DVD Picks & Passes 04.21.2009

More Shaun the Sheep! The third collection of the ovine Aardman Animations hero’s adventures in British television, “Shaun the Sheep: Sheep on the Loose” offers more of the “Wallace & Gromit” co-star’s delightful seven-minute escapades on a British sheep farm.

Actually, “Sheep on the Loose” offers fewer of Shaun’s adventures compared to the first two North American DVDs: “Off the Baa!” and “Back in the Ba-a-ath” had eight apiece, but “Sheep” has only six. Partly making up for this are a couple of extras, a behind-the-scenes “mini making-of” and a start-to-finish look at the building of a plasticine character.

This time out, Shaun attempts to handle farm chores while the Farmer is sick in bed, deals with an unfriendly camper, and covers for the flock while they go to the fair. The wonky little tales continue the series’ celebration of silent-film storytelling, and if six episodes are too few, at least the disc is cheap. (Why not release the series complete, like in the U.K.?)

New on DVD, China Circus: Elites offers a behind-the-scenes look into the world of intensive acrobat training at Chinese schools for children. A few months ago, around Chinese New Year, Suzanne and I took the kids to see the Chinese Golden Dragon troupe on tour, and we were dazzled by the acrobats’ seemingly impossible grace, speed, creativity and flexibility.

This 50-minute National Geographic documentary from Razor Digital offers an eye-opening look at the grueling program behind the accomplishment. Some techniques border on abusive, particularly the painful stretching regimens, which bring tears to children’s eyes, as trainers physically push their legs to the limits of endurance.

Yet, for children of poor rural families, gymnastics offers a rare opportunity not only to better their own circumstances, but their whole family’s. And what they do is just magnificent.

Finally, Vatican list film The Seventh Seal gets a new “Special Edition” from the Criterion Collection, available both in standard DVD and Blu-ray.

Still the quintessential art film — starkly existential, poetic and grim — Ingmar Bergman’s medieval drama of the soul has haunted film aficionados, baffled and bored college students, inspired innumerable parodists, and challenged believers and unbelievers for over half a century.

Newly restored in high definition, the special edition also includes improved subtitle translations, as well as optional English dubbing. Typically generous special features include a couple of featurettes on Bergman, including interview footage, a 2003 introduction from the director himself, an audio interview with star Max von Sydow, and a 20-odd page booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins. A must-have for cinephiles.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Shaun the Sheep: Slapstick humor. Fine family viewing. China Circus: Elites: Stressful circumstances. Fine family viewing. The Seventh Seal: Some morbid imagery and violence; references to rape, adultery and promiscuity; much religious questioning. Subtitled/Dubbed. Mature viewing.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.