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.

A scene from Reacher – see review below

Euphoria (Neon) 9/10

Witchdoctor waxed enthusiastic about the first season of this stunning series, and we’re here to tell you that Season 2 is only a teeny weeny bit less brilliant. Although it’s primarily about fucked up teens, this is no demographic marketing exercise, and in the opinion of this stale, pale old boomer Euphoria is a fine piece of drama that has the whiff of real life about it.

 

Yes, the tone and pacing is all over the show, but that’s deliberate. The opening episode of the second season is incredibly fast-paced and trippy, while other episodes can range from full-on action to long, drawn-out conversation pieces. Actor/singer Zendaya is phenomenal as Rue, the junkie 17-year-old, but the characterisations and acting performances are nearly all stunning. And did I mention the music? Any contemporary drama that uses ‘70s German band Can on its soundtrack is alright by me!

The Girl Before (Neon) 7/10

There’s a bit of a buzz around this four-part English series, and its premise is just different enough that it’s not hard to see why. We follow two timelines as two different women – both already traumatised for different reasons – apply to live in a unique, utterly minimalist, architecturally-designed house in London. In the present we’re following Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as she goes through the tough audition process and finally wins the tenancy. In flashback we see Emma (Jessica Plummer) go through the same process three years before. Although there are differences in their situations, the trajectories are the same: both women look similar, and both end up getting romantically entangled with the architect, Edward (David Oyelowo). But then, Jane starts researching his twisted background.

 

Although the series holds your attention it can be a claustrophobic watch, with so much of the screen time spent in the confines of the bizarre house. The conditions of living in this all-seeing, all-knowing smart house are that there is absolutely no clutter and few belongings, and when things appear to go wrong with the technology, it’s frightening. It’s a classic murder mystery with a unique twist. Some will love it but I found the outcome just too unlikely for my personal credibility-odometer.

I, Daniel Blake (Mubi) 7/10

Director Ken Loach is a legend of film, having almost single-handedly created a type of cinema far removed from the fantasy of Hollywood. Instead, his socially and politically-charged films were stories about ordinary people facing ordinary hardships and they seemed so real that they almost came across as documentaries. I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for its depiction of a 59-year-old tradesman whose doctors’ instruction to rest and not to work after a heart attack are callously dismissed by the UK welfare system.

 

Loach’s style is unfailingly low-key and so is Dave Johns’ performance as the humble victim whose plight is ignored by a system predicated to make it as hard as possible to get monetary assistance. Hayley Squires is great as a solo mum who is so financially stricken that she can’t afford to eat, and ultimately turns to prostitution. Much of the film is based around the odd and endearing friendship between the two characters. By no means Loach’s strongest work, its very plainness gives it a certain strength that can’t help but elicit rage and finally, tears. There are at least eight other Loach films on my favourite streaming service, Mubi, including the must-see 1969 film Kes.

Immoral Tales (Mubi) 2/10

Attracted by the shot of multiple female bottoms on the poster and the titillating prospect of seeing some 1970s art film nudity, I took my chances on Walerian Borowczyk’s five-part French anthology, Immoral Tales (1973). It was a punt that didn’t quite pay off. While there’s certainly a profusion of boobs, bums and bush on display, the stories – while lushly filmed and nicely period-detailed – are just silly. And sadly, those hoping for some transgressive cinema will be disappointed at the stories, one of which involves some kind of beast raping a young pianist in the woods – a scene Borowczyk must have liked a lot, as he expanded it into his even sillier feature La Bête a few years later.

 

The other stories are similarly out of step with our 2022 ideas of sexuality: one is about a countess who enjoys bathing in the blood of slaughtered virgins, another about a chaste young woman who fantasizes about Jesus Christ. The first segment – about a young man who coaxes his 16-year-old cousin to suck him off on a wild beach as the tide comes in – is easily the most dramatic and visually appealing, though by its conclusion I wanted to gag. There’s one revelation, however, in the sight of so much pubic hair. Gosh, women were hairy back then.

The Imposter (DocPlay) 6/10

Witchdoctor loves a good true-life crime story and this stylish 2012 feature-length documentary looked like a good bet. The Imposter tells the story of a teenage boy found three years after he went missing at the age of 13. All well and good, except that he went missing in Texas and turned up in Spain, claiming that he’d been abducted by a military paedophile ring and – along with lots of other boys – habitually tortured and raped. The boy is eventually flown back to the States and accepted back into the life of his family.

 

Except that it turns out that the whole thing was fraudulent: that the “boy” was actually a 23-year-old French man with a long criminal history for deception. Unfortunately, The Imposter lays most of its cards on the table from the start. It’s mostly the fraudster telling his story, along with the American boy’s sister and mother and a few others, and it’s told in a predictable, rather plodding fashion. Somehow, the rather troubled family accept the “boy” back into their lives without questioning his French accent or dyed blonde hair or brown eyes (the real boy had blue eyes), and it’s this discrepancy that’s never quite answered. Worthy without being riveting.

Into The Void (DocPlay) 6/10

You don’t have to love the music to love the documentary, but it helps. I thought I’d check out this 2014 film about Christchurch rock group Into The Void because – despite the fact that they’ve been around since the 1980s – I had no memory of them. Into The Void tells the story of possibly the most determinedly musically inept NZ band ever to release an album, but the largely fly-on-the-wall nature of the documentary makes it seem less interesting than it is. They’re certainly a conceptually fascinating group: a bunch of art school punks who adore the giant grinding riffs of Black Sabbath and fail to let their basic music skills get in the way of their willingness to get on a stage to make a nasty noise.

 

For me, any real dynamism is lost in the audible soup of their noise-making endeavours, but clearly, they have their admirers. It’s true that there can’t be many rock groups featuring a turntablist that adds layers of guitar scree from old records (rather than hip-hop tics), and it’s poignant to learn that their band rehearsal room for a quarter of a century was destroyed by the 2010 Christchurch earthquake. We also get to see the visual arts day jobs of several of the members, including vocalist Ronnie van Hout, who is well-known in arts circles. For all that, the film is only mildly interesting and a lot of it feels quite flat.

Reacher (PrimeVideo) 7/10

I’ve never read the novel or seen the Tom Cruise film, and maybe that helps. Being a Jack Reacher virgin I was pleasantly surprised to find myself hooked by Reacher, the eight-part TV series starring Alan Ritchson (Smallville). The unique angle is that Reacher has both brawn and off-the-charts intelligence in one package. Consequently, we can rely on him to come up with smart ideas about what’s going on but, when everything turns bad, he’ll quite happily beat the shit out of the bad guys in quite inventive ways.

 

At first Reacher’s dialogue came across as a bit forced, just like those 1960s detective novels it’s obviously modelled on. But ultimately, that awkwardness is overcome by stories with surprising plot twists and dramatic turns, and his developing relationship with police officer Roscoe (Willa Fitzgerald) practically sizzles. It’s her performance that completely lifts the show. An old-fashioned detective yarn wearing jazzed-up new clothes, Reacher always stays on its toes, keeps moving forward, and never gets boring.

Severance (Apple+) 6/10

Imagine if you could get a procedure to split the brain into two halves… that is, one that would be your working self, the other being your after-hours self, neither of which could remember the other. That’s the pretext of Severance, in which Adam Scott plays Mark, an employee of Lumon Industries who agreed to the procedure as a way to bury the pain he felt at the death of his wife. Other notable acting talents include John Turturro as Irving, a workmate, Christopher Walken as Burt, the chief of Optics and Design, and Patricia Arquette as both Mark’s boss (Harmony) and his neighbour (Mrs Selvig).

It’s an intensely odd show, mainly because the intentionally clinical design is exceptionally claustrophobic. Definitely not for action fans, this nine-part series is dialogue and character-driven and as it progresses we only learn incrementally about the big secrets at the heart of Lumon and the seemingly irreversible severance procedure. It’s exceptionally well done but for all of its clever conception and realisation, it’s hard to stay completely engaged, largely because you feel lobotomised just watching.

The Sparks Brothers (PrimeVideo) 7/10

Edgar Wright’s 2021 documentary about Ron and Russell Mael – the brothers known as music duo Sparks – is an energetic and engaging fan-driven romp through their long history. Sometimes the film lapses into “hire a talking head” territory through its preponderance of interviews with other artists who have been influenced by the duo but the snazzy way it’s edited, and the personal involvement of the brothers make this a real joy to behold. I guess Wright felt that the likes of Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), members of New Order and Erasure and even Bjork (sans visuals) would add legitimacy to the implied claim that Sparks are important and under-appreciated, but I wish he’d stuck to those (like Todd Rundgren and Giorgio Moroder) who had a shared history with the duo.

 

As one who has never quite bought into Sparks as a musical entity, The Sparks Brothers hasn’t changed my mind but I’m keen to re-explore some of their early work. Certainly, its point that musical acts with humorous intent tend to be written off as gimmicks is well-aimed, and the brothers’ dedication to frivolity throughout their long career has to be admired. The implication that everything they touched – and each of the styles they took on – was imbued with musical brilliance seems a bit far-fetched, especially in the sequence in which they appear to be self-consciously aping the cod-operatic grandeur of Queen without actually satirising it. Still, The Sparks Brothers is a vivacious and admirable tribute to one of pop music’s more interesting acts.

The Story Of Europe (PrimeVideo) 7/10

This six-episode documentary helmed by Cambridge University historian Chris Clark is a fascinating insight for those of us who scored poorly in both history and geography and want to brush up on our knowledge. The series takes us through the tumultuous and ever-evolving saga of Europe and it’s an ongoing revelation to discover just what a commingling of different cultures and races it is, and has been virtually since its inception. The themed episodes clearly take us through the different aspects of Europe’s development – an incredible story in which religion and conflict loom large. And the section on the Ukraine is especially interesting in the light of current political shenanigans.

It’s a particularly bloody, war-ravaged story, especially during the Crusades and in the first half of the 20th Century, and then there’s the bitter stain of colonisation and slavery, as well as Hitler’s attempt during World War II to stamp out the Jewish people. The programme doesn’t pull its punches about any of this, but does explain the uncomfortable fact that colonisation and slavery directly led to sophisticated and technologically superior societies that were studded with art and culture – the Renaissance, as it were. So then, Europe ends up being full of contradictions but also the one place on earth where many different nationalities have lived relatively peacefully together for much of its history. Unfortunately, presenter Chris Clark comes across as a bit of a dick, the dramatized re-enactments are badly dubbed, and the foreign-language interviews in the last episode are caption-free.

Yellowjackets (Neon) 6/10

With all the acting talent on board, you’d think that Yellowjackets would be Emmy-winning material. There’s the phenomenal Juliette Lewis, who clearly trained for months to look the part of haggard, hard-living junkie Natalie. There’s expat Kiwi Melanie Lynskey as the somewhat drab, matronly Shauna. There’s Christina Ricci as clever nutcase Misty. I could go on, but you get the picture. And that’s just the grown-up talent. You see, Yellowjackets is confusingly told partly in the present, and partly in flashback to when its core characters (an all-female team of high school soccer players) crash-landed in remote forest, where they had to survive for the six years before they were (presumably) rescued. It took me about half a series to positively match all the grownup characters with their teenage counterparts. The young version of Natalie, Sophie Thatcher, quickly etches her troubled soul in your psyche; the others less so.

Yellowjackets has several issues that make it less compelling than its 100 percent audience rating on one aggregator site would suggest. The first is its wildly fluctuating performances, which probably stem from the sometimes less than scintillating dialogue. The second is the way the whole series is a kind of tease. Even at the end of the first series (yes, a second has been confirmed) nothing has really been revealed about the dirty secret surrounding the years in the wilderness that the grownups are hiding. In this respect, it reminds me too much of Lost. For all of that, Yellow Jackets does have its moments of shock, horror and intrigue, and there’s no denying that there’s some serious talent involved. But personally, I doubt that I’ll be on board for Season 2.

 

 

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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.

 

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