Let’s take it way back to a simpler time: exactly a year ago. Everyone was talking about Steven Avery, small-town Wisconsin justice, and a really horrible 2005 murder thanks to the Netflix series Making A Murderer. We were amazed that out of this whole basket of deplorables (to borrow an expression), a grisly murder wasn’t the only terrifying aspect of the story. (By the way, when we were discussing this post last week, we also realized that these scary Manitowoc County people were also exactly the people who voted the next president into office … so there’s another spooky aspect to this whole story.)
I live in one of the snowiest cities in America (100 inches/average). We get 12 inches of lake effect snow and school isn’t even cancelled the next day. The average high temperature last February was 12 degrees Fahrenheit. And I am a total wimp compared to the hardy Wisconsinites in this series. Didn’t it feel like every exterior shot, no matter what time it took place, was crammed with piles of snow everywhere? But nobody complained or even looked cold? Manitowoc County is like the North Pole except that it’s a workshop for unspeakable violence and judicial corruption instead of toys.
Scare Scale: A White-Knuckle Drive On An Icy Expressway – 2/10
The Land That Time Forgot
Based on the hair and wardrobe of the various townspeople, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Making A Murderer was filmed in 1986 or 1998, but it was actually well into the 2000s. I know plenty of small-town residents, rural folks, and Midwesterners who look completely normal, so the frozen-in-time aesthetic really added to the feeling that there was something just off about every single one of these people.
Scare Scale: The moment when Rip Van Winkle awakes – 3/10
Two Nice Lesbians In Possible Peril
The filmmakers behind Making A Murderer, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, were a very young, chill lesbian couple from Columbia University when this project began. Although there are tons of intelligent, free-thinking people in the rural northern Midwest, the particular crowd that was featured in this documentary seemed… um… not that way. Not to mention, Ricciardi and Demos probably didn’t exactly blend into the Land That Time Forgot. They never mentioned being made to feel at all uncomfortable, but I still found myself wanting to call in a welfare check when I realized they were alone with some of those people (ahem… Steven’s terrifying mother).
Scare Scale: That Time When TLC Showed Michelle Duggar’s Lesbian Sister & I Imagined The First Time She Met Jim-Bob – 5/10
The Wolfpack is a documentary about the Angulo brothers, 6 teenage(-ish) boys kept almost entirely confined to their apartment by their father, Oscar. The boys watched thousands of movies, became obsessed with film, and even recreated favorite films at home: transcribing scripts, assigning roles, and building props by hand. On one of their early forays into the streets of New York City they met filmmaker Crystal Moselle, who was intrigued by their matching long hair and dark suits, looking like the cast of Reservoir Dogs. A friendship began based on their mutual love of film, and eventually Moselle began a documentary about the Angulo brothers’ lives: The Wolfpack.
Unlike most of our Comments, Questions and Concerns post, this is actually a GOOD movie. It’s just that there’s so much going on here that we do have a few questions, comments and concerns about this most unusual family.
Comment: This is a documentary with no narration, very few talking heads, and no name cards.
So if you didn’t see the 20/20 special on the family ( or any of the myriad articles about these brothers, you’ll be figuring out what’s going on as the doc progresses. But other than some trouble keeping the boys’ names straight, you’ll be just fine.
Comment: Someone in this family is a prop master in the making.
Link: The Wolfpack brothers show us how to reenact our favorite films.
In their film recreations, the Angulos create their own props and some of them are really impressive, especially when you remember they were literally using what they had around the house.
Question: Did anyone else transcribe films and TV in their youth?
I think I remember rewinding my VHS tapes to take down dialogue from shows and movies I really liked in the pre-internet era, so while these kids do have some things in common with those of us who had more typical childhoods.
Comment: Understatement of the year: “If I didn’t have movies, my life would be pretty boring.”
It’s a phrase a lot of us can at least somewhat relate to (feel free to substitute movies with TV, or music, or theater), but coming from a teen whose only connection with the outside world was through movies, it’s on a whole other level.
Concern: What would it be like to be Vishnu?
First of all, Vishnu is the only girl in this family. Second, she’s described as special and in her own world, and was reported to have some sort of developmental disability. How did she get the services she need when her family rarely left their apartment? (NB: This isn’t answered, and for good reason: Vishnu isn’t really a subject of The Wolfpack. That’s a good choice because if she does have a developmental disability it would be harder to obtain her knowing consent, and anyway none of it is our business. However, I imagine that her life is probably every bit as fascinating as her brothers’.)
Concern: How does this HAPPEN?
One boy wonders how his parents fell in love in the first place. While more extreme than most of us, this is pretty relatable – when your parents have been together forever, it’s hard to picture them as the young people who first met each other.
In this case, the boys’ Midwestern-raised hippie mom, Susanne, met their father Oscar in South America. They moved to New York. Susanne was under Oscar’s control and Oscar began to shun the outside world, allowing the children to leave the apartment – closely supervised – only about once a year, if that. I understand, on a level, how overwhelming NY would be to a man from a less-populated area, especially when it’s plausible that he has some issues with paranoia and narcissism.
As for their mother,the boys mention Oscar hitting her sometimes, but there wouldn’t even need to be much or any physical violence with this level of psychological control. It’s almost like when you hear about cult members who have realized the leader isn’t what he promised to be, but it’s too late to leave.
Comment: THAT HALLOWEEN SCENE WAS SPOOKY AS HELL THO
The brothers film children trick or treating outside their window. Meanwhile in the apartment, they record themselves in costumes lighting hay on fire and doing a spooky circle dance to This Is Halloween. It was so eerie I almost had to fast forward. If you want evidence that some boys in the group are born filmmakers, look no further. With no budget or script , they sure did evoke Halloween terror.
Question: What would happen if we all talked to people who seem interesting?
The filmmaker (Crystal Moselle) saw this pack of long-haired, suit-wearing brothers on the street. Like most of us, she wondered what on earth their story was. Unlike most of us, she went up to them and asked. What would I find out if I started talking to the characters I see on the street?
(That’s gonna have to remain a mystery. Riding public transit to and from work, I have enough unwanted interactions with strangers without seeking them out.)
Concern: The level of control Oscar had is staggering, and I thought I’d heard everything.
Only Oscar had the keys to the apartment. If he told the boys to stay in one room, they weren’t allowed to leave. He kept seven children so stifled that many neighbors didn’t even know they existed.
Comment: My heart was in my throat during “the escape.”
Mukunda, then 15, sneaked out of the apartment wearing a Michael Myers mask. He seemed “off” (as a teen in a horror movie mask would) and eventually, concerned strangers called the police. Mukunda was admitted to the psych ward, which he considers a positive experience as he was finally able to interact with non-family members. THEN, upon returning home, he told his father “I refuse to talk to you, I refuse to take your orders, we are no longer father and son anymore.” That has to be one of the bravest things I’ve heard in my life.
From that point on, the spell was broken and the brothers began to leave the apartment.
Question: Should Child Protective Services have intervened?
And in fact, what are the bounds of legality here? I say this as someone who concentrated in family law in a New York state law school, but this is such a gray area. There’s a push and pull between allowing parents the freedom to raise their children, but to intervene if the child’s health and safety are in peril. Is isolating the children at home a form of abuse or neglect?
Concern: YIKES at one of the boys thinking their mother should still homeschool them.
There’s nothing wrong with homeschooling if that’s what both the parents and kids want, and everyone’s getting a good education. The yikes comes because maybe a rule where nobody in this family says that another family member shouldn’t have to leave the apartment would be a good thing, moving forward. (To be fair, he doesn’t say she should never leave AT ALL, but that working outside the home wouldn’t be best when she is qualified to teach the brothers. Also he certainly has insight that we don’t into what Susanne actually wants to do in life.)
We’ll get to this later, but the best and most freeing thing for Susanne might be to move back to where there are open spaces, which she says she misses, particularly if as her son said, having to go out into New York to work would be too taxing on her.
Concern: The hair thing.
The boys have super-long hair, at least until some make the decision to cut it. Their father says it gives them power. Their mom has really short hair. Her decision or nah?
(If it is, and she’s chosen to look different from her family members, that’s pretty cool.)
Question: What would the real world seem like if all you knew was movies?
Comment: I would have loved to see more of the filmmaker’s interactions with the brothers.
I think leaving herself out of the film was a good choice, that’s just my own curiosity. It’s an interesting dynamic and like I said above, reaching out to these kids on the street isn’t something your average person would have done.
Concern: In old footage, Susanne looks at Oscar like Michelle looks at Jim-Bob.
I guess the concern would be that there are hundreds of Michelles looking at hundreds of Jim-Bobs like that.
Comment: Just want to make it clear I’m not blaming Susanne here.
Is there a chance she’s at fault for some of this? Sure, she could be, but I don’t have enough info here to say that. Susanne was very controlled by Oscar for a long time, and she’s obviously a thoughtful and intelligent person who really loves her kids (and even Oscar).
Concern: Oh no. Is Oscar comparing himself to Jesus now? Oh. no.
Comparing yourself to the Christ: almost always a bad sign unless it’s in the vein of “when the weather is warm, Jesus and I are both known to wear sandals” or “Jesus and I both have an Aunt Elizabeth.”
Comment: Sometimes Susanne’s accent really betrays her Midwestern roots (especially when talking with her mom) and I love it.
I also enjoy how very excited she was to reconnect with her family. This is why I love this documentary: I am so rooting for the boys and their mom. (I do feel for Oscar, on some level, and hope he finds some peace.)
Question: Did anyone else practically cheer seeing one of the boys getting a job on a set and interacting with coworkers like anybody else?
Guys. I’m just really into the triumph of the human spirit. They’re gonna make it after all. I’m sure of it.
Comment: ONE OF THEM MOVED OUT!
Jobs. Haircuts. Rock bands. Environmental protests. Girlfriends? I knew this was coming, but I’m amazed anyway.
And we start with the kids watching trick or treaters through their window, and end with them picking pumpkins and apples out in the world. Because at last, they live in it.
Concern: I’m very happy for everybody but if they do any more of this spooky Halloween shit I SWEAR TO GOD.
You’re very great at spooky masks and eerie sequences but I’m’a have to turn this off now.
Over the past few years, I spend the time off during the holidays catching up on TV series I have been meaning to watch, but hadn’t had time to before. For instance, I watched Call the Midwife one time, because it was only one season, or my greatest accomplishment in binge-watching: all seven seasons of The West Wing in one month. That’s an hour-long (42ish minute) program, y’all. This year, I decided to watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and couldn’t stop watching. To preface, I usually reserve my documentary watching for when I’m sick (idk why, tbh), but I was on this kick of following Tony to places I probably will never be able to go to otherwise, and are usually off the beaten path.
My addiction to Parts Unknown led to a spiral of watching the documentaries on my Instant list that had been waiting for me to press play for months or even years, and I finally got around to it. So, I’m here to share them with you. Whether you’re sick or need to pause from your Friends binge-ing, here are a few of my favorite documentaries I’ve watched over the past few years that you can watch on Netflix Instant right now.
Watch if you like: Friday Night Lights, football, underdog stories, Oscar-winning movies, crying
Elevator Pitch: A small, predominantly black, high school on the outskirts of Memphis has a football team with the worst record. A white coach who volunteers his time helps them to possible victory. But like FNL, it’s not really about football at all.
Watch if you like: Dance, ballet, seeing kids do things better than you
Elevator Pitch: The journey of six kids on their way to one of the biggest most important ballet competitions in the world. You’ll leave impressed with their dedication and inspired to do something with your life.
Watch if you like: Dance, ballet, First Position
Elevator Pitch: As opposed to aspiring young dancers, this one features four professional Russian dancers – and you’ll be glad you didn’t grow up in Russia.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Watch if you like: Sushi, Japan, food, elderly people
Elevator Pitch: If you love sushi, you’ll love this 85-year-old sushi master in Tokyo, who owns a world-renowned restaurant and the interesting relationship he has with his son and eventual heir.
Kings of Pastry
Watch if you like: France, Top Chef, pastries, cooking, stressful situations
Elevator Pitch: The French take the art of cooking seriously, and even hand out special medals/collars to distinguish the elite chefs from others – and the competition to win said prize involves years of dedication and endless amounts of patience.
Watch if you like: Humanity
Elevator Pitch: A guy gives up pretty much all he has and travels around the country making money and sleeping in homes all found off Craigslist. The result is a surprisingly moving story proving that despite the fact we live in a diverse country with people who have vastly different views on life, it’s not hard to find the good in people.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
Watch if you like: Art, performance art, any modern museum
Elevator Pitch: Marina Abamovic has been a top performance artist for decades, and this movie follows her acclaimed The Artist Is Present exhibit at New York’s MoMa, which is a retrospective on her career. It shows how she connects with new people through her piece in which she sits and stares at visitors, and also reconnects her with one of the biggest loves of her life.
Watch if you like: Politics, Mormons
Elevator Pitch: It doesn’t matter that you know how it ends. It also doesn’t matter if you voted for Mitt Romney or not. What matters is that this movie gives you an inside look of the day to day life of a Presidential campaign over the course of six years – and how it can all come crumbling down in one night.
Anything North Korea
Watch if you like: Asia, secret societies, investigative reporting, hidden cameras
Elevator Pitch: From Lisa Ling’s faux eye surgery documentary to Frontline‘s secret hidden cameras, these specials give you an inside look to one of the world’s most secretive and oppressive countries. Forget The Interview, these are the only North Korea movies you need to see.
Watch if you like: Fascination with Scientology, The Duggars
Elevator Pitch: These kids aren’t just regular kids – they’re kids who think they have prophetic powers and attend a Christian summer camp to learn how to become the next “Billy Graham” and “take back America for Christ”. Go into it knowing because of this movie – the camp closed.