Sunday, December 30, 2018

Another List of the Top Ten Movies for 2018

Okay, so technically this isn’t a post about churches in movies. I like comparing and contrasting other people's "top ten films of 2018" lists, and thought I should add mine to the other three zillion lists. On Friday, we'll return to our regular format.

#10 Paul, An Apostle of God - When I can, I like to include Christian films on this list, but it can be difficult because so many Christian films are... Can I say this politely? Ummm... awful. But this fictionalized story of the Man Who Was Saul takes creative liberties with the story but stays within Biblical bounds. Which isn't always easy to do.

#9 The Death of Stalin - Writer and director Armando Iannucci specializes in mocking politicians (In the Loop, Veep) which he does in this film as well. The politicians of Moscow in 1953 are ruthless killers, and yet the members of the Soviet Council of Ministers are just as petty and self-centered and worthy of ridicule. It’s a funny film, but also very chilling. In this year of #MeToo, when the sins of the past are being unveiled, it’s just too bad the press of that time weren’t more interested in the horrors of their own time (See also this year's Chappaquiddick.) The clergy does play a role in The Death of Stalin. When Orthodox bishops are invited to Stalin’s funeral, another round of intrigue and bloodletting is set off.

#8 Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse - One would think there have been plenty enough Spiderman origin stories, but this film has the origin story of a Spider-Boy. And a Spider-Girl. And a Spider Robot. And a Spider Pig. Yes, it’s strange, but also funny and inventive. No church in the film, unless you count a graveyard by a church.

#7 BlacKkKlansman -Spike Lee tells the true story of a black police officer who “infiltrated” a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan with the aid of a Jewish police officer. It's always distressing to see how the Klan has adopted and sullied symbols of the Christian faith, but in this film, there is satisfaction in seeing justice done, providing hope for the day when God makes all things right.

#6  First Reformed - Certainly the most clergy and church filled film on the list, this is the story of a grieving pastor who looks for meaning in radical environmentalism. The film takes the work of ministry seriously, and ends a dark story with a note of grace.

#5 Avengers: Infinity Wars - To be honest, I’ve seen this film on lists of the worst films of the year. I get it; there are a lot of superhero films, and some people are sick of them -- especially a movie like this one, which brings dozens of comic characters together. As someone who has loved these characters throughout my life, it's thrilling to see them come together. And Thanos is an excellent villain.

#4  A Quiet Place - There’s no church or clergy in the film. We don’t see much more than one family, but they do pray together. Quietly. Everything they do must be done quietly to keep the monsters away. It is amazing that Jim from The Office directed and starred in this effective horror thriller.

#3 Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  - The one documentary on this list, it is the story of a clergyman. Fred Rogers was known to the world as the host of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but he was also an ordained Presbyterian pastor. This film tells his story, carrying on his message of love and kindness.

#2 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - When the Coen brothers make a film, I assume that film will be on my top ten list. It’s just a question of where. The film is an anthology of Western stories. In the preface to the first, we learn that in this world there are no churches, but many saloons. The film is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking, but always harkening back to the theme of mortality.

#1 Isle of Dogs - Sure, you might think you’ve seen all the stories about talking dogs in a dystopian Japan that you will ever need to see. But this one, by Wes Anderson, stands out. No clergy or churches, but delightful images and idiosyncrasies bring a strange world worth visiting to life. My favorite of the year.

(Just so you know which film I’m choosing from, here is a list of all the new films I saw this year:  Black Panther, Annihilation, I Can Only Imagine, Paul an Apostle of God, Isle of Dogs, God’s Not Dead III, A Quiet Place, The Miracle Season, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool II, First Reformed,, Incredibles II, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Ant-man and the Wasp, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Mission Impossible: Fallout, BlackkKlansman, Unsane, Beirut, The Nun, RBG, Bad Times at the El Royale, Game Night, Chappaquiddick, Rampage, The Commuter, The Other Side of the Wind, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, Mandy, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Death of Stalin, Green Book, & Roma.)

See you Friday when we return to our normal format of evaluating churches and clergy in films. January’s theme: The Play’s the Thing.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Christmas Movie Churches About Money... Maybe

Millions (2004)
All due respect to A Charlie Brown Christmas, but I'm over lectures in Christmas entertainment about materialism. Especially when the message is interrupted by commercials with new car keys given as “stocking stuffers” and the Little Drummer Boy bringing Coke to the manger. An exception to this rule is Danny Boyle’s thoughtful and charming 2004 feature, Millions.

It tells the story of an English boy, Damian, who recovers a satchel of cash that falls (as far as he can tell) from the sky. He shares his find with his brother, Anthony, who warns him they can’t let anyone know about the find, or the government will “take away 40%. That’s nearly all of it.” Anthony is torn between buying cool things and investing wisely, whereas Damian would like to give the money to the poor.

An added complication is that the money is in pounds, and the nation is about to convert to the Euro. (When the film was made, it seemed likely that Britain would change from their current monetary system of pounds, crowns, pennies, guineas, nobles, shillings, parsnips, topsy poos, wattle nellies, and daring shanks to the European Union's system of Euros. Brexit has, of course, changed all that.) Anthony and Damian need to do something with the money before the conversion or it will be worthless. Another complication that the boys don't realize at first is that the money is stolen -- and the thief is looking for it.

The film is set at Christmas time. Though there are no churches in the film, the boys' school may have some church connection. It's called All Saints, they encourage charitable giving, and they perform a Nativity Play complete with a donkey on wheels to take Mary to Bethlehem. There is clergy in the film -- top clergy -- saints, in fact. Saints appear to Damian (though no one else can see them).

St. Clare of Assisi is the first saint Damian sees, and she tells Damian she's the patron saint of visions, and therefore, television. She smokes cigarettes, and when Damien asks if that is allowed in heaven, she assures him you can do whatever you want in heaven. Damian asks if Clare has seen a Saint Maureen, and she tells him no. Maureen is Damian and Anthony’s mother who recently passed away.

St. Francis of Assisi encourages Damian in his desire to give money to the poor, much to Anthony’s annoyance. Damian takes a group of street beggars to Pizza Hut where they order extravagantly, and he puts a thousand pounds into a robotic bin at their school that's raising money to dig wells for clean water in Africa. When his donation is identified, both boys are sent to the principal’s office. Anthony says they stole the money so they can keep the real secret (and the rest of the money) from being discovered.

Damian is also visited by a group of saints, the martyrs of Uganda. 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity were executed for their faith in the Kingdom of Buganda (now Uganda). Damian notices they are praying desperately for something and learns they are praying for water. The martyr encourages him to use his money to build wells.

The Apostle Peter also visits Damian, noting he's the patron saint of security. He encourages Damian to keep the key to his old house safe, and he encourages Damian to lead by example, citing the story of the boy who gave his bread and fish prior to the feeding of the 5,000. Peter claims the only miracle that happened that day is that people were encouraged by the boy’s example to share themselves. All four of the Gospel writers shared this story, and if that’s what happened, I think one of them would have said so instead of telling the story as they did. It's a case of bad theology from a screenwriter being put in the mouth of a saint.

Which is really too bad, because there is so much good theology in the film. The whole story works like one of the parables Jesus told. Jesus told the parable of the shrewd manager  (Luke 16) who used his master’s wealth for the short time it was in his possession to ensure himself a prosperous future. The expiring money in the film reminds us that worldly wealth is fleeting and is most wisely for the benefit of the Kingdom of God.

At Christmas time (and all year through), it is good to think of gifts we can give that will be of eternal worth -- like giving water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. Jesus said gifts like that have eternal value.

I love the film as a whole, but because Saint Peter’s theology in the movie doesn’t match his theology in Scripture, we can’t give the saints of this film our highest rating, but they still earn a solid 3 Steeples.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Christmas TV Movie Before the Hallmark Channel

A Christmas Without Snow (1980)
My high school drama teacher would not do productions of Shakespeare. He said he had too much respect for the Bard’s work, and it was just a fact that high school students didn’t have the experience or skills to pull off poetry and emotions in the comedies or the tragedies. I thought of him while watching the 1980 TV movie A Christmas Without Snow. In the film, a small, amateur choir takes on George Frideric Handel’s Messiah -- a masterly work. A small, unskilled choir is not going to do it justice. That’s just one of my problems with how church and clergy are portrayed in the film.

Here at Movie Churches, we prefer to look at films that had theatrical releases. We like to keep a distinction between movies and television (so much so that next year we’re starting a new blog, TV Churches), but frankly, there's not an abundance of theatrically released films that feature both Christmas and churches and clergy. You'd think there would be, but we’ve already hit most of them. Besides, this film (described in IMDb as "a timeless, rare classic for the holiday season") touches on some interesting issues.

The film was written and directed by John Korty (who made other popular made for TV movies of the time such as A Farewell to Manzanar, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and most notably, The Ewok Adventure) and stars Michael Learned (Ma from The Waltons) and John Houseman (who played John Houseman in Scrooged).

It tells the story of a newly divorced woman, Zoe Jensen (Learned), who leaves her son in Omaha, Nebraska to start a new life in San Francisco. Strangely, she moves early in the fall and hopes to find a teaching job. Yes, I know this is prior to and LinkedIn, but it still seems she could have made some phone calls before the move to learn that teaching jobs are not in abundance (because most school hiring decisions are made early in the summer and because downtown San Francisco isn't rife with schools). She must settle for office temping jobs.

Zoe is lonely, but a neighbor in her apartment building invites her to join a church choir. (That’s what interested me about this film -- we often see or hear church choirs in films, but there aren’t many movies about church choirs.) Zoe quickly makes friends with other women in the choir, drinking coffee before practice begins. She talks with them about how hard it is to find men in the city, “You know San Francisco…” If this is a reference to the city’s gay community, it is the only one to be found.)

Choir practice begins and the new director, Ephraim Adams (Houseman), a crusty senior citizen who took the job so he wouldn’t have to retire. He explains his expectation for the choir: “Music is a craft, not a social activity or religious duty.” 

I would think being in a church would lead to some connection with religion, but the pastor, Reverend Lohman (James Cromwell), nods in agreement. This surprised me because if music is performed in a worship service, I would think it would be, you know, part of the worship. Anyone who reads the Psalms knows there can be a relationship between music and religious duty… In fact, that relationship is essential. But the Reverend doesn’t think so. (If it’s just about the music, why not have the choir perform French or German art songs instead of, you know, religious music.)

The director continues, “Just as the Reverend is called to his vocation, I am called to mine. I expect miracles. I will make something of the cacophony I heard last Sunday.” 

The miracle he expects is for the choir to perform Handel’s Messiah, “Because it is difficult. Those seeking a more relaxing activity, leave now and locate the nearest hot tub.” Hey, that would be more than difficult. To take a nineteen member strong amateur choir that meets one evening a week and is -- according to the director -- just, well, bad -- and expect them to pull off a decent performance of Messiah, would be impossible. Indeed a miracle. But I take it, a secular miracle since the director wants to stay clear of religious duties.

In that first rehearsal, accompanied by their new organist, Seth Rueben, the choir does indeed sound awful. I would think it would be wise for a choir director to get to know his resources, the strengths and weaknesses of his members, before deciding what music they should use, but Ephraim decides the music first and try to impose it on the members. He does admit the choir will have to grow, recruiting other members. This is another challenge, to take in new members along with learning new work.

As the months go on, Zoe develops friendships with women in the choir and awkwardly dates a couple of the men. This is one of the best things about the movie’s depiction of the choir: a community of friends does develop. They even gather together for Thanksgiving. But it does seem that faith is a very small aspect of these friendships. One of the members talks of going to “the church of Beautiful Women.” Outside of choir practice, they do join together in singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Ephraim auditions for solo roles in Messiah. One of the members asks for private auditions, which the director refuses, explaining, “Pressure in this room will be as great as in church with four hundred people present.” I wondered if they were going to do one just performance of Messiah for the congregation, rather than a performance for the general public.

Two major obstacles endanger the performance of Handel’s work (aside from the ineptitude of the singers). First, the organ is vandalized. One of the choir members accuses another choir member, a young man who's one of the few African Americans in the group. The actual culprit is the teenage son of the pastor. 

The pastor and his wife seem to have an odd relationship with their son. They expect him to put the church first in his life, as they do. (They, in fact, say to him, “This church is the most important thing in our lives.” I can see where he might take that wrong.)

The church can’t afford the $5000 to repair the organ. They consider purchasing an electric organ which sounds like a kid’s Casio and for some reason picks up police radio calls, so the choir pitches in and repairs the organ themselves. I thought such work would take great levels of expertise, but what do I know?

The other obstacle is that Ephraim gets very sick and is hospitalized just before the performance. They try to figure if anyone can take his place directing, but Seth argues no one else would have the director’s take on the work (because The Messiah is such an obscure work in the classical world).

But Zoe encourages everyone to go on with the show, and they do and it comes off swell.

So how would I rate this church, whose name and even denomination is kept secret throughout the film?  The choir of the church does develop a sense of community, which is a good thing, but they are all about performance and not worship -- which is not a good thing in my book. As for the pastor, we hear one sermon of his, in which he rails against the commercialization of Christmas. His wife thinks it’s his best sermon, but I think the Charlie Brown Christmas special did it much better. Since it's Christmas, though, I’m giving this church a Scroogish Two Steeples.

(And about that title, A Christmas Without Snow; it’s always a Christmas without snow in San Francisco. It’s like calling a film set in Omaha, A Summer Without Beaches.)

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Not Very Peaceful Christmas Film

The Merry Gentlemen (2008)
It’s that time of year again. The time when people get into Twitter fights about whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. (Not that we’ll settle that debate here. My family watches the film every year, usually on Christmas Eve Eve, and I must attest it is a film without a church or clergy.)

Die Hard is an action film with dark themes, like other movies set at Christmas time, such as Reindeer Games and Batman Returns. Writer/director Shane Black has spent much of his career making dark action films set during Christmas time: Lethal Weapon; Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang; and The Nice Guys. He’s said Christmas imagery -- with its hope for goodwill and peace on earth -- makes a nice contrast to people shooting at each other. Most of these films feature decorated trees and colored lights, but not sermons on Luke 2 or Christmas Eve Mass.

One film about a contract killer, though, finds a place for both Yuletide and a church sanctuary. That movie is 2008’s The Merry Gentlemen, written by, directed by, and starring Michael Keaton. Keaton plays Frank Logan, a hitman. Early in the film, we see him approach a man in a car, pull out a gun, and shoot the man in the head. The soundtrack immediately switches to “Jingle Jangle Christmas.” Logan calmly walks down the street, stopping in a Christmas tree lot. He comes across an outdoor manger scene, and he stands up a Wiseman figure that has fallen down.

We are also introduced to Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald). After being beaten by her husband, Michael (Bobby Cannavale), she left her home to begin life in a new city. She works as a secretary at Mass and Associates. Kate goes to visit a Catholic Church near her work. It is a beautiful cathedral with majestic stained glass and poinsettias by the altar. She lights a candle. She talks about it with a fellow worker, Diane (Darlene Hunt).

Kate: Have you ever been to the church down the street?

Diane: I’m not a very religious person.

Kate: It’s really beautiful, and it has a statue of Jesus with hands outstretched. Religious or no, you want to run into His outstretched arms.
Diane: Well, who’s cuter than Jesus?

While leaving work one evening, it begins to snow. She looks up and sees a man standing on the top of the tall building across the street. Afraid he is considering jumping, she screams. The man backs down and disappears. Kate is understandably upset, but Diane tells her she may have saved the man’s life, “It’s a Christmas miracle, the outstretched hand of God.”

The police come. They tell her the man she saw may well be responsible for the death of a man in her building who was shot by a sniper. The man on the building was Frank Logan.

One of the police officers who interviewed Kate asks her on an awkward date (she thought he was asking for another interview about the man on the roof). She leaves when she realizes it is a date, not an interview. On the way home, she impulsively asks her cab driver to stop at a Christmas tree lot. The cab driver tells her he won’t help her with the tree, but she buys a big tree nonetheless. She drags the tree to the front door of her apartment, but when it falls on top of her, knocking her down, a man whom she doesn’t recognize comes to her aid. (She had only seen him from a great distance when she saw him on the roof).

He tells her he didn’t expect to find a woman under his tree. She tells him, “You must have been a very good boy.” They begin a friendship.

One night when Logan comes to Kate’s, he passes out outside the door. She gets him to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with pneumonia.

Kate goes to see Logan in the hospital on Christmas Day. He’s surprised, and she calls herself “the Ghost of Christmas Present.”

Logan says, “I’d say you’re more of an angel than a ghost.”

Kate replies, “But they’re really the same thing, aren’t they? I guess ghosts are haunted, while angels are blessed.” (This is, Biblically speaking, a common theological mistake in Christmas films. In Scripture, angels are a different species than people, not the form good humans take after they die. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of many Christmas films that gets this wrong.)

Kate and Logan continue to see each other. On Valentines Day, Logan sends her flowers at work without a note. She also receives another bouquet without a note, and when she gets back to her apartment, she finds another admirer. Her husband, Michael, has tracked her down.

Kate draws a kitchen knife when Michael enters her apartment. He tells his story of what he did after Kate left.

“I tried to kill myself, but God wouldn’t have me. I met a man in the hospital, a priest, Father Rich, a great man. I can’t wait for you to meet him, He introduced me to Jesus Christ. I know you want to laugh. You probably should. But all my life I didn’t know my Lord and Savior. Now I know Him. He knows me. He knows what I’ve done. But He loves me still. Can you imagine such good news? I know you’re thinking it’s too good to be true. It’s where all the goodness is, baby. In the truth. There is only one thing left. For you to believe me and grant me forgive me. Praise Jesus! Can you forgive me? God sent you to me. Come home to me.”

Michael leaves Kate’s apartment but gives her a card from the motel where he’s staying. Kate calls the police and tells them she feels threatened by her husband. When the police ask whether he threatened her in words, she responds, “No, he just said he found God. I hope he has found God. I just wish he hadn’t found me.”

We never learn whether Michael’s conversion is sincere.

The police go to the motel to interview Michael. And find him dead from what appears to be a suicide -- but we’ve previously seen Logan mask his murders as suicides.)

Kate goes to the church again. She sits in a pew, greatly troubled. Logan goes to be with her. He tells Kate she doesn’t have to be afraid. “I’d never hurt you.”

Kate tells him, “I hope God will forgive me.” (She had fantasized about her husband’s death.)
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” Logan tells her.

“I feel like I did.”

Logan leaves her, it seems never to return.

The film opened with the sound of church bells. It seems like a good church, it, and it is at least a beautiful church. Father Rich sounds like a good priest. We are giving this rare appearance of church and clergy in an Action Christmas Film our highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

It's Christmas (again) at Movie Churches!

As is our tradition at Movie Churches since we began, this month we’ll be looking at Christmas films. This being the fifth December writing these posts, it becomes increasingly a challenge to find Christmas movies where churches/clergy have a prominent role. The easy fruit has been picked from the proverbial pear tree (The Bishop’s Wife, The Bells of St. Mary's) and it sometimes seems all that’s left is partridge droppings.

Many Christmas classics don’t have what it takes to be material for this blog. Films like White Christmas or The Nightmare Before Christmas are almost faith-free (and are certainly ecclesiastical free), so it becomes necessary to cast a wider net and dig deeper (to mix our fishing and mining metaphors) to find different Christmas films that also have a church element.

There are some areas we’d rather not get into. When we think of “Blue Christmas,” we’d rather think of “blue” as sad and not raunchy. Raunchy Christmas comedies have become a part of Hollywood’s regular offerings. Bad Santa seems to be the first big hit of the genre, and such things have been coming along regularly ever since, such as. Think 2015’s The Night Before or 2016’s Office Christmas Party.

Sure, we did once do a post on edgy Christmas comedies, but we’d rather not visit A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas territory very often. We just don’t want to encourage sordid viewing at this joyous time of year.

And that’s why you won’t see a post about 2017’s A Bad Moms Christmas -- even though we read that the film features Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering (“the premier place to be”).

Sure, it might be a little funny if one of the mothers says her reason for being at the service is that “all the bars are closed.” Even if this scene made us wonder why the service in the film seems not to be too crowded when Christmas Eve (along with Easter) is the one time you can be assured of a crowd in a church. Even if two of the characters get into a loud and prolonged discussion during the service and no one around them seems to mind, these things are not enough to recommend writing or reading a post about this film.

Even if someone had taken the time to watch this comedy (with a 30% rating at Rotten Tomatoes), would someone want to admit they’d sat through the sex jokes and children cursing and male strippers just to be able to have a different Christmas film to write about? I think not.

So instead of raunchy Christmas comedies, we’ll kick off Christmas month this Friday with a violent action film. Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Robin Hood Month Concludes with "Hood...Robin Hood"

Robin and Marian (1976)
As we conclude Robin Hood Month at Movie Churches, I realized we probably should have called it Friar Tuck Month. After all, he’s the main clergy in these films, and he’s gotten the bulk of our attention. Tuck is in this film, too, but in Robin and Marian, the most important member of the clergy is in the title.

This version is directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night and Superman II) and written by James Goldman (The Lion in Winter), the brother of the recently departed William Goldman. (The Goldman brothers went to high school with my father-in-law in Highland Park, Illinois, though I suppose this is interesting only to a small portion of our readership. It’s a very important portion.)

It also features stars that outshine most other actors in these roles, with Sean Connery as Robin and Audrey Hepburn as Marian. (They’re rivaled only by the stars in the best version of Robin Hood: Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Sorry Kevin and Mary Elizabeth. Sorry Russell and Cate. Not sorry Taron and Eve.) Previous versions told stories of the origins of Robin Hood. This is the only version I know of that tells the end of the Robin Hood story.

As the film begins, Robin is an old man returning from the Crusades (Connery was 46 at the time). On the journey home, King Richard (Richard Harris) is killed during an attack on a castle, so Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) leave the army and return to Sherwood Forest where they are welcomed by Friar Tuck (Ronnie Barker) and Will Scarlet (Denholm Elliott). To make a living, Friar Tuck has been taking confessions from the faithful while Will steals their horses. Robin is amused to learn that in his absence he’s become a legend. Robin asks what has become of his young love, Maid Marian, and is shocked to learn she is the abbess of the Kirkley Abbey. Marian has been a nun for eighteen years, caring for the poor and sick.

King John (Ian Holm), now the monarch, is in conflict with the Roman Catholic Church and has ordered the expulsion of all the senior clergy from the land. Under these orders, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) is sent to arrest Marian. Robin learns of these orders and goes to rescue his former love, but Marian wants none of it.

When he arrives, she asks, “What the hell are you doing here?” He says he’s come to rescue her, but she replies, “It’s Mother Jennett now, and you can march back to Israel.” When Robin insists she needs his help, she responds, “God will be with us.”

Robin says, “He was with us in the Crusades, and He didn’t do much good there.”

As Robin leaves, Marian mutters, “Damn that man.”

Robin doesn’t follow Marian’s instructions but instead battles the sheriff when he comes to arrest Marian. When Marian insists she wants to surrender herself peaceably, Robin knocks her unconscious. Violence ensues between Robin and the sheriff, of course -- the very reason Marian didn’t want Robin to get involved.

Robin retreats to the forest, with his men and the nuns. And Marian. Marian and Robin’s romance resumes; they take long walks in the woods and make love in the fields, but Marian wants Robin to cease his battle with the sheriff. She threatens to leave Robin.

But a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, so Robin agrees to fight the sheriff one on one in the field outside the forest. Robin kills the Sheriff but is himself mortally wounded.

Robin is brought to Marian at the abbey, where she gives him medicine which relieves his pain. After a moment, Robin realizes she’d actually given him poison knowing he wouldn’t recover from his wounds. And she takes the poison herself.

She tells Robin, “I love you. More than all you know. I love you more than children. More than fields I've planted with my hands. I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat. I love you more than sunlight, more than flesh or joy, or one more day. I love you...more than God.”

Marian as a nun had been doing pretty well in the Movie Church Steeple rankings up until that moment. Sure, she had slept with Robin, but she helped the sick and tried to prevent violence. But this little speech is in direct contradiction to the words of Jesus (from the Message paraphrase), “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, yes, even one’s self, can’t be my disciple.” Some may find Marian’s words romantic, but it brings her Steeple rating down to two of the possible four.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Robin Hood Month Continues with... The Prequel

Robin Hood (2010)
Fans of Robin Hood have an ongoing debate about the hero’s political inclinations. Some point to Robin’s stance against unjust taxation and his work to restore government to how it had been -- clearly showing him to be a conservative who would be right at home in the modern Tea Party. Others claim Robin’s “rob from the rich and give to the poor” actions clearly mark him as a Socialist.

Ridley Scott’s 2010 version of Robin Hood certainly belongs in the latter camp. However, our concern at this blog is religion rather than politics, and this film’s attitude toward the church might be characterized as closer to Communist perspective.

This version of the tale begins in 1199 with Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) returning from the Crusades in Jerusalem with the army of King Richard the Lionheart. This Robin is a common soldier, an archer, and also a con man who runs a medieval version of Three Card Monte (ball and cups). Warweary and cynical, Robin is outspoken in his criticism of the King and his war crimes. Robin says, “I don’t owe God or any other man service.”
He is thrown in the stocks along with Allan A’Dayle, Will Scarlet, and Little John, but when the King dies while attempting to loot a French castle, Robin and his comrades escape and return to England.

But Robin has one more duty to perform left from his time abroad. He promised the dying Sir Robert Locksley that he would return the Sir Robert’s sword to his father in Nottingham. Robin impersonates Robert to gain access to Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), the dying father. Robin is surprised when he is asked to continue to impersonate Robert, so that the newly crowned King John (Oscar Isaac) will not gain title to Sir Walter’s land.

Robin finds the people of Nottingham are going hungry because the church is confiscating their grain and sending it to the Bishop. Robin meets Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett), who opposes the bishop’s actions, “The church has reaped all we have, I don’t know if the bishop or king is worse.”

Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) has been newly appointed to serve the local church, where the grain is being stored. Only the elderly and children attend services. The Friar says, “I’m moving the grain to York, abiding by the rules.”

Friar Tuck has a profitable hobby as a beekeeper, making mead from the honey. “I keep them (the bees) and they keep me.” When Robin asks the friar where a man can get a drink, Tuck responds, “Have you tried the honey liquor we call mead?” He adds, “I’m not a churchy friar.”

When the Bishop’s men come to collect the grain, Robin blackmails Tuck into giving the grain to him, telling him that otherwise he’ll inform the Bishop about the Friar’s profitable winemaking. Tuck succumbs to the blackmail, and aids Robin in returning the grain to the people of Nottingham.
The major conflict in the film turns out to be quite different than in other Robin Hood films: the French want to invade England. Friar Tuck is actually one of the first to be aware of the invasion, when an expeditionary force of French soldiers steal his barrels of wine.

King John finds he needs the support of all of England to oppose the French, so he promises to change his oppressive policies. And all of England comes together to drive back the French. Not only does Robin join the battle, but Marian does as well, fighting the French on the shore. But after the battle is won, King John reneges on his promises and claims “God made me King,” and says he will take whatever he wants from the people.

The film ends with Robin retreating to Sherwood Forest with his Merrie Men and Women to establish a commune, free from the oppression of the monarchy and the church (though Friar Tuck joins them). A title card reads, “No tax, no tithe, nobody rich, nobody poor, all sharing at nature’s table.” Perhaps we could say Robin is a part of the Green Party. The film ends where most Robin Hood films begin with Robin and his band in hiding.

The Church in this film is a wealth-grabbing institution in competition with the monarchy to steal the most from the people. Even Friar Tuck only does good when blackmailed into doing so. So the church in this Robin Hood earns our lowest rating of One Steeple.

Bonus Robin Hood: I’d like to point out one Robin Hood that is free of the ideological debate about the politics is found in the fantasy/time travel film Time Bandits. In that movie, John Cleese plays a Hood who is just a hood. He robs from the rich and the poor to get stuff. He just has a really good PR agent.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Robin Hood Month: In Theaters Now!

Robin Hood (2018)
Friar Tuck warns us at the beginning of this new telling of Robin Hood to “forget history” and “forget what you’ve seen before.” The filmmakers (director Otto Bathurst and writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly) do a great job of forgetting history in their hipster version of this story. More relevant for us here at Movie Churches, they also forget theology and ecclesiology -- if they knew anything about these things to begin with.

Taron Egerton (Kingsman) plays Robin of Loxsley, who receives a draft notice from the Sheriff of Nottingham to serve in the Crusades (like they did in the day). In Arabia, Robin tries to come to the aid of a prisoner of the English (with an Arab name that translated as “John”). Robin is shot for efforts and is sent back to England on a “hospital ship.” Robin finds his property has been confiscated by the Sheriff of Nottingham through the War Tax (“for our church and its glorious crusade”) because Robin is said to be dead. John, who came to England with Robin, urges him to fight the power by becoming a thief, stealing from the Sheriff and the Church using a secret identity, “The Hood.”

Though at night, Robin is the Hood, during the day he still plays the part of Robin of Loxley, a dandfied noble. Robin’s aim is to win the trust of the Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) in order to learn his plans. When he goes to church, Robin pours a large bag of coins in the offering plate -- catching the Sheriff’s attention. (Coins, especially of the gold and silver variety, attract a different kind of attention in Robin’s world than coins attract when they are dropped in a plate these days.) After giving large sums to the church coffers during the day, he steals it all back (with very much interest) at night as the Hood.

The Church of Rome is not pleased about the Hood’s attacks. The Crusades and the War Tax are just a money making scam, and the Church is not happy about the loss of funds. They send out the Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham) to deal with the situation. Robin is in the meeting of the Sheriff with the Bishop, where they discuss their plan to use the funds to overthrow the King (we never see the King or learn which King this was supposed to be).

The Cardinal is a sinister character, concerned about the people adopting the Hood as a hero. He advocates cracking down on the poor, “Fear is the greatest tool in God’s arsenal. That’s why we invented Hell.” The Cardinal talks about the necessity of quenching hope in the people. He doesn’t seem familiar with the Scriptures that promise hope. When Friar Tuck mentions “turning the other cheek,” the Sheriff and the Cardinal seem unfamiliar with that portion of Scripture as well.

Friar Tuck serves as a pastor to both Robin and the Sheriff. Robin goes to him for confession; the Sheriff tells Tuck he has nothing to confess. Neither knows that Tuck is secretly plotting against the Sheriff. When Tuck attends a party to honor the Cardinal -- a party with roulette and craps and scantily clad women -- he steals keys that allow Maid Marian to steal documents proving that the Sheriff is in cahoots with Arab princes to use the Crusades as a money making scheme.

Robin knew Tuck would be caught, so he turned him into the Sheriff and the Cardinal as a thief. The Sheriff asks Robin to kill Tuck, but Robin says that would only make Tuck a martyr. He says a better punishment would be for Tuck to be defrocked. Later Robin apologizes to Tuck for having him defrocked, but Tuck said that set him free “to work like the devil.”

In many previous Robin Hood films, clerical figures are balanced against one another, often a corrupt bishop and a godly Friar Tuck. The Tuck in this film is not a godly figure. He is a better man than most in the film, but like the Bishop, he doesn’t seem to really believe in the Gospel. It’s just a convenient facade used to achieve their purposes. In some previous films, the clergy is on occasion hypocritical, but hypocrisy implies there is truth that the clergy member is being unfaithful to. This film doesn’t seem to believe there is any truth in the Gospel. The church is evil, and Tuck is better off when he abandons it. Therefore, we give the church in 2018’s Robin Hood our lowest rating of One Steeple.

(We rate churches and clergy in this film, not films. But as a public service, I’d like to let you know that if we did rate films, we’d be giving this Robin Hood film the lowest rating we had.)

Friday, November 16, 2018

Robin Hood Movie Month Continues with a Yank in the Lead

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

In Mel Brooks’ 1993 spoof, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Prince John asks Robin why anyone should listen to him. Robin (Cary Elwes) responds, “Because, unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.”

What other Robin Hood could he be referring to? There’s no doubt he’s referring to Kevin Costner in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (I do appreciate that the title added PoT, making it so much easier to Google than other Robin Hood films.)

Directed by Kevin Reynolds (Costner worked with him on Waterworld as well), this telling of the story has Robin of Locksley join Richard the Lionheart on the Crusades, but Robin is captured imprisoned in Jerusalem. After escaping, he returns to England with a Muslim companion, Azeem (Morgan Freeman). When he reaches land, Robin kisses the ground, giving thanks to God. He learns that King Richard is still in France and the land is ruled by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman). Prince John is strangely absent in this version, but the Sheriff is aided by Guy of Gisborne, Mortianna the Witch, and the Bishop of Hereford (Harold Innocent).

Robin tries to go home, but learns that his father, Lord Locksley (Brian Blessed), is dead. This is especially poignant because when Robin left, his father had called the Crusades a foolish quest. The Bishop welcomes Robin back, saying, “I see the boy I knew in the man before me. Welcome home, John Locksley.” But Robin learns that the Bishop isn’t really so...welcoming.

The church had accused Robin’s father of heresy, which his father denied -- further proof of his guilt. Robin’s father was killed by the church, as other wealthy landowners were killed, so the church could confiscate their goods.

The Bishop doesn’t have a problem with the Sheriff consorting with a witch with an upside down cross. Nothing heretical to be seen there.

Robin encounters a band of outlaws led by Little John and Will Scarlet. Robin not only joins the crew, but becomes their leader, training them for battle. They rob from the rich, which includes the clergy, that past through Sherwood Forest. When the Merry Men encounter a drunken clergyman, Little John greets him, “Welcome to Sherwood, Friar! You travel in poor company when with the Sheriff’s soldiers.”

Not making this up.
Friar Tuck, who’s pulling a wagon filled with kegs of beer (“the Lord’s brew”) won’t willingly surrender. He battles Robin -- even biting his leg -- but Tuck eventually admits defeat. Robin asks him to join them, to minister to his men and, well, make beer.

Tuck is a fan of beer. At various times he says, “Let us learn of God’s bounty, though beer” and “This is grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the Lord intended a more divine means of consumption. Let us praise our Maker and glory in His bounty by learning!” He even offers a drink to Robin’s Muslim friend.

“Alas, I am not permitted,” Azeem tells him.

“Then you talk, and I’ll drink,” the Friar replies.

But even with this fondness (perhaps over fondness) for brew, the Friar is still a much better clergyman than the Bishop, though the Bishop does provide some churchly duties. He prays for God’s blessing on the Sheriff of Nottingham’s mission to pursue the outlaws of Sherwood Forest. (The Sheriff smirks throughout the prayer.)

But most of what the Bishop does is fairly reprehensible. Robin’s father, the Lord of Locksley, is just one of many noblemen he accuses of heresy and kills in order to take his land and property. He schemes with the Sheriff to solidify the lawman’s power by marrying Maid Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Robin threatens to stop the marriage (which is against Marian’s wishes), and the Bishop attempts to perform the ceremony even as the Sheriff tries to consummate the marriage (and yes, it is as bad as that sounds).

In the end, Friar Tuck who must confront the Bishop, who is trying to escape the wrath of Robin Hood.

Friar Tuck: “So you sold your soul to Satan, Your Grace? You accused innocent men of witchcraft and let them die.”

The Bishop: “Brother Friar, you would not strike a fellow man of the cloth?”

Friar Tuck: “No, no, I wouldn’t. In fact, I’ll help you pack for your journey.”

The Friar weighs the Bishop down with sacks of treasure, “You’re going to need lots of gold to help you on your way. Here’s thirty pieces of silver to pay the Devil… on you way to hell!” And Tuck shoves the Bishop out a high window.

After Friar Tuck avenges Robin’s father, he performs a more conventional clerical duty for the outlaw, performing the ceremony when Robin marries Maid Marian.
For our Movie Churches Steeple Rating this week, we’ll take an average of the two prominent clergymen in the film. The Bishop of Hereford receives our lowest rating of one Steeple for greed and murder and abetting attempted rape. Friar Tuck fights for what’s right, so he receives our second highest Three Steeples. (Habitual drunkenness keeps him from our highest rating of four). Between the two, the clergy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves receive the average rating of Two Steeples.

(Above I mentioned Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Mel Brooks’ spoof of the Robin Hood story. It really didn’t have enough Christian clergy to merit a Movie Churches post, as the most prominent clergy in the film is Rabbi Tuckman, played by Brooks himself. There is an Abbot in the film played by Dick Van Patten that has my favorite line of the film. Some calls out to him, “Hey Abbot!” sounding much like Lou Costello, and the Abbot says, “I hate that guy.” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, stat!)

Friday, November 9, 2018

Robin Hood Month: Disney Double Feature

Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
Robin Hood (1973)
If you mention Disney’s Robin Hood to most film fans, they’ll think of Robin played by a fox and Richard the Lionheart played by a… well… lion. We’ll get to that version, but it wasn’t Disney’s only telling of the story.

Disney Studios began, of course, as animators. Founded in 1923, they made animated shorts until their first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. But animated features were very expensive and took a long time to complete, and sometimes films like Fantasia were initially flops and took years to recoup their costs. Walt decided to add live action to the program to balance the risks.

In the 1940’s they began experiments that mixed animation with live action, such as The Three Caballeros, Song of the South, and So Dear to My Heart. And in 1950 they made their first full live action film, Treasure Island with Robert Newton as Long John Silver. I think it’s the best film version of that story ever made.

Disney’s second live action film was 1952’s Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, and it’s definitely not the best telling of the Robin Hood story. There are reasons why the Disney version with a rooster minstrel singer is much more fondly remembered than this version. Here at Movie Churches, though, we’re interested in how the clergy is portrayed in films, and there’s something the two Disney versions share, which is different than most tellings of the story: all the men of the cloth are pretty good guys.

Even 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, made under the freshly minted Hays production code when the legitimacy of the church was not to be questioned, had a corrupt Bishop who sought to betray the King. But in Disney’s live action version, the Archbishop of Canterbury is loyal to King Richard. When the King goes off with his men (including Maid Marian’s father), he goes with a blessing from the Bishop.

When Richard is captured and held for ransom, the Bishop zealously raises funds for his rescue, even encouraging other churchmen as they “melt down their offering plates” to contribute to the fund. Perhaps it would be better if the Bishop had more concern for the poor and starving people of Nottingham than the nobility, but at least he isn’t just looking out for himself.

He even comes off a little better than Friar Tuck, who is still a good guy.

About the good friar: when Robin Hood decides he and his band need “a man in holy orders to care for our souls and look to our wounds,” Little John suggests a holy hermit, Friar Tuck. (But John whispers to the other Merrie Men that Tuck “would rather break heads than mend them.”)

Robin sneaks up on the Friar, who is alone and acting out a song using his ale and meat pie as the characters. Which is rather odd, but Robin seems amused as he watches from afar. But the two are soon battling each other.

The friar is with Merrie Men when they capture the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Robin asks if he is joining the band. Friar Tuck responds, “God forgive me, but I think I already have.” He’s asked to rule on what the Sheriff owes the poor of Nottingham, and Friar Tuck demands an amount the Sheriff claims is more than he possesses. As Robin had hoped, the friar cares for the sick in Sherwood Forest, included an injured Robin Hood.

Disney made another version of Robin Hood in 1973, an animated, animal version with Robin Hood as a fox, and more importantly for this blog, Friar Tuck as a badger (voiced by Andy Devine).

He is the only clergy to be found in the film. There are no bad bishops stealing from the poor or good bishops trying to support King Richard. In this version, Friar Tuck is pastor of a church in Nottingham, and we see him caring for the poor (rabbits and mice, who are the certainly “the least of these.”) He even confronts the Sheriff of Nottingham when he tries to steal from the poor, “Now see here, you evil flint heart!”

The sheriff tells him, “Save your sermon, Father, it ain’t Sunday yet.”

Tuck also cheers Robin along in his battles against the evil Prince John. He sings and dances in opposition to the Prince, “A pox on the phony King of England.” In the final battle against Prince John and the sheriff, Tuck joins in as they rob from the King’s treasury, calling out, “Praise the Lord and pass the tax rebate!” (When I first saw this as a kid at the drive-in, my dad explained to me this was a play on “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!”)

So all of the clergy in this film is positively portrayed, and it’s probably all part of Disney’s strategy of appealing to families with non offensive material. There’s nothing critical or negative about the church or the clergy in either film (unlike every other telling of Robin Hood I’ve encountered). So the clergy in these two films, especially, of course, Friar Tuck, receive our highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Robin Hood Month: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Robin Hood had been portrayed on the screen many, many times, and he’ll be coming again to a theater near you later this month. But there is a clear critical consensus (which I agree with) that the best portrayal of Robin Hood was filmed decades ago in Hollywood’s Golden Age. (I have zero hope the version opening later this month will top it.) 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood tells the story best. Errol Flynn’s Robin is the most dashing and gallant, and most importantly for us here at Movie Churches, Eugene Pallette gives the most memorable portrayal as Friar Tuck.

I’ve watched this film many times through the years, but until I watched it again for the purposes of this blog, I don’t think I’d ever realized how much a part clergy and the Church play in the story (and in many other tellings of the the legend we’ll be looking at this month). The good Friar isn’t the only representative of the church in the story. Let’s begin with another one.

In this telling of the story (set in England in 1191), the King, Richard the Lionheart, has gone off to the Crusades -- which in this film is portrayed as a noble endeavor. Richard is captured and held for ransom, and his evil brother, Prince John usurps the throne of England. With the aid of Sir Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham, John exploits the common people with burdensome taxes. John is also allied with the Bishop of the Black Canons, who also robs from the poor by taking compulsory tithes. We see the Bishop enjoying an opulent banquet while his parishioners throughout the land starve.

The worst thing the Bishop does is betray King Richard. When the Bishop discovers that the king has returned to the land incognito, he snitches to Prince John. He looks to undermine the rightful king.

The Church plays a role in other aspects of the story. Robin robs from the rich, and that includes rich churchmen (like the Bishop). The wealthy clergy who venture into Sherwood Forest risk their possessions, “What is this country coming to when even a high churchman can’t travel this country in safety?” one says. (In spite of their thefts, Robin and the Merry Men seem to want to show some respect to the Church and what it represents).

When Richard returns to England, he disguises himself and his men as men of the cloth (and Robin tries to rob them). And when Robin and Richard need to sneak into John’s castle, they again dress as clergy.

But really, the clergyman people think of with Robin Hood is Friar Tuck. In this version of the story, when Robin encounters Tuck, the friar has a leg of meat and Robin wants to steal it. The Merry Men tell Robin Tuck is a man known for his “piety.” In fact, the friar is known for his swordsmanship. Robin and Tuck end up battling, a close battle, but Robin wins.

Robin asks Friar Tuck to join his troop to provide spiritual counsel, “someone for our christenings.” Friar Tuck does join in with Robin and his men and looks out for the bandits’ best interests. “He’s one of us!” Robin says.

In the end, King Richard is restored to power, Robin is honored, as is Friar Tuck. But the Bishop is exiled from the land.

So we’ll give Friar Tuck our highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples, but the Bishop (who does repent a bit), gets a rating of Two Steeples -- for an average of Three Steeples for the movie.

(Bonus Robin Hood clergy - Robin Hood Daffy (1958), in which Porky Pig plays the good Friar Tuck. In this version, Friar Tuck is wiser and more competent than Robin Hood. Considering that Robin Hood is played by Daffy Duck, that’s not a very high bar. It is amazing punsters at Warner were able to resist switching roles to have Friar Duck. See also Rabbit Hood. )

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Robin Hood Month

This month marks a special moment in movie history as the millionth depiction of Robin Hood is going to appear on the big screen. Guinness World Records names Sherlock Holmes as the fictional character with the most appearances on film and television (256 and counting), but Robin Hood has been portrayed in films and on television many, many times.

This time, in the creatively titled Robin Hood, the man in green is described as “A war-hardened Crusader and his Moorish commander mount an audacious revolt against the corrupt English crown in a thrilling action-adventure packed with gritty battlefield exploits, mind-blowing choreography, and a timeless romance.”

For the last six hundred years or so people have been telling stories about this legendary figure known for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The hero’s persona has varied greatly; sometimes he’s been of noble birth and at times a commoner, at times a supporter of the monarchy and in other tellings an anarchist, sometimes a jolly trickster and sometimes a grim warrior.

There has been great debate about whether Robin Hood or Robin of Loxley (Locksley) or Longstride or Sir Robin Hode of Sherwood has a basis in history or is purely fantasy. Though real figures of history, such as King Richard the Lionheart and his brother, Prince John, often make cameos in these tales, historians say it’s highly unlikely he was a real guy. The Man in Green’s politics are another point of debate. Those on the left point to his desire to redistribute wealth, while those on the right claim him as an anti-tax crusader. In spite of the controversies, we can learn a number of interesting things from the Robin Hood stories.

Over the years, there’s been less debate about the religion within the legend. Due to the presence of Friar Tuck, one of the Merry Men, the Church and clergy have always been part of the story. Since that’s what we are interested in here at Movie Churches, throughout November we’ll be looking different portrayals of Robin Hood, focusing particularly on the good friar -- but also the church in the stories (always the Roman Catholic Church at this moment in English history). We’ll have Merry Olde Times.