Weekly Video Picks
Cats and Dogs (2001)
Not to be confused with The Truth About Cats and Dogs, this whimsical family film depicts a world in which cats are megalomaniacal plotters bent on taking over the world, while dogs are counter-insurgency operatives devoted to protecting mankind. Cat lovers might consider this pro-dog propaganda, but there's a good reason why stories make heroes out of dogs more often than cats. We may appreciate and even admire cats for what God has made them — cunning and curious — but we have more in common with domesticated canines, which are unfailingly social, than with their often-solitary feline counterparts.
Like Spy Kids, Cats and Dogs involves a hidden world of colorful, high-powered espionage lurking beneath prosaic appearances. Unfortunately, Cats and Dogs lacks Spy Kids' inspired visual design, engaging characterizations and winningly positive view of parenthood and family life.
What it does have is a comparable level of rollicking energy along with some real laughs. The slapstick violence is in the Looney Tunes tradition, and familiar animal traits are a source of humor. (In one scene, a canine agent races through an underground tunnel in a rocket car — with his head stuck out the window.)
Reasonably clever and entertaining, it runs out of steam before the end. Still, it's good clean fun.
Content advisory: Cartoon violence; brief mild profanity.
Schindler's List (1993)
Finally available on DVD, Schindler's List is one of the 15 films on the Vatican film list in the category “Values.”
The Holocaust remains the modern world's most enduring icon of pure evil, yet Schindler's List dares to find in this story of depravity, horror and moral conflict something that is “an absolute good.” Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a self-aggrandizing war profiteer and womanizing adulterer, is no paragon of virtue — but his list, the list that eventually saves more than a thousand Jews from extermination — “The list is life.”
Spielberg reaches past our defenses by suggesting rather than showing: He knows there is as much horror in a mountain of shoes and personal effects whose owners won't be needing them again as in a mountain of bodies. One of the film's most ghastly moments is a mere rude gesture from a small child.
Spielberg makes us feel the collapsing expectations of people much like ourselves: middle-class Krakow families initially appalled at the indignity and inconvenience of being herded into ghetto apartments — only to discover that each apartment must be shared with numerous others. Small touches of color — a candle flame; a child's coat, bright red — bring the enormity of the tragedy into excruciating focus.
Content advisory: Graphic depictions of Holocaust-era violence and death; brief nudity (both nonsexual and sexual); some sexual immorality; a few obscenities.
Modern Times (1936)
Available in numerous formats, including a two-disc DVD special edition, Modern Times is one of the 15 films on the Vatican film list in the category “Art.”
Silent films were already old-fashioned when Charlie Chaplin completed Modern Times. A silent film for the sound era, Modern Times is a comic masterpiece that remains approachable today.
In part, this is because the film looks toward the future, though not with enthusiasm. Often called a satire of the machine age, Modern Times actually treats the dehumanizing effects of many aspects of modernity, including industrialization, bureaucracy and urbanization. Yet it doesn't morph into a political tract but remains a slapstick tragi-comedy in the Little Tramp tradition. It touches on social issues, but obliquely, with a light touch, in the context of comic misadventures.
The Tramp is a quintessentially silent character, almost a mime, interacting with his world but never really entering into it. He's an eternal outsider, forever looking hopefully for his place in the world but always finally moving on, his back to the camera and his face to the horizon. Modern Times is both true to this heritage and also softens it. A worthy last hurrah for an immortal character, a great body of work and an era of cinema.
Content advisory: Some comic violence; a depiction of a quasi-marital or common-law marriage relationship; unintentional drug use.
- March 14-18, 2004