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.

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. * * * *

It’s A Sin

Full Season Available Now On STAN

Russell T. Davies is at the top of the heap of queer television, paving the way for all who followed with his seminal series Queer As Folk. His new show, It’s a Sin, seems destined to have a seismic impact.

Davies knows how to write TV, and It’s a Sin is extremely well scripted, zipping along with total watchability even as it tackles deeply sad subject matter. It’s a Sin is about AIDS tearing through the London queer community in the 1980s, and there is tragedy at every turn. But there are also a cast of buoyant and almost immediately loveable young people – that must be Davies’ true alchemy, the ability to create instantly appealing characters – whose exuberant energy is as upbeat as the plague they face is devastating.

The style is hyper, elevated, almost cartoonish; everyone’s acting is dialled up to 11 (and sometimes beyond), particularly when called upon to ‘act happy’ (there is sooo much forced gaiety – pun not really intended – and badly faked laughter, and it grates). But the script, the milieu and the themes of the show add up to an undeniably addictive, entertaining and, dare I say it, deeply important package.

Netflix Double: Pretend It’s a City and Lupin.

Pretend It’s a City

Fran Lebowitz is an author, an actor, a public speaker, a raconteur, a wit. Martin Scorsese winds her up and lets her go in this fantastically warm, charming and funny seven part half-hour Netflix series. At times they’re in a fancy bar (although neither of them seem to be drinking alcohol), at other times in front of an audience (the kind of New York audience who have subscriptions to The New Yorker, The New York Times and New York Magazine) and at times they’re out and about in New York, in libraries, museums and other places of note and import. But the conversation is always about New York, and it’s always funny.

Perhaps ‘conversation’ is too strong a word. Scorsese prompts, prods and pokes, then Fran lets rip and Marty laughs – a lot. Part of the joy of this unbelievably good-hearted show is watching the celebrated maestro of American cinema crack up, again and again and again. He’s divided the episodes thematically – there’s one on transport, one on art, one on ‘sports and health’ and so forth – but Fran’s brain goes where it goes, and we all follow, delightedly. While what she has to say is always interesting and, indeed, often profound, more importantly, it’s funny as hell. This modest series, playing by its own rules, is its own kind of perfect.

Lupin

The good news about Lupin is that it stars Omar Sy as a master jewel thief in Paris. The bad is that the first few episodes are directed by Louis Leterrier in his signature flashy, bombastic, whizzy-zoomey way. The camera never stops, everything is turned up to eleven, and over-acting is encouraged. But as pandemic escapism, this is expensive, pretty and shiny, like the necklace Sy’s thief wishes to steal from an auction at the Louvre in the first episode. I don’t know why or if they have auctions at the Louvre; this show really wouldn’t care. It’s a great place for a heist, right? Sometimes that’s enough.