sporting incredibly intricate outfits they made in her garage. The movie enthusiasts are represented by James Darling and his girlfriend Se Young Kang, who spend much of their time hanging out in Hall H watching the major movie studios present their wares. (As Kevin Smith devotees, they also make a point of attending their favorite filmmaker's freewheeling Q&A, where James intends to surprise Se Young by popping the question in front of Smith and 6,000 other fans.) And just to prove that you're never too old to be excited by toys, Alex Calderon makes it his mission to go home with a few exclusive plastic collectibles that he can add to the stash of unopened action figures that line the walls of his home office. (He keeps his most valuable toys locked up in a massive gun safe.) Believe it or not, there's still a few folks that come to the Con for the comics; for example, aspiring artists Skip Harvey and Eric Henson have both shown up with their portfolios in tow, looking to find regular work drawing the adventures of colorfully-clad superheroes. And then there's the movie's most interesting character by far: Chuck Rozanski, the owner of Mile High Comics, who brings his most valuable single comic to San Diego (for the record, it's the first issue of Red Raven, published in 1940 by Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel Comics), hoping for a big sale that will put his flagging business back on track.

Interspersed with these personal stories are fawning testimonials about the importance of Comic-Con from such famous faces as Joss Whedon, Stan Lee (both of whom produced the movie along with Ain't It Cool News founder, Harry Knowles), Eli Roth and Frank Miller and lots of footage of the packed crowds lining up for panels or wandering around the Con's enormous central floor. What's notably not on camera is any trace of Spurlock himself -- a first for a director who has otherwise been at the center of every other documentary he's made. In interviews, Spurlock has said he absented himself entirely by choice, wanting the true fans to drive the story rather than an interloper. That proves to be a wise choice, especially since he's cast such a personable group of subjects who are engaging enough on their own without Spurlock there to badger them. The genuine enthusiasm and excitement they display at being surrounded by the stuff they love says more about the unique power of Comic-Con than any of the hyperbolic praise dished out by Whedon, Roth and the like. It's enough to soften even the most cynical geek's heart.

On the other hand, Spurlock's absence from the movie also leads one to wonder whether he purposefully sacrificed his objectivity for greater access to the Con. While he can be an irritating presence on camera, Spurlock does make a point of using his status as an outsider to ask tougher, more skeptical questions of the worlds he's chosen to explore. (Just watch the way he both critiques the advertising game and becomes a willing part of it in his product-placement-themed doc, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.) But A Fan's Hope is almost relentlessly upbeat, only occasionally (and almost reluctantly) treading into darker territory. These too-rare moments come primarily from Skip and Eric -- who quickly discover that they're not going to be drawing Superman and Spider-Man anytime soon, as they are met with rejection after rejection from their various portfolio reviews -- as well as Chuck, who gives voice to the frustration that comic book retailers -- the folks that were the backbone of the Con for so many years -- are feeling with the current state of things in San Diego, where comics are being steadily squeezed out by movies, video games, television and more. That's the kind of material that would have resulted in a more fully-rounded Comic-Con documentary. This one effectively captures the fan experience at the Con, but that's only half the story.
(Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope opens in limited theatrical release today and can also be viewed via iTunes and most VOD services.)

The Assault
This French thriller can't help but bring to mind United 93 involving, as it does, a real-life case in which a band of terrorists hijacking a plane. The actual incident occurred in December 1994, when members of the Armed Islamic Group took control of an Air France flight in Algiers before take-off, intending to use it to demolish the Eiffel Tower. After remaining on the ground for two days, the plane finally took off, but a lack of fuel meant that they had to land in Marseille rather than Paris. When it touched down, a special division of the French police force known as the GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group) was waiting, ready to storm the plane. Cutting between the hijackers on the plane and the GIGN force on the ground -- with a particular focus on one cop, Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), who has a wife and infant daughter waiting worriedly for him at home -- director Julien Leclercq recreates the entire ordeal with some of the same real-time, documentary-style techniques that Paul Greengrass employed in United 93. Despite the movie's high stakes and solid production values though, The Assault is curiously lacking in tension; even the big final siege aboard the Air France flight fails to quicken the pulse. Perhaps the film resonated more in France, where the event is still ingrained in the country's national memory. (Then again, Olivier Assayas' recent true-life epic Carlos -- which depicts multiple acts of terrorism committed on European soil -- plays like gangbusters no matter what country you're from.) More likely this is just a case where the recreation simply doesn't live up to the reality.
(The Assault opens in limited theatrical release today)

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