The best (and worst) streaming TV shows & films

A regular column in which 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.

 

 

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Burning (Prime Video) 8/10

Many of us will remember the time at the end of 2019 when the spooky orange glow from the Australian wildfires shrouded many parts of New Zealand. But what we don’t know is the full story, because it was criminally suppressed due to the coronavirus epidemic, which followed just a month later. Burning is a revelatory documentary that digs deep into what can only be described as an Aussie government conspiracy to deny the facts of climate change. Kiwis take for granted that our government is doing what it can for climate change – short of the radical action against farmers that they’re too afraid to take – but shockingly, even Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is a climate-change denier who considers that the fires were arson. Oh, and that his country’s future is in mining coal, not clean energy.

Burning isn’t an especially nifty documentary in its presentation style. It just does the job. But the cumulative evidence against the big business interests that are in denial of a climate problem is mindboggling, and frightening. The film details the incredible statistics relating to the fire – the billions of animals that were annihilated and the huge tract of ancient forest that succumbed to the flames. It makes the point that these forests existed before dinosaurs. They’re that old, and they’re now as good as gone. Various experts – including a fire chief with decades of experience – are interviewed and it’s all bad news, and the finger is pointed squarely at big business, government and their busy propaganda machines. Required viewing for anyone who gives a fuck.

Get Back (Disney+) 5/10

Social media fizzed and popped with debate about Peter Jackson’s mammoth 468-minute, three-episode edit of the 60 hours of footage filmed in January 1969 as The Beatles rehearsed for what would become the infamous rooftop performance. Those who were amazed at the way Jackson’s hi-tech gear made World War 1 footage come alive in They Shall Not Grow Old will be equally gobsmacked at the transformation here: grainy Beatles footage is rendered anew and it’s a revelation. But… and it’s a big but.

 

The trouble with Get Back is that for a big chunk of the film the Fab Four (plus girlfriends and industry people) have no idea what the film will be about, and tedium reigns supreme. Some scenes were so long, boring and pointless that only the kind of Beatles fans that think Ringo’s fart should have been captured and bottled could enjoy. At times, it was so dull that this viewer’s spirit felt like it was draining away into some parallel universe where we all lived inside the movie. There are fantastic scenes: brilliant performances that reveal just how musically sophisticated the group really were, and some revealing and very funny repartee. But honestly… there should be a ‘greatest bits’ version for those of us who are just casually intrigued. I’d give that ‘best of’ version a 9 out of 10 rating. In the meantime, fast-forward to the good bits.

James & Isey (DocPlay) 7/10

Filmmaker Florian Habicht seems to flip between fiction and stranger-than-fiction, and like that heartwarming 2004 ode to life in the Far North of NZ, Kaikohe Demolition, James & Isey belongs to the second category. Not so much a documentary as a series of vignettes of two intertwined lives, it follows Isey in the week leading up to her 100th birthday in 2019 but is just as much of a portrait of her devoted son James, whose idiosyncratic personality provides much of the film’s intrigue.

At times it feels like Habicht gets too close to his subjects so that what should be a fly-on-the-wall reveal is somehow inhibited by his presence. But there’s a lot to love about James & Isey (the film and the people), and in its meandering way the film has a lot to say about its personalities and their combined histories as it captures the two – mostly negotiating the day-to-day in their crumbling, cramped cottage near Kawakawa.

Lucky (MUBI) 9/10

I put off watching Lucky for ages because even the thought of seeing the very great Harry Dean Stanton act out a rumination on death when he doubtless knew his own demise was waiting in the wings felt doo darned emotionally devastating. But I’m so glad that eventually I got up the courage. Yes, it is at times heart-wrenching, especially in the knowledge that the 91-year-old Stanton died the year it was released, 2017. But there’s a wry humour as the grumpy old fellow Lucky faces the looming abyss.

Nothing much happens, but Lucky is never boring. Living by himself in an arid border village full of boarded-up stores, he smokes, does his exercises, and goes on his daily walk. He’s a bitter old buzzard but as much as he obscures the fact, he loves life, and the scene where he attends a Mexican birthday party and sings brought a tear to the eyes. Some other notables include David Lynch, whose obsession is his AWOL tortoise, and Tom Skerritt, who plays a Marine veteran who Lucky has a chance meeting with at his regular diner. Ultimately, we all know what’s just around the corner, but life goes on, until it doesn’t.

Nobody (Neon) 10/10

There are a lot of really dire vengeance-oriented action films out there. Many of the most bone-headed recent examples seem to star Vin Diesel – checkout the risible but very entertaining Bloodshot for a good laugh. It’s a genre specifically for guys who don’t mind bad acting as long as their hero kills as many really evil men as possible, and makes them suffer a lot! Nobody breaks open the genre and gives it a big dose of clever dialogue, and scenes that are somehow as laugh-out-loud hilarious as they are horrendously violent. Written by Derek Kolstad (the chap behind the John Wick series) and starring Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), initially we’re led to believe that he’s a weak and routine-obsessed family man who couldn’t even protect his family during a break-in.

I’m not going to be a spoiler, because the narrative relies on a certain degree of surprise. But suffice to say, the film soon becomes a rollercoaster of incredible fight scenes and action sequences involving what appears to be an entire cartel of Russian underworld criminals. With his brother Harry (hip-hop pioneer RZA) and elderly father David (Christopher Lloyd, Back To The Future) helping him out, Hutch (Odenkirk) unleashes his moral fury in a fashion that will appeal to those of us who see bad guys seemingly getting away with it in the real world. But unlike 99.9 per cent of action films, for all the plot holes there’s some excellent acting, clever writing and loads of pizazz. I liked this so much that I did something I seldom do, and watched it twice.

The Power Of The Dog (Netflix) 6/10

By now, Jane Campion is firmly established as the matriarch of New Zealand film, and her latest, The Power Of The Dog, has confirmed her eminence with a firm round of plaudits from international film festivals and Golden Globe wins. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as a bitter, middle-aged cattle farmer, and set in Montana in 1925, the film adroitly captures the raw and sometimes savage life on a remote cattle farm. But wait, it’s not all good.

The downside is that nothing much seems to happen: Benedict’s brother marries a down-on-her-luck waitress Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst), she moves into the mansion, and a cat-and-mouse game ensues between her and Cumberbatch’s character Phil. The most interesting character is Rose’s son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a painfully thin, presumably gay teenager with sadistic tendencies. Ultimately, while Campion is great at those small, delicate gestures that film critics adore, the movie feels like a film in search of a story. Cinematography fiends will, however, adore the ravishingly beautiful backdrop of the Otago hills (yes, it was filmed there).

The Protégé (Prime Video) 3/10

I’m a sucker for action films but there are limits. There’s a small elite of genuinely great ones (see my review of Nobody above) a plethora of shit in the middle, and some that are so bad that they’re good (Steven Seagal in Nico: Above The Law). The Protégé sits squarely in the middle and it really is a piece of silly trash that would have done the universe a big favour had it never been made. Directed by UK-based Kiwi Martin Campbell and starring Maggie Q as deadly assassin Anna, the whole thing is a shambles and the plot almost completely meaningless as the whole thing revolves around a series of nicely choreographed if absurd fight sequences.

While the sexy but deadly killer vixen stereotype might hold endless fascination for a particular kind of viewer, there are much more stylish examples of the genre to live up to (two Luc Besson films immediately spring to mind: La Femme Nikita and Anna) and The Protégé lacks even the building blocks of a genuinely surprising or intriguing story. What’s more, Maggie Q is too familiar (and not in a good way), having starred in not one but two rather dreary and underwhelming TV series’ (Nikita and Designated Survivor). Just say no.

Scribe: Return Of The Crusader (TVNZ On Demand) 7/10

Even those who – like this reviewer – have only the slightest interest in rap music will remember ‘Not Many’, the 2003 hit that turned Christchurch lad Scribe into a megastar of NZ hip-hop overnight and made waves internationally. What happened next was mostly publicly played out on television news via a series of increasingly alarming reports of the star slowly unravelling. This eight-part documentary (in short, bite-sized pieces) deftly tells the whole story of Malo Ioane Luafutu, from his troubled youth growing up with a violent, drug-addicted, gang-affiliated Dad through to his big breakthrough.  And, of course, on to the slow car crash that constituted his subsequent downfall.

 

Handled with sensitivity and with full access to family members, this is an incredible insight into family dysfunction and its impact on subsequent generations, and there are more than a few sob-out-loud moments. The downside is the “officially endorsed” status of the series. At times, it’s just short of a promo for Scribe’s comeback, which is unfortunate. Regardless, Scribe: Return Of The Crusader makes for compelling viewing and you can’t help hoping that he does still have what it takes to make it a second time with new raps about the spiral he found himself in, and how he got out of it.

Succession (Neon) 8/10

Remember how turn-of-the-century HBO dramas like The Sopranos changed television forever? Suddenly, TV seemed vital and real because we were allowed to identify with bad men (and mad men) and see them not just as the epitome of evil, but as human beings with some good qualities to go with the really bad ones. Breaking Bad was a continuation of that theme and for three seasons now, the award-winning Succession has done for the mass media what Tony Soprano did for the mob and House Of Cards did for American politics. To be honest, I expected to be bored by Succession, but found it frequently riveting in its edge-of-seat top echelon corporate shenanigans. Everything about this show – the acting, the sparkling dialogue, the frequent unexpected twists and turns – is superb. And just when you’re feeling sympathy for one of the characters, they’ll do something appalling, just to throw a spanner into the mix.

The third season, however, somehow feels like a lesser thing than the first two. I guess there’s a certain fatigue that sets in when the whole premise of the show – the grand patriarch being overthrown to let the young dogs have their day – feels like it’s just never going to happen. The end of Season 2 was such a cliff-hanger that when the expected revolution fails to materialise it’s a bit of a downer. Still, there are many classic scenes, including the lavish (but disastrous) birthday party son Kendal puts on for himself where the entranceway is made up as a giant vagina. Especially check out Kieran Culkin as the psychotic Roman and Jeremy Strong as drug-addicted Kendal, both sons vying for control of the media empire.

Trapped (Netflix) 9/10

There’s so much going on simultaneously in the first season of Trapped that it’s all a bit overwhelming. Nordic cop procedurals tend to go for “moody” rather than over-the-top, but here we’ve got murder followed by a massive storm, more deaths and more murder. And all the while, our hero, Andri Olafsson (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) is heaving his massive frame around in the snow while suffering the emotional devastation of the breakdown of his marriage – or more specifically, having to confront his wife’s new boyfriend. In short, this superb 2015 Icelandic drama has got a bit of everything in it and it manages to be both an absorbing drama and rather exciting.

Sadly, the 2018 second series is something of a flop. Or is it? There’s really a lot to like about it as a standalone series, and there’s certainly some intrigue in figuring out the villains and their motives, but in comparison, it’s slow and takes far too long to build up momentum. And while the first series has the visually spectacular backdrop of an Icelandic port, the second is set in a remote town in which the main industry is mining, and it’s a somewhat arid scenario. The series is also full of people making silly decisions that either end in them being imperilled or murdered – plot contrivances that move things along but which come across as ludicrous. The first series of Trapped makes for essential viewing; the second is simply a “maybe” choice for a dull weekend. Will Season 3, which is due soon, be more like the first or second season?

The Velvet Underground (Apple+) 8/10

Given the impact the short-lived 1960s New York group continues to have on the rock genre, it’s amazing that it’s taken this long for a proper documentary to be made about the Velvet Underground. Todd Haynes took a break from his fiction feature film career and it turns out that he’s an expert documentarian. There’s nothing especially innovative about The Velvet Underground, but its attention to detail, terrific editing, expert storytelling and access to the surviving members and many of those traveling in the group’s orbit in the late ‘60s makes most other music profiles seem clunky by comparison.

 

Dedicated fans of the group will know it all, but even as a dedicated non-fan, I was fascinated by the period footage, the revealing interviews (both period and recent) and let’s face it, the group’s story is extraordinary – especially the period in which they were artist Andy Warhol’s pet project. Lou Reed is painted as a bit of a prick, while John Cale was equally aloof. It’s great to see Nico given (albeit briefly) some credence at last. The only real flaw was allowing some hanger-on to perpetuate the silly rivalry between the Velvets and Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention by casting the latter as LA hippies, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Voyagers (Prime Video/Neon) 8/10

A kind of teenage Lord Of The Flies set on a space ship hurtling into the unknown, Voyagers could easily have been spectacularly bad. True, it was a box office bomb during the “year of Covid” and gets a big fat raspberry on movie rating aggregator sites. I’m here to tell you that they’re wrong. Voyagers rocks, in fact. The scenario is simple enough: it’s end-of-times on earth so a rocket ship full of hapless babies is sent off to space where, 86 years later – if luck is on their side – they will land on a “fresh” planet and start to repopulate. The problem is that it’ll be the next generation that gets to do the exciting stuff, while the great hope for humanity soaring through space will have to live their whole lives on the ship. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong.

What could have been predictably claustrophobic is actually a joy to watch, because the set design and cinematography work together in cahoots to make a splendid-looking piece, and the music/sound effects are outstanding. This is not a sci-fi film where the characters get all philosophical about their existential plight, but instead, a kind of action slasher-horror in space that had me frequently on the edge of my seat. The acting is okay and very good-looking, especially Lily-Rose Depp (the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis), who is clearly genetically advantaged. No, Voyagers isn’t a major entry in the annals of space films, but it’s a minor delight nevertheless.

The Wheel Of Time (Amazon Prime) 5/10

Promoted as Amazon Prime’s answer to Game Of Thrones and supposedly one of the most expensive television series ever filmed, The Wheel Of Time just isn’t in the same league. But while GoT could boast originality and dazzling performances, its labyrinthine complexity also made for at times baffling viewing. TWoT, on the other hand, is a fantasy action drama that’s never too demanding and most of the time consists of nothing much more than “the monsters are after us – run!”

There’s a woman with powerful magical abilities, and a group of young people on the run, one of whom may be the reincarnation of the Dragon (prophesied to either save or destroy humanity). And of course, there’s an army of evil creatures, all of whom want a piece of them. Flaws in pace and performances are plentiful and at times the CGI looks, as some wag had it, as cheap as a 1990s Xena action set piece. It’s really hard to fathom why or how this got the green light, as there’s something really creaky and anachronistic about the whole enterprise.

White Noise (DocPlay) 7/10

Alt-right influencers are really scary. White Noise follows three of the movement’s leaders and attempts to tell their stories while showing their small victories and big failures, as well as the internal conflict and squabbles that reveal more about what made them than the bile that often spouts from their mouths. It’s a bumpy ride and the way the film cuts between the on-the-road lives of Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich and Lauren Southern made me yearn for an old-fashioned documentary. You know, one that tells the story rather than just showing the sometimes interminable footage of these lunkheads leading seminars and arguing on television interviews.

The Atlantic news organisation, who made this documentary, would have been wise to centre on the compelling Lauren Southern, an attractive young female whose performance is as magnetic as it is terrifying. Southern, whose attempt to bring her particular racist poison to New Zealand stages a few years ago was foiled, ended up dating a “person of colour” and settling in Australia. White Noise is a failed attempt to get to the putrid centre of these radical right-wing racists, but for all its failings it’s often luridly fascinating.

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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