Sunday, October 30, 2016

On the Small Screen in North Dakota

From what I could find, there are a dozen films set in North Dakota; just three of those were actually filmed in the state.  Fortunately, one of those three is the film the film we watched. It’s also the one film people are likely to have heard of, the Coen brothers Fargo. Much of the film takes place in Minnesota, but the title tips the film into North Dakota territory.

The film tells the “true” story of a botched kidnapping that leads to murder. There are many seedy characters in the film, from the sleazy car salesman to the bubble headed prostitutes to the killers themselves. But one delightful character reminds the audience that there is good in the world: Frances McDormand’s Oscar winning role of Marge Gunderson, an extremely pregnant police officer who handles the case.

The film also won Ethan and Joel Coen an Academy Award for best screenplay for dialog such as Marge’s lecture to a killer on the sordid nature of his crime: “And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”

There is no church or clergy in the film, but Marge and her husband affirm the presence of grace in the world.

Most North Dakota films weren’t filmed in the state. For example, 1932’s The Purchase Price, in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a torch singer who becomes the mail order bride of a North Dakota farmer, was filmed on a California studio.

Also filmed in California were two films starring John Wayne that are set in North Dakota. 1940’s Three Faces West was a contemporary film about Viennese refugees from the Third Reich who come to North Dakota and are aided by the Duke.  The other, Dakota (1945), is a Western where Wayne’s wife wants to live in Fargo while Wayne’s character wants to go to California (of course, the Duke secretly has the last laugh, because they are actually in California the whole time).

Other Westerns set in North Dakota were also filmed in different places. 1956’s 7th Cavalry, a Western about the aftermath of Custer’s defeat (starring Randolph Scott) was filmed in Mexico. And 1952’s Bugles in the Afternoon, another Custer Western set at Fort Lincoln (this one starring Ray Milland), was filmed in Utah.

Surprisingly, only one major theatrical feature has been made about the Lewis and Clark Expedition: 1955’s The Far Horizons. Two of the three major characters were very well cast, Fred MacMurray as Captain Meriwether Lewis and Charlton Heston as Lieutenant William Clark. And there is one awful piece of old Hollywood casting, the Native American heroine, Sacagawea, was played by Donna Reed. No filming in North Dakota; the film was made in Wyoming and California.  

A film set in a variety of states which I’ve been tempted to include in previous posts is Disney’s 1994 adventure film, Iron Will. It’s the story of a young man who tries to save his family’s North Dakota farm by participating in a dog sled race from Winnipeg, Canada, to Saint Paul, Minnesota. Shooting took place in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and even Montana, but not South Dakota.

Two horror films have been set in North Dakota. 1993’s Leprechaun, starring a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston, is about a little green man who will kill to get his gold back. It was actually filmed in California. And 2007’s The Messengers, starring Kristen Stewart, about an evil force that brings murder and mayhem to a small sunflower farm, was actually filmed in Canada.

1978’s Northern Lights, an independant film about the Nonpartisan League, a Populist movement founded in North Dakota in the early 1900’s, won big at the Cannes Film Festival and has been widely forgotten ever since. But it was filmed entirely in North Dakota. And 2001’s Wooly Boys, a Western starring Peter Fonda and Kris Kristofferson, is widely forgotten elsewhere but remembered fondly within the state -- probably because so many people knew someone who was an extra in the film.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Exorcism Movies -- The Exorcist

It’s interesting how some films are viewed by some people as a great work of art and by others as a piece of trash. For instance, Ernest Scared Stupid comes to mind.

I was just kidding. No one would doubt that was Jim Varney’s masterpiece.

Anyway, when issues of faith are added to the mix, arguments over the films become even more heated. Some films, such as Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, were picketed by Christian groups when they were released -- even though the film’s creators seemed to genuinely believe their films were positive representations of the Christian faith.

I was a kid when The Exorcist came out in 1973, and there was no way my parents would let me get near the film. But I remember the controversy of the time. People were terrified, and there were rumors of people passing out in theaters, having strokes and heart attacks. The story of priests who battle demons inside a little girl was certainly not anything that was considered proper viewing for people in my church.

But my brother was going to Princeton Seminary at the time, and he came back to California to work at Yosemite National Park. He brought with him a friend who was also attending Princeton and who would also be working at Yosemite for the summer. She brought with her a paperback of William Peter Blatty's novel, The Exorcist. (Blatty also wrote the screenplay for the film.) I was surprised to hear her argue that the story was a very Christian one.

Blatty himself believes he told a Christian story. He felt the violence, the foul and blasphemous language, and even the crude sexual imagery involving a young girl were necessary to show the contrast between the evil in this world and God’s grace. William Friedkin, the director of the film, says that he thought he was telling a story of the mystery of faith, rather than a horror movie. (He has come to accept it is a horror movie. He also says he has come to believe in the existence of evil and God since he made the film.)

I believe that the perspective of the film is a Christian perspective. The question for a Christian is whether watching a film with such vile content could ever be worthwhile.

Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with such difficult questions here at Movie Churches. We just look at how clergy and churches are presented in a film and evaluate how many steeples they earn.

The Roman Catholic Church in the film is presented as the only Christian organization that believes in demonic possession and exorcism. (In fact, many Protestant denominations, especially those of the charismatic and Pentecostal variety, are even more obsessed with such things.) But the Catholic Church is presented as being embarrassed about their own beliefs about demons.

Linda Blair plays Regan, the demon possessed girl; Ellen Burstyn plays Chris, Regan’s mother. Chris protests that she has no religious beliefs of her own, but she goes to the church as a last resort to help her daughter.  The New Testament has many stories of parents coming to Jesus in desperation to heal their children, and Chris would have fit right in with those stories.

There are three priest presented in the film. There is Father Dyer (played by William O’Malley) who does not get involved in the exorcism. He seems to prefer going to swanky Georgetown cocktail parties and hanging out with the rich and famous. He says his idea of heaven is a party where he can play the piano and sing standards to the entertainment of the heavenly crowds. Father Dyer does not raise the clergy Steeple Rating in the film very high.

Father Merrin (played by Max von Sydow) is an older priest who has battled demons through the years. It has taken a toll on his health, but he continues to fight the good fight.

But the story is really about Father Karras (played by Jason Miller). He is a man battling doubt before he ever encounters Regan. He’s not only a priest but also a psychiatrist, and he initially dismisses the idea of demonic possession as misdiagnosed psychiatric problems. His mother’s decline into poverty, illness, and eventually death is bringing him to doubt his faith.

We see Karras in various situations, in a subway passing a beggar (“Father, would you help an old altar boy, I’m a Catholic”) and passing by mentally ill women in the asylum where his mother is housed, showing no compassion to those in need. He doesn’t even stop to talk to these hurting people.

After encountering Regan, he begins to change. The demons within the girl mock Karras, telling him his mother is in hell and pelting him with obscenity and blasphemy.  But with the help of Father Merrin, he continues to fight for the girl, using Catholic rituals and Scripture. The Trinity and the blood of Christ are often cited by the priests as the source of power.

Ultimately, Father Karras is willing to give up his own life for Regan’s sake (“Take me!”), a reflection of Christ’s sacrifice.

So a worthy finish gives the church and the priests of The Exorcist three out of four steeples.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Seen on the Big Screen in South Dakota

exterior of Elks Theater Rapid City, South Dakota
You have to admit “Bring Your Own Bag Night” is genius. It’s one of the many little promotions offered at the Historic Elks Theater in Rapid City, South Dakota. It’s not unlimited popcorn, just three scoops, but it’s free with your movie ticket. Again, if you bring your own bag. Apparently you can’t just hold out your freakishly large hands for the three free scoops or have them pour the popcorn into your jacket pocket. We weren’t there on bring your own bag night, but they still refilled our large bag. (I brought the popcorn back to the motel room and enjoyed it for the next day.)

After buying our two tickets, we were given a card with two stamps. Five stamps gets you a free movie, but since we’d be in town just a few more days, we gave our card to the people behind us in line.

friendly and competent employee at Elks Theater in Rapid City, South Dakota
But really, the best gimmick they have at the Elks is friendly employees. We’ve been to many chain theaters this year in many parts of the country, and many of them seem to be recruiting from the zombie employment pool. At the Elks, on the other hand, the woman at the ticket counter was bright and friendly. She smiled broadly and asked us if we’d been there before. We told her about this year’s quest to visit a movie theater in every state, and she seemed genuinely interested. She asked what we’d seen of interest in other theaters.

The other employees I met at the snack bar also were friendly and attentive. This is a remarkable trend that the big movie chains ought to look into.

Display of equipment at Elks Theater in Rapid City, South Dakota
The Elks seems to be a very well run and pleasant independent theater with a distinguished history. The one negative I noticed was the long stairway to the second screen where we viewed our film. Since I hadn’t a chance to exercise that day, I appreciated the opportunity for a little workout, but I noticed a couple of older folks breathing hard as they entered the theater.

The movie we went to see was Priceless. Not that the movie itself came without cost. It was $5. Priceless was the title.

I’ve noted that in many regions of the United States, particularly in rural areas, certain movies that never play. Art and foreign films rarely make their way out of the big cities. On the other hand, there are certain films that seem to make it to a place like Rapid City, but don’t make it to, say, my hometown of Santa Rosa, California.

In Rapid City we could see Priceless, a Christian film about human trafficking, but it’s not playing in Santa Rosa. On the other hand, in Santa Rosa you can see the Swedish film, En man som heter Ove (A Man Called Ove), which you can’t see in Rapid City.

Priceless has yet to receive a critic’s consensus at Rotten Tomatoes (but it does have a positive audience rating of 94%). The only actor most people might recognize is David Koechner (who played jerk Todd Packer on The Office). But listeners to Christian radio may recognize the film’s star, Joel Smallbone, who’s the lead singer for the band King and Country.

The film claims to be based on true events, but I couldn’t help thinking more than a few liberties were taken. The hero of our film, James, finds himself unwittingly involved in a seedy operation, transporting undocumented aliens who are sold into prostitution.

James encounters a corrupt cop, which apparently leads him to believe that no one in local law enforcement can be trusted, so he must single handedly rescue two women from dangerous thugs. Sadly, the film never warns kids in the audience not to try this at home.

The plotting and the action was about at the level of your average episode of Starsky and Hutch, which puts it above your average Christian film. There isn’t much Scripture, Gospel, or theology in the film beyond “the sex trade is bad,” a message with which I can heartily agree.

And the theme song by King and Country isn’t half bad. (There is no church or clergy in the film to earn a Movie Church Steeple Rating.)

Monday, October 24, 2016

South Dakota films on the small screen

In our tour of all the states this year, South Dakota is the 42nd state. The film we’re watching in South Dakota, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest, ranks 40th on the American Film Institute’s list of all time best films. Cary Grant, in the film, is also taking a cross country trip.

He starts in New York City, but when he’s mistaken for another man (a man who doesn’t exist) and accused of murder, he begins a cross country trek. HIs journey ends at Mount Rushmore. Some Mount Rushmore scenes were filmed at Mount Rushmore, and the film’s original title was The Man in Lincoln’s Nose. (The scenes of characters climbing on the President's faces were filmed in a studio. Hitch didn't discourage people from thinking those scenes were filmed on location.)

There’s nothing about churches in the film; the only spiritual element I noticed was when James Mason’s housekeeper says “God bless you!” Both characters are evil, and both try to murder Cary Grant, so I don’t think the blessing comes from a place of theological sincerity.

Another film uses Mount Rushmore as the conclusion of a cross country chase, 2007’s National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Sorry, Nic Cage, you’re no Cary Grant.

Another contemporary thriller set more fully in South Dakota is 1998’s Mercury Rising, in which Bruce Willis must protect an autistic boy who has secrets the bad guys desire. It was filmed partly in Sturgis, South Dakota.

The majority of films set in South Dakota are Westerns. Last year’s Academy Award winning film, The Revenant (about a wilderness guide left for dead in the Dakotas) was not filmed in South Dakota but in Canada. Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar for playing a historical figure, Hugh Glass, in the film. The story had been told on the screen before, in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness -- in which Richard Harris played Glass. But that film was made in Spain.

Many other westerns have been set in South Dakota but not filmed in the state. Little Big Man, in which Dustin Hoffman played the world’s oldest Indian (could that casting happen today?), has scenes in Deadwood, but was filmed in Montana and Canada.  Would it really be easier to film in Montana than on location in Deadwood?

The 1953 western musical Calamity Jane with Doris Day and Howard Keel was (not surprisingly) all filmed in Hollywood studios.

There was one acclaimed western that was set and filmed in South Dakota: 1990’s Dances with Wolves. It won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director (for Kevin Costner, who also starred in the film). While making the film on location, Kevin Costner lodged at times in the Franklin Hotel in Deadwood. We stayed in the Franklin when we were in Deadwood, and slept across the hall from the room dedicated to the star.

There are a couple of other films with contemporary stories that had the feel of a Western. 1973’s critically acclaimed Badlands introduced the world to director Terrence Mallick. Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen played young outlaws from South Dakota, but the film was made in Colorado.

But 1992’s Thunderheart, directed by Michael Apted, was filmed in South Dakota. The story of an FBI agent sent to an Indian reservation to investigate a political murder dealt with the struggles of contemporary Native American life.  Filming took place at the Pine Ridge Reservation (called “Bear Creek Reservation” in the film). Both Badlands National Park and Wounded Knee were also used as filming locations.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Exorcism Movies -- Pastorela

Pastorela (2011)

C. S. Lewis wrote in the preface to The Screwtape Letters, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

I’ve been to churches that have done both of these things. I’ve been to churches that explicitly teach that there are no such beings as Satan or his demons; at best they are metaphors for naughtiness. And I’ve been to churches that spend so much time praying that the devil will be banished that it almost begins to sound like the devil should be paying rent for the room he’s taking in their heads.

The church in the 2011 Spanish language film Pastorela takes another tack altogether; it seems to give the devil a place of honor. The film is about a Catholic church in Mexico City that annually puts on a Pastorela, a nativity play in the tradition of the Mystery plays of Medieval Europe. It tells the creation of Adam and Eve and follows history up through the birth of Christ. But apparently, the most coveted role is that of Satan, who tries to persuade the shepherds and Magi not to worship the Christ Child. Satan is given the cleverest lines and is portrayed as witty and charming.

In this film, Satan isn’t just allowed to rule the stage, he seems to rule the church.

The little church in the film has a long tradition of Pastorelas, and for years a policeman, Jesus, has had the part of the devil. But the parish priest dies (from a heart attack while having sex with a nun) and the replacement priest, Padre Edmundo Posadas, casts someone else in the role of the devil. We first see Posadas performing an exorcism. When the victim of exorcism vomits on the priest, the priest slugs him.

Did I mention this is a comedy?

Most of the rest of the film is a war between the policeman and the priest over the role of Satan. But each seems to give the Devil a large role in their lives.

Everyone in the film, including the priests and the nuns, swears profusely. A particularly winning line from a priest is “God bless you and go (expletive) your mother!” which encapsulates blasphemy and vulgarity and hostility together rather smugly.

We begin to suspect as the film goes on that the exorcist priest has himself become possessed. And the war of roles in the play becomes a literal war which includes guns, swords, and a beheading.

I’ve heard the phrase, “That’s what Christmas is all about” said about many things, but not about anything that is said or done in the church in this film. Usually 1 Steeple is the lowest rating we give any Movie Church (and that has included churches where clergy murdered people), but we’re making an exception here and giving the church in Pastorela Zero Steeples.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On the Big Screen in Nebraska

Marcus Village Pointe Theater in Omaha, Nebraska
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Village Pointe Theater, Omaha, Nebraska

Have I mentioned at Movie Churches that I used to usher at movie theaters? It really would be the best job in the world if you could make a living at it, but theater ushering is exhibit #1 in my book that not everyone deserves to be paid $15 an hour minimum. You get free movies, free popcorn and free soda, and all you have to do is a little sweeping and minimal tasks. If the minimum wage is set to high, ushers will be replaced with Roombas. Sometimes as an usher, one must monitor a theater to make sure no one is talking loudly or smoking. Sometimes one must watch a movie for fifteen or twenty minutes just to be sure.

Sully seen from the hallway
As I said, there isn’t much to do, so there isn’t an excuse for not doing the minimal tasks. We went to a morning show at a Marcus Theater in Omaha. (Kudos to Marcus for $5 morning matinees.) When I walked down the hallway to our theater, past half a dozen theaters, all the doors were open, and movies were playing. Closing doors should not be too much for the ushers to do, even at whatever minimum wage Nebraska requires these days. To make things worse, the designers of this Marcus theaters allow a direct line of sight from the hallway door to the screen, so an open door allows light to bleed in to the screen, and sound bleeds in and out.

Another basic job for an usher: clean up the theater when a show is done. This means you know the end times for a show, and you keep people from coming into the theater before you clean. During the closing credits of our film, people wandered in for the next show. I guess they didn’t want to miss those commercials for Coke and Netflix. Ours was the first show of the day, so it wasn’t terribly messy, but I doubt there would be theater cleaning between shows.

Now that I’ve lost everyone’s attention with usher etiquette and procedures, I’ll go on to the film.

Tim Burton is a wonderful film maker when he has a decent story. When all he has is a lot of money and Johnny Depp and not much of script, you might end up with something awful like his Dark Shadows or Alice in Wonderland. But he’s also done films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, or Ed Wood that are full of bizarre and beautiful imagery that one can’t imagine anyone else dreaming up.

The good Tim Burton showed up to direct Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The film is adapted from a fine young adult novel of the same name by Ransom Riggs. It tells the story of a seemingly ordinary boy (Jake, played by Asa Butterfield) who lives a bland and bullied life in Florida. Because of his grandfather, Jake is drawn to a sanctuary for children with extraordinary abilities. There is a girl who can float and a boy who is invisible. More disturbingly, there is a little girl with a savage mouth in the back of her head, and a boy who collects hearts for animating dolls and corpses. Yes, there are some pretty gross things in the film, such as villains that eat children’s eyeballs.

Certainly the story owes something to the work of J. K. Rowlings, and I’m sure it was Harry Potter’s box office magic helped bring the story to the screen. Like the Potter films, wonderful veteran actors are in the cast, including Terence Stamp as the grandfather, Sam L. Jackson, Judi Dench, and the beautiful Eva Green in the title role. The film also owes a debt to Universal Studio’s The Invisible Man and Toy Story’s Sid. Best of all, to my thinking, is a direct steal of the stop motion skeleton army from Jason and the Argonauts. There is also some time travel at work and a setting in England during World War II.

There aren’t any churches in the film that I recall, even in the small village. However, I found one line to be quite interesting. One character says to Jake (I’m paraphrasing a little), “You did something better than to make us safe. You made us brave.” It reminded me of a line about Aslan (who is, of course, Jesus) in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, “He’s not safe. But he’s good.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

Seen on the Small Screen in Nebraska

Whenever possible in these state films posts, I write about films that are both set and filmed in the state we’re visiting. In some states there aren’t enough such films to write about.

A number of films supposedly set in Nebraska aren’t filmed there (such as Heaven is for Real, which was filmed in Canada). But chiefly due to the efforts of one filmmaker, Alexander Payne, Nebraska has plenty of films for our purposes. Payne is an Omaha native who’s been nominated for Oscars for directing; and he’s won two Oscars for screenwriting. Over half of his feature films are set in Nebraska.

One of the screenplays that wasn’t Oscar nominated, but did win the Golden Globe for screenwriting, was About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson starred as Warren Schmidt in this droll 2002 comedy about an insurance executive who retires and begins to search for meaning in his life. It is a road film in a Winnebago. All the Nebraska locations were filmed in Nebraska -- even some of the Kansas and Colorado scenes were filmed in Nebraska. The film includes a sequence in the Great Platte River Road Monument, a popular state tourist attraction. And even the insurance office where the fictional Schmidt, Woodmen of the World, is an actual company headquartered in Omaha.

About Schmidt has a number of elements that fit well in Movie Churches. There is a funeral in a Lutheran Church. The minister tries to provide good counseling, assuring Schmidt that he can be angry at God. There’s also a wedding in a church, complete with Noel Paul Stookey’s “Wedding Song.” But the most unique spiritual element in the film is Schmidt’s decision to sponsor an African child. The program in the film is Child Relief, but it seems to be modeled after Plan International. There are a number of such programs, like GlobalFingerprints (which we recently wrote about).

You may be surprised to learn that Payne’s film, Nebraska (which was nominated for 2013’s Best Picture Oscar) was set and filmed in Nebraska. It tells the story of another old man who made a trip. Bruce Dern (nominated for the Best Actor Oscar) plays the man who makes the journey from Montana to Nebraska in an attempt to collect sweepstakes winnings. June Squibb, the same actress who played Schmidt’s wife in About Schmidt, plays Dern’s wife in Nebraska.

Payne set and filmed two other features in Nebraska, both political satires. Payne’s first feature film, 1996’s Citizen Ruth, starred Laura Dern as a pregnant woman who finds herself in the middle of a fight between pro-life and pro-choice forces. 1999’s Election starred Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher who rigs a student council election to the detriment of a too perfect honor student (Reese Witherspoon’s star making performance.)

Besides Payne, other filmmakers have set and filmed features in Nebraska to some acclaim. Terms of Endearment, the 1983 winner of the Best Picture Oscar, makes great use of locations in Lincoln (including the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.) James Brooks also won Oscars for his writing and direction of the film, and Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson also won acting Oscars.

2009’s Up in the Air was nominated for a number of Oscars, including Best Picture, direction (Jason Reitman), writing (Reitman), and acting Oscars (for George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick) though it didn’t have a win. But scenes were filmed in Omaha.

1991’s The Indian Runner didn’t earn any Oscar nominations, but it did earn critical acclaim for the film’s writer and director, actor Sean Penn. The story of two brothers who love each other but can’t get along was filmed in Omaha and Plattsmouth.

Finally, one more Oscar winner, 1938’s Boys Town. Spencer Tracy won an Academy Award for playing Father Flanagan, the priest who founded a home for at risk boys. Filmed at Boys Town (and in the MGM studios), the film brought international attention and support to Flanagan’s work. (A sequel, 1941’s Men of Boys Town, was not a success.)