A Trash Truck Christmas

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️                

Categorisation: Children’s animated Christmas story

Availability: Netflix 

Plot:  Little Hank’s best friend is a rubbish truck. Forget cutie prince and princesses – or indeed any other toys. It seems trash trucks are all the rage for preschoolers this Christmas. It has to be said that it is a pretty cute rubbish truck. And when Hank discovers that Trash Truck and his other animal friends don’t know about Christmas, he decides to get them up to speed and infuse their collective friendships with a festive spirit. Coincidentally, at a critical moment of present-delivery, Santa crash-lands nearby. Hank’s little troupe, that also includes a sweet bear, a funny raccoon and a motherly house mouse, then work together to save Christmas. 

Cast:  Max Keane has created this nostalgic little film. It’s a bit of a family affair, with his son, Henry, speaking the part of Hank, his wife Megan as Hank’s mum, and Max’s father (Glen Keane) as Trash Truck. Hank’s other best friends complete the cast,  Donny the funny racoon (spoken by Lucas Neff), Walter the gorgeous black bear (spoken by Brian Baumgartner), and Miss Mona, the mouse who manages to come across as everyone’s favourite mum (spoken by Jackie Loeb). John DiMaggio strikes a warm and reassuring tone as Santa. 

Filming and setting: Although it’s an American film, it is set in a warm place. There is not a snowflake in sight. The colours are lovely and the animations are charming.

Personal Comments:  I searched in vein to find a less saccharine Christmas film for review this Friday. In the end I did the next best thing and I found the shortest. This one is endearing, and is worth 28 minutes of your time, particularly if you have a preschooler around the house this festive season. I’ve given A Trash Truck Christmas four stars. It made me smile, and somehow it felt too Ebenezer Scrooge-like not to.

I hope you all have a safe and happy 2021!


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Political drama

Availability: Netflix 

Plot:  Set in the period prior to Australia’s offshore detention regime, this drama is one of the few that tackles the question of asylum seekers in detention. It brings into sharp focus Australia’s controversial policies that imprison, without trial, people seeking asylum who come to Australia by boat. Partly based on true events at the South Australian Baxter Detention centre near Port Augusta, the drama (at the fictional Barton centre) follows four main characters: Sofie Werner, a troubled Australian citizen who finds herself fleeing a cult before being mistakenly placed in the women’s section of a detention centre for illegal immigrants; Ameer, a detention centre refugee from Afghanistan who hopes to seek asylum for himself and his family, but is tragically separated from his wife and children; Clare Kowitz, a new general manager from the federal government who is sent to Barton with the instruction to cool the media attention and to get the place under control; and Cam Sandford, tempted by a much better salary and confident he can manage the job, leaves his dead-end job to work as a guard at Barton. Life at the centre is challenging for them all and each of them reach a breaking point, trapped by their differing circumstances within the centre’s toxic environment. 

Cast: There are some terrific performances from a top class cast in this series. Making relatively brief appearances, Cate Blanchett (series co-creator) and Dominic West are both compelling and menacing as they exploit vulnerable people in their cult-like self-help group. Yvonne Strahovski is excellent as the damaged Sofie who ends up trying to escape them. Fayssal Bazzi playing Ameer is dignified, even as he brings tension, frustration and powerlessness to the role. The other two characters, Claire played by Asher Keddie, and Cam played by Jai Courtney, expose human frailties when their moral compass is tested within an inherently abusive setting. Jai Courtney is particularly good expressing a range of emotions as he undermines his own sense of what is right. Rachel House (the brilliant ‘no child left behind’ social worker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is convincingly nasty as the experienced security guard, and Soraya Heidari is impressive as Mina, Ameer’s daughter.   

Filming and setting: Filmed on location at the Baxter Detention Centre, the series captures the bleak realism of a wire-fenced complex in a desolate desert setting. We also see scenes of Ameer and his family hopelessly trying to negotiate with people smugglers on the Indonesian Coast, and we see Sofie’s experience of life in the cult – a vulnerable young woman struggling to cope with life and exploitation. The scenes add authenticity to the harrowing experiences as life for both characters spiral downward. The handheld camera work provides a feeling of being right in there with the characters, particularly at the detention centre. It creates an acute sense of oppressiveness for all the characters.  

Personal Comments:  Reviews of the series have been varied. There is no doubt it is well done. And it is based on real experiences – even Sofie’s story is inspired by the experience of Australian citizen Cornelia Rau, a flight attendant with mental health concerns who was mistakenly detained in 2004 at the Baxter centre. While Sofie’s story is worth telling, it is the dominance of her story that has caused the most criticism, particularly the way in which it detracts from Ameer’s harrowing experience. Ameer’s story, and the thousands of refugee stories he represents, comes across as something of secondary interest. On the other hand, in a country where the Prime Minister has a trophy boat on his desk celebrating his success in ‘stopping the boats’, and where the lives of 1500 asylum seekers continue to be uncertain as a consequence of Australia’s draconian policies (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/dec/10/lives-in-limbo-more-than-1500-asylum-seekers-still-face-uncertain-future?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other), this series brings attention to these violations of human rights, and that’s a good thing.

The Gulf

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Crime drama

Availability: Netflix 

Plot:  This joint New Zealand/German detective series was released in 2019 and spent some time on TV-on-demand in New Zealand before migrating to Netflix. The drama begins when Jess, the main character, and her husband Alex have a dreadful car accident one stormy night. She survives, but he does not.  Clearly injured and with memory loss, Jess struggles to work out what happened that night. Slowly, across the six episodes, she recovers her memory while going about the business of solving crimes on New Zealand’s Waiheke Island – and consuming large quantities of heavy duty painkillers. First, one of her old cases re-emerges, the disappearance and presumed death of a young boy on the island. Then other investigations take her deeper and deeper into the underworld of crime. 

Cast and screenplay: The cast is competent overall, although you have to get past the first episode when there is too much shouting and emotional overacting. But then it settles down and Kate Elliot, playing DSS Jess Savage, does a good job looking fragile, fraught and difficult, particularly in the scenes with her daughter Ruby, also played well by Timmie Cameron. Ido Drent plays an ambitious Justin Harding the junior detective, a character with his own murky background, and Jeffrey Thomas plays the equally murky Doug, Jess’s old boss. There is a lovely example of relaxed and confident film-making when Doug and Jess chat casually together, both leaning on the bonnet of a car, while he eats his ice cream cone. Alison Bruce is understatedly terrific as the local sergeant in charge, Denise Abernathy, as is Pana Hema Taylor as the young constable. The screenplay is heavy-handed at times and you have to suspend disbelief, more than occasionally. At other times though it’s forceful, for example when a local Māori is killed and as his body is moved from the death scene his tribe perform a haka to powerful effect.

Filming and setting: The drama is set on the idyllic Waiheke Island, the second-largest island in the Hauraki Gulf – hence the title of the series. Although it’s New Zealand’s most densely populated island, you wouldn’t know it from this production. Waiheke is presented as an insular village with all the small town characteristics that we have come to expect from detective stories across the world – a somewhat resentful constabulary suddenly being critically overseen by city police, and a small community of people with secrets that they prefer to hide. There are some great shots of the island, and they make a fine job of photographing it.  

Personal Comments:  This is a pretty solid series that generally conforms to a well recognisable crime detective series formula. So it’s a bit short on originality, and the ending would also have benefited from extra thought. But it does have a few surprises, and it’s good to see a kiwi series gaining a wider Netflix audience.

The Queen’s Gambit

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Period drama

Availability: Netflix 

Plot:  After a family tragedy the main character, orphaned six year old Beth Harmon, is sent to the Methuen Home for Girls in Kentucky. Here she learns to play chess, and we gain insight into her extraordinary mental and imaginative powers. Then we follow her as she confronts the challenges of growing up and wanting to be a chess grand master.

Cast and screenplay: Isla Johnston is excellent playing Beth as a child in the first episode, and then Anya Taylor-Joy portrays her as a teenager and young adult in the rest of the series. Taylor-Joy is perfect for the role. Her portrayal is outstanding as we watch Beth grapple with the ways of the world after her closeted orphanage experience. Bill Camp plays Mr Shaibel, the orphanage janitor who teaches her to play chess in the basement. I am ashamed to say, I was on tenterhooks worrying that this little girl would be exposed to adverse predatory behaviour, but I needn’t have worried. The relationship between Mr Shaibel and Beth provide some of the most poignant moments in the film. Beth’s adoptive mother Alma is played wonderfully by Marielle Heller. She manages wisdom and fragility in equal measure, and she and Beth develop a bond fuelled by love, codependency (mostly on alcohol and drugs) and tournament winnings.  

Filming and setting: The cinematography is superb in this film. It brilliantly captures the colours, style and interior design of the 1950s/60s, and as such it is a visual treat. We get to see stunning interiors, from American home design, to luxurious hotels, to the magnificent scenes of Beth’s tournament venues. And we see fashion – particularly women’s fashion – as Beth and Alma showcase Hollywood styles that are timeless and often exceptionally beautiful. Visually it’s authentic and a delight to watch. The music is terrific too. 

Personal Comments:  There is no question – The Queen’s Gambit is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s not surprising that the Netflix series has caused a sensation across the globe. While it’s a bit long in places it keeps us right in there with Beth and her incredible adventures toward fame and fortune. But there is something missing in its storytelling. Beth completely transcends any of the sexist realities that confronted women of the time. While she is seen as an oddity in what is clearly a man’s world of chess, other than her own demons there are no barriers standing in her way. This creates a somewhat fanciful and wondrous element to her experiences. Ultimately this flaw challenges the perfection of the series. On the other hand, perhaps it is a fairy story the world needs in these troubled times.