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

February 18, 2024
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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.

 

Destroy All Neighbours (AMC) 5/10

Progressive rock is such a maligned genre that I just had to check out this 2024 comedy-horror film about a frustrated prog musician, William (Jonah Ray Rodrigues), whose new neighbour from hell, Vlad (Alex Winter), prevents him from finishing his latest musical epic. There is a grain of comedic hilarity in William’s enthusiastic descriptions of the genre, but the film’s potential is completely botched by its heavy-handed descent into not-funny-at-all comedy-gore.

 

It turns out that Vlad is some kind of grotesque entity and despite William’s excruciating attempts to kill him, his various body parts repeatedly re-animate. Those who like grotesque splatter (even if it’s not exactly realistic) as comedy might enjoy it, but William’s character is so pathetic that it’s impossible to relate to him, or any of the other fleeting characters. Music producers/engineers might enjoy (or not) the studio sessions and the utterly repulsive, narcissistic singer-songwriter, who will undoubtedly conjure forth some unwelcome memories.

Frida: Viva La Vida (DocPlay) 6/10

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s tragic life story will, it seems, always generate more interest that the even more significant artists with less compelling life stories. Viva La Vida works okay as a bio but it spends way too much time wallowing in indulgent piffle. Impressive to look at, the film cleverly accentuates the passage of time by contrasting photographs of Kahlo’s mostly rather small orbit (the several apartments in which she lived and worked) with luscious depictions of the same buildings and interiors today, which have of course, been turned into museums.

 

The two-pronged problem with Viva La Vida is that on the one hand, it relies too heavily on the official, sanctioned perspective (overlong interviews with the museum director) and on the other, flights of irrelevant pretentious fantasy featuring actress Asia Argento posing prettily. While it must have been tough compiling a documentary with so little historic footage to utilise, was it really necessary to waste time with these sequences? Kahlo connoisseurs are likely to get much out of this 2019 documentary, but newcomers might be transfixed by the way she turned her tragic circumstances into art that both reflected her pain and celebrated the imaginary Frida, a proud Mexican woman free of the shackles that dogged her in real life.

John Lennon: Murder Without A Trial (Apple+) 7/10

There has already been so much coverage of John Lennon’s murder and that of his murderer, Mark David Chapman over the past few decades, that it’s hard to get excited about John Lennon: Murder Without A Trial. There would have to be some compelling new information to make this 3-part series a must-watch. Disappointingly, the theories about a possible government plot to assassinate Lennon are repeated without any convincing new evidence. What’s surprising are the details around the killer’s arrest and subsequent lack of trial when he unexpectedly pleads guilty; a tactic that denies the public from an explanation.

 

The two factors that make the 2023 documentary necessary are the candid interviews with people who were there, including his wife Yoko Ono, producer Jack Douglas (who was working with Lennon on the night he died) and the killer himself, and the extensive archive footage. There’s some fiery debate over Chapman’s supposed insanity at the time of the assassination, but it seems clear that he was a seriously disturbed individual who had convinced himself that he was a character in a book that he carried around with him. Apart from anything else, the film is a timely reminder for younger viewers of just how important an icon of 20th-century music Lennon was, and the enormous wave of grief that swept the world when the peace campaigner died.

Orion And The Dark (Netflix) 7/10

There’s an inherent sameness to CG animated films that many of the current crop appear to be trying hard to jettison. Orion And The Dark (2024) – unlike last year’s bold reimagining of the Teenage Mutant Turtles – doesn’t go the whole hog in creating a refreshed template, but it’s one of the most enjoyable kid-oriented movies I’ve seen in the past year. Orion is an 11-year-old who has so many phobias they’re starting to rule his life. He’s scared and/or anxious about everything, especially darkness. When there’s a blackout, he actually meets the personification of dark, who is tired of everyone being scared of him. Dark decides to give Orion the experience of his life and teach him the benefits of darkness. Along the way, he also meets Sleep, Quiet, Insomnia, Unexplained Noises and Sweet Dreams. When they discover that Dark has a boy along for the ride, are very angry. On top of that, Orion’s miscellaneous anxieties start to make everything go wrong.

 

That’s the basic plot, but the details reveal layers upon layers that might prove a little confusing to younger kids. They’ll love it anyway for its sheer creativity, while parents will enjoy it for its smart and idiosyncratic dialogue (the film was written by Charlie Kaufman of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind fame). The one disappointment is the animators’ rendering of Dark. Admittedly a difficult figure to visualise, Dark comes across like a blobby bear-like creature; an animation failure on a similar level to that of last year’s Pixar film Elemental. Despite this glitch, Orion And The Dark comes highly recommended

Saltburn (PrimeVideo) 9/10

If you’re looking for something startlingly different and fresh to watch, then look no further than 2023 movie Saltburn, a film so slippery and surprising that, while it might at first seem like a conventional drama, it soon starts evolving into something completely different. Set in 2006, it’s partly set at Oxford University, where awkward, lower class outcast Oliver (Barry Keoghan) manages to ingratiate himself with the aristocratic Felix (Jacob Elordi). In an unlikely turn of events, the two become good friends, and Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s lavish estate. In the first half we get to know the eccentric family and their friends, and we’re never sure whether they’re exploiting Oliver, or vice-versa.

 

The truth is shockingly sinister, but let’s not spoil the surprises it has in store. Suffice to say that award-winning writer/director Emerald Fennell has squeezed out a film that is densely layered in its depiction of aristocratic indulgence, a kind of skewed psychological thriller that keeps us guessing right up to its last 15 minutes or so. Each of the performances is stand-out, but Alison Oliver as Felix’s sexually promiscuous and utterly nuts sister is especially great. Visually striking, with a camera style all its own, the film is ultimately a vicious (but not unjustified) killer punch to the ruling classes.

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (Neon) 8/10

Wow! I’m not much of a fan of the webbed one, mainly because action heroes who regularly scale great heights have me in a state of continuous high anxiety. Oh, and there’s the fact that most of the miscellaneous live-action Spiderman movies have been horrendous. But our wee monsters have been following Spiderman’s recent on-screen antics with some interest, so we took a punt on Across The Spider-Verse. It’s fab! While this animated film is referential to some degree, it is possible to watch it without much knowledge and still kind of understand what’s going on. What needs to be stated in capital letters is that graphics fans (and probably most of the general public) will simply love the amazing and full-on creative animation.

 

Officially a sequel to the 2018 film Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Across The Spider-Verse was both phenomenally successful with punters and also won animation awards, making it one of those rare movies that does everything right. It helps the plot (such as it is) that it features both a clever young Spider-Woman (Gwen Stacey) and a boy Spider-Man (Michael Morales), both of whom are sympathetic characters. They both end up in the Multiverse, where they encounter a bunch of Spider-People and have a running battle with the vicious and rather scary Spot, who can swallow whole universes whole! As an old dude, at times I found the pace of the film exhausting but the kids were completely entranced the whole way through.

The Curse (Neon) 7/10

As brilliant as it is bizarre, this 10-part satirical comedy is one of the best recent shows to be found on streaming TV, and yet it’s a really hard watch. Set in the arid environs of Santa Fe, New Mexico, The Curse is about a couple who, to promote their new eco-housing estate, convince a TV network to make a reality series about their venture. Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man, La La Land) is incredible as Whitney, the entrepreneur who designed the passive houses and stars in the reality series alongside her husband, Asher (Nathan Fielder). The gruesome twosome are simply horrible people, pretending that they’re eco-conscious and caring but in truth, embarrassingly ethics-free, and it’s the ongoing comedy of excruciating behaviour – and the resulting mishaps that occur – that makes The Curse what it is.

 

There’s lots of delicate negotiating to do with the native Mexican population, who own the road that goes to the housing estate, and the show’s title alludes to a homeless immigrant child who literally puts a curse on Asher when he gives her $100 for the cameras and then grabs it unceremoniously back off her. The way it’s shot has a garish reality TV feel about it that makes the series feel especially icky, but you know that it’s something altogether different because of the soundtrack, which pulses and slides around on a bed of dizzy electronic music (by super-cool composer Daniel Lopatin) that hints more at horror than comedy. Stick around for the final episode, when things really do get weird. If it wasn’t so excruciating to watch, I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

The Last Airbender (Neon) 7/10

With Avatar: The Last Airbender, the new 8-part series about to launch on Netflix, I thought I’d check out M. Night Shyamalan’s critically and commercially disastrous 2010 motion picture version of the comic-book phenomenon. Ignorant of its 5 out of 100 score on Rotten Tomatoes, the family settled in for a TV dinner viewing and – surprise, surprise – we really enjoyed it! It’s true that the narrative is a bit bumpy at times and that character development is minimal, but since when have those qualities been important to action-adventure fantasy films? What’s enticing about The Last Airbender is the combination of martial arts and magic (ie, the wonder of expensive special effects) and the underlying spirituality of the heroes.

 

Mixing elements of Lord Of The Rings with other fantastic stories (Narnia, anyone?) in its depiction of different cultures and creatures, The Last Airbender is a refreshingly (fairly) simple story that benefits from Shyamalan’s unusual filmic perspective, and while it’s never frenetic, there are few patches dull enough to distract the attention of the kids. On the negative side, there are a few uneven performances and you can almost feel the director’s frustration at only being given the chance to film the first part of the story. If only he’d had the funding given to someone like Jackson, he may have been able to create a three-part feast that made more sense in totality. Still, we liked it and will be glued to the TV series to see how (or if) they do it differently.

The Lazarus Project (Neon) 7/10

You might ask: Do we really need yet another time travelling yarn? And you’d be right. A major theme of sci-fi books, films and television forever, there’s been such a spate of such shows recently (most recently, Bodies comes to mind) that I’ve had my fill for quite some time. And yet… The Lazarus Project is well worth a watch. I could get myself into quite a pickle just trying to explain the plot, so densely packed it is with time-loops and flashbacks, but the effort required to put the puzzle together is part of the fun. Its two linked eight-part seasons revolve around George (co-writer Paapa Essiedu), who realises that he’s living in a six-month time-loop, and is soon recruited by Archie (Anjli Mohindra) to a top-secret project which prevents major catastrophic events by turning back time and making adjustments.

 

That’s a ridiculously simple description of a show that just gets more and more complex and enjoyably mad as it evolves. Although the frequent loops and “time adjustments” are a feature of the series, sometimes allowing things to build to a frenetic pace, it’s the fact that it works on a human level and as an international (albeit UK-based) thriller that gives it legs. There’s nothing predictable about The Lazarus Project, which means that every now and then some humour is allowed to creep in around the edges of what is at heart a really creepy story about rich oligarchs trying to control political and world events. Is it flawed? Yes, at times George’s behaviour is just dumb and you can’t help thinking: would a top-secret organisation employ someone like that? But overall, the performances are great (special props go to Mohindra as well as Charly Clive, who plays George’s on-again/off-again girlfriend), and the storyline is original enough that it’s well worth the time investment.

Top Gun Maverick (Netflix) 5/10

We were stressed and tired and it was the end of a hard week and we just needed to watch something easy. I made the terrible decision to watch Top Gun Maverick, a 2022 sequel to the 1986 film in which a Botoxed 61-year-old Tom Cruise (as disgraced Peter “Maverick” Mitchell) washes up back at the test pilot training academy and finds himself in the middle of an urgent mission to destroy an unsanctioned uranium plant. Naturally, his bosses hate him but it’s Maverick’s job to train up the best young pilots to take part in a mission that will almost certainly prove fatal. Oh, and in his down-time, he finds the lost love of his life, Penelope (Jennifer Connelly) running a bar and of course, things get heated in that department too.

 

Fans of the original film will probably enjoy this wrinkled rerun for nostalgic reasons, and might even allow themselves a snigger or two at the improbability of the whole shebang. Top Gun Maverick is certainly a movie you must watch with the old grey matter switched off. Viewers might enjoy playing a game of “spot the decent actors slumming it for money”, with Ed Harris and Val Kilmer especially in mind. The rest of us who enjoy a good action romp will just wait around for the exciting and sometimes nail-biting flying sequences, which nudge the whole enterprise from below average to average on the ratings scale. Mostly terrible, then, but the special effects are quite dazzling.

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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