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

March 18, 2024
10 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.

Boy Swallows Universe (Netflix) 9/10

I hate to admit it, but there are some things that the Aussies simply do better than us. Take Boy Swallows Universe, a 7-episode drama that’s so good it’s practically flawless. Easily my highlight of the year so far, it does the seemingly impossible: tells the story of a down on their luck, crime and drugs-connected Brisbane family in the 1980s without ever becoming depressing, maudlin, or striking the wrong tone. Which isn’t to say that the semi-autobiographical story of two young brothers (Eli and Gus Bell) isn’t packed with pathos, just that it’s balanced out by a refreshing sense of compassion and even light-hearted and downright humorous scenes.

 

Travis Fimmel (Ragnar in Vikings) makes a sympathetic appearance in the first few episodes as their tormented drug-dealing stepdad, Lyle, but he’s soon carted away by the extremely nasty criminal underworld henchman Ivan (Christopher James Baker), while their long-suffering mum Frances (Phoebe Tonkin) is hauled off to jail on false charges. This wrenches the family apart and leaves the boys to fend for themselves. The storyline is unpredictable and the characters beautifully drawn in a rare TV series that never puts a foot wrong. Yes, there are some disturbing scenes, but the overall message is uplifting.

Breakdown In Tokyo (PrimeVideo) 6/10

This is all so confusing. Breakdown In Tokyo presents itself as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, in which film director Laszlo Kovacs, on a break from his usual schedule, accompanies his two sons and their band on a tour of Japan. Naturally, he can’t resist making a tour documentary of the event. Except that this 2017 film appears to be a stitch-up. I couldn’t figure out how (or why) a small film crew would find itself filming the intimate details of 60-something Laszlo’s affair with the tour manager, a young Japanese woman, while his partner (also on the tour as administrator) becomes increasingly riled by his infatuation.

 

The star of the film/director is in fact Zoltan Paul, an Austrian with a background in music, theatre production and, in the 21st century, a small run of independent films. I’m not sure how much of it is true, but the band, described as a “progressive metal duo” from Austria, are very real and rather entertaining. As a film of traveling around Japan for the first time and experiencing the lower end of the tour circuit, Breakdown In Tokyo is quite interesting. But unfortunately, Laszlo’s behaviour makes for some excruciating scenes, and it feels like a lot of the film’s running time is spent waiting for this trainwreck to happen. Sadly, Zoltan Paul passed away in 2022.

Death And Other Details (Disney+) 7/10

While it doesn’t quite have the panache or sharp writing of Disney’s hit Only Murders In The Building, this murder mystery series will appeal to fans of Agatha Christie and recent films like the Daniel Craig-starring Knives Out. The obvious inspiration here is the award-winning White Lotus, and the two share clever techniques like great visual design and a combination of light-hearted fun and romance with dangerous edges. Mandy Patinkin (Criminal Minds) stars as grizzled and somewhat fraudulent detective, Rufus Coatesworth, who had been employed to find the murderer of Imogene Scott’s mother many years before. Now grown up, Imogene (played by the rather lovely Violett Beane) finds herself witness to a murder on a fancy cruise ship, and reunites with Rufus to track down the murderer and uncover a wider conspiracy that leads back to… surprise, surprise… her mother’s unsolved murder.

 

The cleverest thing about Death And Other Details is the way Imogene is able to see through Rufus’s memories so acutely that she’s actually pictured playing him in flashback scenes. It turns out that she’s the real detective genius and with the old detective’s tuition she sharpens her skills and figures out the various lurid onboard scenarios leading to the big conclusion. Except, it’s one of those frustrating stories that doesn’t actually end with the conclusion of Episode 7, so keep tuned for part two!

Fool Me Once (Netflix) 7/10

Yet another TV adaptation of a Harlan Coben novel, Fool Me Once is a murder-mystery/thriller that just keeps the surprises coming. Michelle Keegan (Coronation Street) plays Maya Stern, a disgraced former air force chopper pilot whose husband is murdered in cold blood. She sets out to unravel what turns out to be one heck of a twisted plot that begins many years before with the murder of a high school friend of her husband, and later, the murder of her own sister. Maya uses her military skills (and sheer pluck) to figure it all out while DS Sami Kierce (played by Adeel Akhtar of Sweet Tooth fame) slowly closes the net around her.

 

A secondary storyline revolves around the ailing Sami, who is suffering from serious blackouts while stressing about his imminent marriage and birth of his first child. His budding friendship with newbie professional sidekick DC Marty McGreggor (Dino Fetscher) makes for some funny and tender moments in an otherwise tense and ice-cold show. In fact, its biggest weakness is Maya’s steely countenance, and although Keegan plays the part of a tough ex-military well, she’s certainly not a character you warm to. Overall, however, Fool Me Once is well worth a binge-watch. While hardly a classic of our times, it’s frequently edge-of-seat and keeps you guessing throughout. And Joanna Lumley is terrific as a horrible old rich bitch.

Griselda (Netflix) 6/10

The Sopranos completely changed things.  Crime dramas could suddenly be about people who do bad things but you still like them. Griselda ain’t like that. It’s the true story of “The Godmother”, Griselda Blanco, a Colombian woman who took over the drug market in Miami in the late 1970s, and she does monstrous things while trying to “protect” her young sons. The show’s writers have slanted it in a proto-feminist fashion making a woman cop (Juliana Aidén Martinez) her main adversary, so we have two downtrodden, underappreciated but strong women from sides of the law, one slowly hunting the other as she becomes all-powerful.

Like so many Netflix crime dramas, the six hour-long episodes of Griselda make for a very competent piece of televisual entertainment, but it’s not a lot of fun to watch, mainly because outside of admiration for the drug boss as a symbol of strong womanhood, there’s little to like about her. Sofia Vergara plays her well, but as Griselda overcomes her male rivals to become seemingly all-powerful, you already know that Griselda’s going to fuck it all up and end up in jail, or worse. Fans of crime dramas about drug lords will doubtless enjoy, though be warned, several of the murders are really brutal. As a cautionary tale (don’t kill people if you’re going to sell drugs, folks) Griselda works well, but it’s not my idea of a good time.

Killers Of The Flower Moon (Apple+) 5/10

I know Scorsese is a legend, but three hours and 26 minutes?! How many films can justify that kind of length? I’m glad I didn’t see it on the big screen in 2023, because apparently there wasn’t even a pee break. Killers Of The Flower Moon is a gigantic, gaping abyss of a missed opportunity: an important story that with a tight, dynamic telling could have been powerful and memorable. Instead, the screenplay feels threadbare, the pace dead slow, with little forward momentum. But worse still, there’s precious little character development, despite the immense time it has to fill in the dots.

 

It’s based on a true story set in the 1920s in Oklahoma and the slow, methodical murder of the members of a tribe of native Americans that have become rich with the discovery of oil. Robert De Niro plays William Hale, a respected Godfather-like character who pretends to be benevolent towards the Osage Nation people but is covertly arranging to steal their wealth and kill them off. The story follows WWI veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a loser who lucks into a fortune by marrying a squaw, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), whom he somehow loves dearly but still wants to poison. DiCaprio spends the whole movie with an unfortunate shit-eating expression, while Gladstone’s leaden non-performance is dead in the water. Apparently the book was a police procedural, but Scorsese altered the story to reflect the Osage Nation point of view. In doing so, the film has become a slow, bloated bore.

One Day (Netflix) 8/10

A romance where a young couple meet up every year on the same day but somehow remain just friends, the idea of One Day sounded to me like something drawn up in a board room. The reality of the perfect 14 episodes, every one of them a mere 30 minutes, is something else entirely. This 2009 novel has already been turned into a 2011 film, but the extra length allows the material to fly. Not at all a standard rom-com or typical romance, by capturing the lives of its two protagonists over time, we get drawn into their evolving lives and characters that are more complex than they at first might seem. I can’t think of a single misstep in the series and the cherry on top are the two leads, who are both spectacular. Leo Woodall (White Lotus) effortlessly plays the foppish, handsome upper middle class English Dexter, while Ambika Mod (This Is Going To Hurt) as the lower-middle-class daughter Emma of an immigrant Indian couple is so great it hurts.

 

Some may find the tension of the two besties never quite acting on their carnal desires (not to mention deep love for each other) for almost an entire series too much to handle. But it’s not just a will they, won’t they scenario, as we follow Emma and Dexter in their very different life trajectories over two decades from the late ’80s. It’s the fact that despite the vast changes in both of their lives over this period they never outgrow each other that makes it inevitable that their desires will be quenched eventually. I could rave about this show for ages, because it’s so very well cooked. If nothing else, catch it for Ambika Mod, a former comedian who isn’t conventionally beautiful but whose character you’re helpless to stop getting under your skin (and whose eyes are large enough to get lost in). Loved it.

The Girl Next Door (Prime Video) 6/10

I really wish I hadn’t watched this film. It’s not that The Girl Next Door (2007) is a bad effort, just that it’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever sat through. Based on a novel that’s based on the real-life torture (and ultimately, murder) of a 16-year-old girl in 1965, it shows just how quickly humans can descend into savagery. The poor, unfortunate and completely blameless Sylvia Likens just happened to fall victim to a solo mother of five who was bitter about the cards she’d been dealt in life. Gertrude Baniszewski inflicted a variety of indignities on Likens over a period of months. But what’s unique about the case is that her own children, together with other kids from the neighbourhood, were complicit in the crime. She was burned, suspended by ropes, sexually molested and starved… but that’s not all, folks!

 

A really great director may have been able to squeeze some useful perspective out of this miserable scenario, but the best thing that can be said about the direction, set design, cinematography or performances is that they’re competent. Why anyone would want to watch this excruciating and predictable story (there is no happy ending) is anybody’s guess. It’s certainly not entertainment, unless sustained torture is your thing. However, it has to be said that horror movie legend Stephen King loved it, saying: “If you are easily disturbed, you should not watch this movie. If, on the other hand, you are prepared for a long look into hell, suburban style, The Girl Next Door will not disappoint. This is the dark-side-of-the-moon version of Stand By Me.” And I guess he does have a point.

Venus In Furs (Prime Video) 7/10

This so-called 1969 Italian “supernatural erotic thriller” will titillate anyone interested in b-grade exploitation films, and is one of the better examples of its type, thanks to the lurid and surprisingly effective cinematography, its bizarre psychedelic sequences and, well… Maria Rohm’s spectacular breasts, which, ahem… feature prominently. Plot? Oh, never mind the plot, which is incomprehensible.  The story revolves around the fevered imaginings of a disturbed jazz trumpeter, Jimmy (James Darren) who witnesses the kinky murder of a fur coat-wearing young damsel (Rohm), whose body he later finds washed up on the beach. But she turns up, seemingly alive, a few years later. What the hell?

 

Unlike the typical ‘giallo’ film, Venus In Furs is consistently entertaining, possibly because its director, Jesús Manera, was a dab-hand at the genre. In fact, he managed to churn out no fewer than 173 cheap-as-chips feature films in his 82 years. Another plus is the appearance of the legendary Klaus Kinski as the sexually sadistic murderer, and nightclub sequences featuring cool jazz as well as a rare appearance by English group Manfred Mann Chapter Three, an obscure experimental spin-off from the popular Manfred Mann pop band. But perhaps the coolest thing about the film is Stu Phillips’ musical score, which is way too good for a movie like this, and imbues the action with a sense of intrigue that the visuals can’t quite follow through on. Period charm, exotic international locales, lovely half naked ladies… what more could you ask for?

When Marnie Was There  (Netflix) 8/10

One of the Studio Ghibli films that gets mentioned less often, When Marnie Was There is a haunting and gorgeously layered rumination on loss via the attenuated sensitivity of an adolescent girl. I’ve watched it three times and I always cry. Directed by Horomasa Yonebayashi, this 2014 anime film is based on a 1967 book about a troubled and unwell  12-year-old girl, Anna, whose foster mother sends her to the Hokkaido wetlands to stay with relatives for the summer. She soon meets and slowly gets to know a mysterious blonde-haired girl, Marnie, at an abandoned mansion on the other side of a salt marsh, but each meeting just seems to pose more questions.

 

Beautifully animated (it was the final film of celebrated animator Makiko Futaki, who died in 2016), When Marnie Was There, like so many Studio Ghibli films, captures something indefinable but heartening about Japanese village life while rolling out a storyline that’s full of mystery and homilies. The surprise ending will have many reaching for something to dab their eyes with.

 

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

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