Thesis Redux: A Blogging Project

What I looked like April 27, 2010

April 29 marks the one year anniversary of when I handed in my senior thesis at Mount Holyoke, ending a year-long research project on post-9/11 independent cinema. The entire thesis process was an emotionally, mentally, and even physically draining experience. I never wanted to hear the words “Neorealism,” “American Dream,” “immigrant,” or “identity” ever again.

Something has changed in the past few weeks. My post-college life hasn’t been exactly thrilling. As boredom continues to settle in, I find myself wanting to revisit my former academic life. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the conclusions I reached and because of that I find that my thesis is on my mind more than ever. How can I improve on it now? I am going to take this stage of my life as opportunity to fix what I was never content with.

One thing I never did while writing my thesis was blog about it. I always intended to in hopes of getting feedback from others about the films and theoretical concepts I was exploring. So that is what I am going to do now — really dive into this project in a way I was not afforded to before. Maybe it will help me get some real satisfaction from the project.

Continue reading “Thesis Redux: A Blogging Project”

Melissa Leo and the Best Supporting Actress Race

Of the six main Oscar categories, the only race still up for grabs is the best supporting actress race. After winning the Critics Choice Award and the Golden Globe, The Fighter‘s Melissa Leo seemed the obvious front runner. But when the BAFTA nominations were announced yesterday, Leo was noticeably absent from the ballot. Leo may have the lead in American critics circles, but across the pond Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech), Miranda Richardson (Made in Dagenham), Amy Adams (The Fighter), Barbara Hershey (Black Swan), and Lesley Manville (Another Year) are who made the cut.

In a way, I am not surprised. Leo is one of the best actresses working in Hollywood. She is on par with Meryl Streep, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Her tendency to take on gritty and unflattering roles, most notably Ray Eddy in Frozen River, also makes her one of the most under-appreciated actresses.

Compared to her The Fighter co-star Amy Adams, whose performance is remarkably and wonderfully against type, Leo is her always hard-edged self. There are few actresses who could play Alice the way that Leo did and it is a character that works into her character actress strengths. This is why Leo’s performance can easily be lost in the shuffle.

I have read some rumblings that Leo’s award winning streak is in some ways making up for her not winning the Oscar for Frozen River. I could not disagree more. Leo’s performance in Frozen River did not receive 1/3 of the accolades that she has received for The Fighter. As far as independent films go, Frozen River did have the momentum going into the Oscars that Winter’s Bone has. Moreover, I do not believe that Frozen River has been seen by a large enough audience, even though it has been two years since its critical success.

The best supporting actress race is still a three-way race between Helena Bonham Carter, Amy Adams, and Leo. If Leo wins the SAG, the Oscar is likely hers. But I am still skeptical because Leo is always the consummate character actress. For some reason, I believe this works against Leo while Adams’ extreme likability factor works in her favor. (There are endless possibilities in this category that I am just wrapping my head around.)

I’ll leave you with this thought of mine from the Golden Globes that sums up my understanding of Melissa Leo’s acting career:

So what are your thoughts on Melissa Leo and the best supporting actress race? Sound off below.

A Moment from Goodbye Solo

One of the frustrating downsides of living in Boston is when the public transportation stops running and you are forced to take a cab. Last night was one of those nights when I missed the last T by a millisecond, had to put my stubbornness aside and take a taxi. This cab ride ended up making my night because of the resemblance it had to Goodbye Solo, Ramin Bahrani’s 2008 film about a Senegalese cab driver in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

Goodbye Solo is one of the three independent films my senior thesis examined and this film has a very special place in my understanding of American film. I have spent hours, days, weeks analyzing scenes from this movie, only learning to love it more the more often I watched it.

Solo, the protagonist in Goodbye Solo, is a Senegalese immigrant searching for his American dream. He is married with a sassy stepdaughter and a baby on the way. (His son’s birth cements Solo’s status as an American citizen.) He dreams of leaving his taxi behind and becoming a flight attendant, an aspiration dripping in symbolism. Solo’s life is turned upside down when he meets William, a cantankerous elderly man who asks Solo to drive him one way to Blowing Rock, a place entrenched in North Carolina legend.

Solo suspects that William wants to commit suicide and decides to show William kindness and the greatest aspects of life in an attempt to prevent his decision. Solo introduces William to his family and his friends. The two men develop an odd-couple relationship that builds from contempt to a mutual respect that is so touching that the final sequence, set at Blowing Rock, is absolutely heartbreaking in what it does and doesn’t reveal to us about what will happen to these two characters we come adore.

Solo is in infallible character and, in my opinion, he is one the best to emerge from American cinema in the past decade. His spirit and passion for life is contagious. This is how director Bahrani intended Solo to be read and appreciated by viewers. When he began production on Goodbye Solo, Bahrani saw an overwhelming number of depressing films and documentaries about the Iraq War and the general state of the country. He saw the need for a character who could inspire audiences and remind them of the goodness of the human spirit.

For me, having watched Goodbye Solo more times than you can even imagine, just thinking about Solo or being reminded of him in any capacity makes me beyond happy. That is why when I set foot in a cab where the driver was a real-life Solo, exuding the same charisma as this fictional character, my night was made and my bitterness over having to take a taxi in the first place washed away.

It is moments like this one reinforce that why I love the cinema more than anything else and why, if I am lucky, I can find my way back to studying it one day. Movies have this unparalleled way of finding their way into your life. Stories, characters, performances, scenes – everything on the screen – has a way of only enhancing the banality of the real world. A seemingly mundane cab ride, meant to take me from point A to point B, become something special. That’s the magic of cinema and why movies are just wonderful.

Review: Winter’s Bone (2010)

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone

Winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize, Winter’s Bone is a breed of independent filmmaking unlike any other. Adapted from a 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone takes a grippingly realistic look at life in the impoverished Ozarks region in southwestern Missouri. Yet it is also a frightening country noir – a term coined by Woodrell – about the dangerous blood ties that drive much of the film’s narrative.

17-year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is the primary caretaker for her young siblings and her incapacitated mother. She learns that her father, a notorious methamphetamine dealer, has vanished and that after his last arrest, he put her family’s property up as bond.  To save her home and protect her family, Ree must find her father, dead or alive.

Ree treks through the backwoods, begging various family members for information on her absentee father’s whereabouts to no avail. Her extended family, including her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) are guided by a code of  silence that keeps them pitted against the law. When the clans ways are threatened by Ree’s search, she is given false leads and, worst of all, beaten.  In spite of her desire and attempts to escape her roots, Ree has been initiated in.

Winter’s Bone is strikingly similar to Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River. Familial strife is centered around dire economic and political circumstance. Like Frozen River, Winter’s Bone can arguably be defined as a Neo-Neorealist film, those American independent films that have emerged since 2006 and depict harshly realistic portrayals of American life. The noir aspects of Winter’s Bone sometimes mask what is Neorealistic – the long takes, the presence of nonprofessional actors, the use of a real setting. These techniques and markers of authenticity, such as when a banjo-laced performance graces the screen, coupled with the harrowing dangers of Ree’s quest only magnify the emotional intensity of the film.

Jennifer Lawrence’s unforgettable performance is something marvelous. In a film dependent on one character’s tenacity, Lawrence carries the film with her low Southern accent and every stubborn stare. Ree has been dealt unfortunate cards. Her responsibilities to her siblings means she cannot escape her ancestral ties, although that would never be an easy achievement for her to begin with. At just 17, her choices could mean life and death. This fact never escapes us because of Lawrence’s performance.

The message behind Winter’s Bone is clear. As long as a version of the family structure survives, then the path to getting there, however horrific it may be, is worth the struggle.

Review: The Exploding Girl (2009)

Zoe Kazan in The Exploding Girl

Directors and screenwriters Bradley Rust Gray and So Yong Kim know how to make exceptional movies. Since 2003, the married filmmaking team has created some of the most poignant, understated and underappreciated independent films of the past decade – Salt (2003), In Between Days (2006), Treeless Mountain (2008), and most recently, The Exploding Girl (2009). The quality of their work stems from an appreciation for minimalist storytelling and outstanding character development. Long, extended takes where seemingly nothing significant happens and an eye for the slightest details creates scenes of poetic beauty unlike any other onscreen. Kim’s In Between Days and Gray’s The Exploding Girl are both films dependent on these techniques to tell moving coming of age stories about their young, female protagonists.

In The Exploding Girl, Zoe Kazan (Elia’ granddaughter) stars as Ivy, a 20-year-old college student returning home for her spring break. Her best friend Al (Mark Rendell) spends the week with her at her Brooklyn apartment. As Ivy’s relationship with her boyfriend Greg, who we never see, begins to crumble and Ivy spends more time with Al, she reevaluates her life and her relationship with Al.

The film’s title, The Exploding Girl, refers to Ivy’s little mentioned epilepsy, although the possibility of Ivy having a seizure causes some tension throughout the film. What the film effectively captures is not this literal explosion (so to speak) but rather the slow, gradual implosion of Ivy’s life and how it weighs on her mind and understanding of herself. And this realization is just stunning to watch.

For 79 minutes this very simple story of finding oneself and love unfolds on the screen. Ivy and Al attend parties, sit in the park, play cards, share meals; they just exist. These scenes are often shot in either tight close-ups, through door frames, or in long takes, where the action takes place in one single shot. This minimalist editing allows the viewer to focus on the subtlety of Kazan’s performance – the tone of her voice as she speaks to her off-screen boyfriend, the pain in her eyes as things slowly fall apart – and to recognize that director Gray is capturing the most banal yet significant moments of a life.

In some ways, Ivy is an extension of Aimee, the shy immigrant in So Yong Kim’s In Between Days. Ivy is an older, more refined version of Aimee, if Aimee had been dealt different cards in life and had she not been a young immigrant adrift in the world. Like Aimee, Ivy is on the verge of collapse although by the film’s conclusion Ivy reaches an understanding about her life that Aimee never finds.