Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Netflix Nuggets - Documentary Edition

It's a new year, and I've got yet another special edition in the Netflix Nuggets series. I've been scratching the documentary itch lately, and as a result I have a collection of documentaries I'd like to share with you. So without further adieu, we kick off 2013 with Netflix Nuggets: Documentary Edition!


Whether you regard it as a positive or negative aspect of our culture, sex is a big part of the media machine. From ads to films to books to music to just about everywhere in between, we've heard it before and we can vouch for its effectiveness: sex sells. Various subcultures in the country have responded to it in different ways and for different reasons. But the discussion about sex and its prominence in our day-to-day lives - for better or worse - has left a subset of society alienated: asexuals. It should come as little surprise that many (including myself before seeing this film) aren't even aware that such people exist; that there are those in the population who have no interest in sexual activity of any kind whatsoever. Or at least, that such people exist outside of certain religious or societal constraints - that they, like so many others, are simply born that way. The documentary primarily follows David Jay, a self-proclaimed asexual who took it upon himself to start a website for other people like himself to gather and share ideas. As a kind of de facto spokesperson for the asexual community, David is nonetheless a visibly humble individual whose primary motivation is educating both the public and asexuals themselves on how to live in a society that has little place for them. The film spans a few years and articulates some really fascinating talking points regarding how asexuals often struggle in their relationships because many simply don't understand their way of thinking. The film was extensively educational for me, and while it doesn't feature a lot of flash or flare it was still engrossing and very entertaining. One particularly compelling scene depicted a group of asexuals at a gay pride parade. I was genuinely surprised to see how many people at the parade indirectly or openly shunned these people despite being recipients of such bigotry themselves. I myself admit I can't even begin to understand what it would be like living without any kind of sexual impulse, even after this documentary. But the film was truly eye-opening and really helped me to gain fresh perspective in my worldview.


Having grown up in a fairly conservative household (and homeschooled to boot), I had heard a lot about the company Cleanflicks and those like it in the early 2000s. Cleanflicks' business model was fairly simple: they took major motion pictures - usually R or PG-13 rated, edited them to remove offensive content (nudity, language, violence, etc.), and then resold them. A number of other services like it began to crop up, and ultimately caught the eye of Hollywood at large. Predictably, or if you remember this from the news, the company was handed a ruling indicating they were in violation of copyright law - and what followed is largely a tale of loopholes and outright flouting of legal precedent. The documentary itself, however, reveals a number of details about the goings-on behind the scenes of the business that make this story far more intriguing than one might initially expect. I was drawn to this documentary because I remember Cleanflicks from my growin' up years, and while I've developed media tastes that stray far outside those in which I was raised - I never found fault with the idea of studios publicly releasing edited versions of their films for more sensitive viewers. It's a service they provide for airlines and television networks (a point the film brings up) after all. But Cleanflix isn't an activist's manifesto; it's just an honest look at the story of this business. Several interviews offer differing opinions on the issue of such a business's legitimacy ranging from the founders and owners of the business, to "man on the street" type interviews, to some of the directors whose work was in question. The film does a brilliant job of illustrating some of the objective problems with a business such as this; like the dangers of acclimating to censorship, the hypocrisy of running an illegal business focused on "family values," and the potential damage to be done by extensive psychological repression. The movie didn't really make any points I disagreed with, so I felt kinship with the filmmakers as a result. But what I found most revelatory were the details of how the business was run, in some cases by people who weren't even technically affiliated with the Cleanflicks branding. As a result, the film almost plays like a retrospective on a mafia family as it details the intrigue and scandal woven throughout the story of this business and the people it ultimately effected - for better or worse.

I'm a big fan of Morgan Spurlock. Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold are two of my favorite documentaries, and Spurlock is every bit deserving of the recognition he's received on behalf of his creative endeavors. So it was with high expectations that I sat down to Mansome, Spurlock's latest film, which attempts to outline the social perceptions and definitions of male grooming. It's an intriguing concept, as far as I'm concerned. And Spurlock certainly does his damndest to make it interesting. Interspersed with the documentary's overall arc is a little "mini-movie" that follows Jason Bateman and Will Arnett to the spa for some beautification treatments. But I was surprised by how lackluster the whole thing felt by the end, and what a disappointment it was overall. The biggest mistake I think the film makes is spending too much time with two men who are just patently unlikeable unless you belong to their respective societal niches. The first is Jack Passion, a man who has won numerous beard competitions around the world and holds the unofficial title of America's Greatest Beardsman. But Passion is a pretentious and even downright rude individual who claims that since a man's natural state is bearded, clean-shaven guys are "in perpetual boyhood." On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ricky Manchanda, a man made up of every annoying metro cliche you can imagine. We follow him around town as he takes various grooming treatments (at one point advising a cosmetologist to remove just two hairs from one of his eyebrows in order to shape it properly) and shows off his new clothes and takes - according to his own words - an hour and a half to get ready for each day. To each his own, to be sure. But both of these men are insufferably consumed with themselves and their excessive vanity pollutes the film. Had they only been briefly mentioned as part of a larger look at their respective societal subsets, it wouldn't be quite so detrimental. But easily 70-80 percent of the film focuses on them exclusively. Mansome has a great concept and a few winning moments (largely courtesy of Bateman and Arnett), but it's completely torpedoed by the two subjects at its center. Here's hoping Spurlock's next movie is a return to form.


I do not personally know very many people with mental disabilities. I have always been fascinated by how many of these people - and those who take care of them - live their day to day lives. But I've never been quite certain of just how to approach my own curiosity for fear of "doing it wrong;" perhaps directly or indirectly offending others in the process. But as part of this curiosity, I queued up Monica & David whilst looking for something to occupy space between loads of laundry on a Sunday afternoon. A relatively short piece of cinema (only 67 minutes), the movie follows the titular people: a couple with Down syndrome whose marriage is the primary topic of the film. After some brief introductions, the movie jumps right into exploring what the outset of their marriage is like. Interspersed with interviews of various family members is a collage of vignettes of the two around the house and the city as they learn the skills necessary to help them achieve a measure of independence from Monica's parents - who are their primary caretakers. It's a very touching and poignant piece of work, as several of the interviews devolve into tears before too long. But Monica & David isn't an overly sentimental film, or one obsessed with getting a rise out of its audience. It's honest and candid without being exploitative or disrespectful. And ultimately it's an incredibly uplifting experience to watch these two people display a love for each other that's heartbreaking in both its simplicity and its depth. Furthermore I appreciated the overall presentation of the film, as I didn't feel as though the subjects were treated as novelties and by extension I didn't feel as though my curiosity about their lives was intruding upon the bounds of propriety. Educational, emotional, honest, entertaining - this is an exemplary piece of documentary cinema.


I almost didn't include this one on account of the rather volatile nature of almost any discussion that involves Fox News. I don't present this title as much of a talking point, because all the pertinent talking points can be found within. The title is about as self explanatory as they come, and gives you a good idea of what this documentary is about. While the film is a bit dated (2004), the points it raises are as applicable as they ever were. I'm not here to promote liberalism any more than conservatism, and neither is Outfoxed. What the film does is map, point by point, the exact sins for which it feels the network should be called to account. There are a smattering of info graphics that help illustrate the extent of the documentary's contentions, in addition to interviews with former employees of the network and academics in the journalism field. Here and there, the tone of the movie skews towards the snide or the derisive as they somewhat glibly point out errors in logic or factual presentation or in the double-speak of some of the new anchors. But for the most part, Outfoxed doesn't really have to get too caustic because much of the evidence they present is damning enough. I've never taken issue with Fox News as being a largely conservative news network (something the documentary does, more or less), but I have been somewhat amused by the "Fair and Balanced" image they attempt to portray while so obviously skewing right. And this is where most of the documentary's attention is fixated: the hypocrisies the network, at a corporate as well as often individual anchor level, has perpetuated throughout the majority of its existence. Again, this film isn't likely to sway your political leanings one way or another because that's not what it's out to do. But if you're a fan of Fox News, you may find that a number of things you didn't know about the network might change your opinion. And if you're a really big fan of Fox News, you probably weren't captivated by a title such as this in the first place. But for me, this articulated and crystallized a number of misgivings I've had about the network for some time.


In my opinion, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are two of the most beautiful people alive today. Not physically so much; I mean specifically in regards to their souls. I say that because there's an astonishing depth to the songs they've written; musically and lyrically. If you've heard anything they've recorded individually or as a duo (under the moniker The Swell Season) or seen the movie Once you know exactly what I'm talking about. The Swell Season is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the duo that focuses specifically on the surge in fame and critical recognition they've received since the release of Once. Filmed entirely in black and white, and occasionally intercutting extended scenes from live performances, The Swell Season does a pitch perfect job of capturing the creative energy of Glen and Markéta. Glen's family is interviewed in a few places, though unfortunately no interviews with the family Irglová. There's an unflinching quality to the presentation that I greatly appreciated because it imbues the whole experience with a palpable authenticity. More than a few times the two confront each other on camera over various tour-related or personal disputes, and though sincere and candid their arguments never devolve into unnecessary aggression. As one can surmise, the two had a romantic relationship at one point in time - another aspect the documentary doesn't shy away from. And while that's long since become a part of the past, it's amazing to see how intertwined their souls are - absent a romantic relationship. If you're a fan of their music or of Once I can't recommend more strongly that you add this to your must-see list. If you were to remove the interviews, The Swell Season could almost play like a black-and-white sequel to Once in its own way. Such as it is, it's a magnificent documentary in its own right; to say nothing of the captivating music and personalities of the two principle subjects.


  1. The only one of these I've seen is Mansome and I had pretty much the exact same reaction as you. It's really very interesting except for the parts featuring Passion and Manchanda, which are disgusting.

  2. Also, is it just me or are those visual tests they make you take before posting to prove you're not a robot almost impossibly hard to decode!?

    1. I completely agree; those captcha tags are the worst. I suspect an elaborate prank against our species courtesy of Skynet.