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

A regular column in which GARY STEEL sifts through the mountain of available streaming TV and brings your attention to great new and old shows as well as those to avoid.

The Makanai – see review

The Ant Bully (Netflix) 7/10

During the last school holidays, we hit a wall. Too much bad weather necessitated more than the usual watching of TV, and the kids ran low on suitable shows to watch. That’s when you delve further into the back catalogues of the streaming giants and find a film like The Ant Bully, a 2006 animated film that was a box office bomb on its initial release but looks remarkably fresh in 2023. It’s about a boy whose war with a colony of ants living on his front lawn is put on pause when one of the ants mixes up a potion to reduce the boy (Lukas) down to ant size. What follows is predictable but fun: Lukas learns the ways of the ants and becomes sympathetic to their plight, winning their respect in the process. Eventually, they have to battle an unscrupulous bug exterminator, and you can guess that he doesn’t stand a chance.

 

With major star power in the voice department (Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin) and a refreshingly soft heart, The Ant Bully is no classic but it’s consistently entertaining and packed with spills and thrills. It’s scary when it’s supposed to be scary, and funny when it’s supposed to be funny, the script’s not overly verbose, and there’s a compassionate theme that’s lacking from many computer-animated films.

Anti-Semitism: 2000 Years Of History (DocPlay) 7/10

Here’s a series that should be required viewing for everyone. As the product of ardently Christian parents, I had always wondered why Jewish people had been discriminated against so horrendously throughout modern history. Everyone knows about the six million Jews eradicated by the Nazis, but it’s almost impossible to understand why a group of people were singled out and whole families massacred in such numbers. Anti-Semitism: 2000 Years Of History goes some way to explaining this monstrous event by tracing the way Jews have been discriminated against from the dawn of Christianity, and disturbingly, how this prejudice keeps on bubbling up even now.

 

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This four-part documentary could easily have been longer, and more detailed, but it’s about the right length to tell the story cogently and effectively. And what a terrible picture it paints of the way authoritarianism masquerading as religion can portray a whole people as a pox on society. And as I suspected, it’s Christianity – or at least, the way it was adopted as the only portal through which the true God could be flogged – that’s largely responsible for the appalling treatment of Jews through the ages. This series relies, as you would expect, on the knowledge of a group of experts who explain what happened in various eras: the way that Jews were separated from the rest of society and only allowed to do certain jobs, one of which was money-lending, which of course lead to the odious myths around Jewish control behind the scenes. As someone who has (regretfully) never fully researched the origins of anti-Semitism, this documentary is a revelation. And in an environment in which outlandish conspiracies and anti-Jewish rhetoric fester through the margins of social media, it’s more important than ever to understand prejudice, and why it’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

Beef (Netflix) 7/10

The hottest property on Netflix right now, Beef is not about NZ’s favourite food export. Instead, the beef in this 10-episode show refers to two protagonists who have a beef (a problem) with each other. This dark farce revolves around the lives of two stress-filled individuals whose lives clash in a road rage incident, and subsequently, the devilish ways in which they try to get back at each other. It’s a bizarre idea, but it works because each roughly half-hour episode goes more deeply into their lives and inter-relationships and the complex problems they face (or refuse to face, perhaps).

 

Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) is Danny, a down-on-his-luck contractor whose arch-nemesis turns out to be Amy (played by stand-up comedian Ali Wong), a millionaire plant-store owner with a rich husband. Outwardly successful, Amy is a driven career woman who is really just as psychologically distressed as her foe. Neither character is especially sympathetic but as the series gathers pace with their tit-for-tat revenge getting more and more outrageous and both characters getting closer to losing it entirely, these train wreck lives become more and more compelling. Be prepared to be shocked in the penultimate episode.

The Boys (Prime Video) 7/10

Superhero shows: I just don’t much like them. Sure, I’ve had the odd dalliance with Batman and a few others, but the various superhero franchises blooming all over streaming television mostly leave me cold. Until I discovered The Boys, that is. At last, here was a superhero TV series for grownups featuring great performances, great dialogue and unpredictable (and sometimes downright bizarre) plot twists. The unique twist is that a team of superheroes, all with different super-powers, work for a corporation that, in true 21st-century style, spin-doctors everything they do to keep an adoring public from knowing the truth: that several of them have been murderously abusing their status. The series follows hapless, risk-averse tech expert Hughie (played by Jack Quaid, the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) whose girlfriend is accidentally annihilated by one of the so-called superheroes. Hughie teams up with a squad of anti-superhero vigilantes led by Billy (Kiwi Karl Urban) and it’s game-on.

 

Especially notable are the performances by Antony Starr as Homelander – the occasionally homicidal megalomaniac leader of the superheroes – and Erin Moriarty as the lovely Starlight, a newbie to the superhero team who still has some ethics. Currently up to three seasons with a fourth on the way, The Boys has deservedly won a bunch of industry awards, as it’s a show that defies convention, always surprises, and shrugs off the bonehead simplicity of the majority of superhero stories with some genuine intelligence. Plus, it’s actually fun. Please note, however: this is one superhero series not for the little monsters.

Bumblebee (Neon) 7/10

At last, here’s a Transformers film for those of us who hated the earlier Transformers films! In fact, I’ve got an admission to make. When I selected Bumblebee for my kids to watch, I didn’t realise it was part of the popular franchise. Had I known I would have given it the flick and been worse off for my prejudice, because I really enjoyed this 2018 film, which brings in a human element that the earlier films lacked. Set in 1987 (and thereby playing into the current fascination with 1980s pop culture) the film stars Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as Charlie, a depressed 18-year-old who is given a clapped-out old VW “bug”, which fairly soon reveals itself through its remarkable transformation to be B-127 (otherwise known as Bumblebee), a “sentient, self-configuring, modular extra-terrestrial robotic lifeform” (thanks Wiki!)

 

The trouble is, Bumblebee is kind of dangerous to be around, as a bunch of much bigger, and very nasty robots are determined to reduce him to stardust. There are plenty of fighting scenes, but unlike the first five Transformers films, they’re not simply pointless expositions of computer-generated SFX. Instead, they’re well-executed and arrive at points that suit the narrative structure. Bumblebee clearly has a thing for Charlie, and like King Kong’s infatuation with Fay Wray, there’s something really touching about the bond these two develop. The kids and parents both loved it.

Cargo (Netflix) 6/10

Who needs another zombie film, right? Well, Cargo (2017), set in a remote part of Australia, certainly contains rabid biting zombie-type humans, but this post-apocalyptic movie is character-driven and eerie rather than full-on gore-filled. Martin Freeman (Sherlock, The Hobbit films) hogs most of the screen time but happily, his performance is superb. The scenario? Well, Freeman is travelling on a houseboat with his wife and baby daughter. The wife gets killed off early on and Freeman gets bitten, which means he’ll die in roughly 48 hours. So he’s trying to find a safe place for his infant. Along the way, he comes across a half-crazed survivalist who is exploiting the local Aborigines, so he is compelled to deal with that. He soon teams up with a young Aboriginal girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers).

 

Apparently something of an homage to the legendary zombie film The Road, Cargo is a better-than-average zombie road film with a minimum of characters, and where the landscape imbues the production with much of its atmosphere. With its limited ambitions, it’s hardly a classic of any kind, but for those who enjoy a tense viewing experience with the odd fright and an entirely outdoor setting, Cargo will prove suitable.

Citadel (Prime Video) 6/10

Sometimes you just need something exciting to take you away from life’s drudgeries, and Citadel fills that bill in spades. One of the most expensive TV shows ever made, it’s an ambitious global spy thriller that conflates the Jason Bourne series with the best of Bond and updates them to tie in with the kind of political paranoia that exists in 2023. Apart from the histrionic first sequence in a train, there’s not a single dull moment in the six episodes of the first series (the second series has already gotten the green light) with extended chase sequences, inventive fight sequences and just a little bit of sexual chemistry between the lead players to get the pulses racing.

 

Richard Madden (Eternals) stars as the slightly war-torn but hunky spy Mason Kane alongside former Miss World Priyanka Chopra Jones as his lethal sidekick Nadia Sinh. The woosome twosome are the top agents for an independent spy agency called Citadel, which has been partially destroyed by the evil Manticore syndicate, who are hellbent on eliminating our heroes and generally causing terror and atrocity around the globe. It’s top-flight silliness with some entertainingly awful dialogue stitched between the action sequences, but let’s face it, no one expects Shakespeare from a show like this. With its dazzling production values, Citadel looks just like a big-screen movie. So much so that I thought I could smell the popcorn.

Dead Ringers (Prime Video) 8/10

I’m not a big fan of remakes but this six-part mini-series completely renovates David Cronenberg’s rather grim 1988 film, and by changing the gender of the twin gynaecologists this “based on a true story” is given a fresh slant. Rachel Weisz (About A Boy, The Bourne Legacy) turns in a consistently bravura performance playing the twin sisters, one of them (Beverly) sensible but desperate to conceive and the other (Elliot) an entertainingly unpredictable and ultimately dangerous accomplice.

 

We follow the two brilliant sisters as they woo immoral pharmaceutical investors into funding their own flash, super high-tech birthing centre, and see how their lives unravel when Beverly gets a lover, falls pregnant and plans to move out of their shared apartment. The brilliance of Dead Ringers is partly in the wit of the dialogue but mostly in the way the set design, clever editing and filming convey the deterioration of the two women as their bizarre twins’ universe starts to unravel. It makes for uncomfortable viewing at times and is not for the squeamish, but Dead Ringers is quite brilliant.

The Elephant Whisperers (Netflix) 8/10

What is it about elephants at the moment? Our largest land mammal seems to be going through a spike in popularity in both fictionalised and documentary TV shows. The Elephant Whisperers is a short (39 minutes), award-winning documentary that at first might seem rather uneventful, but is a quietly powerful exposition of the impact of (platonic) interspecies love: that is, between human and elephant. Filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves spent an incredible five years making the documentary, which explains the dedication one Indian family has given to caring for just one orphaned elephant.

 

We’ve become so inured to the customary human violence and sadism so often unleashed on wild animals that it’s intensely emotional watching a community rally around another species as if it was our own, and often depriving themselves of their own creature comforts in the process. The Elephant Whisperers is well worth a short slice of your time.

The Glory (Netflix) 7/10

Since the off-the-charts popularity of Squid Game, South Korean TV shows have gone ballistic internationally, and topping the hot list right now is The Glory, an intense drama that will appeal to anyone who has ever fallen victim to bullying. Song Hye-Kyo plays a 30-something who has spent her whole adult life planning her revenge on the students who bullied her at high school, along with a few corrupt teachers and cops who failed to prosecute them. Still sporting the physical damage wrought by her tormenters, including large burn scars all over her body, as an adult she’d focused entirely on her revenge plan to the exclusion of any personal relationships.

 

Its 16 hour-long episodes give The Glory plenty of time to build up steam, but also to convey the fetchingly naïve relationship she slowly builds with her eventual accomplice, a plastic surgeon played by Lim Dong-Hyun. Lim Ji-yeon perfectly plays the part of the most venal character, a beautiful but extremely nasty weather presenter who had been the main sadist, and the programme intricately shows how each one of the nasties is slowly destroyed by the victim. The show is beautifully lit and cleverly edited in a glossy style that’s stereotypically Korean and is a revenge fantasy that many will find gratifying.

Guardians Of The Galaxy (Disney+) 5/10

This is not the kind of film I would normally watch, but we’re always looking for movies that the wee mites will enjoy, and we were told that Guardians Of The Galaxy was a bit different by dint of its sense of humour. Although not overtly comedic, despite the flashy technology used by the characters it’s set in 1988 and a running theme is ‘80s music played on a much-coveted portable cassette player. This leads to some mildly humorous asides. It was apparently the third highest-grossing film of 2014, which suggests that it has something going for it, and at first, I found it a pleasant galactic romp with some vivid – if largely undeveloped – characters. Enjoyment of the film is largely determined by one’s tolerance for over-the-top SFX, and sadly, I found that within about 30 minutes I was overwhelmed and undernourished by all the whizz-bang computer graphics.

Guardians Of The Galaxy has one major saving grace in the character of Groot, a tree-like humanoid, voiced by Vin Diesel, who has but one utterance: “I am Groot!” I would happily watch a movie based entirely around the character. But because it’s typically ADHD with its use of SFX it’s tiring to watch and I quickly lost interest to the point where I barely knew who was doing what. While the kids enjoyed parts of it, they both complained that there was too much shooting and blood. I think they imagined the blood part but the inference is true enough, and it’s not really a film I would recommend to young children for that reason. Or an old bastard like me who expects some level of characterisation and plot development.

Halley (Mubi) 6/10

Sold on a blurb that suggested this 2013 Mexican film was in the vein of David Cronenberg, I found the reality of Halley rather disappointing. The thing about most Cronenberg movies is that – despite their intrinsic oddness and mutation/mutilation fascinations – there’s usually some narrative action and twists. Halley, on the other hand, is typically art movie: nothing much happens and it all happens so very slowly. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad movie. Director Sebastián Hofmann has a visual style all his own and he captures the creeping entropy and sense of both bodily horror, absurdity and helplessness of a chap who is dead and rotting away but remains in a kind of zombie-type limbo.

 

The key scene is an excruciating but absolutely brilliant extended performance with the manager of the gymnasium he works for (Silvia “Chivis” played by Luly Trueba), a lonely woman who insists on taking the maggot-infested chap out after his last day there. She buys him food that he can’t eat and drags him to a bar where she gets sloshed and then back to her place, where she’s desperate enough to want him despite the fact that, as she exclaims, he smells like an old man. Happily, she falls asleep before his true state can be revealed! The few characters are all desperately discombobulated and Albert the corpse (played by Alberto Trujillo) barely speaks through the whole film. The Cronenberg comparison starts to make sense during the most disgusting scene where he masturbates and his bits fall off during his sexual frenzy, but a closer cousin might be Lynch’s Eraserhead. Definitely not a film to watch on date night, and especially not while you’re eating.

Love In Bright Landscapes (DocPlay) 6/10

Putting together a cogent documentary about yet another tragic musician can’t be an easy task, striking a balance between the demands of family and friends and yet trying to come up with something compelling and authentic. Love In Bright Landscapes almost manages that feat, as it tells the story of former Triffids frontman David McComb with a fair degree of intelligence and draws on a fairly large pool of interview subjects, as well as demonstrating a depth of research. As one of the great 1980s Australian bands that nearly made it in the UK and elsewhere but fell victim to the forces of trend and chance, The Triffids’ story makes up a good proportion of this film, but it’s really about McComb, the group’s driving force.

 

An outwardly literate and compulsive lyric writer who worked obsessively, McComb’s story is that of someone slowly unravelling through the difficulties of surviving in a commercial music system, but more than that, dealing with a serious heart problem as well as a persistent alcohol addiction. Portrayed as a complete original, to me, his work and demeanour bear the strong influence of other artists from the early ‘80s like Birthday Party-era Nick Cave and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCullough. He was, however, a consistently thoughtful and restlessly creative individual and it’s no walk in the park watching him deteriorate in the last part of the documentary.

The Magician’s Elephant (Netflix) 7/10

Set in an imaginary, possibly Mediterranean kingdom at an unspecified time in history, The Magician’s Elephant is an enchanting tale that kids of all ages will enjoy. Peter is an orphan adolescent boy who is yearning for, and searching for, the sister he got separated from during wartime when they were both just bubbas. A fortune-teller instructs him to follow the elephant, and one miraculously turns up when a magician’s show goes haywire. Then, he just has to convince the king to give him the elephant. The king – who is a total prat – sets a bunch of impossible tasks for the boy to do. Successful completion will win him the elephant.

 

Adapted from the book of the same name, the animation – by Australian company Animal Logic – has that “gaming” look to it, which probably won’t bug gamers but makes the characters less believable to those of us who like a dash of realism. Unfortunately, this has become the standard (outside of the genuinely superb animations of Pixar/DreamWorks). On a positive note, however, the backgrounds are creative and colourful and the film never gets boring, despite the slightly ropey inference that magicians can conjure real elephants and fortune-tellers are more than fibbers. At its heart, the film is about hope and optimism, and that can’t be a bad thing. The Magician’s Elephant may have only managed an average rating on aggregator sites, but our wee monsters were captivated by it.

The Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House (Netflix) 8/10

Easily my favourite show of the month, The Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House is a charming, sweet-natured drama following two 16-year-olds during their first year in a geisha house. Kiyo (Nana Mori) and Sumire (Natsuki Deguchi) are best friends who both yearn to be apprentice maiko (or geisha), but it soon transpires that while Sumire is a superstar in the making, Kiyo isn’t cut out to be a geisha. Happily, however, as her passion is food, she quickly becomes chef for the all-female maiko house. What makes this series special is that it’s not about geisha entertaining men but the women’s daily lives and dramas in the maiko house, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a home away from home with a real family atmosphere.

 

Like the equally great Midnight Diner, The Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House celebrates the ordinary, day-to-day activities of its characters and has an almost documentary ambience. Its old-fashioned Kyoto setting is as much a character as the women themselves (no cars, no cell phones!) but what really sets it apart is the uniquely Japanese ability to celebrate even the smallest gesture. Kiyo the cook really shines as a young woman some might say was naïve, but who can take great delight in discovering a new ingredient at the market and finding a new flavour with which to thrill the inhabitants of the maiko house. Just wonderful.

My Old School (DocPlay) 6/10

My Old School is a 2022 documentary that tells the true story of Brian MacKinnon (aka Brandon Lee) who, it was discovered in 1995, was a 30-year-old masquerading as a high school student in a sleepy town not far from Glasgow, Scotland. The viewer may well find themselves incredulous that MacKinnon had successfully duped the school into believing that he was a teenager, and even more so that his various and sundry lies were taken verbatim and believed by the authorities. The slightly sinister aspect of the story – that he was hanging out with school-age girls – is only barely skirted in this idiosyncratic film put together by one of his former classmates.

 

While My Old School is a reasonable diversion from everyday realities, it does tend to drag a bit. There’s so little in the way of footage that its makers were obviously forced to animate chunks of the story, which is kind of novel but ultimately makes it feel like fiction. While MacKinnon gets a chance to tell his side of the story, he insisted on an actor to mouth his words, which creates something of a distancing effect. Ultimately, it finishes without convincingly explaining why he went to such lengths just to attend the same school a second time, and while MacKinnon comes out as a rather sad figure, you wonder whether his story really justified the feature documentary treatment.

Navalny (Docplay) 9/10

This award-winning 2022 fly-on-the-wall documentary about a man who dared to stand up to Putin and offer himself up as Russian opposition leader is so bizarre that it’s hard to quite click that it’s real. The film explains the outrageous poisoning of Alexai Navalny and follows his slow recuperation. We also meet the team who are investigating the poisoning and the chap who discovers the data linking Putin’s own scientists to the event.

 

Where most documentaries have to find creative ways to make up for the fact that no footage exists of certain events, because of the media scrutiny in this case there are many remarkable scenes captured both in Europe and on Russian soil, including the Russian doctors refusing Navalny’s wife access to the poisoned political opponent in hospital and his later arrest when – recovered – he returns to his home country. It helps that we get plenty of up-close time with Navalny and his family, which allows the audience to get a small glimpse of the man behind the politician. Highly recommended.

Platonic (Apple) 7/10

There’s a trend towards dramedies with a delightfully ironic conversational twist, and Platonic is a superb example of it. Starring the still-gorgeous Australian Rose Byrne (X-Men) as 40-something housewife Sylvia, who reconnects with brew beer owner and former best buddy Will (the multi-talented Seth Rogan) the 10 half-hour episodes are largely built around the hilarious and sometimes gritty repartee between the two along with the scrapes they get into as they navigate their renewed friendship and the challenges of heading towards middle age.

 

The really delightful thing about Platonic is the way it lets its characters indulge themselves and be themselves. It’s almost as if the director has let the actors improvise freely and the result is performances that feel natural and bring out the characters in a way that’s rare on TV. There’s also real joy in the micro-details that have little to do with the storyline: a son who has his iPad hidden away in the toilet, and a 4-year-old who is already too embarrassed to have her Mum see her to the gate at kindergarten. There is, of course, serious stuff between the laughs, like how Sylvia (who gave up her professional career for 13 years to raise her children) can get back into the workforce, and how the recently divorced and still hurting Will can rid himself of his adolescent impulses.

Shrinking (Apple TV+) 8/10

Thank goodness for the revolution in TV series comedy spawned by shows like Sex & The City back at the dawn of the century. If not for them, we might still be watching sitcoms with canned laughter. So-called “dramedy” has come a long way in the last 20-something years, and there’s no better example than Shrinking, a new 10-part series that had this critic howling with laughter and also (secretly, of course) blubbing into his bowl of crisps. The show’s premise doesn’t sound too promising, as it’s yet another story about a middle-aged male in the throes of getting over the death of his wife. But don’t let that put you off, as Shrinking is full of larger-than-life characters and just bursting with vitality.

 

Created by the writers behind shows like Scrubs and Ted Lasso, Shrinking stars Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother) as a grieving therapist (a “shrink”, get it?) who suddenly decides to get directly involved with the troubled lives of his clients. It’s risky and unprofessional but precipitates a series of incidents that propels the narrative to fascinating places. Each of the characters is beautifully drawn, especially Jessica Williams (The Daily Show) as a raunchy fellow therapist (and late wife’s bestie) and Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) as his closest friend. The show features some of the funniest and most potty-mouthed one-liners I’ve heard in an age, and the icing on the cake is a very grumpy, geriatric boss (played by octogenarian Harrison Ford) who is facing up to a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. It’s a long way from Indiana Jones and he plays the role with a degree of realism that had me looking up the actor’s own health stats.

Succession (Neon) 6/10

As this hugely critically acclaimed series finally ground to a halt with season 4, I found myself at odds with the opinion that Succession was right up there with The Sopranos as one of the greatest televisual dramas ever. Yes, the show – especially the first three seasons – did make for a compulsive viewing experience. And yes, the acting was never less than superb. And yes, the way it made what was really a bunch of corporate fucks talking and talking and talking completely spellbinding and verged on some kind of magic trick. But overall, the final season just lost its mojo and what was supposed to be the big moment the whole series had inevitably led up to… well… it just sagged.

 

For those few who don’t know already, Succession is about a media dynasty roughly based on Murdoch, and the way his two sons (both fuck-ups in their own way) and daughter constantly vie to take the crown of the patriarch. In my original review, I wrote that I found the show “frequently riveting in its edge-of-seat top echelon corporate shenanigans” and noted that its ability to allow you to like essentially bad people echoed the technique used brilliantly in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. In the final season, however, somehow the spell is broken and I found myself not caring about these venal individuals. It was never about understanding the minutiae of the business discussions but more about the subtle interplay between the devious (and sometimes deviant) characters. This time, the dance seemed less poetic, and the dialogue often seemed simply like actors reading lines. Maybe it was just me, but I barely made it to the end and was really glad to see the last of this sorry lot.

Swarm (Prime Video) 5/10

This seven-part series has a bunch of good reviews, but I couldn’t even get through it. Prime Video seems to specialise in greenlighting shows that feature unappealing characters and horrid subjects and Swarm is typical. Dominique Fishback (Judas And The Black Messiah) plays a psychotic young woman whose obsession with a fictional rapper called Ni’ Jah ultimately leads her to murder and mayhem.

 

There are those who hold Swarm up as a useful examination of music fandom in the 21st century, but I just found it so gratuitously unpleasant that I wanted to wash my hands of it. We all know that there’s a downside to popular culture and the way music stars are held up on pedestals and that this sometimes impacts on fans who are living miserable lives and desperately need something to believe in. But what’s new? While Fishback is no doubt a fine actor, her character is so lacking in charisma that it was hard to summon any interest in her. While it’s said to be inspired by The Sopranos, Swarm lacks that incredible show’s ability to create an anti-hero that you love to hate to love.

Wild Guitar (Mubi) 7/10

Fans of entertaining Z-grade rubbish will eat up this 1962 film about an Elvis-style nobody who arrives in LA with nothing but his worn-out guitar and busted suitcase, but through a quirk of fate is soon a shooting star. There are several compelling reasons to watch Wild Guitar, one of which is the frankly lamentable standard of acting, which is like watching an ongoing train wreck and just as unmissable. The other is the unlikely fact that the cinematography is often stunning, and it turns out that the nobody who shot the film was Vilmos Zsigmond, who went on to award-winning, fame and fortune with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Deer Hunter and many more.

 

Where some bad movies are simply boring, Wild Guitar is full of fun and apart from a few completely ridiculous and irritating slapstick moments with a gang of thugs who kidnap the star, it all moves along quite briskly. Apparently one of a small clutch of films starring father and son duo Arch Hall Senior and Arch Hall Junior – this time respectively as the star’s unscrupulous manager and the gullible star himself – it was (of course!) produced by dad! Arch Hall Junior as the hunky star Bud sings a bunch of frankly horrendous songs, and there’s a wonderfully kitsch scene where his galpal Vickie (former figure skater Nancy Czar) entrances him with her fancy moves on a skating rink. One more fun factoid: the musical director was another then-unknown, Alan O’Day, who went on to huge success in the ‘70s with songs like ‘Rock And Roll Heaven’ (for the Righteous Brothers) and ‘Angie Baby’ (for Helen Reddy). Avoid the fuzzy version on YouTube and check this nicely clear remastered version on the wonderful MUBI.

The Woods (Netflix) 4/10

European crime dramas tend to be reliably excellent, but this 2020 Polish adaptation of a novel by American crime novelist Harlan Coben is so deeply flawed that I’d hesitate to recommend it. And yet, it’s hard to identify exactly why it’s such an unsatisfying viewing experience. Yet another show built on flashbacks (a technique that’s getting mighty boring), The Woods is partially set in 1994 at a high school camp in the woods (natch) when several students go missing at night and are never found. The latter-day setting features one of those students, now the chief prosecutor, who identifies a new murder victim as one of the missing students.

 

Its six episodes really drag. Our hero Pawel (played by Grzegorz Dami?cki) can’t wipe the smirk off his face even in the most serious moments, which really grates. The whole shebang moves along at a snail’s pace and while there’s the hint of romance between Pawel and a woman he’d almost got together with the night of the camp mystery, nothing is consummated, leading to one of several story dead-ends calculated to lead to viewer fatigue and frustration. There’s a sense of confinement and political repression around the whole thing that maybe works for a Polish audience, but seems at odds with the work of an American writer.

Watch This is a regular column in which Gary Steel assesses 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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