Weekly DVD/Video Picks

Elf (2003)

Elf shows every indication of being a disaster: Not only is it a recent Christmas-themed Hollywood film, but it also stars a Saturday Night Live alum, Will Ferrell. Yet Ferrell throws himself into the film as if he has no idea that it should be doomed, then he succeeds in making it both cute and funny. It doesn't hurt that he's abetted by a deadpan Bob Newhart, who's funny just sitting around, which is pretty much what he does.

Ferrell plays Buddy, a human orphan raised as an elf in Santa's North Pole workshop. When Buddy learns of his human heritage, he hops an ice floe to New York to reconnect with his Scrooge-like dad (James Caan), who's been on Santa's “naughty” list for years. Buddy's unflagging optimism is like a force of nature, but even Santa's sleigh can no longer fly in a world with so little Christmas spirit. Can Buddy bring Christmas cheer to modern, cynical New Yorkers? Can the boy raised as an elf humanize his father? Will he get the cute girl in the department store in the elf outfit? Elf offers no surprises, but it's reasonably sweet, good-natured holiday fun.

Content advisory: Mild objectionable language and rude humor; back story involving an out-of-wedlock birth.

The Burmese Harp (1956)

Kon Ichikawa's deeply humane, spiritually resonant The Burmese Harp is routinely but reductionistically described as “antiwar” or “pacifist.” Yet war is only the occasion for the story's theme, not the theme itself. That would be the intractable mystery of suffering and evil, affirmation of spiritual values and the challenge to live humanely in evil circumstances. Burying the dead, one of the seven corporal works of mercy in Catholic tradition, plays a key role in the simple, fable-like story about a Japanese soldier who is spiritually transformed after disguising himself as a Buddhist monk.

Although the story, set in Southeast Asia at the end of WWII, dwells on war-related horrors, the film's message is not that suffering is caused by war. Rather, the film shows that we don't know why suffering happens. Instead of diagnosing a cause, The Burmese Harp empha-sizes the importance of compassion, humility and spirituality in facing up to the disease. One of the 15 films on the Vatican film list in the Values category.

Content advisory: A few scenes of battlefield violence; numerous depictions of scattered corpses; Buddhist milieu. Subtitles.

The King of Kings (1927)

Cecil B. DeMille's silent Gospel masterpiece, until now available only in a shortened 112-minute version, is now available in a new DVD from Criterion that includes the original 155-minute film as well as the shorter version. The newly restored long version includes nearly 45 minutes of extra footage, including one scene in which Jesus miraculously provides the tax for Peter and himself by sending Peter to catch a fish with a coin in its mouth (with a hilarious coda depicting a pair of astounded Roman centurions fishing for more coin-bearing fish!).

DeMille's predilection for combining biblical pageantry with spectacle and sex comes to the fore in an over-the-top prologue depicting a decadent party presided over by a haughty, half-naked Mary Magdalene. Yet as Mary herself, once in Jesus’ presence, is humbled and chastened, so DeMille abandons his excesses once he turns to actual Gospel events. The introduction of Jesus, dramatically revealed from the point of view of a blind boy for whom Jesus’ face is the first thing he ever sees, is both spiritually moving and powerful.

Content advisory: Restrained passion narrative violence; references to adultery and harlotry; mild innuendo. Silent.