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

April 23, 2024
11 mins read
Start

A regular column in which GARY STEEL sifts through the mountain of available streaming TV and brings your attention to 10 great new and old shows as well as those to avoid.

3 Body Problem (Netflix) 8/10

It’s hard to believe, but some avid TV viewers don’t like science fiction, at all. Like horror, sci-fi is certainly a genre full of crap, and the bad and especially the indifferent ones can blind you to those few that eclipse and defeat all the cliches. The good news is that right now there are a bunch of transformational sci-fi shows on the streaming services that are essential viewing and great drama with original and thought-provoking ideas. 3 Body Problem is quite extraordinary in its scope and ambition. The basic premise is that during the Cultural Revolution (during which she sees her academic father beaten to death) a young woman is transferred to a remote work camp with a large radio telescope where she finds a way to communicate with aliens.

Fast forward to present-day UK and physicist Jin Cheng (Kiwi actress Jess Hong) is mysteriously given a space-age VR headset that transports her into a world in which she appears to have direct contact with the aliens. The plot is complex and involves a sect who have dedicated themselves to preparing the world for the aliens to arrive on Earth. Inevitably, things go terribly wrong, and both believers and scientists start dropping like flies. Not nearly as silly as it sounds in these brief notes, 3 Body Problem is both a kind of thriller and an exploration of the age-old existential issues of mankind. With an excellent cast including John Bradley (Game Of Thrones) and Rosalind Chao (Star Trek: The Next Generation), the only annoying thing about the first eight episodes is having to wait to find out what happens in the second series.

Joan Baez: I Am A Noise (DocPlay) 7/10

Get this: I’d rather listen to an industrial-grade cheese grater than the voice of Joan Baez, which achieves a pitch, a sound, and a vibrato that I find extremely unpleasant. So, why would I watch this new (2023) documentary on a singer whose main claim for fame, to many, is that she once went out with Bob Dylan? Well, hers is an extraordinary story, with or without Bobby D, and intersects some of the key events of the 1960s in America. But I Am A Noise is just as fascinating for the places you’re least likely to expect it to go, which means that it’s uncompromising in looking at the mental illness that has plagued Baez throughout her adult life.

The film follows the singer during her retirement tour in 2018, during which we get to see mercifully brief performance excerpts and Baez in the tour bus, Baez backstage, Baez in a succession of hotel rooms. These scenes are rescued by candid revelations about her life, and interspersed with generous documentary footage, starting with the story of her early years as one of three daughters of quaker parents who instil in her a social conscience that she never quite expels. There’s her rise to folk fame at the dawn of the ‘60s and buddying up with a nascent Zimmerman and the startling involvement in the civil rights campaigns of the mid-‘60s, but underneath it all she’s carrying a dark secret that she eventually spills out in voluminous psychiatric sessions. Well worth your time.

Fallout (Prime Video) 8/10

The second great sci-fi series this month is Fallout, an adaptation of a game I’ve never heard of (not surprising, as I’m wilfully ignorant of the gaming world). Despite its origins, it’s one of the most consistently engaging and properly audacious shows I’ve seen in an age. Set in Los Angeles a few hundred years after the bomb went off and wiped out most of humanity, we follow Lucy MacLean (Ella Purnell of Star Trek: Prodigy), a naïve, doe-eyed young woman whose whole life has been spent in a vault deep in the ground with a small community who believe they will eventually emerge to restart civilization. When raiders turn up and kidnap her father, Lucy sneaks out into the devastated desert to rescue him.

What she finds up there is utter madness, and she soon discovers that she’s been fed a lot of lies. People still exist on the surface, but it’s a dog-eat-dog scenario with strange creatures and mutant humans that she has to learn to navigate around. Walton Goggins (The Righteous Gemstones) is extremely effective as The Ghoul, a former Hollywood star who is now an especially nasty mutant without a nose, while Kyle McLaughlin (Twin Peaks) appears as her Dad, Hank MacLean. Occasionally reminiscent of post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max, the initial eight episodes of Fallout are much more dramatically and intellectually nuanced and packed with sometimes bizarre set design detail (not to mention panache). Oh, and there’s also a sly sense of humour at work. Just terrific.

Madeline’s Madeline (Mubi) 7/10

It’s not until you watch a film like this that you realise just how rote the majority of films are; even the good ones. Madeline’s Madeline (2018) is notable for its innovative visual style, editing that seems to pulse with the action, and the odd way in which it tells its story (such as it is). It’s a snapshot in time for 16-year-old actor Madeline (Helena Howard in her first major role) who battles mental illness while performing in an experimental acting ensemble. Molly Parker (House Of Cards, Lost In Space) stars as Evangeline, the troupe’s leader, who coaxes Madeline into releasing some of her real-life demons through her performances.

It’s not exactly clear what the point of all this is, but seems to be an examination of the fine line between revelation and exploitation in unleashing the tortured private lives of individuals as theatrical entertainment. In typically ambiguous art cinema parlance, Mubi describes Madeline’s Madeline as “a sensorial and immersive trip into a teen’s psyche” that “boldly dissects mental health, racial tensions, and the vampiric relationship between identity and performance”, concluding that it makes for “relentless, electrifying cinema.” I dunno, it reminded me of having to endure amateur creative dance and theatre productions, while its improvisational style worked against this viewer’s ability to invest in it totally. Still, both Howard’s beauty and acting ability is captivating, and the improvisational,  visual audacity of the project made it a decent watch.

Oppenheimer (Netflix) 7/10

From its very first shots, Oppenheimer looks like an Academy Award winner, and its immense running time (180 minutes!) announces its self-importance to the world. In fact, its all-star cast seems to guarantee accolades from the start. But is it really any good? J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story is certainly an important one and until now, this history-changing character from the annals of 20th-century America was little-known to many who grew up in a world seemingly far removed from the reverberations of World War II. The film tells Oppenheimer’s story with a great deal of confidence, though to this viewer the way it’s told – with several flashforwards to enquiries into the scientist’s character, loyalty to America and Communist affiliations – somewhat defused the narrative and created some confusion as to what the hell was (or had) happened. In short, by telling its story in three time zones it lost the ability of a linear exposition to explain context. But that’s just me. The critics obviously loved Oppenheimer, and its seven Academy Awards and 90-something rating on aggregator sites suggest that the world loves it too.

Certainly, there are some sterling performances from its A-grade cast, including Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight, Peaky Blinders) as the very intense scientist, Emily Blunt (Looper, Mary Poppins Returns) as Oppenheimer’s beleaguered wife Kitty, and an especially scary appearance by Robert Downey Jr. The first two-thirds build up momentum from the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission to the momentous explosion in the desert and finally, the catastrophic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Naturally, Oppenheimer is torn asunder psychologically by the magnitude of lost lives caused by his invention. The last hour, however, loses momentum in scene after scene of post-WWII government attempts to discredit Oppenheimer, and you get the feeling that they needed a Hollywood ending that just doesn’t exist.

Pluto (Netflix) 7/10

What’s the connection between Astro Boy – created by Japanese manga legend Osamu Tezuka in the 1960s – and Pluto, the 10-episode Netflix anime series? Well, this new series (itself a reboot of a 2003 series) is anything but kid fare, despite incorporating Astro Boy into the fabric of its apocalyptic theme. Set in a future where the latest robots are indistinguishable from humans, the story follows a police robot, Gesicht, as he attempts to find out who is killing off the seven most advanced (and potentially lethal) robots, one by one. Looking very much like an animated graphic novel, the animation is superb and the storyline is weighted with the kind of deeply searching philosophy Tezuka loved to weave into his shows.

At times the episodes took too long to resolve and certain elements were a little repetitive, but overall, Pluto is a series that could make many new fans of anime, especially amongst those who look at the genre with prejudiced eyes. In essence a 10-hour rumination on the nature of violence and hatred, the series won’t thrill fans of one action battle after another, but instead, achieves the contours and emotions of a genuine work of art.

Poor Things (Disney+) 6/10

If you’re up for seeing a film that will have you uttering “WTF!” over and over during its 142-minute running time, then Poor Things is a great viewing choice. This 2023 movie by maverick director Yorgos Lanthimos won numerous plaudits, including four Academy Awards, but seems to upset or annoy as many as it impresses. Emma Stone (Cruella, The Curse) plays Bella Baxter, a successful suicide brought to life by genius surgeon Godwin Baxter (played by the great Willem Dafoe) by replacing her brain with that of her unborn baby. (Get that!?) In a delicious twist to the now-cliched Hollywood story of child in grownup’s body, or grownup in child’s body, the film – set in Victorian England – explores the inevitable crash-collision between a sensibility of utter naivety attached to the body of a sexually mature woman. This inevitably leads to some icky and downright disturbing moments.

The real star of the movie is the world that Lanthimos constructs through a brilliant combination of set design, bizarre camerawork and (presumably) digital skulduggery. His version of the late 19th century seems to take place in a parallel universe with its own weird Earth. While endlessly impressive for its visuals and sheer oddness, after the first hour, I started to feel a bit numb, because it just felt so heartless. I don’t know how closely it cleaves to Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, but Bella’s journey from the surgeon’s wee experiment to her escape into the wider world, and her rapid escalation of learning about relationships, sex and the ways of the world ultimately feels a little predictable. Top marks for originality and having its own unique aroma, but…

Road House (Prime) 7/10

 Well, it’s not art but Road House certainly rocks. This remake of an apparently popular 1989 movie starring Patrick Swayze won’t win any awards for the emotional gravitas of the dramatic scenes, but it’ll get the Grammy (ha) for best fighting/action sequences. Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Spider-Man: Far From Home) may have forever destroyed his career, however, so unintentionally hilarious are his tough-guy, he-man efforts to express emotional torment. But it’s not about that, it’s about a muscle-bound drifter who accepts a job as a bouncer at a Miami roadhouse that is being targeted by homicidal psychos on the pay packet of a ruthless land developer. And more importantly, it’s about the head of steam that Dalton (his character) builds up as his anger mounts at the unfairness of the situation; and what happens as a consequence.

Road House has been mauled by critics for its emphasis on brawn over brain and even its use of CGI in fight sequences (honestly, I didn’t notice, but these sequences were often so brutal that I had to occasionally shut my eyes). From my perspective (that of an art film lover who occasionally lowers himself to enjoy a bit of fast and furious action), despite its obvious flaws, the film builds nicely and is so full of choreographed mayhem that I couldn’t help loving it. I mean, at least Dalton is dealing to people who really, really deserve it.

Shogun (Disney+) 9/10

 Wow. Just wow. You’d think that an American adaptation of a 1975 American novel about an English sailor washed up in 17th-century, Samurai-era Japan might be weighed down by racially insensitive, post-Colonial stereotypes. In contrast, the material is treated with the utmost respect and authenticity, providing a potent and often scary window into a very dangerous era in Japan where violent warlords fought for supremacy. Cosmo Jarvis plays John Blackthorne, a young sailor who becomes enmeshed in the destiny of Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) and attracted to his attractive translator, Toda Mariko (New Zealand-born Anna Sawai).

Shogun’s 10 episodes provide a rare insight into Japan at a time when the Portuguese had successfully brought trade and Christianity to the country, prior to being closed again to foreigners for hundreds of years. Based on real events, the series shows the extreme exactitude Japanese customs demanded and the often savage consequences for breaking the rules. But through Blackthorne’s eyes, we also see the awe and delight in experiencing such a unique culture. Where a lesser interpretation might have told the story solely through the sailor’s eyes, the series intelligently navigates through a minefield of expectations, and treats the Japanese with respect. It’s a gripping series with exciting combat, high-tension drama and a wee drab of mostly unquenched romance, and it makes for essential viewing.

Wish (Disney+) 5/10

What’s gone so horribly wrong with animated movies lately? It feels like in the wake of the Frozen franchise no one’s got an original idea, or if they have, no idea how to bring it to fruition. Wish feels like something a boardroom full of marketing executives put together in an afternoon. Perhaps all the best fairy tales have been plundered along with stories like The Little Mermaid, which have sustained the market for so long. But if Moana seemed to show a way forward with its exposition of a different culture and a Pacific heroine, Wish feels like a step back and a piecemeal attempt to put together a story based on some shonky ideas and featuring a lead character that seems like a cliched composite.

Set in the fictional Kingdom of Rosas, a 17-year-old girl called Asha is interviewed by King Magnifico for the job of apprentice, but when she finds out that the king uses his sorcery skills to steal everyone’s wishes (so they can no longer remember them, depriving them of their greatest ambitions or the possibility of realising them), she takes umbrage. Happily, she calls out to the heavens and a shooting star joins her in her quest to retrieve the wishes. In this case, the review aggregator sites are spot-on in rating Wish at 50 percent or less. While the animation is serviceable, and the star is a likeable Pikachu-type character, there’s nothing new here. Oh, and it’s a fucking musical.

 

The Best & Worst Streaming TV is a regular column in which Gary Steel assesses 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Give a little to support Witchdoctor's quest to save high quality independent journalism. It's easy and painless! Just donate $5 or $10 to our PressPatron account by clicking on the button below.

Witchdoctor straight to your inbox every 2nd week

Authors

Advance Paris - Designed with French flair. Amplifiers, Streamers, CD players and more www.pqimports.co.nz
Previous Story

Golden harvest of Autumn wines

Next Story

How not to get your identity stolen

Latest from Film & TV

Go toTop