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!