The best (and worst) streaming TV shows & films on in NZ right now

January 22, 2024
40 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 and old shows as well as those to avoid.

All The Light We Cannot See (Netflix)

Based on Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel, the four episodes of this wartime drama pack an almost overwhelming emotional punch. Action-packed and full of nail-biting, hide-behind-the-seat sequences, it’s also a heart-achingly deep romance. In her first major role, Aria Mia Loberti is superb as a blind teen sending coded coordinates to the French Resistance in the last days of World War II. As the Nazi effort starts to fail, a lone psychotic German is attempting to track her down in an attempt to find a legendary cursed diamond.

 

Her story – and that of a kind young German soldier (played by Louis Hofmann) who has defected from the Nazis – is told in flashbacks as the tension ratchets up. The period detail is authentic and convincing and the storytelling rich and involving and imbued with a deep philosophical bent. Some viewers might feel manipulated by the emotive and somewhat unlikely, against-all-odds nature of the story and conclusion, but those who gravitate to tales of human valour in the midst of tragedy and pure evil will love it, as I did.  8/10

A Murder At The End Of The World (Disney+)

It’s easy to peg Disney+ as a streaming service for kids-only with its Pixar animated movies and staples like Mickey Mouse, but in fact there’s an array of films and shows for grownups, too. A Murder At The End Of The World is a top example. Created by the same team as that fascinating sci-fi series The OA, this 5-part mini-series is a real step-up from that show in every way. Emma Corrin (Lady Di in The Crown) is compelling as Darby Hart, a young hacker and brilliant amateur detective who – with eight other genius individuals – gets invited to a bizarre, isolated retreat in Iceland by Andy Ronson (Clive Owen), an Elon Musk-like entrepreneur.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnPl4PuNb5U

 

Tapping into a classic Agatha Christie-type template, A Murder At The End Of The World is in every other way precociously original. It seamlessly examines in flashbacks Darby’s upbringing and relationship with Bill (Harris Dickinson), the first murder victim, while in the present she’s coping with the bizarre and dangerous Icelandic predicament. It’s the kind of series you don’t want to know too much about but suffice to say, it’s full of surprises and sharp left-turns and “gee, I didn’t expect that to happen!” moments. The location and camera work is thrillingly super-real and we’re right there with the luminous Darby as she makes split-second decisions that could affect her survival. One of the very best shows of the last year. 9/10

Anatomy Of A Psycho (PrimeVideo) 7/10

Ed Wood reportedly contributed to the screenplay of this 1961 bomb, but Anatomy Of A Psycho (great title but not entirely accurate) for all of its major flaws isn’t all bad. Unlike most Z-grade films of the era, the action isn’t squeezed into tiny rooms, and the court sequences that bookend the action are reasonably competent in execution. Darrell Howe stars as Chet, a down-at-heel young man suffering the indignity of his own father’s execution for murder. This young thug understandably becomes defiant and bitter and murderous himself, believing his father wasn’t guilty of his crimes. The rather unlikely scenario sees Mickey, the son of the district attorney who testified against Chet’s dad (played by Ronnie Burns, the adopted son of comedian George Burns) falling in love with his sister, which complicates things no end.

 

The worst/best thing about Anatomy Of A Psycho is the way one scene will be reasonably convincing, while the next will be outright laughably awful, and this is as true of the acting performances as it is of the dialogue and filming. Michael Granger as a fat, posturing police lieutenant is especially shocking. Some of the camera work has an almost noir-type quality but several scenes are laughably incompetent, leading to the assumption that the film was shot in fits and starts, some of it by professionals, other times by amateurs. My favourite scene is the one of a Hollywood party shot at a swanky address around a swimming pool with a mountainous background featuring awkwardly dancing couples. The fighting sequences are also poorly choreographed, which make for some laugh-out-loud moments. While no B-movie classic, the film – which was originally to be called Young Scarface and shot a whole two years before eventual release – is well worth a watch.

A Swedish Love Story  (Mubi)

How to approach a “first love” story without being unnecessarily voyeuristic? This unusual 1970 film is an often touching, almost fly-on-the-wall account of the fumbling first steps towards a romance between 14-year-old Annika and 15-year-old Pär. But it’s the semi-rural Swedish setting and the cultural quirks that come with both the territory and the time gives A Swedish Love Story wings.

 

A minor film, perhaps, but each scene has something to say about Swedish culture at the time the film was shot in 1969 and the differences between the families of the two lovers, and as the penultimate scene suggests, the film is really just as much about families and the way they adjust to meet the changing modes of new generations as it does the tentative explorations of the young couple. 7/10

A Wounded Fawn (AMC)

I had high hopes for this 2022 horror film, despite a plot – emotionally vulnerable woman heads off with a new boyfriend to his cabin in the woods – that has been recycled with variations over the years. What’s in store? What attracted me was the good reviews and the brazenly fresh opening sequence, along with a bold colour palette seemingly influenced by gore movies of the early ‘70s. For some time, we’re left guessing as to exactly what bizarre tortures lie in wait for the not-so-young damsel. Or perhaps the tables will be turned, and she’ll be the psycho killer.

 

But no, the boyfriend has already murdered someone in the first scene, so we know he’s not a nice guy. Soon, it gets really silly. It turns out that he’s nuts, and sees strange and mystical creatures out there in the dark. Having seemingly dispatched his quarry with a swift piece of knife-work to the throat, it’s his turn to be tormented by the creatures. And then it turns out that the woman isn’t dead after all. As the silliness of the sub-Wicker Man vibe sinks in, what could have been a genuine fright fest ends up being as scary as a Jim Henson puppet show. 5/10

Bodies (Netflix)

Somewhere between a crime drama and a sci-fi series, Bodies refers to a body (singular) that turns up naked, dead and shot through the eye in four completely different time periods: 1890, 1941, 2023 and 2053. Each of the deaths spark a police investigation, and the 8-episode show cleverly moves between the different time-zones without the confusion that can often result from recurrent flashbacks. It’s an engaging premise and each era is skilfully simulated, with very different characters woven around the central mystery.

 

But once time-traveling is introduced to explain a loop in time that sees the same man lying naked in the same tiny cobbled lane in Hull, England, the implausibility of the whole thing becomes rather obvious. Those willing to suspend their disbelief will enjoy a series that is just a bit too ambitious for its own good. Like so many contemporary shows, its origins are in a graphic novel, and in adding layers of complexity to the plot, the writers have somehow created a show that for all of its merits, never quite hits the target. The biggest flaw is the rather off-putting depiction of the year 2054 in which the Shira Haas as DC Iris Maplewood is given a ridiculous page-boy haircut. Despite its obvious flaws, I found Bodies fairly intriguing, although this is one that will divide audiences. 6/10

Cocaine Bear (PrimeVideo)

I was in the mood for something easy to watch, hilarious, gory and stupid, and Cocaine Bear delivered in spades. The film itself is quite cleverly made, but the storyline and many of the characters are purposely idiotic, in the manner of a 1980s horror/slasher film but this time filmed in daylight and featuring a black bear in a cocaine-induced fury. Based on one 1985 event when a load of cocaine was dropped from a plane above a national forest, and a bear that was later found to have eaten a kilogram of it and died, the film’s writers got creative with the truth and devised a story around a murderous, cocaine-mad bear.

 

It helps that most of the characters are scum, because inevitably, they lose body parts in creative but grisly (ha!) fashion, causing some laugh-out-loud carnage. This really is “deserve to die” territory as sub-IQ knife-wielding teens, slack-arse park wardens and drug barons looking for the missing cocaine all inevitably get dealt with by the overstimulated bear. While a few of the performances are sub-par, the film is hugely watchable, and is worth a viewing alone to see Ray Liotta’s final performance and hear the very ‘80s-style synth soundtrack by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. 7/10

Crimes Of The Future (Prime Video) 3/10

I’m a huge admirer of David Cronenberg, and few auteur directors make films as creepy and original. I missed Crimes Of The Future on release in 2022 and was excited about catching it on streaming television, but the reality? It’s a bona fide stinker. Like all Cronenberg movies there are some interesting ideas and the story of bodies and machines that interface to control bodily functions and help with disease has potential. But something must have gone terribly wrong during its production in, of all places, Greece. The locale initially makes for an interesting change from the usual US setting but the film is tortuously slow and the machine/human interfaces look clunky and unrealistic.

 

The worst thing about Crimes Of The Future? His films are often paced oddly but COTF has no pace at all. It’s flat and boring and every time an actor opens his or her mouth it just feels like they’re reading a script. There are some interesting lines but the characters are so thinly drawn that it’s impossible to connect. Viggo Mortensen was terrific in Cronenberg’s 2007 film Eastern Promises, but here he’s playing a chap who grows new organs inside of his body as part of Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, and spends the whole movie groaning and moving and talking really slowly and not really doing much. But who am I to complain? Apparently, the film received a rapturous six-minute standing ovation at Cannes. 4/10

Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan (DocPlay)

To me, autobiographical films are truly successful when they turn out to be  compelling even when they’re about artists you don’t like very much. I’ve never been a fan of Shane MacGowan or the group that made him famous, The Pogues, but Julien Temple’s inventive and sure-footed 2020 film is a lesson in how to convincingly tell the story of a life. Admittedly, MacGowan’s story makes great source material, and I was properly hooked well before the telling of his infamous association with the Sex Pistols and the birth of punk rock in the UK and later, the story of his enormous success with The Pogues and that unlikely Christmas evergreen, ‘Fairytale In New York’.

 

The key to Crock Of Gold is MacGowan’s rural upbringing and the Irish experience, including the singer-songwriter’s implicit support of the IRA and a natural distrust of the English. It’s shocking at times to see the singer bent over and alcohol-fucked (he died in November 2023 but already appears to be on his last legs in the film) and occasional scenes of Johnny Depp drinking with the singer seem gratuitous and condescending. But mostly, the film avoids the cliched popping up of irrelevant talking heads, and instead it does a marvellous job of contextualising his life story: his raw upbringing and childhood introduction to drinking, the dispiriting family move to London in the 1970s, and eventually, the decision based on his lifetime love of Irish traditional music to bring the form into a contemporary rock setting. 9/10

Dear Child (Netflix)

Simply put, Dear Child is the best thing I’ve seen on streaming TV for quite some time. Flawless in its execution, this seven-part German series begins with a bizarre event and the show just keeps piling on the mystery. Somewhere between a thriller and a police procedural, it starts with the discovery of a badly injured woman (presumed to be the victim of a hit-and-run) and a 12-year-old girl (presumed to be her daughter), and from there, it just gets stranger and stranger. Based on a highly regarded book by Romy Hausmann, every scene in Dear Child is vital, well thought out and forensic in its approach. While the show is filmed quite clinically, the content is anything but. It turns out that the woman and the girl had been kept in a decommissioned military complex by a deluded ‘Dad’ who ran the household like a military operation, with meals and even toilet times pre-ordained.

It gets more twisted as it goes, but there’s a couple of key differences between Dear Child and other superficially similar shows: One is that it’s from the perspective of the victims – including a couple whose daughter had gone missing 13 years before – and that of the original investigating cop. Another is the conditioning the woman and the girl had endured, which continues as an inner voice after their incarceration ends. The perpetrator hardly figures. All the performances are superb, especially that of the traumatized “Lena”, the injured woman who it turns out was one of several replacements for the girl’s mother (played by Kim Riedle). Naila Schuberth is sensational as Hannah, who carries with her an alien otherness caused by her years of living her whole life in a room with no natural light. With such a proliferation of shows that are wholly competent but really nothing special, it’s a joy to find something as compelling as Dear Child. 9/10

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (Neon)

With its decent rating on rating aggregator sites and thumbs-up appraisals by reviewers I was expecting a thoroughly enjoyable, engaging fantasy-action romp, but sadly, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves starts out dull and lifeless, and only blurts into life occasionally during its too-long (134 minutes!) running time. Annoyingly, from the start the film jerks back and forth in time and from one scene to another in a disjointed fashion, and little attempt is made to introduce the characters or tell their story in a way that children can easily follow, despite its billing as a family film.

 

I was looking forward to its supposed humour and some wild and ingenious action sequences with cool special effects, but none of it really gelled; the humour falling flat, the action sequences looking too choreographed and the SFX locked in time to about 1999. Chris Pine (Star Trek, Wonder Woman) stars as Edgin, an honest rogue who is bent on reuniting with his daughter after being released from prison. He joins up with a ragtag team of essentially nice miscreants to fight warlord Forge (an especially evil Hugh Grant) and restore the kingdom to its former glory. Or something like that, because I never really cared, and by the halfway mark I was practically comatose. 5/10

Elemental (Disney+)

I don’t know what it is with kids’ movies lately. Was it the Covid pandemic that sent creators of animated films down a spiral of awfulness? It’s almost unthinkable that the once great Pixar studios (not to mention Disney) is behind Elemental, a completely forgettable story matched to animation that simply does not work. It’s true that the animators had their work cut out for them figuring out how to turn the elementals of nature into human-like representations, but perhaps, given the obvious difficulty in doing so, Elemental should never have been greenlighted? Essentially, it’s the story of a young girl (fire) who falls for a young guy (water). In other words, they’re complete opposites and it’s a clash of cultures that has never mixed before for obvious reasons!

 

If that doesn’t sound silly enough, then you might enjoy the resultant story, which is as inherently sappy as a 1950s musical. In other words, our 4-year-old boy thought it dull, while our 8-year-old girl quite enjoyed it at the time, but soon forgot all about it. But even if you enjoy the story, you’ve still got to get past the ineffectual animation. While there are creative and even dazzling aspects to the film’s design, the character animations themselves just never convince, and that kills Elemental stone dead and makes it unengaging and a chore to get through. There’s something both really dull and old-fashioned about the film and also nigglingly politically correct, and it’s no surprise to find that the screenplay is by the same nitwit who wrote the appalling children’s film about menstruation, Turning Red. Give this one a big fat miss. 3/10

Endangered (Neon)

Journalism gets a bad rap and is seen as less and less relevant in the age of social media, but this important documentary points out that without real journalism, there’s no one to call the powerful to account. Social media is horribly contaminated by baseless accusations and false news and now, generations have grown up not knowing how to tell the difference between real, factual reporting and so-called “news” without vested interests. Endangered is an extraordinary 2022 film that profiles four journalists in world hotspots like Brazil, Mexico and the United States, two of whom are photojournalists.

Where journalists have long been protected by law even in war zones, Endangered clearly shows an emboldened far-right attempt to shut them up, get them off the streets and, in the case of Mexico, even execute them. Patricia Campos (Brazil) and Sashenka Guitierrez (Mexico) are stoically brave and constantly putting themselves in danger by simply covering events. It’s thrilling when Campos – who has been horribly slandered by then-president Bolsonaro – wins a case against him, but scary when Guitierrez gets manhandled by police while covering a protest at the frightening number of women killed in Mexico every year. Just as frightening, however, is the rapid de-evolution of American society towards support for Trump, and the way his supporters are egged on to attack the journalists. Watch it. 9/10

Girl In Room 2A (AMC)

This 1974 Italian horror is very much bottom of the barrel stuff, and all the more entertaining for it, at least in fits and spurts between the boring bits. Shot on lurid colour stock, the semi-rural Italian scenario makes for some atmospheric scenes but the story itself is sometimes incomprehensible. Naturally, it stars a young woman who bares her breasts as often as possible. Margaret rents a room while on parole for a crime she says she didn’t commit, and is soon stalked by members of a sadistic cult.

 

It’s better not to worry about how little of the film makes sense and just enjoy the sense of otherness and often, the sheer incompetence of the acting and appalling lack of continuity. As so often with giallo films, some scenes are visually arresting, which makes the inevitable fuck-ups event more gobsmacking. Definitely worth a look for any fans of exploitation films and b-movies in general. Everyone else better avoid. 6/10

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Netflix)

Emma Corrin’s extraordinary performance in the 2023 series Murder At The End Of The World convinced me to backtrack to this 2022 film adaptation of the DH Lawrence classic that scandalized Edwardian England, although I couldn’t justify enduring The Crown for her depiction of Princess Diana. Although well-reviewed on its release, after so many iterations over the years the story is feeling more than a little dog-eared and difficult to breathe new life into. I guess Downton Abbey dramatized the era of appalling aristocratic privilege and the changes wrought during the first few decades of the 20th century with such aplomb that even this rather explicit rendition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover fails to completely engage.

 

When Baronet Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) returns from the First World War sans his sexual drive or reproductive ability, his wife Constance (Emma Corrin), understandably horny, seeks the services of the local stud, conveniently on-site gamekeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell), who quickly knocks her up. Unsurprisingly, this creates a huge scandal. The best thing about this version is that it captures Lady Chatterley’s frustrations and then unfettered romantic joy as she busts through the conventions of the time to discover her sexuality. There’s a scene where Constance and Oliver cavort, dance and love unashamedly in the rain, a brief respite from the “moral” privations of the time. 6/10

Love To Love You: Donna Summer (Neon)

I’d love to report that this documentary was the definitive, insightful word on Donna Summer, the disco queen who – with the help of Giorgio Moroder’s buzzing and grooving electronics – revolutionised the music world in the mid-to-late 1970s. Sadly, Love To Love You is hampered, like so many recent filmic bios, by being a touch too close to her family and losing objectivity in the process. One of the issues is that too much of its 1 hour and 42 minutes running time relies on fairly crummy family footage. Properly utilised, this would have given viewers a different slant on Summer and I admire the intent. But there’s just something a bit off about the production, which bizarrely places audio interviews in either the left or right channel, possibly to mitigate the impact of poor Zoom interview recordings.

 

On the other hand, it’s refreshing that the usual, predictable talking heads are absent, and it makes a good case for Summer’s artistry as having been vastly underappreciated over the years. It was convenient in her heyday to place her in a category of disposable divas, but by the early ‘80s she was taking the reins and producing mini-masterpieces like the brilliant (if rather cheesy) double concept album Once Upon A Time. Being a dark-skinned beauty in a man’s world must have had its challenges, and Love To Love You mentions this without really casting light on what had to have been a huge impediment. Towards the end, it mentions the dark turn her career took after she became a born-again Christian and made an off-hand remark that turned her key gay audience against her, followed quickly (in the film at least) by her lung cancer diagnosis. Covering all bases without providing more than a smidgen of insight, the film is more of a teaser for an artist whose quite astonishing story really needs a book-length treatment. 6/10

Memory (Prime Video)

I just had to watch this thriller, partly because it was completely trashed by critics and the public alike on its big screen release in 2022 (29% on Rotten Tomatoes!) which usually guarantees a laugh or two, and partly because it was directed by 80-year-old Martin Campbell from Hastings, New Zealand. In fact, Hastings has directed some sterling stuff over the years, including brilliant 1980s TV series Edge Of Darkness, and the Bond films Casino Royale and GoldenEye. I wasn’t expecting much from Memory, but thought it was pretty good, and thoroughly enjoyed its conventional but inventive twists and turns.

 

Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Marlowe) is great playing the rather bizarre role of a hitman with dementia who is enraged at being hired to kill an innocent 13-year-old Mexican girl, and goes on a rampage of revenge. Even better is Guy Pearce (LA Confidential, Memento) as the haunted FBI detective who forges an uneasy relationship with the hitman in the quest to track down a conspiracy of migrant exploitation which, as always, comes right from the top. Memory is a classic thriller with some explosive action sequences and creative deaths. It follows a well-trodden formula but its subject matter and Campbell’s mastery of the medium kept this viewer intrigued throughout. The only slight fly in the ointment is that a few of the (minor) performances are less than convincing. Regardless, Memory delivers in spades and it even has a heart. 7/10

Old Dads (Netflix)

I thought I was going to love Old Dads based on the fact that I am one and the one very funny (if excruciating) scene I’d watched prior to taking in the whole movie. Certainly, it’s a subject ripe for exploration as the divide between generations suddenly seems as impassably wide and entrenched as it was in the 1960s when the infamous “generation gap” was first named. Exploring the idiosyncrasies, anomalies, difficulties and potential for humour of older Dads and their younger wives and a rapidly changing society with completely new behavioural expectations seems like a great idea. Unfortunately, this 2023 film directed by lead actor (and stand-up comic) Bill Burr is hugely uneven, and for every snicker or belly laugh there are about a dozen mile-wide misses.

 

In essence, the film is about Jack Kelly (Burr) and two of his old buddies who have just sold their business with the intention of staying on as employees, but are summarily given the old heave-ho by a young management twerp for some ridiculously small indiscretion. They spend the rest of the film in a kind of freefall, unemployed and going on drinking binges and upsetting their wives and girlfriends. The problem? Many of the “jokes” are desperately unfunny, and while some of the generational depictions have legs, others are just idiotic in a way that only American comedy films are capable of being. Most of the time, I was just embarrassed to be an old Dad. 5/10

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band (Brollie)

I’ve tried, I really have. I even bought a box set of The Band at one point with which to enable a deep dive into the group’s music. It’s not for the want of trying that I still don’t much like their music. I understand that it’s kind of the bedrock of the whole back to roots movement, but it’s just not me. Despite this, I found Once Were Brothers (2019) an engrossing film, mostly because it’s such a long story going back to the early days of rock and roll but also because the film’s story cuts across the landscape of 1960s and 1970s rock and many of its more interesting acts.

 

 

The film’s biggest failing, according to some, is its reliance on the testimony of Robbie Robertson, but with several of the group’s members long gone it’s perhaps impossible to tell the story in a different way. One glaring flaw was setting Robertson up in a room and interviewing him there, so that every time he appears (and it’s a lot) he’s in the same location, looking exactly the same. It would have been visually more arresting had they interviewed Robertson in several other locations as well. But hey, the band’s story is the stuff of legend, and it makes for a compelling if slightly overlong film. 7/10

One Piece (Netflix)

Somehow, until now I’ve missed out on the popular Japanese manga (comic), then long-running TV series (and numerous films), possibly because anime really just isn’t my thing. But this new Netflix live action adaptation starts the story afresh and provides an in for those of us who like a bit of realism with our outrageous fantastical scenarios. One Piece tells the rather tall story of a crew of incredibly nice pirates led by “Straw Hat” Monkey D. Luffy (played by the boyish Mexican actor Inaki Godoy) who set out to find a possibly mythical treasure in uncharted waters, with the marines in hot pursuit and a motley bunch of bizarre creatures providing danger and excuses for elaborate action sequences along the way. It’s a strange, mixed-up kind of world featuring evil fish/human hybrids, a clown of many parts and a miscellany of characters with unique special powers. Straw Hat, for instance, has almost infinitely stretchable arms.

 

It’s not perfect and I sometimes felt that it wasn’t quite a fit for either adults or children: it’s too violent and scary for young kids but overall, the story will be more appealing to the wee monsters than it is to grownups. Still, the 10-plus brigade will probably adore its parade of weird creatures and the cool pirate team, and the overall scenario – which clearly exists in a dimension that never existed in the history of the planet – will doubtless prove addictive to those oldies who took too much “acid” back in their youth. Its eight one-hour episodes explain the origins of its main characters, while battling evil bastards like Baggy The Clown (Jeff Ward) and scary fish-man Arlong (McKinley Belcher III). A second season has been confirmed. 7/10

Orgy Of The Dead (Mubi)

 Apparently this Z-grade 1965 film belongs to the “nudie-cuties” genre, which I admit I had never heard of. Attracted to this unknown-by-me movie because it was written by Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space), I was surprised to find that it was filmed in lurid “Astravision” (colour), all the better to see a never-ending series of the most ridiculous and boring strip routines ever committed to celluloid. Those seeking inconceivably bad story, acting and direction need look no further, as the “actors” are clearly reading directly from a really, really bad script, and there are so many poorly faked scenes that you can’t help wondering how it all could have been so unintentionally appalling in nearly every respect.

 

The “action” (such as it is) starts with a young couple having an accident while heading at night towards an obscure cemetery the bloke wants to use as inspiration for a novel (the driving scene is hilariously fake, you never see the actual accident, just the two tumbling along the ground). They soon witness the Emperor and his Princess, back from the dead for a night of themed striptease, building interminably up to their own supposed termination. It’s all way beyond silly, and each of the strip dances goes on for the entire duration of a song, making them way too long to hold the attention. One of the poor lasses was made to shake ‘em up so much that it must have been very uncomfortable for her. It sure was uncomfortable watching them! I only hope she got paid well. Orgy Of The Dead is recommended for incredibly bad film (and bad strip) aficionados only. 5/10

Phoenix: Eden 17 (Disney+)

The world of Japanese anime feels like a genre that’s just too-hard-basket a lot of the time, but if there’s a TV show to turn that perception on its head, then Phoenix: Eden 17 could be a contender. From the legendary writer of Astroboy and Kimba The White Lion comes this entry into the long-running Phoenix story, but don’t feel like you can’t get the gist of this brief four-part series, as the phoenix is simply a kind of motif, not a central part of the story. Phoenix: Eden 17 tells the story of Romi and her partner as they leave a devastated earth for a new life on a distant planet named Eden 17. Romi’s partner is killed in an earthquake but she gives birth to a son.

 

There’s a refreshing economy of storytelling and things move at a brisk pace. In fact, so much happens that it’s all a bit overwhelming. When Romi’s planned 15 years of suspended animation turns into 1500 years because of a technical error, she wakes up with a long-dead son and a completely new civilization that has grown around her. Yep, her son has mated with friendly aliens and produced a new hybrid human species. But that’s not all! The elderly Romi decides to accept an alien’s invitation to return to earth once more via teleportation inside an asteroid, and the story turns quite dark. As always with Osamu Tezuka’s work, there’s a deep philosophical bent to the story and the events that transpire are both desperate and heartwarming. Not your standard anime yarn, Phoenix: Eden 17 comes highly recommended. 8/10

Rebel Dread (Brollie)

There’s something a little annoying about this 2022 documentary portrait of sometime DJ, musician and filmmaker Don Letts, and it’s Letts himself. The problem with Rebel Dread is that it comes across as a pure promotional vehicle for Letts, always puts him centre stage, and lets (ha!) him do most of the explaining and big-upping. For those who can get past the lack of a cool, dispassionate analysis of Letts’ life and work, the film is a bio of a fellow who simply had a talent for being in the right time and right place, and was willing to try his hand at everything going, and it’s this that makes for a fascinating story.

 

Letts is a walking, sermonizing exponent of punk rock values and was there when the London scene exploded in 1976, hanging with the future gurus of the movement and eventually, years later, after making videos for The Clash, ended up with his own band, Big Audio Dynamite, with former Clash man Mick Jones. There are many versions of Don Letts and each one of them has more than one opinion about what was going on and the state of the world at the time. This makes for a fairly enjoyable romp through UK music culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s but is far from a must-see.  6/10

Run, Sweetheart Run (Prime Video)

This 2020 supernatural horror might be just a bit too close to home for some, as it’s about every young woman’s worst nightmare ratcheted up to maximum, but for those who can handle it Run, Sweetheart Run is a superbly high-tension, all-action ride. Ella Balinska (Charlie’s Angels) is excellent in an extremely demanding role as Cherie, a young law firm secretary who is assigned a dinner date with an important client at his posh LA mansion. Pilou Asbaek (Game Of Thrones) is superbly creepy as the suave client, and even better when the date goes horribly wrong.

 

After a brief imprisonment, Cherie escapes and spends the entirety of the movie in flight from her would-be captor/killer, who is clearly a vampire-like supernatural being with a lust for female blood. Cherie escapes from one incredible scenario to another, often by the skin of her teeth while those helping her die miserable deaths. Honestly, I was practically hiding behind my La-Z-Boy at times! While Run, Sweetheart Run won’t exercise your intellect, it really captures Cherie’s sense of vulnerability while (I should add) never falling for that old Hollywood trick of making her seem weak or stupid. I loved it, but my heart is still fluttering with fear. 8/10

Sex Education (Netflix)

I really loved the first series of Sex Education, a UK-set coming-of-age dramedy that was unpredictable, risqué and heart-warming by turns. Oh, and very funny. But good things often don’t last, and each successive series has diminished its allure. I thought that Series 3 would be the show’s nadir, with its unlikely school rebellion that saw the script lose all of its edginess and sink into sheer ridiculousness. Knowing that Series 4 would be the last, I figured that perhaps the show might be capable of one last hurrah, and somewhat of a return to form. How wrong can a boy be?

 

We’re asked to believe that its cast of 20-somethings are still only 17 and at high school, for a start. This time, they’ve all graduated to some kind of possibly mythical feelgood school that’s populated by a ragtag team of LGBTQ+ pupils, apart from the strikingly heterosexual Otis (Asa Butterfield) and his girlfriend Maeve (Emma Mackey). At first, Sex Education’s inclusive casting of characters with a variety of sexual preferences and dilemmas felt fresh, but in Series 4 it just feels preachy. Perhaps the producers wanted to make hetero viewers get a taste of the sense of dislocation members of the LGBTQ+ community get with the predominance of “normal” sexuality displayed on mainstream television, but that along with very few genuinely funny moments makes its last episodes drag (ha-ha). The one really gratifying storyline belongs to Adam (the former headmaster’s son), a sad-sack whose life is transformed when he lucks on a job with horses. Connor Swindells is utterly brilliant in this role, which not surprisingly, takes place away from the silly stuff going on at school. 4/10

Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya (AMC)

This 2010 documentary about Baba Dez (ha!) will provide plenty of laughs for those who scorn hippy lifestyles and the miscellaneous variations in Californian-style post-hippy behaviour. At times just a little bit too fly-on-the-wall when it could have done with a longer lens (ha!) with which to get a more measured (ha!) view of the self-styled sex guru and his cult, Sex Magic is still a fascinating look at those who choose to live their sex lives differently.

 

In the years since the film came out polyamourism has become somewhat normalised by a new generation, but the film also shows the potential pitfalls as Baba’s unwillingness to devote himself to his better half destroys the best relationship he’s ever had. Despite the name, Sex Magic has nothing to do with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (thank Jehovah!) but it is a valid look at the constrictions we place on our sexuality for no reason other than most of society does the same thing. There’s some validity in Baba’s contention that our sexuality is something we owe it to ourselves to fully explore and integrate into our lives, but he’s also the living embodiment of how emotionally risky doing it differently can be. 7/10

Shelter (PrimeVideo)

Harlan Coben reputedly has no fewer than five of his books being developed for television shows or movies at the moment, and Shelter, published in 2011 as a novel for young adults, has turned up as an eight-part series that’s really targeted just as much at adult viewers. Jaden Michael (Colin In Black & White) stars as Mickey Bolitar, a teenager whose father has died in a horrific car accident, and whose mother is confined to a psychiatric institution. Sent to live with his aunt Shira (played by Constance Zimmer of House Of Cards) he quickly becomes embroiled in a deep, mysterious and murderous mystery that somehow links a creepy old house and the old woman that lives there with an abducted schoolgirl and a nasty chap with an octopus tattoo on his face.

 

If there’s a flaw in this otherwise compelling eight-part series (which apparently is destined to become a trilogy) it’s that there are a few barely related romantic subplots, but overall there’s a lot to like about Shelter, which will appeal to anyone who likes a densely-layered mystery that keeps you guessing to the very end. Michael is a likeable hero who is easy to relate to and the group of sometimes adversarial teenagers who come together to figure things out are all excellent, especially the spooky-eyed Abby Corrigan (Castle Rock) as goth girl Ema Winslow. 7/10

Slow Horses (Apple+)

Now into its third series, this brilliantly clever, funny and action-packed UK spy thriller is delightfully different, mainly because of the unpredictability of the plots, the cleverness of the writing, and the frankly fabulous casting. The legendary Gary Oldman (the Harry Potter films, The Dark Knight) plays Jackson Lamb, the boss at M15 “rejects” branch, Slough House. A farting misanthrope whose job seems to be to make his staff miserable, it turns out that he’s a kind of flawed genius.

 

Despite their perilous position in the pecking order, Lamb and his sad-sack employees end up doing the M15’s work for them and saving the day over and over again. There’s barely a weak moment in this rewarding, character-driven show across its three seasons (with a fourth on the way), and its plucky, intense energy keeps you glued to the dialogue, which – rare for a spy show – is just as important as the action. If you don’t have an Apple+ subscription, my advice is to sign up for a 7-day free deal and binge on this great series. 8/10

Squaring The Circle: The Story Of Hipgnosis (DocPlay)

I’ve docked Anton Corbijn’s otherwise hugely informative and entertaining 2022 film by a star for a couple of unforgivable indiscretions. The first is the rather ham-fisted and pretentious way he gets surviving Hipgnosis designer Aubrey Powell to traipse along (in trendy black and white, of course) at the beginning and end of the documentary, the second being the ridiculous inclusion of an interview with Oasis miscreant Noel Gallagher, who not only had nothing to do with the 1970s record sleeve design company, but has precisely nothing of interest to say about it. I also got a bit tired of seeing Powell excerpted repeated from the same interview in the same scenario, but that’s somewhat inevitable, because his partner Storm Thorgerson is no longer around, and the lion’s share of the story is told by Powell.

 

It’s an incredible story, though, about a couple of jack-the-lads who just happened on a good thing in the early ‘70s when underground rock was exploding into a massive generational phenomenon. Their outrageous cover designs dominated the pre-punk ‘70s and can be found on the album packages of many of the biggest groups of the era, including Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, for whom they were practically house designers. The documentary benefits by having scored interviews with the likes of Jimmy Page, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and Graham Goldman of 10cc, and it’s a tale that could only have occurred in an era of never-before-seen rock’n’roll excess.   7/10

The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie (Brollie)

Oh. My. God. Watching the 1972 film The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie is like a baptism of fire into the peculiarities of Ocker culture. It was something of a shock to the system. I’ve always pictured Australians as half-brothers to us Kiwis, but going by the amount of OTT beer-swilling and proud chundering and other even less decorous behaviour depicted here, the connection is much more tenuous than I had imagined. An education and a shock to the system more than something you’d enjoy, the film was a runaway success at the time and an introduction for many people to Dame Edna Everage – a character created by Barry Humphries, who wrote the film.

 

The story, such as it is, finds Aussie yobbo Barry MacKenzie flying off to the UK with “Aunty” Everage, and much of the humour that results is because of the inevitable culture clash between Barry and the stuck-up Poms. There are, to be fair, some very funny moments and some scenes that are so yuck that they enter the realm of the absurd (the beer drinking contest where they’re literally urinating as fast as they can drink, for instance), and it’s as much of an insight into the peculiarities of English society circa 1971 than anything. Hard to recommend, but definitely one of a kind!  6/10

The Changeling (Apple TV+)

Described as a horror fantasy series, The Changeling is a pretentious mess and one of the few occasions that I’ve ever felt like throwing something at my TV screen. It should be subtitled: “How to waste eight hours of your life watching a show that looks like it was literally scripted on the hoof and will bore you shitless.” Critically revered, the show has divided the punters. Perhaps if I’d noted that it was created by the writer of 50 Shades Of Grey and directed by someone whose background was music videos, I’d have found something better to watch. So, what’s it about? “A man goes in search of his wife after she does something horrific in the aftermath of the birth of their first child”, goes the blurb. The something horrific is worth noting because its eight torturous episodes are full of somethings. It doesn’t help that The Changeling forces us to get acquainted with a bunch of different situations and characters via that most annoying of techniques: the flashback.

The Changeling feels exactly like one of those laborious and excruciatingly tedious art house movies that refuses to offer a story of any consequence (or at least, to spell it out in a way that makes sense) or provide any explanation via dialogue. Except that instead of 90 minutes it’s eight hours. By the seventh episode I felt like I understood it less than I did by the end of the first, and didn’t give a flying fuck whether I saw the last one. Yes, the acting is pretty good and the camera-work, editing and set design are gorgeous. But if the story isn’t conveyed well and the characters don’t gel enough for the viewer to even care about them, then what’s the point? 1/10

The Lovers (Neon)

Sometimes the least obvious shows make for the most enjoyable viewing experiences. Such is the case with The Lovers. Set in Dublin, Ireland, it’s a comedy/drama that explores an unlikely love match between a celebrity TV interviewer and a humble supermarket worker. Johnny Flynn (who played David Bowie in Stardust) is Seamus, who is attacked by and flees a bunch of unruly teens while filming a promo for his new interview series, and ends up taking shelter in the backyard of Janet (played by Roisin Gallagher) just as she puts a gun to her head. They rescue each other, and while hiding out in her grim flat, despite completely different lives and personalities, they quickly become intrigued with each other.

 

The show’s six 30-minute episodes explore the highs and lows of their affair, relying almost totally on the nuanced performances (Gallagher, especially, is sensational) and an utterly hilarious script that slowly peels back the layers of both personalities. The streets, pubs and hotels of Dublin make for an especially rich backdrop to a romance that is anything but cliched, and although there are vague echoes of a scenario like that of Pretty Woman (rich and famous man gets together with wounded fledgling) it’s much more real and gritty than that, and Janet’s potty-mouthed, unrelentingly honest character is a joy to behold as she exposes the pretensions of her lover. 8/10

The Super Mario Bros. Movie (Neon & PrimeVideo)

I swore off games after getting repetitive strain injury at video arcades in the late ‘70s, but it was impossible not to have the Super Mario Bros. on your radar in the mid-to-late ‘80s. It was hard to see the appeal of these tiny, bulbous Italian chaps back then, and when this brand-new film hit the streaming services I had no inclination to check it out. Silly me! Against all odds, I loved The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and (predictably) so did both the 5-year-old and the 9-year-old. What’s so great about it? It simply does everything right, which isn’t a simple thing. First, we get a heart-warming origin story of the two brothers, but then they’re sucked into the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom, where Mario has to put on his hero hat to save Princess Peach from a forced marriage with King Bowser (voiced by Jack Black) from the Dark Lands, where Luigi is imprisoned.

 

All pretty standard stuff for CGI cartoons, you might say. And you’d be right, on paper. But it’s all done with such panache: the animation is splendid, the lines are often sly and sometimes crack-up (and like the best kids’ movies, some of them go over the heads of the intended audience to connect with their parents), the ongoing references to the original game are nicely rendered, and unlike so many bloated films of late, The Super Mario Bros. Movie runs for an economical 92 minutes. And any film with Seth Rogan voicing Donkey Kong has to have something going for it. Tip: don’t listen to the bad reviews and measure this film by its popularity with audiences. It rocks. 7/10

The Violent Years (PrimeVideo)

Of all the major streaming contenders, PrimeVideo has easily the best (the only?) selection of b-movies or exploitation shockers. This 1956 film boasts a terrible screenplay (and some of the most stilted dialogue you’ll ever witness) by the infamous Ed Wood, whose real claim to infamy was the subsequent Glen Or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space. The Violent Years isn’t in the same rarefied league as those extraordinary fuckups, but fans of bad movies will still find plenty to make them salivate here. Presumably inspired by successful teen rebellion films like Blackboard Jungle, it’s about a spoilt but neglected high school student (Playboy pin-up Jean Moorhead as gang leader Paula Parkins) who robs and kills for thrills.

 

Moorhead actually plays her character well and has real charisma, but like the other “teens”, she looks at least 25. The other actors move stiffly and read their reliably awful lines so slowly that you wonder if the crew were on Valium. There’s a lot to enjoy, including the spectacularly clunky editing, the looped scenes of 1950s American shagging wagons, the tiny airless box masquerading as a courtroom, and a moralising tone that makes the suggestion that the gang are really working for… wait for it… those dirty, evil foreign communists! Apparently the great industrial rock band Ministry used multiple lines from the film in their song ‘So What?’ – a question that’s used frequently by bad, bad Paula in the movie before she’s convicted of murder, and uh… (spoiler alert) dies in childbirth. 7/10

The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar (Netflix)

If you’re in the mood for a witty and somewhat eccentric, yet easy to watch half hour’s entertainment, then check this out. This second Wes Anderson adaptation of a Roald Dahl short story (the other being Fantastic Mr Fox) is a fabulously creative yet succinct story about a rich but empty chap who becomes obsessed with the story of a guru who could see without using his eyes.

 

It helps that the film features top talent like Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes and Benedict Cumberbatch, but more important than that is the cleverness of the writing and the brilliance of the very stylised set design, which unfolds like the layers of a Victorian theatre production. Apparently there are three more short Roald Dahl films to follow, which should add up to a perfect quartet if The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar is anything to go by. 8/10

Violent Night (Neon/Prime Video)

Some viewers might feel that blood and guts has no place in a Christmas context with its good cheer and goodwill to all, but Violent Night (2022) is a cracking load of fun for the grownups to watch after the wee monsters have gone to bed. David Harbour (Jim Hopper in Stranger Things) plays a rather disillusioned Santa who gets caught up in a violent heist on Christmas night and calls on his ancient Nordic fighting skills to save a family from the nasty criminals.

 

There are so many really terrible Christmas movies (almost as many as terrible Christmas songs) so I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while Violent Night doesn’t exactly exercise the old grey matter, it does provide an hour and a half of enjoyable entertainment. If, like me, you love a good revenge film, then you’ll laugh yourself silly (or at least titter away) while Santa dishes out his violent “gifts” to the very, very bad villains in most creative ways. It’s a bit gory but also a load of fun, and ultimately, quite sweet. 7/10

When Evil Lurks (AMC)

If you’ve a hankering for horror but find the current offerings cliched-ridden and demographically driven, then try this. When Evil Lurks is an Argentinian film with a gritty, genuinely spooky aroma that’s miles away from teen scream cliches, and although it’s essentially a film about possession, its folklore-derived version of the phenomenon is radically different from the typical Catholic guilt housebound exorcism genre. The film’s murky rural setting and no-name actors give it an almost documentary allure, which makes the film’s gory set pieces all that much more shocking. It also helps that unlike American horrors, those scenes don’t come at you with predictable timing.

 

The story? A “rotten” (a bloated, rotting, possessed person) is discovered. Soon, locals are attacking themselves with axes, friendly family mutts are going wild and murdering children, etc. There’s more creative carnage to follow, all of which peaks with the discovery of a primary school in the dead of night full of possessed children. It takes a lot to shock this horror fan but there are several scenes in When Evil Lurks that had me looking for a mummy to hide behind, not to mention several others featuring such great deaths that I couldn’t help laughing out loud (while being simultaneously appalled). I’m not sure whether this deserves a place in the pantheon of horror greats, but it’s certainly one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. 8/10

Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) (Tubi)

Whether you know Harry Nilsson’s music or not, please watch this biographical documentary. It’s one of the best of its type I’ve ever seen. Who Is Harry Nilsson apparently took many years to make and was eventually released in 2006 to much acclaim. Its producers eschewed the typical (and rather easier) method of interviewing current stars about Nilsson and instead hunted down as many of the singer-songwriter’s former colleagues, buddies and family as possible. It’s an amazing story of a songwriting genius with a supernaturally great voice who, at the height of success and with the world his oyster, gave in to alcoholism and determinedly headed for an early demise.

 

One of John Lennon’s drinking/drugging buddies, Nilsson hung out with a who’s who of ‘70s pop and rock and was held in huge regard by the members of The Beatles. Unfortunately, an unsettled upbringing failed to invest in him the usual self-protection modalities, and as soon as success beckoned, Nilsson developed a death-wish that saw him nearly drink himself to death before finally getting a second wind, marrying and having kids. Sadly, he died of heart failure at the age of 52, having long before given up his musical aspirations. While it’s a tragic story, it’s also an amazing story of someone who was so effortlessly talented that he could appear out of nowhere to attain considerable stardom/notoriety. Ironically, despite his own songwriting prowess, his biggest hits were with someone else’s songs: Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ and Pete Ham’s ‘Without You’.  9/10

Why (YouTube)

There’s precious little moving footage of genius singer/songwriter Tim Buckley, whose career began in 1966 and ended with his death in 1975. As an ardent Buckley fan, it was amazing to find a very clean copy of this very obscure 1973 film starring Buckley alongside OJ Simpson and a bunch of unknowns loaded to YouTube. The film itself feels more like a teleplay than a motion picture, as it’s largely comprised of some kind of psychologist/guru instigating conversations with a bunch of individuals in a 1960s-styled lounge. They all get to talk out their problems at length, often encountering resistance or argumentative rejoinders from other disparate attendees.

 

Strangely, this talk fest is less boring than it sounds, as it captures something of the flavour of the era. Jeannie Berlin plays a pregnant junkie and the group’s attitude to her situation is very much redolent of the era. But it’s a fair observation that Why will only really be of interest to those with an interest in Tim Buckley (apparently a drummer in a band that’s just imploded) or convicted murderer OJ Simpson (an athlete). Buckley’s whole bearing is odd, with his slumped shoulders and a head that refuses to sit upright, and I guess we’ll never know whether this was an act or typical of his posture. What a pity they cast him as a drummer and not a singer, and that they didn’t take the opportunity to let him burst into song.  7/10

+ The Best (& Worst) Streaming TV is a regular column in which Gary Steel assesses the worth – or otherwise – of the vast treasure 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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