Manna From Heaven, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Twentieth Century

Weekly DVD/Video Picks
National Catholic Register
July 24-August 6, 2005
Manna From Heaven (2003)

New on DVD, fledgling Catholic production company Five Sisters’ third feature Manna From Heaven made a modest splash in indie film circles a couple of years ago, though critics were more favorably impressed with the faith-oriented film’s sweetness and moxie than its logic or polish.

An old-fashioned morality tale in sitcom dress, Manna tells about a group of family and friends who decide to repay God for a 30-year-old cash windfall from which they all benefited. In fact, three decades after $20,000 in cash mysteriously falls into their laps, they decide that God intended the money not as a gift but as a loan — and that the time has come to pay it back. This leads to hare-brained fund-raising schemes including a car raffle and a ballroom-dance competition.

Like Leonardo Difilippis’ similarly produced Thérèse, the film is well-intentioned and devout, but underdeveloped and oversweet. Still, it benefits from generous performances from pros, including Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman, Frank Gorshin and Wendie Malick.

Content advisory: Brief crude language and a couple of sexual references. Teens and up.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Like one of Wonka’s own sweet-and-sour confections, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a bizarre little film, part Wizard of Oz fantasy-musical, part gleefully punitive morality tale, but with something slightly creepy and unsettling about it. It may not have wicked witches or flying monkeys, but Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is a more subversive and unpredictable presence than Frank Morgan’s Wizard, and the world over which he presides is just as difficult to negotiate.

Based on the Roald Dahl novel, the film is full of Dahl’s whimsical flourishes, from Charlie’s four grandparents permanently stationed at the four corners of their shared bed to the wonky Dahlian names: Everlasting Gobstoppers, Oompa-Loompas, Fizzy Lifting Drinks.

The film also shares the book’s impression of humanity as largely selfish and superficial, as the much-coveted golden tickets send the world into a frenzy. Yet where the film takes the same gleeful pleasure as Dahl’s book in punishing the spoiled children, it also adds a redemptive twist by having Charlie stumble before proving himself honorable.

Content advisory: Brief frightening imagery. Fine family viewing.

Twentieth Century (1934)

A 2005 DVD release, Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century, an acerbic satire of show-business ego and superficiality starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, is often credited as Hollywood’s first screwball comedy. Though the director went on to make other better-known films in this genre, including Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, Twentieth Century is possibly the most breathlessly funny of the three, if also the most cynical and subversive.

Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, an egomaniacal Broadway impresario who regards the drama of his own life as the greatest story of all. Much given to firing his put-upon underlings, Jaffe is so completely in his own world that when he decides to begin grooming a shop girl for Broadway glory, he expects her to answer to the stage name he’s settled on even before telling her what it is. But when his plans succeed too well and his protégé abandons him for Hollywood, Jaffe is desperate to do whatever is necessary to win her back.

Content advisory: Sexual situations and innuendo. Teens and up.

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