The best (and worst) streaming TV shows & films this month

September 27, 2022
12 mins read
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A regular column in which GARY STEEL sifts through the mountain of available streaming TV and brings your attention to great new shows as well as those to avoid.

 

Belfast (Neon) 4/10

Imagine if you had to spend a couple of dreary hours – in mannered black and white, natch – standing watching not much happen on a Belfast street, or in a cramped family home. That’s what Belfast is like. This hugely acclaimed film is actually a dreary, pointless family drama that makes 1960s Coronation Street look eventful. I get that it’s based on director Kenneth Branagh’s boyhood in strife-torn Belfast as it headed towards civil war in the early ‘70s, but nothing actually happens, and for the uninitiated, nothing is explained.

 

We never get to find out why the bully down the road is threatening the family, or why there are skirmishes on the street, or why dad (Jamie Dornan) wants the family to leave for the UK, or why the mum (Catriona Belfe) wants to stay in this godforsaken environment. The kind of film that always gets nominated for a clutch of Emmy awards, like the similarly acclaimed bore Power Of The Dog, Belfast is a film that needed heart but couldn’t find the pulse. The one reason to watch it is Buddy (Jude Hill), the young boy, whose mile-wide smile lights up any scene in which he appears.

Cow (DocPlay) 7/10

Most of us never give a moment’s thought to the lives of the cows that give us their milk and meat, and we know little about the lives they lead. This film by Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights, Fish Tank) simply follows a cow around during several seasons of its existence and we watch what happens in the claustrophobic confines of the cowshed (and very occasionally a field). The film is determinedly non-judgmental but it’s impossible not to be moved by the way the farmers treat the cow, without any heed to its sentience or natural instincts.

 

The camera captures, without comment or dialogue, the everyday rituals the cow is made to undertake, and in the course of the slightly overlong running time we see it give birth twice to calves, and only have time to lick off the placenta before its baby is taken away so that we can drink the milk intended for it. At times it’s a really gruelling watch, as the cow is forced to undergo various invasive and sometimes painful procedures. The scenes inside the cow shed complex are bizarre, as the muttering farmers have a playlist of twittering romantic pop music playing while the cows deal with the sheer hell of it all. A hard watch, but instructive.

Death On The Beach (Neon) 6/10

There’s a rather prurient attraction to documentaries about holidaying Brits meeting possibly dastardly ends in foreign climes. This three-part (UK) Sky series starts by telling the story of a young British woman who died, seemingly of suspicious circumstances, while on vacation on the Thai island of Koh Tao. It’s a virtual paradise on the surface, but as we’re to learn, the island is controlled by a kind of Thai mafia, and tourists are often the victims of petty crime. Episodes 2 and 3 go on to detail a series of Brit deaths on the island over the past decade, and in the process interview family members, various Thai officials and conspiracists as well as an English woman who lived on the island for many years and has become a supportive link for all the families of the deceased.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IeU_yiaOa8

 

While the documentary appears to be making a case for widespread corruption in Thailand, with the police force being paid off by crime lords, the murder theories end up looking decidedly shaky, if not altogether unlikely. Unfortunately, the rather lurid presentation and slightly tabloid style of Death On The Beach detracts from what seems like a fairly well-researched show with access to many of the main “characters” and decent news footage. Ultimately, it acts as a salutary warning to young tourists that they’re not on safe home ground when they take off to party up hard in a foreign land, and they can’t expect Mummy and Daddy to come and help them (or their government, for that matter) when it all goes horribly wrong.

House Of The Dragon (Neon) 5/10

The thing about Game Of Thrones was that at least some of the acting performances were superb, and there was always a sense that the show was more than just a dungeons and dragons-laced romp in an imagined history. Not that I liked it much, as I could never figure out what the fuck was going on amidst the multiple plotlines and confusing treacheries. While I’m not a GOT fan, I could at least appreciate its point of difference. Its supposed sequel, House Of The Dragon, doesn’t come close. In fact, I gave up after three episodes because it felt as stagey as one of those dramatized histories of Rome.

 

And while GOT cleverly made you wait for the monsters, there’s no time for the imagination to foment in House Of The Dragon. Right from the first episode the princess is riding on a very fake-looking dragon and saving the day with a feat of low-rent CGI fire-breathing bravado. Really, the whole thing is a bit like a midday soap, just with naughty bits. And that’s the shocking point: the whole thing feels so ineffectual that when the casual and rather horrific violence (not to mention salacious sex) occurs it’s all a bit much.

Irma Vep (Neon) 8/10

Films about making films are generally a bore, and an excuse for directors (or more likely auteurs) to indulge in a bit of cinematic masturbation. So, it took an enthusiastic recommendation to convince me to watch Irma Vep, an 8-episode French-American series about the making of a TV series adaptation of a 1915 classic vampire silent movie. And I’m glad I did, even if that’s mostly because I fell in love with its star, Alicia Vikander, who plays a superstar Swedish-American actor slumming it for a lowish-budget French series while getting over her recent relationship breakup. Vikander has an alluring screen presence, and she plays an actor with an alluring sensuality that everyone seemingly wants to rub up against.

 

What really sets Irma Vep apart is the sly dialogue and its fascinating cast of characters, including the totally drug-fucked but entertaining walking casualty that is Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), but also the sheer style of its production. Its structure can seem a bit obscure sometimes as it moves from the main story to scenes from the film they’re shooting to scenes from the original film and onto scenes from the diaries of the original 1915 film actress but starring Vikander. Most of the time that film-within-a-film-within-a-film conceit works well, however, and the series ends up being a decent (and at times quite funny) examination of stardom, role-playing and directing and the complex psychology behind it all.

The Lord Of The Rings – The Rings Of Power (Prime Video) 5/10

You can tell just by looking at it for five seconds that this prequel cost a shitload more money to make than the Game Of Thrones prequel, House Of The Dragon. But while it may be the most expensive TV series of all time, and certainly looks lush, after three episodes there’s little to suggest that it carries any of the mana of the original book or even Peter Jackson’s rather bombastic films. The problem isn’t that it lacks star power, but more the fact that it just feels like a tiny idea found in appendices (which it is) blown up out of all proportion and completely without the imagination Tolkien would have applied to it.

 

Perhaps I’m being harsh and sure, it may bloom into a fantastical and wildly imaginative “historical” fantasy in time, but so far the dialogue feels clunky, the pacing feels a bit off and the casting… well, let’s say that none of the characters is jumping out at me. While Kiwiphiles might delight in spotting local landscapes, the whole thing looks so unreal that it might as well have been shot anywhere. Hence, their decision to move the production to the UK for its second season makes more and more sense.

Lost Ollie (Netflix) 8/10

Here’s an animation that makes up for all the crap that’s dished out to kids, and that parents so often have to endure. Lost Ollie is an innovative four-episode treat about a patchwork rabbit toy that wakes up lost, and with the help of a couple of new friends tries to find his way home to his best friend and companion, a boy called Billy. Those friends are a bruised and battered teddy called Rosy (voiced by singer Mary J. Blige) and a tormented former sideshow clown called Ollie (Jonathan Groff, who is famed for his voicing of both the Kristoff and Olaf roles in Frozen). And if right now you’re thinking this show’s not for you, please think again. The first episode takes a wee while to take off but from there it’s hugely entertaining, while skilfully avoiding the cliches that make so many animated shows generic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9U3BO8BoVhc

 

Lost Ollie cleverly mixes live-action characters with Ollie and pals who resemble stop-motion animations, but without the shaky frames. Essentially, it’s a rumination on death, grief and the invisible connections between people and generations of whanau, and while that might seem heavy for kids, ours (3 and 7) loved it. The grownups loved the fact that it never talked down to its audience, and that the filmmakers had obviously decided that if the story was poignant enough kids would “hold their horses” during the slower moments. Some younger kids might find a few scenes challenging (the clown has psychological issues and eventually transforms into quite a dark character) but overall this comes highly recommended.

Love Death +Robots (Netflix) 7/10

The great thing about shorts, of course, is that if one’s a stinker, the next one will be up shortly. There are three series’ (roughly three hours) in the Love Death + Robots compilations and the short films (varying between six and 20 minutes) are often wildly creative on an animation level, if not so much a conceptual one. While some of the filmmakers are probably just making good use of the latest digital animation technology (there’s a lot of “looks like a real human but not quite”), it’s clear that visually, others are pushing the edges and getting strikingly innovative results.

 

The big problem, however, is that far too many of the storytellers are hampered by dystopian stereotypes and – worse – the kind of red-blood American macho bullshit that only males with a surplus of testosterone and nationalism could generate. While there are far too many big men with big guns, there are also films here that are so digressive and outside behavioural norms that they make their point quite clearly. Clearly, this spin-off from 1980s film Heavy Metal (and the graphic magazine that preceded it) will appeal mostly to fans of sci-fi, horror and anime, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Mad God (Shudder) 8/10

If you like stop-motion animation and have a taste for the bizarre and grotesque, then Mad God is essential viewing. This 83-minute film took a record 30 years to complete, a passion project for much-awarded visual effects guru Phil Tippett, whose work has featured in the likes of Starship Troopers, Jurassic Park, Robocop and the original Star Wars trilogy. Not that those mainstream movies make a good reference point for Mad God, which is more early Lynch-meets-Joel Peter Witkin. It takes place in a hellish kind of dystopian underworld in which a character wearing a gas mask and known as The Assassin encounters a variety of horrid creatures and monstrous goings-on.

 

I was transfixed for the first half, but the tone seemed to change dramatically at that point and I lost any semblance of what the hell was happening. Perhaps the film’s long gestation impacted on its overall cogency. But despite this it’s still something of a (flawed) masterpiece and there’s nothing else quite like it. Mad God portrays a world that truly is beyond redemption and it seems to come from a very dark place, but it’s skilfully put together and creativity abounds.

Moonbound (Netflix) 5/10

You probably won’t see Moonbound on your Netflix selections because their algorithms tend to weed out unpopular movies. But of course, as a parent with young kids, I’m always searching… searching… for that next cinematic sugar hit. And you know what? They loved it. This German-Austrian animated tale is about two siblings, the young sister who is taken to the moon by a beetle to fulfil some obscure promise, the other an older brother who follows to rescue her from the clutches of an evil Moon Man. Along the way, they’re aided in their quest by the Sandman and various other fantastical characters.

 

It’s all highly implausible, of course, and the story is paper-thin but provides enough thrills and spills to entertain wee urchins between the ages of three and seven. There’s little that’s especially memorable about this one, unless you count a ride to the moon atop a giant polar bear  – representative I guess of URSA Major. It feels like a plot that’s been quickly cobbled together out of existing mythologies, and there’s a pronounced lack of wit in its writing. But the animation is serviceable and the backgrounds are at times quite delightful, making it one that the wee monsters will enjoy but the grownups will find quite dull.

Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 (Netflix) 8/10

Detailing the disastrous 1999 Woodstock festival sequel where a pumped-up, testosterone-fuelled audience of (mostly) angry young males went wild, this 3-part documentary series (one episode for each day of the festival) is a revealing examination of the decisions that led to the mayhem. There’s candid footage of the event itself, much of it in the audience but showing small segments of performances when they have something to tell about what transpired. There are also interviews with the organisers, the production staff, musicians, security, vendors and members of the audience. It’s easy to see what went wrong. In contrast to the counter-cultural peace and love vibe of the legendary 1969 event, the line-up of Woodstock ’99 was packed with aggressive rock groups like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against The Machine.

 

Predictably, the band line-up attracted an aggressive audience; an audience that was left to bake on the tarmac of an abandoned airforce base and pay extortionate prices for much-needed bottled water and food. Security was almost non-existent, the toilets were totally inadequate, and the water became infected with bacteria from faeces. Plus: drugs and alcohol. No wonder it ended in chaos. The only frustration with Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 is the lack of detail about how much money the festival made, and whether there were any expensive lawsuits or other ramifications afterwards. That, and the fact that neither of the main organisers interviewed seemed willing to concede any fault, least of all the diminished legend that was Michael Lang of the original festival. Sadly, Lang died just three months after his interview segment was filmed without facing up to his gigantic fuck-up.

Westworld (Neon) 7/10

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Westworld, which on the one hand has a team of fairly reliably great actors and some of the best special effects on streaming TV, but which on the other is at times confusing and wildly incoherent. The issue for me is that it seems to have taken its cue from early 2000s shows like Heroes and Lost which basically lured viewers in like bait and teased them mercilessly without ever revealing what was really going on. At the same time, acting performances by the likes of Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Harris were compelling, and the whole thing was gratifyingly edgy.

 

It went all weird with Series 3, however, and suddenly, it wasn’t about robots reliving predetermined storylines in a set scenario anymore but a completely new thing. Personally, I spent most of the third series wondering what the fuck was going on, with its surplus of flashbacks. Heck, its characters were confused and I sure as hell was! Still, the utopian modern world that Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) found herself in made for some great scenes. Series 4 is a good deal easier to follow but by now we’re so far from where we began that it’s all feeling a bit “so what?” There’s some nicely gratuitous gore but personally, I never need to see Aaron Paul’s (Breaking Bad) wildly inexpressive face again. And why do they still use conventional shoot-‘em-up guns all over the show in this very hi-tech future world? But somehow, despite its numerous flaws, I can’t stop watching Westworld. Please, don’t make Series 5.

Watch This is a regular column in which Witchdoctor’s TV-loving scribes assess the worth – or otherwise – of the vast trove available to stream. Unlike other media, our policy is to dig deep and go further than just Netflix or what’s new this week.

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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