Thursday, December 31, 2015

Brooklyn (2015, in theaters now)

I was going to see Brooklyn anyway. It's rocking 98% fresh with critics at Rotten Tomatoes and has been discussed for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress (for Saoirse Ronan as the young Irish immigrant, Eilis). Then friends mentioned that a priest plays a prominent role in the film, so I knew it might work for Movie Churches.  Viewing the film, I discovered it not only had a church, but a church Christmas scene, so it would fit with this month's Yuletide Theme; a big win all around.

The film opens in Ireland in the early 1950's, and one of the first scenes is set in a church worshiping with a Latin Mass. The church is full but many seem bored in the service. After Mass, a number of people go from the service to the little store where Eilis works part time. Employment options are limited in her small town, so when the opportunity arises, she decides to go to America to find work.

Eilis' immigration plans are coordinated by a priest in Ireland and a priest in Brooklyn. The priest in America sponsors the woman, arranging for her lodging and employment in her new land. Father Flood (played by Jim Broadbent) is an Irish immigrant as well, from the same town in Ireland. He remembers Eilis and knows she has potential.

When Eilis' bouts of homesickness hamper the cheerful attitude she needs to work effectively as a sales clerk at an upscale department store, her job is endangered. But instead of firing her, her intimidating boss calls in Father Flood to give her council and comfort. The priest encourages her to carry on in her work, but arranges for her to take accounting classes. He assures her that someone will pay for her school (an anonymous member of Flood's church who apparently has some atoning to do.)

Church dances provide Eilis and other new immigrants with another important service: a social life. Weekly church dances provide a wholesome atmosphere for entertainment and socializing. (It is at such a dance that Eilis meets the young man that will provide the romance and conflict for the remainder of the film.)

At the church, Eilis also finds a place to serve. While other girls in her boarding house find families to join for Christmas, Eilis helps with the Christmas meal for destitute men (most of them Irish immigrants as well). She finds the men's stories and songs from the old country almost as encouraging as the men's encouragement from her hard work and cheerful attitude. (And I, of course, found a reason to include the film in this month's Christmas theme.)

There is one other important scene in the film that takes place in a church. There is a wedding. Often I don't give much attention to church weddings at this blog because often the scene could just as well take place at any venue. But the wedding scene in this film provides the important thematic and plotting function of reminding a character of the sacredness of wedding vows.

You probably can still catch Brooklyn in a theater near you. I'm giving the Movie Church in the film Four Steeples.

So, there. The last Movie Church of 2015. Thanks to all who have read the blog through the year, especially those of you who have provided reactions and comments.

In 2016 we will be adding a couple of features. On Thursdays, we'll continue to post about a Movie Church fitting into the month's theme (among the themes next year: comedies, cops and robbers, depression, and crises) In addition, there'll be other posts related to an adventure my wife Mindy and I are taking next year.

During 2016, we plan to travel throughout America, visiting a church and a bar in each of the United States. Every week, we'll view a film related in some way to the state we are visiting, and we'll post about that. And if we go to movie theaters on our journeys, we may post that here as well.

So a Happy New Year to all, and we look forward to having you along for the ride in Movie Churches 2016!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Black Nativity (2013)

First of all, let's make one thing clear: this film must not be confused with Black Christmas. So before you pop the corn and gather the family around for a heartwarming reimagining of the Christmas story as the birth of Jesus in Harlem, be sure you have the correct film! You probably do not want to show Grandma and little Billy and Susie either Bob Clark's Black Christmas or the remake, even though Clark was the director of  A Christmas Story. Both BCs are slasher films about escaped maniacs dressed as a homicidal Santa.

More important for this site, as far as I know neither version of Black Christmas features a church. If I ever see either film and find out differently, I'll let you know.

Where was I? Oh, right, Black Nativity. The 2013 film is based on Langton Hughes' 1961 musical. Hughes was a poet, novelist, activist, and, of course, a playwright. There is a character in the film who's named Langston.

Langston is a fifteen year old boy living with his single mother (Jennifer Hudson) in Baltimore. When they receive an eviction notice just before Christmas, Langston is sent to New York City to stay with the grandparents he's never met.

Arriving in the city, Langston is mistaken for a thief and put in jail. His grandfather, a minister, comes to bail him out, though he assumes the charges are true. The Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) brings his grandson home with judgment all over his face. Fortunately, Langston's grandmother (Angela Bassett) greets the boy with warmth and love.

When the boy sits down for an eagerly awaited dinner, the Reverend's prayer is interminably long. When he's finished praying, he asks about Langston's mother and visibly flinches when told she (his daughter!) has been tending bar. Langston can only take so much and rushes away from the table to his room upstairs.

Rev. Cobbs shows Langston a watch he received from Martin Luther King. He tells Langston the watch will be his someday, when the Reverend passes away. Langston decides to take it a little early and brings it to a pawnbroker, who recognizes it as the cherished possession of the Rev. Cobbs. The pawnbroker tells the kid to return it, or he'll call the cops. Apparently everyone in Harlem, including the police, knows the Reverend Cobbs and respects him.
Langston wants to get away from his grandparents' home, but he also wants to get money for his mother, so he considers robbing the pawn store. Everything comes to a head on Christmas Eve.

The Reverend tells his grandson to come to the church service, adding, "Choose for yourself today what God you will serve, but as for me and my house we will serve the Lord."

At the service we see the Reverend in a grand robe surrounded by a full choir and glorious decorations. There is a reenactment of the nativity story. Langston falls asleep and dreams of Mary and Joseph coming to Harlem for the birth of their Child. Langston wakes up and leaves the service intending to rob the pawn shop. But instead, there is an unexpected intervention and discovery.

Back at the church, the Reverend is proclaiming that in Jesus, God entered into the world to make things right, to grant forgiveness. And that night, the Reverend, too, acknowledges his mistakes and his need for forgiveness. The Gospel is proclaimed, and the congregation sees the Good News heal the life of the Reverend and his grandson.

I do have one gripe about the Reverend Cobbs' church. On Christmas Eve, we see fundraising taking place to buy the church a new roof. Fundraising is sometimes necessary, but when guests and first time visitors come on Christmas Eve, they shouldn't be hit up for money. They need to receive before they can give.

Still, it seems like a good Movie Church, and the Reverend is a good man. I'm giving them Three Steeples.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christmas Movie Churches: The Miracle of the Bells (1948)

Come December, cable networks begin to play films with churches in them, because Christmas time gives them freedom to be just a little spiritual, a little religious. So this film will pop up on the programming schedules -- and it does have a scene that takes place on Christmas Eve. A press agent happens to meet an acquaintance, a rising starlet, in a small town on Christmas Eve. They search for a place to eat and all they can find is Chinese restaurant. The owner of the place, Ming Gow, apparently does all the serving and cooking on his own and doesn't even charge them for their meals. As a bonus, he tells them the Christmas story. But this is not a film about Christmas. It is really about something very different indeed.

My hat's off to whoever convinced RKO Pictures to invest in a movie entirely about a man making funeral arrangements, the essential plot line of The Miracle of the Bells. There are also flashbacks that tell the story of the actress who has died, but really, this is a mortician's story.

Fred MacMurray plays a Hollywood press agent, Bill Dunnigan, who follows the dying request of an actress, Olga, who was on the brink of stardom. She had asked for a traditional Polish funeral in her hometown of Coal Town, PA. Dunnigan accompanies her body to the town and is greeted by Nick Orloff, the mortician. He charges Dunnigan for money he says is owed for Olga's father's funeral four years earlier, and immediately begins to pile up charges that will be incurred by Olga's funeral.

Among the more substantial are the fees charged by St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church. Father Spinsky from St. Leo's explains that his is an expensive church,so they must charge for their services to keep it up. When Dunnigan, the press agent, compares around town, he finds that St. Leo's charges twice as much for say, ringing their bells than other churches. (As you may guess by the title, bells play a rather important role in the plot.)

There are times when it is reasonable for a church to charge, even charge substantially for its services. A church with a lovely sanctuary or setting may get a lot of people requesting to use the grounds for weddings. If the church accepted (and didn't charge for) every request, their property would be unavailable for ministry and would soon be greatly run down. Couples can go to any number of other sites for a wedding, and that's okay.

I think memorial services and funerals in churches are very different things from weddings. I've been with families who came to a church at their greatest time of sadness to find that the church has piled some debt on top of the grief. Yes, there are expenses -- the time of an organist for instance, that it can be reasonable ask for recompense. But how much better if a church can minister in a time of need and not ask for repayment.

Dunnigan decides to hold the funeral of the woman he loved at a different church in town, St. Michael's, which is pastored by Father Paul (Frank Sinatra). St. Michael's is a poor church, and everyone agrees it looks like a barn. St. Michael's ministers to poor coal miners without expectation of anything more than meager gifts. Father Paul genuinely cares for Olga and the grief that Dunnigan is experiencing. He tells Dunnigan he has time to hear his story.

At the worst time of a person's life, after the loss of a loved one, a church should never be seen as trying to profit by that death. The compassion of Father Paul is what is needed.

During the funeral at St. Michael's, an amazing thing happens. The granite statues at the front of the church, of Michael and Mary, seem to turn toward Olga's coffin. Father Paul investigates the foundation of the church and finds that this was caused by the shifting of mine shafts. He questions whether it was truly a miracle.

I appreciate his intellectual honesty, but if the mines shift during the funeral service, that sill may be quite the miraculous thing.

I'm not giving St. Michael's the full four steeples, because I'm afraid the floor will collapse any minute, but it gets a very respectable three steeples. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Rude Christmas Comedies

A Merry Friggin' Christmas
A discussion of the best way to dispose of the body of a transient man believed dead is not what you'd expect to find in a heartwarming Christmas comedy.  A Merry Friggin' Christmas proves the validity of those low expectations; this is one awful film. Sadly, this was one of Robin Williams' final films. Williams plays Virgil Mitchler, the alcoholic patriarch of dysfunctional family meeting together at Christmas for the first time in years.

The family is brought together by a christening in a church, which is what brings me to this miserable little film. Nelson (Clark Duke), a son of Virgil, was abandoned by his wife. She returned a few months later and dropped off a baby that wasn't Nelson's. He decided to have his son, B.J., baptized at his church on Christmas Eve. As always, we are here to talk about the church in the film, rather than the film itself (which I can assure you, you want to avoid).

On Christmas Eve, the choir is leading the congregation in singing "It Came upon a Midnight Clear." Virgil makes up his own lyrics to the melody, singing, 'They didn't give lyrics to this song, so I can't sing along." It might be reasonable, perhaps, to expect the Christmas Eve congregation to know the first verses of "Joy to the World" or maybe "Silent Night" but not "Midnight Clear."

For the christening, Nelson is given a mike and allowed to tell the story of his abandonment and his child's Mexican paternity. I'm not sure all the visitors came expecting hear such a story, and there seem to be no limits on how long Nelson is free to speak. A church should always be careful with open mikes and testimonies, especially on Christmas Eve.

Now, it's always a tricky proposition to judge a church by the behavior of its parishioners, but one really would have to wonder about a church frequented by the Mitchlers, who spend their Christmas Eve in bouts of drunkenness, coarse talk, reckless driving and, as mentioned before, disposing of bodies.

A Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas
Perhaps the Mitchlers aren't quite so bad when compared to the leads of A Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas. In this second sequel to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the Yuletide is celebrated with irresponsible drug use, blasphemy, gratuitous nudity and Santa getting shot in the face. The church they visit does have a very nice Christmas tree, but in order to go to the Christmas Midnight Mass, one must buy tickets months in advance. Kumar believes the priests of the church are pedophiles and the nuns are promiscuous, but there's no evidence of any truth to these beliefs. (This film does feature one supremely wonderful gadget, the Wafflebot. Yes, a robot that makes you waffles. I want one.)

Christmas with the Kranks
Christmas with the Kranks is a much more wholesome comedy than the other two films. Not funnier, mind you, but PG rather than PG-13 or R. There is no church to be seen in the film, but there is an interesting church mention. Based on the John Grisham novel "Skipping Christmas" (and not only is there no church, there's also no courtroom), the film explores the ramifications of a couples' decision to take a cruise rather than celebrate Christmas.

The Kranks decide not to spend money on the trees, presents, decorations, etc. But the husband, Luther (Tim Allen), also wants to withhold their annual donation to their church and the children's hospital. The wife, Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis), insists on giving $600. What I found vaguely interesting is that Luther surprises Nora with the news they had spent $6000 the year before on Christmas. So their gift is roughly a Christmas tithe.  Which is generous and all, but considering they spent $83 the year before on "ornament repairs", the gift pales a bit.

These films are all bad, but we're giving the churches in them a generous 3 Steeples. After all, it's Christmas.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Christmas Movie Churches: Simon Birch (1998)

I've put on many Christmas programs and so I believe I can say this with authority: "If an angel vomits in your Christmas program, things are not going well." Last year for a Yuletide Movie Church I reviewed The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and so it seems only right this year to look at a film that features one of the worst Christmas pageants ever.

Simon Birch features a very interesting writing credit: "Suggested by the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving." A Prayer for Owen Meany is a favorite novel of mine, but Irving didn't believe it could be successfully adapted, so he asked the writer/director of the film, Mark Steven Johnson, to change the names of the characters. Along with names, much of the film's story is changed from the book, but the Christmas pageant of the film, along with other scenes in the church, comes from the book.

Since this isn't Novel Churches, we'll look at the Movie Church in Simon Birch. I didn't catch its name. It seemed to be Anglican, since the pastor wears robes and is married, and the Sunday School teacher refers to Mass, which usually only happens in the Catholic or Orthodox churches. It could be the filmmakers just muffed that detail, not knowing Protestants tend not to do "Mass," but what are the odds of that?

The narrator of the film, Joe, finds the Sunday School teacher's name (Miss Leavey, played by the late Jan Hooks) to be very appropriate, since she frequently leaves the class for a smoke. Unattended, the class torments Joe's good friend, Simon Birch, who's abnormally small. (Joe is played by Joseph Mazzello, known by most of the world as the boy chased by raptors in Jurassic Park; also known in my household as Star Kid.)

Miss Leavey is in charge of the Christmas program, and the children are not pleased. One child volunteers to be Joseph, but everyone else tries to avoid being recruited. The girl chosen to be Mary doesn't look happy. The kids chosen to be Wise Men aren't happy. The kids chosen as shepherds are okay with it because they don't have speaking roles. The overweight kid chosen as the angel is very unhappy because he has lines to speak and will be suspended on a rope. The most unhappy of all is Simon Birch, a twelve year old boy assigned the role of the Baby Jesus.

The program begins with an adult choir singing "Joy to the World". It's a standard arrangement of the carol, so I don't know why the congregation doesn't sing it, but when the choir's done the curtain rises and we see a tableau of the kids enacting the manger scene. The overweight kid playing the angel is lowered toward the stage, and the audience gasps. The boy is suffering from acrophobia, and all he can say is "Fear not" -- more to himself than to the audience. The director stage whispers the next lines to him, but he can't say anything more.

Meanwhile, the girl playing Mary leans over Simon in the manger. Simon feels an attraction to the girl. In the novel this attraction is graphically described, but in both, Simon pulls the girl on top of him into the manger. The girl's boyfriend, playing one of the shepherds, tries to hit Simon, Joe intervenes; a brawl breaks out.

All the while, the angel keeps swinging, getting sick to his stomach, and he throws up all over Miss Leavey.

I don't think much in the way of spiritual truth is conveyed by the pageant, but you have to admit it's entertaining.

Also entertaining are Simon's outbursts in church. When I was a kid, at the Wikiup Evangelical Free Church, Pastor Bill Miller would, on occasion, misspeak. I, little punk that I was, would correct his mistakes. (For instance, he might refer to the comic strip "Peanuts" as "Snoopy." This could not stand in my 12 year old mind.) Pastor Miller, to his eternal credit, was always kind and gracious when I spoke I spoke up during his sermons.

The Reverend Russell (David Strathairn) in the film is not nearly so gracious. Following a rather pompous Scripture reading, the Reverend transitions to announcements (a rather incompetent order of service). The Reverend invites visitors to come downstairs after church for coffee and donuts with the Pastor and his wife. Simon pipes up with a voice that can't be ignored, "What does coffee and donuts have to do with God?"

Now, I happen to believe coffee and donuts have a good deal to do with the Kingdom of God. When Jesus came to earth He loved to eat and drink and was accused of being too much of a party guy (Luke 7:34). Simon's question should have provided the Reverend with an opportunity to instruct Simon on the importance of Christian fellowship. Instead, the Reverend sternly sends Simon off. Miss Leavey makes him wait in class alone until he apologizes to the Rev. Russell, who haughtily demands an apology. Off hand, I can't think of a time Jesus asked for an apology, though he deserved many.

When Simon refuses to apologize, the Reverend takes (and keeps) Simon's baseball cards. Miss Leavey says Simon shouldn't be allowed in church until he can act like a "normal person." I can't imagine how deserted most churches would be if only "normal people" attended. The Rev. says Simon won't be welcome at church, telling him the stern punishment is consistent with Proverbs15:10. Simon then quotes Proverbs 17:26, which the Rev recognizes. They have quite the Proverbs quoting competition, which is rather impressive.

But when Simon asks if God has a plan for his life, as Simon believes, the Reverend says he can't say. If you can't say that, you really shouldn't be in ministry. Yet, there must be something good about the church in that a very good and special kid like Simon, along with Joe and his family, want to be there. That's why I'm going to give the church in Simon Birch 2 Steeples.

A side note about something other than the Movie Church in the film: The novel A Prayer of Owen Meany begins with these words, "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice -- not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." In the film, Jim Carrey as the narrator says those same words, except that last phrase, "I am a Christian". Talking about belief in God is pressing it, but using the word "Christian" is just too much for Hollywood, I guess

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

How Well do you Know Christmas Movie Churches?

An Advent quiz to help you find out!

It's Advent, and as long as Movie Churches has been around (about a year now), we’ve been writing about Christmas films in December. This year is no exception. Sadly, we can’t write about some of our favorite Christmas films because they don’t have churches. John McClane doesn’t stop in the airport chapel on the way to Nakatomi Plaza, and the Whos down in Whoville sing in the great, snowy outdoors rather than in the First Community Bible Church of Whoville. Buddy doesn’t accompany his newly found family to midnight Mass at St. Patricks'.

But churches and spiritual references do come up in Christmas films, as you well know. Or do you? Let’s see how well you do with the Movie Churches quiz before we start posting Christmas Movie Churches tomorrow.

1. In Home Alone, Kevin meets his neighbor in church. The old man shares a name with which character from A Christmas Carol?
 A) Cratchit, B) Scrooge, C) Marley, D) Fezziwig

2. Which Christmas movie character “wept and prayed” on V-E Day and V-J Day? A) George Bailey, B) Buddy the Elf, C) Martin Riggs, D) Scott Calvin

3. In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy (Sandra Bullock) goes with her newly adopted family to what kind of church service? A) Catholic, B) Presbyterian, C) Quaker, D) Baptist

4. In The Bishop’sWife, Dudley the Angel indulges in which recreational activity? A) Bowling, B) Building Snow Men, C) Skiing, D) Skating

5. In the musical Scrooge, the church choir is singing A) Joy to the World, B) A Christmas Carol, C) Come All Ye Faithful, D) Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

6. In The Preacher’s Wife, the actor who plays the preacher (Courtney B. Vance) appeared on a number of episodes of ER. The actor who played the angel (Denzel Washington) was a regular on which other TV hospital drama? A) St. Elsewhere, B) Medical Center, C) Chicago Hope, D) Doogie Howser MD

7. In the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus recites the Christmas story from A) Matthew, B) Mark, C) Luke, D) John

8. The Bells of St.Mary’s is a sequel to what film? A) Holiday Inn, B) White Christmas, C) I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, D) Going My Way

9. Joyeux Noel takes place during which war? A) The Civil War, B) World War I, C) World War II, D) The Vietnam War

10. In the movie Holiday Inn, Jim (Bing Crosby) goes to church on which holiday? A) Christmas, B) Pentecost, C) Good Friday, D) Easter

Answers – 1-C, 2-A, 3-A, 4-D, 5-B, 6-A, 7-C, 8-D, 9-B, 10-D

Score (give yourself one point for each correct answer)

0         you’re an unredeemed Scrooge
1 – 2   you’re an unredeemed Grinch
3 – 4   you’re a Doris Walker (from Miracle on 34th Street)
5 – 6   you’re a redeemed Grinch (whose heart “grew three sizes that day”.)
7 – 8   you’re a Buddy the Elf
9 – 10 you’re a redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge (“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”)

What movie churches do you appreciate at Christmas time? Tell us in the comments!