Friday, December 8, 2017

Christmas Movies Month: In Theaters Now: Lady Bird

Lady Bird (2017)
Lady Bird, a new coming of age story written and directed by Greta Gerwig, opens with a quote from Joan Didion, “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Didion was born and raised in Sacramento, as was Gerwig, as is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, the title character of this critically acclaimed film. (The film is not only making most of the “Ten Best Films of 2017” lists, it has a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes -- with a record high number of reviews.)

This month we’re pushing the definition of a Christmas film here at Movie Churches, but this film not only opens with that quote mentioning Christmas, and we also get to see Lady Bird celebrate Christmas with her family. “Dance of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker is even included in the soundtrack.

And for this blog, it should be noted that there are churches, and there are clergy: priests and nuns. Lady Bird’s family doesn’t appear to be at all religious (Gerwig, who based this story on her own life, was raised Unitarian Universalist). Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is sent by her parents to a Catholic school, not for religious reasons, but for safety’s sake (Lady Bird’s mother repeatedly mentions her son, Lady Bird’s brother, seeing a knifing outside a Sacramento public school.)

They’re not not required to fully participate. Sometimes Lady Bird appears to join in with the  singing and unison prayers, and sometimes she does not. When communion is distributed Lady Bird crosses her arms, which is often a request for a blessing while refusing communion. Lady Bird is also required to attend an anti abortion assembly and is suspended when we she argues against the guest speaker (to be fair, it is probably because Lady Bird uses obscenities in her argument.)

Films featuring Catholic Schools often portray the priests and nuns as being out of touch and clueless, even in films meaning to present them as positive (like last week’s featured film, The Bells of St. Mary’s). In films like Sing Street, the priests are downright mean -- if not outright evil. The teachers in Lady Bird really seem like kind people and good teachers.

Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) genuinely cares about her students and presses them academically. She encourages them to read Augustine, Aquinas, and Kierkegaard (warning students that his description of “falling in love with God” will make them “swoon.”) When she chaperones the school dance, she encourages couples not to dance too close together, saying “Leave six inches for the Holy Spirit.” She also monitors skirt length, but not harshly. And when Lady Bird plays a mean-spirited practical joke on Sister Sarah Joan, the nun takes in all in good fun.

Lady Bird and her friend Julie sign up for the school drama program which is taught by Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson). He obviously loves the theater and enthusiastically leads drama exercises along with his rehearsals. He takes on a very challenging musical, Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. We see students gossiping about the priest, wondering how he came into the priesthood. They say he was married before, and his son died because of suicide or a drug overdose. He seems to suffer great emotional stress which leads to his leaving his position at the school.

Father Walther (Bob Stephenson) takes over as drama teacher, but his experience is in coaching football. His passionate direction of a rehearsal like football practice is probably the funniest scene in the film..

We see that Lady Bird is not exactly devout. She and Julie steal the communion wafers for snacking (but before they are consecrated). She mocks the priests and nuns, but when she goes off to college, we see that her days at Catholic school had an impact. Belief in God means something to her, as does church. The school may not have made her a Catholic, but she has been changed.

If this blog was for evaluating films, I’d happily join all the other critics in their praise of Lady Bird. Instead, I’ll praise the nuns and priests in the film, giving them the highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.

(Rated R for language and sexual content)

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Very Special Post #250

Christmas Lists
Most of us have traditions related to Christmas films. We watch Miracle on 34th Street the day after Christmas to kick off the Yuletide season. TBS runs a 24 hour marathon of A Christmas Story every December 25th, and they wouldn’t keep doing it if people didn’t watch. For the last several years, NBC has been running It’s a Wonderful Life just after Thanksgiving and just before Christmas.

But sometimes you want to add something new. I thought I’d revisit some Christmas films (movies that include churches and/or clergy, of course. A blog’s gotta have focus) that we’ve written about over the last couple of years. You might find something new to add to your rotation tradition.

We wanted to list films that are worthwhile, but we also warn you about films to avoid. Start with Candy Cane treats, then -- if you dare -- go on to Lumps of Coal to avoid. (Each film summary is linked to the review here at Movie Churches.)

Candy Canes:

Home Alone - Okay, this is not new to most people, but you might not remember offhand that along with the live action cartoon violence, there are sweet scenes of the church as a sanctuary.
(This was an early Movie Church review which also looked at While You Were Sleeping, not a bad film to find under the tree.)

Brooklyn - This is a wonderful film about the American immigrant experience, and though Christmas is not central to the plot, it is there.

Black Nativity - This retelling of the Christmas Story in the setting of an African American family in New York is definitely worth seeking out.

Joyeux Noel - You might have missed this touching true story about a moment of peace on the front lines during World War I.

Lumps of Coal:

The Bishop’s Wife and its remake, The Preacher’s Wife are beloved by many, but not me. Adulterous angels (even when it’s just an emotional affair) never have fit into my idea of Advent.

The Miracle of the Bells is a very corny film with the odd topic of a Hollywood death. And miracle bells.

Simon Birch  is the result of  John Irving’s classic novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, being ruined.

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas, a foul mouthed family comedy, is not one of the prouder parts of Robin Williams’ legacy.

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas is the film for you if you want cannabis to play a more central role in your family traditions.

Christmas with the Kranks  is evidence John Grisham should stay in the courtroom.

Midnight Clear  is just a bad Christian Christmas film.

I’m sure Hallmark has many films that would this category, but there are limits to what I’ll watch for this blog.

(As noted in the headline, this is the 250th Movie Churches post and we thank you for your faithful, or occasional, whatever, readership.)

Friday, December 1, 2017

Christmas Movies Month: The Bells of St. Mary's

The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
I’ll happily argue that Gremlins, L. A. Confidential, Lethal Weapon, and The Apartment are more Christmassy films than The Bells of St. Mary’s. The former films quite explicitly take place at Christmas time, while The Bells of St. Mary’s happens to have a scene where a Chrsitmas play is rehearsed. That scene is in the middle of the film, a story that takes place over an entire school year. Nevertheless, the film is in the rotation of Christmas films, and it has a place on top Christmas film lists. A version of the film’s theme (the St. Mary’s school song) can be found on Christmas albums. When George Bailey runs through the streets of Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve in It’s a Wonderful Life, we can see that The Bells of St. Mary’s is playing at the local movie theater, because the title’s up on the marquee.

PR w/o clerical collar or habit
So I figure all this is good enough to give the film a place in Movie Churches’ Christmas films, and it certainly has a church and clergy -- and a little bit of Christmas.

The film is a sequel to Bing Crosby’s hit, Going My Way, which won an Oscar for Best Picture. In The Bells of St. Mary’s, Bing again plays Father O’Malley, the good natured priest, this time going to serve in a parochial school run by nuns led by Sister Superior, Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). The film follows a school year, and in the midst of that school year, there is a rehearsal for a Christmas play.

There is a shot of St. Mary’s covered in snow and we see Father O’Malley playing “Come All Ye Faithful” on the piano as he sings in Latin, surrounded by a group of students. Sister Mary Benedict comes in and complains that the noise is interrupting the kindergarten’s rehearsal for the Christmas program.

Bing offers to play for the Christmas program, saying, “You can’t have a Christmas play without ‘O Holy Night’ or ‘Adeste Fideles’.” But Sister Mary Benedict tells him the kids have the program covered.

She takes him to see what Bobby and other kindergarteners are doing. The very small Mary and Joseph go from place to place asking for lodging. Each time, they’re asked, “Do you have any money?”

They say, “No” and are sent away until someone finally offers the stable.

Sister Benedict says, “Bobby made the play up. It’s a little not good.”

Finally, the “baby” (a two year old) is “born,” and the children sing “Happy Birthday to You.”

Father O’Malley says, “Their simplicity is beautiful; I wouldn’t change a word of it.”

Sister Benedict says, “But they will. They do it different every time.”

I should note that the Christmas story presented in church Christmas plays and Christmas cards is off. We always see Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem alone, but people in that day usually travelled in groups. All of Joseph’s family were required to report to Bethlehem for the census, so they probably traveled with family, not alone. The little kids in the movie take things a litttle further from the true story when the innkeepers reject Mary and Joseph because they have no money -- that’s not in Scripture. (Perhaps it’s a juvenile attack on capitalism.)  But their play is darn cute.

But we need to remember that  the purpose of Movie Churches is to examine ministries in films, so how they do Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict do? Let’s just say some of the practices at the school are...problematic.

One of the odd things about their work with the kids shows ups when we see Father O’Malley taking a special interest in one of the girls in the school, and Sister Benedict is a special supporter of one of the boys.

When two school boys fight, Father O’Malley expresses his admiration for the boy who beats up a kid named Tommy, saying, “That boy knows how to handle himself.” Tommy had been trying to practice the teachings of Jesus (turning the other cheek) that he’s learned from Sister Benedict. When she sees that her instruction led to Tommy beaten up, she decides to teach him to fight. She gets a book by boxer Gene Tunney and schools Tommy in the pugilistic arts -- because obviously that guy Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount.

Father O’Malley takes an interest in a thirteen-year old girl named Patsy. Patsy’s parents have been separated since the girl was two (but not divorced, because that wouldn’t be the Catholic thing to do). When O’Malley is asked about the girl’s situation, he tries to fudge over the facts for fear the girl won’t be admitted. But she is. She comes to O’Malley for help with her school work, which he provides by teaching her songs.

When Patsy fails the test for eighth grade graduation (intentionally, we later learn), Father O’Malley encourages Sister Benedict to overlook the test scores. The Sister insists the school must maintain standards, but Father O’Malley seems to believe kids should be graduated without regard to their academic performance. He seems to think this is the compassionate thing to do, but I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to move kids through the system whether they’ve learned or not.

The main plot of the film, as with many movies about churches made in this period, is about finances and real estate. St. Mary’s is supposedly in ill repair and could be condemned at any time, though the viewer is shown no evidence of this. Sister Benedict is covetous of the new office building next door to the school built by Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers). Obviously, he is greedy for wanting to keep the building he made for his business instead of giving it to the Church for the school’s use.

Sister Benedict makes it her prayer project that Horace will give the building to them. She doesn’t talk about praying for Horace’s salvation or for him to be blessed, but that he’d give her the building.

When Father O’Malley talks with Horace’s doctor, he mentions the sister’s prayers for the building. The doctor says, “Does she really believe Bogardus will give her the building? I haven’t encountered such a thing since I was a little boy and wished for something for Christmas.”

O’Malley does some finangling, asking the doctor to urge his patient to give away the building because it will be “good for his heart.”

Horace, does, of course, give his building to St. Mary’s because it’s “for the kids.” (There is never any discussion in these films about how businesses provide work for parents who need jobs to care for their children.)

The clergy in the film don’t talk about the Bible much, though Father O’Malley does at one time quote “The epistle of St. Peter, ‘Be sober and watchful’... or was it St. Paul?”

At the end of the film, there is a health crisis causing Father O’Malley to struggle to decide if honesty is the best policy.  Sister Benedict must deal with her own issue of bitterness, and their problems are resolved in a godly manner.

So in the Spirit of Christmas (even though there isn’t much Christmas in the film), I give the pastor and the nuns of The Bells of St. Mary’s Three Steeples.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Legal Month: Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
MIracle on 34th Street is not only one of my favorite Christmas films, it is also one of my favorite films, but you might wonder what it’s doing here at Movie Churches. Admittedly, there are no churches in the film, except perhaps fleetingly as the cameras pan the streets of New York circa 1947, but the film does fit right in with this month’s theme of Legal Films. It contains one of the great court cases in the movies, and the film takes on an important spiritual and theological issue that is worth investigating (even if, strictly speaking, it has no church or clergy).

The centerpiece of the film is a legal hearing to decide whether the man who calls himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is in fact the one and only true Santa Claus. Kringle was hired as Macy’s department store Santa, but he also takes on the store’s director of events, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) as a project to teach them the meaning of Christmas.

But when the HR director of Macy’s tricks Kringle into being institutionalized at Bellevue, Fred Gailey, attorney at law, steps in to take Kringle’s case. The legal maneuvers and trial politics are witty, but stay within a realistic legal framework. Valentine Davies’ screenplay deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Story and director George Seaton won an Oscar for Best Screenplay (the Academy did things differently those days).

There are so many things to commend about the film. Natalie Wood gives one of the most winning child performances in film history. It is said she really believed Edmund Gwenn was Santa Claus; when you see the film, you may believe it as well. O’Hara is a capable executive, a good mother, and, of course, beautiful. And John Payne as the lawyer is such a likable guy. I get to getting a little misty eyed at the film’s (maybe) miraculous conclusion.

Still, I have a great problem with one definition given in the film. When Fred urges Doris to have faith, he describes faith in this way: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”

This is very different than the definition given in Scripture. Hebrews 11: 1 says, “Now faith the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith isn’t opposed to common sense. We reasonably exercise faith all the time. We have faith a chair will be able to hold our weight. We have faith we can safely drive on the freeway and other motorists will drive safely (not always a well placed faith). It is especially important to place faith in other people, but I’d urge anyone considering marriage to also use common sense in making that choice.

As the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13:13, “There are three things that remain: Faith, Hope, and Love, but the greatest of these is Love.” And I do love Miracle on 34th Street.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Legal Movie Churches Month: Primal Fear

Primal Fear (1996)

There's only one idealist in this film. He’s a defense attorney, because if anyone would see the world through rose colored glasses, it’d be a man who spends every work day being lied to by criminals, right? Everyone else -- the police, those in government, and especially those in the church -- are cynical, if not outright evil.

Richard Gere plays Martin Vail, a prominent Chicago attorney who previously worked for the Cook County District Attorney. The film begins as Vail is interviewed by a journalist for the cover story of a newspaper supplement. He tells the reporter that every client, even a guilty one, deserves the best possible defense. When the reporter suggests that the important thing is getting to the truth, Martin responds, “Truth? How do you mean? My version, the one I create, the illusion of truth.”  

Later, we see Vail drop by the Chicago Bar Association and Catholic Charities Ball. Really, what better tie-in could we have for Movie Churches Legal Month than that? Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson) is speaking at the event, telling a lame joke, “I haven’t seen so many lawyers and politicians gathered together since confession this morning.”

The next day, Vail sees a TV story about Archbishop Rushman’s grisly murder and an altar boy’s arrest for the crime. Vail goes to the jail to defend the “boy,” Aaron (played by Edward Norton, who also appeared in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, a film made the same year as this one.) Aaron had been homeless, but was taken in by the Archbishop and allowed to serve in the church beyond the usual altar boy age limitations.

Vail decides to defend Aaron, believing in his innocence when no one else does. In his investigation, he discovers political corruption in the District Attorney’s office. He also finds that financial corruption is linked to the local Catholic diocese.

But the greatest corruption is found when Vail uncovers a video tape in the crime scene, the Archbishop’s apartment. It is a pornographic tape the Archbishop made of Aaron and another young man and a young woman. The Archbishop would practice his sermon before the young people, and then have them perform sex for the camera.

This is, of course, considered Aaron’s motive for killing the Archbishop, but Vail doesn’t believe it. He alone seems to have any idealism, in spite of his cynical bluster, but that idealism will be shattered.

I don’t want to give away more of the mystery of this dark legal drama. There are good things to its credit, especially the cast, full of familiar faces from TV and films: John Mahoney (Frasier), Terry O’Quinn (Lost), Andre Braugher (Brooklyn 99), Alfre Woodard (Luke Cage), Joe Spano (Hill Street Blues), Maura Tierney (NewsRadio), John Seda (Homicide), and more.

But this film’s view of the Catholic Church manages to be darker than the true stories found in the film Spotlight. Therefore, the church in Primal Fear, along with the Archbishop, receives our lowest rating of One Steeple.

(This was scheduled to be the final film of our November Legal Church Month, but it was a little too grim and discouraging to post on the day after Thanksgiving. Expect a much more festive film will take its place!)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Legal Month Continues (with Paul Newman!)

The Verdict (1982)
“What is the truth?” Bishop Brophy (Edward Binns) asks in Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film, The Verdict.

The question is a little different than Pontius Pilate’s in John 18:38, “What is truth?”  In David Mamet’s script, Bishop Brophy uses a definite article in his question, making his question more practical than philosophical. But really, does any member of the Christian clergy want to be compared to the man who turned Jesus over to be crucified?

In the movie, the bishop is talking to a lawyer, Frank Galvin (Best Actor Nominee Paul Newman), about a court case. They’re discussing settling a legal case against St. Catherine’s Hospital, which is owned by the New York Catholic Diocese. Galvin represents a woman who, during a Caesarean at the hospital, lost the child, her sight, hearing, and slipped into a coma from which she is unlikely to awaken. He wants the case to go to court, but Brophy points out that “nothing we can do can make the woman well.”

Galvin then points out that without a trial, “no one will know the truth.”

That’s when the Bishop asks, “What is the truth?”

Certain organizations are devoted to the search for truth. Academia and journalism are supposed to be about the search for truth. The legal system and the church are also both supposed to be in the business of finding the truth.

When the Church (or a university or a newspaper or a judge) thinks a piece of truth should be covered up for “the greater good,” it’s a problem. The bishop argues that they shouldn’t make too much of a fuss about this one woman. “It’s a question of continuing values. For St. Catherine’s to continue to do good in the community, she must maintain the position she holds in the community. So...we have a question of balance. On the one hand, a hospital and its effectiveness and that of two of its important doctors; and on the other hand the rights of your client, a young woman in her prime deprived of her life, her sight, her family. It’s tragic. A tragic accident. Nothing, of course, can begin to make that right. But we must do what we can. We must do all that we can. Yes, we must try to make it right.” They’re doing all they can, except for admitting guilt.

So the church doesn’t come across well in the film, but there is a bit of truth is what the bishop says. These days I hear people, particularly evangelical atheists, who say that the world would be better off without churches or organized religion. Do those people realize how many hospitals and medical facilities in this country, let alone worldwide, were founded by churches and continue to run because of the service and finances of churches?

Catholic hospitals in particular do much good. The world is a better place because they exist, but if something wrong is done in a church or a church-run institution, it shouldn’t be covered up. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Instead, in the film, we hear of a priest who tries to defend the Catholic hospital’s mistake when he’s talking to the coma victim’s sister. She tells Galvin,  “Father Loughlin, he said it was God’s will.”

In the film, the truth is pursued in court. At the beginning of the film, Frank Galvin doesn’t seem to be an ideal advocate of truth. We see him bribing funeral directors to gain access to families at memorial services. He is the lowest of ambulance chasers, but when confronted with this case, he resolves to finally do something just because it is the right thing to do.

As he tells the jury, “You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.’” Even when the judge seems to be trying to suppress the truth, the truth comes out. Christians believe in the God of Truth -- not just the truth of Scripture, but any truth, even legal truth, is God’s truth.

So I’m not going to give the church in this film our lowest rating of one steeple, because, in theory, the hospital owned by the church in this film does much good. In this case, though, they did much wrong, so we give Bishop Brophy and the church in this film Two Steeples.