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Meet the 14-Year-Old Toast of Sundance

Charmaine Blake



PARK CITY, UtahOn Thursday, 14-year-old high-school freshman Elsie Fisher was capping off a week and a half of marathon studying and finishing her last final. She had to take all her tests a little early because she would be skipping school Friday. She had somewhere to be. The teachers note, though, was an unusual one: Eighth Grade, the film she stars in almost every single frame of, was premiering that afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival.

Days later, when we sit downalong with Eighth Grade writer-director Bo Burnhamat a chalet-styled lounge off Main Street, the film is generating enough word-of-mouth heat to melt the foot of snow blanketing Park City. And at the tip of everyones tongue is the revelatory performance by its breakout teenage star.

She blushes a bit, shrinking in the bashful way kids do when they get compliments, when I suggest that, ever since the rapturously received premiere, all of Park City must want to just hug her. Its been crazy, she says, simultaneously giggling and talking at the same time, that reflexive thing we all do when were young yet somehow lose the ability to when we get older. I just saw Terry Crews! Like, what!? That was weird

Eighth Grade, in broad strokes, is a coming-of-age story set in the age of Snapchat. Gossiping goes down in Instagram DMs instead of behind school lockers. Idle time is spent staring at screens instead of loitering in strip-mall parking lots. But the angst of trying to figure out just who you are and how you might fit inin school, at home, and in an increasingly stressful worldis the same timeless torture.

Fisher plays Kayla, who is just trying to make it through eighth grade alive. If shes being ambitious, then maybe with a little dignityand, if were shooting for the stars, some friends?too.

Shes so real, and Fishers portrayal so authentic and unmannered, that your heart bleeds for her, your feet soaked in a pool of red by the films gut-wrenching finale.

At school, she was voted Quietest in the end-of-year eighth grade superlatives, a crushing blow to a 13-year-old who thinks her social capital might come from hosting a series of bubbly, earnest, affirmational YouTube videos. Example topics: How to Be Yourself, How to Put Yourself Out There, or How to Be Confident. Who, if anyone, watches these videos is unknown, but it couldnt be more clear that, subconsciously, Kayla isnt so much coaching whoever is on the other side of that camera as much as she is herself.

Kayla isnt bullied, per se, but she is lonely. She has the same interests as everyone else. She talks in the same stuttering machine-gun speech of likes and ums, with that teenage enthusiasm that the tongue sometimes struggles to catch up to. But shes not as thin, her skin not as clear, her confidence not as effortless.

Shes not some sad sack, or the sweetest girl in the world. Like any girl her age, shes moody and kind of snotty to her doting dad (Josh Hamilton). Shes so real, and Fishers portrayal so authentic and unmannered, that your heart bleeds for her, your feet soaked in a pool of red by the films gut-wrenching finale. Middle school is a hormonal whirlpool of Big Feelings, and, watching Eighth Grade, they all hit you like a tsunami all over again.

The film was responsible for Sundances first communal cry. At a festival in which the likes of Keira Knightley, Hilary Swank, Kathryn Hahn, and Maggie Gyllenhaal are delivering stellar leading turns, its Fishers performance that people cant stop talking about.

In extreme you-cant-script-it-better fashion, Fisher, whose biggest previous credit was voicing Agnes, the youngest daughter of Gru, in the Despicable Me movies, graduated eighth grade one week before the film started shooting. One week after production wrapped, she started high school.

The giggle comes back. It was weird filming the movie, and then, like no one cares, she says. Like, even friends, like, close friends I have and told, they were like, Thats cool! OK, back to Twitter.

Tell the best story ever, Burnham goads her, a devious, excited smile on his face.

At the suggestion of Burnham and the films crew, Fisher explains that she joined theater as her first high school elective. It was fun and cool or whatever, she says. Then auditions for the school play came around, and I didnt get a part.

There were like 90 parts, and she didnt get one! Burnham reiterates, had you not grasped the lunacy the first time of the actress who is the toast of Sundance not getting cast in her local Thousand Oaks, California, high school play. Throughout the audition, the teacher was going, like, Louder! Burnham continues, taking over the story from Fisher. She told me this story and I was like, Im really sorry for you, but this is perfect.

Burnham isnt exactly the person youd expect to craft such an affecting and astute portrait of a young girls middle school experience. The 27-year-old, hitherto best known for his stand-up comedy, has no kids of his own. And, like, you know, is a dude

He had been wanting to write something about the internet and the way it makes people feel, and he wanted to make it about young people because young people experience the internet purely. His stresses his anxieties are, at the end of the day, peripheral, because I have a job and I have taxes to pay, he says. But for a kid, its everything.

Over his career as a YouTuber and in preparation for this project, he watched hundreds of videos of kids online: In general, the boys tended to talk about XBox and the girls tended to talk about their souls.

The film pulls off a sort of magic trick of empathy. I wasnt like Kayla in middle school. You probably werent either. And, if you were, you certainly werent like Kayla in middle school at this time. Yet each successive frame executes an emotional sleight of hand, with intensifying heartbreaks replacing astonished gasps each time a cruelty Kayla weathers, a self-esteem setback she suffers, or a tiny act of social bravery backfires.

This is an awkward-stage pubescent girl for whom Instagram likes and YouTube subscribers are matters of life-and-death importance, all in the desperate pursuit of a satisfying social life. Yet she is so very, well… you.

I see myself in her personally now, Burnham says. And I hope other people do as well. For me, at the premiere I was in the green room on the verge of a panic attack, just like her in the bathroom about to go out to the pool party. Someone walking into a room, putting their hand up, and deciding to go do something I dont know, I connect to her as a person being brave and putting herself out there.

Fisher, with an adorable sigh of relief, reassures me that her eighth grade experience, though still fraught in its own right, was nothing like Kaylas.

Eighth grade was a year she says, laughing at her own melodrama. Its a weird one. Thats a given. Definitely not exactly like Kaylas. I think Kaylas experience is a reflective amalgamation of a lot of things. (Those SAT words!) My eighth grade wasnt the same. Id gotten better dealing with my own personal anxieties in seventh grade-ish, so I was more confident as a person, which is nice.

The more we talk, the more we try to home in on what it is about Kayla that makes audiences feel so much. And not just feel for her but also reflect on themselves.

I just think, for me, its like, theres obviously a very sexist narrative to art that the only stories about the human condition have to be about male comedians being sad in New York City, Burnham says. You know what I mean?

I think shes as valid a conduit for that as anybody, he continues. The real violence and fragility of the moment were in right now, and just the kind of landscape that weve built in the culture and the people who are out there, everyones nervous, everyones scared. Shes just a pure version of something. Not pure as uncomplicated, but distilled. She feels very intensely.

As someone who is 14 right now in that very world, how does Fisher handle all of this?

Right now Im just trying to survive, she says, myself and Burnham nodding in us-too agreement. Im really just trying to survive right now, and not die in high school. I think thats what everyone is doing. Its hard for me to pinpoint. Youre making me get all existentialist!

By the time this article is published, Fisher will already be back home and at school. She says shes unsure how she will explain the whirlwind of her Sundance experience to her friends and classmates.

If Im being honest. I havent even told any of my teachers or anything that this happened, she says. Most of the kids at my school know me as Agnes from Despicable Me. Theyre like, whatever, old news.

We have a feeling thats about to change.

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Stephen Hawking made his mark on pop culture, as well as science

Charmaine Blake



Stephen Hawking in ‘The Simpsons.’

Image: fox

Stephen Hawking got plenty right about the universe, and that even extended to his thoughts on pop culture.

The Simpsons is the best thing on American television,” the late astrophysicist said on BBC’s The Culture Show, reflecting on his appearance on the hit animated series back in 1999.

The cameo was so prolific that it led to people thinking he was merely a character on the TV show, rather than recognising him for his work in science.

In 1999, Hawking appeared at the end of Season 10, in the episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” saving the day when Springfield’s utopian meritocracy crumbled.

“I was depicted as a somewhat surreal character with enormous powers,” Hawking said, noting the show’s writers definitely used a bit of artistic license.

“Among the equipment they used for my cartoon image, I don’t like pizza, and I hope I wouldn’t use a boxing glove. Though sometimes I’m sorely tempted,” he added.

Hawking would go on to make three more appearances in The Simpsons, including an cameo where he MCs with the Flight of the Conchords. He also appeared several times as himself in Futurama.

Hawking wasn’t just an animated character. He appeared several times in The Big Bang Theory, the idea he spent much of his life working on.

“You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite a boner,” Hawking tells Sheldon after reviewing a paper on the Higgs boson in a 2012 episode.

Hawking also played himself in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing a poker game with the greatest minds in physics, including Einstein, Isaac Newton and Data.

“The uncertainty principle will not help you now Stephen,” Einstein tells Hawking. “All the quantum fluctuations in the world will not change the cards in your hand.”

There were also appearances on late night talk shows, like the time he kept making phone calls to Jim Carrey on the set of Late Night with Conan O’Brien back in 2007, and his recent bit with John Oliver on Last Week Tonight‘s “People Who Think Good” series.

“You’ve stated there could be an infinite number of parallel universes. Does that mean that there is a universe out there where I am smarter than you?” Oliver asked.

“Yes,” Hawking replied. “And also a universe where you’re funny.”

While Hawking kept busy making cameos on a host of television shows, he was played by other actors including Benedict Cumberbatch in 2004’s Hawking, and by Eddie Redmayne in 2014’s Theory of Everything. 

Redmayne, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, dedicated the win to people with ALS, and the Hawking family. Hawking allowed the use of his speech synthesiser in the film.

Hawking’s influence also extended to music, where he voiced part of Pink Floyd’s 1994 track “Keep Talking” and 2014’s “Talkin’ Hawkin’,” both sampled from a BT commercial.

Although theories on relativity and black holes established him as a genius, his prevalence in pop culture made him a modern star, the likes science hadn’t seen before.

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The Shape of Water’s Oscars win is the triumph of a real artist and immersive cinema | Peter Bradshaw



Guillermo del Toro has created a richly sensual and dreamlike film that, in the end, seduced the Academy without being too threatening

At the end of a somewhat predictable evening, we were all longing for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to work their anarchic magic, and start handing out the awards to the films that werent in the envelope. Perhaps for the sheer devilment, they could have given something to, say, Kathryn Bigelows powerful race drama Detroit, a highly plausible Oscar-worthy film, which the Academy hive mind mysteriously decided was worth precisely zilch and became utterly forgotten about. In the end, many deserving films got what they deserved, others didnt, the internal economy of awards season dictating, as it so often does, that the rich become richer. And it was hardly obvious that this was the year of radical change in Hollywoods sexual politics. As my colleague Benjamin Lee notes in his blog this years Academy Awards in fact garnered the fewest female winners for six years.

Guillermo del Toros escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, the story of a young womans love for a captured sea creature with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight. It is a lovely piece of work, with a terrific performance from Sally Hawkins: you can get to the end of it, not quite believing that she doesnt say a word in the entire film, so commanding and eloquent is her presence. And yet in the end I couldnt quite swoon as much as everyone else and though this is a film which pays tribute to people who are different, it does so in the reassuring rhetoric of fabular unreality. There is something a little bit frictionless and unscary about The Shape of Water; though in progress, it has the eerie force of a dream. The Academy has gratefully submitted to its current and swirl.

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From the acting awards, for me, easily the most satisfying is Allison Janneys barnstorming turn as LaVona Golden in I, Tonya: the dragon matriarch or icerink showbiz mom in I, Tonya, whose daughter Tonya Harding became an skating star and was then disgraced because of her ex-husbands assault on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Like Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Janney plays an angry and unrepentant mother, and maybe the prevalence of mothers has been an under-recognised part of this years awards seasons, especially as Sam Rockwells racist cop in Three Billboards actually lives with his mother. (There is also Darren Aronofskys brilliant black comic provocation, Mother! overlooked, I am sorry to say, by the middlebrows and the sensible-shoe wearers of awards season, except of course to be mocked.) Janneys LaVona is a brilliantly nasty, funny creation, who is spared any spurious redemptive journey.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell got the best actress and best supporting actor Oscars for Martin McDonaghs jagged, angular, tonally unpredictable and for some objectionable black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The success of this film and the specific successes of these two stars in these two roles perhaps raises the thorny issue of intersectionality. McDormand radiated star quality in the part of the woman looking for justice for her raped and murdered daughter. What also radiated was her characters radioactive loathing of the police and of the men who didnt and dont care about women. She is a resoundingly satisfying and powerful winner in the era of #TimesUp. But Sam Rockwells racist cop is permitted a disputed moral comeback, and it sometimes looked as if his racism was allowed into the film as set-dressing, to offset a drama of forgiveness to which race was essentially irrelevant.

The movies admirers have been in a kind of Mexican standoff with this objection ever since it has been aired on social media, although I accept the good faith in which McDonagh created this character. Perhaps the least successful part of the film is that which is most easily forgotten: the sad, slightly whimsically uxorious tale of Woody Harrelson and his wife, played by Abbie Cornish. I personally would have preferred the best actress award to go to Saoirse Ronan for that excellent film Lady Bird, which came away from Oscar night empty-handed. And best supporting actor should really have gone to Willem Dafoe for his outstanding performance in The Florida Project: a performance which had a subtlety, resonance and genuine depth.

Of these three aforegoing adjectives, I think I can only really assign resonance to Gary Oldmans impersonation of Winston Churchill in Joe Wrights watchable wartime drama Darkest Hour, which won him his widely predicted best actor Oscar. He was roisteringly entertaining and charismatic, and the latex mask within which he was working interestingly different from the real, lived-in faces of other Churchill performances over the years gave his face precisely that babyish, cherubic expression that reportedly made him a seductive figure in real life. It was a highly watchable entertainment: comfort-food wartime entertainment, perhaps, but with a terrific storytelling zing. What actually made it different was not Oldman, in fact, but the emphasis on Halifax, an excellent performance from Stephen Dillane.

The screenplay Oscars (and the foreign language Oscar) made sure that the really great movies were not overlooked. James Ivory was a thoroughly deserving winner of the best adapted screenplay Oscar for his excellent work on Luca Guadagninos masterly love story Call Me By Your Name. It is highly satisfying to see Ivory, a veteran of cinema, get an Academy award which is not a lifetime achievement gong (though he surely deserves one of those as well) but something to recognise his continuingly vivid, urgently passionate work right now.

Get Out was the film that I had been hoping against hope might actually win best picture. Well, it won Jordan Peele the Oscar for best original screenplay, which is excellent news. Get Out is a brilliant satire on race and the gruesome twist ending of post-Obama America which functions also as a scary movie, black comedy and an acting masterclass from its four leads.

Very often, the foreign language Oscar is an embarrassing misstep for the Academy. Not last night it wasnt. I was tipping Ildik Enyedis strange love story On Body and Soul for this, while saying that Andrei Zvyagintsevs searing Russian drama Loveless would have been the worthy winner. In the end, I was wrong both ways but fair enough. The Oscar went to Sebastian Lelios glorious A Fantastic Woman, the story of a trans woman whose grief at the death of her partner is compounded by the cruelty and indifference of society. It is a wonderful film.

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Elsewhere, there were other solid choices: Coco was the only possible choice as best animation, and this arguably could and should have been a best picture contender although it is hardly in the league of Pixar movies like The Incredibles or the Toy Stories. Roger Deakins rightly won best cinematographer for his superb work on Denis Villeneuves Blade Runner 2049, although this award, justified as it is, perhaps doesnt reflect quite how extraordinary a big-screen experience this film is.

Mark Bridges was also justly rewarded for his costume design on Phantom Thread but for me this is another point of niggling exasperation with this years awards. Paul Thomas Anderson created another brilliant film here: a really masterly piece of work with a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis which was a jewel of this years awards season. And yet it has been overlooked in favour of less interesting work.

Well, there we are. To return to The Shape of Water: however conflicted I feel about its triumph, it is certainly the work of a real artist, and someone who believes in immersive cinema, total cinema, cinema that enfolds you in a complete created world.

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Science friction: can Netflix figure out its blockbuster problem?

Charmaine Blake



Costly sci-fi films have received poor reviews but the streaming giant still has an eager audience in its vast subscriber base

The future hasnt been kind to Netflix. In the last two months, its launched three science fiction blockbusters Will Smiths orc cop adventure Bright, the shock assault The Cloverfield Paradox, and the bizarre Berlin-set Blade Runner-riff Mute each of which critics reacted to as though a cockroach crawled out of their TV (not one film managed to score over 27% on Rotten Tomatoes). A fourth attempt, Alex Garlands Annihilation, about five female explorers in a technicolor hellscape, received better reviews but Netflix still couldnt win. It scooped up theinternational distribution rights from Paramount, who lost confidence in the Natalie Portman cerebral chiller and decided to release it theatrically only in the United States, Canada and China. Netflix rescued the film for foreign audiences … who grumbled that theyd be forced to squint at Garlands giant, surrealist visuals at home on Netflix.

If Netflix could see into its own future, would it green-light each film again? Probably. Its already given the go-ahead to Bright 2, and just awarded a first look deal to the heavyweight producer of Transformers and World War Z and snatched another major studio film from the trash bin when Universal dumped the planet invasion thriller Extinction. Plus, last Friday as Mute tested wary audiences already primed to ridicule Paul Rudds handlebar mustache, Netflix announced it had won an expensive nine-way bidding war to produce another costly sci-fi flick, Life Sentence, in which convicts have their brains wiped to prevent them from repeating their crimes. Directed by War for the Planet of the Apes Matt Reeves, Life Sentence repeats the same high-concept, name-brand fantasia thats made Netflix duck tomatoes. And yet, the timing of the news feels pointed: Netflix knows exactly what its doing.

Beamed Reeves, Netflix is at the forefront of a new age in how storytellers are reaching an audience. Frankly, Netflix knows more than anyone about how people watch movies. However, the industry still doesnt know much about it. Before Netflix, a films success or failure was gauged by three numbers: its budget, its opening weekend and its total global haul. But when Netflix launched its streaming service a decade ago, it began to horde more sophisticated information. Who exactly wants to watch a movie about an orc not just which broad demographic, but which specific people sitting on their couch on a Tuesday? What are the viewing patterns even subscribers dont recognize? The key words they search, the films that make them watch other films, the scenes that make them turn a movie off?

We know what people like to watch, said Netflixs chief communications officer Jonathan Friedland when the company began to produce its own original content in 2011. It wasnt an empty boast. Netflix knew that there was an audience for their first show, House of Cards, because it had studied the overlap between David Fincher fans who also liked British miniseries. Plus, it didnt have to spend a fortune blanketing the country with ads. It could directly reach specific viewers with ten different online promos tailored to whether the target was more likely to click play for a story about a powerful woman, or for Finchers camerawork.

Since that first triumph, Netflixs subscriptions have quadrupled. Today, more Americans pay for Netflix than for cable television, and after an intensive international push, over half of Netflixs users live abroad. Its rightly been called a disruptive force in entertainment, as though founder Reid Hastings legendary annoyance at being charged a $40 late rental fee for Apollo 13 had mutated into a vengeance to destroy not just video stores, but traditional Hollywood itself. Meanwhile, though we know that Apollo 13s opening weekend box office was $25.3m, Netflix rarely trumpets financial data about its releases. Doomsaying reports claim that only 5m viewers watched Cloverfield Paradox in its first week. But crunch the numbers, and thats actually about as many people who bought a ticket to Apollo 13.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Cloverfield Paradox. Photograph: Netflix/AP

Of course, the difference is that Netflix isnt trying to sell individual films. It wants to sell people on renewing their subscriptions or rather, not canceling them which is behind its strategy of taking risky swings. Sure, itd be great if the finished film was fantastic, and the companys investment in talented directors like Garland, Reeves and Mutes Duncan Jones means that it has good taste. Yet, what really matters is that people are talking about its orc cop flick, even if theyre just saying its a legendary disaster.

Traditional Hollywood studios struggle to sell full-price tickets to something iffy or complex like Annihilation or Extinction, an all-or-nothing push to inspire a trip to the theater, to make people make a choice. They have to scatter the film across 2,000 screens and spend major advertising money hoping the audience for it will hear, and care, that it exists. But Netflix embraces inertia. No ones going to cancel a subscription because one movie was bad. And hey, its fine if all people want is to sample 15 minutes of Will Smith grunting, Fairy lives dont matter, so they can join in the jokes. To Netflix, who needs less cash to reach a targeted audience and needs far less motivation from them its biggest danger in acquiring major studios cast-offs is the brand-tainting odor of being a dumpster diver.

Netflix has pledged to release 80 original films in 2018, a mix of small, quality films the company scooped up for cheap at film festivals and splashy, silly events guaranteed to get people tweeting, like the comedy Eggplant Emoji, about a teenager who loses his penis. Theres big money in giving people just enough excuses to maintain a low-risk subscription. Each month, Netflix makes nearly a half-billion in dues in America alone thats more than the entire domestic box office of Wonder Woman. For that money, they could make a high-profile disaster like Bright five times over, and still have enough pocket change for Oscar-nominated movies like Mudbound.

Perhaps to understand Netflix, we need to analyze their patterns just like theyve analyzed ours. The same key words keep coming up: strange, celebrity, curiosity, conversation. Whats more likely: that Netflix cant stop placing bad bets on costly science fiction films, or that these movies help them make money in ways the company isnt explaining? Maybe Netflix has the future figured out after all.

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