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

August 25, 2022
14 mins read

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.

A scene from Topowa! Never Give Up – see below

Albert Fish: In Sin He Found Salvation (Tubi) 4/10

There are few serial killers with a more disturbing story than that of Albert Fish, whose haunt was New York during the first few decades of the 20th Century. Executed in 1936 at the age of 65, his particular perversions had been a combination of child molestation, murder and cannibalism. Unfortunately, because he existed at a time well before the advent of modern forensics and the kind of detailed information gathering that goes hand-in-hand with a modern murder investigation, many of the claims made about him appear to be simply conjecture. That he was a child-murderer is without doubt, but his own claim that he’d killed more than 100 will never be verified.


The trouble with this 2007 documentary is that it’s clearly a budget job, with badly dubbed dramatized scenes, numbingly repetitive images of the killer after his arrest, and an unwarranted, almost prurient approach to the story. The most memorable interview is with a self-appointed expert in deviant criminals who clearly sees Fish as a kind of hero, and while it provides a different slant it feels wildly inappropriate in 2022. Fish was a stupendously damaged individual who had (of course) been abused as a boy and who got his rocks off by sticking loads of long needles up his bum, where they lodged permanently. And for him, the killing and the sadism was all religious. Of course. Fascinating in a fucked up way, perhaps one day there will be a good documentary made about Fish. Or not.

Barry (Neon) 8/10

If you loved the way Breaking Bad mixed deeply humanistic characters with crime, and enjoy Tarantino’s darkly comic films, then Barry might be just the elixir you need to get through a daunting winter. For some inexplicable reason, the show is less well known than it deserves to be, possibly because it takes a few episodes to get your sea legs. Starring comedian and co-creator Bill Hader as Barry, a deadly assassin who accidentally ends up in an acting class led by Gene (Henry Winkler of Happy Days fame) Cousineau and develops a passion for the craft, it’s a bizarre premise leading to a double life that’s packed with near-calamities.


The storylines of its three seasons get more and more outlandish as Barry’s situation piles complication upon complication. He gets entangled with Chechen mobsters while attempting to maintain a romance with the rather hysterical fellow acting student Sally (Sarah Goldberg), and on top of that, the police are on his trail. But it’s not the storyline itself that makes Barry so special;  it’s the changeable tone of these bite-sized 30-minute episodes, which are highly comedic one minute and packed with genuine drama the next. Never less than surprising, it’s also beautifully acted by the ensemble cast, with special merit going to Winkler as an old acting pro who is full of regrets.

Borgen – Power And Glory (Netflix) 7/10

There are so many Scandi-noir murder mysteries that it’s quite hard to mentally process a show with a low murder count. Borgen – Power And Glory is like a Danish version of House Of Cards, but with added lashings of arctic ice thrown in for good visual effects. Sidse Babett Knudsen is terrific as the power-hungry (and very lonely) foreign minister Birgitte Nyborg, who spends all eight episodes reeling from one job-threatening scandal to another while handling an international power play as China tries to buy oil-drilling rights in Greenland.


It turns out that there are three previous seasons of Borgen with Nyborg as prime minister, but this one is designed as a stand-alone, and it’s not difficult to pick up the threads. There are layers of intrigue as the action cuts between the knife-edge political machinations at parliament, Nyborg’s naïve but brilliant negotiator in Greenland (who goes and falls in love with the wrong gal), and the newly-appointed head of news at the main Copenhagen TV service (played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) who discovers that being the boss isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While a few of the plot twists feel a bit unlikely, this is an absorbing drama for those who don’t require a new death for every sequence.

Gangubai Kathawadi (Netflix) 9/10

Loosely based on the real story of a 16-year-old girl forced into a life of prostitution in the 1960s, Gangubai Kathawadi tells the astonishing story about how through strength of character, quick wits and charm she set about changing the lot of prostitutes in Mumbai. An Indian film isn’t worth its weight in gold unless it runs for at least two-and-a-half hours and features at least some singing and dancing, but don’t let that put you off. Like the action blockbuster RRR, this film is a must-see despite its heart-breaking subject matter.


It helps that the positively luminescent Alia Bhatt plays the lead role, and her beauty is such that you get a lump in your throat every time something tragic or sinister happens to her. The real Gangubai Kothewali – as she was known – was a prostitute, then brothel owner, but of course after being forced into prostitution, there’s no going back to a normal life in Indian society. Her ultimate sacrifice in the film is giving up any idea of a husband or a family of her own, and putting her love instead into the sex workers she campaigned for. This may sound rather dry, but the film is full of life and drama and there wasn’t a dry eye in this house.

Gimme Danger (DocPlay) 7/10

There are so many by-rote documentaries about bands that it’s a joy when someone like Jim Jarmusch comes along with both a fan’s enthusiasm and a highly original style with which to convey the story. Jarmusch is famed for his quirky fictions but he proves to be an able documentarist in this definitive 2016  account of Iggy Pop and The Stooges. As the title suggests, this was never going to be the kind of profile where studio techniques and musical virtuosity warrant even a mention. The Stooges were rough as guts and often cited as a major influence on punk rock, and if anything the theme that comes through in its extensive interviews with James Osterberg Jnr/Iggy is raw, no-bullshit honesty and integrity. It’s also a film about fuck-ups who did far too many drugs and lived life on the edge. Many might find that compelling; I just find it sad.


Wannabe punks and raw rock aficionados will find the film and its wealth of information gratifying, and Jarmusch’s creative editing makes for an entertaining watch. Iggy always gives good interviews, because he’s one of the brighter boomer rockers still alive to tell the tale. Unfortunately, most of the other original Stooges died along the way, which pretty much makes it Iggy’s telling. Footage of the reconvened new millennium version of The Stooges with Mike Watt (Minutemen) in tow doesn’t add much to what is really a very short, sad story, but Gimme Danger certainly adds context and atmosphere to those of us who occasionally like to shake our dandruff out to the first two Stooges albums. Obviously, Iggy needs his own documentary for the rest of his story.

How Far Is Heaven (DocPlay) 8/10

If dipping into a slice-of-life documentary about three nuns living beside the Whanganui river doesn’t yank your crank, then try it anyway. Filmed over a year during part of 2009 and 2010 in the small settlement of Jerusalem, How Far Is Heaven captures something indelible about post-colonial Aotearoa, and there’s a melancholy sense of loss pervading the film as the nuns’ time there draws to an end. These are the last of the Sisters Of Compassion who have lived there for 120 years, and it appears that they’re just hanging on by a thread.


The film mostly follows Sister Margaret Mary, who valiantly tries to engage the kids at the local school, and mostly fails. The Maori community they serve is ravaged by poverty and gang affiliations, and the real stars of the film – the children – seem incredibly vulnerable. It’s gratifying to soak up the unique and somewhat stifling atmosphere of Jerusalem and especially, to see a film that doesn’t judge. The white-man religion inflicted on Maori so long ago can be viewed as a tyranny just as gangs and drugs can be seen as a consequence of that tyranny, but the real-life characters here aren’t villains, just real people doing their best for their community, albeit one culture transplanted on another. Special.

Let The World See (Disney+) 9/10

This three-part documentary should be required viewing for those who feel the need to downplay the pernicious racism still nipping at the heels of society. The story of the abduction, torture and murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy in Mississippi in 1955 deserves this definitive retelling, which goes into detail, not just about the tragic events of that night, but gives an expansive perspective on the level of racism in America at the time and explains just how pivotal to the momentum of the civil rights movement Emmett’s murder was.


Although we’ll never know exactly why Emmett was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night or precisely what happened thereafter, it seems likely that he was murdered simply for wolf-whistling at a white girl. His body was found submerged in a river and astonishingly, despite the perpetrators eventually admitting to the murder, no one was ever brought to justice. Let The World See extensively utilises newsreel footage from the trials and many photos together with new interviews with the few survivors and relatives of Emmett. Astonishingly, the boy’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral, and literally, thousands gathered to take a look at a face beaten well beyond recognition. That was all the African-Americans needed to spur them on a call for change, and the wheels were set in motion. Good on Disney for showing this important series.

Only Murders In The Building (Disney+)

It’s been a while since we saw superstar comedian Steve Martin on our screens, but it’s sheer pleasure to watch the still dapper 76-year-old in this wonderful, humour-laced murder mystery. Now into its second season, the show hinges on surprising twists and turns together with sure-footed and winning performances by co-creator Martin,  fellow boomer Martin Short and the multi-talented 29-year-old Selena Gomez. This mismatched trio are all residents of an old-fashioned New York apartment complex who join together to investigate (and make a podcast series about) a suspicious death in the building.


Cleverly art directed, wittily scripted and no matter how black the humour, never turning down the opportunity for a good hearty laugh, Only Murders In The Building is an all-around winner and gloriously old-fashioned in the way it exploits the obvious chemistry between its lead characters. An early highlight is when one of the building’s residents – platinum singing sensation Sting – becomes the chief suspect in the presumed murder and the podcasting investigators bring him a cooked turkey to inveigle their way into his apartment, where they covertly quiz him about the goings-on. Sting even makes up a song about it on the spot. Classic.

RRR (Netflix) 10/10

The $30 million Ryan Gosling-starring Netflix flop The Gray Man is an entertaining enough option for those Friday night sessions where you just need to kick back with a beer or two and watch some mindless action, but I’m here to suggest a much more gratifying alternative. RRR is the most expensive movie ever made in India, and its epic three hours and five minutes are a total blast. And unlike the Gosling film – which is essentially just an endless series of daredevil set-pieces with scant evidence of a story to wrap around it – RRR has the most audacious and amazing action sequences and a kitchen sink full of intriguing background.


It’s surprising that Bollywood films aren’t more popular with Western audiences, but perhaps this is the introduction audiences need. On the one hand, it’s completely preposterous (many of its action and combat sequences are impossibly fantastical) and yet it also delves into the fathomless wellspring of Indian culture with its multiplicity of wonderful subtleties and historical depth. Set in the last days of the British Empire’s reign in India, the film portrays the ruling junta as inherently evil. The story is of two besties pitted against each other, one of whom works for the poms, the other seeking justice/revenge for wrongs committed against a harmless forest-dwelling community. The special effects and set designs are slick beyond belief, and fans of macho and muscle will adore. And to top it all off, there are the obligatory songs. I laughed, I cried, and I laughed again.

Sea Beast (Netflix) 10/10

From the team behind that wonderful Pacific-based animated tale Moana, Sea Beast is next-level in every way and compelling fare for children and childish grownups alike. Set in an imagined medieval-styled society presided over by royalty for whom the hunting and killing of sea monsters is intrinsic to their control of the people, the film is a canny allegory with an environmental message. Jacob (voiced by Karl Urban) is an aspirational understudy to the nasty Captain Crow and crewman on the famous sea monster-catching ship The Inevitable who is forced to rethink things after meeting orphan stowaway Maisie.


In essence, they discover that the terrifying sea monster Red Bluster is actually really nice and that everything they’ve been told about sea monsters is wrong. Naturally, there are foes to fight and there’s a revolution in the wind, so there’s plenty of excitement. But there’s also just enough cute stuff going on and Sea Beast straddles the two aspects with great skill; so much so that our two kids were enraptured. And then there’s the animation itself, which is extraordinary. Few computer-animated films are quite as sharp and shiny and realistic as this.

Shining Girls (Apple+) 8/10

Unlike Surface, Shining Girls is a memory loss caper with layer upon layer of intrigue and bizarre twists that make it a must-see and one of my favourite shows of the first half of 2022. Elisabeth Moss has such a distinctive look that it’s hard to accept her as anything but June from The Handmaid’s Tale, but she’s such a transformative actor that she quickly establishes herself as Kirby, the damaged newspaper archivist. When down-on-his-luck alcoholic reporter Dan Velazquez (played by Wagner Moura, Narcos/The Gray Man) starts investigating a brutal murder, Kirby becomes his special source and collaborator when she recognises similarities to her own near-death experience at the hands of a homicidal madman six years before.


We learn that Kirby had been a promising reporter before her attack, and Dan’s investigation awakens her desire to stop this sadistic serial killer. But there’s more! Not only is Shining Girls a beautifully written catch-a-killer mystery with a cast of stand-out performances, it goes off into surreal territory when it transpires that Kirby is suffering from strange shifts in temporal reality. It’s a bit far-fetched towards the end with the time-travelling story of the killer (played by Jamie Bell) revealed, but it certainly makes for enjoyably outlandish viewing.

Station Eleven (Neon) 6/10

The premise sounds simple enough: “Twenty years after a flu pandemic resulted in the collapse of civilization, a group of survivors who make their living as travelling performers encounter a violent cult led by a man whose past is unknowingly linked to a member of the troupe.” And the reality, at least for a few episodes, is quite captivating. Station Eleven is a class production with fine acting, brilliant set design, ravishing cinematography and cool editing. The post-apocalyptic setting is intriguing and I was hooked until at least the halfway point.


The problem? Well, I’m tolerant of absurdly arty filmmaking and can handle the toing and froing of annoyingly confusing flashbacks, but ultimately, the 10 episodes of Station Eleven felt stretched out beyond comprehension. It didn’t help that dialogue was used so sparingly that people seemed to barely have conversations at all, except in those tedious Shakespeare plays that the troop mounted. At times, I was totally confused about what was happening and when, and by the end, I was thoroughly sick of it and its pretensions, and annoyed at myself for having been so initially impressed.

Surface (Apple+) 6/10

The history of film and television is littered with plots about women and men who have lost their memory in some cataclysmic accident. It may be a hoary old concept but if done well can still yield fresh mysteries and surprises. Surface contains just enough suspense to keep the viewer hooked as Sophie, played by Gugulethu Sophia Mbatha-Raw (Misbehaviour, Loki) recovers from an apparent suicide attempt that nearly killed her. There’s a definite hint of Hitchcock as she finds herself married to a man she doesn’t know and living in a city (San Francisco) she can’t remember, and in her search for fragments of her memory comes to suspect that she’s been lied to.


Sophie’s well-off husband, played by Oliver Mansour Jackson-Cohen (The Invisible Man, The Haunting Of Hill House) is impressive at conveying a sense of barely repressed rage, but Mbatha-Raw herself comes across as a strange mixture of impulsive and icy-cold and I found her hard to like. As she attempts to unlock the mysteries Sophie risks being found out at every turn which makes for multiple nail-biting moments, and as the show progresses the couple both become more and more unhinged. Surface is better and more nuanced than those nasty aggregate ratings sites suggest, but it never quite catches fire.

Topowa! Never Give Up (Waterbear) 7/10

There’s nothing like a real story demonstrating that sometimes, dreams do come true. Topowa! Never Give Up is an award-winning 2020 documentary that follows the Brass For Africa band – whose members come from the slums of Uganda – as they prepare to fly off to London for a concert with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. It turns out that Brass For Africa is a charity that gives disadvantaged Africans the chance to learn brass instruments, and the band is made up of teachers who have themselves come from those awful Ugandan slums.


The film introduces us individually to the members of the ensemble and confronts us with the reality of living in tin shacks with little in the way of sanitation or the kind of facilities we take for granted. The teachers are truly inspiring, especially the young woman who carries a massive tuba around the dusty street. The brass band music they play might not be exactly cutting-edge but it’s the enthusiasm and skill with which they play it that matters. The climax, of course, is their trip to England and the concert with Wynton, which happily ends with several members of the ensemble getting job opportunities in the UK. Heartwarming.

Undercurrent: The Disappearance Of Kim Wall (Neon) 8/10

Remember the bizarre news story about the young woman who was dismembered in an inventor’s submarine in Sweden back in 2017? I’d always wondered about the bigger story behind the grisly details of this odd crime, and the two-part documentary Undercurrent: The Disappearance Of Kim Wall carefully and methodically examines every aspect. Director Erin Lee Carr (At The Heart Of Gold: Inside The USA Gymnastics Scandal) tells the story sequentially right up to celebrity inventor Peter Madsen’s trial and incarceration but also focuses on the story of the victim, Kim Wall. A promising investigative journalist who had reported from danger zones around the world, she was to meet her untimely end while living in one of the safest cities on earth and working on a story about a very public figure.


We get to hear enthusiastic endorsements of Wall’s personality and talent from her friends but also the author of Madsen’s biography, who clearly feels a degree of guilt at having helped to promote a psychopath who, it is suggested, may also have been a serial killer. There’s clearly a degree of cognitive dissonance at the fact that Madsen lived his life in the spotlight yet turned out to be a sneaky killer, and it wasn’t until the murder trial that his bizarre perversions and deviant personality were revealed. Ultimately, like so many self-seeking narcissists, it turned out that Madsen had no capacity for that most human characteristic of all – empathy – and he’s now rotting in jail and still blaming his need to kill on the demise of his rocket company.


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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