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New Slate of Netflix Documentaries Are Actually Worth the Time

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

In a shift of recent quality, the streaming giant has an offering of some truly engaging documentaries.

A surprise from Netflix in recent years has been both the sheer amount of documentaries the streamer offers but also how consumed they have become by the audience. Once the realm of only hard-core cineastes, the true-life titles have proven a hit with viewers; however these are not always fully engaging affairs. Frequently, you will find a potentially absorbing subject become diluted as a result of a drawn-out runtime.

This is, of course, the goal of the company; getting viewers to keep compiling the minutes helps with the new ratings format developed by Nielsen. It used to be that streaming data was kept mostly in-house, with Netflix regarding a program or movie to have been viewed if it was kept on for at least 2 minutes. If you bailed out on a garbage Adam Sandler offering after 5 minutes, oh well — you technically “watched” it, by the streamer’s old standard. Nielsen now compiles total minutes watched under a title, so keeping you locked in longer is the goal of all the services.

As the documentaries go, Netflix has taken up the practice of offering up episodic entries, but this has had mixed results. “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” while well done and thorough, also suffered from overload. It would have benefitted by a truncated runtime, as would ‘’The Vanishing at the Cecil Motel’’, which was a 4-part run that had possibly one hour of true content. But a recent batch of topics have come up on the service that come recommended, as they are both engaging to watch and deliver the content.

 

THE LAST BLOCKBUSTER

While admittedly this is a breezier topic, they did the right thing here by making it a standard documentary. The 86-minute runtime is justified, as this explores both the fact that there were still a handful of the rental outlets in operation but also goes into detail about how the video chain was built up, and how the ubiquitous company had its rather rapid downfall. (Slight spoiler – Netflix was only partially responsible.) 

Much time is spent with the operator of what becomes the final store, with the historical aspects interspersed, and a number of celebrities lending their experiences. Jaime Kennedy essentially launched his career as a commercial fixture, and comedian Paul Sheer is engaging with his history of working at a location. Anyone with a fond memory of wandering the aisles or rushing in on a Friday for new releases will find this to be an enjoyable enough diversion.

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MADE YOU LOOK: A True Story About Fake Art

This hails from last year, but it is well worth the time While art forgeries are a longstanding reality, this feature explores a specific con that went on for years at one of the most venerated art collection houses in history. Over time, more than $80 million in sales of forged art from the mid-century expressionist movement was sold from The Knoedler Gallery, a New York institution for over 150 years. More than just the tale of how these works were trafficked, one of the most revealing aspects is that, despite the numerous red flags these fake masterpieces should have raised, there was the willingness of so many in the art world to verify the legitimacy of these paintings.

While two main players are responsible, far more are shown to be either complicit or, at the very least, agreeable. The gallery director who moved these works is at once seen as a guilty party, but also there is consideration she could have been guilty of simply wanting them to be truly genuine. We see over time how one painting is considered into one artist’s catalogue by those compiling the body of their work, and another work is included into a gallery of one artist’s history. The son of another painter all but verifies one piece. This is a revealing venture that lays out how the minds and emotions in the art world drive so much of that environment.

 

MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS

Directed by Hollywood fixture Jared Hess, this one is centered on the murderous bombings in Salt Lake City in 1985, but is more than a straightforward crime procedural. What gets exposed is a compelling exploration of a devious mind, as the killings become linked to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints’ efforts at the time to collect historical documents about the church history. This drive to find and collect artifacts from the founding days of John Smith inspired one brilliant but damaged individual.

That man began a systemic effort of forging ancient manuscripts and other documents in such an impressive fashion that experts verified them as authentic. The exploration of his tactics is matched by showing many of his techniques in creating the archaic works. These had content of a nature to actually shake the foundation of the church, and as the desire for more items rose, of a more revealing nature, the expert fabricator grew under pressure and increasingly desperate. This serves as both a true crime story and a character study of a specialized mind.

 

THIS IS A ROBBERY

Another documentary that is actually well-served by the episodic nature. The largest art heist in history took place in Boston on the night of St. Patrick’s Day, in 1990. Thirteen classic masterworks were boldly taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, totaling at least $500 million. Solving the crime became an ongoing and never-ending quest to locate the works — an effort that would provide numerous tantalizing leads which would ultimately lead to the death of a figure thought to be crucial in the return of the art. 

One of the remarkable details is that as the years unspooled, while belief would be the paintings were in the basement of an unknown, wealthy individual, in an unknown country, amazingly new details would emerge with regularity that they were possibly still in the general Boston area. The mob, art thieves, the Feds, and various other players all contribute to the constant mystery. The belief is strong in knowing all those involved, and yet the recovery of the art is ever tantalizingly out of reach.