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Lars and the Real Girl October 26, 2008

Posted by sensawunda in Movies.
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If you want to see a movie with Christian values that doesn’t preach or give you a sappy, saccharine Moral of the Story, ignore the two-line synopsis and try Lars and the Real Girl.



The Dark Knight and the dark side of sensawunda August 14, 2008

Posted by sensawunda in Movies, Sensawunda 201.
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At first blush, it might seem Batman: The Dark Knight would be a candidate for the “Not Sensawunda” category. It’s not about the wonder of being Batman, not even in the obligatory Bat-gadget scenes with Morgan Freeman channeling “Q”. In many ways it has the feel of act two of a trilogy, when everything goes wrong. Now, Bruce Wayne—with his friends and all of Gotham—begins to reap the tragic consequences of his choice to don a disguise and go vigilante.

However, the story hearkens back to traditions that parallel the roots of sensawunda. One of these days I intend to write about how sensawunda descends from the Romantic-era concept of the sublime. At the same time the Romantics were developing the literature of the sublime, they were also developing its dark side—the Gothic.

To quote the Wikipedia article linked above, “the literary Gothic embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere…. Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses.”

I’m no expert on Gothic literature, but when I ran across that Wikipedia article in my quest to characterize The Dark Knight adequately, it seemed to fit better than anything. It may not have all the trappings, but it has the feel. That being said, I welcome comments from anyone who knows more about Gothic than I do. (It wouldn’t take much.)

Heath Ledger’s jaw-dropping portrayal of madness as the Joker elevates The Dark Knight to the top shelf of Gothic-style terror. I watched him with a horrified fascination that could almost be called sublime, although the term properly refers to feelings inspired by nature’s vastness. In a way, the Joker was like a force of nature: unpredictible and terrible.

Where the Joker’s involved, nothing can be taken at face value any longer, not even his madness. Gotham becomes a hall of mirrors that transforms light into darkness and good into evil. It is the sublime terror of watching this unfold that makes The Dark Knight a textbook example of the dark side of sensawunda.

“Hedgehog in the Fog” February 10, 2008

Posted by sensawunda in Movies.

Here is a link to an enchanting Russian animated short film called “Hedgehog in the Fog.”

The Hedgehog discovers the sublime wonder of the world by seeing it from an altered perspective (provided by the fog). Sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful… transformed, and transformative.

I have heard one opinion that found the hedgehog character “dull.” Thinking about this, I believe it’s because he’s a more passive character than we’re used to… especially after generations of Western fiction writers have had it drummed into their heads that “protagonists must be active!” The Hedgehog does choose to enter the fog, though.

The animation is just lovely. I could watch this over and over.



interested in Sundance? January 22, 2007

Posted by sensawunda in Movies, Other Sites.
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If so, you’ll enjoy this blog containing day-by-day reviews of films currently being screened at Sundance.

From amusement to awe January 8, 2007

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March of the Penguins

I may be the last person in the country to have seen this documentary, but that’s OK, I’m still going to comment.

At the beginning, my husband was saying, “Penguins are so funny….” Pop culture caricatures penguins as the Weebles of the wild, waddling wobbily around igloos. Of course we learned a long time ago that penguins and igloos exist at opposite poles, but the goofy image persisted.

Until March of the Penguins. We watched, with growing awe, what emperor penguins endure to bring forth the next generation. We forgot the caricatures and gained respect for these animals that know only cold and colder. We saw exactly what they’re up against… and what can go wrong. I think we felt what Aristotle called catharsis.

I kept marveling at all the instincts God programmed into them just to get eggs and chicks through the Antarctic winter. I almost wondered why He bothered with such a difficult task. Why put animals there at all, where an egg or chick can freeze to death in a matter of minutes, where the parents have to fast for weeks and then walk for miles when it’s finally time to eat? Perhaps to show that not only can he take care of the sparrow, but he can take care of birds who live among snow and ice 365 days a year. I guess I won’t complain next time it takes my car heater fails to warm up my toes before I get to work.

I believe the sense of wonder comes partly in the catharsis of watching the hazards and privations penguins endure (and sometimes don’t survive), and partly in having our old perceptions upended.


Time in a Suburb May 18, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Movies.

I didn’t see Donnie Darko in the theater. I went straight to the Director’s Cut on DVD, and that’s what I recommend.

Donnie Darko – Director’s Cut

I’ll just mention that even the Director’s Cut isn’t for anyone who likes movies that tie up all their loose ends in a nice bow at the end. You still have questions at the end… but at least you have enough clues to formulate a theory. I read what was left out in the theatrical release and I thought, how would anyone even begin to figure it out without those elements?

Donnie Darko is brilliant. Not flawless, but still a tour-de-force. It’s a time loop story that goes where Groundhog Day (though a big favorite of mine) was too light-hearted to go.

When I finished watching it, I took my dog for a walk. My neighborhood seemed strangely altered in my eyes. For a little while, I saw reality from a different angle. There’s some sensawunda for ya.

Sensawundameter: WandWandWandWandWand

Monsoon Wedding April 4, 2006

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Monsoon Wedding
This is the first Indian movie I’ve ever seen. I have no idea how typical it is of Indian movies, but it’s fairly accessible for an American audience. I did have to turn on the English subtitles. People switch back and forth between Hindi and English so quickly, I couldn’t keep up when only the Hindi was subtitled.

It’s a modern family drama with little inherent sensawunda. I’m blogging on it partly just to revive my blog and partly because I really did enjoy it.

Personally, I find a certain amount of sensawunda in getting a glimpse into another culture. YMMV. Even if it’s a skewed glance because of its aspirational setting, it’s still a sort of alternate reality, a different angle on life for me.


Recent reading & watching March 2, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Books, Movies.

I haven’t posted any reviews lately, because I haven’t seen or read anything with much of a sensawunda content. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been good. Most of it has been adult fare, dealing with subjects like AIDS and drug addiction and life under a totalitarian regime… and yet, they can be touched with wonder at times.

A sampling:

RENT – just out on DVD
Sensawundameter: WandWand
Surprisingly transcends its gritty-realism setting.

“Jurisdiction? novel series by Susan R. Matthews
Sensawundameter: WandWand
I’ve been rereading the series to refresh my memory before I start reading book 6, Warring States, due out any minute now. This is the “totalitarian regime? I referred to, and Susan doesn’t pull any punches. Heaven forfend these should ever be made into movies, books 1 and 2 especially; they would go in the same category as A Clockwork Orange: “Movies I Can’t Handle Watching.? (I can handle stuff in a novel that I can’t handle in a movie because I can just stop picturing the events in my head if I want.) And yet there are moments when the protagonist, Andrej Koscuisko, “who is not a nice man,? transcends circumstance and his own demons. He is an embodiment of chaos theory—ripples from his actions gradually, over the course of the series, threaten to shake the entire galactic Jurisdiction government, even though he has no such plan in mind. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

The last YA novels I read were:
Story Time, by Edward Bloor
Fantasy, but doesn’t make the sensawundameter. Its satire was too broad, and it was depressing to boot.

Girl, 15, Charming but Insane, by Sue Limb
Hysterical! Read it for the humor, not for sensawunda.

And one more movie—
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Sensawundameter: WandWandWand
Came out in 1988, but still holds up as terrific entertainment, even if the novelty’s worn off.

Top 10, er… 8 movies of 2005 January 13, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Movies.

Please welcome Annie Young Frisbie for this guest entry.
I am so astonished at how bad this year was for movies, that I feel
compelled to send you all my top 10- er, 8- of 2005. I’m not proud of
this list 😦

1. Grizzly Man
2. Capote
3. Murderball
4. Serenity
5. Nobody’s Home
6. North Country
7. Batman Begins
8. Land of the Dead

It’s shameful to me that #s 7&8 (and even #6) are the best that I’ve
got, but there you have it.

Honorable Mention:
1. Narnia – in the interest of full disclosure, I should let you know
that my companion that evening got violently ill halfway through, so I
left before Aslan made his appearance. I wasn’t exactly blown away,
though I was enjoying myself, but it didn’t break my heart to leave.
Wardrobe is my least favorite of the Narnia books, probably because of
the animated movie they used to show every year on TV. It’s so
familiar that it doesn’t move me, really. My only hope is that they
do get to make all seven, as I’m dying for Voyage of the Dawn Treader
(I had a Dawn Treader cake for my 6th birthday party).

2. Exorcism of Emily Rose – I absolutely applaud Scott Derrickson’s
sincerity and efforts with this film.

3. Me & You & Everyone We Know – Miranda July is an incredibly
annoying performance artist, but this film gets honorable mention for
being better than she deserves, and for “the same poop, back and
forth, forever.” If you saw the movie you know what I mean. If you
didn’t, I’m not sure it’s worth seeing just for the poop, but I
laughed until I cried.

4. Broken Flowers – Bill Murray is a national treasure. Jim Jarmusch
needs to stop resting on his laurels.

Crash. What a phony, hollow, faux-vocative piece of hooey.

Best Rental:
Incident of Loch Ness

Best of 2004 that I saw in 2005:
Finding Neverland should have made my top 10.

Worst of 2004 that I saw in 2005:
Million Dollar Baby is nothing but a pack of lies wrapped in sentiment
wrapped in a tragically good performance by Hillary Swank.

Still to see that I hear are good: Good Night, and Good Luck; The
Squid and the Whale; Match Point; King Kong – but my heart isn’t
exactly racing to see these, either

Firefly/Serenity January 8, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Movies, TV.
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I’m going to insert the Sensawundameter rating up front, because I don’t know if I can really discuss Firefly and Serenity without spoilers. I’ll write from the general to the specific, though, so you can stop when it gets to be TMI for you.

Sensawundameter: WandWandWandWandWand

If you have the opportunity, I’d recommend watching this series in the order of production… first the Firefly DVD set, and then Serenity. On the other hand, if Serenity is still playing in your local theater, grab the chance to see it on the big screen. Joss Whedon wrote the movie knowing that many wouldn’t have seen the TV series, so he tries to introduce each character and the universe (aka “the ‘verse”) accordingly. But you’ll get the full impact only if you see the whole shebang in order.

I’ve often wondered why visiting aliens in movies and TV shows almost always choose English to communicate with Earthlings (except when they make us learn their language, as in Close Encounters). After all, if they did enough of an analysis of our planet to choose one of our languages to learn, might they not conclude that they should learn Chinese? Could be a fun twist. But no, we have to be all provincial.

That’s one of the things that gives the Firefly ‘verse such texture. It’s 500 years in the future and Earth has been abandoned… but it wasn’t just Americans who left and populated the colonies, as an ordinary TV show might make it appear. Whedon’s future history includes China having become enough of a superpower that the United States made an alliance with it (before or after leaving Earth isn’t clear). The result is that the principal characters, though they appear to have been descended from Americans, all know and routinely use a smattering of Chinese. A lot of signage and labeling is in Chinese… enough to make you wonder which culture is really ascendant.

You also see hints of other Earth cultures as they can be fit in, whether visually, or in cultural traditions that come into play in some of the plots. Including the occupation of one of the characters, a variation on a geisha—apparently one of the most highly respected occupations in the ‘verse. It’s these kind of perceptual shifts that activate the Sensawundameter… but they wouldn’t if they were gratuitous. It’s that each bit helps build a coherent image in our minds of this future culture.

The ensemble cast allows us to see this culture from different angles… people who approve of the Alliance and have benefited from it, people who fought it and got slapped down, people who have just been muddling along as best they can. It’s a more four-dimensional look than much TV SF—neither utopia nor dystopia. It feels real, but it also seems vivid and romantic.

We’ve come to the part where I really think I can’t avoid a bit of spoiler, so stop reading now. You’ve been warned.

The arc story that starts in the Firefly pilot and carries through to propel the plot of Serenity is the warp drive that causes this series to transcend its space opera appearance. I mean, of course, the X-File that is River Tam. Throughout the TV series, Whedon employs dramatic irony to allow the viewer to know that she’s a nexus of conspiracy and danger, when the characters think she’s just a crazy girl. For instance, her “hands of blue” chant sounds like nonsense to the crew, but the viewer gets to see that there really are agents with hands of blue… they’re after her… and later, the tension is ramped up even more when we (but not the crew) find out just how ruthless the blue hand agents are.

The viewer gets glimpses of conspiracies and secrets that are larger and more sinister than Mal Reynolds ever dreamed he was fighting back in the days of the ill-fated resistance against the Alliance. Questions pile on questions; the answer to one question raises five more. Each hint, each clue makes it seem more and more likely Our Heroes have stumbled into a web that could turn the ‘verse upside down—and they have no idea. It only becomes clearer that although the Alliance isn’t a wholly evil Galactic Empire, Mal was right to fight for independence—there is rottenness at its core.

The last TV episode, “Objects in Space,” temporarily turns River and Serenity into an archetype of science fiction, the god-ship. That episode gets a 5 on the Sensawundameter. In the last few episodes, and continuing into the movie, it grows more and more apparent that River has become some kind of transcendent being herself, and like the gods of some mythologies, as likely to destroy the heroes as save them. We don’t know until the turning point of the movie.

In the end, Serenity brings out themes of truth and what it means to be human, and thus transcends its action/adventure genre to approach the sublime potential of science fiction.