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.
Director Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, 9+1?2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal) hadn’t made a film for 20 years, and now I know why no one was clamouring for him to do so. Deep Water is worse than bad, it’s actually forgettable: I had to jog my memory to write this review, in fact. Loosely based on a 1950s book by Patricia Highsmith, there’s nothing thrilling about this weirdly pointless film about a relationship that’s on the rocks and a homicidal husband, played by Ben Affleck. Ana de Armas (Bladerunner 2049, No Time To Die) is easily the best thing about this sorry affair, playing his slutty wife with aplomb.
One of the film’s many flaws is that it’s wholly predictable. Affleck is supposed to be a rich, retired robotics engineer, but never acts as though there’s any real intelligence beneath the rage he feels at his wife’s endless line of new lovers. But I wanted to think that maybe, just maybe he wasn’t responsible for the killing of those young men; that there was someone else in the wings to shake up the story. Um, no. We even see flashbacks of the killings so fairly early on, we know that Affleck’s character committed the crimes. Had I been sitting in a cinema rather than the comfort of my own couch, I would have walked out on this sorry excuse for a film.
It’s not surprising that climate change gets all the headlines these days, but it’s disappointing that the pollution of the environment that’s happening all around us is deemed less newsworthy than something as abstract and meaningless as carbon credits. Europe’s Biggest Lie – broadcast on the environmentally-orientated free streaming service WaterBear – is a two-part documentary, the first of which looks at air pollution in London, the second of which examines allegations against a massive steel plant in the Netherlands.
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The presentation is a bit dry, but the stats are horrifying. We rarely think about the carbon monoxide poisoning that’s occurring in high-density cities around the world, despite the fact that thousands of people are maimed and die from its effect every year. The evidence is overwhelming but governments continue to do little about it or deal with the elephant in the room: automobiles. The second episode is less interesting but is yet another case of a huge polluting company that has managed to bend the ears of officials to bypass the rules. Download the WaterBear app to get a regular dose of environmental reality.
So much for Disney being all about kid stuff and family-friendly films: Fresh is one of the most gruesome movies I’ve seen in some time. Billed as a ‘comedy thriller’, this viewer found it hard to find his funny bone while watching limbs being removed and body parts being consumed. Starring the rather great English actor Daisy Jessica Edgar-Jones (Normal People, War Of The Worlds), Fresh depicts her as a wilful young woman whose bad luck in the romance department is just about to get a whole lot worse. The first part of the movie (you could call it a prequel) does play out like a black comedy, with one particularly irksome dinner date that’s good for a few excruciating laughs. But then…
But then she meets a really lovely chap in the supermarket and they properly hit it off. Played by Sebastian Stan (Pam & Tommy, Captain America), he’s soon whisking her off for a mystery dirty weekend, and that’s when things get really dark. Without giving it all away completely, the plot involves abduction, incarceration, and the prospect of – one body part at a time – becoming a meal for an elite group of rich cannibal bastards. Some might enjoy the claustrophobic setting and the completely excruciating situation, but not me. It’s all beautifully shot and well-acted and I guess it might be making a subtle point about the exploitation of the masses by the 1 percenters, but to me, it just felt gratuitous.
Those with a hankering for 1960s spy thrillers will love this remake. The original Len Deighton book was made into a movie in 1966, but despite nods to that movie stylistically this TV series – while skilfully replicating ‘60s period detail – takes its own road with both attitude and story development. This brand new series stars Joe Cole (Skins, Peaky Blinders) in the main role, that of Harry Palmer (played by Michael Caine in the film), a small-time crook who happens to be very clever. Languishing in prison, he’s rescued by Intelligence to investigate a missing British nuclear scientist.
From the first episode, it’s quite compelling. Cole seems almost too cute for the role but has a certain charm and enough chutzpah to make him seem credible. Because he’s a criminal he’s also semi-expendable, which means that the authorities are happy to send him into extremely dangerous situations. From which, of course, he miraculously survives. The Ipcress File won’t win any awards for originality, but it’s a fun trip for both spy story fans and those of us who are endlessly intrigued by the era in which it’s set.
Louis Theroux is always worth a watch. If you’re in the mood for a descent into the lurid backwaters and festering travesties of society at its worst, that is. In the latest three-part series, he delves into the American far-right movement, some hip-hop losers in Florida, and the porn industry in LA. Theroux’s odd, slightly awkward approach is what makes it all work so well. He doesn’t shy away from danger but is happy playing the hapless nerd asking the hard questions.
He’s covered the porn industry before and there’s precious little here that we haven’t heard before. Predictably, there are disgusting males controlling parts of the industry but in a post #me-too world, there’s a sense that at least women are starting to make the rules. The episode on the Florida rappers is simply depressing, as it explores the deprivation and drug addiction that leads to criminality, gun violence and the glamorisation of all that in their music. It’s the lead item on the far right that really sends a cold shiver down the spine. These are white supremacists posing as nice young men who simply want to make America great again – ha! – and the disinformation they spread via social media helps to explain a lot about how someone like Trump could get as far as he did. Watch and be appalled.
Described as a poetic critique of war in the Middle East, Notturno is a strikingly different kind of documentary. There are no talking heads or voiceovers or even a story. Instead, it’s a kind of rumination. It feels like Italian-American film-maker Gianfranco Rosi placed his cameras wherever he felt there might be some activity to add understanding or depth or even just a feeling of what the aftermath of war is like in border countries, and then edited the results into a composite that’s almost like an ambient cinema.
Much of the scenery is beautiful but scarred. Don’t expect plot development, because there isn’t any. We see young soldiers bunking down during a cold night, or preparing their ammunitions. We see a grieving mother wailing for her dead son. We see simple street scenes and a play acted out by what appear to be mentally scarred inmates. This 2021 film is really different and well worth a watch, but you need to be in the right mood to soak it up.
By and large, reality shows suck, but this Japanese series is something very different and potentially, hugely instructive for parents of small kids. It’s been running in Japan since 1991 and has been a runaway hit on Netflix since its introduction to Western audiences. So, what’s the fuss? In each of the 20 short episodes, a small child (between the age of 2 and 5) is asked to run an errand alone for the first time; one that commonly involves venturing forth from the family home to buy goods from different shops, all the while navigating different roads and even crossing busy intersections. A camera crew tries to discretely follow the small child as they’re experiencing this potentially dangerous activity.
Far from a mere gimmick, this is a tradition in Japan where from an early age parents consider it important for young children to develop a sense of responsibility. There’s a genuine debate about whether Kiwi kids could accomplish the same tasks, but Japan is a polite nation where it’s safe to talk to strangers and where drivers generally give way to pedestrians. Still, it’s a fascinating watch and we can live vicariously with the toddlers as they struggle and mostly succeed at their challenges, usually with a few tears along the way.
Many of us watched the very watchable Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld, while hardcore television freaks will remember her from the disturbing 13 or equally eye-catching appearances in that great series True Blood. She’s so good at morphing from one character to the next that I was a fan without knowing it. And then this two-part documentary turns up. Golly. An extremely candid extended exposition of the alleged abuse she suffered during her relationship with shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, Phoenix Rising takes no prisoners. This is shocking stuff and not for the faint-hearted: what starts with coercion moves onto hateful violence, more drugs than you could shake a stick at and even Wood’s alleged rape on the set of one of the rock star’s videos.
Of course, Brian Warner aka Marilyn Manson denies all the allegations and is suing; ultimately, it’s her word against his. It’s tricky territory and I’m uncomfortable with documentaries that present only one side of the story. And how much of the abuse was just reflective of Manson’s hateful schtick? Warner has always cast his alter-ego as offensive and anti-society, so it seems naïve to have gone into that viper’s nest without some inkling. Still, you can’t help but feel for Wood and her detailed account of the abuse and subsequent threats is extremely convincing. Should shock rockers be above the law, even if their “art” bleeds into their lives? Of course not, but the statute of limitations is only nine years in the US, and the stated reason for this documentary, as she can’t prosecute so long after the incidents she describes. Regardless, it’s a hard watch and I teared up on multiple occasions.
There’s a lot of science fiction on streaming television right now, but the vast majority of it is braindead. This is the ongoing dilemma for sci-fi fans. There’s always the potential for truly ground-breaking, fascinating and thought-provoking shows, but writers too often reach for boring tropes or look to a particular demographic – notably, teens – to boost their numbers. Look beyond the travesties, however, and there are a few beauts. One of these is Raised By Wolves, a genuinely strange and unsettling drama that relies as much on decent acting skills and plot development as outstanding set design and special effects.
I know I blathered on about the first series not so long ago, but Series 2 is just as great, even if it does play an annoying trick on us by leaving us hanging at the end. The scenario is that Earth has been destroyed by war and two androids are tasked with raising a clutch of kids on a distant planet. But there are complications. There are anti-android human survivors whose blind belief in a mysterious god inevitably brings them into conflict with the atheist colony. On top of that, this alien planet has many secrets to unleash, and in the second series, this includes several scary creatures that risk turning Raised By Wolves into an intergalactic horror. Intelligent and often downright bizarre, it really is a must-see.
If you want to be completely blown away by a story that’s genuinely stranger than fiction, then take a look at this 2012 documentary about an early 1970s LA cult that was like no other. With incredible footage from the time and interviews with the survivors with names like Isis Aquarian, The Source Family tells the story of Father Yod (aka Jim Baker), a violent former military man who – seeing an opportunity with the burgeoning hippie movement of the late ‘60s – started the world’s first whole foods restaurant. Famous amongst actors and musicians, The Source soon evolved into a fully blown commune and religious movement with Father Yod as the polygamous guru.
But that’s not all. The cult was so immersed in the counter-culture that they had their own band, and the film features a few excerpted performances of this very strange ritual music, which comes across a bit like an LSD-influenced take on Krautrock with an almost-Manson Family vibe. It turns out that the cult made dozens of albums which are now somewhat revered by connoisseurs of deeply odd music. The Source Family is an incredible insight on the early ‘70s in Los Angeles and the shocking ending only adds to the intrigue.
Science fiction is known more for strange costumes and cool special effects than complex storylines and great acting, but Star Trek: Picard changes all that. This superb show is really a kind of sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the 1980s series that revived the franchise with the superb performances of Shakespearian actor Patrick Stewart and stories that were dialogue-based and full of thoughtful and even philosophical ideas and of course, human drama. Now into its second series, Star Trek: Picard finds Admiral Jean-Luc Picard retired to his vineyard in France, but inevitably, the nonagenarian (hey, this is the future, so life expectancy has increased) is soon on an impossible quest to save life as we know it.
Completely different to and incomparably better than Star Trek: Voyager on Netflix, Star Trek: Picard deftly combines sometimes convoluted plots with complex characterisations and fabulous performances. Not to suggest that it’s a slouch in the special effects or set design, both of which are very cinematic in scope and effectiveness. While the first series finds a way to reintroduce some much loved characters amongst its nail-biting encounters with the evil Borg and Picard’s fight to establish android rights, the second series finds our heroes going back in time to 2024 to deal with the meddling of the irksome Q. Even if you’ve never watched an episode of Star Trek before, this series is worth your time.
What To Watch 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.