Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ask Aunt Tillie: Does Amishlaw Watch Too Many Movies and Read Too Many Books?

Blogger's Note: Since this blog is somewhat Amishcentric, I get questions from time to time from readers about Amish life and culture, which I refer to my Aunt Tillie, an opinionated, but humble Amish woman. Here is a recent question and answer. Please leave a comment or email me if you have questions you want me to refer to her in the future.

Dear Aunt Tillie:

One of my faithful readers, Lauren, has called me a "city boy" and accused me of spending too much time reporting on "fancy pants" books and movies. She asked me what I have "done" with you. Do you think I spend too much time reading books and watching movies and reporting on them?
(Signed) Amishlaw

Dear Nephew:

Is that the same Lauren you were telling me about who was going to have a birthday party with the children wearing their underwear on their heads, and worrying about what kind of underwear to furnish to the lone girl invited to the party? Something about a Captain Underpants television show? Does she have some kind of "pants" fixation? Maybe she should read a book or go to a movie.

Anyway, I don't know if you spend too much time reading books and going to movies. I suppose you have to have something to occupy your time since you don't raise chickens or milk cows or have a garden. I have to wonder about some of the books you tell me about. Maybe it would be better, if you have to read something, to spend your time reading the Bible. But, knowing you, I am afraid you would be picking out some of the parts of the Bible that are just better left unread, and then you would write about that on your blog. Would you really be better off getting people upset because you pointed out that the Bible clearly says that handicapped people are not supposed to enter the temple of the Lord? I just don't know that you have good enough judgment to ignore the parts of the Bible that need to be ignored, if you were spending all your time reading and writing about the Bible.

And, as far as going to the movies, it's been 60 years since I last saw a movie. I think it was called "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy," or maybe it was the Three Stooges, I don't remember, but as a 16-year-old girl I thought the movie was pretty funny until I stopped to think, "What if Jesus returned right now and caught me in here and I would have to spend the rest of eternity in hell, I wouldn't think this movie was so funny then, that's for sure." So, I stopped going to movies, even though Jesus didn't return during "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy." There have probably been a lot of good movies that I've missed over the last 60 years but even though Jesus stood me up, why take a chance?

So, I guess we all waste time, one way or another, I spend too much time looking through seed catalogs this time of year, but in the end we have to do what we have to do to keep our sanity. As for you being a city boy, you might as well admit to Lauren that's what you are, but you've probably shoveled more cow manure than she has over your lifetime, but then again, she'll soon get caught up -- didn't she just apply to get into an MFA program?

(Signed) Aunt Tillie

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Fun With Oscar

As an occasional movie reporter, I would be remiss if I did not engage in idle speculation about the Academy Awards Sunday night.

Best Actor: I think Forest Whitaker did a fine job in King of Scotland and am content with seeing him get the award. He seems to be the favorite among those in the know. I have to confess, however, that my favorite performance by any actor this year was not by Whitaker but by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, although the movie as a whole was overrated. I haven't seen DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, Peter O'Toole in Venus, or Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happiness, the other nominees for Best Actor. My prediction is that if Whitaker doesn't get it, DiCaprio will because of his other fine performances. Whether he deserves it for Blood Diamond, I can't say.

Best Supporting Actor: My vote is for Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, which deserves something, although not the Best Picture prize. I didn't see Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children or Djimon Hounsou in Blood Diamond. I was not as impressed with Mark Wahlberg in The Departed as with his co-star, DiCaprio, although if they want to give him the award, it's fine with me. I would be positively upset if Eddie Murphy got it for his ridiculous performance in Dreamgirls. Murphy seems to be the insider favorite this year, but his performance is just a rehash of an old Saturday Night Live routine, which had more credibility than his acting in Dreamgirls. My prediction, although not my vote, is that Murphy will get it.

Best Actress: This is a tough category for me because I thought all of the nominees whose performances I saw did outstanding jobs. The only one of the five I did not see was Kate Winslet in Little Children. Meryl Streep did a fantastic job in The Devil Wears Prada, (much better than in the more highly-acclaimed Prairie Home Companion, but I think its acclaim came mainly because it was by a director, Robert Altman, who is revered for his earlier movies.) Helen Mirren gave a strong performance in The Queen, and the insiders seem to think she has the Oscar in the bag. I didn't think The Queen was that fantastic nor did I think Mirren's was the best performance of any actress I saw this year. I was ready to give the award to Penelope Cruz for her performance in Volver, but that was before I saw Judi Dench in Notes On A Scandal. My vote goes to Dench, but it will not be any great travesty of justice if the winner is Streep, Mirren or Cruz instead. My prediction is Mirren.

Best Supporting Actress: This is one of the categories in which I have seen all of the movies. Jennifer Hudson seems to be the favorite for her performance in Dreamgirls. She did okay, but I thought the best of the lot was Cate Blanchette in Notes on a Scandal.

Best Picture: I have seen all five of the nominees and two do not deserve consideration. Little Miss Sunshine was a fun, quirky movie but does not have the "gravitas" I like in a movie that is designated as the best motion picture of the year. The Departed is just an ordinary crime thriller made memorable only because it was directed by Martin Scorsese, who has had some good films in the past and an excellent performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Basically, it is just the usual Hollywood formulaic crime thriller with its plot turns clumsily telegraphed from the beginning. The Queen is a cut above Little Miss Sunshine and The Departed, but still only the third best movie made this year, in my opinion. Letters from Iwo Jima and Babel both deserve the award, and if I were doing it, I would make history and name them co-winners. The reason they should both be honored is that they both give American audiences something we do not often get from Hollywood, an empathetic view of other cultures who are considered enemies in the popular culture. I know of no other Hollywood film that gave us a significant World War II battle from the other side's viewpoint and it is ironic that it took Clint Eastwood, who played the lawless vigilante, Dirty Harry," to do it with Letters from Iwo Jima. Babel gives us the other side of the war on terror. But neither movie sacrifices entertainment for the sake of being educational. These are both well done movies with great acting, great plot and great cinematography. Despite my preference, my prediction is that in the biggest travesty of the night The Departed will win the nod because it is about time Scorsese wins for something.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Third Day Book Report: Secret Smile

I was singularly unimpressed with the first several chapters of Secret Smile, thinking that Helen Fielding did a more amusing job of telling about the love lives of young English women in Bridget Jones's Diary. But the book grew on me as I persisted and by the end I thought it was a "good read."

The book is written by committee, a husband/wife team using the pseudonymn, Nicci French, which comes from their real names, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, two British journalists and authors. I do not know how they divide up their authorial tasks, but the book reads as if different parts of it could have been written by two people. The beginning, which is banal, and the end, which is implausible, collectively seem to me to be the weakest parts of the book. Some of the British vernacular is unfamiliar to American readers, but the context usually provides the interpretation.

The plot, summarized, is that a brief boyfriend, Brandon, comes back into the life of the heroine, Miranda, through her sister, Kerry, whom he woos and wins a few weeks after Miranda dumped him. Brandon quickly wins over not only Kerry but the rest of Miranda's family and then manipulates her into allowing him to ruin her life. In the end Miranda thwarts Brandon but the way she does it seems highly unlikely.

Actually, if we're talking about versimilitude, the whole story seems highly unlikely. Miranda is a strong young woman, working as a home remodeler and decorator, hardly a shrinking violet, yet allows Brandon to bully her, through her family, into giving up her apartment, her new boyfriend, her best friend and peace of mind. The reader keeps waiting for Miranda to put her foot down and say, "No," When she finally does, through the aid of an accomplice, not enough of the back story of the accomplice is given to make it plausible that the accomplice would actually help Miranda when no one else, her family, the police, her friends, would do so.

Despite my criticisms, the book was well enough written to be a pleasant way to divert a few hours. It is a psychological thriller, and the authors do a good job of building suspense. You know, as Miranda appears to be taking charge of her life again, that the next move in Brandon's crazy game is about to happen. The authors do not telegraph what is to come and so, like in real life, the next blow comes out of the blue. And Brandon always wins and gives her that "secret smile." Well, almost always. I thought the book was above average, and so gave it four out of five stars.