Every fortnight the Witchdoctor team sifts through the mountain of streaming TV on offer and nominates the best… and worst.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood (AppleTV, YouTube) 9/10
A film about a journalist writing a puff-piece on a children’s entertainer might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this film is well worth the watch. Despite what you might have heard, this is less a story about the endeared children’s entertainer Fred Rogers (a household name in America who is played by a very measured Tom Hanks) and more about Lloyd Vogel, the reporter sent to interview him. Matthew Rhys, who plays Lloyd, is a revelation here and cuts a desperately forlorn figure whose stoic cynicism is broken down by Fred’s incredible compassion. But the real star of this film is the director, Marielle Heller. She has a penchant for telling true stories about forgiveness, and if her previous outing (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) wasn’t proof of her exceptional directing talents, then this film certainly is. Her set design is dreamy, and camerawork restrained but pleasingly rhythmic. Look out for the scene where Hanks stairs down the barrel of the camera for one minute in total silence; almost unheard of in cinema, yet one of the most affecting scenes I’ve ever experienced. It’s an amazing film with a message that the world sorely needs right now. TW
Cutie And The Boxer (DocPlay) 6/10
This is a mostly fly-on-the-wall film about New York-based artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko that subtly weaves in their past with episodic home movies. It’s a sobering look at what happens to a driven artist when his career never quite blooms into material success, and the way his egocentric needs require those around him (principally, fellow artist and wife Noriko) to give up their own dreams. Briefly famed for his pop art during Warhol’s reign, Ushio and Noriko’s life seems to have been a constant struggle just to pay the rent. It’s quite an insight into the precarious existence of an artist, but at times you can’t help wondering whether their dysfunctional lives are the result of poor decisions made without regard to those around them and an unwillingness simply to grow up. This makes it a frustrating watch at times. GS
Dead To Me (Netflix) 8/10
The “dramedy” genre is usually about as much fun to me as a pickaxe in the forehead, but somehow, Dead To Me achieves the unthinkable. Beautifully mixing up black humour, farce, satire and even irony (very unusual for an American show), the two seasons (with a third to follow) are a must-see. Starring a now middle-aged Christina Applegate (the hot young thing in 1980s situation comedy Married With Children) as a real estate agent Jen whose life has been destroyed by the hit-and-run death of her husband, the action revolves around her bonding with Judy (played by Linda Cardellini), a transient and troubled woman who seems to attract bad men and bad fortune at the same rate. One of the great things about the show is the many levels of subterfuge and surprise, and I’ve seldom watched a show that had the ability to make you cry one moment and be howlingly funny the next. PS, If you’re somewhat put off by the swanky Laguna Beach setting, don’t be. One of the best things about the show is that it shows how quickly people can be marginalised in “privileged” society. GS
Fear City: NYC vs The Mafia (Netflix) 8/10
I got hooked on Fear City, a three-part Netflix documentary covering how the feds took down five prominent New York mob families over a period spanning the ’70s and ’80s. Watching it was a whole lot like catching a Sopranos DVD box set feature reel, but it’s also a lot more focused. That’s because there are only three episodes. As Fear City quickly unfolds, the viewer is stepped through a series of secret recordings and tough guy/Federal agent interviews. There’s lots of New York tough-guy talk from the both which helps to pull you into the story. Made by Sam Hobkinson, who has crafted a fly-on-the-wall perspective from both FBI and mafia, Fear City isn’t a cheesy true-crime effort. Its many interviews take place in cars and diners just like you’d expect to see in a Mafia drama episode. Not only does this give the show an authentic look and feel, but the anecdotes of how the Feds planted bugs or how mob captains plied their trade helps to pull the viewer in. The sheer level of granularity and detail in the interviews/re-enactments make for enthralling viewing. If you’re expecting shooting, sex and violence, Fear City probably isn’t going to be what you’re looking for. If, however, you want to get in behind the scenes of the biggest Mafia bust in US history, it’s seriously compelling viewing.
Home Before Dark (AppleTV+) 7.5/10
Here’s a ten-part crime thriller for the whole family. Think Stranger Things minus the supernatural spooks, humour, and dungeons and dragons. But what it does have is a ton of intrigue and holds your attention throughout. The story follows Hilde, a sassy nine-year-old with journalistic tendencies. Her investigation into an unsolved cold case ruffles the feathers of the small town that her family have recently moved into. She’s a child protege of sorts, a modern young Sherlock, with an impossibly sharp eye and keen memory. Hilde is played by child actor, Brooklynn Prince who holds the show together with a performance well beyond her years. She never slips into “ingratiating” child territory (same can’t be said for some of her cohorts, unfortunately) and if you’ve seen her in The Florida Project then you’ll know what a talent she really is. Yes, Home Before Dark does have its share of cliches and absurdities and occasionally errs on Disney territory (especially with its score). But it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, and if you’re short on ideas for family viewing, then this is a solid option for the whole couch. TW
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix) 8/10
Filthy Rich chronicles Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual abuse of underage girls and the shocking state of the US justice system. For all the hype, the few glimpses I got of Epstein (in the form of a videotaped cross-examination from his 2018 deposition) were not endearing. The footage shows an entitled and arrogant man rolling his eyes and repeatedly pleading the Fifth to everything he’s asked. Because of his silence and subsequent suicide, little of Epstein the man comes to light beyond what his victims, acquaintances and former employees share. Emerging on the glam set in Manhattan in the 1980s, mystery surrounded him, his wealth, and obsessions around privacy. At least, that was until allegations surfaced about Epstein molesting an employee (and her underage sister), which were ultimately passed onto the FBI. To his victims, Epstein was both powerful and untouchable. It wasn’t until a 2018 investigation by the Miami Herald renewed interest in Epstein that he was arrested in New York. Even then, he managed to remain enigmatic. Filthy Rich isn’t comfortable viewing. It’ll probably leave you feeling both enraged and sickened. That said, it does deliver insights into how Epstein groomed his victims, persuading them to recruit others knowing they’d also be victimised. PP
Joker (Neon) 7.5/10
What a score for Neon to have this acclaimed big box office attraction for its relaunch incorporating Lightbox content. This is certainly a left-field prequel and delightfully sans Batman or any superhero crap. Naturally, that will have disappointed fans of the franchise, but it makes for a compelling standalone movie as well as a plausible explanation for the Joker character. Having just come off weeks of watching film festival fare the directorial style of Joker seemed at times heavy-handed and over-the-top, as did Joaquin Phoenix’s bravura acting role. It would be unfair to expect subtlety from a Hollywood product, however, and it’s certainly dark and disturbing, so that’s two ticks! The film is packed with visual flair, pace, excellent and oddball music choices (take a bow, Hildur Guðnadóttir). It’s Phoenix that brings it alive, however, and he’s obviously lived the part to a degree that is at times quite painful to watch. Robert DeNiro is a shadow of himself as an exploitative TV chat show host, and one of the most gratifying moments of the film is when Phoenix shoots him through the head. (Not that I would want that to happen to DeNiro, you understand, just that his character deserved what he got). GS
Kingdom (Netflix) 6/10
While the first series of Kingdom – a South Korean historical epic with zombies – was intriguing enough to keep you glued to its action, the second, sadly, seems to lose its way. Sometimes it’s hard to define what makes a programme pall. Maybe it’s just that the novelty factor has worn off. But too often, the drama here is on a level with a Korean TV soap (they’re good at those), and it’s only when the action kicks in that the show somewhat redeems itself. Series two is really just the second part of series one, as everything was left hanging in the air at the end of that first show, and irritatingly, series two does exactly the same thing. Except that this time, despite some beautifully shot and masterfully choreographed mass action scenes involving forts full of military men fighting off zombies, I’m left not caring what happens next. GS
Kiri And Lou (TVNZ OnDemand) 9/10
Here’s a kids’ show that’s just as much fun for the big people to watch. Made in Christchurch and featuring the work of “claymation” expert Antony Elworthy (whose work featured in Corpse Bride, Coraline and the extraordinary Isle Of Dogs), it’s an all-star, big-talent affair directed by Harry Sinclair and featuring songs by Sinclair’s former partner in The Front Lawn, Don McGlashan. Oh, and the voices are famous locals, too! But that’s all irrelevant, really: if Kiri And Lou had been made by unknowns it would still have been great, and would still have made it to the BBC and international markets. These are wonderful five-minute shows (two series’ worth) featuring a cornucopia of dinosaurs and Kiwi bush characters and there’s just time for some laughs, a song and some homespun philosophy in each episode. Lovely.
Mystify: Michael Hutchence (DocPlay and Neon) 8/10
One of the more compelling rock and roll superstar documentaries around, Mystify: Michael Hutchence achieves that status both because it has access to such a wealth of visual material and because the Hutchence story is laced with tragedy. Having seemingly complete access to archive material including home movies as well as co-operation with former lovers and bandmates means that the film is packed with a pleasing overload of stimulus. The filmmakers are lucky that Hutchence’s celebrity status meant there’s a wealth of interview material, and getting the likes of Kylie Minogue and Helena Christensen on board to provide some personal insight puts an interesting spin on the story; especially the latter’s description of a physical altercation with a cab drive that purportedly damaged Hutchenson’s brain, and ruined his life. Towards the end, we’re led to believe, his personal and professional life was a trainwreck, but where the film errs is in its unflagging support for Hutchence as a major talent. There’s nothing here to backup the idea that his band was much more than an ordinary Aussie rock band that was, for a moment, in the right time and right place, or that Hutchence was much more than a pretty face with an ordinary vocal talent. GS
Rebecca Martinsson (Neon) 6/10
I really enjoyed the first series of this Swedish police drama about a hotshot young lawyer who gives it all up to go back to her isolated rural community, and inevitably gets pulled into working for the local detectives. Each two episodes form a complete story, which is kind of odd in this age of stringing things out, and each mystery allows the viewer to get a realistic snapshot of the community along the way. Unfortunately, for some bizarre reason ‘Rebecca’ in the second series is replaced by a new actress, and she lacks the charm of the original. To make matters worse, the love-lost theme with a local male continues, and it just feels wrong pretending that she’s the same person. One more thing: the second-to-last episode is completely without English subtitles! Hopefully the rejigged Neon will fix that problem! GS
Tales From The Loop (Amazon Prime Video) 6/5
Oh dear. This “kind of sci-fi” series started off so well, with a first episode that was full of a strange kind of wonder and dread. But after that, it got really dull and directionless. I guess that’s what happens when you base an entire series of interrelated (but separate) stories on a book of graphic art. Tales From The Loop is set in a fictional town in Ohio, America where ‘The Loop’ (aka the Mercer Centre For Experimental Physics), an underground research facility, provides most of the town’s employment and weirdness quotient. Odd things happen there and while life mostly seems rather typical of a very small town, there are strange robots walking around. One critic characterised the show as “a set of loosely interrelated meditations upon ephemerality, the impact of technology, and human vulnerability infused with a mild science fiction savour”, which makes it sound really great. But I found it largely (with a few exceptions) so ephemeral that it lacked the basics required to keep you awake and engaged.
The Luminaries (TVNZ OnDemand) 5/10
Everything about the BBC adaptation of the famed Eleanor Catton epic tome is perfect. Except that it’s not very good, really. The Luminaries comes over like a torrid melodrama, and many of the plot devices, while sometimes surprising, are either too obvious or too ridiculous. Although it reeks of money spent and does really well in portraying the mid-19th Century colonies of Dunedin and Hokitika as drably beautiful, there’s something about it that just comes across as false. It’s a very #me-too type of story with its exploited heroine displaying vast strength and most of the men caricatures of blundering lust. Perhaps that’s the problem: it just doesn’t seem as though it could have happened the way it’s portrayed. And despite the grimly grubby settlements and a makeup department working overtime, it still seems too clean. Rare sympathy is afforded the abominably treated Chinese gold prospectors, but they look like 21st Century Asians, so we don’t get to understand the prejudice. And on top of everything is the faintly preposterous metaphysical love theme running through the whole thing. Gah! GS
The Sinner (Netflix) 9/10
The best damn cop show to turn up on the small screen for yonks, all three seasons of The Sinner are crackers, with one small flaw: Bill Pullman. I’m not a fan of Pullman’s method-acting and his somewhere-on-the-autistic-spectrum investigative cop with painful sciatica and disastrous relationships is sometimes painful to watch. Despite this, you do kind of warm to the guy because his character, Detective Harry Ambrose, has genuine integrity and really does care and will do whatever is required to discover the dark secrets behind the cases that present themselves. Each of the equally great series’ so far have been full of great drama, an almost Lynchian sense of darkness in the human psyche, and constantly have us on the edge of our seats. Each season features a different cast (apart from Pullman) and are populated by fine actors, and each has an equally intriguing premise, with loads of secrets to uncover – like the tragic story behind the impulse homicide by a young woman in the first series, or the bizarre cult community in the second, or the third, in which a young teacher is pulled psychologically into the heart of darkness. Compelling. GS
Warrior Nun (Netflix) 2/10
I just had to take a look at Warrior Nun after I received an email from Netflix outlining their most popular programmes in New Zealand. I hadn’t heard of Warrior Nun but Facebook friends assured me that it was a fun watch. I would like to stand up and shout from a very tall rooftop: NO FUCKING WAY! I can see that had Warrior Nun been entrusted to a different crew that its inherent silliness might have been made up for by a witty script or some bravura acting performances. But this Spain-set, English-language travesty has neither of those things. Instead, it feels like a superhero concept that was created after a few tokes on bad weed and its cast of young, handsome/pretty young things makes it pretty clear that it’s not meant for crusty old gits like me. The CG monsters are painfully fake, the dialogue is dull, the acting uninspired and, like Kingdom, the way it’s filmed makes it feel about as real as The Young And The Restless. Mind you, I gave up after episode 2 lest my brain atrophied. Does it get better? GS
Watch This is a regular column in which Witchdoctor’s TV-loving scribes assess the worth – or otherwise – of the vast trove available to stream. Unlike other media, our policy is to dig deep and go further than just Netflix or what’s new this week. This month’s capsule television reviewers were: Charles Jameson, Pat Pilcher, Gary Steel and Toby Woollaston.