The Peripheral - see below

The Best (And Worst) Streaming TV Shows & Films

November 1, 2022
14 mins read
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A regular column in which GARY STEEL sifts through the mountain of available streaming TV and brings your attention to great new shows as well as those to avoid.

The Peripheral – see below

The Bad Guys (Neon) 6/10

It gets a bit gloomy watching animated movies with the kids. They never complain, as long as the film holds their attention, but if they never mention it again later, I know that it hasn’t really touched the sides. Such is the case with The Bad Guys, an action-packed caper from Dreamworks featuring a gang of heisters (a wolf, a python, a piranha, a spider and a rather portly shark). It’s a fairly predictable story of redemption where the infamous thieves eventually discover that life is much more fun when you’re loved and admired for the right reasons.

 

Based on the book series of the same name, The Bad Guys centres around the heist of a giant meteorite that goes spectacularly wrong, the relationship forming between an attractive fox and the handsome wolf, and the real villain of the piece, a famous philanthropist guinea pig called Professor Marmalade. It’s never dull and the writers and animators fill it with all the expected moves, but I yearned for something just a little bit quirky or surprising that just wasn’t there. While the animation itself is pretty stock-standard, there’s one notable difference in that the creatures’ eyes look drawn-on. It’s not a flaw, just an odd and visually notable difference. Personally, I felt that the anthropomorphism of this gang was a step too far and that the whole project lacked originality, but there you go.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (Prime Video) 8/10

I didn’t know, honest. Despite having two young kids who have given me a crash course in everything childish, I knew nothing about Captain Underpants, had barely heard of the books, and didn’t know there was a movie. Until this evening, when we were trying to find something to have our weekly “TV dinner” with, and Prime Video told me that this film was, you know… brand new! That’s right, it said 2022! (Turns out it came out in 2017). I watched the trailer and thought, “okay”. I don’t know if the kids liked it that much, but it’s the best thing I’ve seen in an age! Honest! There’s something truly anarchic and seditionary about this tale about two boys bonded by their cheeky sense of humour, and their battle against the school principal, who is a classic authoritarian bent on destroying what little fun the kids have in their pointless toil.

 

Of course, the kids end up hypnotizing the principal into believing that he’s a superhero called Captain Underpants (the name of the comic series the boys have been creating), and then there’s a subplot where an angry inventor who hates humour of any kind (with a German accent, ouch!) turns up to literally remove the part of their brains that’s responsible for laughter. Gosh! Generally, I don’t go for the overly busy action and verbosity of so many animated films, but Captain Underpants purveys a different level of freneticism: it’s simply nuts! This is one of the few children’s films I’ve seen this year that I can honestly say will elicit more laughs from parents than kids, especially those whose funny bones and enjoyability quotient for insane shit extends to animated films. Loved it.

I Am Greta (Neon) 7/10

For those of us who haven’t followed the young Swedish climate activist with any determination, I Am Greta makes for a rather awe-inspiring and educational crash course on Greta Thunberg. Essentially a fly-on-the-wall documentary watching Thunberg from her first one-person protest at the Swedish parliament through to her subsequent burgeoning celebrity and her full diary of speaking engagements and meetings with the rich and powerful (including French prime minister Macron and even the Pope), it’s a delightfully human portrait of an idiosyncratic and idealistic teen. In this age of carefully constructed and orchestrated PR campaigns, it’s natural to be sceptical of Thunberg’s achievements, but the way her popularity exploded feels organic, even if the predictability of media coverage guaranteed that their focus would be on her rather than the urgent issue of whether we’re going to collectively do what needs to be done to assure the continuance of life on earth.

 

Only 15 when she kicked off her campaign and often seen wilting under the pressure, Thunberg is revealed as being on the autistic spectrum, the positive aspect of which gives her an extraordinary ability to focus and absorb facts. The negative side, hinted at in the film, is behavioural quirks. I left the film full of respect for her determination and inspirational rallying call, which has resulted in a generation of young people demanding action on climate change. It also left me worried for her future: it must be hellishly hard to find any semblance of balance when everyone wants a piece of you at such a tender age.

Island Of The Sea Wolves  (Netflix) 7/10

Personally, I find it hard to accept narration in a nature documentary from anyone other than David Attenborough. I know that’s silly, but his team has honed the craft of depicting our wild world for decades with a certain English elan that typically evades the sensibilities of American producers. Island Of The Sea Wolves might lack the BBC style, but its three episodes showing the extreme seasonal cycles and harsh life experiences of the animals and birds on  Vancouver Island are beautifully photographed and polished by judicious editing, competent storytelling and decent narration by actor Will Arnett.

 

While the documentary focuses on a pack of wolves it also spends a good chunk of time with a couple of bald-headed eagles and their struggle to raise two chicks, along with a mother bear and her cubs and their effort to evade a patricidal male, and a sea otter’s ongoing endeavour to get enough food into the belly of its young one. Vancouver Island and its environs are beautiful but nothing is easy and danger lurks everywhere. Even the cute wee marmots that have been re-introduced to the island are in present danger from cougars that roam the area. At times the action drags a bit and it could have been edited into two hour-long episodes, but Island Of The Sea Wolves is worth a shot if you’re in the mood for a dash of nature.

Lou (Netflix) 7/10

Set on a remote island off the coast of Washington in the US, this taut, action-packed thriller stars Allison Janney (American Beauty, The West Wing) as Lou, the seemingly heartless 60-something landlord of the struggling young mum Hannah, played by Jurnee Smollett (True Blood, Lovecraft Country). It’s a simple story in which a madman kidnaps the child and the two women set out in the wilds to track the villain and rescue her while a tropical storm is raging.

 

Packed with plot twists and big reveals, the narrative moves along at a cracking pace and the action seldom pauses for more than a few minutes at a time. The action scenes are as tense as anything and for those whose excite-o-meters don’t easily swing into high anxiety, the film is quite a ride. Janney acts with authority, though Smollett’s performance at times seems a little histrionic. With more than a touch of Hitchcock to it, it’s an enjoyable way to eat up an hour-and-a-half, though you’re left with the uneasy feeling that its conclusion was just a little on the pat side.

The Man Who Fell To Earth (Neon) 8/10

I put off watching this 10-episode sci-fi series, having sat through the 1976 David Bowie-starring film completely confused about what was going on. The only memory I have of the movie is of pale alien Bowie wandering around in a daze. I’m glad that curiosity did finally get the better of me, because this sequel will make my 2022 ‘best of’ list. It really is that good. An ageing Bill Nighy makes cameo appearances as Bowie’s character but the main action centres around Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, 12 Years A Slave) is simply superb as Faraday, an alien who turns up in a quest to save Earth, enlisting the services of a brilliant but troubled scientist played by Naomie Harris (Moonlight, No Time To Die).

The Man Who Fell To Earth achieves the near-impossible by marrying bravura performances with deep dialogue about the nature of life and the universe and perfectly timed action scenes. What makes it so very special is the way all of this and judicious use of special effects (check the scene where Faraday’s face melts or where he projectile vomits gallons of water) makes for an entertainment that also feels like a very human drama. Proof that sci-fi needn’t be dumbed-down or one-dimensional, there are even scenes where the alien’s adjustments to life on our planet conjure faded memories of Robin Williams’ hilarious comedic alien Mork.

The Midwich Cuckoos (Neon) 5/10

The 1960 film The Village Of The Damned was really eerie, with its black and white cinematography and frighteningly identical blonde-haired Arian children. Based on John Wyndham’s book, The Midwich Cuckoos, the film effectively conveyed the horror of discovering that your children are telepathic aliens with a deadly agenda. There were several sequels and remakes and now this, a seven-episode TV series that attempts to update the story for the 20th century. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.

It’s fair enough that the cast is representative of contemporary England in terms of race, but that means the chill factor (and the Nazi/fascist implications) of the original film is lost. Basically, the kids in this adaptation just aren’t scary. What’s more, the writing is dull and while the claustrophobia of being confined to one small township is intentional, there’s something about the production that feels clunky and dull. Keeley Hawes (Finding Alice, Year Of The Rabbit) looks perplexed and exhausted as the pivotal character, Dr Susannah Zellaby, and Max Beesley (Hotel Babylon, Jamestown) is relentlessly expressionless as DCI Paul Haynes. And perhaps that’s the problem: if the characters are dull, what hope does a show have?

Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Netflix) 7/10

I’m in two minds about this 10-episode dramatization of the life of a young man who extinguished the life of at least 16 others. Haven’t we had our fill of serial killers? With climate change, pestilence, war and the threat of nuclear bombs, aren’t there more pressing concerns? Still, if this series and the concurrently released Dahmer film (not to mention relatively recent releases like My Friend Dahmer) are anything to go by, Jeffrey Dahmer remains a subject of much interest. It’s hard to understand exactly why: apart from the body count and the fact that he occasionally liked to taste his wares, his story isn’t exactly riveting, and in Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, he comes across as a rather dull (if disturbed) chap, and certainly not an individual I would choose to spend 10 hours with.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVHHs-xllqo

 

On the upside, the series focuses an almost forensic lens on Dahmer’s life, turning up multiple and seemingly plausible reasons for his extreme personality disorder and sexual perversions. Each segment of his life is portrayed in detail, seemingly giving real insight into the inevitability of what happened. Evan Peters (American Horror Story, Mare Of Easttown) is superb in the title role, perfectly conveying Dahmer’s profound alienation and inability to fit in and the looming horror of his perverted flesh fetish. Richard Jenkins is also perfectly cast as Dahmer’s loving but hopeless Dad. Although it’s told in flashbacks, these are cleverly constructed (for a change) to enhance the story, and uniquely, the series spends a good chunk of its time focusing on key victims and their stories, which gives the viewer the chance to do something that Dahmer clearly wasn’t capable of: empathise. But it has to be said that despite the careful attention to casting, period detail and the inevitable consequences of Dahmer’s actions, at times it seems about twice as long as it should be.

The Peripheral (Prime Video) 9/10

Wow! How often is it that you sit down to take in a new series and at the end of the first episode you turn to the wife and remark: “Well, that was different!” In the current sea of very competent but mostly also fairly humdrum streaming TV fodder, The Peripheral stands out head and shoulders. Given its subject matter – augmented reality – I expected the worst. Generally, dramas that deal with the sharp end of technology overreach themselves and are dated before they even reach the public. This adaptation of the William Gibson book deals with the subject in an entirely original way. Those who don’t enjoy surprises should avoid, however, because the show is constantly pulling the wool out from under the viewer’s feet.

 

The Peripheral works so very well because its initial setting is so rustic and its characters so remarkable. The series is worth watching alone for the charismatic Chloe Moretz (Carrie, Mother/Android), who plays Flynne Fisher, a young woman eking an existence in a more dystopian near-future version of rural America. Minding her sick mother and helping her brother – a former elite US marine – recover from brain trauma, Flynne volunteers to test-drive a new VR headset prototype. She soon discovers, however, that it’s not a game but an iteration of future reality that bleeds into her world. What sounds vaguely silly on paper is constantly thrilling to watch, and like The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Peripheral manages to skilfully straddle believable drama and outlandish sci-fi scenarios.

Pistol (Disney+) 8/10

I resisted the idea of watching Pistol for a few months after having been totally put off by the trailer. Generally, I dislike biographical dramatizations, and dramas about musicians suck not only because they seldom look anything like the actual acts but more often than not, they get them to pretend to sing and play the songs, which never works. The only really convincing dramatized bio I can think of is Oliver Stone’s film on Jim Morrison and The Doors. But recently, reeling from all the putrid coverage of the Queen’s memorials (Gawd save The Sex Pistols, etc) on a whim I decided to check out Danny Boyle’s six-part series on the group. And I loved it! No, the actors don’t look especially like the real Pistols, but the show overcomes that with its quirky approach. This is not Trainspotting, but it does have some of the familiar Boyle hallmarks, and Pistol wins brownie points for its many creative and witty digressions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KhxwG0eCiE

 

Is it factually accurate? Really, who cares? Based on the reminiscences of guitarist Steve Jones, I’m sure that John Lydon/Rotten will have seen red with his depiction, and had he still been with us, Malcolm McLaren would probably have seen the humour in it. If there’s a fault, it’s that McLaren is painted as the Svengali figure and Rotten as an angry young man who followed McLaren’s agenda, until he didn’t. Having grown up myself during the punk era it always felt that Rotten was his own man and bright as a button, in his own way. But that’s by the by. Pistol is essentially a story about disenfranchised teens – in a 1970s London that has more than a whiff of Dickens about it – rising up to make something of their own with a DIY spirit, and the series captures period detail in a way that feels real (for a change). The story of the Sex Pistols is a short one with a tragic ending, and during the last episode featuring their one disastrous US tour and ultimately, Sid Vicious’s demise, I felt myself subconsciously wishing that it hadn’t ended in disarray. But I guess that’s life.

Prey (Disney+) 6/10

As a fan of sci-fi-horror, the Predator films have never particularly appealed. He’s an idiotic-looking monster with his silly faux-dreadlocks, and his cloak of invisibility is somehow just boring. Had I realised that Prey was simply another entry in the Predator film franchise – the fifth, as it turns out, and a prequel too – I would not have bothered. I was attracted by its setting amongst the Native Americans of 1719 and the hint of a scary, alien presence in a world that was, of course, about to be forever ruptured by European colonialists. Somehow, Amber Thunder (Legion, Roswell New Mexico) doesn’t quite cut it as the young squaw and teen warrior Naru and main focus of the film. This may not be her fault so much as director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) who keeps her in shot so much of the time that the allure wears off.

 

Apart from the setting, there are several aspects that distinguish Prey from typical Predator fare: primarily the fact that it’s refreshing to have a whole film shot outdoors, as well as rather well-staged action scenes in this wild environment. But it’s barely a story, and the “strong female does heroic shit while all the dumb blokes act like fuckwits” theme is getting stale. Sure, give us strong female leads, but why resort to cliché in the process? And some of the scenarios they made up for the film are just silly. For instance, would a young Comanche warrior who is versed in the outdoors really so easily get stuck in sinking mud? Ultimately, I ended up caring so little that I can’t quite remember what happened at the end. I’m pretty sure she returned as a hero to the remnants of her decimated tribe, which should have left me buzzing. Instead, it registers as just another humdrum barely-entertainment time-waster.

The Watcher (Netflix) 7/10

The Watcher is another collaboration between Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan of American Horror Story and Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story infamy, and it shows. Based on a true story of a family who are harassed (and more!) by a mystery stalker, the seven-episode series relies on the creation of often outlandish and unrealistic plot twists to keep the shocks coming. Feeding into the sense of insecurity that lies behind every safe suburban home, The Watcher sees a New York family buy a gorgeous 100-year-old mansion in a salubrious suburb, only to find that some creep is sending them weird, threatening letters. And on top of that, the neighbours are nuts.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HDkw100sXQ

Bobby Cannavale (Mr Robot, Vinyl) over-acts/over-reacts to just about everything as the financially troubled dad, leaving it up to Naomi Watts (Diana, King Kong) to add a sense of grace as the mum. Hot sauce is applied by Isabel Gravitt as the jailbait teenage daughter while the ragtag assortment of oddball neighbours includes veteran Mia Farrow as the pesky Pearl Winslow. Not without entertainment value, The Watcher keeps the viewer hooked, but I’ve got a feeling that the true story it’s based on is mundane by comparison, and the screenplay often feels heavy-handed in its attempts to up the shock value.

Wolfwalkers  (Apple+) 8/10

Computer-generated animation can feel a little generic after a while, even if it does have the ability to mimic a sense of the real in a way old-fashioned cartoons never could. This 2020 film was just the animated tonic I was looking for and a refreshing change for the wee monsters (4 and 8) who were totally enraptured for the whole of its 103-minute running time. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that  Wolfwalkers is a prize-winning feature directed by Tomm Moore of Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon, and its fantastical story delves into mysterious pagan folklore. Set in 1650, the story is about a young English girl, Robyn, who accompanies her wolf-hunting Dad to the Irish town of Kilkenny, which is presided over by a horrid authoritarian determined to rid the surrounding forest of all wolves, even if he has to burn down the forest in the process.

Robyn meets another girl, Mebh, member of a mysterious tribe which transforms into wolves at night, and things get really complicated when she begins turning into a young wolf as well… especially given the fact that her father is entrusted with killing them all. There are many parallels with the 21st-century struggle to tame industry and give nature a helping hand, so the film has a moral lesson at its core but is also a cracking piece of entertainment. The animation style is original and the visuals at times simply wonderful. Where typical American kids’ fare tends to overload the sense until there’s no intrigue left, Wolfwalkers tells its story with subtlety, leaving enough time to build up a sense of wonder.

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.

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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