The best (and worst) streaming TV shows & films to watch this April

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. 

Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives (Netflix) 5/10

Even the name is off-putting, typical of tabloid type headings, and gives the viewer the wrong impression. In fact, we’re never asked to believe that the main subject of Bad Vegan – Sarma Melngailis – is bad. If anything, it’s the opposite. She’s more or less narrating the whole thing in one extensive interview. The story is quite outrageous: that the former owner of a celebrated New York plant-based eatery was conned by a guy she met online to strip her own company of all its funds (and get loans that she would never be able to pay back). That’s not the outrageous part – it’s that he had her believing his stories of some kind of fantasy future where her beloved pitbull lives forever, but only if she did everything he told her to.

 

Directed by Chris Smith, whose Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened was a genuinely revelatory and entertaining documentary, Bad Vegan would have made a compelling hour-long doco but extended to four episodes just grinds away and becomes insufferably boring. At its heart, this is a story about a controlling, lying gambling addict who, over time, conditioned a young female entrepreneur into believing his bullshit. Sadly, the only really unique thing about it is Sarma’s celebrity and the “revelation” that the world is full of controlling men and gullible women. Is it worth your viewing time? Not really. The endless taped conversations between the two protagonists and the static talking heads get dull very fast and there’s little to justify its vast running time.

CSI Vegas (TVNZ On Demand) 3/10

Feeling completely braindead after a really intense day, all I wanted was something vaguely familiar and really easy to watch. What better than a refresh on the CIS Vegas concept some years later with a mostly new cast? Nothing (I repeat nothing) on earth could beat CSI Miami for both idiotic stories and unintended laughs, and they should bring Horatio back now, but I digress. I expected the old formula transposed to better forensic technology, and we get that. There’s even a new lab. Unfortunately, they’ve also decided that the cast (both new talent and old hands) has to jabber at the speed of light.

 

I mean, the dialogue is just as forced and unnatural-sounding as ever and the lurid camerawork works way harder than the acting talent to express itself, but they really do talk so fucking fast that neither I nor my missus could understand more than a few words here or there! What happened? Did they get told that there was too much talking and that rather than rewrite the lines to make more time for action they should just talk faster? Who knows, but it made me dizzy and I instantly regretted my decision to watch the damn thing. One good thing: each episode is a manageable 40-something minutes, even with the intrusion of the occasional ad. Anyway, everybody now! “Whoooooo-are-you? Who! Who! – Who! Who!”

Love After Love (Mubi) 7/10

Described by Wiki as “an erotic romance drama”, Love After Love is a 2020 period drama set in Hong Kong during the 1940s. This is not a high-rise city but a lush semi-rural environment with beautiful colonial-era houses inhabited by Chinese who aspire to live like Europeans. And it rains a lot. It didn’t make my sexy parts quiver, but this story about a poor young girl from Shanghai who arrives to live with her highly manipulative courtesan aunt is a fairly interesting account of the times it depicts and their social milieu.

The difference between the haves and have-nots is stark and the servants are treated disgracefully, while the young man the girl falls for has inherited such wealth that he’s never had to work a day in his life, and instead devotes himself to sleeping around. In fact, he goes straight from popping our young maiden’s cherry to a dangerous liaison with a maid, on the same night. Ultimately, our heroine

learns the wiles of survival and how to seduce rich and powerful older men, so the film ends on a strange note. The acting is decent and the period detail impressive, but the story of a girl’s youthful optimism being corrupted is rather depressing.

Milked (WaterBear) 8/10

The completely free documentary streaming service WaterBear – which gathers together films with a decidedly environmental theme – debuts this sort-of sequel to the popular (if controversial) Cowspiracy, and it’s all about us! That is, Milked does a complete demolition job on Fonterra, our megacorp in-name-only “dairy co-op”, and blames it for the degradation of our waterways and a number of other ills that make it one of the worst polluters in the world. Or at least, that’s the allegation made by Milked, and it’s backed up by what appears to be some pretty solid data. The film is a complete eye-opener for those of us who have believed the hype that we’re “really not that bad” down here in New Zild when it comes to our carbon footprint or our general pollution levels or animal welfare.

 

It’s a nice touch having Chris Huriwai – a young bloke who grew up in the Far North on traditional dairy farms – helm the film, and he goes on quite a trip to dig out the truth about the scurrilous intensification of our dairy farms and the myriad consequences of such negligence. There are flaws. While the environmental experts called on to give evidence are so convincing they make you frightened for our country’s future, the interview with chimp anthropologist Jane Goodall feels stitched into its fabric and she barely mentions NZ at all. What also grates a little is Huriwai’s repetitious attempts to get Fonterra staff to submit to an interview. But overall, Milked is an important film that presents some great alternatives to the unsustainable dairy industry, and deserves to be seen by all Kiwis. There should be an enquiry into why it’s had such disgracefully minimal media coverage to date.

No Exit (Disney+) 5/10

Havana Rose Liu plays a young, recovering/recidivist drug addict (Darby Thorne) who escapes from rehab to visit her dying mother, gets caught in a snowstorm and is forced to stay overnight in a visitor centre with two young guys and an elderly married couple. Except she discovers that there’s a young girl tied and bound in a van. It takes a bit of time to out the criminals, but of course, things escalate from that point, with frantic attempts to save the girl, chases through the woods and ultimately, misadventure and death with loaded weapons.

 

Although it’s acted and filmed with reasonable competence, there’s something really stilted about this film that may have its origins as much in the rather predictable scenario as in the inherently low budget nature of the project. We’re supposed to feel gratified that Darby has broken out of her junkie ennui to find her will to live and conquer her addictions, but she’s just not that compelling a cinematic presence and ultimately, No Exit is as ordinary as its generic name. If you do watch it, fast-forward to the last 10 minutes for a bit of fun action and one good death for someone who really does deserve to die.

Our Flag Means Death (Neon) 5/10

Our Flag Means Death is based (more or less) on the real adventures of an aristocrat in the 1700s who fashioned himself as “the gentleman pirate”. Starring Rhys Darby (Flight Of The Conchords) in the lead role and featuring cameos by Taika Waititi, it promises much more than it ends up delivering. Coming across like a distant cousin of Black Adder minus the jokes, it all feels a bit pointless and muddled.

 

One of the saddest things in the whole wide world is when a comedy just isn’t funny. On paper, there’s a lot going for this 10-part series and the characters are certainly as bizarre as they are ridiculous, but it’s all very budget-looking and ultimately, the writing just isn’t sharp enough to make it a must-see proposition. What a disappointment. Just when we all needed a good laugh, too.

Sad Vacation: Who Killed Nancy?/The Last Days Of Sid & Nancy (Tubi) 7/10

The completely free streaming service Tubi has some quite surprising music documentaries up its proverbial sleeve, including no less than two about Sid Vicious and his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Both of them cover much of the same ground, and there’s a lot of repetition of facts and interviewees with those who were there in the fateful time after Sid Vicious moved to New York and took up digs in the infamous Chelsea Hotel, where they both holed up and lived a squalid junkie lifestyle. But it’s worth watching both because each of them uncovers slightly different information and comes to a different conclusion about what happened. Sadly, neither film uses real Sex Pistols or Sid Vicious audio, instead opting for generic American-sounding rock.

 

Who Killed Nancy? (2009) is the more creatively produced of the two, with better graphics, better-lit interviews and a more dynamic telling of the story. The Last Days Of Sid & Nancy (2016) feels a little more in-depth, information-wise, and manages to find alternative pics and footage of those relatively meagre months spent in the States, but it all feels rather messy and piecemeal and a few of the interviews appear to have been Skype sessions, so poor is the quality. Ultimately, the questions posed (Did Sid kill Nancy? If not, who did? Was Sid’s downfall Nancy’s fault? Or his mother’s?) are kind of pointless considering their somewhat inevitable downward spiral. The sad fact is that Sid Vicious – despite his limited musical ability – was a genuinely charismatic figure and the punk prototype, and his death (much like Kurt Cobain’s a decade or so later) a rock and roll tragedy.

Taboo (Netflix) 7/10

This bizarre 2017 BBC series turned up on Netflix recently, and as incomprehensible as it seemed to me at times – there’s lots of mumbling and mixed dialects as well as plot tributaries that left me guessing some of the time – there’s certainly nothing else quite like it on streaming television. The eight-part series stars co-creator Tom Hardy as James Delaney, a wayfarer returning to London in 1814 after spending years in darkest Africa. He’s a strange and possibly psychotic character who turns out to be exceptionally clever and risk-taking in his bid to upset the apple cart at the powerful, slave-trading East India Tea Company. And while we get to follow his outrageous exploits we’re given a unique look at the grime, filth and larceny of early 19th century London.

 

The dimly-lit colour palette made this sleep-deprived old man desperately crave his pillow, so it took me weeks to make it through all the episodes. I’m glad I did though because its colourful cast of characters – despite oddly minimal character development and suggestions of alternative storylines that never quite happen – are acted out with aplomb by the likes of Stephen Graham (This Is England, Boardwalk Empire) and Michael Kelly (The Sopranos, House Of Cards). But it’s the artfully re-created muck and filth of London that wins the prize in this odd and sometimes grisly drama.

Turning Red (Disney+) 2/10

My kids couldn’t wait to see this latest animation from Pixar, in which a Chinese-Canadian girl finds that she’s turning into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited or stressed. I wish I’d done some research first because it turns out that the red panda is a metaphor for the supposedly 13-year-old girl’s first period, the sub-theme that runs through the whole film. Understandably, neither the 7-year-old nor the 3-year-old understood the movie’s undercurrents, but you know what? They were actually bored. Now, my kids will watch pretty much any kind of crap TV but Turning Red turned them off.

 

Apart from being mildly inappropriate for young children, the film as a whole lacks spark. The main character, Meilin, is a somewhat spoilt girl whose mother controls her every move, and who is expected to cow-tow to Chinese traditions. Trouble is, she’s a singularly unappealing character: squat, loud-mouthed, and displaying little sensitivity. The “turning-into-panda” thing gets tired very quickly and the story they wrap it around is humdrum. (Okay, don’t take my word for it, the film gets great ratings on review aggregator sites, bizarrely. But in my very humble opinion – and that of my kids – it’s dullsville).

Walt Disney (DocPlay) 9/10

This four-part 2015 documentary may be a few years old but it’s just shown up on DocPlay, and for any casual observer of the Disney empire over the years it’s a revelation. Most of us grow up with the Disney legacy in all its wonder and cheese, and Walt Disney is an opportunity to examine the life and personality of the man behind the franchise and to try and understand the seeming contradictions in the man and the way they fed into his creativity and business ventures. It’s easy to see why this PBS series isn’t on Disney+ because it doesn’t shy away from the controversies that are important to his story, including his often cavalier treatment of staff, his support of the anti-commie McCarthy “witch” trials of the 1950s, and a huge blind spot when it came to the racist stereotyping in some of his entertainment.

 

It’s a never less than fascinating life story and Disney comes out of it as a flawed human being who nevertheless did amazing things that brought incredible creativity and innovation to 20th-century entertainment, from the wayward experimentation of his early animations to the creation of Disneyland. With loads of rare footage going back to the early days of Disney and interviews with many of his former colleagues, competitors and animators (a number of who  have died since the filming of this series) this is one doco not to miss.

West Side Story (Disney+/Neon) 5/10

Inexplicably streaming on both Neon and Disney+, this 2021 Steven Spielberg remake of the original 1961 musical pulls out all the stops in terms of complex set design, swooping camerawork and ensemble choreography, but I can see why it was a box office bomb. While the veteran director does his best to evoke the New York of 1957 – or rather, a crumbling tenement area of New York undergoing rapid demolition and redevelopment – the whole production feels exceptionally stagey. And while that’s not surprising given its long history on Broadway, the whole enterprise may have come across better had they updated it to the present day, because there’s something bung about the way the dance routines and songs are captured.

There’s just one really compelling reason to cast your eye over this Romeo And Juliet-inspired tale, and that’s the female lead, the incredibly sexy and charismatic Rachel Zegler, who puts the zing in any scene in which she appears. But I dunno, this story’s overall theme may be of the ages but West Side Story itself is a bit creaky, from the dancing through to the songs. Sure, tunes like ‘Maria’ and ‘America’ could make some claim to be classics of their era, but they’re very much of their time. Fans of old-fashioned musicals will take their chances; everyone else can happily avoid.

Writing With Fire (DocPlay) 9/10

This gritty documentary about the low-caste women who run – against all odds – a newspaper in India’s Uttar Pradesh should be required viewing for everyone who values democracy and its fragile hold on society. The daily privations these women – and many lower caste families – endure on the margins of Indian society are beyond the experience of those of us living relatively cosy lives in NZ.

The dedicated women who run this news service have themselves had lives of incredible difficulty, including daily ridicule and prejudice, spousal abuse and more. And yet here they are, risking their lives to expose dangerous illegal mining operations, confronting police who have accepted bribes to turn a blind eye to house invasions, rapes and even “honour” murders. In Writing With Fire, the women are literally putting their lives on the line to see the truth exposed and hopefully, justice done.

 

The documentary joins them in 2016 just as they go digital and add a YouTube channel to the print version of their paper, and some of the staff haven’t ever used a mobile phone before! The women are amazing, most of them somehow managing this intense and demanding job while also maintaining some semblance of family life. Despite the news service’s popularity soaring by the time it’s covering the 2019 elections, the ruling political party (the BJP) is re-elected on a dangerously nationalist Hindu ticket that – as the women journalists assert – appeals to the ignorant and is devised especially to divert people from the real issues, like poverty, the insane deprivations caused by the caste system, and the medieval treatment of women. Even those who have very little interest in journalism will find Writing With Fire a compelling watch. 

* 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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