Wednesday, April 11, 2018

10 Years of Blogging and 30 Years of Fireflies

I've just realized that I started this blog ten years ago! The very first post appeared April 9, 2008. I have certainly been more productive during the first half of this decade. Nevertheless, colorful animation expressions (despite its overlong name) is still active.

So in order to commemorate the anniversary, here are some reconstructed pan backgrounds from my favorite film by Takahata Isao who sadly passed away on April 5, 2018 at the age of 82. Co-incidentally, HOTARU NO HAKA (GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES) was originally released almost exactly 30 years ago in Japan (April 16, 1988).

I was particularly interested in those backgrounds that are revealed by autonomous camera movements that do not follow the movement of a character on screen (there is one of those as you can see below).

Click to enlarge!


In this one I have recreated a "standard" pan where the camera follows the characters across a background.









All backgrounds reconstructed from screengrabs taken off the GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES blu-ray for study purposes only.

Friday, March 30, 2018

ISLE OF DOGS Exhibition in London

The three quarter view we never get in an Anderson film.
If you happen to be in London, try to squeeze in a visit to The Store, 180 The Strand to see and feel the sets of Wes Anderson's glorious new stop motion feature ISLE OF DOGS from a different perspective. The exhibition is free, so even if you don't have enough time to really dive into it, have a look at it.

During the ten minutes I had in there, I tried to take a few pictures that open up an alternative view on the familiarly flat Wes Anderson signature shots: three quarter views and a stereoscopic image to see what the scientists' set looks like in 3D (which obviously goes very much against the grain of Anderson's style but is great fun).

See it in 3D! Propably best viewed on a cellphone.
And that's how the lighting effects in the tunnel were achieved.

That's an advertising campaign I like!



Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Favorite Films of 2017

At last, in 2017 I have managed to see more films in cinemas than at home. But what used to be "normal" up until three years ago was now only possible because I saw a record 43 films/screenings at the festivals of Annecy, Locarno and Fantoche. So here is a roundup of films and tv shows that left a lasting impression or stood out to me for some other reason.

Color comparison from an introduction to MOONLIGHT

Favorite New Releases
Film of the year is definitely Barry Jenkins' MOONLIGHT (2016), a transcendent cinematic poem that engaged me on so many levels that it remains vividly present in my mind even after almost a year. 

My favorite dozen of 2017 (in alphabetical order)
Note: As usual, my list includes several 2016 films that did not come out in Switzerland until 2017. 
  • AMERICAN HONEY (Arnold 2016): A lens-flare-heavy first person account of a "mag crew" road trip with a stellar ensemble of mostly first-timers grounded in realism and keen observation. Even within a deliberately meandering plot, Andrea Arnold creates one tense scene after another. Besides, AMERICAN HONEY contains probably the most accurate depiction of what it feels like to travel in a minivan with a group of friends.
  • BABY DRIVER (Wright 2017): It may not be Edgar Wright's masterpiece - HOT FUZZ (2007) still occupies that spot - but it has sure got rhythm. And a distinctive rhythm - slow or fast, in dialogue, performance and/or editing, with or without music - is probably the one thing I intuitively value most in a film. So if someone succeeds in pulling off an intertextual plot full of practical car chases based on and choreographed to an ipod playlist, I cannot resist.
  • BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Villeneuve 2017): While further developing the themes of Ridley Scott's original film, Denis Villeneuve's belated sequel appeared more streamlined to me. Yet, with self-confident direction, audiovisual grandeur and perfect pacing BLADE RUNNER 2049 in Dolby 3D and Atmos completely blew me away.
  • CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Guadagnino 2017): Had it not been for Michael Stuhlbarg's final speech, I would have written this off as another subtly acted but lighthearted summer romance full of beautiful people. However, in those last few minutes, Guadagnino's film reveals an emotional depth that resonates far beyond the love-affair.
  • HAPPY END (Haneke 2017): I seldom find myself chuckling in a film by Michael Haneke. But in his underrated family drama with a cellphone-filming protagonist that reminded me of BENNY'S VIDEO (1992) and a series of erratic set-pieces, there is a hint of humour (and warmth) beneath the well-meaning family members' devastating inability to do the right thing.
  • JACKIE (Larrain 2016): Thanks to the seamless integration of recreated and historical footage, grainy 16mm wide-angle closeups, Natalie Portman's masterful performance and Mica Levi's excellent music, I liked Pablo Larrain's complex, nonlinear, ambivalent portrait of a woman trying to shape her husband's legacy even more than his magical realist take on NERUDA (2016, they both came out within weeks in Switzerland).
  • LADY MACBETH (Oldroyd 2016): Suspense with almost no music and a commanding break-out performance by Florence Pugh dominate that short but concise and visually rigorous literary adaptation. In contrast to Sophia Coppola's equally atmospheric but bloodless THE BEGUILED, LADY MACBETH had me at the edge of my seat the whole time.
  • MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Lonergan 2016): Told in organically flowing flashbacks partly built around elaborate pieces of extradiegetic music, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA variegates the highly conventional "overcoming a back-story wound" plot by gently revealing that there may not be a catharsis for everyone. Director Lonergan propels Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck to career highs (it certainly didn't need a Matthew Broderick cameo, but that's a very minor quibble).
  • PADDINGTON 2 (King 2017): Easily the most emotionally rewarding escapist fantasy of the year. I even liked it better than the first one. I particularly enjoyed the Chaplinesque sense of humour and sentimentality, the references to the original Paddington stories and the 1975 TV series, the performances (including the animated protagonist), the overall storybook feel and faux Wes Anderson setting, the camera twirls and the fantastic color design. (It just puzzles me why anyone would hire a great composer like Dario Marianelli if they wanted him to mechanically recompose the Desplat-Anderson tracks that were so obviously used as temp music?)
  • THE HANDMAIDEN (Park 2017): If somebody asked me what "sensual pleasure" meant, I'd just show them this Korean adaptation of a British novel. As usual with Park Chan-Wook's thrillers, nothing is what it seems, but this time, the ultra violence is kept to a minimum. Now, I'm looking forward to revel in the "Extended Cut".
  • THE SQUARE (Östlund 2017): A long anticipated elaboration on the complex moral themes of Östlund's provocative PLAY (2011), the less austere SQUARE also works as a hilarious satire on the art scene. Despite a running time of 145 minutes it never drags. 
MOONLIGHT in the context of Wong Kar-Wai.


Outstanding feature films that were not released in Swiss cinemas
  • A QUIET PASSION (Davies 2016): With its highly stylized staging, crystal clear cinematography, atypically clean sets, an incredibly strong and witty script, a deeply moving performance by Cynthia Nixon and probably the first positive father figure in any Terence Davies film, this Emily Dickinson biopic is a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in American poetry.
  • MUDBOUND (Rees 2017): Forsaking the color explosion of her first feature PARIAH (2011) in favor of dark and dreary earthtones, Dee Rees unhurriedly reveals the hardship of two families whose fate is deeply entwined in this multi-perspective Southern epic. Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan stand out in a strong ensemble. The ending felt a bit too uplifting for my taste.
  • FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER (Jolie 2017): Directed with a strong sense for visual consistency and the unassuming narrative point of view of a young Cambodian girl, Angelina Jolie's Netflix production never tries to infuse the girl's horrible odyssey with a fake purpose or pathetic sentimentality. And although everyone is beautiful and the cinematography rivals Malick's most vivid nature excesses, Jolie manages to disappear behind the story that - again - ends unexpectedly upbeat (maybe this is a staple of Netflix originals?).
MOONLIGHT: Different impact of production still (long lens, above water) vs film frame (short lens, sea level)


Realism, arthouse violence and killer soundtracks
Farhadi's FORUSHANDE (THE SALESMAN) did not make my list because although it is a tense and complex film it did not captivate me the way his earlier works did. Similarly, the social realism of GOD'S OWN COUNTRY (Francis Lee) and THE WOUND (INXEBA, John Trengove) felt rough and fresh, but neither of them stayed on my mind for too long. 

However, I tremendously liked Lynne Ramsay's YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Despite its flawless visual storytelling, it felt like it had been cut short by about half an hour of story material. The excellent music and sound design are certainly worth studying, though. The same goes for three much maligned supernatural arthouse thrillers that I enjoyed regardless of plotholes, absurd premises or heavy-handed symbolism: Lanthimos' Kubrickian take on "Iphigenia in Aulis" (THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER), Ozon's DePalma/Cronenberg inspired twins fantasy L'AMANT DOUBLE and, last but not least, Aronofsky's hilarious satire MOTHER! that came almost uncomfortably close to the way I perceive/remember nightmares.


Introduction to a children's screening of CARS 3
LOVING VINCENT
Artists and animation
Among the usual batch of artist/painter biopics (an mainstream arthouse staple now in the same way as superhero movies are for multiplexes: in-built audience, established brand, unsatisfying products), I have had a closer look at 1) the book-to-screen translation of Tucci's entertaining but mediocre FINAL PORTRAIT and 2) the fascinating if misguided rotoscoping experiment that is LOVING VINCENT (Kobiela/Welchman). In Annecy, I was also introduced to the universe of Masaaki Yuasa - a previous blindspot - in a screening of the strangely uneven but highly enjoyable LU OVER THE WALL

But Annecy 2017 also felt like a watershed moment for my excitement for Pixar films: for the first time, their highly anticipated presentations (this time COCO, LOU, CARS 3) left me completely unimpressed. While I liked the short film LOU, the COCO stuff felt so uninspired (KUBO, anyone?) and "clever" by the numbers, that I was only relieved when I saw the actual film months later and found it to have a more interesting emotional core than the hyperactive first half suggested (if only someone had pulled the plug on that FROZEN featurette that preceded it). 

My favorite animated features of 2017 were LE GRAND MÉCHANT RENARD (Renner/Imbert) and IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (Sunao Katabuchi) both of which I saw at Fantoche in Baden (CH). Unfortunately, they won't be released theatrically in the German part of Switzerland.


Comparison of characters by Claude Barras for an introduction to MA VIE DE COURGETTE.

Memorable events
At Fantoche I also attended a masterclass by Michael Dudok de Wit about the making of THE RED TURTLE. The three and a half fascinating hours flew by so quickly, though, that the filmmaker's insightful reflections on film making, animation and life had to be cut short because of the next screening. 

But the most important event for me this year was clearly the video essay roundtable at the Locarno International Festival where I got the opportunity to meet Catherine Grant, Kevin B. Lee, Chiara Grizzaffi and many other interesting video essayists and scholars. Thanks to Christopher Small I even got to shake hands with Todd Haynes who is not only one of my favorite filmmakers but also an articulate film scholar. In Locarno, I also attended a special screening of the academic project PER UNA CONTROSTORIA DEL CINEMA ITALIANO by filmidee, a compilation of lively video essays that aim to tell an alternative Italian film history. As much as I know, CONTROSTORIA is currently in the festival circuit but will probably become available online eventually.

Although cinema attendance is alarmingly waning (at least beyond tent pole franchises) I saw the opening of three expensive new cinema complexes this year (PalaCinema in Locarno, Kosmos in Zürich, Pathé in Ebikon). Kosmos is already one of my favorite cinemas and thanks to the (rather uninviting) Pathé, there is now an IMAX 3D with laser projection within half an hour of my home. Hence, that's where I went to see THE LAST JEDI which I enjoyed much more than I had expected. Rian Johnson seems to be the right guy in the right place: there were so many things this new film got right that I did not even mind the cg creatures or some clunky bits here and there. THE LAST JEDI and Soderbergh's LOGAN LUCKY also reminded me that Adam Driver is one of the best actors of his generation.
The "Edgar Wright Wipe" transition from an introduction to BABY DRIVER.

Retrospectives
Ten favorite older films I have seen for the first time in 2017
(all of them highly recommended)
  • SUNRISE (W.F. Murnau 1927)
  • STALAG 17 (Billy Wilder 1953)
  • HINTER DEN SIEBEN GLEISEN (Kurt Früh 1959)
  • STAND BY ME (Rob Reiner 1986)
  • MALCOLM X (Spike Lee 1992)
  • LUNDI MATIN (Otar Iosseliani 2002)
  • PLAY (Ruben Östlund 2011)
  • HER (Spike Jonze 2013)
  • O MENINO E O MUNDO (Alé Abreu 2013)
  • BANDE DE FILLES (Céline Sciamma 2014)

Music scenes in films that inspired MOONLIGHT.
Private retrospectives
Research for introductions, articles or video essays always serves as a pretext for seeing or re-evaluating tons of films. In connection with MOONLIGHT, for example, I realized that both THREE TIMES (Hou 2005) and KILLER OF SHEEP (Burnett 1978) feature some of my favorite music scenes (I use "music scene" for sequences in which a song takes central stage while the characters merely react to it).

Not all of the films I try to see are "good" and I don't even have to like them as long as I find something interesting regarding the subject I am studying. There is the occasional disappointment, of course, like the one Jacques Demy musical I have been wanting to see for years - PEAU D'ANE - that turned out to be really awful. On the other hand, CLEO DE 5 A 7 by Demy's wife Agnes Varda was a lot more entertaining than I had imagined.

From a lecture on DUNKIRK.
Even without an external reason I prefer to see films within some sort of context (if I can't see them in a cinema, that is). Over the past months, I have looked at three Andrea Arnold features (I now wish she would make a full musical) and tried to catch up with a bunch of independent vampire and horror movies I had missed in theaters - basically everything from THIRST (Park 2009 [the strangest Emile Zola adaptation]) and THE BABADOOK (Kent 2014 [creepy and fresh]) to THE GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Amirpour 2014 [incredibly stylish but left me cold]) and IT FOLLOWS (Mitchell 2014 [I loved it]).

In the middle of that series, I saw GET OUT (Peele 2017) which I liked for its satirical content. Unfortunately, most of the horror scenes were ruined by a group of obnoxiously distracting audience members (if only Catherine Keener had hypnotized them!).

Netflix
That certainly never happens during late night Netflix sessions where I caught Justin Simien's multi-perspective update of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE that was both hilariously funny and occasionally poignant (especially in chapter V directed by Barry Jenkins). My favorite among the few "cinematic/quality" sitcoms I have seen so far is Spike Lee's ten part reworking of SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, though. Like Aziz Ansari in the second season of MASTER OF NONE, Lee and his writing team use the long form storytelling format as a playground. Not everything works equally well, but thanks to DeWanda Wise's wonderful performance I was able to empathize with Nola Darling even when I didn't like a controversial or outright bad decision. Besides, I like to be challenged by Lee's often polemic but complex storytelling.
Stills from a video essay on the music of STRANGER THINGS
Now-memories
To be honest, I would not have seen any of those tv series had I not waited so long for a STRANGER THINGS blu-ray that I finally decided to renew my Netflix subscription (when it first came to Switzerland I paid for a whole year without finding one single film I was looking for, so I canceled it). That I liked the Duffer Brothers' sincere take on intertextual 1980s escapist nostalgia is a mere understatement. So although I came late to the party, waiting until Halloween for the "sequel" was quite an ordeal. Thankfully, Season 2 met and even exceeded my expectations. I especially liked the father-daughter relationship between Hopper and Eleven. What's more, seeing Dustin with Dart somehow enabled me to see the STAR WARS movies through the eyes of a twelve-year old boy again (maybe that's why I even liked - well, not the Ewoks, but - the Porgs). STRANGER THINGS is so far the only mini-series that felt like a movie to me (including the controversial "Darth Vader" chapter in the sequel). Nevertheless, because of the format it was devised for I do not include it into my list of favorite movies.

The abundance of young acting talents in MOONLIGHT and STRANGER THINGS prompted me to compile a list of breakout performances by young actors:
(titles alphabetically, some from 2016 that I could only see in 2017 because of distribution delays)
  • 13 REASONS WHY: Alisha Boe (Jessica), Kathrine Langston (Hannah)
  • AMERICAN HONEY: Sasha Lane (Star)
  • BLUE MY MIND*: Luna Wedler (Mia), Zoe Pastell Holthuisen (Gianna)
  • FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: Sareum Srey Moch (Loung)
  • IT: Jaeden Lieberher (Bill), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben), Sophia Lillis (Beverly)
  • LADY MACBETH: Florence Pugh (Katherine)
  • MOONLIGHT: Alex Hibbert / Ashton Sanders / Trevante Rhodes (Chiron)
  • PATTI CAKE$: Danielle Macdonald (Patti)
  • SAMI BLOOD: Lene Cecilia Sparrok (Elle Marja)
  • SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT: DeWanda Wise (Nola)
  • STRANGER THINGS 2**: Priah Ferguson (Lucas' scene stealing sister Erica!)
  • THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER / DUNKIRK: Barry Keoghan (Martin / George)
  • THE HANDMAIDEN: Tae-Ri Kim (Sook-Hee)
  • GRAVE/TIGER GIRL: Ella Rumpf*** (Alexia/Tiger)
  • WONDERSTRUCK: Millicent Simmonds (Rose)
* Lisa Brühlmann's BLUE MY MIND was my favorite Swiss film this year. It was not perfect, but fresh, emotionally sincere and managed to integrate its fantasy aspects organically into a coming-of-age story.
** Since Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard have already become household names after the first season I do not include them here.
*** within Switzerland, her breakout performance was in CHRIEG (Jaquemet, 2014).

The prize for most memorable love couple goes to Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Jeff Nichols' LOVING.

Complementary colors in the PADDINGTON movies.
With THE FLORIDA PROJECT, LADY BIRD, PHANTOM THREAD, THE SHAPE OF WATER, BPM, THE POST, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI and RADIANCE already on the horizon, I am looking forward to a promising 2018.

Resolutions for 2018:
1) Make a list of every video essay I watch. It might come in handy one day... (with a field as vast as video essays I should have done that for years)
2) Complete at least half the video essays and blog posts I am working on. Find a way to make that video on color in PARIAH, at last.
3) Find a steady job in academia or some other sort of teaching environment.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Musical Patterns in the Films of Christopher Nolan

Never say never... There were three filmmakers (Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson) I vowed never to do a video essay about - not because I wouldn't admire them, on the contrary, but because there is already much too much out there about their work. And now, there are only two (I don't plan to break the promise on Kubrick and Anderson anytime soon). Since this video already had more positive feedback than anything else I made, I can't say it was a bad decision. Right now I am working on a video about some aspects of the synth score of STRANGER THINGS 1. But after that, I will return to Nolan because I still got a broadly outlined essay on some of his more unobtrusive crosscutting techniques waiting to be finished.


Music in Nolan's Films
Christopher Nolan strives to make his films the most immersive experience possible. So he prefers the score to support the atmosphere and the pace of his films and not elicit emotions by way of sentimental melodies. While this is very obvious in DUNKIRK (2017), Hans Zimmer's lauded score follows some of the same basic patterns that can be found in all of Nolan's prior films - regardless of the composer. He even said that it basically "is Chris Nolan’s score" (nytimes.com/2017/07/26/movies/the-secrets-of-the-dunkirk-score-christopher-nolan.html).

So here is a tour d'horizon on these musical patterns and their evolution from FOLLOWING (1998) to INTERSTELLAR (2014). Of course, this is only a broad, subjective overview. It is impossible to do justice to the many complexities of each individual score within 10 minutes. Make sure to watch it full screen and loud (preferably on head phones)!

For educational purposes only!

German version for filmbulletin.ch: vimeo.com/239957027

Thursday, November 2, 2017

STRANGER THINGS 2: First Impressions (SPOILERS GALORE)


After finishing STRANGER THINGS 2 last Saturday, there was so much on my mind that I immediately felt the urge to blog about why I liked this "Sequel" so much and why even Chapter Seven made sense to me. Fast forward to five days later: when I finally found the time, the urge may not be that strong anymore, but part of my mind still revels in that alternate universe the Duffer brothers have created. They are still first impressions as I have not gone back to any portion of the show for closer scrutiny - so don't expect any exploration of the pop songs that define the characters, the newly rich color schemes, the unobtrusive CGI, the cinematic editing rhythm or the strikingly consistent visual motifs.

I usually refrain from literal fan art. But if the show itself is some kind of fan "art", I guess it's ok...
Instead, the following is more of a shapeless rant about little (and lost) sisters and a surrogate father: 

I expected STRANGER THINGS 2 to be bigger and more expensive. What I did not expect was that this was actually a good thing. At times it felt like watching THE GODFATHER PART II of 1980s nostalgia films (in context and scope, not content or absolute cinematic quality): expanding in every direction with more characters, stronger arcs, definitely more horror thrills and even more heartbreaking, more cinematic, more elaborate flashback structure with now-memories, shared flashbacks and self-imposed telepathic seances. 

The Universe is Expanding 
The first substantial new character we meet is Madmax who is not only the new tough girl in town, a perceived security risk and the subject of a love triangle, her not really being part of "the party" also mirrors aspects of Eleven's role. Max, however, has a tougher stand since Eleven is still very much on Mike's and the audience's mind. Even though Madmax and her step-brother are not closely connected to either the saving-Will-quest or Eleven's coming-of-age story, they liven the place up considerably. And talking of little sisters: I knew immediately that there would be a "little-sister-Erica" meme the minute she appeared on the screen! Priah Ferguson as Lucas' little sister is a riot in every single scene she's in. Her calling Lucas (the most reasonable of the four friends) a nerd was only the first of several hilarious throwaways.

And suddenly, Mikey from THE GOONIES stumbles in, all grown up, chubby, listening to Kenny Rogers and going by the name of Bob Newby "Superbrain". Sean Astin is just perfectly cast as Winona Ryder's lovably awkward love interest. And while the Duffer brothers thankfully refuse to conveniently kill off any young lover in the two love triangles (though we really fear for jock-come-babysitter Steve a few times), Bob at least helped save the day before he was devoured by a demodog. Most interesting about those predators (actually developed from pollywogs) are their dog-like characteristics that obviously allow for a bond of trust between Dart and Dustin which means that unlike the JAWS-inspired Demogorgon of Season 1 they are not just mindless killing machines.

In fact, all the villains got more complex: the Upside-Down is now run by a bodiless "feeling", a shadow monster or Mindflayer (to stay within the D&D analogy) that controls those hive-minded demodogs. On the human side, the faceless secret government agents may still be the real scare, but Dr. Owens and his scientist colleagues are more ambiguous than we first thought. Besides, there is a hint that Papa Brenner is still around somewhere.

Beyond Pop References
In fact, binge-watching STRANGER THINGS 2 felt less like watching a movie than reading a Harry Potter novel - a sensation I had not experienced for years. Like Rowling's page-turners (and the many Stephen King stories it is partly based on), STRANGER THINGS is essentially a coming-of-age story in a horror-thriller format that made me drop my guard and suspend any disbelief completely right from the beginning. For me, the key to the show's giant success lies in the strength of the relationships and of course the immensely talented (and professional) actors that infuse those children with relatable emotions. Besides, missing sibling stories always draw me in.

I think STRANGER THINGS works so well because even though it lures you in by its obvious play on pop references and cinema tropes, the protagonists themselves don't seem to know any of that (at least no more than Elliott knows about Yoda in E.T., a template for season 1) and all the characters and relationships feel sincere. Thankfully, STRANGER THINGS never breaks the fourth wall. Even when Max mentions that the story Lucas just told her (essentially the plot of Season 1) sounded derivative and lacked originality, it taps into the whole conspiracy theory/lies theme instead of feeling like a meta-comment for laughs. We can absolutely see what she means and still feel the urge to yell at her that this was for real. Because – let's face it – the plot of STRANGER THINGS sometimes feels like it really could be from the 80s.

Chief Hopper
There are two main narrative strands in Season 2: Firstly, Will's attempts at reintegration, his infiltration by the Mindflayer and the party's mission to save Will, Hawkins and possibly the world. As the boys are not pitted against any external bullies, the tensions within the group are foregrounded and Mike struggles the most until Will confides in him after the Halloween vision. The other one is Eleven's slow path to a normal life and is fuelled by a strong desire (strongly shared by the audience) to reunite with Mike while in reality she is hidden from the "bad men" for almost a year. Eleven's story also discusses the overarching themes of "promise", "friends don't lie" and "mutual protection" most elaborately.

Both strands are linked by chief Jim Hopper who - after wearing Chief Brody's clothes and Indiana Jones's hat - takes on the John Carpenter-Kurt Russell role and graduates at the same time not only to surrogate father to Eleven but an admirable hero much stronger and complex than I had ever expected him to become after Season 1. Despite his shortcomings and overprotectiveness, Hopper may be the best father in Hawkins based on what we learn about the homelives of the other children.

So while the events around Will pulled the heartstrings - Noah Schnapp really rose to the occasion - the relationship between Eleven and Hopper provoked so many concurring emotions that by the time Eleven finally met her real mother for the first time in the masterfully directed Andrew-Stanton-episodes, I was actually wanting to follow her story more than the approaching demodogs in the lab.

My only Inktober drawing...
Chapter Seven
Of course, right from the initial precredits sequence I was looking for clues that connect the Chicago gang to Eleven's story. So while I was interested in how the story world could be opened up beyond Hawkins I also secretely hoped that we never left that microcosm. And when she got on the bus, it was all "no, no, no, don't do it." Yet, maybe this was exactly the reaction Chapter 7 was made to provoke. It didn't feel like a backdoor pilot to me (it would have, if I had watched the episodes one at a time), and if it was, I certainly would not want to see that show. But that is besides the point. That chapter is all about the road not taken, the Darth Vader that could resist the dark side. From that standpoint it made sense that it was the only one directed by Rebecca Thomas (whose ELECTRICK CHILDREN I now want to see) and had a different visual look.

After all, Eleven finds herself in an environment that remains stranger to her than Hawkins even after she found "friends" (I could very much relate to that part of it). The channel-your-anger-and-find-yourself-clichés as well as the fashion-mag-punk caricatures aside, there was enough interesting material in that trip down the rabbit hole: STRANGER THINGS is so emotionally rewarding because all the characters at some point can share their emotional turmoil, fears and insecurities with someone. Yet, however Mike and Hopper love Eleven, they will never know what it was like to grow up as a lab rat with a father like Brenner. So I found it a relief that she could share those memories with someone with a similar background, even if Kali (Linnea Berthelsen succeeded in transforming a plot device into a real character) ultimately pursued a different agenda.

It is true that there could have been a way for Eleven to confront her childhood self-defence killings and put them into context of a revenge mission. But the most emotionally draining moment for me was Eleven's confrontation with Kali's Brenner projection. Before, Modine was just the onedimensional blond villain type, but here it actually struck me how confusing it must be to call someone like that Papa.

While some have argued that the block construction of Chapter 7 broke the notion of one 7.5-hour-movie, I think that exactly because the show is conceived as one long film (binge-watching is encouraged), "The Lost Sister" works as a side story. Besides, one of the joys of the long form is that structurally, it resembles novels more closely than three-act films. And side stories or even embedded stories that take up considerable portions of a book are not uncommon.

But I certainly agree that leaving the escalating tension in Hawkins suspended for more than 50 minutes seems to overspend the bow since it cannot match the intensity of the Andrew-Stanton-chapters. And of course, if you are only interested in what happens to the guys in the lab, then Chapter 7 is breaking the perfectly built pace considerably instead of just delaying the showdown for a bit too long.

Two things I might want to study more closely:
1) Although I am not really comfortable with the concept of having some episodes done by different directors if a show is so clearly designed as one consistent movie, I thought that Andrew Stanton's direction of chapters five and six was outstanding. Would be interesting to also look at the writing by Jessie Nickson-Lopez and Kate Trefry.
2) During STRANGER THINGS 2 I found proof for something that occured to me a few years ago while studying suspense techniques: the most thrilling moments that are usually credited to twists are not the twists or revelations themselves but the moment when the character on screen realizes the very thing we wanted to tell him so badly. This works if we know something for several hours before the character discovers it (the truth about Eleven's mother, Hopper having lost his daughter) as well as if we only learn about it minutes before the character finds it out. And STRANGER THINGS 2, like Harry Potter and most thrillers or comedies that lets us share more than one perspective seems to have an abundance of these "realizing moments".