Bo Burnham’s glorious “Eighth Grade”

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

For all the disruption and chaos unleashed by the digital revolution and the brand new medium it spawned, the Internet, the media landscape that has emerged is, at least thus far, stubbornly traditional. Nobody in publishing, cinema or television dreams of being on the Internet. And nobody on the web is perfectly happy where they are. 

All of them dream, with a desperation that is palpable, of landing that publishing, TV and or cinema deal. Hitherto however, none of them had seemed to offer anything other than a pale facsimile of the kind of talent on view in the more traditional media. Most Youtubers and influencers have come across as diaphanously transparent and guilelessly unsophisticated.

So Eighth Grade will be one of two things. The exception that goes to prove an otherwise golden rule. Or the first of what will prove to be an increasingly common phenomenon. The work of a crossover artist who successfully straddles both the new and the old.

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in Eighth Grade.

Eighth Grade isn’t merely good, it’s stunning. Comfortably the film of the year, and one of the top six or seven films of the decade. And there are so many different ways it could have been a complete disaster. 

The film follows Kayla, a 12 year old who’s recently turned 13 and is moving from what we call primary into secondary school. So, unlike any other girl of her age, she is unimaginably insecure, cripplingly shy and hopelessly socially awkward. So she disappears into her screen, investing all of her care and attention in her digital persona, resigned to be forever friendless and impossibly alone in the real world beyond the pixels. 

Bo Burnham.

It could so easily have been cloyingly sentimental, or patronising or sanitized, or, most obviously of all, Hollywoodized – i.e. a sickly concoction of all of the above. Remarkably, not to say impressively, it is instead a beautifully nuanced, subtle and grown-up portrait of a girl, as she moves from childhood into that brief, intermediate state before emerging as a fully-fledged adult. 

It’s hard to know which is more note-worthy, Bo Burnham’s writing, his direction, or Elsie Fisher’s performance as Kayla. All the performances are impeccable, and Josh Hamilton is especially good as her well meaning but generationally clumsy father. But Fisher is outstanding in the lead. Yet it is ultimately Burnham who emerges as the real star. Because Eighth Grade is that rare thing, a serious film. And Burnham is verily a man to watch.

You can see the trailer to Eighth Grade here.

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“Never Look Away”, new film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Never Look Away.

The Lives of OthersFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature debut from 2006,was one of the standout films of the last decade. His follow-up, The Tourist from 2010, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and costing over 100 million dollars, wasn’t merely disappointing, it managed somehow to pass everyone by, going completely un-noticed. 

The Lives of Others.

Which was quite a feat given its cast and cost. So was that debut a chance accident of converging talents, or did it genuinely herald the arrival of a serious film maker?  

In his new film, Never Look Away, Tom Schilling plays Kurt, an artist struggling under the restrictions of life in post-war East Germany. Married to the daughter of a former SS officer, who does everything he possibly can to sabotage their union, they flee to freedom in the West. 

There’s little enough to get excited about in cinema these days, so when you do seem to have stumbled upon an actual find, you cross your fingers that whoever it is turns out to be the genuine article. So I desperately wanted to be wowed by Never Look Away. But it’s felled, alas, by two fatal flaws.

Sirk’s Imitation of Life.

First, it’s a melodrama. Personally, I love melodrama, it’s probably my favourite genre, being to cinema what country is to music. And Germany has a proud tradition of brilliant melodrama. 

On the one hand, there are those glorious, Technicolor weepies that Douglas Sirk made in Hollywood in the 1950s; All That Heaven Allows (’55), Written on the Wind (’56) and Imitation of Life (‘59). Gloriously over the top, unashamedly mannered and defiantly theatrical. “You don’t believe in the happy ending,” Sirk said of that last named, “and you’re not supposed to(!)


Fassbinder’s the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

And on the other, there are those flurry of do-it-yourself, handmade films that Rainer Werner Fassbinder produced in the 70s, before burning so spectacularly out at the tender age of 37. Films like Fear Eats the Soul (’74), Despair (’78) and the peerless the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (’72). Archetypally art house, brazenly intellectual and comfortably, almost casually avant garde. 

The problem with Never Look Away is that it is neither fish nor fowl, falling midway between those two twin poles. Much of it is gloriously silly, but how intentional that is, is impossible to say. What, for instance, are we to make of the fact that the artists Kurt meets on his arrival in the West look like they’ve stepped out of one of those paintings produced back in the Communist East, that they are supposed to be critiquing? And what about that ending – no spoilers -? Are we meant to smile knowingly, à la Sirk, or are we supposed to take it seriously? In short, it’s a film that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but devotes its entire energy into merely looking wondrously pretty.

David Lynch’s Dune, which is every bit as bad as that poster suggests.

It’s not hard to see where the project went wrong. Donnersmarck befriended the great German artist Gerhard Richter, interviewing him at length, which you can read about in the New Yorker profile here. But with what in mind? That intimacy meant that he was then incapable of producing a distanced, warts and all biopic of the man. So instead, he made a fictionalised film about someone quite like, but not actually, Richter. The result is polite, well mannered and extremely dull. It’s not even the sort of spectacular failure that we got with Dune. Which somehow makes it even more of a disappointment. 

Hopefully, just as David Lynch did after Dune, Donnersmarck will go back to the sort of small, intimate film that he began with. But as of now, so far as his gifts as a film maker go, the jury is very much out. He seems, at least for the moment, to be more of a Darren Aronofsky than he does an Asghar Farhadi.

You can see the trailer for Never Look Away here.

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Catch 22, perfectly pretty candyfloss.

Catch 22.

Catch 22 is the new George Clooney project and the latest attempt to transfer Joseph Heller’s acclaimed novel to the screen. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a co-production between Hulu and Paramount and is clearly an attempt to replicate that show’s success. 

Unfortunately, it’s precisely when compared to something like the Handmaid’s Tale (reviewed by me earlier here) that the core problem with Catch 22 becomes obvious.

Margaret Atwood’s futuristic depiction of a dystopian society, which she published in 1985, was rendered terrifyingly prescient after the election of you know who, in 2016. In contrast, Heller’s novel, which he published in 1961, clearly comes from another century.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

For thousands of years, the world was divided into two groups; peasants, and the aristocracy. But the turn of the twentieth century ushered in an age of meritocracy. And in this world, you were either an ordinary (and still probably manual) worker, or, you were part of a tiny elite, and one of the very few who had an actual career. 

This latter group was made up of doctors, lawyers, bank managers and anyone lucky enough to be part of the government, the church or the army. These people were unimpeachably honest, trusted and universally revered. 

Hugh Laurie in Catch 22.

So, if you wanted to know if, say, the harvest was likely to be delayed this year, or whether or not the great powers were going to go to war, you would ask one of these august gentlemen (they were all men of course). And whatever they told you, you would take as writ. And you would then plan for the rest of your year accordingly. 

So when Heller’s novel came out in ’61, his depiction of the army was thrillingly subversive and genuinely satirical. The officers in this army were every bit as venal, petty, dim-witted, thin-skinned and self-centred as the ordinary privates forced to carry out their orders and to service their every whim.

Orson Welles in Mike Nichol’s Catch 22.

But by the time Mike Nichols released his film of the novel, a mere nine years later, in 1970, that world had been turned on its head. The sixties had rendered pillars of society, figures of authority and all institutions, especially the army, hopelessly suspicious. 

Now, half a century later, the idea that the army, and of all things, the American army, might once have been respected and even revered, rather than the object of ridicule, seems almost literally unimaginable. 

So when the latest Catch 22 depicts a scene in which an army private on the make tries to sell a truck load of clandestinely acquired tomatoes to his superior, it doesn’t read like a caustic critique of universal values subverted by the pursuit of person profit, and the sacrifice of ideals at the altar to capitalism. It just looks like a young guy selling a slightly older guy a few crates of tomatoes. 

George Clooney in Catch 22.

It all looks sumptuous, and the acting is uniformly superb. And, as wonderful as it is to see Giancarlo Giannini given something grown-up to do, against the backdrop of a pristine and Acadian southern Italy, it lacks any real substance. As Gertrude Stein said so memorably of California, “there’s no there, there “.

You can see the trailer to Catch 22 here

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The Columbian film, Birds of Passage.

Birds of Passage.

Ciro Guerro’s Embrace of the Serpent was the stand out film of 2015 (reviewed earlier here), so his follow up was much anticipated. On the face of it, Birds of Passage, which he directed with his production partner and former wife Cristina Gallego, couldn’t possibly be more different.

Over the course of two decades, we watch as the decease of narcotics comes to infect the whole of Columbian society. It begins innocuously enough, with the arrival in 1968 of a ragbag of hippies in search of a better class of high. But very quickly, every corner of the countryside has been laid low by the kind of blind greed that only ready cash can produce. And before long, the whole country has descended into a very modern hell.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Where Embrace of the Serpent was a meditation on colonialism in measured blacks and whites, the new film is a riot of colour and awash with noise. But that colour palette aside, the two films share remarkably similar concerns. It’s just that they are looking at the world through opposite ends of the telescope.

This time around, we are embedded in the Wayuu group, tribes of native Americans who live to the very north, on either side of the border between Columbia and Venezuela. And it is through the prism of their concerns and their traditions that we witness the havoc wreaked by the spread of the international drug trade. So once again, we are looking at ethnicity, ethnography and the discordant clash as age-old traditions come up against the progress offered by the modern world. 

It’s ravishing to look at, and sumptuous to behold, sonically speaking. And I desperately wanted it to lift off and take flight. But it doesn’t.

The Wayuu people.

The film’s problems can be traced to its casting. Not the cast, who all do their best, but to the ethos behind the casting. For the film makers insisted on casting actual Wayuu tribespeople in a third of the roles, and deliberately avoided any “named” actors throughout – the only name is Natalia Reyes, soon to star in the latest Terminator reboot. Yes, that’s what the world needs, a n other instalment from yet another CGI, green screen Hollywood franchise. 

She plays the wife of the protagonist, Rapayet. He himself is played by the Cuban baseball star Jose Acosta. So, unsurprisingly, with so many inexperienced performers, there is a decided dearth of passion to the telling of the tale. And this is further exacerbated by the script. Reyes, for instance, who is so strikingly central to the film’s opening half an hour, tamely disappears from view for much of the rest of the film. And without that core relationship to root for, and given the bloodless, one-dimentional nature of so many of the other performances, it’s impossible to care very much about what happens to the various characters as they make their way inevitably down.

(L-R) – José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in Birds of Passage

In short, the film is weighed down by its lofty ambitions and its sense of moral rectitude. It’s too ethnographically concerned to allow the drama catch fire, but not sufficiently to qualify as a documentary. It looks and sounds amazing, and it’s definitely not a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as it might have been.

You can see the trailer to Birds of Passage here

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Titanic Rising, bewitching new album from Weyes Blood.

Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising.


From the moment those piano chords serenely chime as the opening track on Titanic Rising gently departs, you’re instantaneously transported to those arrangements Richard Carpenter used to craft for his sister Karen. And the album that follows comfortably delivers on that promise, and then some.

This is the sort of sophisticated, grown-up and unashamedly romantic pop music that the Brill Building churned out with such apparent effortlessness. The melodies of Burt Bacharach and the lyrics of Hal David were the perfect fit for Richard’s lush orchestration and Karen’s transcendent vocals. 

Carole King’s Tapestry.

Carole King became the Brill Building’s most successful graduate when she moved out to pursue a solo career. Her 1971 album, Tapestry, sold over 25 million copies, as she merged those perfectly crafted, classic pop songs with the introspection and doubts of the newly emergent singer songwriter.

And Natalie Mering, whose forth album this is in the guise of Weyse Blood, is very much continuing here where King left off. If anything, Mering cuts even more of an impressive figure. Carole King, after all, was aided in her endeavours by some wonderful lyricists. Mering is doing all of this on her own. 

Caren and Richard Carpenter

The result is a collection of personal, questioning songs that recall Hunky Dory era Bowie, but which are given the sort of orchestral, soaring majesty that only a Brian Wilson or a Phil Spector would have attempted to produce.

The album gets a suitably impressed 8.5 from the boys from Pitchfork, here. And you can see the official video to Everyday, here, and you can hear that beguiling opening track A lot’s gonna change, here.

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