Thursday, July 30, 2015

Seven Days in Utopia (2011)

The film opens with this verse from Isaiah 30:21, "Whether you walk to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, 'This is the way, walk in it.'" The verse seems wholly appropriate since the film often doesn't seem to know which way to go. As the old saying goes, when it reaches a fork in the road, it takes it.

Well, actually, at the beginning of the film, we see a driver reaching a fork in the road and turning right, toward a town called Utopia. (Apparently, in the book, it is a left hand turn toward Utopia. I know this because I heard a portion of the book's sequel read aloud, and I noted that change was made. More about that reading later.)

The driver is a pro golfer who just suffered a meltdown in the last shot of a tournament. This is what set the golfer on the road, and a traffic accident is what strands Luke Chisholm (a mighty manly moniker) in the town of Utopia. And quicker than you can say "Doc Hollywood," tranquil rural life is making Luke into a new man.

Luke finds a mentor in Johnny Crawford, a former pro golfer himself. Robert Duvall plays Crawford and provides the same kind of sage yet curmudgeonly advice about golf that he provided for Tom Cruise about auto racing in Days of Thunder.

When Johnny drives Luke from the scene of the accident into town, they go by a church. "Evening service is letting out," Crawford says. "Don't worry, I went in the morning." You can only see part of the sign for the church, which says "United Church of". I thought it would be a United Church of Christ, but later we see that it is the "United Church of Utopia." Since it seems to be the only church in Utopia, I'm glad it is united.

Crawford has a rather unorthodox method of teaching Luke to golf. He teaches golf through fishing, painting, horseback riding and modified horseshoes, and then, occasionally, by golfing. He takes Luke golfing and tells him not to think when he golfs. He tells him before the shot to "See it, feel it and trust." He writes S.F.T. on the golf balls. For some reason, "thinking"and "thought" are bad things in Utopia and golf.

After some climatic lessons in New Age Thoughtless Golf, Luke goes to church with Johnny Crawford and Sarah, the cute girl in town who seems to like him but won't kiss him yet. (Also about Sarah, her father died two years ago and she's still getting over it before she can go on with her life dream of being a horse whisperer.) The church seems like a nice place, but we don't hear about Jesus or much else there. Luke's dad wouldn't take him to church (even on Easter) because Sunday was a day to golf, so that's a plus.

After two weeks, Luke Chisholm is ready to be back on the pro-circuit. (Crawford pulled some strings to get him invited to the Texas Open.) He's ready to golf now, because Luke has learned that life is not about putting a ball into a hole, but about faith, friends and family. And yet the movie climaxes with Luke competing in the big tournament against the world champion (named TKO). Luke shocks the world by coming from behind to lead the tournament and it all comes down to one final shot. But then the film ends.
Because it doesn't matter who wins or loses a golf game. Though the whole film centers on a man learning how to golf by faith. And you can find out if he made the shot by going to Which kind of makes the film a commercial for screenwriter David Cook's sequel, Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days in Utopia.

(I know of one other film that doesn't really end, but refers to a website to find the ending: "The Devil Inside," a cheap Exorcist rip-off. So, yeah, a noble tradition.)

If you want to know if he makes the big shot and wins the big tournament, well, (Spoiler, Spoiler, Spoiler) YES, HE DOES.

We don't see much of the church, but from all I've seen of the fuzzy-headed thinking that passes for life lessons in Utopia, I'd rather not go to the United Church of Utopia, which earns 1 steeple.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

True Confessions (1981)

Eating in the best restaurants, drinking the finest wines, golfing with the rich and powerful: this is the life of a clergyman in "True Confessions," an adaptation of John Gregory Dunne's novel about the murder of a prostitute, roughly based on the infamous Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles in the 1940's.

Robert De Niro plays a priest (Msgr. Desmond Spellacy) rising in the Catholic hierarchy of Southern California. Robert Duvall plays his brother (Detective Tom Spellacy), a policeman investigating the murder of "the Virgin Tramp" (a porn starlet who may have connections to the Catholic Church). Early in the film, Duvall's cop is called to a brothel where a priest has been found dead in a bed. Duvall was previously involved with the madam of the house, and they quickly agree to cover up the circumstances of the priest's death for the good of the brothel and the Church. The Monsignor and his superiors happily conspire with the cover-up.

It is only when it becomes apparent that murder may have been involved that Desmond seems uncomfortable with the church's connection with sleazy characters. Burgess Meredith (in his good guy Rocky's coach role rather than his Penguin persona) as Monsignor Seamus Fargo confronts Desmond about his love of power. De Niro responds that power allows him to minister more effectively, and, you know, help the poor. (We don't see him helping the poor, but rather schmoozing with the rich.)

There are many wonderful passages in Scripture about power and ministry (such as 1 Corinthians 1 where Paul wrote, "Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong."), but neither priest thinks to refer to them.

Eventually, Tom's investigation into the prostitute's death leads to his brother's downfall. But there are plenty of corrupt, wealth- and power-loving clergy to take his place.

We see a couple of church services in the film, and since the story takes place in the 1940s, Latin is the language used. Perhaps one could argue that the mystery of the rituals of the church rise above the petty corruption of the clergy. But even if I wasn't a Protestant this is not a church I'd want to attend.

The film is bookended by a sequence of Tom going to visit his disgraced brother Desmond, now serving in a remote desert parish. Des remarks to Tom, "No one ever visits a priest to share good news." It is Des, though, who has bad news to share. He is dying of brain cancer. Desmond as a priest never seems to have much good news to share. He is just one more corrupt person in a world where everyone seems corrupt.

The question every week is "Would I want to attend this church?" My answer would be an emphatic "No." It gets 1 steeple.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Get Low (2009)

I look at "Get Low" as the third in the Robert Duvall Christian trilogy (starting with "Tender Mercies," followed by "The Apostle") and like other third films in the tradition of great movie trilogies (The Godfathers, original Star Wars, and Back to the Futures), this one is a step down. But it is still a very good film, and it gives us not just one, not just two, but maybe, if you stretch things, three churches to examine.

Robert Duvall stars in this "based on a true story" film of a man who wants to attend his own funeral. Set in Tennessee in the 1930's, a hermit, Felix Bush, wants to have a "funeral party," but unlike Huck and Tom, everyone knows Bush is alive. He's a man of mystery who has been the focus of scurrilous stories for decades. And he says he wants a time when his story can be told.

Felix first enters a church to consult a local minister with what is described as a "big, greasy ball of money" and asks if the pastor's heard the stories about him. The pastor says "Gossip is the devil's radio," and he claims he doesn't listen. The Reverend Gus Horton (played by Gerald McRaney of "Simon and Simon" -- I believe he played Simon) tells Felix if he's looking to buy forgiveness, he's in the wrong place. Forgiveness is free; he just needs to ask for it.

This is a church I would consider attending based on the words and deeds of the pastor. He's unwilling to be bought, though it is obviously a church struggling financially in a poor community. And he presents the gospel clearly.

Though the local church is not willing to oblige Felix for cash, the local funeral home, run by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), is more than willing to do so. Quinn sends his assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black), to go with Felix to see an old pastoral friend in Illinois to see if he'll speak at the service. But the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) isn't willing to bend to Felix's whims either. He asks Felix whether he has confessed to God, to the law, and those he's harmed. Felix tells him he hasn't been looking for forgiveness, that he built himself a prison he's been living in for decades.

I might consider at least visiting Jackson's church in Illinois. The building itself is a beautiful wooden structure that was built years before by Felix Bush.

So the funeral service takes place on Felix's property in the woods. Though not a church, true worship takes place at this service when true repentance finally takes place as well. I've always liked outdoor services.

There is one more funeral service at the end of the film. Both Reverends Horton and Jackson attend. It's probably worth noting that Jackson, who preaches at this service, is African American, but no mention of this is made. In that time and place, this says something very good about all the churches involved, earning them 3 steeples.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Apostle (1997)

What if you find out that your pastor isn't morally upright? What if he fudges the truth? What if he isn't faithful to his wife? What if he hits the youth pastor in the head with a baseball bat?

Though Scripture doesn't mention baseball bats specifically, it does set minimal standards for spiritual leadership. In a film he also wrote and directed Robert Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher, Euliss F. 'Sonny' Dewey, a man who doesn't at all exemplify Paul's outline of moral rectitude found in 1 Timothy 3. He might also fail a fairly basic psychiatric examination. And yet, at the end of the film I found myself thinking I might not mind going to his church.

There are several churches portrayed in the film before the opening credits, including one Sonny visits as a child, when Sonny's African American maid (or nanny) takes him to a black Pentecostal church in New Boston, Texas. In the midst of a lively service, a blind preacher expounds on the text, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." The boy is enraptured and we next see him as a grown man, a pastor himself.

The next congregation we see has Sonny for a pastor. It's a charismatic congregation church that seems to be thriving, in a PTL, polyester, big hair, leisure suits and lots of make-up kind of way, but Sonny's wife has maneuvered with the church's youth pastor and the church's board to boot Sonny out. Sonny's wife (played by Farrah Fawcett-Majors) is having an affair with the youth pastor, but apparently Sonny has had plenty of affairs himself, so he doesn't have the moral upper hand. He goes to a worship service and rages that "This was my own church." Not God's church, but his. Still, in righteous indignation, Sonny attacks the youth pastor with the baseball bat previously mentioned, putting the youth pastor in a coma and himself on the run from the law.

Sonny takes advantage of his own dilemma to begin life anew. He baptizes himself as "the Apostle E. F." and travels to a small town near the swampland of Louisiana. There he finds a retired African American pastor and asks him to join him in starting a church together.
This church is the "One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple" as the neon sign says on the front of it. E.F. promotes the church on the local radio station. He also gets a bus to pick up passengers who need a ride. Blacks and whites worship together. They don't have a piano or organ, but they get children to bring their instruments. And E.F. preaches passionately to a responsive congregation.

I certainly wouldn't want to go to the first church Sonny pastored. But this church has a sense of joy and unity. We see men full of hate and sadness find God's grace in this church. But E.F. is still Sonny, and we wonder how long he'll stay on the straight and narrow. Perhaps fortunately, the law steps in before Sonny has a chance to ruin what seems like a very good place to worship.
The churches in the film, good and bad, average out for 2 steeples.

(Look for a young Billy Bob Thornton and Walton Goggins.)
-- Dean

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tender Mercies

Admittedly, there aren't many movies that spend much time in churches. It's perfectly understandable -- even if a movie character were followed closely for a week, the hour in church out of the week's 168 hours translates into less than a minute of a two hour film. Even then, reasonably, many films about superheroes, cops, young lovers and astronauts never get around to portraying their leads singing worship choruses.

There are a few films about clergy and churches, and films about lay people (Hellboy, for instance), which include their church life as part of their story. One of the best of the latter is a film about a country western singer, "Tender Mercies."

Robert Duvall won a Best Actor Academy Award for playing Mac Sledge, and Horton Foote received an Oscar for his screenplay. Both awards were richly deserved. As the film begins, Mac is a has been, a drunk, a man without hope, passed out in a small rural motel in Texas. The motel's owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), takes Mac on as handyman and, eventually, her husband and stepfather to her son, Sonny.

We see the slow growth of that relationship along with Mac's slow growth in faith in Christ. Rosa takes Mac to church. Tess is in the choir, all the pews are filled and the people seem joyful. After the service, the pastor asks Sonny if he still plans to be baptized. Sonny assures him he does. Rosa mentions she was baptized in that church. The pastor asks Mac where he was baptized. Mac said he hasn't been. The pastor says, "We'll have to work on that."

Do you find the pastor saying that as being pushy and obnoxious? I kind of did. And yet the next time we see Mac in that church, he's being baptized along with Sonny. After the service, Sonny asks Mac if they feel different. He says no, but they both seem happy.

We see the church for about five minutes of a ninety minute film. But that church has apparently nurtured the faith of Tess. Tess is a woman who lost her husband and parents at a young age. She has raised her son and run a business alone. And she prays daily with petitions, praise and thanks for God's tender mercies. Her faith provides a foundation for Sonny and a beacon for Mac.

As I said, we don't see much of the church services in the film. They're probably Baptist, since they are in Texas and practice believer's baptism by immersion. The sing traditional hymns like "Jesus Saves." The congregation seems to wear their Sunday best to services. That's not much to go on. But after watching "Tender Mercies," you'll probably think, "Looking at how Tess lives, I think I'll check out the church she attends."

 It earns 4 steeples.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Robert Duvall

After I saw "The Apostle," the 1997 film that Robert Duvall wrote, directed and starred in, I was convinced Duvall must have been raised (and was probably still active in) a Pentecostal church. He captured so much of the feel of such a church.The movie was critical without being condescending, and he brought to the screen people's grace and God's grace with a reality rarely captured.

The film came fourteen years after his Academy Award-winning performance in "Tender Mercies," in which he was so very convincing as a man who hits bottom, and then truly repents, placing his faith in Jesus as his Savior and becoming part of an evangelical country church.

But that just goes to show how foolish it can be to guess the background of artists based on their work. Duvall was born in San Diego, California, and grew up primarily in Annapolis, Maryland. His family wasn't Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, or Evangelical, but instead, he was raised in Christian Science. Though he no longer attends church, those are still his beliefs.

Nonetheless, through his own research for "The Apostle," the work of Horton Foote for "Tender Mercies" and three other writers on "Get Low," Duvall has been part of three films that depict the Church in America better than almost any others.

Duvall has also been in a couple of films that do an absolutely horrendous job of representing the Church, but those will come later. Let's begin July with a celebration of three films that capture the Christian faith in a delightful and authentic manner that many who call themselves Christian filmmakers never quite seem to pull off.