Black Swan

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Note to Moms out there: if you would like to discourage your little girl from becoming a ballerina, this is the movie to have her watch. It's the bearded-Spock universe's version of The Red Shoes. Your daughter won't want to dance. She will be frightened by swans. In fact, she will become catatonic if she gets too near the Swan Boats in the Public Garden in Boston.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, who's eager to climb to the top of the ballet world, playing (both) the White and Black Swans in Swan Lake, staged by a Big Important New York Ballet Company. She successfully displaces the older star (played by Winona Ryder), who doesn't take it well. Nina's director (Vincent Cassel) drives her mercilessly. She suspects another dancer (Mila Kunis) is trying to horn in on her role. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a has-been (and never-was) dancer herself, and she's a manipulative lunatic.

And then things gets kind of creepy: Nina starts hallucinating she gets paranoid, she hangs out with the wrong kind of people, ingests some ill-advised of substances, and otherwise neglects the USDA nutrition pyramid. Things go badly.

This movie won Natalie Portman a Best Actress Oscar, and got four other Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. So I'm surprised I didn't like it better; I think I was put off by the creepiness and ambiguity. ("I had no idea what was real and what was fantasy!" "It was all fantasy, Paul: it's a movie." "Well, yeah, but…")

Last Modified 2012-09-26 6:02 AM EDT

Bloodsucking Fiends

[Amazon Link]

[Playing catchup with my neglected book and movie blogging today.]

I'm not a fan of horror books, but that preference is easily trumped for my author-love for Christopher Moore.

His heroine here is the lovely Jody, an insurance company underling, trying to become upwardly mobile in big bad San Francisco, perpetually disappointed and disrespected in her love life. But one fateful night she's grabbed by an ancient vampire, and wakes up as that sort of undead being herself.

She decides she needs a Renfield to go along with her new status, and settles on C. Thomas Flood, a kid just into town from the Midwest. He's aspiring to be a writer, although he seems to have more aspiration than actual talent. So he takes a job as a night manager at a local supermarket, in charge of the Animals, a motley squad of losers who'd rather spend time turkey-bowling.

Here's a line at which I laughed out loud: "A collective gasp rose from the crew as the fourteen-pound, self-basting, fresh-frozen projectile of wholesome savory goodness plowed into the soap bottles like a freight train into a chorus line of drunken grandmothers."

Jody and Tommy have an uneasy partnership: they need to discover under what rules her vampirosity is governed, they need to come to an understanding about the nature of their relationship, and they need to thwart the demon that vampirized Jody, who continues to stalk the SF streets.

Bloodsucking Fiends is the first book of a series, so I'll be putting the others into my virtual to-be-read pile.

Last Modified 2012-09-26 6:01 AM EDT

The Tourist

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

[Playing catchup with my neglected book and movie blogging today.]

This got mediocre reviews, a mediocre score from IMDB voters, and Netflix didn't think I'd like it very much. But—guess what?—Mrs. Salad looooves Johnny Depp, so into the top of the Netflix queue it went. And it's not awful, it's just mindless fluff.

Elise, played by Angelina Jolie, is being shadowed by an elite crime-fighting force. She is their only hope of getting a line on her boyfriend, Alexander Pearce, a famed international thief. Pearce is also being sought by the last guy he ripped off, a ruthless mobster. To throw everyone off the track, Elise latches onto Frank (Depp), a clueless American; perhaps she can convince her pursuers that Frank is a surgically-altered Pearce. This gambit puts both Elise and Frank in peril. (Eventually. It takes a long time for anything to actually happen, peril-wise.)

Ms. Jolie changes into a lot of different costumes, and looks appropriately mysterious/glamorous. Mr. Depp demonstrates unexpected courage and resourcefulness. If only Depp were (say) Cary Grant and Ms. Jolie were (um…) Grace Kelly, and the whole thing was directed by Hitchcock 60 years ago… but it wasn't.

The movie was written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who previously wrote and directed the totally stunning (and far better) movie The Lives of Others. Hope this is just a dip in the road for him.

Last Modified 2012-09-26 6:01 AM EDT

Ethical Intuitionism

[Amazon Link]

[Playing catchup with my neglected book and movie blogging today.]

Last month I noticed that Econlog's Bryan Caplan called Michael Huemer his "favorite living philosopher." That's good enough for me! So I checked out Ethical Intuitionism from the library at the University Near Here, and read it in tiny doses over the loan period.

It's a serious philosophical work by an actual professional philosopher, so when I say I "read" it, what I mean is: I looked at just about every page, honest. Although Huemer is a very good writer, his argument is aimed at his peers, and it's about a topic that's been discussed for centuries. When he responds to the views of others in the field, it's like coming in late to a deep multi-person conversation, where you can only hear one guy, and you're not that familiar with the jargon. But that's the nature of this sort of work.

Huemer's project is to explain and defend an objective ethics based on values that are directly perceived by rational intuition. This is (then) a theory of metaethics; other competing metaethical theories are non-cognitivism, subjectivism, reductionism, nihilism, and naturalism. Huemer criticizes each of these alternate approaches. He then lays out his careful argument for intutionism, considering and rebutting the various objections raised by others.

I was won over! But I'm typically persuaded by any plausible philosophical argument, as long as it's not self-evidently superficial. (But to the extent that I've thought about ethics at all in the past, I've found myself coming down in the same general area as Huemer.)

I find myself distrusting natural language, with all its fuzziness and ambiguity, as being an appropriate tool for philosophical discussion. For example, one of Huemer's refutations detects a fallacy based on his opponent glossing over different ways words can be "misused". Huemer is convincing, but—as far as I know—there could be equivalent fallacies here. I'd never notice.

Michael Huemer's personal web page is here. It contains some good jokes, good advice, and some scary quotes from the Bible.

Last Modified 2012-09-26 5:59 AM EDT

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

[Playing catchup with my neglected book and movie blogging today.]

We've been watching a lot of movies claiming to be film noir over the past few months; the label seems wildly inaccurate in some cases. But The Strange Love of Martha Ivers strikes me as the real deal, noirwise.

The movie opens in 1928 Iverstown, where young heiress Martha Ivers is tyrannized by her strict aunt (the Vulcan High Priestess herself, Dame Judith Anderson). Despite being about to inherit vast wealth, Martha tries to run away with young semi-hoodlum Sam Masterson. The attempt fails. Back at home is Martha's scheming tutor who wants to hitch up Martha with his goody two-shoes son, Walter. Conflict ensues, and Auntie winds up dead. Who'll take the fall?

Not Martha, as it turns out. Later that same century, she's come into her riches, and is played by Barbara Stanwyck (which is never a good sign); she's married to Walter, who has become the good-looking but insecure drunkard Kirk Douglas. Completing the triangle is Sam (now Van Heflin, and a war hero), who by coincidence is returning to Iverstown for the first time since 1928. Those old skeletons get taken out of the closet pretty quickly. Also—for some reason—Sam hooks up with Antonia (played by Lizabeth Scott); she has problems of her own that add just enough complications to push the plot to its high-body-count conclusion.

Trivia: this is Kirk Douglas's first movie.

Last Modified 2012-09-26 6:00 AM EDT