I will admit that there are a few things Netflix is good for. Stealing the food out of hard working video stores’ metaphorical mouths. Making presumptuous and often completely wrong assumptions about what I would enjoy watching. Reducing the experience of choosing and watching a movie to a cold, emotionless algorithm, devoid of any human connectivity or exchange. And documentaries, Netflix is good for documentaries. So good, in fact, that I’ve decided to devote this week’s FFR to a list of all the fine bits of cinematic FUN-ducation that can be streamed by anyone with a Netflix-ready device and a nail to drive into the coffin of the video rental industry, which by now is probably more nails than wood.

Turtle Power posterTurtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

It honestly surprises me that it took this long for someone to film the chronicle of TMNT, arguably one of the cultural touchstones of my generation. But “coincidentally” just in time for that horrendous looking new movie, first time director Randall Lobb has crafted a film that examines the history and cultural impact of everyone’s favorite amphibian mad-libs, taking us from the foursome’s pairing by two struggling comic book creators to its meteoric ascent to popularity.

The doc has a lot of style and pazazz, with animated segments and flashy transitions to take us through its exhaustive collection of interviews with just about anyone who really matters when it comes to TMNT and its history. This isn’t some quick hack job with maybe one or two actually important interviewees and a bunch of commentators and critics who really have nothing to add. Almost everyone who gets major screen time feels like an important voice, and that makes for a doc that feels full of passion, energy and information.

It does occasionally feel padded out, especially towards the end, and I would point out that there’s plenty of Turtles media the film skips over entirely, making the “definitive” part of the title a bit of a misnomer. But it has a lot of heart and charm put into it, and that’s enough to carry it comfortably through its run time.

Wonder Woman! The Untold Story of American Superheroines

While Turtle Power focused solely on a history of the Ninja Turtles franchise, Wonder Women!, which was suggested to me afterward, takes a more interesting approach. From the beginning it seems like a mere history of Wonder Woman and her small but dedicated fanbase. However, as the film progresses, it widens its scope and reveals itself not really as a documentary about Wonder Woman, but rather American feminism as seen -through- Wonder Woman.

Because of this, Wonder Women! feels like a much tighter and more driven film than Turtle Power, and the hour or so run time doesn’t hurt in keeping things very concise and to the point. While Turtle Power sometimes felt a bit overly long and eschewed any kind of real thesis or drive in favor of a broad history, Wonder Women feels like a tightly packed analytical essay, with a point to make and a clear voice to say it with.

Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s dry or academic. Like Turtle Power it keeps things stylish with lots of animated segues and colorful montages, but I’d put it above many other, similar docs I’ve seen on comics and comic heroes for its clarity of purpose, and for how coherently and effectively it says what it wants to say.

Cane Toads: The ConquestCANE TOADS 1SHT.indd

From comic book superheroes back to amphibians, almost as though Netflix is growing self-aware and can recognize patterns and motifs. In this case, I won’t complain, as it presented me with a singularly fun and enjoyable doc. But don’t think I’m not sharpening my axe for when things get all Skynet on us.

Cane Toads focuses on, unsurprisingly, Cane Toads, a species of toad introduced into Australia shortly after the turn of the century in an attempt to control the spread of sugar-cane eating insects. Of course, the whole plan backfired and the toads entirely failed to stem the spread of insects and became an even worse problem themselves, breeding like mad and beginning a slow spread across Australia.

I went in to Cane Toads expecting a fairly dry but informative nature doc. Imagine my surprise when I was met by one of the funniest, most rigorously directed documentaries since Errol Morris’s Tabloid.

The film starts off as just an informative but highly amusing look at an ecological disaster in the making, but as we get further in the interviews and vignettes get more and more outlandish and off-the-wall, until the viewer begins to question more and more of what they’re seeing. In some ways, this may undercut Cane Toads‘ goal of shedding light on a very real problem, but given that it makes the film such an enjoyable experience, it doesn’t strike me as a problem personally.

I can’t remember a documentary actually made me laugh as much as Cane Toads did as it flew further and further into absurdism like some strange, toad-addled Icarus. But even though I still question a lot of what I saw, I feel like I learned a bit, and a documentary that can educate and entertain is hard enough to find that coming across one is like striking oil, or finding the Criterion Collection release of Flesh for Frankenstein for cheap.

It’s sad to see how few people can appreciate a good documentary, the same way so few people appreciate a fine wine or a well-trained gimp.

Working at a video store, I see the documentary section gather dust and the ghosts of dead orphans. It is only ventured into when something topical or bland and heartwarming comes out. And even then people scamper out when they start to feel poor, dead Timmy Weatherbee’s spectral breath on their neck.

But there’s good stuff in there, interesting movies about subjects a lot of people probably didn’t even know existed, and that’s what this week is about, bringing you some much-needed knowledge on little-seen documentaries.

reclaiming_the_bladeReclaiming the Blade
Medieval martial arts isn’t something a lot of people even know is a thing, the popular conception being that swordplay in the time of chivalry being more a game of “who can brain the other guy in the head with a broadsword harder” than anything approaching an actual combat style.

Reclaiming the Blade seeks to undo that misconception by shedding light on the art of swordplay, as well as the role swords play in popular culture. Big names present include Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban from Lord of the Rings, as well as renowned sword-fight choreographer Bob Anderson and a host of historians, blacksmiths, and members of various societies dedicated to keeping the traditions of medieval martial arts alive through exhibitions and reenactment, all topped off with Jonathan Rhys-Davies filling the narrator shoes to lend austerity.

The slightly low budget of the film does occasionally become apparent, like in the animated segments that look like something out of a bad History Channel show, but the subject matter and interviews are fascinating.

Just Like Being ThereJLBTjpg
Personally, I have the musical knowledge of a particularly ignorant garden slug. I don’t frequent concerts or live shows and mostly just listen to the same small collection of bands and songs endlessly, so when I found a documentary entirely about the art and artists behind concert posters, I wondered aloud how they could make an entire film out of the subject.

Just Like Being There manages this feat, with only a little bit of padding. The film is as much about the technical aspects of poster making as the artistic, with gig-poster rock stars showing us the various means, new and old, of making an awesome poster, as well as recounting the stories of how they got into the business.

The movie does take a few detours however, like an overly long look at one poster artists’ overwrought past, and a welcome (in my case) side-trip into poster artists who have taken to doing special movie posters for specific screenings on the side.

How much you’ll dig this will probably depend entirely on your tolerance for horn-rimmed glasses and absurd facial hair, but even non-music people like me should find something interesting in the film to latch on to.

blankcityBlank City
But if movies are your bag, Blank City is something you should probably watch first. The subject this time is the underground art scene that exploded in the grungier parts of Manhattan in the 1970s, particularly the dearth of experimental and punk film makers who gained notoriety for putting weird, nigh-unintelligible and micro-to-no budget stuff on film and releasing it to a bewildered public. Usually one as drugged out as the artists themselves.

More than anything else, Blank City is a collection of cool anecdotes and stories, like Jim Jarmusch talking about filming Permanent Vacation with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat asleep on the floor in the same room.

But similar to Just Like Being There, if you get put off by people clearly high as fuck on themselves, you may get the occasional urge to punch the screen. More than a couple of the interviewees come across as the kind of egomaniac wankers I make a habit of avoiding, and it can get tiring hearing them drone on and on about how Soho in the 70s and 80s was this perfect crucible of non-conformist artistic fairy-dust, and no one will ever surpass the brilliance of a drugged-up part-time film maker with a Super-8 camera.

All the same, Blank City is something anyone interested in recent film history should check out, because even if the people behind it were often douchey as hell, the work they did changed the landscape of American film in numerous ways.

In the Realms of the Unrealin-the-realms-of-the-unreal-movie-poster-2004
Writing a novel is something a lot of people always plan to do, but never get around to. That is, except for Henry Darger, a most likely autistic or schizophrenic janitor who, over the course of most of his later life, wrote an epic novel detailing a war incited by a child-slave rebellion.

Why’d it take so goddamn long, and why have you probably never heard of it, let alone read it? Well, to answer the first, it’s 15 thousand pages long. And to answer the second, it’s mostly about a troupe of constantly naked little girls having adventures and killing people. Also there’s illustrations. Lots of them. And they’re pretty uncomfortable most of the time.

But the movie doesn’t dwell too much on the implied pedophilia so much as the life of the quiet, withdrawn man who crafted the novel, what little information is known about his life, and the portrait of himself that can be found if you read between the lines of the novel, as well as the detailed journals of his life that were found when his landlords opened up his room after Darger’s death in 1973. All of which is accompanied by animated recreations of scenes from Darger’s works, with narration by Dakota Fanning.

The film uses Darger’s work as ink to paint a portrait of his life and mental state, and indeed it’s probably one of the more sympathetic and understanding movies about mental illness, which is pretty amazing given the somewhat unsettling subtexts of Darger’s work.