Sunday, February 28, 2016

Louisana films on the small and big screen

On the small screen
Miller's Crossing isn't set in New Orleans, but it was filmed there. Last week, I wrote about the Coen Brothers' True Grit, which was set in Arkansas but not filmed there; this week's Coen Brothers' film is the opposite of that. It's supposedly set in a Northeastern city, but anyone can see that it's really the Big Easy. Miller's Crossing is a film noir, the dark genre of crime films that began just after World War II with origins in the detective fiction of Hammett and Chandler.

Noir films have been set in New York and San Francisco and, of course, LA --LA as in Los Angeles and LA as in Louisiana. There are no specifically church or religious elements in Miller's Crossing, but like all noir, the doctrine of original sin comes through quite clearly.

Other Louisiana films with noir elements include The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin, Eve's Bayou with Sam L. Jackson and Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte with Bette Davis.

Some of the best films about the African American experience were set and made in LA (not Los Angeles), including Best Picture nominees Beasts of the Southern Wild and Sounder and Best Picture Winner 12 Years a Slave. Some great women's films have been set and made in LA such as John Sayles' critically acclaimed Passion Fish. There is also Steel Magnolias, which many women love, perplexing many men. There are LA guys' films, such as Swamp Thing based on the DC horror comic, and Walter Hill's action feature Southern Comfort.

And a film with two of the greatest performances ever captured, Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando's work in A Streetcar Named Desire, is set and partially filmed in New Orleans.

There are many other good and awful films set and filmed in Louisiana, but I'll mention just one more excellent film: Dead Man Walking. This film will kick off a month of clergywomen at Movie Churches (check back for that on Thursday).

On the Big Screen
Mindy and I went to see one of the classic noir films, The Maltese Falcon for a 75th anniversary screening at the Theaters at Canal Place in New Orleans. It's a fancy schmancy place with neighbors like Saks 5th Avenue and Tiffany's. An usher directed us to our seats and pointed out the red button we could press to order food. We ordered popcorn, but popcorn with truffle oil.

menu at Canal Place Theater
As for the film, I sure hope I'm holding up that well when I'm 75.



Thursday, February 25, 2016

Behold a Pale Horse (1964)

One of the historical figures I hold in most high regard is Abraham Lincoln. One of the things I admire most about him is that even when fighting for the righteous causes of preserving the Union and ending slavery, he would not claim God was on his side.

In Behold a Pale Horse, Captain Viñolas (played by Anthony Quinn), a police captain in Franco's Spain, has no such humility. The film is set in 1959, two decades after the Spanish Civil War, and the captain believes that because Franco won, Franco is God's man. A rebel named Manuel Artiquez (played by Gregory Peck), is still fighting the war. Artiquez lives in France but slips into Spain for raids and robberies.

We see the Captain enter a Catholic church. He lights a candle and prays before a crucifix. "He's your enemy too," the Captain says to God. "I wouldn't ask you this, but he's killed my men. Let me have this victory, God." To insure God's assistance, the Captain even promises to return a horse he's stolen.

The rebels, for the most part, don't claim to have God on their side. Most of them, including Artiquez and his mother, are communists and want nothing to do with the church. One of Artiquez's men warns a young child not to trust in churches or priests or crosses, promising they will all disappoint.

When Manuel Artiquiz's mother becomes ill, the Captain sees an opportunity. He hopes the rebel will risk coming to Spain to see his mother in the hospital. If he does, he can be captured. A priest, Father Francisco, comes to see the woman.

The priest, played by Omar Sharif (of Lawrence of Arabia), asks the woman about her health. She tells him she's dying. "The Lord giveth and taketh," the priest tells her.

"Mostly taketh," she responds.

The priest asks what he can do. The woman says he can bless the guns of the firing squad that will be used on her son. The woman asks whether God would hear the request of a heathen. The priest answers that God hears all His children. The woman says she doesn't want sacraments, she wants her son saved. Father Francisco says he'll do what he can.

The Captain approaches Father Francisco after his visit with the mother and asks for information about Artiquez. He reminds the priest that the rebels desecrated the church. "We mustn't forget the clergy and the Guardia Civil are on the same side, both trying to serve our country; you by prayers and me by enforcing the law."

Still, Father Francisco won’t share what the rebel’s mother said, feeling doing so would break his priestly vows. (Though it clearly wasn’t a confession, so it wouldn’t be breaking that kind of vow; I guess it’s more of a lawyer/client confidentiality thing.)

Father Francisco is leaving with other priests of his monastery for a field trip to Lourdes in France. They particularly hope for healing for Father Estaban. Estaban was injured when rebels robbed a bank where he happened to be. Since then, he’s been a little mad. Artiquez was one of those bank robbers.

Father Francisco leaves the group during the trip. He goes to see Artiquez in order to warn him that the Spanish police plan to kill him if he tries to see his mother. Artiquez mocks Father Francisco for his belief in God asking why he became a priest. The priest tells him that during the war, his father was killed. He doesn’t know which side, the rebels or the government, killed him. So he decided to serve neither side and both sides by serving God. A Lincolnesque attitude, and the reason I’m giving Father Francisco and his church 4 Steeples.


(A side note: you might notice the pale horse of the title of is a reference to Revelation 6:8. The pale horse was death, so you have a clue that all will not turn out well for all parties in the film.)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Arkansas films on the small and big screen

On the small screen
For whatever reason, great books aren't often made into great movies. Last week we were in Missouri, and I couldn't think of a great film that has been made from any of Mark Twain's great novels. But Charles Portis' great novel, True Grit, has not just had one, but two great adaptations.

We watched the 1969 version directed by Hollywood workhorse Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne in his Oscar winning role of Rooster Cogburn. This version tweaks the ending of the novel in a few ways, actually making the ending a little darker (Hollywood usually makes things happier). Ethan and Joel Coen's 2010 version is even more faithful to the book and also great fun. Neither film has much in the way of church, though the early version has a hymn at a hanging.

A bizarre thing about both versions is that though they have scenes that are set in Fort Smith, Arkansas, neither version did any filming in Arkansas, preferring Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico for some strange reason.

But Hollywood has come to Arkansas at times. Two exploitation films from the seventies, Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha and Burt Reynolds' White Lightening, were set and filmed in Arkansas.

Billy Bob Thorton's breakout film, Sling Blade, was set and filmed in Arkansas.

Arkansas native son Jeff Nichols, one of my favorite new filmmakers, has set and filmed work in Arkansas. Shotgun Stories, his first feature, is set and filmed in Arkansas, as is his Mud. Mud is like a modern day Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn story; the best Twain on the screen isn't Twain (and better than any that is Twain).

Maybe the best film ever set and filmed (at least partially) in Arkansas is A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan, written by Budd Schulberg  and starring Andy Griffith. It's about politics and is sadly still quite applicable to the current political scene.



On the big screen
In Fort Smith we went to a Malco Theater (a theater chain that just celebrated its hundredth anniversary) in the local mall to see last year's BBC feature, The Lady in the Van.

There's not much to say about the theater, except it was the first theater we've been to that sells pickles (and it had an ice cream vending machine).

 The film did have a church angle as the Lady was a former nun. I'll just say the church doesn't come out smelling too sweet in the film. We were not surprised that a film starring Maggie Smith drew an elderly audience. We were surprised that someone brought a six year old girl (maybe she's a big Downton Abbey fan).





Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sacrifice (2011)

 I've reviewed a direct-to-video Movie Church with Christian Slater before, when we looked the horrible Movie Church in a horrible movie called The Confessor. Today's film not only has the dreaded Slater credit, but the even less promising threat of Cuba Gooding Jr., who went from Oscar winner to box office poison.

So I approached this film with great trepidation, and you probably won't be surprised to learn that the 2011 film Sacrifice (written and directed by Damian Lee, who has made a whole bunch of films I've never heard of) is really pretty awful. But we're here to look at the church in the film.

I'm pretty positive about the church in this film, because the priest in this film, Father Porter, (played by Christian Slater) wasn't always a priest. He was with the "special forces" in Afghanistan with a team of four other soldiers. They each got a one-word tattoo, a virtue, on his hand in solidarity.  The other four had "freedom", "family", "blood", "courage" on their hands and Porter had "sacrifice" (TITLE DROP!).

The other four soldiers died, and Porter has survivor's guilt. He decided become a priest because, as he says, "it was the hardest thing I could possibly do. Stupid, right?" He is, to say the least, conflicted about calling. He says, "Sometimes I wonder if I chose God or He chose me. 'Cause if he chose me, He made a mistake."

But we see him doing a decent job in his duties. An elderly woman comes to him and asks him to listen to her confession. He responds, "Didn't I hear your confession last night?" But he listens.

She tells the priest that sometimes she thinks she'll end up in a higher level in heaven than her husband. She asks him what she should do about this sin of pride. He gives her four Hail Mary's but doesn't ask her to call in the morning.

While he's hearing her confession, young thugs break into the collection box of the church and accidently knock over and break the statue of the Virgin Mary. A young man named Mike, visiting the church, offers a Virgin Mary statue to replace it. Mike is a drug dealer and the statue he gives was stolen from drug overlords -- and it's composed of pure heroin. But it's the thought that counts.

Father Porter also cares for John Hebron, an undercover police officer who takes on the drug world's worst of the worst. Because he caught some really bad guys, their associates came back and killed his wife and daughter. This has turned him into a cop on the edge who lives by his own rules. (Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon you say? Of course, but not nearly that good.)

We do hear, in a flashback, Father Porter's memorial sermon for John's wife and daughter. "We celebrate the lives of Anna and Noelle, and cherish them in our hearts as we commend them to God's merciful love, the author of all life. God has created each person for eternal life. Jesus, the Son of God, with His death and resurrection has broken the chains of sin and death that bound humanity."

John, the cop, comes often to the church to light candles in his wife's memory. The priest asks why he lights the candles even though he doesn't believe in it. John says it's because his wife believed in it. The priest says, "God works in mysterious ways," which is a reliable go to cliché in hack films. John pulls out a flask and shares it with Father Porter. I'm assuming Kool-Aid was in the flask, but we're never told.

You may not be surprised to hear that eventually the bad guys come after that heroin statue in the church, and it's up to the cop on the edge and the special forces priest to stop them.

For a decent funeral sermon and that special forces training, I'm giving Father Porter and his church Three Steeples.


(This film earns its R rating. And on another pointless side note, the film opens at a game of the NHL finals. And it appears literally dozens of hockey fans are in the stands.)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Missouri films on the small and large screen


On the small screen
Much of Paper Moon (1973) takes place in Kansas, but the destination of the protagonists is Missouri, this week's state. The film opens with a clergyman; a minister conducting a grave side service for the mother of Addie (eight year old Tatum O'Neil in the Academy's youngest Oscar winning performance). A con man, Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neil, Tatum's father), stops by to pay respects and is persuaded to take the young orphan to her aunt in MO.

Pray's go-to con is selling Bibles to widows at a mark-up, and young Addie proves an asset to his credibility. A recurring question in the film is,"What's a con and what's real?" Is Moses perhaps really Addie's father? Is romantic love real? Are the words in the Bibles Moses sells true or as phony as a paper moon? The movie suggests that sometimes we're better off being conned than knowing the truth.

Paper Moon was not only partially set in Missouri; those scenes were actually filmed in Missouri (with the city of St. Joseph submitting to a transformation back to the Depression Era).

Another period film set in MO is the classic MGM Judy Garland musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, but it was filmed in Hollywood studios. The various versions of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie were, of course, set in St. Louis, but none were filmed there.

Various films based on the work of Mark Twain have been set and filmed in MO, such as the 1973 musical version of Tom Sawyer, but I don't think a great adaptation of any of Mr. Clemens' work has yet been produced.

There have been truly great Westerns set and filmed in Missouri (such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), great comedies (such as Waiting for Guffman), great thrillers (like Gone Girl and Winter's Bone),  and at least one great horror film (You'reNext).

And when critics argue about the greatest film ever made, non-Missouri films such as Citizen Kane and Rules ofthe Game are bandied about, but surely a work set and filmed in Missouri, the Patrick Swayze classic, Road House, should be a part of that discussion.

Cinemark theater

On the large screen
As we looked for parking for the Cinemark Theater in the Plaza, I worried about what kind of fortune we'd pay for parking; but there was no charge for the garage. Not knowing the ticket prices, I soon discovered two tickets for a matinee cost as much as one ticket in other states. So I'm liking Kansas City, Missouri.

mindy limps through the hall of stars
The decor of the theater celebrated old time Hollywood, which was a nice lead in to movie we were watching, Hail Caesar by the Coen Brothers. Josh Brolin stars in the film as Eddie Mannix, a studio executive in the Hollywood Golden Age with the job of fixing the messes of the studio's coddled stars.

Blessedly for MovieChurches, the film opens with a scene in a Catholic church. Mannix is giving a confession to a priest who seems rather exasperated by the frequency of the exec's appearances. But that's not the end to the clergy in the film. Mannix's studio, Capital Pictures, is producing a film, Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ, and a group of clergymen are brought in to evaluate the Biblical and theological accuracy of the film. The rabbi, the reverend and the priests (Orthodox and Catholic) soon seem more interested in the movie business than Biblical truth.

The critical reception for the film has been middling, so our expectations were lowered entering the theater. But we were charmed and delighted by this film that celebrates not only the Golden Age of Hollywood, but more surprisingly, and ironically, Jesus.
popcorn, anyone?


Thursday, February 11, 2016

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970)

It's a human thing to want to see your heroes, even your fictional ones, share your likes and dislikes. Political candidates know this, so they wear the caps of teams the majority of their voters cheer. When I read about this film and learned that it was about Virgil Tibbs and the pastor of his church, I wanted to like his pastor, because Tibbs is a fictional hero of mine.

In the 1967 Academy Award Best Picture Winner, In the Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier played a homicide detective from Philadelphia named Tibbs, who's caught up in a murder investigation in the deep South. When someone calls Tibbs, "Boy," he responds "They call me MISTER Tibbs!" with a confident cool in the realm of Steve McQueen's. I love the character of Tibbs, so I wanted to like his pastor and his church in this film. Just couldn't do it, though.

In this film, Tibbs is a detective in San Francisco and has been for years (in the Tibbs novels he works in Pasadena). He's called to assist in the investigation of a prostitute, and it soon becomes apparent that his pastor, Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau), is one of the suspects.

One of the most perplexing things in the film is how it handles race. Race is central in the Oscar winning film, but it's pointedly avoided in this film. Sharpe, a white man, seems to be the most prominent liberal pastor in San Francisco in a film made at the time African American pastor Cecil Williams was living that role. The congregation of Sharpe's church is decidedly multi-ethnic.

Sharpe, in the film, seems to be the only person preventing riots in the streets of San Francisco, multi-ethnic riots. (It is certainly possible there could be multi-ethnic riots. But at that time, there were a number of riots taking places. In Watts and other cities there were riots protesting the police and living conditions, but they were primarily African Americans involved. On the campuses, there were anti-war protests primarily involving Caucasians.) It seems MGM wanted to keep the question of race out the film (one assumes for box office reasons).

We get to hear one sermon by the Reverend Sharpe, which begins with a quote from Psalm 8 ("What is man that you are mindful of him?") and then turns into a campaign speech for "Proposition 4." He says people have said that you shouldn't listen to him because he is a politician, but what is politics but dealing with people? Surely a man of God should deal with people. He talks about not "fighting the establishment with anger but with votes." From what I remember of Paul's Spiritual Armor, there were such weapons as faith, truth, hope, the gospel and such, but votes were strangely omitted.

Actually, I kind of liked what I heard about Proposition 4. Something about turning more decision making over to the local communities. But a pastor's work is more important than mere politics, dealing with eternal rather than temporal issues. So, Sharpe loses my support right there.

Now the Rev. Sharpe has some other problems that fall into grand spoiler territory, so if you plan to see the film as a whodunit, you might want to quit right here.

(SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER! You see, we find out that, before she was murdered, the Reverend was sleeping with the prostitute, but didn't pay her in money. He paid her in political and spiritual books! So he's not just a philanderer, he's a cheap philanderer. And bigger SPOILER:  The Reverend Logan Sharpe is the killer. And when Tibbs tells Sharpe he is going to arrest him for the murder, Shape asks Tibbs to hold off on the arrest until after the election. When Tibbs tells him no, Sharpe steps in front of a bus.)

So, as much as I like Detective Virgil Tibbs, the Reverend Logan Sharpe and his church gets one steeple.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Kansas films on the large and small screen

Dorothy at the Kansas Welcome Center
The most iconic Kansas films seem to start in the state and then move on to someplace else. The Kansas Tourist Center at the state line is full of The Wizardof Oz memorabilia and knickknacks, because the story of Dorothy begins and ends in Kansas, but most takes place somewhere else (and none of it was filmed in Kansas). Superman begins on Krypton but moves along to Kansas (but neither location was used for filming).

A very different iconic figure in Americana than Ms. Gale or Mr. Kent is Elmer Gantry, the poster boy for religious hypocrisy. Burt Lancaster played Sinclair Lewis' traveling salesman turned revival preacher. The film was nominated in 1961 for the Best Picture Oscar and it received Oscars for Lancaster, screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Shirley Jones (star of our Oklahoma film, Oklahoma!)


We learn in the film that Elmer did go to seminary in Kansas. It was there that he was caught by the preacher who ran the seminary deflowering his daughter (Jones) leading to his expulsion and her life of depravity. Most of the film takes place in Lewis' imaginary city of Zenith, but the ghost of Kansas haunts the film.

The opening disclaimer of the film assures us that Gantry is just one bad apple and there are plenty of swell churches and the filmmakers are A-OK with religion. But the hero of the film is a journalist who is just too darn smart and educated to believe in Christianity.  The film presents churches as good but revivals as circus sideshows, ignoring the history of men like GeorgeWhitefield and Jonathan Edwards, who made great intellectual contributions to Christianity. And like the two iconic films mentioned above, none of Elmer Gantry was filmed in Kansas.

Surprisingly, most of another Burt Lancaster film is set in Kansas, The Birdman of Alcatraz. Robert Stroud never kept any birds on the Rock; he did his work in ornithology while imprisoned in Leavenworth, Kansas. (In junior high, a former inmate of Alcatraz visited our social studies class and told us Stroud was quite the jerk in real life.) But it wasn't filmed in Kansas either.

So what films have been located and filmed in Kansas? Picnic, the adaptation of William Inge's play with William Holden and Kim Novak, was set and filmed in Kansas. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's account of notorious murders was set and filmed in Kansas, as were parts of two biographies of Capote, Capote and Infamous.

There are a number of Westerns, Dodge City, The Kansan, Red River, Winchester '73, The Gunfight at Dodge City and The Jayhawkers among many that are set but not filmed in Kansas. 

There are other films set and filmed in Kansas but I must include one final classic, Critters, still woefully unappreciated. Don't bother with the sequels, only the original was filmed in Kansas.
Plaza Cinema in Ottawa, Kansas


We couldn't leave Kansas without going to the Plaza Cinema in Ottawa. The building had other uses but became a movie theater in 1905 and they claim to be the oldest operating theater in the United States (perhaps the world).

The theater houses a movie memorabilia museum with such astonishing items as an actual hair from Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion costume, a prop sword from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an authentic Star Trek dilithium crystals.

There we viewed Kung Fu Panda 3. We hadn't seen the first two, but somehow we managed to follow the plot. About the film I can say it was...relatively short. And it was very close to Chinese New Year's. 


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Courageous (2011)

I watched Courageous in the most difficult of circumstances for watching a Christian film: in a church. Home video is ideal for watching a Christian film, providing the maximum opportunity for snarking at shoddy production values, awkward dialogue, and inane plot developments. Even in a movie theater, it's dark. You can whisper sarcastic remarks quietly.

But I watched Courageous in the worst of circumstances. The lighting is never quite dark enough in a church. To make things worse, I was on staff at the time. The interim pastor introduced the film with a big build-up of the greatness of the film. So me snickering about cheesiness during the film wasn't going to sell well. But we're not here to talk about my difficulties in sobriety during film viewing.

We're not even here to discuss the quality of the film, which was, in fact, surprisingly mediocre rather than bad. We're here to talk about the Church in the Movie. Since it's a Christian film, you can be pretty sure a church will be there.

The film is about a group of police officers on the force in Albany. One of the officers goes through a great tragedy, causing him to rethink his responsibilities as a father. A church plays a big part in that parental affirmation.

We first see a church during the funeral of a child. I'm sorry. I should have had a trigger warning about that. The death of a child is a pretty upsetting plot twist -- it's bad enough in a review but you're now warned before you see it in a film.

In the eulogy, Pastor Rogers says, "Silence seems to be the only expression that fits." And yet he keeps talking. And the other things he says he says are pretty much true and appropriate. "We speak because because we have a living hope. Our hope is found in the fact Jesus is no longer entombed."

The father of the child, Officer Adam Mitchell, goes to see Pastor Rogers for help. I sort of wondered why Adam had to go to see the pastor. It seems like when parents lose a child, the pastor should be checking on the parents.

Anyway. Adam says, "Pastor, thanks for meeting with me. I can't make sense of anything."

The pastor responds, "The grieving process take time. It's like an amputation. You heal, but something is always missing. But those who go through an experience like this and trust God experience a closeness to Him like no other. You'll need to choose whether to be angry for the time you didn't have or be grateful for the time you did have."

The pastor asks how he can help and Adam responds, "Teach me to be a father."

So Adam begins studying parenting in the Bible. He comes up with a pledge that he and other fathers can take to be a good father. They have a Father Commitment Ceremony officiated by a couple of pastors. Four men sign the resolution with families present (except for the guy who abandoned his daughter and is trying to make things right.) They recite a pledge, "I solemnly resolve before God to care for my wife and children as the spiritual leader of the home."

Pastor Rogers exhorts the men, "I bless you in the name of the Lord. But I warn you that you are now doubly accountable. You need courage."

They all hang resolution plaques on their walls. A parenting montage with music ensues as we see the men living out their resolution.

The film concludes with a church service. Pastor Rogers tells the congregation he has been preaching for the previous six weeks on being a father. This bothered me a bit. Did women and sterile men feel left out the previous month and a half? Anyway, he turns the pulpit over to Officer Adam Mitchell.

Adam has fathers stand to show their commitment to the proclamation of Joshua 24:15, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." Stirring music rises.

If Pastor Rogers had been a little less lackadaisical about caring for a family that lost a child, I might have given the church in the film better than 2 STEEPLES.



Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Police and Priest: Why Can't They Be Friends?



It doesn't take much research to see there are many more movies featuring police officers than clergy. But sometimes this action genre intersects with the world of Movie Churches. You'll see the results all this month.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Seen on the Big Screen (in Oklahoma)

amc theater quail springs mall
Some time this year we hope to go to a drive-in movie, but this week we had to settle for a drive-in Food Court that was adjacent to an AMC theater in the Quail Spings Mall in Oklahoma City. There were twenty-four theaters in the food court,featuring all the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.


Mindy tries out a classic car table
But we saw something different. I wanted to see Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisabut that animated film was showing at the wrong time. So we went to Pixar's The Good Dinosaur. Our Oklahoma film reminded me a lot of our Texas film, The Revenant. Sure, one was a PG "family" film and the other was an R rated revenge tale, but both are tales of survival with extraneous nature shots. From the Movie Churches perspective, both films' most outwardly religious characters are the villains.

How Dean seems to watch most movies
Tom Hardy's character in The Revenant speaks much of God even while practicing cold blooded murder. In The Good Dinosaur, Steve Zahn voices Thunderclap, a Pterosaur who worships the Storm (even giving thanks to it before he eats). He also is a ruthless killer. We've learned from movies you can't trust those religious types.

stranger danger
Fortunately, the theater itself warns of "Stranger Danger".








zoolander lobby entertainment
As for upcoming films, we may see Zoolander 2, but how can the film live up to the fun of this most excellent lobby toy.