Friday, September 30, 2016

Western Movie Churches: Sweetwater and 5 Card Stud

If you have any desire to see either of these Westerns, be aware that by necessity this review has huge spoilers. So read no further if you wish to be surprised by the plot twists of these films.*

To start with, both of the church pastors in these films commit multiple homicides. Certainly for most people, that fact alone would dissuade them from attending either church, but these pastors’ homicidal tendencies is but one fact of many to be learned about these churches. We'll examine the church in Sweetwater first. (The film was also released as Sweet Vengeance.)

The film opens with "Prophet" Josiah (Jason Isaacs) finding a couple of trespassers on his land in territorial New Mexico. The two starving men have killed a couple of the pastor's sheep. The clergyman knifes one man and has his underling gun down the other. Now, aside from the murder (which, as we already mentioned, is a bad thing), this incident shows the church’s lack of concern for the alien, the poor, and the hungry. That's not biblical.

January Jones, of Mad Men fame, known for her beauty and superb acting (well, one of those), plays a former prostitute trying to make a new start as a wife and farmer. Josiah kills her husband and rapes her. Again, aside from the murder, the "prophet" is not being faithful to his three wives or the prostitutes he frequents. Again, not biblical.

We hear Josiah berate Mexicans and blacks, calling them a curse on the white race; nope, not biblical.

When Jones and Marshall Ed Harris attack Josiah's church, Josiah uses his congregation members as shields to protect himself. The shepherd is supposed to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Once again, not biblical behavior.

Finally, the film gives an example of Josiah's preaching. He doesn't use Scripture, but rather prophecies he received from an angel (Angel Frank or Marvin or Bob or something). I do believe he was a false prophet. And the church doesn’t seem to have much of a music program.

This is not a church I'd want to go to.

It takes longer for the audience and especially the characters in 5 Card Stud to figure out that the Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) is a killer. Until that happens, he's not doing too bad a job planting a church.

When he comes into town, Rev. Rudd walks into a saloon and fires a couple of bullets from his Colt .45 into the floor. He invites everyone to come the next Sunday to the church, "God's House." (The sign in front of the church reads, "God's House - Caretaker: Rev. Rudd.") One of the men in the bar says, "You don't want me in your church. I'm the meanest, orneriest S.O.B. you ever come across."

Rudd responds, "Jesus found room for Judas at the table, so I think we can make room for you in a pew."

The next Sunday, the church is full. This firearms-in-a-bar technique of marketing probably needs further investigation. The reverend's preaching is of the hellfire variety, but since he’s condemning a very recent lynching, the harsh tone is more than justified.

Throughout the film, the preacher shows a certain proficiency with Scripture. (Though his interpretation of "'Vengeance is mine,' says the Lord" is certainly lacking) The hymn singing in the church is spirited.

Rev. Rudd also has a nice way of dealing with stereotypes of ministers. When someone asks him what a minister is doing with a gun, he responds, "When a man dons the cloth, he doesn't stop being a man."

There are a lot of things about the Rev. Rudd I very much like. I would certainly consider going to his church, if he wasn't a murderer -- which I'm afraid really is a deal breaker.

One steeple for each church.

*This review first appeared on our other blog, Dean and Mindy go to Church, back in January of 2015.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Wisconsin movie on the big screen

Miner Theater, Ladysmith, Wisconsin

2016 Leaf it to Rusk festival in Ladysmith Wisconsin on Miner
I’m starting with blunt honesty here. We saw this week’s movie because it was free. We’ve made a commitment to see a movie in a theater (yes, drive-ins count) in every state, but ticket prices (and the necessary popcorn) adds up.

We’d considered going to community showings of films in previous weeks, but it never quite worked out. This week, though, we were in Rusk County, Wisconsin, for the “Leaf it to Rusk Fall Festival.” (We were a little annoyed with the DJ on local radio station WLDY, The Dice, who pronounced it “Leave it to Rusk” rather than emphasizing the pun “Leaf it.”) The community festival included the biggest farmer’s market of the year; a beer, wine, and cheese tasting; a classic car show; an antique tractor show; a dunk tank; live music, free ice cream; and more. That “more” included a free movie at the local movie theater, but that movie was a year old, the animated sequel, Hotel Transylvania 2.

I was rather surprised by not hating the film, perhaps because it was directed by a talented guy, Genndy Tartakovsky (Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: The Clone Wars), who kept the pace of the film moving along. There were some interesting voice actors in addition to the Adam Sandler stable of players, such as Steve Buscemi, Mel Brooks, Nick Offerman, and Mel Brooks. But my fondness for the film is based mostly on my love for the Universal Monster Movies as a kid. I love almost any depiction of Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster (not “Frankenstein,” as the film makes clear), and the Invisible Man. (There’s a great running gag about the Invisible Man’s imaginary girlfriend.)

We were, in the end, glad we went to the free movie because the Miner in Ladysmith is a great old theater. The theater opened in 1948, and both the interior and exterior reflect the luxuries of that time. There isn’t a balcony, but the auditorium was still fairly sizable. The restrooms were downstairs in a sunken lobby. And you can get a decent bag of popcorn for two dollars.

The film playing earlier in the week had been Pete’s Dragon, and the movie that was just starting was the animated film, Storks, so I take it they show family films whenever they can. But those films were not free.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Seen on the Small Screen in Wisconsin

People in Wisconsin have a sense of humor. Consider those cheeseheads people wear to football games. Also, they really need to have a sense of humor or they might not make it through the winters.

Since there are lots of films set in (or about) Wisconsin, we’ll just look at comedies. To narrow it further, we’ll just look at comedies that have a tie-in to television since we’re starting with a classic comedy from the 1990’s, Wayne’s World.

Wayne’s World began as skits on a TV show (Saturday Night Live) before it became a movie about a TV show. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey were part the SNL cast during of one of the enlivened periods of Saturday Night Live (which is at times lauded as brilliant and then proclaimed dead). Myers and Carvey wrote the skits for the show and wrote the film. It’s about a couple of young guys who still live with their parents whose claim to fame is a cable access show.

Admittedly, most of the film takes place in Illinois (some was even filmed there, but it was chiefly filmed in Canada) but part of the film does take place in Milwaukee where Wayne and Garth go to an Alice Cooper concert. Upon arrival in Milwaukee, the friends recreate title sequence from Laverne and Shirley, the classic Milwaukee sitcom. A little later, Wayne and Garth meet Alice backstage where he gives them a lecture on origin of Milwaukee’s name.

Wayne Campbell: So, do you come to Milwaukee often?
Alice Cooper: Well, I'm a regular visitor here, but Milwaukee has certainly had its share of visitors. The French missionaries and explorers were coming here as early as the late 1600s to trade with the Native Americans.
Pete: In fact, isn't "Milwaukee" an Indian name?
Alice Cooper: Yes, Pete, it is. Actually, it's pronounced "mill-e-wah-que" which is Algonquin for "the good land."
Wayne Campbell: I was not aware of that.

There are no churches in Wayne’s World, so I’m hard pressed to come up with a Movie Church angle except this: Alice Cooper these day identifies as an Evangelical Christian. From an interview with Cooper in my hometown newspaper, The Press Democrat:

PD: When you come to Santa Rosa, you’ll be playing in a former church. Do you like the idea of that?
AC: I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a theater now, you know.
PD: Church can be a theater too, right?
AC: It is, depending on what you believe in. If it were a church being used as a church now, I might have a problem with it.
PD: You’re a born again Christian?
AC: Yeah, well if you’re a Christian, it goes without saying. I think a lot of people have a weird concept of ‘Christian’. Christian is your one-on-one relationship with Christ.

Later in the interview Cooper says, "Being Christian might be the most shocking thing I ever did."

Oh, the Milwaukee scenes in Wayne's World were filmed in Canada.

Not surprisingly, other Saturday Night Live cast members went on to make movies with Wisconsin connection.

Dan Aykroyd, part of the original cast of SNL, plays a Chicagoan who takes his family on vacation in the Wisconsin woods in the 1988 comedy, The Great Outdoors. His rest is disrupted by an in-law played by John Candy (cast member of the skit show that rivaled SNL, SCTV). The film was written by John Hughes, the eighties teen comedy guru. In this film, the woods of Wisconsin are played by Yosemite National Park in California.

Chris Farley (who had a cameo in Wayne’s World) and David Spade were part of a slightly different era of SNL’s existence, and they made a film much beloved by my nephews, 1995’s Tommy Boy. Most of the film, about a shlump who must save his family’s auto parts company, takes place in Ohio; Farley’s character, however, is a graduate of Milwaukee’s Marquette University. But the whole thing was filmed in Canada anyway.

Most SNL- related films have been viewed as crude and populist, but 2011’s Bridesmaids was nominated for two Oscars (for screenplay and best supporting actress for Gilmore GirlsMelissa McCarthy). I don’t think the films connected to SNL became more classy, it seems more likely the Oscars are less so. The film, about the competition to be the maid of honor in a wedding, was produced by Judd Apatow (of the great one season skit series, The Ben Stiller Show) and directed by Paul Feig (creator of a great one season TV comedy, Freaks and Geeks). This film was not only chiefly set in Milwaukee, it was actually filmed in Milwaukee.

Saturday Night Live may have cleared the path for off-color humor on television, but perhaps no show has crossed the line of taste for the sake of laughs as much as South Park. That show’s co-creators starred in 1998’s BASEketball, a film that guaranteed the rest of Trey Parker's and Matt Stone's careers would be spent behind the camera. Parker and Stone play the inventors of a new sport, a combination of baseball and basketball, and the stars of a new team, the Milwaukee Beers. The film was written and directed by David Zucker, one of the creators of the wonderful, barely one season, comedy Police Squad. The film was made in California.

One comedy actually did film in Miller Park, the Milwaukee Brewers stadium. 2004’s Mr. 3000 starred Bernie Mac as a 47 year old ex-major leaguer who got back in the game to try to reach 3000 hits. Mac was also the star of a successful Fox sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show.

Robin Williams had his first big break on a sitcom, Mork and Mindy. One of his last films, the horrible Merry Friggin’ Christmas (reviewed earlier) is set in Wisconsin, but was filmed in Georgia.

Technically Billy Mumy was never in a TV comedy. But if you watch Lost in Space these days, it’s pretty darn funny. (Try not to laugh at Robot swinging his arms proclaiming, “Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!) Lost in Space may well be funnier than the 1969 Disney comedy Mumy starred in. It was about a domesticated raccoon, Rascal. Though set in a small town in Wisconsin, the film was made in California.

Molly Ringwald has an even more tenuous link to TV comedy, but she has been on Saturday Night Live. She voiced Anne Frank. For Keeps was the last film in which she played a teenager; she portrayed a high schooler who becomes pregnant. It was set and partially filmed in Madison.

Someday I plan to write a full Movie Churches review of Lars and the Real Girl (starring Ryan Gosling). It may sound odd that a film about a man who develops a relationship with an anatomically correct doll that he finds online has good things to say about the church, but it does. Though Gosling doesn’t have much of a connection to television comedy, his film co-star Emily Mortimer stars in an HBO comedy, Doll and Em. Though Lars and the Real Girl is set in a small town in Wisconsin, it was filmed entirely in Canada.

So once again, the majority of films set in this week's state were filmed elsewhere. When will filmmakers realize that Wisconsin is worthy?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Western Movie Churches -- San Francisco (1936)

Father Tim Mullin hasn't had much success in bringing Blackie Norton around around to the straight and narrow. Tim and Blackie grew up together in the Barbary Coast of San Francisco, skipping mass in order to get in trouble. Tim became a priest, and Blackie became a nightclub manager. If you grew up in a bad neighborhood in an MGM film in the thirties or forties, you pretty much had three career paths open to you: cop, priest, or shady operator of some kind.

Tim and Blackie are characters in this MGM drama directed by W. S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man) with a number of other directors collaborating. It’s set in the San Francisco of 1906 (you careful readers may have already guessed the location of the film). Father Tim is played by Spencer Tracy (the go to priest until Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald took up the cloth). Blackie (the name says, "rakish," doesn't it?) is played by Clark Gable. And Jeanette MacDonald plays the Gospel Bait*.

Mary is a spunky young woman who left her small town minister father to come to the big city. She goes to Blackie's place to get a job as a singer and knocks everyone out with her operatic voice, but Blackie is taken aback when she rejects his suggestion that she "show some leg."
Mary also quickly becomes involved at Father Tim's church, singing the hymn "Jerusalem" at a service with the boys' choir (all MGM churches have a boys' choir). It does seem rather strange that as a "minister's daughter" -- presumably Protestant -- she connects so quickly to a Catholic Church. But that Father Tim is so winning.

He isn't winning Blackie, though Father Tim’s been doing his best with boxing evangelism. Blackie and Tim spar in the ring, and the priest makes with the holy sucker punches. He also invites Blackie to an organ concert since Blackie gave the money for the organ and all. But nothing seems to be working. Blackie asks Tim why he "blew me for a bunch of plastic saints?"

Blackie thinks God is for the suckers at the mission, but a person should take care of himself.  So when Blackie shows an interest in Mary, Tim thinks this may be God's answer.

He tells Mary Blackie's "someone to be afraid of," but wishes he was a force for good rather than evil. He hopes Mary will be a good influence on Blackie. But when Tim feels Blackie’s exploiting Mary, he goes to tell Blackie off. Blackie slugs him and goes off to the opera with a solid San Francisco citizen.

Mary is going to marry that upright citizen. Tim goes to the engagement party and asks if Mary is happy. She says she's happy, but the audience can tell she's not Clark Gable happy. She discovers her fiance is a jerk who’s trying to ruin Blackie and his club, so she tries to help Blackie by singing (the title song) on behalf of Blackie's club at a talent contest. Blackie says he doesn't want her help and storms out.

Right after the talent contest, the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake hits. The real earthquake struck at 5:00 am. I guess they were quite the night owls in San Francisco back in the day, although this movie’s footage of the earthquake all seems to be in broad daylight, which is quite unusual in San Francisco at 5:00 on an April morning. We see everyone out on the streets, children playing on playgrounds, traffic on the street. I guess that makes for better earthquake footage than showing lots of people asleep in beds when the earthquake strikes.

Blackie is in the street during the earthquake, and he goes about helping people trapped under buildings. He finds Mary's fiance under a building, rather deceased. So he goes looking for Mary.
Blackie goes to Father Tim, who is working with other priests and nuns and Salvation Army workers at a hospital. He asks Father Tim if he knows where Mary is. Tim takes Blackie to a tent camp where she is leading a worship service, singing "Nearer My God to Thee."

Blackie is so relieved that Mary is alive that he tells Father Tim, "I want to thank God, what do I say?"

Tim answers, "Just say what's in your heart." Mary sees Blackie kneeling in prayer. Finally Mary and Blackie can be together, because they are together with God. Finally, romantic love and natural disaster accomplish what Tim's preaching and pugilism couldn't.

I'm giving the church in the film 3 Steeples for Father Tim's work with the survivors of the earthquake and for the way he leads the citizens of San Francisco in a rousing chorus of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" when the fires are put out.

*Tim despairs of winning Blackie to righteousness, but when Blackie falls for the good and pure Mary Blake he sees an opportunity.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

On the Big Screen in Illinois

We really didn’t expect Don’t Think Twice to be an Illinois film. We planned to watch it in an Illinois theater, but we assumed it would be purely a New York film through and through. It’s the story of an improv group in New York who want to be on a Saturday Night Live type of show, and SNL is quintessentially NYC.

Yet as we watched this film in a movie theater in Naperville, Illinois, one of the characters, Miles (played by the film’s writer and director, Mike Birbiglia) tells the other players in his comedy troupe that one of his old friends is visiting, a high school friend from Naperville, Illinois. There are even scenes where Miles goes to see his friend in Naperville. So we ended up seeing what was -- at least partially  -- an Illinois film.
It really shouldn’t have been surprising to find Illinois connections in the film. Second City (in Chicago) is often credited as being the birthplace of improvisational comedy. During the film, characters quote improvisational guru Del Close, a key player in Second City and other Chicago improv groups.

It is odd that Close is quoted so frequently with no explanation of who he was; the film expects viewers to have a great deal of knowledge about American comedy history. Another strange element is that, though the film is set in the present day, there seems to be a bit of a time warp aspect at work. One of the members of the comedy team, Samantha (played by Community's Gillian Jacobs) concentrates on her impressions of Katherine Hepburn and Gina Rowlands. One would think working on an impression of one of the Kardashians would make more sense, but…

We do see one church in the film, during a funeral for the father of one of the troupe’s members. The church seems to be a warm and comforting place with a caring and compassionate Catholic priest. It would do well in the Movie Church Steeple Ratings.

We saw the film in an AMC theater which had most of the annoying features one would find in the Regal Theater chain. TV commercials are run during the feature film. The employees are rather haphazard about closing theater doors after films begin, and it was rather difficult to get the attention of the employee working the snack bar (one of the two people we saw working during the weekday matinee we attended). But the film was projected competently, which is really what matters.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Illinois Movies on the Small Screen

Not only are there too many Illinois films to cover in one post, there are too many films made in the city of Chicago to cover. Perhaps only New York City has been the location of more films than Chicago, but since one of our goals this year is to visit a bar in every state, we thought we’d remember a time in our nation when such a task would have been more difficult and far less legal. We’re limiting our films to those set in the Prohibition Era in Chicago. And there are plenty.

Brian DePalma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables, is really based more on the popular TV show than the true story of Treasury Agent Eliot Ness’ battle against bootlegger Al Capone. If someone doesn’t mind how the film strays a bit from the truth (Ness didn’t cold bloodedly kill Frank Netti, who lived on in Chicago for years after Ness left), this is a rousing film, an urban Western. Kevin Costner is great as Ness, as is Robert DeNiro as Capone, but it was Sean Connery who won an Oscar for playing a fictitious policeman. David Mamet wrote a screenplay full of memorable lines and interactions. Ennio Morricone’s score is stirring and similar to his music for spaghetti Westerns. But best of all is DePalma’s direction of a number of memorable set pieces including a wonderful steal of Sergei Eisenstein’s staircase montage from Battleship Potemkin.
There are even some Movie Church connections in the film. Connery’s famous “Chicago Way” speech to Costner takes place in a church (the one place that seems free from the city’s corruption). Connery’s cop, Jimmy Malone, keeps a St. Jude medal to honor the saint of lost causes and policemen. We get to see Ness with his little girl saying her bedtime prayers. And there are, of course, the wise words of Eliot Ness: “Let’s do some good!”

Capone’s Chicago days have provided material for a number of films. In 1959’s Al Capone, the gangster was played by Rod Steiger (if you were a member of our household, you would remember him as the protagonist of the film Oklahoma). In 1975’s Capone, Ben Gazzara played the famous thug. An unusual choice in making that film was also showing Capone in the years following his imprisonment.

In 1967’s The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Jason Robards played Capone in a film which focused on Al’s slaughter of the Bugs Moran gang on the day that is supposed to be all about love. That awful event is recreated in a very different setting in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot, in which musicians Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis witness the killings and go into hiding as members of an all girls band.

Sometimes pseudonyms were used for a Capone-like character. The mobster was still alive in 1932 when Howard Hawks made Scarface. “Scarface” was a nickname for Capone, but Paul Muni plays a character named “Tony.” The film is set in Chicago, but when the film was remade in 1983, Brian De Palma used Florida as the setting and made it about the prohibition of drugs rather than alcohol.

Two classic gangster films were made the year before the first Scarface which were also set in the Windy City: Little Caesar, launching the career of Edward G. Robinson; and The Public Enemy, which was Jimmy Cagney’s big break. All three of these films were very popular -- but also were considered very violent. There was a concern in the government, the press, and the church that these films glorified the life of the gangster. Along with the early Universal horror films, these helped usher in the censorship of the Hayes Code.

The gangster life during those prohibition years in Chicago has continued to be a popular theme. In 2002’s Road to Perdition, Tom Hanks and Paul Newman played hoods in a story based on a graphic novel. Perhaps the strangest film of all time set in this place and era is 1976’s G-rated musical, Bugsy Malone. All of the roles, including the gangsters and molls, are played by child actors (such as Scott Baio and Jodie Foster). To keep that G rating, the guns in the film shoot whipped cream instead of bullets.

A couple of other films set in the time of prohibition are not about gangsters, but are still about criminals. 2002’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Chicago, is about murderesses in the early 1920’s who were heroines in the tabloid press. The movie musical was based on a Bob Fosse musical and won five additional Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones.

But the story told in that musical had been told on the screen before. In 1942, Ginger Rogers played Roxie Hart in a film that featured her trial on the charge of murder. Because of the Hayes Code brought about by those gangster films, a movie couldn’t portray someone getting away with murder. So Roxie, in the film, was innocent. We sometimes think of the past as a more innocent time…but Prohibition Era Chicago…not so much.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Western Movie Churches -- Hellfire (1949)

A running theme as we consider churches in movies is Old Hollywood’s fascination with church fundraising. The number of films about other aspects of church life like evangelism, worship, missions, youth ministry, etc. all seemed dwarfed in comparison to the number of films about getting the money to build a steeple. (Newer Hollywood’s treatment of churches seems to be fascinated with abuse of children by priests or nuns.)

I've seen some interesting ideas for fundraising in films, ideas never raised at any church board meetings I've attended: writing a hit song or a bestselling novel, wrestling or boxing, and a number of bets on the horses. But the Western Hellfire (1949) features a truly unique form of bringing in the bucks -- hanging out with a wanted criminal until she turns herself in for the reward money. Genius.

The film begins with a slightly more conventional means of fundraising. A pastor, Brother Joseph (played by H. B. Warner, who also played Jesus in the 1927 version of King of Kings) goes into a saloon, where he asks patrons for money to build a church. When a man who throws a drink in Brother Joseph's face, a gambler comes to the pastor's defense. It’s not for the pastor's sake; the gambler’s drink was the one thrown.

That same gambler, Zeb Smith, is caught cheating. The crowd wants to lynch him, but the preacher proclaims, "Thou shalt not kill!" Someone pulls a gun. Joseph jumps in front of the bullet, saving Zeb's life but losing his own.

Zeb cares for Joseph in his last hours, and he tells the preacher he doesn't like being in debt to anyone. He asks what he can do to repay Brother Joseph for saving his life. The pastor asks him to raise the money to build a church, and also to raise the money following the commands of the Bible.

Zeb says he's not going to follow the hooey in that "Rule Book" (Zeb refers to the Bible as "the Rule Book" throughout the remainder of the film). The preacher says, "What if I called your horse a swaybacked, spavined old hunk of coyote bait without seeing it? What would you think of me?"

"I'd think you were a fool."

"Same if you pass judgment on the Book without reading it."

Brother Joseph dies, but Zeb makes it his goal to raise the money to build a church. He can't cheat at cards anymore because that's against the Rule Book, but he does start card games, show he could have won, gives the money back, and asks for donations. This doesn't work very well. He ends up being insulted just as Brother Joseph was, but Zeb fights back (even though "the Rule Book says I should be peaceable").

Zeb sees the woman outlaw, Doll Brown, shoot a man down in the street and decides to track her down. When he does, he tells her he won't shoot her or turn her in, because that will go against the book. He also tells her he believes that eventually she'll turn herself in, and the reward money could go to building a church. He says he has the faith the Rule Book taught. He has faith that she'll come to have faith too.

The film is one of the many cheap Westerns Republic Pictures made back in the day; Republic made a lot of John Wayne's B pictures. The only face modern audiences are likely to recognize is the sheriff played by Forrest Tucker (who played Sgt. O'Rourke on F-Troop), but the positive portrayal of the Bible as a guide for life is something that would be almost unheard of in a mainstream film these days.

And though I wouldn't recommend passing a hat in a bar as a fundraising method, Brother Joseph's willingness to give up his life for a stranger earns him and the church he wanted to build Three Steeples.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On the big screen in Indiana

Tibbs Drive In, Indianapolis, Indiana, Labor Day weekend, 2016
Tibbs Drive-In, Indianapolis

It was a little thing, but what really impressed me was the donuts. The guy selling the tickets said that after the third movie there’d be donuts and coffee. Yes, that’s right, after the third movie! They showed four movies on our screen for the price of one.

We went to a drive-in earlier this year, but it wasn’t a REAL drive-in. It was a cool little community event with an inflatable screen. But Tibbs Drive-In in Indianapolis argues strongly for Joe Bob Briggs’ axiom, “The drive-in will never die!”

We thought we were arriving at the theater a little late, but they were running even later. The two films that sounded best to me were Pete’s Dragon and Don’t Breathe, both with good scores on Rotten Tomatoes; but Mindy would rather opt out of horror films, so Pete it was. According to the posted schedule, we were late. Pete, the second feature on screen three, was scheduled to start at 10:00 pm, but the man at the ticket booth told us the first show had started late. So the schedule on our screen, “the family screen” for the night, was Nine Lives, Pete’s Dragon, The Secret Lives of Pets, and Finding Dory. The three other screens “only” had three films, with the first movie repeated in the fourth slot.

As you pay (per person, not per vehicle) at the entrance, you’re given a slip of paper with the radio frequency for each of the four screens. And if you position your car well, you can see all four. So if you want to look at it a certain way, one gets thirteen films for the price of one at the Tibbs Drive-in. Of course, if you’re a parent and don’t want your five-year-old to see Jason Stratham shooting people up in Mechanic: Resurrection, that might be a problem. But when I was a kid, seeing all the movies was one of the reasons I considered drive-ins awesome.

free donuts and coffee or milk at Tibbs Drive In, Indianapolis, IN
But as I said, the really impressive thing was the donuts. During the third film, there was an announcement over the radio that the snack bar was closing. As the third film ended, there was another announcement that donuts were available in the snack bar. Now, the donuts were day olds from Dunkin’ Donuts, but still…. free donuts! And they didn’t just have coffee available to keep people awake through the final feature, they had free milk to put kids to sleep during the fourth feature.

Sadly, the actual movies we saw were pretty lousy. We saw about the last half hour of Nine Lives, a film in which cranky business man, Kevin Spacey, finds himself trapped in the body of a cat. What we saw of the film made us happy we didn’t see the first hour.

Pete’s Dragon is, for unfathomable reasons, set in the 1970’s. We begin the movie seeing a small child riding happily in a car with his mother and father. Since this is a Disney film, we know this is not a good thing. No child (excepting, of course, The Incredibles) can be allowed to have an intact family. So, yes, there is a car accident killing both parents, leaving the child alone in the woods to be cared for by a dragon who seems to have the intelligence of a dog (probably a mutt rather than a pure breed). Again, since it is Disney, and Robert Redford is in the film, the people cutting down trees in the woods are evil because every tree is precious. But in the end, (spoiler!) the kid saves the dragon and the dragon saves the kid.

The Secret Lives of Pets had a few clever moments, most of which we’ve seen in trailers for months. When our son-in-law saw the film, he noticed a boy in a wheelchair in the theater as well. There is a particularly tasteless moment in the film when a character questions whether a handicapped dog’s life is worth living. I didn’t like the film, but overall, it was better than I thought it would be. Pete’s Dragon, on the other hand, was much worse than I thought it would be.

We didn’t stay for Finding Dory, which is a genuinely good film. We’d had our donuts, it was 2:30 in the morning, and apparently we aren’t as young as we once were. But I was glad to see there are places like the Tibbs still keeping quite busy on a Labor Day weekend.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Indiana sports films on the small screen

Indiana is in the happy position of being one of those states with too many movies to write about. To limit things a bit, I decided to write about Indiana sports films, because there are many. A couple of them aren’t just good sports movies but are great films. One of those films is 1986’s Hoosiers.

Starting with a basketball film seems right because of Hoosier Hoopster Hysteria. There is a love for basketball in the state similar to the Texans’ love for football, the Minnesotan love for hockey or the Jamaican love for bobsledding. James Naismith, the inventor of the game, said, “Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport.”

Hoosiers is based on the true story of a high school basketball team in Milan (enrollment 161) which defeated Muncie Central (enrollment over 1,600) to win the state championship. The film, set in 1951, makes the school a little smaller, with a starting roster of 5 players. Gene Hackman plays a coach, Norman Dale, who comes to the small school for his last shot at redemption. Dennis Hopper plays the assistant coach, father of one of the players and an alcoholic. He was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar for the film, and the film was also nominated for best musical score.

There is a Movie Churches angle to the film, even aside from the fact that in Indiana, basketball is a religion. When the new coach comes to town, he is greeted and interrogated by all the leading (male) town citizens, including a prominent minister. The minister tells Dale that it is important that, as a coach, he set a moral example for the children. The reverend then asks, “Do you believe in man to man or zone defense?”

The minister drives the players to away games in the church bus, which is painted paints in school colors during the basketball season and white during revival season. (His son, Strap, says God sent the pastor a vision about it.) A sign above the driver’s seat reads, “In case of rapture, the driver will vanish.”

The reverend also prays with the players before the games. Before the big game, he reminds the team that with God, they do not need multitudes. He tells them the story of David and Goliath. Strap (Scott Summers) prays a long time before every game, sometimes causing the coach to worry he’ll miss tip-off.

And when there’s a town meeting to decide whether to keep or fire the coach… It’s held in a church.

Not only is the film set in Indiana, it was filmed in its entirety in Indiana. (My wife, Mindy, played in her high school band in Indianapolis. In the film, her alma mater’s band plays the school fight song, “Hail to Southport High.”)

There are other basketball films set in Indiana. 1994’s Blue Chips, about college basketball,l was also filmed in the state. It was written by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) and directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection). It also featured the “acting” debut of Shaquille O’Neal (so now you know who to blame for Kazaam and Steel). 2009’s The Winning Season about high school girl’s basketball was set in Indiana but filmed in New York. 2007’s Home of the Giants, about boy’s high school basketball, was filmed in North Carolina.

The same writing (Angelo Pizzo) and directing (David Anspaugh) team that created Hoosiers worked to make a much beloved film about Notre Dame football, 1993’s Rudy. Also based on a true story, a hobbit -- I mean little guy -- (Sean Astin) dreams of playing college football and overcomes the odds. The film was made on location in Indiana. 1940’s Knute Rockne All American about the famed Notre Dame player and coach was filmed on a Hollywood studio, but it does feature future president Ronald Reagan saying the immortal line “Win one for the Gipper”.

There are also a couple of great Indiana baseball films. 1992’s A League of Their Own, about the first female professional baseball league, features Geena Davis, Madonna, and Tom Hanks proclaiming “there’s no crying in baseball.” 1988’s Eight Men Out about the Chicago White Sox players who threw the 1919 World Series is, of course, not set in Indiana, but scenes were filmed at Bush Stadium in Indianapolis.

The sport Indianapolis is probably most closely associated with is car racing, due to the Indianapolis 500. 1951’s Excuse My Dust is a Red Skelton comedy about the earliest days of auto racing. The film is set, but not filmed in Indiana. 2013’s Turbo is an animated film about a racing snail that is set (but obviously not filmed) in Indiana. But 1969’s Winning, starring Paul Newman as a race driver, was set and filmed at the actual Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There have been films set in Indiana about other kinds of racing, too. 2001’s Madison starring Jim Caviezel is about boat racing (it was partially filmed in Indiana). 1941’s Home in Indiana starring Walter Brennan is about horse racing (it was filmed in California, Ohio and Kentucky).

But the best Indiana racing film ever made is certainly about bicycle racing, 1979’s Breaking Away. It’s a coming of age comedy about a young man in love with bicycles and all things Italian, and it features the “Little Indy” bicycle race held at Indiana University in Bloomington. It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The American Film Institute ranked it #8 among the most inspiring films. And like most of Indiana sports films, it’s just a lot of fun. All of these films make one want to be a “Hoosier” (whatever that word really means).

Friday, September 9, 2016

Western Movie Churches -- The Twinkle in God's Eye (1955)

This may come as quite a shock to some, but you can’t trust all movie advertising. I found The Twinkle in God's Eye on Amazon Prime, and the film summary states, “A minister returns to Lodestone, the Western town where 25 years ago his father was killed when his church was burned down. His method of conversion is humor.” Now that first line is a reasonably factual plot summary, but I have problems with that second line.
Mickey Rooney plays the Reverend William Macklin II, a seminary graduate with a two week old degree who goes from the East Coast to an old West town where his father had served. I went into the film with the hope that the character would have a razor sharp wit and joyous winning spirit that would seem to be needed to use humor as a conversion tool.

Instead, the good Reverend is not too bright and is often rather glum. When he arrives in town, he goes into the Silver Palace Saloon and asks where the church is, which brings a response of laughter. He seems taken aback by this. Did he expect the customers of a saloon to spontaneously ask about service times?

A man in the bar asks, in a quite hospitable way, to treat the Reverend to a drink. Rev. Macklin II, without a hint of self-awareness, orders a glass of milk. He seems surprised when the bar again erupts in laughter. The bartender tells him a glass of milk would cost $4, much more than whiskey or beer, because ice doesn’t come cheap in the old West. The man says he’ll still treat but the Rev. refuses. And his cluelessness does not let up as the film goes on.

Reverend Macklin (II) finds the spot where his father’s church was burned down -- which happens to be right behind the Silver Palace Saloon. He goes on to make life miserable for Marty, the owner of the saloon, setting off an avalanche that breaks saloon windows. He promises to pay for them, but he has no money. He tries to call people to church with a bell that has served as the town alarm for mine disasters. He frightens people in the saloon when he practices shooting his pistol.

Understandably, Marty wants the Rev. to move. Marty offers to build a church on the other side of town, which I thought was quite generous. The Rev. refuses, saying he has his reasons. I understand the sentiment of wanting to carry on his father’s work at the same site, but why not explain that to Marty? Shouldn’t he try to be a good neighbor to Marty instead of a pain in the neck?

It’s unclear under what denomination affiliation (if any) the Rev. Macklin operates, though he is obviously not Catholic as he is following in the footsteps of his married father. He posts a sign for his services that reads, “Sunday Service – 9 AM at the Old Church Site Directly behind the Silver Palace – All Faiths Welcome.” Even though all faiths are welcome, one gets the feeling that any of the Jews, Muslims, or Hindus in this old West town might be distinctly disappointed.

Though he is single and a Protestant, he is oblivious to the saloon girls who find him attractive. He seems less bright than just about everyone in town, but he does have something to teach the local Indian population. They’ve been starving ever since the white man dammed the river they used to fish. Rev. Mick teaches them how to fish in the lake with a pole (previously they only knew spear fishing). But the Rev doesn’t minister to them in any other way; he just wants their lumber for his church.

In the climax of the film, the Rev does come through in a couple of ways. When there is a cave-in at the mine, he offers the lumber intended to build the church to aid in the rescue, saying, “The church was built for men, not men for the church” (echoing Jesus’ words about the Sabbath). And he does take time to pray for the men in danger.

Jesus said in Matthew 10: 16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as gentle as doves.” When the Rev. Macklin goes out to Lodestone, he is pretty darn gentle, but he’s as shrewd as a sheep. And you just don’t win over many wolves that way. I’m giving him and his church two steeples.