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.
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If you’re anything like me you’d have been quietly moved by the first series of After Life but felt that Ricky Gervais had squeezed about as much pathos and sentiment as possible out of just one season of his slight tragi-comedy. But finding myself saturated with violence, action, improbable sci-fi scenarios and end-of-world dystopias just the other day, my curiosity was suddenly piqued by the arrival of After Life’s third and last season. Where the first series had some downright unpalatable moments as Tony (Ricky Gervais) reacts angrily to the death of wife Lisa (played on videotape by Kerry Godliman), Series 2 is somehow more moving as Tony slowly grows back his compassion and his angry shell erodes, and the fabulous core cast of characters are given full reign to develop.
Each episode is bite-sized and there are only 6 episodes per season, so they’re easy to quaff down with speed (so to speak) and although Season 3 occasionally feels so leisurely that you wonder if he’s run out of things to say, the totality of After Life is something we need more of on television: a show that, in a quintessentially English way, shows that even the sad bastards in life often have a way of expressing joy, despite situations that have made them defective in some way. Especially great in the final season is Kath (Diane Morgan) the annoying community newspaper sales rep whose life is revealed as unbearably lonely, and the more-or-less homeless postman Pat (Joe Wilkinson) whose hopelessness is ultimately endearing.
In some ways Chaos Walking reminds me of David Lynch’s version of Dune; not in any obvious way except that both start with a fascinating premise but prove too difficult to translate effectively onto celluloid. Human settlers have colonised an alien planet but there’s a problem or two. For one, every thought anyone has can be “seen” by everyone else. For two, there are only males on this planet… or at least that’s what the inhabitants have been led to believe, because only original settler/overlord David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelson) knows the homicidal truth. The trouble is, the realisation of these “thought bubbles” – while initially visually impressive – is clunky and intrusive over the long haul.
The film, while entertaining enough, has multiple issues. It’s as though director Doug Liman (Jumper) has passed an edict to ban any real character development, and the film is hellishly uneven as it jumps from one unlikely scenario to another. Still, for those who can get past the clumsy Tourette Syndrome pastiche of its visual thought bubbles, the scenario is intriguing and there’s some nail-biting action along the way and finally, even a hint of romance.
As an avowed fan of the original Dexter series, which ran between 2006 and 2013, the idea of a new mini-series after all this time seemed a little off. It felt like the original show about the murderous Miami Police Force blood spatter expert had run its course. And it does take a couple of episodes for Dexter: New Blood to find its feet. When it does get going, however, the series quickly becomes compulsive viewing. The key here isn’t so much Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) or his dead sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) who he hallucinates and carries on conversations with, but his teenage son Harrison (Jack Alcott).
Having faked his own death, Dexter has changed his name and moved to a small snowbound town, where he serves at the counter of the local gun shop. The show fires up when his troubled (and somewhat psychotic) son tracks him down, and they both become involved in a cat-and-mouse game with a prodigious serial killer. Full of excruciating and nail-biting moments and some great deaths (hey, it’s okay to enjoy a death when he’s a bad, bad guy, right?) Dexter: New Blood just gets better and better as it draws towards the end of its 10 episode season. The only downer is that, as you’ll see, a second season is unlikely. Unless they give Harrison his own show, of course. I say “yes!” to that!
It’s quite hard to put a foot wrong when it comes to making a film or series about a missing child. Most adults have kids at some point and you’d think that this four-part series about a Mum whose 4-year-old boy goes missing at a lake picnic would find all the right buttons to press. Unfortunately, The Drowning fails on just about every count except for the surprise factor. Taking place 10 years after what most believe to have been a drowning (the body was never found), the action begins when the bereaved mum Jodie (Jill Halfpenny) sees a schoolboy who she becomes more and more certain is her son. This develops into an obsession and eventually, things get downright dangerous as she deals with the criminal underworld to get forged passports and attempts to take off to France with her “son”.
Sounds good, right? So what’s the problem? Well, the mum is a drab, dour kind of individual who is entirely without charm, and despite the twists and turns of the story very little of it feels believable. Yes, there’s some tension in not knowing whether the boy’s so-called dad is an evil bastard or whether the mum is simply nuts, but the whole thing feels somehow by-rote, remote, just another day at the office for the scriptwriter, the production crew, and the director. There are much better “children missing” dramas to twist your guts up over.
Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, Earwig & The Witch (2020) is vastly different to his Dad’s work. For starters, it’s computer-animated (and even 3D if you’ve got the technology) and its style, while enjoyably idiosyncratic, is utterly different to the typical Studio Ghibli film. There’s a lot to like about this casually inventive movie, not the least the central character, a plucky orphan whose original name was Earwig but who the orphanage matron changed to Erica. It turns out that Erica is the daughter of a witch who is then taken in by… um, another witch and her monstrous boyfriend as a kind of slave. And then it transpires that her real Mum were once in a band together.
If you get the gist, it’s all a bit far-fetched, but the real problem with Earwig & The Witch is that the screenplay spends so much time showing us the scary house in which Earwig is being held captive that they forget to tell much of a story. Earwig is a great role model for kids as she’s an expert manipulator – manipulating others to love her and to do what she wants, that is – but when the film finished both the adults and children let out a collective “THAT’S IT!?? IT’S FINISHED?!!” Perhaps they’re withholding the best bits for a sequel?
Having endured the turgid The Power Of The Dog for the sake of Benedict Cumberbatch it’s gratifying to report that The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain is a Cumberbatch vehicle that’s actually worth sitting through. Based on the tragic, dysfunctional life of Victorian-era artist Wain whose illustrations of cats captured the public’s imagination and helped to establish moggies as a popular pet choice rather than simply a scavenging ratcatcher, the film is as eccentric as its subject.
With its square-framed image (presumably to conjure the spirit of early silent movies) and rapid telling of Wain’s life story (the ageing special effects are quite convincing) the film is never less than charming, although his descent from some kind of personality disorder to full-blown mental illness makes a happy ending impossible. Cumberbatch convincingly portrays the difficulties this brilliant but baffled individual faced in negotiating the kind of things most of us take for granted. At its heart, The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain is a love story, but one with a real point of difference. And an added bonus are the cameo appearances by Taika Waititi and Nick Cave (as HG Wells!)
There’s a lot to like about Encounter, a minor gem starring Riz Ahmed as a dad who unexpectedly arrives home from his “dangerous mission” with the armed forces and takes off with the kids. For much of the film we’re left guessing. The indication is that Malik has discovered some kind of deadly pathogen and is taking the children to somewhere safe. But is it for real, or is he batshit crazy?
It’s a slow reveal and the truth, when it arrives, is shocking. Meanwhile, the film comprises of an increasingly dangerous road trip with some really terrifying incidents along the way. The real beauty of Encounter is that it refuses to fit snugly into any one particular genre. The performances and dialogue make for an excellent drama, and there are some genuinely touching moments along the way. The cinematography is stylish and the action sequences effective and impactful. Recommended.
As a fan of the Japanese Godzilla movies (and nerdy owner of a collection of Godzilla figurines) I’m somewhat predisposed to hating Hollywood’s big budget treatment of the character. When I heard that they had pitted my favourite monster against dear old King Kong – whose name had already been sullied by that atrocious Peter Jackson remake – I made a mental note to avoid it at all costs. Then it turned up on Neon and my resolve weakened. One night after a really hard day I needed an easy watch. Okay: push ‘play’. And you know what? Godzilla vs. Kong turns out to be quite entertaining.
Starring Millie Bobby Brown (you know, baldie from Stranger Things) and Alexander Johan Hjalmar Skarsgård (who played a particularly nasty vampire on True Blood) the film succeeds where its three Hollywood predecessors failed by having an all-action plot that’s as fantastical as it is utterly bamboozling. This involves luring Kong into the Hollow Earth (don’t ask) where evil scientists hatch a plan that ultimately backfires. It’s an excuse for some wild visual effects. By the time they got to the battle between the ape and the radioactive dinosaur I was already satiated and a bit dizzy. Godzilla vs. Kong is outlandish, preposterous and quite ridiculous – and also one heck of a lot of fun.
If you’ve got the time and inclination for a big dip into the history of the motion picture but don’t want to go all academic and take a class, then the best bet is this mammoth, epic, absorbing 15-episode series narrated and curated by Mark Cousins. If you ever had the thought that the only good movies come from the US or England or that everything made after the original Star Wars in ’77 is crap, then The Story Of Film (2011) provides illuminating evidence that since the medium’s advent in the late 19th century there’s been a never-ending cascade of innovation and invention in the cinematic arts.
What’s even more astounding is that even with such a long-form telling there are still whole genres and movements that get barely a mention. Even as a seasoned film fan there were numerous movies and directors I’d never heard of, and the truly global perspective was refreshing. If there’s a flaw, it’s with Cousins’ presentation: too much time between talking heads and film footage is spent filming arty locations that add little to the sum total. Not everyone will agree with his assessments, which tend to elevate sometimes unbearably boring and pretentious films to the status of greatness. Despite this, watching it is an enriching (not to mention learning) experience.
Anyone who has experienced the (often long-term) aftermath of losing a much-loved mother or grandmother will take great comfort in this lovely film by siblings Jonathan and Egan Bogarin. Released in 2018 and new to DocPlay, the film has been described as a thought-provoking thesis on the legacies we leave behind. When their grandma Annette Ontell dies at the age of 93 they fixate on her humble abode and her crowded house. How can they capture and hold onto something of her in these objects?
A splendidly eccentric and playful film, despite its sense of pain and loss, it examines her nick-nacks with as much care and consideration as if they were searching for rare delights in an archaeological dig. Portions of 306 Hollywood are filled with interviews conducted with their grandma in the last decade of her life, while we’re also taken on some fairly bizarre diversions, including an interview with a physicist in which he hypothesises what happens to the particles and atoms of a brain after death. Another fascinating interview is with the chief archivist at the perfectly preserved Rockefeller estate.
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.