The Witchdoctor team sifts through the mountain of available streaming TV and brings your attention to great new shows as well as those to avoid.
Beyond Our Ken (DocPlay, Amazon Prime, GuideDoc) 9/10
Ever heard of Kenja? Me neither. Turns out Kenja is a ‘spiritual training centre.’ Or a ‘cult,’ depending on who you talk to. Kenja’s been operating in Australian capital cities for about 28 years, and this doco focuses on Kenja founders Ken Dyers and his wife Jan Hamilton. The first half interviews those who have had negative experiences with Kenja along with those who praise it – including Ken and Jan. Unsurprisingly, they openly refute all their critics, asserting they’ve never done anything wrong.
It’s the final 10 minutes that’s truly astonishing. Until that point, you hear the pros and cons of Kenja from various people. And those like me who might be wondering who’s telling the (most) truth, and what’s the real deal. In the final part, you get to witness a provocative, hair-raising, explosive scenario that will likely sway your views in a certain direction. Overall, this documentary is an excellent example of “show, don’t tell.” You get to witness the truth rather than being told what to believe.
Family Romance LLC (Mubi) 4/10
Why is it that Werner Herzog seems to have a free pass to positive reviews from the critical establishment? My guess is that he’s a likable and voluble cogitator who will talk until the cows come home about his filmic philosophies, and his faux-documentary style helps to keep the enigma alive. His great (and occasionally preposterous) works of the ‘70s are now well behind him, however, and these days his films are more often small gems rather than gargantuan undertakings like Fitzcarraldo or overwhelming (read: depressing) ruminations on existence like Stroszek.
Family Romance LLC is a thinly fictionalised film about the Japanese phenomenon of agencies who provide people for hire to pretend to be husbands, fathers, etc. Sadly, Herzog has botched what could have been a fascinating documentary by hiring non-actors, giving them a role and getting them to improvise the conversation. This makes for an interesting experiment for the director but it’s boring for the viewer and comes across as lazy. While the settings are often attractive there’s very little going on here and it comes across as a film that’s cheaply shot on video and lazily edited. GARY STEEL
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – Review #1 (Netflix) 8/10
Director Charlie Kaufman appears to relish peering into the psyche of loners (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) often with alluring results. Captured from the novella by Iain Reid, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things reveals the inner workings of a very private life and is dripping with Kaufman’s typically wordy style as he tells the story of Jake (Jesse Plemons) and the strained relationship with his girlfriend (played by Jessie Buckley).
Indeed, the film’s inner monologues can occasionally feel like wading through molasses, but the intriguing characters linger in your mind long after you’ve put the remote down, calling you to piece together the film’s many clues and ponder its allegories. As expected all is not what it seems and I’m Thinking Of Ending Things begs for a deep post-view reading. Doing so delivers a wonderfully rewarding experience and if nothing else it’s worth seeing for the brilliant Jessie Buckley. TOBY WOOLLASTON
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – Review #2 (Netflix) 5/10
Billed as a psychological thriller (ha!) this film is pretty much a seemingly endless series of monologues. Charlie Kaufman is one of the few auteur film directors left standing and when he’s on form (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) can turn out engaging oddball movies. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, however, ignores pacing and its driving-at-night scenes take up about half the film, and make for spectacularly dull viewing. The other half takes place at Jake’s parents’ house in the sticks and it’s like something out of an early Lynch film like Eraserhead. These scenes are so bizarre one’s WTF meter is on such high alert that there’s a certain entertainment value embedded therein.
But honestly, the film took a record four nights to get through in this household because its endless conversations about God knows what most of the time are both baffling and boring. There’s probably a lot of intellectual muscle required to appreciate this art film, and maybe a reading of the novella may have heightened my appreciation, but I found it interminable. GARY STEEL
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix) 7/10
It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. We know that octopus exist, but we seldom have cause to think about them. My Octopus Teacher tells the story of a man and his relationship with a common octopus, which he meets in the wild Atlantic seas at the tip of South Africa. It’s an unlikely idea for a documentary and the result is both amazing and deeply flawed. By focussing on Craig Foster’s story of career burn-out and seemingly near psychosis leading to his immersion in these freezing waters, the film somewhat loses the opportunity to tell the story of the octopus itself.
With the intelligence of a young child and a vulnerable body making it necessary to adopt many disguises, the octopus is a fascinating creature worthy of a BBC production and a David Attenborough voiceover. But in typical Netflix fashion, the story of meeting and slowly getting to know the octopus is deemed the essential ingredient. And while the “friendship” that grows between man and mollusc is at times hugely touching, it would have been much more gratifying to have less of Foster and more of the octopus. GARY STEEL
Terminator: Dark Fate (Neon) 7.5/10
The latest Terminator film has been roundly assassinated by critics, and even Witchdoctor’s own esteemed critics pulled it to pieces after it’s cinematic release. Watching a great big pile of Hollywood excrescence on the small screen is a very different experience, however. The latest (last?) entry of this long-lasting franchise is something of a dog, but it’s a dog that does circus tricks, licks you in all the right places, and proves an easy and convenient companion on a cold winter’s night.
Terminator: Dark Fate brings an ageing Linda Hamilton back to meet head-on her arch-nemesis Arnie, who it turns out has seen the error of his ways and has been keeping a low profile for decades. (And getting older, too. Can a machine age?) But the real stars are the new bad Terminator (played by Gabriel Luna) and a technologically enhanced human (Mackenzie Davis), both of whom turn up from the future to change the past. (Huh?) The film is essentially one long, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink chase sequence as the seemingly unstoppable Luna causes all manner of chaos in his quest to kill a young woman (Natalia Reyes) who will be the key figure in the resistance. It’s completely silly, but also hugely entertaining, frequently edge-of-seat, and makes for a great night in. GARY STEEL
The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps (DocPlay) 9/10
There have been some fine documentaries about New Zealand bands and musicians over the past five years, but this takes the cake. You don’t have to be a fan of the Dunedin group The Chills or the early 1980s scene it was part of to appreciate this deep dive into the life and present reality of its leader, Martin Phillipps, who offers himself up for scrutiny in this exquisite portrayal. Like ‘em or loathe ‘em, The Chills are an important exemplar of a fixed point in NZ popular music history as well as one of about half a dozen groups during the ‘80s to take a stab at making it internationally, and the film tells the story of its ups and downs well through both old footage and contemporary interviews with past associates and musicians.
The running gag is the large number of band members that came and went, but the story is equally about Martin during a depressing year in which his Hep C appears to have given him a life sentence. While the filmed appointments with his specialist feel a little manipulated, there’s no mistaking the gravity of the situation and overall, the depiction of the artist as an ailing middle-aged chap with crushed expectations is emotionally impactful. A compelling film about a talented songwriter/artist and a flawed individual who is emerging from the depressing reality of drug and alcohol addiction, The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillips is a must-see.
The Sounds (TVNZ On Demand) 6/10
We really wanted to like this series. We really did. On paper, it’s got all the right ingredients: set in the awe-inspiring location of the Pelorus Sound in Marlborough, it’s a murder-mystery that does an okay job of keeping you guessing while throwing up plenty of red herrings. The problem with this Canadian/NZ production, though, is that we’re not given a chance to get to know or care about the Canadian couple before things begin to go seriously awry, and the distance this creates invites the viewer to cast a critical eye at every aspect of the production.
There’s something clunky and obvious about the way it gets going that you never see in superficially similar but much more subtly hued and accented crime procedurals with gorgeous backdrops from Sweden, or even the UK’s Broadchurch. While it would be mean to claim that it was a poor show – it’s watchable enough during a rainy night in and if you want to play Spot The Kiwi Actor it can be quite fun – there’s little except for the exceptional setting to elevate it beyond the ordinary. GARY STEEL
The Stranger (Netflix) 5/10
I’d heard good things about The Stranger. I was told that it was a really solid – and critically acclaimed – police procedural from South Korea. While this seemed unlikely, the fact that it stars Bae Doona (Sense8, Kingdom) lulled me into an expectation that it never fulfilled. I don’t want to seem discriminatory, but the proof is in the pudding: South Korea makes some of the worst television I’ve ever seen. And while The Stranger isn’t in the top echelon of South Korean televisual stinkers, neither is it very good.
Essentially a buddy cop show that combines intentionally outlandish action sequences with grisly crime and silly humour, it’s unfailingly garish and obvious and the whole thing looks like it was shot by the same soft-focus cameras they use in those interminable (but very popular) Korean soaps. GARY STEEL
Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation (Dailymotion) 9/10
I’m no fan of UFO shows. They’re usually silly. Worse still, they often rely on lazy logic to try and convince viewers of the phenomena of some nefarious government conspiracy. Thankfully, Unidentified (part of the History Channel’s ‘Mysterious History’ programming) not only brings a fresh look to the UFO genre but adds a much-needed dose of credibility with contributions from an ex-senior Pentagon intelligence officer, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence and a former director of Advanced Systems Development at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division. Most of the witnesses are military personnel (fighter pilots, radar operators and security staff), all of whom are trained observers and rational people not prone to flights of fancy.
Unidentified treats the UFO topic with a seriousness that has been so sorely lacking, which makes for a refreshing change. Much of the first season’s six shows detail the most significant AATIP (Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program) case, where in November 2004 the Nimitz Aircraft Carrier Strike Group (engaged in training exercises off the coast of California) recorded objects on the radar that were performing manoeuvres impossible for conventional aircraft. Viewers get treated to high-quality recreations of the many UFO encounters, which help to bring a surreal and convincing feel to a show that provides viewers with a more grounded and realistic perspective on the UFO question. PAT PILCHER
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.