Friday, April 27, 2018

Old School Christian Movie Month: The Restless Ones

The Restless Ones (1965)
World Wide Pictures was founded in 1951, and American International Pictures was founded in 1954 -- and the two studios have a surprising amount in common aside from the grandiose visions of global supremacy found in their names.

This might surprise some who are familiar with the filmography of the two studios. After all, AIP is known for such titles as Scream Blacula Scream, Teenage Caveman, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini while WWP had more tame titles such as The Hiding Place, Road to Redemption, and For Pete’s Sake!

There is common ground, though. Both studios were independent when big studios were at their height, but about to fall. Each studio was closely associated with one man. Roger Corman was the face of AIP, a filmmaker who became a mogul while taking on the big studios. WWP was almost synonymous with evangelist Billy Graham, with a rule that the preacher must appear in every film and present the Gospel. Both studios provided opportunities to young talent, with AIP famously providing first opportunities for such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jack Nicholson. Both studios exploited hot issues of the day for profit.

AIP focused on teens, using sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll to make a buck. WWP explored first two to proclaim the Gospel. WWP made films that touched on drugs (Two A Penny), rebellion (Time to Run), and crime (Wiretapper) to reach the lost. They even made a film that focused on teen sexuality (chastely, of course) in 1965’s The Restless Ones.

The film tells the story of Stephen and Gina Winton, television writers doing a story on “today’s youth.” They’re also the parents of one of “today’s youth,” David. (I need to say a bit about the casting of these films. Georgia Lee, who plays Gina Winton, appeared not only in last week’s WWP film, Oiltown U.S.A., but went on to secular exploitation films Big Bad Mama, Linda Lovelace for President, and Switchblade Sisters. Johnny Crawford plays her son, David; a few years earlier, he played the son on TV’s The Rifleman. Robert Sampson (Stephen Winton) was on one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek, “A Taste of Armageddon.”)

The story opens in a church. David is with a group of young hooligans who have broken into the sanctuary at night. David is obviously uncomfortable, and one of the others says, “He’s afraid someone will know he’s in church.”

(Note the tag line: "Takes you inside the turbulent world of teenagers")
April, the one young woman in the group, says “It’s kinda spooky, isn’t it?” (April is played by Kim Darby, a few years before her star-making role in 1969’s True Grit and the title role in another great episode of Star Trek, “Miri.”) One of the kids starts tearing pages out of a Bible and throwing them about, saying, “Let’s spread the Word.” They drive away singing “When the Saints Go Marching in,” but cops catch them and take them to jail. They’re eventually released, but the judge lectures David’s parents on parenting.

While researching their story, Stephen and Gina are surprised to learn about the thousands of teens attending the Billy Graham Crusade in town. They get press passes and attend one night, listening to Billy’s sermon on young people’s obsession with sex. “The Bible is not hush-hush about sex. There is nothing wrong with sex. God gave it to us for certain reasons, but only in the bonds of marriage. It is normal to have sex hunger, but say ‘no.’ Don’t go so far in petting that it goes too far to call out to God.” (It is rather amazing to see the footage of the Crusade of the day with all the men, including teens, wearing coats and ties and all the women, including in teens, in dresses.)

Billy goes on to urge people to live wholesome lives but says that in that day and age they can’t do so without the power of Christ. He urges the crowd to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and the Wintons marvel at the number of young people who come forward.

At the end of the meeting they seek out the man in charge of ministry to teens, Youth Pastor Reverend Tim (“Call me Tim”). He tells them the young people are at the meetings because “they want to have purpose and direction.” Reverend Tim invites them to the next gathering of youths at Crystal Cove, a beach in Malibu.

The teens at the beach aren't wearing bathing suits, but most of them are in Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts. There are guitars and other instruments along, and the kids sing a rousing version of “He’s Everything to Me.” Then the young people share how Jesus changed their lives.

“We all have hang-ups, hurdles to get over, but Christ is there to help.”

“Do you know what bugs me? This kooky idea that being a Christian means having no fun when actually life becomes fuller.”

Rev. Tim gives a talk, noting that the “new standards of freedom” aren’t helping anyone. VD was spreading among teens. “That’s where God comes in the picture… He comes to bring abundant life.”

Afterward, Stephen and Gina discuss Rev. Tim and the youth group. Gina says, “Tim is quite a guy, not your stereotypical minister.”

Stephen says, “They all made it seem so vital, so immediate. Is this something we should consider?”

Gina responds, “I don’t think teenagers should have a monopoly on the Almighty,” and together, they both pray to receive Christ as their Savior.

Davie is not impressed with his parent’s new “church jazz.” He says “that sin so corny.” He’s also desperate for April’s attention, but April has been living a wild life. She buys alcohol with a fake ID (under the name Alice Cooper). Eventually, we learn that she’s been seeing an older man and is pregnant with his child.

Davie sees the error of his ways and agrees to go to the Billy Graham Crusade with his parents. Billy is preaching on sin (including “racial hate” along with lying and adultery). Like his parents, Davie, too, decides to follow Jesus, and we know the Winton family is going to be okay. (Though I really doubt they'll get their show about teens on network TV with all that religious content.)

I’m giving Billy Graham and Rev. Tim our highest Movie Churches rating of 4 Steeples.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

In Theaters Now: Miracle Season

The Miracle Season (2018)
There are two kinds of sports stories that Hollywood seems to love above all others. One is the underdog story of competitors that overcome great odds to win the championship. Hoosiers (a basketball story) is probably the best story of this kind. The other is a tearjerker about the death of a beloved athlete, perhaps best exemplified by Brian’s Song (a football story) or maybe Bang the Drum Slowly (a baseball story).

The Miracle Season combines both a championship chase and the death of a beloved sports star. Featuring two Oscar winners (William Hurt as Ernie Found and Helen Hunt as the volleyball coach), the film tells the true story of the Iowa City West High School that won the 2010 state volleyball championship. The winning team was led by their center, a charismatic young woman named Caroline Found (generally called “Line” and played by Danika Yarosh). This story isn’t as much about that championship, though. Found died at the beginning of the 2011 season, leaving the team to play on in spite of their grief.

In 2016, my wife and I visited a movie theater, a bar, and a church in every state. In Hawaii, we met the pastor featured Soul Surfer, the film about Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm to a shark but kept on surfing. It was fascinating to hear how the filmmakers tried to limit explicitly Christian elements of Hamilton’s story. (We heard that Carrie Underwood, as the youth pastor, read scripture during a scene. The director asked her to do the scene again, without the scripture. Underwood refused, saying, “If I do that, you’ll just use the take without the scripture.” The scripture reading is in the film.)

As I watched The Miracle Season, I couldn’t help wondering whether there were faith elements from real life that were cut from the script. For instance, Caroline’s father, Ernie, had been a church goer. Caroline’s memorial is held in a church, and in a movie scene taken from real life, Caroline’s cancer stricken mother, Ellyn, refuses to use her wheelchair, but instead walks down the church aisle for the memorial service. Ellyn died the day after the funeral.

We see one of Ernie’s friends, a fellow doctor who works in the same hospital, invite Ernie back to church. Ernie refuses saying, “God hasn’t exactly shown up for me lately.” Later, though, Ernie meets with this same friend, Dr. Paul Vetre (Cedric De Souza), at the church -- which is a bit of a strange scene, these two doctors alone in a church sanctuary. Ernie says, “I think it’s time for me to express some overdue thanks. I was so angry.” He thanks God for the years he had his wife and daughter.

It’s a good scene, but thinking of Soul Surfer, I kept wondering if there was more to Ernie’s faith story that the film was holding back.

One of the things that touched me about the film was when the coach and players realized that they didn’t need to “Win for Line,” but that instead they needed to play for the joy of it and “Live Like Line.” This hit me a little more, because it reminded me of a young friend who died much too early. His family took the opportunity to encourage people to “Live Like Drew.” Both young athletes inspired charitable institutions, so I’d encourage you to consider giving to the Live Like Line Foundation or the Live Like Drew Scholarship.

We aren’t reviewing movies here, but rather churches and clergy, so while we don’t see much of the church in the film, what we see is good, earning it our highest rating of 4 Steeples.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Old School Christian Movies: Oiltown USA

Oiltown U.S.A. (1953)
Understandably, when Billy Graham passed away in February, the chief focus was on his work as an evangelist. He preached to more people in more countries than anyone in history, but some also talked about the societal changes he facilitated by bringing churches of different denominations together and by working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to bring black and white churches together.

I haven’t heard so much about the innovations Graham’s organization made in the world of Christian films. Before the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association founded World Wide Pictures in 1951, the Christian film industry didn’t exist. World Wide Pictures not only produced but also distributed their films (as all big studios did before practices were changed by antitrust laws). Their first film was Mr. Texas, which Graham called the “first Christian Western.” While he wasn’t involved with most of the day-to-day operations of World Wide Pictures, the films were made with one stipulation: in every film, Graham would appear and present the plan of salvation.

In honor of Billy Graham, we’ll be looking at a couple of World Wide Pictures releases over the next couple of weeks, starting with 1953’s Oiltown U.S.A.

The film opens with a rousing title theme song with such lyrics as “Oiltown U.S.A! Everyone knows that it’s great. It’s the pride of the U.S.A.” referring to Houston, Texas. The film is the story of oil tycoon, Les Manning (Paul Power, guest star on seven episodes of Perry Mason), who’s known for his shrewd (and unscrupulous) business dealings. When his daughter, Christine (Colleen Townsend Evans), comes home from college, she’s shocked by changes in her widowed father’s life. She visits a downtown club to discover him playing roulette with an adult beverage in his hand and standing next to a woman in an evening gown. This understandably gives Christine the vapors.

But Christine surprises her father by hanging out with his business associate, Jim Tyler (the title character in Mr. Texas, played by Redd Harper), and his wife, Katherine. Jimmy sings “Jesus is my Partner” at a dinner party both Mannings attend, and he and Katherine both talk about Jesus, which doesn’t please Les Manning at all. Since his wife’s death, Manning’s tried to keep God out of the household (“religion and Les Manning have nothing in common”). He wants to be absolutely self-reliant, saying, “There’s my God, two strong hands!” In spite of this, tension with his daughter leads Les to contemplate suicide.

Things turn around when he happens upon life-changing television programming. He’s flipping channels (with what, four, five channels to choose from?) and happens upon the song stylings of George Beverly Shea and stops. Then Billy Graham himself appears on the screen, and we the audience are transported from the black and white preacher on the television to seeing the man himself in the studio in living color.

Graham turns in his Bible to I Peter 5:7 where we are called to cast our anxieties upon God. “God loves us… He’s interested in you… Anything you love more than God is idolatry… There are hundreds of you guilty of profanity… It’s heaven or hell, your only chance is Christ as your personal savior… You can do it right now, where you are. How long will it take? In the twinkling of an eye.”

Manning prays “the sinner’s prayer” and wants to tell his daughter. She’s on his yacht, though, cruising near the location of an explosion of a Manning Oil Company well and line. The small town of Texas City is devastated! Manning hurries to see if his daughter is all right.

He finds her with a friend, tending to the wounded in the small church providing shelter in the wake of the disaster. Manning tells his daughter of his decision to trust in Jesus, and she exclaims that the prayers of her mother have been answered.

The film closes with Manning in the sanctuary of the church saying, “It’s been twenty years since I’ve been in a church. I can’t help but wonder if a few minutes spent in here will help me do a better job out there.” Manning turns his eyes to the cross in stained glass, and the camera turns there as well.

Since we’re here to review churches and clergy in films rather than the films themselves, we appreciate that the church in Texas City, Texas, was ready to meet the needs of the community during a disaster. As for clergy, it’s always good to have more of Graham’s preaching preserved. Both church and clergy in the film earn our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Christian Film Month: In Theaters Now! Paul, Apostle of Christ

Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018)
We don’t often do Biblical films at Movie Churches. The only film of that genre I remember writing about is Risen, the story of a Roman soldier charged by Pilate with finding the body of Christ, one of the films we saw in 2016 when we went to the movies (along with going to bars and churches) in a different state every week. For the most part, the films thought of as “religious” or “Christian” have no place on this blog.

You might think that doesn’t make sense, but here’s why. As a rule, this blog is about films that have Christian churches and/or Christian clergy. Internet lists of the best religious films tend to include movies like The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt (both of which I loved), and those will probably never be featured here at Movie Churches because Moses was not a Christian clergyman (neither was his brother, Aaron). The many films about the life of Jesus, from 1927’s King of Kings to 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, don’t feature churches. Jesus’ disciples, the Apostles, are generally part of those movies; they’d go on to be church leaders, but they weren’t yet.

In the case of Paul, Apostle of Christ  (I think you can guess which Biblical character it’s about), we see an unquestionably Christian clergyman who founded Christian churches. The film also features a Christian church. A portion of the Bible (everything after the Gospels in the New Testament) is about the Christian Church, so this film -- a Bible-era story with Biblical characters -- works for Movie Churches. Yay!

Andrew Hyatt, the writer and director of Paul, Apostle of Christ, decided to tell a fictional story using historical characters. I think it was a good choice. Sometimes, when Biblical text is used for a script, arguments about whether the film accurately depicts the text, distracting from the film itself. It’s not a problem if you start with a fictional episode.

The film is set in Rome in 67 AD, during the final years of Paul’s life when he was imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison awaiting execution. In this historical setting, Hyatt sets his fictional story. The Gospel writer Luke (Jim Caviezel) comes to visit Paul (James Faulkner) in prison. The film depicts Luke writing the Acts of the Apostles while with Paul. (Luke is the author of Acts, but we have no idea when he wrote it.)

Luke is greeted by Priscilla and Aquila, portrayed as the current leaders of the church of Rome. Priscilla (Joanne Whalley) and Aquila (John Lynch) were, according to what we know from Scripture, a married couple who were co-workers with Paul in Corinth, where they, along with other Christians, lived after being exiled from Rome by Emperor Claudius. The film posits that the couple returned to Rome. It’s possible P & A were in Rome at the time, but we don’t know. (Contrary evidence; Paul wrote II Timothy while he was in Rome, and he sends greetings to the couple in that epistle.)

In the film, the church of Rome is under assault from Emperor Nero, who accuses the Roman church of burning the city at Paul’s instigation. The fires killed thousands and left thousands more homeless. Historically, it’s likely the fires were probably set by Nero’s orders, but he made Christians the scapegoats. So part of the film’s story focused on whether P & A should stay in Rome or find a way to flee the city.

Led by a young man named Cassius, some in the church want a violent rebellion against the Romans as a result of the persecution. They eventually storm the prison to rescue Paul (and Luke, who is also imprisoned at the time). They kill a guard, but Paul and Luke refuse to leave the prison, wishing to honor authorities appointed by God. Priscilla denounces the rebellion, “We do not wage war as the world does…. Love is the only way.”

There’s another subplot in the prison. The prison warden, Prefect Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), has a sick daughter, and his wife is convinced the illness continues because husband treats the Christians kindly, offending the Roman gods. Instead, Mauritius comes to believe that perhaps Paul and Luke are actually his daughter’s only hope. (A tangent: following a long-standing Hollywood tradition, most of the Roman officials have British accents, except Mauritius. He has a French accent.)

Throughout the film, Paul quotes from his own many epistles, especially his greatest hits -- like the Love Passage of I Corinthians (also used in a many a wedding). At one point Paul says, “To live is Christ and to die is gain,” and Luke lauds the phrase. Paul urges him to write it down.

The film portrays a time of great persecution for the Church. Christians are thrown to the lions in Nero’s Circus. Christians are burned in the streets as “Roman Candles” (depicted in the film). We see a young woman bloodied with her own child’s blood, killed by a Roman soldier. And yet, in spite of Cassius, the church treats the Romans with love, taking in Roman women and orphans suffering from the fires. (Mauritius mocks them for caring for the “ugly.”)

Priscilla proclaims that as the Romans devolve into depravity, the Christian Church is the “only light in the city.” So how does the Church come out in the film? I’m giving the church and church leadership 4 Steeples, Movie Churches’ highest rating. (To be honest, if the Apostle Paul couldn’t get our highest rating, the whole system would have to re-evaluated.)

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Christian Film Month: In Theaters Now: God's Not Dead 3

God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in the Darkness (2018)
The bizarre thing about this film, the third in the God’s Not Dead franchise, is that it seems like an apology for the first two films. God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in the Darkness has a new writer and director, Michael Mason, who takes a whole new approach to the series. The first film was about a college student whose faith was attacked by a philosophy professor; the second film was about a teacher attacked by her school administration. Both films had villains that were a little more evil than a combination of Snidely Whiplash, Bill Sikes, and Dracula -- with just a tad more sinister mustache twirling.

The first two films in the series depicted Christians in America under assault from government and the media. To put it lightly, not everyone agrees with this assertion.

Some will point to certain issues that seem to defend the claim: universities have set policies that seemed to target Christian clubs and institutions. Government requires Christian bakers to make cakes for gay weddings and nuns to provide birth control. There are complex issues of the separation of church and state at play here.

On the other hand, some believe that Christians are still recipients of privilege in this country. They argue that our institutions are biassed toward Christianity, giving people Christmas day off and including “In God We Trust” on our money.

As a nation, we’re certainly somewhere between theocracy and pagan dictatorship. We should recognize that both kinds of government have existed in history and exist today. European countries still have state churches, but in the past, those state churches were considered the only legitimate system of worship. Inquisitions during the Middle Ages -- targeting Jews and Christians with dissenting views -- were government-run, while the Church (at times) provided a moderating influence. On the other hand, some Islamic and Communist governments still persecute Christians, throwing people in jail and even putting people to death.

Contemporary America is certainly somewhere between these extremes. The first two films presented Christians in the crosshairs of authorities who hated them for their faith, with the freedom of religion and expression at stake. This film is about eminent domain, a controversial but not necessarily a religious issue.

David A. R. White returns as the Reverend Dave Hill. In the first two films, he was a supporting player, supporting the persecuted. In this film, he’s the focus, as Hayden University tries to take his church through eminent domain.

The legal case seemed a bit fuzzy to me. Apparently, the university had been a Christian school which was given to the state of Arkansas. The church was located on university grounds, but the church is said to own its property.

Rev. Hill decides that he is going to fight. He says, “Maybe it’s time Christians stopped rolling over, turning the other cheek.” Since a key to Christianity is following Jesus -- who told us to turn the other cheek -- perhaps this isn’t a great idea. The Reverend goes to see his brother, Pearce, a Chicago lawyer, for help. Pearce agrees to defend St. James church, where their father had been the pastor. (There is a weird thing in movies where pastorates pass down from father to son that I’ve never seen much of in real life.)

There are, of course, other plot complications. A young Christian student, Keaton (Samantha Boscarino), argues with her boyfriend, Adam (Mike Manning) about issues of faith. Adam, in a funk, vandalizes St. James, accidentally setting it aflame and killing a man. When Rev. Hill learns Adam was responsible, the Reverend yells at him and shoves him. This confrontation is described as an attack in the newspapers (which isn’t too far off).

As the eminent domain case heads toward court, the community takes sides in the controversy. Those who wish to see a clearer separation of church and state protest against the church. Many of these people are quite upset by the exclusive claims of Christianity. On the other side are those who believe that the state is attacking the Church, attacking the Christian faith. Cable talk shows bitterly debate the issues.

But Rev. Dave eventually comes to see that perhaps he was in the wrong. He says God spoke to him saying, “This building is not my Church.” At the film’s climatic protest, the Reverend tells crowds protesting on both sides that he is giving up the case, and people need to learn to be tolerant and understanding of each other. The crowds immediately go all Kumbaya, hugging and forgiving each other. (Which seems rather unlike the protest culture we see in the news today.)

In the previous films, all Christians wore white hats, and many of the non-Christians wore black hats (figuratively if not literally). In this one, some of the most attractive characters aren’t believers, particularly the Rev’s brother, Pearce (played by John Corbett). He left the faith of his family during his law school years, then felt abandoned by his family. Dave doesn’t seem to have kept in contact with Pearce until he needs his help, but Pearce immediately came to his brother’s aid. Even so, Pearce doesn’t come to Christ and “pray the prayer” at the end of the film as one might expect.

In the previous two films, there are dramatic conversions to Christianity, but this film settles for people reconciling with one another and Christians becoming more clear about their own faith.

Reverend Dave and St. James Church earned its two Steeples out of four because most of the film the Rev. isn’t doing much for the Kingdom of God; he’s just fighting the power. At one point, college student Keaton says, “Everyone knows what the church is against, but not what it’s for.” Still, the church is building a house for Habitat for Humanity and supports a soup kitchen, so it doesn’t deserve our lowest rating, and at the end of the film, we see hope that the church will earn more steeples (if there’s ever a God’s Not Dead IV).