With a focus on addiction, superheroes and stories of colour, here's what Rāwiri is watching this month...
Starstruck (2021), BBC Three, TVNZ On Demand, HBO Max
She's been a prolific force on international stages since breaking out of the New Zealand comedy scene, and in the past few years Rose Matafeo has seen her career break new ground as a director, writer, actress and lead of a feature film. With Starstruck, her leading character series on BBC, the enviable and numerous talents of Rose are on full display.
Part-time nanny, part-time cinema worker, Rose plays Jessie, a twenty-something Kiwi living in East London who kick starts a will-they-won't-they relationship with the famous actor (Nikesh Patel) she hooks up with one drunken New Years Eve.
It's a simple premise that works because of the nuanced and uniquely awkward chemistry of the show's two lead characters - avatars of millennial dreams (Tom) and realities (Jessie).
That the BBC commissioned a second series before the first had even aired goes some way to tell you how confident the production was of its show, and with very good reason. Whether alone or playing opposite the romantic Tom or neurotic flatmate Kate (Emma Sidi), Matafeo is a joy to watch. The very definition of relatable content in 2021's Covid-era dating dynamics.
Available on BBC Three, TVNZ On Demand, HBO Max
The United States vs. Billie Holliday (2021), Lionsgate, Hulu
The 93rd Academy Awards offered just a single nomination for Lee Daniels' biopic of jazz/blues singer Billie Holiday - that of Best Actress for lead Andra Day. That it couldn't find any room to honour wardrobe, make-up, production and especially, music, is unfortunate, but not surprising given the general consensus of the film's reviews. Day is exceptional, they said, but the rest was OK.
Lee Daniels is a strong story-teller and here he delivers a riveting piece of pop culture film that conveys important messages of poverty, racial discrimination and addiction that resonate as much with today's audiences as those of the film's 1940s and 50s setting. It makes no attempt to candy Holiday's reputation by omitting the important parts of addiction and in doing so, honours both who she was, and how she struggled.
The soundtrack is filled with the discography of Billie Holiday and her work is as integral to the scenes as all of its visual cues. The supporting cast are solid, embodying the look, feel and style of the time and the film paces well enough to hold intrigue throughout the runtime.
Then, there's Andra Day. A gifted vocalist in her own right and successful recording artist for over a decade, it is an astonishing feat that this is her first acting role, so carefully examined is her portrayal. Her movement, her gravelly cadence, and her fearless line delivery are exquisitely realised and it is impossible not to feel breathless at how accurate and endearing her performance really is. Plus, considering that all vocals in the film belong to her, too, its not hard to see why she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.
The only thing strange about it, was the fact she didn't win.
In select cinemas, and available on Hulu now.
Mom (Season 8), CBS
The idea of a mother and daughter in Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't sound like your typical sitcom, but in 2012, Big Bang Theory's Chuck Lorre saw comedic promise in this premise. A year later it debuted to strong ratings and critical success thanks to great writing and a pair of exceptional lead performances. This week, after 8 seasons and 170 episodes, Mom will take its final bow.
When the series began, it centred around Anna Faris' fiesty bad-girl-turned-good Christy Plunkett. A warm and engaging presence, Faris has brilliant comic timing and aptly lead the all-female cast of characters across the seasons. When she shockingly announced her departure in September of 2020, producers weren't sure if the show would continue, or how it would go on without her in it.
One of the fundamentally appealing things about Mom has been watching characters grow to be more than just their circumstances and their medical conditions. Christy had been sober for 7 years and despite plenty of flaws, she'd earned her place at an East Coast law firm that called her away from the show's California setting. As such, the character's exit seemed fair and right, even if she was missed.
Season 8 saw Allison Janney's Bonnie Plunkett the sole main focus (not difficult: Janney is an Emmy winner several times over in this role) as she dealt with empty nest syndrome, sponsor duties, therapy, marriage hiccups and new business ventures. Fellow alcoholics Marjorie, Jill, Wendy and Tammy remain and throughout this final season, also reconcile series-long character arcs, demonstrating a genuine affection for these people on screen, and the people they represent in real life.
It's one of the last laugh-track comedies left standing and due to that, it often leaned in to sitcommy tropes but at its very best, Mom was a show that could have you breathlessly laughing one minute, and dutifully tearful the next. That's how good it was. As the women pack up the chairs for their last meeting, they can rest knowing that they have not only entertained us, but helped to dismantle the myths and the stigmas around addiction and alcoholism. Bravo, ladies.
Available now on CBS (and TVNZ on Demand)
The Father (2020), Lionsgate
The Academy has been known to award performances that deal with mental illness. A few years back, Julianne Moore won her Oscar for her incredible work in Still Alice, and last month, Sir Anthony Hopkins won his second Academy Award for his turn in The Father. This decision made some people uneasy after the build-up to a Chadwick Boseman win, but was Sir Anthony worthy of the statue?
Short answer? My God, yes. As far away from Hannibal Lecter as you like, Hopkins embodies an elderly man who is being taken care of by his daughter because he is slowly succumbing to dementia (or is he?) Charming and focused one minute, frightened and unforgiving the next, it is a gripping performance that tugs repeatedly at the heartstrings and offers no easy solutions.
Co-written, directed and based upon a play by Florian Zeller, here he masterfully plays with both the audience and the characters, suggesting, and then revoking pieces of the story and the set design. It's purposefully disorienting and it works to convey the central themes of the film.
Haunting and heartfelt, Hopkins delivers the best performance of an already exceptional body of work.
In select cinemas now.