Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2019)

What's it about? 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) navigates the last few days of middle school, in a touching portrait of teenage life.

Is it any good? A great coming-of-age film for our times, sensitively and honestly exploring teenage angst in a world pervaded by social media. All the normal teenage anxieties are present and correct - there will be few viewers who do not recognise something of themselves in Kayla, as she frets about her appearance, her dreams, her crushes and her social circle. However, it's the astute examination of the online pressures which now inform all these aspects which gives this a contemporary shot-in-the-arm, demonstrating how social media can exacerbate, rather then relieve, loneliness, especially at this vulnerable stage of growing up. It should certainly help any parents out there empathise with their teenage children when they're gazing feverishly at their mobile devices. It also helps that the remarkable Fisher gives a wonderfully natural performance, conveying all the awkwardness, shyness and desperation of early teenage years, as well as a more confident persona in her online vlogs which is perhaps aimed at herself more than anyone else. There's not much of a story here, but it's a tender, deeply human film as well as providing further proof, if proof were needed, that becoming a teenager is pretty damn stressful. But not as stressful as being the parent of one.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Universally praised by critics, it also gained recommendations from the likes of Barack Obama and is gathering good word-of-mouth among impressionable teenagers. So this sensitive depiction of a teenage girl's life must mean director Bo Burnham is a female, right? Wrong. He's actually better know as a YouTuber and internet comedian, so has brought that experience to the (pool) party, but nothing in his record suggested he would turn out something as deft as this for his debut film. Let's also hope it catapults Elsie Fisher to stardom. Here's a nice interview with them both about their inspirations for the film.

What does the Fonz think? Awkward Days

Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019)

What's it about? On the the eve of their high school graduation, hard-working overachievers Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) discover that their less committed student peers have nonetheless also gained acceptance to their chosen universities. Aghast that they may have missed a trick by working hard and not playing enough, the pair set out to make amends by partying hard for one night at least.

Is it any good? Oh yes. Funny, warm and, yes, smart. It helps that it is blessed with two energetic and immensely likeable performances from Feldstein and Dever, utterly convincing as teenage best friends finding their way in the world. Even as events around them are exaggerated for comic effect, the chemistry between the lead duo feels real and gives the film a palpable emotional center. Around them, an equally likeable cast of supporting characters provide laughs, oddball diversions and drama as the riotous night barrels from one set-piece to another. And it is here that Wilde's direction and her team of writers have really freshened up the usual high-school movie tropes. There is booze, drugs, unrequited love, embarrassment, bonding and so on, but it all fizzes with an energy that makes it feel modern, not least because the action is smartly set to a stonkingly good soundtrack of hip-hop tunes and old school classics. And how nice to see female sexual desires so frankly discussed, but not as titillation for the male characters or, crucially, to shame the female characters. Okay, so the whole thing is clearly artifice - no-one's secondary school education is really this exciting, chaotic or fun (or maybe I just missed out?). But who cares when it is as wildly entertaining as this?

Anything else I should know? This is Wilde's debut directorial feature and she has received much praise for her accomplished end-product. Unsurprisingly, she's a big fan of the 80s high-school movie genre, but also interesting to see her cite Training Day, the Denzel Washington buddy cop-movie, as an inspiration.She has spoken eloquently about her experiences making the film - see an example here. Sadly, but perhaps not unexpectedly, Booksmart hasn't set the box-office alight, but as word-of-mouth builds, don't be surprised to see this gain similar cult appeal as Mean Girls, American Pie and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. And I'm not even joking?

What does the Fonz think? See it, or you'll be left with a serious case of FOMO.

Us (Jordan Peele, 2019)

What's it about? A family on a beach holiday are threatened by their evil doppelgängers. Is it all somehow linked to a childhood trauma of the mother, Adelaide ( Lupita Nyong'o), at the same beach?

Is it any good? On paper, this is a promising concept, with plenty of potential for both scares and ideas. In practice, however, it doesn't quite satisfy. Compared to Peele's excellent debut feature Get Out, which had a clean satirical theme skewering its horror, this adopts a more ambiguous position. Perhaps it is about the dark shadow-self that resides in everyone? Or maybe it's a swipe at American propensity for violence against those different from them (amusingly captured when the family compare kill-counts). Or is it a topical political treatise about American fear of immigrants taking over. It could be all, or none, of those things, or indeed about something else entirely. Thing is, the film itself doesn't seem too sure, so it never really delivers a knockout blow, with the humour undermining, rather than accentuating the horror. As a result, it's not that scary, although there's some creepy moments thanks to some tidy editing in the climactic scenes, and to Nyong'o, who is clearly having a ball in her double role. It's still entertaining enough, but it might have worked better in a tighter format as a Twilight Zone episode if anyone were ever to reboot that series.

Anything else I should know? *Cue Twilight Zone music* Well, well, turns out The Twilight Zone has indeed been rebooted by none other than.....Jordan Peele. It's an inferior imitation of the old series though.  As it turns out, it was indeed an old Twilight Zone episode, 'Mirror Image', which sowed the seed for Us in his brain. Here's some thoughts from him on his inspiration for Us.

What does the Fonz think? 11:11 out of 20:20

Award-Winning Triple Bill

Caught up with some well-regarded flicks which gathered a bauble or two over the last while. Starting with...

A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018) was the front-runner for the 2019 Oscars for a while, before a slightly unfair backlash scuppered its chances and left it taking home just the Best Original Song award from 8 nominations. It is true that, as the fourth version of this story, it doesn't really do anything new with the material, but it is still an accomplished directorial debut from Cooper, well-paced and assured in its presentation. In the acting stakes, he also impresses as the self-destructive Jackson Maine, while opposite him Lady Gaga is equally good as Ally, no doubt bringing her experience of the music industry to bear on her performance as she transitions from bar-singer to star. Even if you have seen the other versions, this is still a handsome, romantic musical drama.

Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018) won the Palme d'Or in 2018 at Cannes and manages to be both a heart-warming and heart-breaking watch. A family living in poverty on the outskirts of Tokyo, who supplement their meagre income with acts of petty crime, decide to 'adopt' a little girl who they find wandering the streets. It's a simple set-up and the first half of the film provides the warmth as the obvious tenderness between the various members of the household is demonstrated in tiny moments and quietly affecting scenes. But it can't last and the heartbreak follows as somewhat inevitable events occur, when some surprising revelations and the harsh realities of life intrude on their simple existence. It's like getting a nice hug from someone, only to find they've stolen your wallet in the process. Recommended.

Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) won Best Actor for Casey Affleck and Best Original Screenplay for Lonergan at the 2017 Oscars, but I had avoided seeing it because it didn't sound like a lot of fun. And guess what? I was right. This is a wintry melodrama about how Lee (Affleck), a loner with a tragic past, copes with being unexpectedly asked to be legal guardian for his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), an arrangement neither of them is too happy with. Be warned; this is not one of those tales in which a seemingly mismatched pair eventually bond - it's a much more downbeat and realistic depiction of how grief and guilt can affect a person's ability to form relationships. It isn't happy watching, but both Affleck and Hedges are really good here and the film's flashback structure helps keep the interest. Chilly viewing, though.

There you go, something more low-brow next time methinks...

An Irish Triple Bill

A selection of recent efforts from the Emerald Isle connected together by that most Irish of things: prison.

Maze (Stephen Burke, 2017) is an account of the infamous IRA breakout from the Maze prison in 1983, an event which lives long in the minds of Northern Irish people who marveled at The Great Auld Escape (the biggest prison break since WWII, no less) taking place just up the road from them. Sadly, the film doesn't quite manage to deliver on this promise, falling short of the wire as either a dramatic piece or as an exciting prison drama. Despite a reliably strong turn from Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (with spot-on accent) as the mastermind behind the plan, it is a fairly pedestrian journey through the usual tropes of the prison break film, with only a superficial attempt to explain much about the political landscape and wider context of the times. That said, the grim Maze prison is recreated well and Norn Iron viewers will no doubt find themselves reminiscing fondly about the Bad Old Days.

The Cured (David Freyne, 2018) presents an interesting take on the zombie apocalypse set-up. Here, the action takes place in Ireland after a viral outbreak, which turned people into slavering zombie-like fiends, has been largely contained. The 'Cured' of the title are those plague victims who have been successfully treated and are now released from quarantine, ready for rehabilitation back into society. However, they retain the memories of the horrific acts they carried out whilst infected, making it very difficult for the likes of Senan (Sam Keeley) to return to any sort of normality when he reunites with his sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page), whose husband died during the outbreak. A quietly affecting drama ensues as Senan and fellow cured acquaintances struggle to integrate back into a society which is not entirely welcoming of them. Although Freyne claims his inspiration came from the boom-and-bust of the Celtic Tiger, it is hard for any Irish person to view this without thinking of the prisoners released as part of the Good Friday agreement, and the various reactions to this across Irish society. As such, it isn't really to be viewed as a horror film - it certainly isn't that scary and heads off in slightly unsatisfactory directions toward the end. But it is interesting viewing to see the socio-political overtones falling, falling softly upon all the living and the walking dead.

Michael Inside (Frank Berry, 2018) is set in Dublin, where young teenager Michael (Dafhyd Flynn) ends up sentenced to 3 months in prison for a minor drugs-related offence. A grimly affecting drama ensues, which shows how easy it is to end up on a slippery slope to crime when a combination of circumstances, systemic failures and bad choices conspire against you. It's an impressive effort from Berry, who researched the film with former inmates of the reform system in Dublin, lending it an authenticity which recalls the work of Ken Loach in its depiction of the socially excluded and the struggles they face. Add in excellent performances (from Flynn and Lalor Roddy as Michael's kindly granda), a melancholy score and brooding camerawork, and you have a very worthwhile prison drama indeed. 

And as luck would have it, these are all available to view on Netflix. So lock yourself up and get watching.