IT'S been hard work the last few months to find anything decent to watch on television. There aren't any obvious hit series like Game of Thrones, Ozark or Fargo. It's as if the impact of Covid delayed its last convulsions until the end of 2023.
But I steered my remote control to some of the more obscure parts of the streaming services and came across some treasures. I hope my suggestions will keep you busy for a few weeks.
Of course, the list falls far short of being represen
tative of all the best things on television. I would have liked to include many more, like the series The Fall of the House of Usher and Lucky Hank, but there are limits to how much time you can spend on the couch.
Movies that have people talking
Leave the World Behind | Netflix
Director: Sam Esmail
Cast: Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, Myaha’la Herrold
Genre: Apocalyptic thriller
The arguments on social media over the merits of Sam Esmail's film Leave the World Behind — and especially over the way it ends — have already fizzled out but I think the conversation is far too serious about a movie that doesn't present itself as highly intellectual, even though it's described in the media as an “apocalyptic psychological thriller".
While it's not as extravagant an end-times satire as Adam McKay's Don't Look Up, it's certainly good Friday night entertainment rather than a deeply existential analysis of humanity and our planet's impending demise. Or perhaps a certain part of humanity considers our self-extinction to be so inevitable that all that's left is to grin at ourselves.
It is indeed lovely to experience the delightful Julia Roberts on screen for a couple of hours. May she make quite a few more movies.
Context about the director, Esmail, is that he's the guy behind the catchy television series Mr. Robot, starring the intense Rami Malek.
Maestro | Netflix
Director and writer: Bradley Cooper
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Sam Nivola, Alexa Swinton, Gideon Glick
The long-awaited Maestro, a biographical film about New York's greatest musical son, Leonard Bernstein, gets a muted 80% on the review aggregator rottentomatoes.com. That's not bad but it's probably about 15 points less than Cooper had hoped for.
The film comes under criticism for a number of reasons, most of which are valid. It focuses largely on the complex relationship between Bernstein and his wife, the television and Broadway actress Felicia Montealegre.
I would have liked to see more of Bernstein's musical and professional mastery, with the pain and turbulence of his personal life depicted in relation to the high level of organisation and sophistication in his professional life, both as conductor and creator. He was truly one of the greatest of the 20th century.
If you're interested in Bernstein and the classical music scene of the era, you're probably going to watch the film anyway, and that's fine, because it's also a production of the highest quality. Cooper really brings Lenny to life and Mulligan dazzles as Montealegre.
The Burial | Prime Video
Director: Maggie Betts
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Alan Ruck, Mamoudou Athie
Genre: Comical legal drama
The movie is loosely based on the story of a rural undertaker, Jeremiah Josef O'Keefe (Jones), who falls into arrears with the statutory fees payable to Mississippi's insurance authorities and is under pressure to sell his business to a corporate funeral home that makes him a nice offer.
But the corporation drags its feet with the payment. O'Keefe suspects it is deliberately delaying the process so it can get his business on the cheap and turns to the court for help.
He realises the case is going to be decided by a black jury, so he hires the flamboyant personal injury lawyer Willie E Gary (Foxx), who is also a fire-and-brimstone charismatic lay preacher.
Even though it's based on a true story, director Betts' approach sometimes borders on the farcical. With heavyweights like Jones and Foxx on screen, you're guaranteed enough fun moments, even if it's not a flawless film.
The Fragile King | Prime Video
Director and writer: Tristan Holmes
Cast: Andrew Buckland, Antoinette Louw, Jennifer Steyn, Jonathan Pienaar, Nthati Moshesh
Genre: Road movie
Few surprises are as much fun as coming across a small independent South African film as refreshing and compelling as The Fragile King. Director Holmes and his producers probably made the movie on a budget that would have had a Hollywood producer collapsing into unrestrained coughing.
It's the simple story of a 15-year-old, Michael (Alex de la Rey), whose struggling, alcoholic mother dies in a car accident. He ends up in the care of his grandfather, Gerald King (Andrew Buckland), a terminally ill man who lives in such neglect in his inner-city apartment that he can barely look after himself. And then it becomes a road movie that travels across the country from Durban to Alexander Bay.
It's a movie that reminds you of many of the reasons South African films should be conquering the world. Like the poignant landscapes, which include Durban's CBD, the portrayal of the subsistence that affects so many people in this country, and heavyweight professionals in the theatre and film industry such as Buckland who have practised their craft for decades without glamour and glory. Buckland is easily on par with a Billy Bob Thornton.
Saltburn | Prime Video
Director and writer: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E Grant
Genre: Who knows?
Few screen events are attracting more attention on social media, especially due to three provocative scenes in this British film. Just about all my friends who love movies are in awe of this but it left me with lukewarm feelings.
A middle-class Oxford University student, Oliver Quick, struggles to gain access to the posh inner circles. He becomes obsessed with one of the most handsome and charismatic rich-daddy boys, Felix Catton. Catton has empathy for Quick's domestic circumstances of substance abuse and his father eventually seemingly dying. Catton invites Quick to his parents' mansion for the holidays, and that's when things start to heat up.
My resistance isn't to the shock scenes (I have a strong stomach for wild things) but I think it's valid criticism that the picture suffers from a genre vagueness. It's not clear what it's trying to be. Yes, it's a black comedy, but it's also trying to be a psychological thriller, as well as some kind of satire. In the end, it's a somewhat empty version of many genres at once. The Washington Post called it an “aristo-gothic sexual thriller".
Saltburn is important for movie fans because the director, Fennell, has already won an Oscar and two Baftas as writer and director of the excellent Promising Young Woman. She also played Camilla Parker-Bowles in the second and third seasons of The Crown.
If you want to join the conversation, you'll have to watch it.
Series that will mess up your schedule
Poker Face | Showmax
Creator: Rian Johnson
Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Benjamin Bratt
Genre: Crime comedy
If you still have a bit of holiday left and you're looking for something to curb the upcoming anxiety of the work year for another day or so, stop the clock because you've just found it.
Anyone who has watched the Russian Doll series will know why one can get so excited about Natasha Lyonne, who as Charlie Cale is the heart and soul of the series. She teamed up with director Rian Johnson, who was responsible for the satirical movies Knives Out and Glass Onion as well as three of the best episodes of Breaking Bad.
The casino waitress, Charlie, has the superhuman ability to see through lies, which means she's not welcome in any poker game. She's also extremely curious and can't help poking her nose into any possible mystery, à la Angela Lansbury. She draws the attention of the creepy casino bosses and goes on the run in her dilapidated Plymouth Barracuda. The open road becomes her home.
It's a case-a-week crime comedy — a kind of Murder, She Wrote with white trash, rednecks, hillbillies and gangsters. Highly entertaining.
The Good Mothers | Disney+
Director: Julian Jarrold
Cast: Gaia Girace, Valentina Bellè, Barbara Chichiarelli, Francesco Colella
Genre: Crime drama
If, like me, you sometimes want to get away from your own culture and the American and English cultures that we have become accustomed to on television and in movies, then you will enjoy few stories more than this one about the brave women in the clutches of the 'Ndrangheta mafia in Italy's southern Calabria region.
The 'Ndrangheta are less well-known than their Sicilian cousins in the Cosa Nostra but they are richer, more influential and more international. The series is based on the novel of the same name by Alex Perry, which tells the story of how three women, trapped in the family systems of the 'Ndrangheta, work with a female prosecutor to bring these all-powerful criminal gangs to a fall. And yes, it's pretty accurate and based on true events.
The story is gripping and exciting, it's beautifully filmed and the actors are extremely skilled and predominantly (may I still say so?) attractive people. If you're worried about more murder and manslaughter on your screen, fear not, the violence isn't shoved in your face.
Only Murders in the Building | Disney+
Creators: Steve Martin, John Hoffman
Cast: Martin Short, Steve Martin, Selena Gomez
Genre: Mystery comedy
Episodes: Three seasons, 10 episodes each
Here's a delightful series you can watch with your teens if you don't mind them hearing the world's 14th greatest TikTokker and the main character in Wizards of Waverly Place using the f-word to excess.
Gomez is the mysterious loner Mabel Mora and, like her fellow characters Oliver Putnam (Short) and Charles Hayden Savage (Martin), she is a resident of the Arconia, a colossal Art Deco apartment building in Manhattan. The three sometimes share the elevator but don't have much to say to each other.
They also share a love for a whodunnit podcast, All is not OK in Oklahoma, and when a murder is committed in the Arconia, that fact happens to come to light. It isn't long before the unlikely trio team up to solve the murder and make their own podcast of the process.
Putnam and Savage (Short and Martin have been besties since they appeared in The Three Amigos in 1986) don't miss a chance to vilify each other and it ultimately rests on the young Mabel to be the adult and keep this rambunctious trio's feet on the ground.
The series is great fun and if it loses a bit of speed in the second season, push through until Meryl Streep makes her appearance in the third season in what Vanity Fair describes as her most challenging role: that of the failed actress Loretta Durkin.
The Patient | Disney+
Directors and writers: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Cast: Steve Carell, Domhnall Gleeson, Linda Emond
Genre: Psychological thriller
Episodes: 10 (limited series)
The Patient was made a while ago but it's so good that I decided to discuss it here anyway.
Like Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, Sasha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais and Jim Carrey, Steve Carrell, star of the American The Office, shows how convincing a comedian can be in a serious role.
Alan Straus (Carrell) is a psychiatrist who is kidnapped and held by a patient, Sam Fortner (Gleeson). Fortner reveals to Straus that he is a serial killer and demands that Straus treat him and heal him of his horrific impulsive urges.
Of course, this puts Carrell in a brutal Catch-22 situation. Over 10 episodes, his life plays out in slow motion before his eyes. In his head, he relives the recent death of his wife and his unhappy relationship with his adult son. One of the best series of the last two years.
Doccies for the braai talk
The Pigeon Tunnel | Apple TV+
Director: Errol Morris
David Cornwell might not ring a bell but if I mention his real name, John le Carré, you'll probably know a lot about him even if you haven't read any of his books. The Irish/English Le Carré was perhaps the 20th century's greatest writer of spy thrillers, with a life story that will make some of his fictional work look like child's play.
His father was a flamboyant gambling con artist who was permanently on the run from his creditors. His mother left the family when David was only five. Later, David was a spy for the British security service (MI5) and the secret security service (MI6). He knew what treason meant and could write about it.
The Pigeon Tunnel is a documentary film about Le Carré's life, consisting mostly of a rare and candid interview with Morris. Le Carré didn't grant many interviews and this one is an experience. It's a must for his followers, yet still thought-provoking for curious viewers who might not even have read a Le Carré novel.
Boetie Boer: Inside the Mind of a Killer | Showmax
Director: Jasyn Howes
The fisherman and good-for-nothing Stewart ‘Boetie Boer' Wilken was convicted of seven murders in 1998 and made written confessions about numerous other killings. Among his victims were street boys, female sex workers and his own daughter when she was still a child. In addition to the murders, his range of confessed crimes include rape, paedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, cannibalism, incest … Wilken is a monster among monsters.
The series relies heavily on a prison interview conducted with him by criminologist Dr Gérard Labuschagne in 2006. It also includes interviews with people involved in the investigation and court case, such as the detective and chief investigating officer, Derrick Nosworthy, and Wilken's lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow.
After the first episode, I considered giving up because it seemed to me that Wilken was an imbecile with extremely low intelligence who destroyed anyone who crossed his path, and thus less interesting than murderers such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and South Africa's Moses Sithole, who followed a modus operandi and a specific pattern.
But as the series progresses, a complex personality emerges of someone who was abandoned by his community. The murder of his daughter and his consequent attempts to justify it reveals a real human being.
The series could have been two episodes shorter and could have done without the clumsy dramatisations, because the facts and opinions surrounding Boetie Boer are already dramatic enough. It remains a poignant story, however.
World War II: From the Frontlines | Netflix
Director: Rob Coldstream
Narrator: John Boyega
This series is a brief history of World War 2 in six episodes. It looks at the major events and turning points, such as the Nazis' racial propaganda in Germany and the Polish invasion, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the siege of Stalingrad and the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front, the English and American invasion of Europe, the series of battles in the East between the Americans and the Japanese, D-Day, and the complex situation in Berlin at the end of the war.
The series uses restored and coloured black-and-white film footage as well as true colour film shot during the war. I hadn't seen much of the extremely dramatic material before, especially when it came to the Japanese air raids on the US Navy.
I watched the series with my teenage son, who has a keen interest in history. The series doesn't say anything new but it's a good introductory framework for someone who wants to understand the war. Be warned, some of the material contains cruelty and is disturbing to watch.
Brawn: The Impossible Formula 1 Story | Disney+
Director: Daryl Goodrich
Narrator and provider: Keanu Reeves
It is astounding that it took 14 years before anyone made a documentary about the year the Brawn GP team turned the Formula 1 world on its head. It's a remarkable but also hilarious story at times.
What basically happened is that Honda suddenly withdrew from Formula 1 racing in December 2008, which would have meant 700 people losing their jobs and a brand-new racing car already under development for the 2009 season being thrown in the trash.
The technical director, the legendary Ross Brawn, and the CEO, Nick Fry, couldn't bear to disband the team and convinced Honda to sell it to them. In effect, they used the money they got to disband the team to participate in the 2009 season. Brawn, as a symbolic gesture, handed one pound to Hiroshi Oshima, Honda's car-racing boss.
One of their first major problems was that Honda did not want to sell them the car's engine as well. Somehow, they were able to convince Mercedes to sell them an engine which didn't fit in the car, but with creative late-night mechanical antics they made it work, and the rest is a very nice story.
One of the reasons for the success of the documentary is that the world's biggest dude-bro, Keanu Reeves, does the interviews and hosts the series. Reeves has the peculiar characteristic of simply not being able to wear a formal mask.
He's basically the world's most confident stoner, which is truly funny when he interviews scaly characters like Bernie Ecclestone, self-important people like Luca di Montezemolo and formal Germans like Norbert Haug.
A few series on my radar
Lucky Hank | Showmax: New series starring Bob Odenkirk as an English professor. Rottentomatoes – 93%.
Reacher | Prime Video. The second season of the successful television version of Lee Childs' hero Jack Reacher is here. Rottentomatoes – 100%.
Slow Horses | Apple TV+. Alcoholic, recalcitrant, bitter and decrepit MI5 agent Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) and his team of good-for-nothings are back for a third season. Rottentomatoes – 97%.
Spinners | Showmax. An authentic South African story about a 17-year-old who must find his way amid gangs and extreme motorsport manoeuvres. What could go wrong?
Lessons in Chemistry | Apple TV+. A woman whose career as a chemist is thwarted by patriarchy suddenly finds herself on television as a presenter of a cooking show. Rottentomatoes – 84%.
Back in time
Somebody Somewhere | HBO, Showmax
This series is something of a sensation in the world of smaller independent productions. If you were one of those kids who could never fit in with any group at school, in other words a freak, then this series should be Bridget Everett's gospel for freaks.
Ted Lasso | Apple TV+
My youngest son begged me to watch this series with him. It's about a failed American football coach who coaches an English soccer team. The childish and wholesome first impressions of the series put me off at first, but I soon realised that there was also a razor-sharp subversive humorous writer at work here who eventually made for a quirky yet satisfying mix.
Fauda | Netflix
The Israeli/Palestinian war made me look at Fauda again. It bothered me a bit from the outset that so little was said in the reviews about the series being made from an Israeli point of view, even though effort was made to paint a rounded picture. Mostly set in the West Bank, it gives one an idea of the landscape, the decay of the Palestinian territories and the corruption and hatred, including among the Israelis.
The Sopranos | Showmax
When the six seasons of The Sopranos were initially aired, you had to wait for a new episode every week over six years. The result is that I never watched it as one continuous story and some of the storylines and plots were lost. Well, you can watch it all at once on Showmax. It's worth it.
Paul Simon – Graceland | Prime Video
An hour-long documentary made in 1997 about the production of the legendary album. It is interesting not only because it features interviews with Simon, Philip Glass, Linda Ronstadt and Ray Phiri, but also because you suddenly realise how much the world has changed since 1997.
A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story | Netflix
If you are a Formula 1 supporter and think Michael Schumacher is the undisputed king of Grands Prix, then you are probably under 60, because in the Fifties the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio won the world title five times. Back then, motor racing was more dangerous than being a fighter pilot. A delightful documentary for petrolheads.
♦ VWB ♦
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