Weekly Video/DVD Picks
The Incredible Adventures of Wallace and Gromit (2001)
This wildly entertaining 2001 release is actually a compilation of Chicken Run co-creator Nick Park's three hilarious, brilliant clay-mation shorts featuring dotty, cheese-loving English inventor Wallace and his loyal but dubious dog Gromit.
Jam-packed with dazzlingly inventive sight gags and quintes-sentially eccentric British humor, these little gems deserve a place on every film lover's shelf.
First is “A Grand Day Out,” the slightest and least impressive of the three, with Park focused on developing his technique while working a feather-light story about a trip to the moon. Next is the series’ high point, “The Wrong Trousers,” an inventive sci-fi thriller spoof pitting our heroes against a fiendishly clever criminal mastermind who is also a master of disguise.
Last is the almost equally good “A Close Shave,” a comic tale of romance and noir-like mystery involving a sheep-rustling operation.
What makes Park's little masterpieces (especially the Oscar-winning latter two) so rewarding for film lovers is the way Park lovingly evokes whole genres and cinematic conventions through attention to every element of the moviemaking process — lighting and shadow, score, art direction, even pacing and timing. The stop-motion technique, involving real objects in real space under real lighting, has a dimensionality and a solidness still lacking in even the most sophisticated Toy Story computer animation.
Content advisory: Comic menace.
Say Amen, Somebody
If the toe-tapping Gospel music of The Fighting Temptations appeals to you but you were put off by the negative Christian stereotypes and lack of even rote Hollywood spiritual uplift or pro-faith sentiment, treat yourself to this engaging, Gospel-infused documentary tribute to the black men and women who first began combining the heart and soul of Negro spirituals with the infectious rhythms of jazz and blues.
These include “Professor” Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), the “Father of Gospel Music;” “Mother” Willie Mae Ford Smith (1904-1994) and numerous others. Avoiding educational-style narration, the documentary takes an appreciative approach, allowing the subjects to tell their own story in their own words.
Catholics familiar with more minimalist forms of fundamentalist worship might be struck by the quasi-liturgical and quasi-sacramental aspects of this charismatic subculture, including anointing with oil, clergy-like vestments complete with stoles and a ceremony with white drapes over the furnishings. And, given the tendency of Protestant worship to appear in Catholic eyes as entertainment-driven “shows,” there is poignance and irony in Dorsey and Ford's disapproval of the commercial main-streaming of Gospel music.
Ultimately, like Knox writing Enthusiasm, Catholics watching Say Amen, Somebody might find that this enthusiastic, stripped-down spirituality, though alien and truncated, is also familiar, with much to admire and appreciate.
Content advisory: Christianity in a fundamentalist mode; a possible misuse of the name of Jesus.
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Possibly the screwiest of all screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey is the ultimate Depression-era satire of the idle rich and tribute to the noble poor. This popular screwball theme was never more devastatingly realized than in Godfrey's opening sequence, which begins with a pair of spoiled society-brat sisters (Gail Patrick and Carole Lombard) showing up at a city dump looking for a “forgotten man” — as part of a cocktail-party scavenger hunt!
What they find is a derelict named Godfrey (William Powell), whose rumpled dignity, ironic cynicism and well-spoken, self-aware mien seem hardly typical of his station in life.
Finding one of the sisters less condescendingly offensive than the other, Godfrey accompanies her back to the party and winds up guardedly accepting a role in their sibling rivalry by becoming her “protégé” and the family butler. Godfrey, naturally, has a secret, as do his employers: They're completely daft.
Godfrey is social satire at its broadest; unlike Sullivan's Travels there is no nuance in the picture of the rich as less worthy than the poor.
And, between the heroine's relentless flightiness and the hero's implacable self-possession, the romantic ending seems more rote than romantic (compare to Bringing Up Baby or It Happened One Night). But for hilariously outrageous behavior and merciless satirical zaniness, Godfrey is an unsurpassed comic treasure.
Content advisory: Comic depiction of drunkenness and hangovers.