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.
Balthazar (Acorn TV) 10/10
Balthazar is a huge hit in its French homeland and is a crime procedural modelled after shows like The Mentalist with a bit of French pizazz thrown in for good measure. The show centres around Raphaël Balthazar (Tomer Sisley), one of the top forensic examiners in Paris. Throughout the show’s two seasons he solves some bizarre crimes with the help of Inspector Jérôme Delgado (Yanig Samot) and Chief Inspector Hélène Bach (Hélène de Fougerolles).
Balthazar has a knack for driving like a maniac, eating exquisite foods, playing extreme sports and sleeping with random women. He is also a genius with a gift for filling in the blanks that the cops would have otherwise missed. The show comes with a warning about graphic medical scenes, and they’re not kidding. The bodies on the show are naked, and often realistically injured as Balthazar examines them in the morgue. Weekly murder mysteries aside, the show also works thanks to the story arc centring around the murder of Balthazar wife’s and his determination to find her killer. A rich, over-arching plot and weekly murders keep things pacey, while the quirky characters and unfolding chemistry between the characters maintain engagement. PAT PILCHER
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Country Music (DocPlay) 9/10
As an avid music consumer, I’m not particularly fond of the country music genre. Nevertheless, during the epic 16 hours-plus of Country Music (subtitled ‘A Film By Ken Burns’) I was surprised by how many of the artists do have a place somewhere in my record collection. Regardless of your attitude to country music, this definitive history is hugely instructive and consistently fascinating as it busts several prevailing myths – especially around race and the form’s real origins.
The early and often untold aspects of country music are the most fascinating, and as so often happens in music documentaries the most recent developments seen in the last episode seem overly commercial and slick and uninteresting. But overall, the series and its often heartbreaking stories – usually starting out in unbelievable poverty and ending in divorce, the demon drink and early death – makes for consistently compelling viewing. GARY STEEL
Fatma (Netflix) 8/10
One of the truly liberating things about streaming television is access to dramas from countries other than the usual suspects, and Turkish crime drama Fatma is a great example. Burcu Biricik stars as Fatma, a stricken woman whose autistic son has recently died in mysterious circumstances and husband has gone missing, and the whole world seems against her. Its gritty Istanbul setting immediately creates a point of difference, but it’s the appalling way she is treated by everyone around her that made me grateful to be living in a society not ruled by religion and the patriarchy!
Fatma is layered and uses flashbacks to tell its story, but never to a confusing degree. The levels of mystery and atrocity are measured out skilfully so that you’re constantly surprised at the next reveal. Biricik is excellent as a woman on the edge who is slowly being pushed towards extremes of behaviour, and we’re with her all the way as she surprises herself by exterminating her greatest threats. With only six episodes to date, all I can say is: more please. GARY STEEL
The Irregulars (Netflix) 5/10
Fantasies involving post-Victorian England seem to be all the rage at the moment, and The Irregulars is one of the most hyped. Unfortunately, despite a promising idea in which a gang of unusual youngsters help Dr Watson solve crimes, the whole thing comes across as though it’s pitched at 12-year-olds, and rather mentally challenged 12-year-olds at that.
There’s something imbecilic about the presentation that makes it about as appealing as one of those teen vampire shows and the fantasy element just doesn’t quite click. Strangely, viewers don’t appear to have agreed with me, and it quickly proved one of the most popular new shows on Netflix. Weirdly, the streaming giant still went ahead and cancelled it after one series. GARY STEEL
Kaikohe Demolition (DocPlay) 8/10
There’s a whole selection of Florian Habicht films available to view on NZ On Screen at the moment, but if there’s one that captures the warmth and weirdness of life in the far rural north of New Zealand, you can’t beat Kaikohe Demolition (2003). In what could have been a sneering demolition of low income New Zealand, the film instead – by getting up close and personal with its subject – shines an affectionate light on the intrinsic Kiwi character.
In the 52 minutes of this intimate character study, Habicht interviews his far north subjects at the Ngawha thermal mud pools or working on their cars in ramshackle driveways. Everything leads to the bizarre annual Demolition Derby event, a kind of low-rent cross between dodgems and stock car racing that’s as utterly hilarious as it is slightly depressing. I found myself liking the characters so much that I wanted to a 2021 update on their wellbeing. GARY STEEL
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) 8/10
The Queen’s Gambit starts with an orphan learning chess and rapidly rising in the 1960s cold war era US Vs Russia Chess world. The seven-part series centres around Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) who becomes a pill addict as a kid and learns chess through the orphanage janitor. Beth eventually gets adopted and her new Mum, Alma (superbly played by Marielle Heller) enables Beth when she discovers chess can be a lucrative earner.
The Queens Gambit is beautifully filmed, superbly acted and has a well-written screenplay. It’s not long before you are hooked. The downside? Beth’s rapid rise seems almost too smooth. As a young woman in the ‘60s she’s depicted as having growing dominance in the male-centric chess world, and encounters hardly any sexism. Still, it’s a must-see. PAT PILCHER
Seaspiracy (Netflix) 7/10
Views on this most compelling of documentaries have been wildly divergent, with environmentalists and vegans generally lauding it and representatives of the many vested interests in the fishing industry very keen to point out all its supposed factual errors. There may be some mistakes in data or out-of-context interviews, but the film still makes a strong case against fishing, fish farming and consequently, eating fish.
Piling on atrocity after atrocity (slave labour on fishing vessels, the huge pollution caused by the fishing industry) and misleading claims made by so-called environmental groups reliant on industry for funding, Seaspiracy is a film that pescatarians will probably avoid, but they will do so at their own eventual peril. With sea stocks now so low that not just the oceans but the world and its atmosphere are also imperilled by the continued abuse, it’s a film that deserves at least a considered viewing. GARY STEEL
Stateless (Netflix) 7/10
The six episodes (that’s “limited series” to you, bubs) of Stateless paint a grim picture of Aussie immigration centres, and while it’s hard to define a show like this as an entertainment, this more-or-less true story is skilfully rendered. Yvonne Strahovsky plays an Australian citizen who – after being betrayed in a personal growth cult – has a major meltdown and ends up imprisoned in a brutal detention centre. We see the story unfold principally through her eyes, and at times the inevitable train-wreck is an excruciating watch.
While the production values at times seem too polished for something as gritty as this and sometimes it’s hard to know whether it’s closer to being claustrophobic or simply voyeuristic, ultimately the power of the performances and storytelling bring it to a powerful conclusion. While the authorities are implicated it’s gratifying to see some of the least sympathetic characters being portrayed in complex hues. GARY STEEL
The Story Of The Kinks (Amazon Prime) 2/10
Don’t you hate it when you get all excited about what purports to be a recent documentary on a great band or artist, and it turns out to be one of those lame 1980s piecemeal histories with a terrible voiceover, scratchy footage and only a small selection of boring interviews? Amazon Prime are especially guilty of this. Billed as a 2019 doco, The Story Of The Kinks was really made in 1984 and looks like it. Fans might still stoop to watching for the occasional bit of rare footage but this kind of thing can really put you off a group.
Listening to the 1960s work of The Kinks is like taking a masterclass in the evolution of a hot R&B-based rock group into one of the wittiest, most melodic pop acts on the planet. But documentaries like this are more likely to put off mildly interested would-be fans, with their poorly chosen stock “live” footage (never synchronised, of course), 20th Century TV box screen, and an almost total reliance on three interviews: a rather poor early ‘80s chat with Kinks leader Ray Davies along with two former managers. Amazon Prime are also flogging similar docos about Jim Morrison, Sam Cooke and others. Avoid! GARY STEEL
Surviving Death (Netflix) 8/10
A medical doctor drowns in a canoe accident, and is considered clinically ‘dead.’ But she unexpectedly comes back to life, and remembers floating out of her body, into a different dimension during the time she was considered to be kaput. It’s an experience she later wrote a book about and talks about in Episode 1 of this six-part documentary.
Based on the research and writings of Leslie Kean, Surviving Death features some experienced medical and psychology professionals investigating unusual stuff, such as reincarnation, mediumship and other woo-hoo themes. Raising some interesting questions about life and death, the best episodes are 1 and 6. The others were interesting yet implausible, and went on way too long. Overall, a fascinating topic handled well and worth a look. CHARLES JAMESON
Them (Amazon Prime) 3/10
Despite excellent production values – brilliant cinematography, cool graphics, sympathetic acting performances – Them succeeds only in leaving a sour taste in the mouth. By awkwardly combining racial commentary with fantasy horror, the 10-episode series only succeeds in being neither here nor there. It follows the three survivors of an African-American family from the Deep South to the newly minted Compton suburbia of 1953 as they recover from the appalling murder of their baby boy. As the only “coloured” people in a white neighbourhood, they quickly become victims not only of hateful prejudice but of some kind of evil deity that lives in their basement.
What makes Them what one publication called “pure degradation porn” is its emphasis on human degradation and drawn-out scenes of humiliation and even torture. This is made even worse in light of the sterling performance by Deborah Ayorinde as the mother and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Melody Hurd as her kids, both of whom innocently brave the frightening combo of overt, savage racism and the violence lurking within. Created by actor/director Little Marvin, who predictably defends the series, Them could almost be called racist by implication: the implication that every single white person in this show is stereotypically prejudiced and horrid. GARY STEEL
The Third Day (Neon) 6/10
Fans of cult movie The Wicker Man might be intrigued by The Third Day, which stars Jude Law (in the first and last segment, at least) as a broken individual tormented by the preventable death of his son. His destiny, it turns out, is a tiny island off the coast of England accessed by a long bridge that’s submerged by the incoming tide.
The first segment is bogged down in camera work that tries way too hard to be documentary-like and instead just seems laboured, but overall, its depiction of a mysterious island sect still practising pagan ceremonies and rituals is alluring and often quite frightening. GARY STEEL
Tripping With Nils Frahm (Mubi) 7/10
Nils Frahm is the epitome of the modern musician, adept as he is at everything from music for film to pleasingly low-key fusions between neo-classical piano and electronic music that almost (but never quite) works its way up to dance velocity. This film cherry-picks two performances at the Funkhaus Berlin where Frahm performs solo to an enraptured audience.
It’s fascinating to see the way he works in concert without the benefit of studio layering, and how he enthusiastically jumps from his concert grand piano to one of several electronic instruments, a kind of 21st century one-man band impressing with his elegant melodies and modern grip on modern technology. There’s something odd about a crowd reverentially observing a dude jumping around on stage as he builds sonic tapestries that at times feel like the faintest whispers of ‘90s trance morphing into a kind of bourgeois new age. But still, it’s impressive and nicely done. GARY STEEL
After so many conventionally structured shows on streaming services, this one breaks the mould. It starts off in black and white, tastefully re-working TV shows from the ‘60s (such as Bewitched) with tight scripts, mandatory canned laughter and sharp acting from Marvel heroes Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany). Who are – for no apparent reason – plonked into this fantasy time-warp.
This raises plenty of WTF questions about what all this means, which has to be a good thing. Each episode moves forward to a different television era, so when colour video comes on board, sets and themes change. And with each episode, things start to unravel and jolt off script in increasing instances. Then in Episode 4 – whoa! – things really flip around in an X-Files kind of way. It’s a slick series that’s interesting and very polished. Good on them for stepping outside the usual way of doing things and trying something rather different for a change. CHARLES JAMESON
Greg Olliver seems to specialise in fly-on-the-wall documentaries about worn-out rockers. Prior to this 2016 film on blues/rock guitarist Johnny Winter, he’d helped put together a rather depressing film about Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. While that film was also unexpectedly dull, Down & Dirty has its fallow patches but is often quietly compelling. Following a sad old musician around and making a film of it is a rather lazy option, but the film does occasionally break out of that mould to take us into Winter’s illustrious history; a history that includes the white hot electric guitarist’s halcyon days in the late ‘60s, jamming with Hendrix, major label success and ultimately, his drug-laced downfall.
Weirdly, his manager and musical cohorts are interviewed extensively in the film about Winter’s rehabilitation from a stooped wreck to performing and touring again, but it’s still painful to watch the drug-damaged guitarist eking out a living from gig to gig knowing that he died soon after the film’s completion. It’s a long way to fall from the dashing, red hot albino electric guitarist of the late ‘60s to the 60 going on 90 human wreck featured in the film, but we’re led to believe (not entirely convincingly) that he was enjoying his last bout with fame. Deeply saddening. GARY STEEL
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.