A regular column in which the Witchdoctor team sifts through the mountain of available streaming TV and brings your attention to great new shows as well as those to avoid.
This 2014 police procedural-cum-mystery series was a ‘staff pick’ at Acorn, so thought I’d heed their recommendation. Set in Ireland, it stars Lauryn Canny as Amber Bailey, a 14-year-old who goes missing. Although her role is limited to mostly non-speaking flashbacks and missing person posters, along with her younger brother Eamon (Levi O’Sullivan) she’s the best thing about a programme that has a slightly dreary, been-there-done-that feel about it. Her estranged parents, who hog much of the screen time and spend much of that battling each other, are hardly endearing characters.
If you’re a dedicated viewer of crime dramas from the UK, then you’ll want to see it, but to me, much of it felt by-rote. The high-friction friendship between the anguished mum, Sarah (Eva Birthistle) and journalist Maeve (Justine Mitchell) is refreshingly complex (hey, just like real life!) but it seems to take ages to go nowhere. Spoiler alert: having viewed it to the bitter end, I can reveal that, well… nothing is revealed. Nope, we don’t even find out what happened. Grrr! GARY STEEL
Had I paid the vast sum of money Disney was asking to see this travesty of a film during its premiere phase, I would have been ropable. As it is, even watching it as part of my subscription package, I felt ripped off. How could director Craig Gillespie (Fright Night, I, Tonya) have got it so very wrong? Exceedingly loosely based around the children’s book, 101 Dalmations, but really a kind of prequel, Cruella gets the tone completely wrong. Too stylised and scary for kids and way too juvenile for adults, it’s hard to see who the film is targeting. Clearly, both Emma’s (Stone/Cruella and Thompson/Baroness von Hellman) are capable actors, but here the cast has obviously been told to give larger-than-life caricature performances.
Is it a comedy or something else? Who knows. The whole thing is incredibly arch and reeks of “aren’t we clever?” But really, despite the expensive set design, pyrotechnic camerawork and fairly dizzy pace, it completely fails to engage. You can always tell a stinker when it chooses to push ‘play’ on an endless series of popular songs rather than bothering with a mood-enhancing original score. Here, it’s as though they’ve also pressed ‘random play’, as some of the tunes sound completely out of place with the action. Honestly, the one tick I can give Cruella is for its audacious costumery. Fashion and fabric buffs might find it’s worth their time. I didn’t. GARY STEEL
Enemy Within (iWonder) 7/10
After America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and its speedy takeover by the Taliban, I wanted to dig deeper than the daily news reports to refresh my memory about what had really been happening in the lead-up to this bizarre moment in history. Enemy Within is a 2018 documentary that briefly explains the history of America’s two invasions, the first of which in the 1980s jettisoned Russia but weaponised Osama Bin Laden, leading to the Taliban takeover in 1996. But most of the running time is spent analysing the consequences of America’s second invasion in 2002 and how that led to the perilous state of affairs in 2018.
We get a bird’s eye view of American-backed Afghanistan army training camps, and the inevitability of an eventual Taliban takeover is immediately apparent. Motivated mostly by the need for jobs, food and/or drug money, the Afghan soldiers lack conviction, and the American training is poorly suited to the conditions. There’s high-level corruption from the government down and through the police and armed forces. Life is indescribably hard and dangerous in Afghanistan except for the few who are clinging on to vast wealth, and those supporting a more democratic, more egalitarian and educated society are immediately a target of the Taliban. The two-part film includes interviews with highly educated women who have been empowered by the American influence, which only goes to show just how complex this scenario really is. GARY STEEL
Here’s a steaming hunk of junk that’s actually entertaining to watch. There’s so much that’s appalling about this hideous motion picture that all you can do (apart from turning it off) is to stand back and soak up the train-wreck. The idea is interesting: that there’s a group of people known as ‘infinites’ who never die, they just get reincarnated as different people. Of course, they need an adversary and it turns out that they’re called ‘the Believers’ and they’re in a battle to the death with a sub-section of their own kind called ‘the Nihilists’. Like the recent, equally silly Arnie movie Terminator: Dark Fate, Infinite is pretty much one extended action set-piece that never lets up, and they’re some of the most improbably silly action sequences I’ve ever watched.
But it’s not just the action that makes Infinite such an agreeably awful film. Marky Wahlberg gives one of the most curiously uneven performances in recent times, and sometimes even in the space of one sentence, he goes from fairly great to totally terrible. The real star of the film is Wahlberg’s frown – a glabellar frown so deep that if you were a tiny bug and you happened to fall down that crevasse you’d be lost for all time. Wahlberg, of course, plays a mental patient who slowly discovers that his nightmarish visions aren’t sheer madness but in fact, memories of past lives. He needs to remember those past lives fully to figure out how to survive the attempts of the Nihilists to annihilate their kind. Don’t worry that the plotline is incomprehensible and that they seem to have randomly edited out anything that might help to explain the characters or the story. It’s a headlong rush that makes no sense whatsoever, but it’s heaps of fun! GARY STEEL
The best shows on the telly at the moment are documentaries, and I, Sniper is an eight-part series that shows the rest how it should be done. Near-forensic detail is needed to explain the shocking act of sustained terror inflicted by two rogue males on the greater Washington DC area over 23 days in 2002, and the series delves deep. Based on extensive interviews (phoned-in from prison) with the surviving shooter, Lee Malvo, it does what mainstream news reports never do: provides a detailed backstory that, while never vindicating the duo’s short reign of terror, does at least go some way to explaining why it happened.
Each episode partly follows the two on their killing spree, day by day, but we’re allowed to escape from the timeline periodically to have parts of the respective stories of the two protagonists (and how they came to be together) explained. We travel to Jamaica to discover Malvo’s disturbing story of childhood beatings and neglect, and how the homeless 15-year-old hooked up with US Army veteran John Muhammad, whose experience in the Gulf War radicalised him against America. Muhammad was a father figure but also a lover for the vulnerable, under-age teen. What a combo: the 40-something African-American, seething with hatred, had found his weapon. This is a very 21st-century story of America and leaves the viewer with a lot to think about. The parallels with 9/11 are obvious, from the general public’s abject shock to the authorities’ complete inability to prevent the carnage. GARY STEEL
Described as a “supernatural volcano drama” (what next?), the eight episodes of this rather odd Icelandic mystery focuses on the few remaining inhabitants and research scientists in a small village outpost on the side of a spewing mountain. The weird gets going when a woman who went missing 20 years before turns up covered in sticky black molten ash, except that she hasn’t aged at all. Subsequently, more missing and dead individuals keep getting vomited out of the lava. Instead of a total crackdown by authorities, the conventions of plot development mean that we’re asked to accept the unlikely events that follow.
So, several doubles of existing characters turn up along with a recently deceased child of two warring parents. In other words, these strange “changelings” awaken various fears and issues already bubbling under the surface of their repressed lives. While it’s rather uneven and at times baffling, the bleak, snow and ash-bound backdrop is stunning and the show just different enough from the usual Nordic fare to make it a viable viewing option.
This 2010 documentary is a poignant reminder of just how important John Lennon was to popular music and the cultural milieu of the 1970s. Ironically, most of the music he made in the decade after The Beatles split up is deeply nostalgic for the early days of rock and roll, but by contrast, his political impact on his adopted country (USA) and city (New York) was radical. It’s hard to figure in these cynical times, but proposing a world without the corrosive influence of religion and where peace was attainable was seen as a subversive and dangerous act to the FBI, and America tried (unsuccessfully) to send him back to England, tail between legs.
The film briefly covers the long, drug and alcohol-fuelled “lost weekend” Lennon had in LA when Yoko Ono kicked him out after careless infidelities, but in many ways, the most fascinating part is what happened when he was finally allowed to come home. We see Lennon giving up music and devoting his attention to raising son Sean, before the final act: a sequence of songs that practically creates the AOR genre. Lennon’s life and songs were uniquely intertwined and those later songs – seen as soft and mushy in the punk era – now sound like the work of a man who has grown a heart. While the film clearly is clearly “authorised” product and therefore, the history and perspectives are those of Ono and the inner circle, it’s a deeply affecting (and affectionate) look at a major figure whose life was stamped out way too soon. (Note: on iWonder this film is appallingly out of sync. Watch it on DocPlay). GARY STEEL
Oliver Sacks brought his passionate humanity to writing about medical anomalies, which meant that for a change, non-academic readers were able to gain unique insight on subjects usually limited to those specialists who waded through research papers. It wasn’t just the fact that the doctor was a great communicator but the pertinent point that he thought differently that made his contributions so valuable. But who was he, really? This 2019 profile is never less than fascinating, and often eye-opening, and anyone who has viewed Awakenings or even contemplated reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat will find it gratifying.
I have to admit that I expected the film to be somewhat dry, but Sacks’ life was extraordinary and nothing like what I imagined it to be. He was a genuine outsider pronounced personal challenges, and his life was lived largely without any kind of sexual intimacy, so there’s a deep sadness at its core. There’s added poignancy in the fact that the interviews were filmed after diagnosis of the cancer that killed him in 2015, so he’s telling his life story and literally saying goodbye to those who were closest to him. Highly recommended. GARY STEEL
It’s hard to find genuinely funny shows these days, and let’s face it, we all need a good laugh. If a show is all about the laughs then I’m just not interested. “Dramedy” is the name of the game: good humour derived from real-life dramatic situations. Thinking it might be on the same page as the very excellent Fleabag, I dipped into PEN15, a series of 10 short episodes (now joined by a second series) about two idiosyncratic adolescent girls. I regret the decision. Described by someone as a “cringe comedy”, the laughs (such as they are) are derived simply by the awkwardness of the girls’ behaviour and the various pickles they get themselves into. While comedy of errors has its place in history, those acted out in PEN15 just isn’t funny, or particularly interesting.
The girls (Mata Erskine as mousey Japanese-American Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone as gangly Anna Konkle) act well enough, but sadly, they’re not given funny lines to deliver or especially interesting storylines. Perhaps it’s just me (high school brings back very bad memories) but a show like Sex Education, as silly as it can sometimes be, is leagues ahead of this in every way. GARY STEEL
UFO ‘documentaries’ (sic) are usually pretty shit. They’re typically of cheesy fake videos, loud bloated soundtracks, and interviews with people who are generally just long-term fans of the topic. And overall, can’t really be taken all that seriously. But The Phenomenon is different. Very different. It’s journalism at its best. It interviews high-level officials and experts. It presents clear factual evidence and visual citation of relevant historical texts, photos and videos that all add to the story.
Prior to watching this documentary, I generally thought good journalism had ‘left the building’ as many docos these days seem shallow and trashy. But this one is the opposite – tight, slick and well-grounded in what it presents. Which is basically journalism 101: get your facts right, from credible people, credible evidence… and let it speak for itself. Sure, to some folks, UFOs are a weird and trashy topic to avoid at all costs. But after watching this compelling film, you might realise that UFOs are a mystery worthy of investigation. CHARLES JAMESON
I’d almost given up on finding anything genuinely startling and remarkable in the sci-fi/fantasy/space category. Back in the 1960s, the genre was blazing with creativity and authors and filmmakers were able to innovate wildly. Raised By Wolves isn’t a complete reinvention but it is startling and innovative, and it also marks the unexpected revitalisation of Ridley Scott. While the director made his mark with incredible titles like Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), he’s also responsible for appalling flops like Legend (1985) and Prometheus (2012). Scott only directs a couple of episodes of the first, 10-part series of Raised By Wolves, but his stamp is all over it: the fabulous set and costume design, the ability to combine intelligent characterisation and human drama with moments of sheer terror.
A small ‘ark’ of religious survivors have escaped from a doomed Earth and crash-landed on a distant planet, which turns out to already be inhabited by a couple of androids playing mummy and daddy to a small flock of human children. Amanda Collin is simply astonishing as Mother, a deadly ‘necromancer’ android who has been reprogrammed to protect children above all else. There are multiple levels that the narrative slowly reveals and each episode is full of shocking “wow” moments. The one slight downer is Travis Fimmel (Vikings) as a homicidal atheist soldier who changed his identity to infiltrate the ‘ark’ and becomes the biggest threat to Mother. The high standard of acting amongst the cast (both adults and children) shows up Fimmel’s rather limited emotional palette. It’s a small flaw in an otherwise extraordinary, must-see series. GARY STEEL
Given that Ragnarok is one of my favourite New Zealand bands from the 1970s I couldn’t resist this Norwegian series, which updates the Norse myth with considerable style and flair. Starring the stolid David Stakston as Magne, a high school student who turns out to be the reincarnation of Thor the God of thunder, by focusing on teenagers the series risks coming across an exotic relation to the risible Twilight with its heartthrob vampires. Thankfully, Ragnarok is better in every way: despite minimal dialogue, the characters are well-drawn, the narrative arc is carefully stage-managed for maximum dramatic impact, and the scenery is simply awe-inspiring.
Accepting the myth itself requires quite a large suspension of disbelief, and even Magne can’t quite believe that he’s Thor for much of the running time. In fact, one of the disturbing contemporary twists is that no one believes his transformation and the authorities treat him for schizophrenia. Thor, of course, needs an evil to fight against, and it’s the polluting industrial Jutul family, who turn out to be his original foes, the jötunn. Particularly great (and as convincingly evil as she is sexy) is Theresa Frostad Eggesbo as Saxa. The two seasons of Ragnarok are really just one complete story. Very entertaining, but we don’t need more. GARY STEEL
Another day, another post-apocalyptic scenario – and a particularly silly one, too. In portraying a world in which a rogue virus has disabled life as we know it, is Sweet Tooth capturing the zeitgeist or simply following the money? The latter seems more likely, given the overall implausibility and wildly uneven tone of a show that appears to have been concocted and actualised with haste. Or maybe that’s just the result of taking an idea straight from the pages of a comic book. Despite that, however, it’s patchily entertaining. If you find the idea of humans artificially crossed with various animal species fascinating, then watch it. And Kiwis should check out the scenery, too, as much of it was filmed in New Zealand.
The main character is a 10-year-old boy/deer (and yes, he’s a dear boy) called Gus played by Christian Convery, and the action follows the wee hybrid’s search for his mum while regularly flipping to several other scenarios: one of which explains the genesis of the virus that wiped out most of humanity, the other of which tells the story of a bunch of hybrid kids trying to avoid eradication. Yep, most of the surviving humans blame the hybrids for the demise of civilization, so they’re hunted down. Sadly, the series rarely strikes the right balance between overly cute and horribly violent, the voiceover narration is stodgy and unnecessary, and the dull dialogue also hampers the show. A second series has been given the green light. GARY STEEL
‘Uncover the real stories behind your favourite pop songs as this docuseries charts the impact of the festival scene, Auto-Tune, boy bands and more’. If the Netflix description of this eight-part series appeals, then go for it, but I found the individual episodes wildly uneven, the tone and style odd and often close to patronising, and too often, there’s a perceived need when telling a story about pop’s glory years in the ‘60s and ‘70s to layer a patina of 21st century endeavour onto its action as if to say: “Yeah, we know this is just some old dude talking so we’ll splice in some current writer/producer/singer just to make it real for you, dude.” On paper, the show covers some interesting subjects, but each is compromised by poor interview choices, and gallingly, appalling omissions in favour of irrelevancies. The really annoying thing is that any fan of popular music will probably want to see it, because it does have its moments – the odd sharp interview or compelling historic footage. But for a series that constantly presents itself as if its producers, researchers and writers were all born in the past 20 years, it’s actually quite boring.
Maybe as an old dude I just know too much music history already but it pisses me off that This Is Pop is so lacking. I mean, a show on festivals that barely mentions Woodstock and gives no mention at all to the Isle Of White or Altamont or Summer Of Soul and spends most of its time on Glastonbury? An episode on protest music that follows Hozier around but barely mentions early Dylan or the music that came out of the civil rights movement (apart from the Temptations’ political phase) or punk, and interviews some third-rate Riot Grrrl band but doesn’t mention Russia’s Pussy Riot? How about the potentially fascinating programme on Auto-Tune that’s about as empty of content as most of the producers/artists who have used it for commercial means, but doesn’t even start to explain its creative potential? A huge missed opportunity. GARY STEEL
Much, much more than just a tacky cash-in on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and yet another opportunity to watch planes fly into buildings (and the semi-apocalyptic carnage that ensued), Turning Point is the complete story of why it happened and what happened after. A master class in the craft of television documentary and rigorous journalism, this five-episode series easily warrants its long-running time because there’s a lot of ground to cover, and we need to know it all to get an understanding of this modern tragedy. And by tragedy, I’m not just referring to the 3000-plus people who died in the Twin Towers that day in New York, but the many thousands of civilians and fighters who paid with their lives in Afghanistan as a result of America’s punitive action. By looking at America’s military action in Afghanistan in the 1980s and its foolhardy support of Bin Laden and consequently, the rise of Al Qaeda, as well as the iron grip the Taleban had on the country in the 1990s, we come to understand the stage these events set for 9/11.
Later, we get the drawn-out aftermath beginning with the Bush administration’s need for revenge and ultimately, the drawn-out travesty of the war in Afghanistan, as well as the entirely unnecessary invasion of Iraq and the offshore Guantanamo Bay ‘detention’ camp, which went directly against the American constitution. The genius of Turning Point is its old-fashioned documentarian values of telling a story without taking sides. By interviewing a range of former US officials and military personnel it’s inevitable that America will implicate itself without prompting. Slap-bang up-to-date, it should be required viewing. GARY STEEL
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.