Wednesday, November 30, 2016

On the Big Screen in Wyoming

Arrival, Casper
Caramelized pecans were cooking right there at the theater’s snack bar. You might think that after movie theaters in 45 states you wouldn’t see anything new, but this was a brand new theater snack complete with a delightful smell to compete with the popping corn.

Studio City 11 at Mesa in Casper, Wyoming, did, of course, have features we’d encountered at other theaters. They had a discount/rewards program that accumulated points for money spent and discount prices for Tuesdays (we went on Tuesday). The theater was not part of a national chain, but is apparently a local chain,, with Wyoming ownership. The chain had several other theaters in Casper, including two single screen theaters and a discount theater downtown.

I’m happy to report that the staff was friendly and helpful. It seems theater staffs go one way or the other. Either they love the cinema and are delighted to share the wonder of the silver screen and buttery goodness, or this is the only job they could manage to find, so they grunt and don’t look anyone in the eye. Fortunately Studio Mesa hires the former type of employee.

Studio Mesa also had the posh reclining seats we’ve seen other places (still greatly appreciated). And they were promoting a special upcoming screening of a locally shot ski film, Tight Loose. (Not a uncommon thing here: in August the ski film Way of Life premiered in Casper.) But we’ve been other places where they screened locally produced films.

But the pecans, that was new to us.

We decided to see the film Arrival because it had an interesting premise involving an alien arrival (title drop) and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 93%. We enjoyed the film -- in a way you could describe it as an elongated episode of The Twilight Zone -- and there’s nothing wrong with that.

As we watched the film and discovered that it was set in Montana, there was a minor twinge of regret that we didn’t wait a week to see the film when we were actually in Montana. But we didn’t know about the Montana angle in advance; even if we had, we wouldn’t have known whether it would be playing wherever we went Montana.

The National Board of Review just announced their award winners and cited Amy Adams’ performance in Arrival as the best of the year (I’d agree she was very good). Adams plays a linguist called in to try to communicate with aliens who visit our planet.

In this film, the aliens’ visit increases tensions throughout the world as they land their vessels on a variety of nations and continents. There is a fear that the aliens might be encouraging nations to fight against each other. (For the Movie Churches angle, the only mention of a church in the film is a news story about a Pentecostal cult with a leader who calls for the suicide of its 3,000 members.)

It is up to Amy, with the help of theoretical physicist Jeremy Renner, to save the planet. A bit of a spoiler (turn away now if you plan to see the film) is that the solution to the problem has something to do with our perspective of time, raising the philosophical and even theological questions of whether we can step out of the linear timeline. If we can, maybe it’s okay that we went to a Montana film the week before we were in Montana. (And truth be told, though the the film is set in Montana, it was not filmed there. It was filmed in Canada.)

Monday, November 28, 2016

On the Small Screen in Wyoming

Unforgiven (1992)
If you’re seen Richard Dreyfuss’ mashed potato statues, you know that Westerns aren’t the only films set in Wyoming. But some of the greatest Westerns ever made are set in Wyoming. Sadly, most of them weren’t filmed in Wyoming. Still, here are a dozen Westerns, from the great to the comic to the downright strange, set in the state of Wyoming.

Starting with the great: 1992’s Unforgiven was the third Western to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and it was a year the Academy got it right. Clint Eastwood was nominated for Best Actor and won the Oscar for Best Director. Gene Hackman also took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The film doesn’t feature a church of any kind, but the theme of the film is quite Biblical: justice. I have a friend, Tim Stafford, who edited God’s Justice Bible, and he argues that justice is the most important theme of the Bible. Unforgiven is about the pursuit of justice, and perhaps about the impossibility of men achieving it.

Unforgiven at a movie theater is painted on this bison statue
The film opens with a prostitute being attacked by one of her customers. The cowboy slices her face with a knife, which greatly decreases her “value.” The town sheriff, Little Bill (Hackman), decides on a “just” punishment -- the cowboy will pay the pimp for his loss of “property” with ponies. The other women in the brothel think death for the cowboy is the just punishment and set up a bounty. Eastwood plays a retired assassin who tries to collect the bounty, setting in motion a bloody sequence of events that make everyone question what we “deserve” in this life.

Sadly, though the events of the film are set in Wyoming, the film was made in Canada. (It was #68 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American films.)

The first film I saw as a kid that was not G-rated was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, back in 1969. At the time, the film was rated “M", a rating that didn’t last long after that. The blend of action and comedy and the teaming of Robert Redford and Paul Newman delighted large audiences (including me). But though the real Butch, Sundance and the Hole in the Wall gang worked out of Wyoming, the film was shot in Utah and New Mexico.

One of the first successful talkie Westerns was 1929’s The Virginian. Gary Cooper played the title character, who comes to Wyoming. It was the film that provided the origin of the phrase “If you want to call me that, smile.” This was the third version of the film, but the first two versions were silent. The Virginian was remade in 1946 with Joel McCrea, but none of the versions were filmed in Wyoming; all were made in California.

1952’s Rancho Notorious by the great German director, Fritz Lang, captures the Western spirit as one would expect from someone from the Weimar Republic. It also has a rather strange performance by Marlene Dietrich as Altar Keane, a former saloon keeper who founds a criminal hideout named Chuck-A-Luck. Like the vast majority of Hollywood studio films, it was made in California -- which subs for Wyoming.

1955’s White Feather is based on a true story of an attempted peace mission from the U.S. Cavalry to the Cheyenne in Wyoming. Robert Wagner was barely believable as a  Cavalry officer, but much worse was the casting of Caucasians as Native Americans. Debra Paget plays “Appearing Day,” Jeffrey Hunter is “Little Dog,” and Hugh O’Brian portrays  “American Horse.” Not even Wyoming is played by the correct nationality, since it was filmed in Mexico.

1965’s Cat Ballou won an Academy Award for Lee Marvin in the dual roles of an evil gunman and a drunk. Unfortunately, Wyoming was portrayed by Colorado. In 1967’s The Ballad of Josie, Doris Day plays a Western hero in a feminist tale, and California plays Wyoming. While Unforgiven portrayed an Old West brothel as a grim and desperate place, 1970’s The Cheyenne Social Club is run by the delightful Shirley Jones in a brothel as a cheery place. Dancer Gene Kelly directed the film. A brothel as a social club is no more convincing than New Mexico’s portrayal of Wyoming.

1980’s Heaven’s Gate is a very fictional story based on Wyoming’s Johnson County Cattle War. But the film is known much more for its finances than its storytelling. Director Michael Cimino, fresh from his success with The Deerhunter, was given carte blanche on budget to make his dream project. But his ridiculous devotion to “accurate detail” drove up the budget, and when the film flopped it bankrupted the studio, United Artists. If Cimino was really so concerned with accuracy, why did he film in Idaho and Montana rather than Wyoming?

Last year, another beloved auteur, Quentin Tarantino, risked a great big budget on a star studded Western, The Hateful Eight. But again, after setting the film in the state of Wyoming, he didn’t film there. He filmed in Colorado.

One classic Western film, director George Stevens’s Shane (starring Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur), was set in Wyoming and actually filmed in Wyoming (in the Grand Tetons). It won one Oscar, for Cinematography. But it also made the American Film Institute list of the hundred greatest American film, landing in slot #45, ahead of Unforgiven.

Friday, November 25, 2016

World War 1 Movie Churches: Joyeux Noel (2005)

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)
In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the "War on Christmas." There are many fronts to this battle, from department store clerks required to say "Happy Holidays" to schools limiting song selections to "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Frosty the Snowman." Obviously, these are serious matters, but as wars go this one might pale a bit compared to World War I.

Joyeux Noel, a French film from 2005, is set at the beginning of that war. The film opens in a church in Scotland.

When one thinks Scotland, one thinks Reformed Protestantism, so I was assuming the church would be Presbyterian. We see a young man burst through the doors of the church and shout excitedly to a clergyman and another man (who we find is his brother), "We're at war!" He rings the church bell to celebrate. The pastor doesn't look like he's in a celebratory mood.

What puzzled me about the church is that it has a statue of Mary, a crucifix, and candles; things one expects in a Catholic church. But otherwise, it doesn't have the look or feel of a Catholic church, and Pastor Palmer (Gary Lewis) doesn't have the feel of a Catholic priest. The Scottish brothers sign up for the war, and Pastor Palmer signs up with the Red Cross to go with them.
The film is based on a true story, but the characters and specific plot points are fictional.

On Christmas Eve of 1914, at several places along the front lines, soldiers on opposing sides declared their own ceasefires for the night and celebrated Christmas with their enemies. The film imagines what that was like.

We are introduced to three groups of soldiers on the line; a Scottish troop with the pastor and brothers fighting alongside a French troop, opposed to a German troop on the other side of the line.

On Christmas Eve, tensions are still high as everyone assumes that, although their soldiers would like to celebrate the night in peace, surely the other side is plotting a sinister attack -- but it is Christmas. The Scots bring out their bagpipes, and several soldiers (and the pastor) play. On the other side of the line, a German soldier, a professional tenor in civilian life, sings. The singer and the pipes join to play "O Come All Ye Faithful." The tenor boldly climbs out of the foxhole and walks toward the enemy line, still singing.

The officers of all three units are emboldened to meet together and agree upon a truce for that one night. Soldiers from all sides pour out of the trenches to share drinks, chocolate, and photos of wives and girlfriends.

The men then gather for one of the most wondrous and yet perplexing worship services we have reported on for Movie Churches. The Scottish pastor performs a Latin Mass, yet he seems quite awkward saying it, as if the words are new to him or he’s quite rusty with the language. All the men, the French, Germans and Scots, respond in Latin and cross themselves at the appropriate times. Now, you'd expect the majority of the French to be Catholics. On the other hand, you'd think a majority of the Germans would be Lutherans and the Scots Presbyterian or Anglican. I guess since the film was made by the French, they expect everyone to be like them, and for the film, it works.

It's a beautiful picture of Christian unity. I really can't say if the beauty of the image is hampered or enhanced by the many snow covered dead bodies still on the ground from an earlier battle.
The Scottish pastor says, "These men were drawn to that altar like a fire draws men in the middle of winter." He suggests that the men might have wanted, just for that night, to forget war.  But an officer responds that "the war won't forget us."

A German Jewish officer (a bit of a shock to remember there were such men in WWI, but there were many) says, "This was wonderful, I'm Jewish, but I will never forget this night."

When the Germans are told the French and Scots will be shelled with artillery, they invite them into their trenches, and the French and Scots return the favor. They know they must return to fighting, but they can't bring themselves to attack these men with whom they have just enjoyed fellowship.

But the ceasefire does end. The troops are disciplined for their unauthorized peace. Regiments are broken up and officers demoted.

The Scottish priest is called back to Scotland. His superior comes out to see him (Palmer kisses the man's ring) and tells him he has left the straight and narrow path. We see this superior (Bishop?) address the new troops telling them that Christ said he came not to bring peace but the sword (some context there would really be helpful in his preaching). He says they are fighting for civilization and the Germans are not the children of God. (So good to be confident of whose side God is taking.)

The film is dedicated to those fraternized on the front lines on Christmas Eve of 1914. To those men I give 4 Steeples.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

On the Big Screen in Utah

Dr. Strange, Brewvies, Salt Lake City
This year Mindy and I are going to a church, a bar, and a movie (in a theater) in every state. There are other things we do in every state -- eat and sleep, for instance. And watch a movie (on DVD or streaming) that was set in the state we’re in. And send a postcard to two little girls in Texas (though we didn’t do that in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas). Obviously, this is a lot  to do in a week -- well, maybe not a lot to do, but at least it’s some to do -- so we occasionally combine things. In Ohio we went to a church that met in a bar. In Utah we went to a movie theater at a bar. Or was it a bar at a movie theater? I’m really not sure.

I already wrote about the bar part of this combined experience here, and I’m writing about the movie part, well, here:

Let me start at the end of Dr. Strange, the movie we saw in Utah. Audiences have learned to stick around for the end credits of Marvel movies, because when it is over, it really isn’t over. After “The End,” there is always something else. It used to be a hint, a clue of a Marvel character who might appear in a feature film -- a glimpse of Captain America’s shield or Thor’s hammer. Or they might end with a joke --the Avengers sitting around eating schwarma. But the end credits of Dr. Strange seem to be just a preview of coming attractions for future films. Marvel, please change things up.

Marvel did change one thing up from previous films. Most every Marvel film seems to end with a climactic battle in a big city between our hero or heroes and a giant something -- robot or alien or hamster. Dr. Strange seems to be headed in that direction, and then with a clever twist, headed in a different direction. So kudos to them for that.

Scott Derrickson (looking like Dr. Strange)
There is a church in this story of a crippled surgeon who gains mystical powers. The villain attempts an evil incantation in a beautiful sanctuary. Why he’s in a church is never discussed, but one thing can be said about it: it seems to be a very welcoming place if they let in evil super villains.

The film was directed by Scott Derrickson, a graduate of Biola University, a Christian liberal arts school. Dr. Strange is not a “Christian” film, but it does point to the importance of finding meaning outside of ourselves and the material world.

The end credits promise more Dr. Strange films, which is probably a good thing. At least if Benedict Cumberbatch works on his American accent.

Monday, November 21, 2016

On the Small Screen in Utah

If you are a guy of a certain age there were a few films that everyone quoted, such as The Blues Brothers and Animal House. And a number of the other films that were watched again and again were films starring Chevy Chase, including Vacations I & III (but not II), The Three Amigos, and, most quoted of all, Caddyshack. Then his career crashed, and his films became utterly unwatchable, perhaps reaching the nadir with The Karate Dog. But before the great downswing, he made 1985’s Fletch.

Fletch was based on a novel in a popular mystery series by Gregory McDonald. The screenplay was written by Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws) and directed by Michael Ritchie (The Bad News Bears). Chase’s Fletch, a reporter for an unspecified Los Angeles paper, is working on a story about the drug trade on a Southern California beach. But the bad guy has a connection to Utah.

Fletch follows the baddie, Alan Stanwyk -- played by Tim Matheson (Animal House) -- to Provo. He asks someone whether Stanwyk is a Mormon and is told, “I don’t think he does a lot of singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”

When Fletch learns about Stanwyk’s second wife, he says, “That’s illegal, even in Utah.” So there’s not a lot of Utah in the film, but that which is there is important. (There was filming in Utah, but Ogden plays the part of Provo.)

Utah also has a very memorable cameo at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). River Phoenix plays young Indy in a chase, via horse and train, through Arches National Park in Moab where the audience learns how the hero got his whip, his hat, and a scar. There are much less interesting races via automobiles in Need for Speed (2014), based on the popular video game. Aaron Paul races a Shelby Mustang through Moab and the Bonneville Salt Flats. A better car chase film is Vanishing Point (1971), an existential thriller with Barry Newman speeding a Chrysler Imperial through Cisco and Thompson Springs.

Utah has provided locations for many Westerns, most famously those directed by John Ford. In two of the greatest Westerns ever made, Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), Ford prominently featured both John Wayne and Monument Valley. Warlock might sound like a horror film, but it was another Western featuring Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark and Arches National Park.

Carnival of Souls (1962) was a horror film, a low budget one, that featured the Great Salt Lake and other Utah landmarks made quite sinister by means of its odd black and white photography. It has been featured before in Movie Churches as its main character is a church organist.

A quite different film set and filmed in Salt Lake City is Chilly Scenes of Winter (the original title in 1979 was Head Over Heels), a romantic comedy starring John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt. The original theatrical release had a happy ending, but later releases ended on a more melancholy note, like the novel the film was based upon.

A film based on a grim true story is 2010’s 127 Hours about a canyoneer who became trapped in a climbing accident near Moab. He was forced to amputate his own arm (real life spoilers), the film was nominated for Best Picture, director Danny Boyle was nominated for his writing, and James Franco was nominated for his performance as Aron Ralston.

Another true story that’s more famous locally, is that of the original Mormon pioneers who settled the state. In 1940, 20th Century Fox featured Dean Jagger as the title character in Brigham Young, though the real stars were Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell as young lovers following their leader from Illinois through Nebraska to the Great Basin of Utah. (Unusual for a studio at the time, there was location shooting including in Kanab, Utah.)

Friday, November 18, 2016

World War I Movie Churches: The Fighting 69th

I've watched a number of films that deal with the complicated philosophical, theological, and moral questions that a Christian faces with the issue of war. How does one reconcile Christ's call to be peacemakers with the blood thirsty business of killing people and breaking things?

Great minds of history like Augustine and Aquinas, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, have struggled with these issues. Father Duffy of The Fighting 69th (1940) is not one of those great minds struggling with these issues. He never doubts the rightness of America's cause in World War I. As he says, "I'm a soldier as well as a priest."

Father Duffy is based on a real person, Francis Patrick Duffy, who served as the Catholic chaplain for the Army's 69th Division. In the movie, he’s played by Pat O'Brien, who portrayed priests for much of his movie career.

There are other real characters in the film, such as the regiment commander William "Wild Bill" Donovan and the poet, Joyce “Trees” Kilmer. The real Father Duffy was a bit of a scholar and an editor of The New York Review, but in the film he's just a regular guy.

In the film, Father Duffy is beloved because the men of the 69th are his and he is theirs. As a chaplain, he can't carry a weapon, but he goes against regulations to join his men at the front. He wants to be where ever he is needed.

Just as the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 9 talks about being a slave to the slaves, a Jew to the Jews, etc...Duffy is an soldier and an Irishman to the soldiers and Irishmen of the division.

Father Francis P. Duffy
We even see him be a Jew to a Jew. In the film a Jewish soldier tells Father Duffy he'd be willing to go to Mass because Duffy's there. The soldier says he'd be willing to go "to the Devil" if Father Duffy told him to. When the man is mortally wounded with no rabbi near, Father Duffy prays a Psalm with the soldier.

The star of the film is James Cagney as Jerry Plunkett, a smart aleck New Yorker who’s nothing but trouble. But Father Duffy thinks of Plunkett as the lost sheep of Jesus' parable. Although Plunkett gets into fights with other men in his division, disobeys orders, and even deserts, Father Duffy always stays by his side.

Plunkett tells the priest he came to be a soldier, not to pray. Duffy tells him he needs to recognize the fact of an Almighty God. When Plunkett is afraid, Duffy tells him, "There's only one way you can lick cowardice, with faith and prayer. I'm offering you peace and courage. You need to ask for the Lord to help you." I was glad to hear Duffy affirm the need for prayer before going into war, because earlier he said, "What does an Irishman need with prayer in a fight?"

The film ends with an image of the real statue made in honor of the real Father Duffy (he passed away in 1932), with a voice over of Pat O'Brien praying for "America's lost generation" and for "America, the citadel of peace, peace forevermore."

There are plenty of historians who say that America's involvement in World War I was a mistake. There are many Christians who believe that Christians should never go to war at all. But I'm glad that the soldiers of the 69th had Father Duffy with them, and so I'm giving the ministry of Father Duffy three steeples.