Physical and Blindspotting

Rose Byrne has emerged as an astonishingly versatile screen actress; witness her Gloria Steinem in last year’s Mrs. America. Now she’s got herself a big, heavily promoted Apple TV+ series of her own, Physical; the material is good, but she is great. This could be her Emmy; she seems destined for one.

Byrne plays Sheila, a once active activist who has settled into a seemingly comfortably mundane domestic routine in 1980s San Diego: she takes her and her husband’s daughter to day care, shops for the groceries, takes a ballet class, picks up her daughter from day care, cooks dinner. There’s one huge problem: amongst all that, she routinely buys large amounts of junk food, eats it, and then ‘purges’ it (vomits it up), telling herself every time, in an almost non-stop interior monologue voiceover that is the show’s coup de télé, that it will be the very last time.

This is tough stuff for a half-hour ‘dark comedy’, which is how the show is being marketed (I read it, two episodes in, as a drama), so much so that the show carries a content warning before it rolls. But Byrne makes it work. There is a lot of good work going on around her – the production design is excellent – but so far, the singular sensation of the show is Byrne’s performance. She’s truly ready for her close-up: as a vehicle for her, this is as good as anything, and I’m in.

STAN is making Blindspotting available one episode at a time, and based on the first, it’s a little hard to predict how things will pan out. It’s adapted from the extremely idiosyncratic (and enjoyable) 2018 film of the same name by that film’s writers, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, but this time around, they’re not the stars: Casal is in it tangentially, but Diggs not at all, and, frankly, Diggs the actor was a huge part of what was interesting about the film. The TV adaptation follows Ashley, Casal’s girlfriend from the film, as she adapts to life in Oakland, California while Casal’s Miles serves a prison term. Back in the day, they’d call this a ‘spin-off’, giving a minor character their own show with occasional drop-ins from the original leads to remind viewers why they’re there. On the basis of the first episode, I’m not convinced Jasmine Cephas Jones, as Ashley, was ready for her close-up. We’ll see; thus far, it’s touch and go.

Girls5eva

Over the course of its seven seasons, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock gathered and maintained a very particular comic style, and now a show in its wake, Meredith Scardino’s Girls5eva, uncannily echoes it. Scardino wrote for Fey on Fey’s second show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Fey is an Executive Producer on Girls5eva. It’s Scardino’s show, but it’s Fey’s unmistakeable style, which is fine, because it’s a vibe we all need a little of: fast, funny, and deeply silly.

There are more tropes too, including a kind of third-wave feminism reclamation of such stereotypes as the bimbo, the fat chick and the b*** h. They’re proudly represented here, the creators being comfortable in their own skin as, well, women, and they fit neatly into the show’s simple set-up: a girl group whose moment has long passed gets a chance at another one.

All the acting, all the gags, all the situations, everything is over the top, gleefully so. Of the four main characters, the standout is Wicky Roy, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry, who was the original Broadway Angelica in Hamilton. She plays a diva’s diva, divinely. Luckily we get a lot of her as her three co-horts don’t sparkle as brightly. No matter. This show is one thing and one thing only, escapism, and it works as such.

Tina and Aalto

Untroubled by any scandals of her own making – she’s never been a boozer, a drug addict, or involved in any fraud, deception or even artistic complacency – Tina Turner is one of those great artists who can be celebrated unconditionally. A loving, comprehensive documentary such as Tina, an HBO feature documentary now airing on Foxtel in Australia, cannot be accused of hagiography, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that Turner is, indeed, universally beloved, admired and respected.

Not that she doesn’t have a story. Her story is well told, in her book I, Tina (1986) and the feature film What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993); it’s a story of pain and trauma, most prominently around her 16 year relationship with Ike Turner, who physically abused her. That stuff necessarily gets covered (again) in the first half of Tina, but as Turner escapes Ike, the film, like her life and career, takes off, with a huge sense of release, into the stratosphere. It’s thrilling stuff and an absolutely worthy testament to a truly deserving – indeed, iconic – artist. Turner herself, at 80, is interviewed throughout, and there’s no better teller of her story than she. * * * *

No less influential, if somewhat less dynamic, Finnish modernist architect Alvar Aalto also gets a definitive and highly entertaining documentary of his own in Aalto, now screening in Australian cinemas. He’s dead so doesn’t get to tell his story, but filmmaker Virpi Suutari uses a smorgasbord of architects and academics to tell it instead, using only their voices over ravishing images of Aalto’s buildings (often covered in snow) and furniture, along with spectacularly intriguing other imagery that metaphorically addresses the kind of work Aalto did. Suutari manages to present someone whose work was groundbreaking in a groundbreaking way, an essentially modernist way; his form follows Aalto’s, even into a different medium, and it works, very, very well. This is how you make a film about an architect, perhaps the best I’ve seen. The influence and importance of Aalto’s wife Aino is foregrounded, and their love affair forms the film’s emotional spine. The result is hugely informative and beautiful from first minute to last, with a gorgeous original score to boot. * * * *