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.

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.

BELOW

LaPaglia and Corr.

* * * 1/2

Bold, ambitious, colourful, a big swing, Maziar Lahooti’s feature debut Below, now available on STAN, is full of ideas. Set in the daunting milieu of a migrant detention centre in a (very slightly) alternative-reality Australia, the film takes black-comedy aim at all manner of hot button issues swirling around our – Australian – sense of identity, as well as cancel culture, the dark web, gambling, corporate-speak, privatisation, and, inherently, the ethical and moral quagmire of migrant detention itself. It’s loaded to the brim, thrillingly, bracingly, at times almost gluttonously – the work of someone with a lot to say and only 93 minutes to say it.

Ryan Corr plays Dougie, a young man forced by circumstance to work in a private detention centre in an arid region that’s been effectively erased from Australia – a no-man’s land of no accountability. There, he encounters a punitive system of cage-fighting that’s been set up to keep the detainees in line, and sees an opportunity to profit.

A kind of unholy cross between Catch-22, Fight Club and The Road Warrior, Lahooti’s nihilistic, anti-heroic and at times ferociously angry film is visually energetic and excitingly paced, creating a vibrantly dangerous world with one foot in reality and the other in low-key science fiction. Corr is an entertaining – if amoral – guide, and Anthony LaPaglia is ridiculously enjoyable as Terry, Dougie’s step-father and head honcho at the detention centre who gets him into this mess. As black comedy it’s not the funniest, as political satire it’s not the sharpest, and as sci-fi it’s not the most rigorous, but part of its charm is how it resists trying too hard to excel as any of these. You might say that it’s tonally inconsistent; I would suggest it’s tonally bold. It’s its own thing, original and unique, not for everyone, and all the better for it.

Love Fraud (Showtime / STAN)

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Another week, another well-built multi-part doco series about crime in America. In this case, Love Fraud (Showtime / STAN) is about a serial internet dater, Richard Scott Smith, who meets, woos, marries and ultimately fleeces an astonishing number of women in a surprisingly compact area (at least, in the first episode, where most of the women seem to be from Kansas). That he does it time and time again is eyebrow-raising; that what he’s doing is kind-of-legal is pretty astonishing. But the series isn’t really about Smith: it’s about his victims, and their quest for vengeance, as they find each other online, band together, and – with the filmmakers along for the ride – hunt him down. It is this immediacy, of the filmmakers being in the back seat, literally, as their subjects pursue their own story, that makes Love Fraud pretty gripping. What makes it most entertaining is the ally the women enlist: a tough-as-old-boots sixty-something “lady bounty hunter” named Carla who, if you encountered her in a fictional show, you wouldn’t believe. She’s a truly unique character, funny, wise and brave, and emblematically, undeniably American. Indeed, all these shows, from Making a Murderer on, aren’t really about the crimes: they’re about America, and the strange things taken for granted there that play like absurd fiction everywhere else.

Showbiz Kids and Saint Frances

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SHOWBIZ KIDS
HBO / Foxtel Showcase
* * * 1/2
 
Written and directed by Alex Winter – Bill from Bill and Ted’s excellent adventures, of which another is coming very soon – the HBO documentary Showbiz Kids lets level-headed survivors of child stardom speak with level heads, rather than revel in sordid and sad tragics and their tragedies.
 
Evan Rachel Wood, Milla Jovovich, Henry Thomas, Wil Wheaton, Mara Wilson and Cameron Boyce all get about equal screen time, while Todd Bridges, Jada Pinkett Smith and ‘Baby Peggy’ – hundred-year-old Diana Serra Cary – also speak their pieces.
 
It’s sober and sobering and not at all trashy. Essentially these adults aren’t moaning, seeking pity nor trying to scare us to death lest we let our kids go on the stage, but their overwhelming message is clear: kids should get to be kids.
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SAINT FRANCES
STAN
* * * 1/2

When Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg declared their Dogme 95 Manifesto in Paris at the centenary celebration of cinema, they were advocating for a digital democratisation of the filmmaking process: basically, they were saying, let’s let handheld digital movies about real people in real settings with tiny budgets and no tomfoolery get cinema releases and paying audiences. I think they’d admire Saint Frances, which adheres to most of the original 10 Rules to achieve Dogme certification, but which won’t be seen in cinemas in Australia because of the big bad virus; instead, it’s lurking quietly on STAN, where it deserves far more attention than it’s getting.
 
The feature directorial debut from Alex Thompson, surprisingly a man, Saint Frances is a compassionate, funny, warm and super-enjoyable slice-of-life about modern American female life. Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the script) is a thirty-four year old midwestern “server” – waitress – who becomes a nanny for the six-year-old daughter of a lesbian couple. Her relationship with the child, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), grows alongside her consistent embarrassment as she deals with a particular physical irritation. The interweaving of themes of maternity, responsibility, maturity and sexuality is seamless and engrossing. But the film goes further, tackling – with rather exquisite tact and taste – the ongoing culture wars dividing even seemingly affluent, progressive American neighbourhoods in such theoretically neutral spaces as the playground. Unafraid to stand its ground, Saint Frances is also unafraid to engage the enemy with empathy. It’s a lovely movie, and lingers in the mind.

Perpetual Grace Ltd (STAN)

Damon Herriman is an uncommonly versatile actor with an intriguing, enviable and unique career. In Australia, he’s a star character actor – itself a rare position – and in the United States he’s cornered a strange market, of misfits and malcontents of sometimes limited intelligence and potential danger (he’s playing Manson in Tarantino’s upcoming film). He has a laser-like ability to hone in on any of his characters’ exact level of intelligence and worldliness, so that, for example, his character in Perpetual Grace Ltd, Paul, is smarter than Dewey, his character on Justified, but not as smart as Kim on Secret City, who’s much smarter than Buddy on Quarry, and so on and so on. The secret sauce is that all of them may be a little bit smarter than they let on, or a lot more dumb than they think they are.

This ability to be so specific is important for Perpetual Grace Ltd, because Paul kicks the whole thing rolling, setting up a drifter (Jimmi Simpson) to help him rob of his parents (Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver) of four million bucks. They’re corrupt preachers, and the universe of their operations is New Mexico, but really, it’s Coen Brothers World, even though those filmmakers have nothing to do with this show, except to leave their influence all over it.

Despite wearing that influence on its sleeve, Perpetual Grace Ltd delivers. It’s funny, sharp and funky. Kingsley brings his Sexy Beast, Simpson is a natural at roles like this, and Weaver… well, you can tell there’s something brewing. I’m in. This is fun TV made with seriously good ingredients, such as this sublime, highly intelligent cast; they’re all smart enough to know how to play dumb, and I’m guessing some of their characters are too.

STAN: Catch-22, The Bisexual, Pen15

 

New and newish TV on STAN.

Exquisitely directed by Grant Heslov, and featuring a perfectly wry, extremely charismatic central performance from Christopher Abbott, the pilot episode of Catch-22, a new six-episode adaptation of the infamous 1961 anti-war novel by Joseph Heller on Stan, shows enormous promise. Rather than trying to outgun the intensity of Saving Private Ryan and its followers, this thrillingly entertaining show seems to be indebted far more to Robert Altman’s film version of M*A*S*H than anything else; it presents its World War 2 bomber pilots and their idiotic commanders in a wold that includes beer, swimming and girls. There is horror, of course: people die and they bleed. But the tone is light, jaunty, aided by a wonderful period soundtrack of popular songs, and as such may be a throwback, but a truly delightful one. War is insane, so we may as well laugh at it.

The Bisexual, from feature-film auteur Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) is a half-hour comedy about an Iranian-American living in London, Leila (played by Akhavan herself) who splits up with her long-term girlfriend to explore her bisexual side – ie, men. It’s cool, stylish and intriguing, with some really good laughs and excellent performances, and – it almost goes without saying – fresh. This is the kind of content that comes with cultural revolution; it’s a far cry from Modern Family, let alone Married With Children or The Honeymooners, all considered radical in their day. The Bisexual doesn’t scream out its agenda on the battlements; it takes its own modernity as a given, and that’s fresh indeed. Worth a watch.

Pushing formal boundaries more than narrative ones, Pen15 stars creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as two American “7th graders” (12-13 year olds) dealing with high school. The formal twist is that Erskine and Konkle are both in their 30s. The revelation is that, in almost every scene, you completely buy them as kids, even when the only other actors in scenes with them are actual kids. It’s pretty remarkable and lots of fun, and the tone is buoyant and giddy. This is a show about female friendship at a very particular age, and it feels very much like it’s nailing it; despite its overtly comedic style, it feels very, very real. It’s set in 2000, so there’s nostalgia to be revelled in as well. Worth watching.