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.
Becoming Bond (Beamafilm) 10/10
This hilarious docu-drama tells the yarn about dinkum Aussie George Lazenby’s incredible journey that led to him starring as James Bond in the 1969 movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Lazenby initially speaks to camera, and then we cut away to chunks of dramatized snippets of his life as the story unfolds.
It features lots of memorable ‘60s costumes, cars and attitudes along the way. Told with charisma and charm, Becoming Bond somehow manages to be both a sweet and dodgy tale that moves briskly along in colourful ways, and is thankfully a completely distracting yarn perfect for these troubled Covid times. CHARLES JAMESON
Borat Subsequent MovieFilm (Amazon Prime) 8/10
I’ve never been a huge Borat fan, but this is different. If you want to find out just how poked America is in the age of Trump but would rather face the tragic truth with laughter, then this is the good medicine. Borat Subsequent MovieFilm constructs a clever storyline about Borat’s important US mission (which involves selling his daughter to Trump’s second-in-charge, Mike Pence) and deftly weaves a mix of made-up storyline and documentary footage to paint a picture of contemporary America that will shock and appal.
Subtitled Delivery Of Prodigious Bribe To American Regime For Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan, we follow Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) on a US road trip with his daughter, Tutar (the exceptional Maria Bakalova) to prepare her for matrimonials with an important American politician. Filmed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Borat Subsequent MovieFilm is brilliant in its ability to convey its deep humanism while covertly offering up a savage critique of what American society is becoming. And like all the best humour, it relies partly on surprise value and partly on excruciating humiliation. And the setup scene exposing the lechery of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani is worth the price of admission on its lonesome. GARY STEEL
Dead Still (Acorn) 8/10
This original Acorn TV series is very Irish, darkly funny and unique enough to stand on its own merits in a crowded streaming TV market. Michael Smiley plays the pompous memorial photographer, Brock Blennerhasset. As with so many UK dramas, Dead Still is beautifully put together and uses great acting and dark humour to weave a complex story that’s funny and compelling enough not to send viewers to sleep.
Dead Still takes a light-hearted crack at the murder mystery genre. Instead of an all-knowing cop we’re given a photographer whose trade involves posing dead people and photographing them before they’re buried. Add in an ongoing series of grotesque copycat murders, lashings of Irish humour and a likeable cast and you’ve got some cracking good viewing. PAT PILCHER
Euphoria (Neon) 10/10
I remember having a good laugh over the fact that when an Ecstacy-like drug was introduced on the late-1980s teen TV hit Beverley Hills 90210 they renamed it ‘Euphoria’. While that show was an entertaining soap opera with no pretensions to reality, various dramas over the years have tried to capture the teen experience with various levels of success (but mostly profound failure). As a boomer I’m not in a position to claim authenticity to Euphoria but it feels real and is an almost flawless exposition of contemporary teenage life, American-style. Those expecting the standard cliches attributed to teens will be shocked by Euphoria’s deep dive into its characters’ complex lives, and importantly, their families.
Focusing on a recidivist drug addict played beautifully by actor/singer Zendaya but devoting episodes to explaining the backstory to each of its main characters, Euphoria strikes an amazingly nimble balance by never demeaning with stereotype or being simply grim (although it takes no prisoners in that department). By seeing through the eyes of the characters themselves we get to experience the thrills of drug-taking and partying but also the consequences. There’s plenty of (sometimes very dark) humour to go with the growing pains and the various strands of the storytelling easily transcend the boring suburban setting. Oh, and did I mention that the acting, the visuals and the music are all superb? For those who can handle the sometimes upsetting subject matter and the frequent (mostly male, for some reason) full-frontal nudity, this is essential viewing. GARY STEEL
Paula Penfold is an exceptional journalist with a keen eye for a great story and the uncanny ability to tease detail out of a narrative to make them even more compelling. Her latest investigation in Stuff Circuit, False Profits, takes a hard look at the (until recently) leader of the Advance NZ Party, Billy Te Kahika Junior. Having led protests against Auckland’s Covid-19 lockdown, Billy TK amassed a sizeable following that included a veritable cornucopia of conspiracy theorists including anti-5G nutjobs and anti-vaxxers.
In Penfold’s documentary, Advance Party gee-whiz is peeled back to paint an honest portrait of Billy TK. The end result isn’t flattering. From inaccurate CVs through to alleged financial misdeeds and even accusations of bullying, everything is verified by people who have known Billy TK. Watching him flounder through Penfold’s probing questions, refusing to make eye contact and ultimately walking out of the interview is revealing. Although it was filmed prior to the NZ election and Te Kahika’s defection from Advance, False Profits is compelling viewing and a genuine warning against public gullibility. PAT PILCHER
Fat (iWonder) 6/10
There are so many great documentaries hitting the streaming screen at the moment that it’s a bit of a jolt when you come across one that reminds you of the clunky old, pre-digital days of low budgets and technical ineptitude. While Fat (2019) has an important message – even if it is heavily biased – the distracting way in which its interviews are filmed and the poor editing choices make it way less engaging than it should be.
On the face of it, Fat is a documentary about the obesity epidemic in America, but it’s advocating the keto diet as a way to fix the fat. It makes a compelling argument against the machinations of the so-called health system in the US and the fatal flaws in the anti-cholesterol, anti-meat policy that drives food recommendations. What it’s saying is that the real evils in our diets are sugar, carbs and processed foods and that meat and animal fat are healthy. Fair enough, but like most propaganda, it’s selective in what it chooses to tell you, and its concentration on just a few select expert interviewees (dominated by the rather self-important guru-type Vinnie Tortorich) makes it a rather dull viewing experience. GARY STEEL
For All Mankind (Apple+) 9/10
Imagine a world where the space program stayed the top priority for the US because the Soviets beat the Yanks to the moon in 1969. It’s a tantalising premise, and aside from its predictable soap opera shenanigans, it makes for a story that is all the more relatable because it’s set in an era most viewers can relate to.
Solid characters that you end up giving a damn about and good story telling are fuelled by tension between real and fictionalised history. This makes For All Mankind great sci-fi viewing. PAT PILCHER
Ghost Strata (Mubi) 7/10
Despite the renaissance film and television are going through in the streaming era, sometimes it seems that everything we watch has to be tied to a conventional narrative, and that there are no other options for extending the remit of the form. This is somewhat deadening, because there are many ways to tell stories (or not tell stories) and film has enormous potential to experiment, deviate from the norm and simply explore. Ghost Strata (2019) is a 45-minute film by Ben Rivers that’s in essence a kind of alternative travelogue through 12 months of his life. Except that – as the title suggests – each segment captures seemingly inconsequential moments that somehow have meaning.
Each scene (month) is shot on scratchy 16mm film – hence the “small screen” effect and more often than not they’re perplexing but strangely alluring, from the expert in rock formations explaining the “ghost strata” of the film to the perpetually munching sheep accompanied by a poet’s dialogue (and a malfunctioning microphone). There’s no sense of overt meaning here except that we’re soaking in those little eddies of time that life throws up. Ghost Strata is an enjoyable and easy watch with enough visual stimulus to prevent the art movie boredom factor from showing its face. GARY STEEL
High Fidelity (Neon) 5.5/10
If you thought the film of Nick Hornby’s entertaining novel was bad enough, then don’t waste your time with this excruciating series, which (rightly) has been cancelled after just one season. Making a mass-market show about a very niche obsession (music fandom) is a treacherous pursuit, and while the film of the book cannily chose to mix up comedic expositions of those music obsessions (the complicated business of record cataloguing, for instance) with the record shop owner’s love life, the TV series focuses almost entirely on the latter.
While Zoe Kravitz (the daughter of musician Lenny Kravitz) is rather excellent as Rob, the vinyl-only shop’s owner, it’s impossible to take her (or her employees) serious as dedicated music fans. Even the way Rob carelessly positions her record player in her apartment tells the viewer that this is no show for real music fans. If you fancy watching a middling romantic drama with vaguely comedic elements, then High Fidelity may appeal. Otherwise, if you’re a Neon subscriber, you can do much, much better than this. GARY STEEL
On The Rocks (AppleTV+) 4/10
Sadly, this fairly simple and basic story is further un-illuminated by sombre and gloomy cinematography. All of which adds up to… very little. Yes, Bill Murray playing one of the three main characters, crusty old (and charming) git Felix Keane, is kinda nice. But he really just plods through the movie, with a few choice lines. And he’s lit with lots of minimalist lighting resulting in lots of dark shadows. It just all doesn’t add up.
Rashida Jones as his daughter Laura does a good job of the bare bones plot to do with her husband possibly having an affair; something her charismatic Dad helps investigate. Overall this is a very light story pumped-up with competent actors and over-cooked production values. By the end of it, I was scratching my head, thinking ‘Is that it?’ I was expecting something much better, given director Sophia Coppola’s brilliant earlier movie with Murray, Lost In Translation. CHARLES JAMESON
Ready Or Not (Neon) 7.5/10
Preposterous but incredibly entertaining, this 2019 film isn’t for the squeamish, but in its own outrageous fashion, it’s hugely empowering. The bizarre plot sees a new bride Grace (Samara Weaving) invited to her groom’s immense family home. She becomes the victim of a family tradition where – if you draw the short straw in a game – you’re hunted down and killed.
The usual cliches are quickly upturned as the bride fights back, and uses every bit of intelligence, guile and anger to survive the night. It sounds silly and yes, it is. But it’s also packed with invention, surprise, the odd dash of humour and the big one: revenge. Don’t let Weaving’s former role in Aussie soap Home And Away put you off: she’s dynamite in Ready Or Not, and in its own small way the film is a courageous rebuttal to all those horrors that (despite Ripley’s pathfinding “strong woman” character in Alien) have portrayed women as “the weaker sex”. GARY STEEL
The Headhunter (Neon) 2/5
Go online and read about The Headhunter (2018) and you’d think it had a story about a bounty hunter in the Dark Ages who makes frequent kills while waiting to deal with the creature that killed his young daughter. In fact, there is no story. We see various close-ups of the interior of an isolated hut and its gruesome contents, various close-ups of a fierce-looking warrior, and various close-ups of injuries sustained. We see a tree, under which lies a dead girl. Time goes by, the headhunter (Norwegian “actor” Christopher Rygh) comes and goes. Nothing much happens, it’s only hinted at.
Directed, produced and written by a fellow called Jordan Downy, The Headhunter (originally called The Head) wants to be brutal yet significant, but is a boring, miserable excuse for a film that never works up an iota of intrigue or drama, and contains no dialogue whatsoever. Avoid! GARY STEEL
The Social Dilemma (Netflix) 9/10
Deeply disturbing, yet essential viewing, the premise of this doco is that we are all being discretely screwed over by social media empires/vampires. It is claimed they have largely become greedy and manipulative, despite the cheery face they present to the world.
Fronting up are former senior employees of Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. They claim these AI-driven corporates’ main aim is to suck huge amounts of money and time from the average person, no matter what the cost. One cost might even be civil war, according to one interviewee. The only downside of The Social Dilemma is the dramatized bits scattered throughout – they’re a secondary and un-necessary distraction from the central narrative. CHARLES JAMESON
#Unfit: The Psychology Of Donald Trump (DocPlay) 9/10
Donald Trump gets so much coverage already, and is such an unpalatable character, that the idea of spending an hour-and-a-half watching a documentary about the most controversial president in American history is almost too much. Please, do it anyway. #Unfit: The Psychology Of Donald Trump is an important film, because it not only dissects the personality, but looks at the impact of his “malignant narcissism” on an underclass of Americans who are angry enough with the status quo that they’d support a president of demonstrably poor character; one who has told more than 19,127 documented lies since he took office, and who is described by eminent psychologists as a sociopath who is incapable of normal human emotions like empathy.
#Unfit skilfully paints a picture of an individual who grew up with a mindset based on savage competition, revenge, and always getting his own way, at all costs… even if it means blatant dishonesty. When we hear the story of how he cheated Tiger Woods in golf and rigs it so that he wins golf trophies for tournaments he’s not even in (at his own golf courses), it seems almost laughable. But the real (and very scary) message is that Trump’s modus operandi echoes the path of autocratic rulers like Hitler and Mussolini who managed to trample all over the democratic process, and that on the world stage he’s now joined by several equally dangerous leaders like Putin, Duterte and Kim Jon-Un. By the end we’re painfully aware of how hard won but fragile democracy is and just how dangerous Trump could be regardless of whether he wins a second term. GARY STEEL
Watchmen (Neon) 9/10
Watchmen is reputedly one of the darkest, most disturbing, yet most brilliant DC comics ever created. Predictably, when a film adaptation came along in 2009 it was panned. Viewing this award-winning 9-part “limited” TV series it’s easy to understand why a motion picture couldn’t have encapsulated the many-layered and frequently confusing storyline, which exists on a timeline that’s anything but conventional. Having not read the comic I can’t make any comparison, but the TV series stands on its own as one of the most compelling (if often bamboozling) shows of the year. In fact, the idea was apparently to create a new story based on the original concept, so it’s probably best viewed on its own terms.
Personally, during the first four episodes I felt like my brain was peeling off my cranium, such was the remarkable level of creativity and constant surprise factor. Featuring scenes in an alternative reality where Jeremy Irons is playing out murderous experiments with clones, contrasted with a plot in which Regina King plays a police officer disguised with a mask in order to deal with the dastardly plans of a white supremacist group, the show features cars being sucked into space, a blue-skinned time-traveller and many other layers of concealment. With music by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor and a cast that includes the likes of Andrew Howard, Louis Gossett Jr and Don Johnson (!), Watchmen is an extraordinary show that’s so much more than just another comic series. GARY STEEL
White House Farm (Neon) 9/10
This slow-burning UK police drama is based on a truly appalling crime – the murder of an entire family – in 1985. We follow DS Stan Jones (played by Mark Addy), who has an inkling that the obvious conclusion of a murder-suicide isn’t quite right, and is increasingly determined to prove it. At every turn, Jones is blocked by his boss, DCI Taff Jones (played by Stephen Graham), who is determined to wrap up the case quickly even if it means ignoring evidence.
Graham’s anger-fuelled performance seems a bit off somehow, but it’s the only flaw in this excellent 6-part series. Addy feels authentic as an ordinary cop with a conscience doing the right thing by examining every minute piece of evidence, and Freddy Fox (as the sociopathic son, Jeremy Bamber) is fantastic in his ability to switch from pretending to be grief-stricken to being simply cold as ice in the blink of an eye: an actor portraying a covert actor. This police procedural takes its good time but is never boring as the layers of the story and its characters are slowly pealed to reveal the chilling truth. GARY STEEL
THE BEST (AND WORST) 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.
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