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

A regular column in which we sift through the mountain of available streaming TV and bring your attention to great new shows as well as those to avoid.

Squid Game – see review below

 

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The Beast (Mubi) 6/10

The things they once had to do to get their rocks off. These days hardcore porn is everywhere, but back in the 1970s they actually made films with plots – of sorts – to disguise the intent. The Beast (or more accurately La Bête) is described as an erotic horror film, although the beast in question is more comedic than terrifying. Much of this French film is given over to a tedious narrative in which the keeper of a dilapidated country mansion is trying vainly to get a religious dignitary to perform a marriage between his deformed son and a luscious young lady who stands to inherit the estate.

 

The film’s cult status is probably due to the repulsive, extended scenes of horses fucking and later, the dream sequence of a comely young maiden being, um… gorged by the giant phallus of “the beast”. And yes, there’s “splurge-a-plenty” as well as full frontals of females with actual bush. It’s always seemed odd to me that films like this can exist within the broad category of “art” movies, but hey. I guess it says a lot about the culture that it oozed out of, and it’s certainly, um… different.  GARY STEEL

Cruel Summer (Prime Video) 7/10

Dramas and documentaries about the abductions of underage girls are rampant, but Cruel Summer is something different. Focusing on two very different high school girls over the course of three years (1993 to 1995), the 10-part series forensically examines the events leading up to the kidnapping and the relationship between the two girls  – the well-to-do cheerleader type blonde Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) and the geeky, braces-wearing wannabe Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia). Rather than dwelling on the details of the abduction itself, it focuses on Kate’s televised accusation that Jeanette knew about the abduction and the subsequent public vilification, along with the huge impact the events have on the families and friends of the two girls.

Its evocation of the 1990s is clever and largely accurate and the cinematography is superb. The standout performance is Andrea Anders as Kate’s horrid, self-centred and duplicitous mother, Joy. But there’s a problem: each episode is conveyed in a series of flashbacks, flipping between ’93, ’94 and ’95, which means that the details are slowly teased out over the course of the series. This conceptual conceit may appeal to fans of murder mysteries (and that’s essentially what Cruel Summer is) but for me, the constant flipping back and forth became annoying (and sometimes, a little confusing). Still, having a series set in the suburbs of Texas makes for a refreshing change of scene, and there’s some quite intricate interplay between the characters that somewhat redeems it. GARY STEEL

The Miniaturist (Acorn) 8/10

Mysteries set in 17th Century Holland aren’t exactly thick on the ground, and happily, this three-part 2017 miniseries lives up to expectations. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Petronella, a gorgeous, fresh-faced young bride who moves from the country to live with her rich merchant husband, Johannes (Alex Hassell) in Amsterdam, but is disappointed when she discovers that the arrangement is a sham. The definition of a costume drama, The Miniaturist skillfully portrays the repressive and claustrophobic society of the time, where acceptable behaviour is determined by the Church, and Church and the State are one.

 

Each episode is packed with intrigue as she discovers more about her new situation and the strangers with which she now must share her life. And if that wasn’t enough, the mystery is ratcheted up when she starts receiving bizarre miniature figures to use in the replica doll’s house that her husband bought her as a wedding gift. Ultimately, the miniseries is an examination of the tragedy wrought by an iron-cast morality on individuals who don’t fit in, and it ends on a terribly sad and somewhat shocking note.  GARY STEEL

Outlier (Acorn) 7/10

Filmed with great difficulty in 2020 in only four months during the first flush of Covid-19 activity, this Norwegian murder mystery has a lot going for it, but those looking for a completely credible storyline might want to keep a wide berth. Anethe Alsvaag stars as Anna, a brilliant London-based criminal profiler lured back to her remote Norwegian hometown by the case of Sophie, a young woman whose body was found in a caravan park out of season. It’s Alsvaag’s admittedly intriguing face that hogs most of the screentime (clearly the main camera operator was harbouring an obsession) on an eight-part series that somehow manages to be both exquisite and a bit silly.

 

Nordic noir by now is a well-established category and Outlier doesn’t buck the formula. Still, its slow reveal of deepset problems and half-forgotten tragedy in the isolated community makes for some fascinating character portraits. Anna is a super-smart, sharp and assertive woman and she quickly exposes the shortcomings of the local constabulary and their investigations pertaining to previous missing person reports, especially of young women. There are a couple of major plot twists towards the halfway mark that nearly destroyed it for this viewer. But there’s a captivating extra layer of intrigue added when Anna realises that the sexual abuse she endured as a 10-year-old might be connected to the murders.  GARY STEEL

Reservation Dogs (Disney+) 9/10

Taika Waititi’s creativity is clearly in overdrive at the moment, and his Kiwi humour blends incredibly well with the indigenous Americans who comprise the cast in this eight-part series about four teenagers looking for a way out of their the extremely down-at-heel Oklahoma reservation on which they live. Let’s not forget that this is a collaboration with Sterlin Harjo, whose films to date have all been themed around Native Americans. It’s impossible not to feel for the kids, and ultimately, the wider community, and Reservation Dogs also cleverly tells several of the older characters’ stories along the way – notably police Officer Big (played by Zahn McLarnon) and the reclusive marijuana fiend Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer).

 

But it’s the kids – the handsome but sweet Bear Smallhill (Pharaoh Woon-A-Tae), the grieving Elora (Devory Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie (Paulina Alexis) around which the show revolves and mainly their crime-ridden pursuit to get enough cash together to make it to California. It’s a depressing scenario but Reservation Dogs does what a great dramedy should: it doesn’t ignore the difficulty of these lives or the endemically racist system that represses them, but it manages to find the humanity, pathos and humour in their lives.   GARY STEEL

Sex Education (Netflix) 7/10

The first series of Sex Education was a real breath of risqué fresh air, and this dramedy set mostly in an English high school but revolving around sex therapist Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) and her teenage son Otis (Asa Butterfeld) was edgy enough to be provocative but also genuinely (outrageously) funny. It also helped that it was packed with great characters and that the tone seemed to effortlessly weave its way between laugh-out-loud and genuinely poignant moments. The second series seems to turn up the volume on the slapstick, and while it was still eminently watchable, it also felt increasingly implausible.

 

The brand new third series finds an increasing gulf developing between some of the frankly very silly humour and the much more serious and meaningful lines of dramatic enquiry. We’re asked to believe a storyline in which the now fully-fledged “sex school” is taken over by a prudish female headmistress set on turning the clock back at least 50 years. Contrasting all that nonsense, the drama is ramped up with the affecting fleshing out of several characters, including that of the stuffy former headmaster and his loser son Adam (brilliantly played by Connor Swindells), who is slowly discovering his gay self and the warm human underneath the repression of his upbringing. This hardened critic shed a tear or three. GARY STEEL

Shame (Mubi) 7/10

Michael Fassbender is superb as a sex-addicted New York city executive with a serious emotional bypass in this 2011 film by Steve McQueen (the director, not the late icon of machismo), as is Carey Mulligan, who plays his needy, self-harming sister. It’s a beautifully filmed snapshot of the city scape, mostly at night, and McQueen clearly wanted to minimise dialogue to create a canvass on which he could shoot extended scenes of Fassbender jogging through its streets, jacking off in its towers and having vigorous sex with multiple prostitutes in its more dingey locales.

 

Given Shame’s critical acclaim I’m assuming that the emotional detachment I felt watching it is an uncommon reaction. While appreciating the wonderful performances, I wasn’t given enough background to the characters or their plight to identify or empathise with their characters. In a sequence typical of the film, when Mulligan sings a torch song in a supper club it’s an extended, up-close performance in which she’s virtually oozing pain, but somehow we’re supposed to feel it without knowing anything of her story. The controversial nudity and sex scenes are tastefully handled, and the frequent use of silent scenes over which classically oriented music is played make for a bold, sometimes poignant statement. GARY STEEL

Squid Game (Netflix) 6/10

Well, full marks for making a show with enough points of interest that it becomes one of the few “foreign” (read: subtitled) series’ to breakthrough to a mass audience. But really… the appeal of Squid Game is questionable, to say the least. This (initially) eight-part Korean “survival drama” is about a bunch of losers who owe vast sums of money and who are, therefore, happy to accept a mystery invitation to take part in a game in which they’re in to win a fortune. Focusing primarily on gambling addicts and generally hopeless chap Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), other important cast members include the cute (and very tough) North Korean defector Kang (Jung Ho-yeon) and the elderly Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su).

 

Naturally, the games prove lethal for most of the participants and the challenges get increasingly difficult. While the sections in which the losers are competing at some secret island destination are bizarre, cleverly choreographed and sometimes shocking, unfortunately, we also have to spend some time early in the show in Seong’s day-to-day, crisis-filled world. The script and acting are on about the same level as a Korean soap, where every gesture is over-emphasised to the point of absurdity. Perhaps the almost comical tone is intentional. It certainly makes for a startling contrast with the game sections. But this also means that the parts of Squid Game relying on drama rather than excruciating games leading to (mostly) death are really quite dull. GARY STEEL

Summer Of Soul (Or… When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Disney+) 9/10

This month’s must-see documentary, Summer Of Soul is a revelation that tells the story of a season of free concerts that occurred in Harlem, New York way back in 1969. The shows were all filmed and intended for television but until now, the performances have never been screened. Capturing African American music at a turning point as it became increasingly radicalised, it’s an incredible document that shows the explosion of creativity that came with the civil rights movement. The sense of political will to overcome several hundred years of oppression is palpable in these performances; especially so in those by the likes of Nina Simone.

There are many interviews (some with surviving musicians) contextualising the event, the artists and the performances, but sadly, these cut into the songs themselves. Jazz instrumentalist Herbie Mann’s song is basically talked over, presumably because there was no vocalist to get in the way. I was desperate to see the full performances by the likes of Stevie Wonder, BB King, the Staples Singers, the 5th Dimension, The Temptations and Sly & The Family Stone, but the film kept on cutting away from the stage action to yet another interview. My hope is that they’ll release a second version with all the performances. Regardless, it’s a priceless document and a crime that the footage was suppressed all these years. Afros abound and the threads are out of this world. Essential. 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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