Weekly Video Picks

Chicken Run (2000)

Claymation wizards Nick Park and Peter Lord of Wallace and Gromit fame bring their trademark blend of stop-motion magic, eccentric British humor and bizarrely brilliant gadgetry and gizmos to a rousing takeoff on classic WWII escape flicks, set on an ominous poultry farm where intrepid chickens plot their getaway.

Mel Gibson lends star power as Rocky the Flying Rooster, a circus escapee who galvanizes the chickens' escape-plan movement when he agrees to teach them to fly.

Because stop-motion involves real objects under real lighting, it's more solid-looking than most computer animation, yet it has the same freedom as all animation. The film is shot one frame at a time; only seconds of film are created per day. The result of this painstaking effort is a soaring flight of unfettered imagination. It is a noble thing to unfetter the imagination. Chicken Run has this nobility.

Content advisory: Some tense and menacing scenes; fleeting mild innuendo.

A Man Escaped (1954)

Based on the true story of a French Catholic resistance fighter's arduous efforts to escape from a Nazi internment camp, Robert Bresson's masterpiece A Man Escaped gives away less in its title than it seems to. Clues to the film's intent include its subtitle, The Wind Blows Where It Wills — an allusion to Jesus' discourse on being born of water and the spirit — and its re-christening of the prisoner as Fontaine, “fountain.” A Man Escaped is as much a reflection on spiritual bondage, rebirth and the mysteries of grace and providence as about stone walls and iron bars.

Yet A Man Escaped is not content merely with the struggle toward the goal as an end in itself. Fontaine must really escape, not simply make the attempt. Yet so objective is Bresson's direction that how the story actually ends remains in doubt until the very last shot.

Bresson's characteristic insistence on bare performances stripped of all emotion seems ideally suited for a prisoner reduced to single-minded determination. For newcomers to Bresson, A Man Escaped is probably the ideal introduction to the work of this brilliant, challenging, God-haunted director.

Content advisory: Constant suspense; off-screen torture and sometimes deadly violence. Subtitles.

Grand Illusion (1937)

Perhaps the single most remarkable thing about La Grande Il lusion, Jean Renoir's classic pre-WWII WWI masterpiece, is that it practices rather than preaches its rigorous humanism, regarding every character with sympathy and nuance.

German or French, noble or common, Gentile or Jew, man or woman — all are simply human in this semi-comic tale. Characters on both sides of these divides display various forms of prejudice, from anti-Semitism to class-based snobbery, but none is reviled or scorned.

The loose narrative follows a number of Allied POWs as they seek to escape from the custody of an almost morbidly aristocratic German officer named von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) who treats captured enemy officers as honored guests and disdains commoners on both sides. Watching the film, it's easy to imagine an alternate version of this film by some other director with von Rauffenstein as a Colonel Klink-like absurdity. But not here: Despite his deluded notions, he retains his dignity and is even in the end a movingly tragic figure. One of the 15 films on the Vatican film list in the Art category.

Content advisory: A comic burlesque-like sequence involving soldiers in drag; references to adultery and an implied sexual encounter.