Jun. 16th, 2010

Thunder Soul is a sheer delight of a film. It is a sincere love-letter to the dedicated educators and inspirational individuals who can shape so many lives. Expertly made, passionately enthusiastic, it is one of the best films of the year.

It was the early Seventies, and a blazing hot funk band was born. They were the Kashmere Stage Band,  phenomenally talented youngsters, led by Conrad "Prof" Johnson - one of those rare teachers; a startlingly talented composer and a leader who enforced discipline. A 37-year teaching veteran, he guided his pupils to develop their musical talents, and inspired respect and demanded they represent that which is good - becoming a father figure that many of the children lacked. "He didn't just teach us the music; he taught us to be men!" - enthuses one of his many proteges.

The film chronicles a reunion of the original band - with its members spanning across the United States and world. "We doin' it for the Man!" They are an amiable bunch, having become thoughtful, passionate, articulate and interesting people. In archive footage, and in recent interviews, the 94-year old Prof speaks of his life in simple, straight-up language; he describes his starting of a family, his wife - "a momma' to all of us" - and his embrace of the educator role.

The former students invite us to share their reunion, from when they re-enter the building - "It's much smaller than I remember" - culminating through to a reunion concert which blows the roof off. They share rich, hearty food and their life stories with one another, using photographs, artifacts and personal memories. Their warmth and love, their excitement and humanity radiates for all to see, and it is so wonderfully infectious.

"Our parents fought [for the Civil Rights Movement] and it was time for us to shine!"

When speaking of Prof and his wife, their words flood out - easily sharing their pleasure and excitement. "He was like the Pied Piper" - the students success in music spurring the rest of the school to improve themselves, in the arts, sports, debating and grades. This leads to success on a national level, and touring through Europe and even Japan. They ended up recording and distributing a collection of studio and live work, even recently remastering them for CD - getting up to #3 over the weekend of release on Amazon. Not bad for a band who hadn't recorded in over 25 years!

Aided immeasurably with an absolutely cracking background jazz and funk musical score and an innate sense of timing, director Mark Landsman smoothly shows and tells a multitude of stories. Thunder Soul blends fly-on-the-wall footage with talking heads, archive film and eight-track recordings - knitting a great and moving tapestry of love, humour, talent and inspiration. This is the real thing - do not miss it!
Superhero Me immediately makes me think of all those deliciously sad people who wrote Jedi as their religion at the last census. They are such lovely, deluded creatures.

First-time documentary filmmaker Steve Sale decides to become a superhero. His journey begins by recruiting comic-book experts for basic intelligence, for various traits that superheroes must have. In desperation, he even interviews his parents; when asked about superpowers, his dad comes out with "If you call Luck a superpower, I've got that!"

So, to become a superhero, without obvious exceptional gifts, he recruits the help of a personal trainer - starting off with a 'Get Ripped in 8 Weeks' advert, and concluding with a funny Run Fatboy Run meets Team America montage. Also needed are a martial arts guru for dispatching evil swiftly (using Drunken kung-fu, of course), and most importantly of all, the costume.

Sale picks the pseudonym, SOS, based on his skills as a sound editor, ropes a mate for some seriously cool illustrations. We see Sale mooch around and trawling the internet for inspiration. After a lengthy gestation period, he starts making and remaking the costume out of brightly-coloured spandex and other such fun fabrics. One of the movie's best terrible puns happens when he's shopping for y-fronts - "this movie's pants". We also learn that he's considered the bathroom practicalities. What he has failed to consider is his weapons and skills - testing a loud oscillating alarm on his pet dogs, who just sit blithely and wag their tails. Also, transport is somewhat lacking, the first trip on the SOS-mobile is marinated in Fail.

To his surprise, Sale discovers there are many other real life superheroes. The reclusive Captain Ozone, "a time-traveller" who uses a petrol-powered chainsaw to make environmental fossil-fuel conservation points of note. Entomo, who fights  crime on the streets of Naples, opens the doors to many other superheroes. Funniest of all is Angle Grinder-Man, a deliciously anarchic scourge of parking clamps everywhere - he has a hilarious answer phone message.

There's even a musical band of superheroes - Justice Force Five, who inspire SOS to compose a rather catchy theme tune. In between placing adverts in local newsagents and searching for a sidekick, SOS makes a name for himself doing all manner of nice deeds, mowing lawns, charity fund-raisers, impromptu taxi services and chasing shoplifters. Even the sexually starved get a look in, a woman begs for attention with broken English:

"All the boys become gay. Save me!"
"I'm not going to make 'em straight. Look at me!"

Okay, it's funnier in the movie. Things take a darker turn with the story of a Los Angeles vigilante: Master Legend. He seems to breathe the ethos of Superman's origins back in the Great Depression - helping the poor and wretched. Clanking around in a roughly hewn suit of armour, balls to the wind, he fights the causes and effects of local crime. And those who "heal with the faith of the almighty crack-rock."

While occasionally amateurish and sloppy in its staging and interviewing skills, Sale's film also belies a certain engaging roughness - the footage was shot on inexpensive consumer video cameras and videophones, collected and edited on an old computer. Strangely, Superhero Me doesn't feel like "a story that needs to be told by any means necessary", as promised by the opening title cards, and could probably benefit from being about five to ten minutes shorter. Technical issues and filmmaking limitations aside, this movie is good fun, Steve Sale is an engaging and funny host, and doesn't let his movie's technical weakness get in the way of an entertaining time.
Fanboys are excellent at bitching about minutae over series they love; you give 'em an inch, they'll run off with a list of gripes as long as your arm. While offering no new discoveries about the man in charge of Star Wars, Alexandre O Philippe's movie is a rather affectionate fanboy love-in and whingefest about the galaxy far, far away and its checkshirted creator.

The People vs George Lucas starts off with a set of hand-drawn and witty animated title cards and a short history of George Lucas: a misfit child, a genius photographer, car-crash victim, through to UCLA graduate. It's an effective distillation of the pre-THX 1138 history, further revealing a filmmaker traumatised by studio interference in his first features THX 1138 and American Graffiti.

Philippe's documentary makes a sincere case for the inspirational qualities of the Star Wars saga; witness a gaggle of creative types gushing over the cultural and inspirational impact - and a huge number of excerpts from trailers, press-kit materials and fan-films of all kinds. Comparisons are made from other great storytellers, including Homer and Shakespeare - and the interviewees raise an apt point, "it's not about the author, but the culture that embraces it!"

Some of the fan works are so good, that I hope the resultant DVD will contain many of them. I can also hope they have Star Wars: Uncut, a collection of 15 second works which attempt to recreate every single scene of Star Wars in any way, shape, media, fashion or form - the clips are very amusing and subversive. Rather than using the movie's footage, Star Wars: Uncut is often substituted for clever and comic impact.

It then takes a sour note, with a chapter entitled "The Great Tinkerer". This deals with the 20th Anniversary re-release and subsequent video releases, where Lucas changed his films to better fit his vision. There is an extensive comparison of visual effects work, and a large amount of discussion of the two scenes that caused the most furore. First up, the Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt CGI scene. Gary Kurtz (producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) gets on the record, describing the scene as "totally unnecessary". Worse than this is the Greedo Shoots First sequence, where the many participants provide their own theories and discuss the folly of the scene's revision. To counterpoint, the movie shows a selection of Star Wars: Uncut edits, including a devious reconstruction using Lucasfilm's adventure computer game system, SCUMM.

The interview subjects pose the copyright question "Does the public have ownership of the materials of its own culture?" Ignoring copyright for a moment, the movie discusses various not-exactly-legal attempts to restore and preserve the original films using high-quality sources - we see a fan fondling his prized 1993 THX-certified LaserDisc boxset. On the other hand, The People versus George Lucas takes time for a tangent showing that Lucas spearheaded a movement against Ted Turner's colourisation of classic black and white features. The distinction is blurry at best.

Philippe draws the pointed contrast between the anti-studio filmmaker, and the shrewd multi-billionaire businessman who now owns his own studio. It also raises a valid point: in that no-one stood up to Lucas post-Empire Strikes Back to point out aspects of the subsequent films that just don't work. What happened between then and now? The People vs George Lucas also makes the case of a fundamental disconnect between George Lucas and the Star Wars fans. A multitude of geek interviews perfectly capture the 1997-2005 zeitgeist and the reaction to the awesome Episode I trailers - something I can truly relate to. And of course, the subsequent crushing disappointment of the prequel trilogy (Jar-Jar Binks snuff movies, and midichlorian nerd rage are a big part) and re-editing efforts to make them more palatable for the fans.

Lucasfilm's merchandising machine is also mercilessly dissected. The nerds are both proud and truly ashamed of their willingness to buy everything that the Empire spawns. "I now feel I'm in therapy talking about this!"

Ultimately, The People vs George Lucas doesn't offer anything truly fresh for Star Wars nerds, but it's amiable enough, and the mostly pre-Youtube fan-film extracts are delightful - and Lucasfilm's subsequent embrace of these fan films, even sponsoring competitions and giving away free materials to start filmmakers off. Lucas' galactic sandbox is remarkable, and the fanboy Rebel Alliance continues unabated.

Just don't mention the hopefully-erased-from-history Star Wars Holiday Special - so toe-curlingly unwatchable it has been dubbed "Mom & Dad's Sex Tape".

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