Thursday, December 26, 2019

Big 2019 Film Wrap-up

It’s still the holiday season here at Movie Churches (remember the 12 Days of Christmas began on the 25th), so we’re taking a break from the usual format. For this week we are not evaluating churches and clergy in films, but just looking back at new movies released during 2019. I’ll start with my ten favorite films of the year, then my five least favorite. With a nod to our usual content, I'll tell you the best church in a 2019 movie, and then -- if you're still reading -- all the 2019 films I saw this year in theaters, streaming, or on DVD.

Top 10 Films Released in 2019
#10 - Crawl If you see just one 2019 movie about alligators loose in a hurricane, make it this one. I like scary movies, and this one has good jump frights with a touching father/daughter story as a bonus.
(Rated R for violence and language)

#9 - Unplanned I try to put a Christian film on the "good" list when I can, but it's usually difficult because Christian films are so often very awful. This film -- about a woman who worked for Planned Parenthood with enthusiasm but who comes to understand the dark side of the organization -- follows the grand tradition of whistleblower films. Though it does have one cartoon villain, overall it seeks to give balance to both sides of the abortion debate.
(Rated R for disturbing images)

#8 - Ladies in Black Bruce Beresford directed what may be my all-time favorite film about faith, Tender Mercies, so I was glad to see him at work again. This is a nice little film about women working at a department store in Sydney in 1959. Pleasant characters to spend a couple of hours with.
(Rated PG for language and smoking)

#7 - The Best of Enemies 2019 was a great year for Sam Rockwell. He shows up on another film on this list, and he was also very good in Richard Jewell (where he played a tenacious attorney defending a hero painted by the FBI and the media as a villain). But the best Sam this year was in this film, where he portrays a KKK leader forced to work with an African American woman (Taraji Henson) to desegregate schools in 1971 Durham, North Carolina. It's a powerful true story that I might return to because it does have some very good clergy.
(Rated PG-13 for language and violence)

#6 - Avengers: End Game Up to now, I’ve been trying to include films that readers might not have heard of, pointing y’all to new things. With this one, any reader who might be interested has probably heard about this film and more than likely has watched it. However, by taking a decade of Marvel films and bringing the long saga to a satisfying conclusion, this movie achieved something significant. Recent Star Wars films prove this is a difficult task.
(Rated PG-13 for language and violence)

#5 - The Farewell  One of my daughters is a big fan of Awkwafina, and this film won me over as well. It's the story of a Chinese family trying to keep their grandmother from knowing she has a terminal cancer diagnosis. The story is often funny, but it's also thoughtful about cultural differences and issues of integrity.
(Rated PG for language and smoking)

#4 - Jojo Rabbit Sam Rockwell makes an appearance again, but not as a Klansman. This time, he's a Nazi (apparently he's not concerned about typecasting). Writer/director Taika Waititi boldly makes a comic film about the final days of Nazi Germany, focusing on a child who has made Adolf Hitler (Waititi) his imaginary friend. Very funny and at times completely heart-wrenching.
(Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence and language)

#3 - Yesterday Director Danny Boyle (Millions) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) tell a strange fable about a man who finds himself in a world where the Beatles have been forgotten. Jack (Himesh Patel) sees a path to fame and fortune by presenting himself as the creator of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Let It Be." The film has interesting things to say about creativity for artists who always owe a debt to their predecessors.
(Rated PG-13 for suggestive material and language)

#2 - Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood There are many people who can’t stand Quentin Tarantino, and I can understand that. His films are violent and vulgar, and QT is a pop-culture vulture. But I found this film very funny and oddly touching. Set in the ’60s, it follows TV star Rick Dalton (Leo DeCaprio) and his buddy/stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who stumble into an encounter with the Manson family. Booth’s contest with martial arts icon Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) was my favorite scene in a movie all year.
(Rated R for violence, sexual material and language)

#1 - Parasite My favorite filmmakers, the Coen Brothers, didn’t make a film this year, but South Korean writer/director Bong Joon Ho made a film very much in the tradition of Fargo. A very poor family finds a way to work themselves in the home and life of a well-to-do family. At turns funny and very dark, this is a film you should not read about in advance. Just watch it. It was so nice to be surprised in the theater.
(Rated for language and violence)

Least Favorite Films of 2019

#5 - Triple Frontier  Like many Netflix creations, it was confusing figuring out whether this was primarily a movie or a TV show. This was a problem of expectations. I love guy heist films, but this had so many gaps in logic it drove me crazy.
(Rated R for language and violence)

#4 - It Chapter Two This is another film that had great problems with expectations. The first film, It, I liked very much, especially its delightful cast of children. The adults taking over the same roles in this sequel don’t do as well, and the plot is just a mess.
(Rated R for language and violence)

#3 - The Fanatic John Travolta gives an offensive performance as a mentally challenged person who adores and then abducts a movie star. I never thought that anything would make me wish that Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit would go back to music, but his writing and directing of this film nearly does that very thing.
(Rated R for violence and language)

#2 - Overcomer - I mentioned earlier that most Christian films are bad, and this is a prime example. It takes the trope of Christians having success in every field of life to the limit, with a freshman high school girl with asthma going to the state championship in track and field (by cheating). You know, moviemakers, some Christians fail at stuff.
(Rated PG for something or other)

#1 - Late Night I like Emma Thompson a lot, but this was not her year. If I'd been guessing what film she was in would make this list, I'd have guessed Last Christmas, but this film was worse. It tells the story of a long-time female late-show host who finds a way to become relevant again by making her comedy more political. If there is anything we don’t need in this world, it's more political division and sarcasm. Just a slog.
(Rated PG-13 for language)

Best Church in a 2019 Film
The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church of Los Angeles in the film, Amazing Grace. This documentary about Aretha Franklin making an album in a church was filmed in 1972, but was not released until this year. I want this kind of music program in my church.

All the 2019 films I saw this year (Most likely I missed some winners)
In Theaters:
They Shall Never Grow Old (2019ish)
Run the Race
Captain Marvel

Amazing Grace
Avengers: End Game
Dark Delicacies - Short films collection (Count Your Curses, Madame, Coda Sacra, For Neesa, Nymphs, Other Side of the Box, Spirit #1, Helsinki Mansplaining Massacre)
Toy Story 4
Spider-Man: Far from Home
Apollo 11
John Wick 3: Parabellum
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The Farewell
Ready or Not
Blinded By The Light
It Chapter Two
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Rambo: Last Blood

Western Stars
Jojo Rabbit
Ford v. Ferrari
Last Christmas

Richard Jewell

DVD or Streaming
Under the Silver Lake (Amazon)
Triple Frontier (Netflix)
The Highwayman (Netflix)
The Hole in the Ground (Amazon)
Serenity (Amazon)
Cold Pursuit (DVD)
Artic (Amazon)
Escape Room (DVD)
A Vigilante (Amazon)
Ladies in Black (Amazon)
Late Night (Amazon)
Alita: Battle Angel (DVD)
Little Monsters (Hulu)
Dragged Across Concrete (DVD)
The Best of Enemies (DVD)
Dolemite is My Name (Netflix)
The Professor and the Madman (DVD)
Child’s Play (DVD)
The Irishman (Netflix)
The Fanatic (Amazon)
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Netflix)
Diane (Hulu)
Marriage Story (Netflix)
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Amazon)
Brightburn (DVD)
Ma (DVD)
Stuber (DVD)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Christmas Movies: Last Christmas (in Theaters Now!)

Last Christmas (2019)
Though I really hate the songs “Christmas Shoes” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” my all-time least favorite Christmas song would have to be “Last Christmas.” Maybe I hate it most because it gets more airplay than the other two, but it really is a stupid song. Look at the lyrics:

“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart

But the very next day you gave it away

This year, to save me from tears

I’ll give it to someone special.”

These lyrics show an incredible lack of self-awareness. Surely last year this person thought he or she was giving his or her heart to someone special, so why does this person think his or her judgment has improved over 12 months? The song was originally a hit for the 1980’s band Wham! but it's been covered by many people since. Like many popular Christmas songs, it's been made into a movie or TV special (see White Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Deck the Halls, Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer… Wait, DON’T SEE Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. Or The Christmas Shoes)

So anyway, "Last Christmas" (the song) was made into a motion picture that was released in November, and it's still in a few movie theaters. I wasn’t expecting it to be a good film, because it is based on a really stupid song, but I went because from the previews, I thought it featured a church and that’s what we write about here, how churches and clergy are portrayed in films. 

After seeing the film, I’m not sure whether it has a church in it or not.

Written by Emma Thompson and directed by Paul Feig, Last Christmas is about a young woman, Kate (Emilia Clarke), living in London making one poor life decision after another. She works in a Christmas shop dressed as an elf. After work, she goes out, gets drunk in pubs, and engages in a series of one night stands. Her most recent roommate kicked her out. We learn that she began to make these bad choices after a health crisis a year before. One night, she meets a man named Tom (Henry Golding) and begins to believe that her life may be changed by him.

So how do churches (maybe) play into this? We have a flashback to 1999 when Kate and her family were living in Yugoslavia. She is in a children’s choir, yellow robes and all, in a beautiful old church, maybe Orthodox, maybe Roman Catholic. And the song they are singing is “Heal the Pain” by George Michael (Michael was half of the band Wham!) Some lyrics from that song: “Be good to yourself, ‘cause nobody else has the power to make you happy.”

I’m okay with secular songs being used in church services at times. I once visited a church that used Cage the Elephant’s “Shake Me Down” to powerfully illustrate the day of Christ’s crucifixion. I have a friend who used only the music of David Bowie the weekend after the musician’s death, but it was used thoughtfully. But why would a church feature “Heal the Pain”? That makes no sense to me. 

But since we learn nothing about this church, we don’t know why it is used. Perhaps it is a church in Yugoslavia that worships Geoge Michael, which might make sense in the world of this film.

There might be another church in the film, but I’m not sure if it was a church. Tom takes Kate to a homeless shelter called St. Benedict's. It certainly looks like a church, and it’s named like a church, but perhaps it’s a homeless shelter that has taken over church property. We never see any clergy in the film, only two men that may work for the shelter, maybe volunteers. That’s never very clear either.

I also wasn’t quite clear what the homeless shelter does. We mainly see people, men and women, standing in line outside of the shelter/maybe church in what seems to be the evening. Are they waiting for meals or shelter for the night? This isn’t quite clear. 

One time when Kate visits the shelter, the two men are serving tea with biscuits (cookies on this side of the pond) and then soup. The serving process doesn't seem at all organized; there's nothing professional about the process at all. Though the place is called a shelter for the homeless, there is no indication people actually stay at the shelter (except for a passing mention of night staff -- possibly volunteer).

Seattle Union Gospel Mission (my place)
I happen to work as a chaplain at a men’s homeless shelter, and I've volunteered at a few more. Nothing about the way the place in Last Christmas is run struck me as approaching reality. (And -- perhaps a cheap shot -- but though there is some attempt to make the guests at the shelter seem scruffy, all of them still appeared remarkably clean.)

The thing that makes it most unlikely that St. Benedict’s serves as a church is Kate’s talent show. Kate comes up with the swell idea of putting on a show to raise money for the shelter (just like in the movies!) She has the guests of the shelter audition for the show, and my, some of them are so amazingly talented! So far, not too different from films like The Bells of St Mary's (or even Sister Act.)

But what night does she choose to put on the show at the shelter? Why, December 24th, Christmas Eve at 7:30 pm. 

If the property still was a church, perhaps on that night, at that time, the facilities would already be in use for some kind of worship service. (It should also be noted that all of Kate’s family and friends and acquaintances had no other plans for Christmas Eve. It’s a full house for the talent show.)

And what song is featured in this Christmas program? Nothing by Wesley such as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” or by Luther like “Away in a Manger,” or even by Handel such as “The Hallelujah Chorus.” Nope, the featured song this Christmas Eve is courtesy of St. George Michael, the title tune itself. 

Kate makes a little speech about how Christmas is about helping each other out, which is a swell thing to do, but Linus van Pelt made it clear decades ago that Christmas is about something else. Again, this makes me doubt that St Benedict's is a church. If it is, it’s not a very good one.

One last little item, with major SPOILERS in the next paragraph. 

This has nothing to do with the church, but it was a rather bizarre plot point in the film. You may recall the line in the title song, “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart.” In this film, the lyric was -- quite literally -- true. Kate’s health issue was a heart condition, and she received a heart transplant one year before the events of the film. (I shamefully admit that this somber reveal made me laugh audibly in the theater. I am not a good person.)

So rating this Movie Church is a challenge, because we’re not sure St. Benedict’s is a church. But if it is, both it and the church in Yugoslavia earn a meager Two Steeples for preaching -- at Christmas! -- the Gospel of George Michael rather than Jesus.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Christmas: While You Were Sleeping and Home Alone

(This post first appeared years ago in our site.)

There are Christmas films set in churches and featuring clergy. The couple of films we're looking at today aren't among those. Churches play cameo roles in both of these films. But they are interesting cameos.
You don't usually see While You Were Sleeping on lists of Christmas films. It is one, of course. Sure, it's a rom-com, but it's all set in the Christmas season. The story's activating incident happens on Christmas Day. The man (Peter is the character's name, which also happens to be the name of the actor, Peter Gallagher) that Lucy (Sandra Bullock) has been the secretly longing for is pushed onto the tracks of a Chicago L train. He falls into a coma (the 'sleeping' of the title) and while he is there, through a series of rom-com misunderstanding, Lucy is mistaken for Peter's fiance. Zaniness and an eventually happy ending ensue.
There are three churches in the film. As a young girl, Lucy's father takes her to the church where he married Lucy's mother, who died when Lucy was young. It's a pilgrimage. He would tell her about the beautiful cathedrals of Europe. In Europe christenings, marriages, and funerals are often the only reasons many people go to a church. This is sad, but it's interesting that some of the most important events and memories are still found there.

The next church we see is the Catholic Church that Peter's family regularly attends.  The priest, as part of the prayer for the people, prays for Peter (still in a coma.) Peter's father and brother discuss business during the prayer, but it's still important for them to be there. Peter's grandmother says, "I like the Mass in Latin better. It's nicer when you don't understand it." Peter's family doesn't seem to fully understand why going to church is important, except for the tradition of it. But that is a reason.

And finally, we see Lucy and Peter (after he awakens from his coma and is convinced he forgot about his engagement) in the hospital chapel for their wedding. I'm not too impressed with the pastor performing the ceremony who apparently hasn't even taken the time to ask the couple he's marrying how long they've known each other.

A single church plays a significant role in Home Alone.  (Actually, that one church is two churches: Trinity United Methodist of Wilmette, IL provides the exterior while Grace Episcopal Church of Oak Park, IL provides the interior. I guess it's a Federated Church.)

Young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Caulkin) is accidentally abandoned by his family in their home in a Chicago suburb when they leave for a Christmas vacation in France. He finds himself pursued by criminals in his neighborhood, and he runs toward a nearby church. He hides in Nativity Scene. The crooks will not go near the church. It's a sanctuary.

On Christmas Eve, Kevin is lonely and afraid. He goes back to the church, inside this time. He takes off his hat and studies the statues and stained glass. He then sees an old man, Marley (Roberts Blossom) his neighbor. His older brother told him the neighbor was a mass murderer. But since they're in church, Kevin allows the man to sit next to him.

Kevin admits he's feeling rotten. The neighbor tells him "This is the place to be if you're feeling bad about yourself." He also assures Kevin that "You're always welcome at church." Outside of his own home, the church seems to be the one place in the film that Kevin seems to feel most secure.

So of these churches, I'd probably go the one in Home Alone. They have a pretty decent music program.

So I'll give the church of Home Alone our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Christmas Movie Churches: Prancer

Prancer (1989)
I love Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which two very minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are put in center stage. There have been Santa books, films, and plays without number which make minor mention of his reindeer. And there is, of course, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But the other eight that pull the sleigh are usually lumped together as a group. This film takes one of the eight, usually interchangeable, reindeer and makes him the hero in 1989’s Prancer.

Okay, Prancer isn’t really the hero of the film. The protagonist is a little girl named Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell Tickell) who lives in the small town of Three Oaks, Michigan. She lives with her widowed father and older brother, and the family is struggling to keep financially afloat. Her father, John (Sam Elliot with his famed mustache), is considering sending Jessica off to live with her Aunt Sarah (Rutanya Alda).

Jessica attends a small school -- one assumes it's a public school. Her class is practicing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” for the upcoming Christmas pageant. Jessica sings louder and with much more enthusiasm than the other children, and sadly, she's not always in key. Her teacher encourages her to sing more softly. (Jessica’s father mentions that Jessica, "plays Christmas records all year.”)

For reasons that are not really clear, Jessica’s father doesn’t attend the pageant, which focuses on the birth of Jesus, with a traditional nativity scene. It seems that this school is still flying under the radar of the American Civil Liberties Union. We don’t see any attempt to balance the Christmas celebration with a Hannukah celebration (we don’t hear them singing the Dreidel song). But one of the teachers does talk about the magic of the full moon and claims that a full moon on Christmas brings a magical time of peace. So I guess there is an attempt to balance Christianity with New Age nonsense.

Immediately after the pageant, Jessica and her friend are walking home through the snowy town as it's being decorated for Christmas with Santa and reindeer hanging above Main Street. When one of the reindeer (Jessica somehow recognizes it as Prancer) falls onto the street and is smashed. Before long, as the full moon waxes, an injured reindeer appears in Jessica’s barn. Clearly, a kind of sympathetic magic is at work.

Three Oaks United Methodist Church
Jessica takes care of the reindeer but decides against telling her father. She gets the town vet (Abe Vigoda) to care for the reindeer. She begins working for a grouchy hermit, Mrs. MacFarland (Cloris Leachman), to pay for reindeer food. And she asks the local department store Santa (Michael Constantine, yet another TV Land favorite) to send a message to the real Santa Claus that she has Prancer (not since Miracle on 34th Street has anyone really been able to tell the difference between reindeer that aren’t Rudolph.)

But this department store Santa, Mr. Stewart, doesn’t send the letter to Santa. Instead, he takes it to the local newspaper, which -- in an incredible act of journalistic malpractice -- publishes a story about Jessica, using her full name, without interviewing Jessica or talking to her father. It is published as an opinion piece, a spin on the famous “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” editorial, saying there is hope because there are girls like Jessica that still believe in Santa Claus. That newspaper is opening itself up for a huge lawsuit.

I’ll give the pastor of Jessica’s church the benefit of the doubt that he assumed Jessica and her father were fully aware of the newspaper article and had given consent for the story to be written. Otherwise, his decision to read the newspaper story during a worship service, without Jessica’s consent, is almost as irresponsible.

I’m guessing from the briefly seen sign in front of the church building that it’s Methodist (the flame and cross). It seems to be a decent church. We hear the pastor deliver a quite orthodox prayer. As befits the season, the congregation sings “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” but also “How Great Thou Art.” I found it amazing that the congregation was able to sing both songs while holding lit candles with the little cardboard drip protectors. Usually, because it takes time to get all the candles lit, one song is the maximum that can be sung with those little candles. Usually that song is “Silent Night.” And I'm baffled that they use candles for a morning service. Jessica is sent to church with her aunt. (Her dad stays home to read the Sunday newspaper, but not thoroughly enough to get to the editorial about Jessica.)

The pastor concludes this pre-Christmas service by reading the newspaper story about Jessica and her belief in Santa Claus. “Town of Three Oaks is in good hands as long as we have children like Jessica Riggs with their hope and wonder,” he concludes. I’d think you’d want to conclude such a service focussed on Jesus rather than Santa, but that’s me.

But there is something that is very good about this church. Mrs. MacFarland comes to church, apparently inspired by her interaction with Jessica, and many people of the church welcome her with great warmth. This weighs heavily in the Movie Church Steeple Ratings.

So I’m going to leave some of your plot questions unanswered here. “Is that reindeer in Jessica’s barn the real Prancer?” “Does the reindeer rejoin Santa and his sleigh team?” “Is Jessica able to remain with her father?” These questions, I’m sure, will perplex anyone who has ever seen a Christmas film (that is not Bad Santa.)

But to finish up our Movie Churches business, we're giving the church and pastor in Prancer a three out of four steeple rating.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Christmas Movie Churches: The Holly and the Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)
Once again, it's that time of year when almost every website posts a list of top Christmas movies. It is easy to tell if such a list is legitimate or not. If it doesn’t have It’s a Wonderful Life as the top movie, it’s a fraud. Often these best-of lists try to add a bit of quirk by saying National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the best Christmas film ever, but sorry, Chevy. It just ain’t so.

Usually, I’ve seen all the films on these lists, but one shows up on occasion that I couldn’t track down until recently: 1952’s The Holly and the Ivy. This film's DVD isn't for sale everywhere like your Elf or Home Alone. It doesn’t screen for 24 hours straight on TBS like A Christmas Story. It certainly doesn’t show up for holiday screenings in your local theater like Gremlins and Die Hard. This one is much harder to track down.

And I really wanted to track down The Holly and the Ivy because it, along with The Bishop’s Wife (and the Denzel remake), is one of the few classic Christmas films that features a clergyman. Until fairly recently, the DVD was difficult to obtain, and the only channel that seemed to play the movie was TCM once a year (and I’m not currently a subscriber). I finally found it on a wonderful online service called Kanopy that allows you to use your local library card to access films.

Directed by George More O’Ferrall based on a screenplay by Anatole de Grunwald, the film tells the story of an elderly, widowed Anglican pastor who invites his family home to the vicarage for Christmas. The Rev. Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson) sends invitations to his sister and sister-in-law, his son, Michael (Denholm Elliott long before he was Indy’s boss in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and one of his daughters, Margaret (Margaret Leighton). There is no need to invite his daughter, Jenny (Celia Johnson), because she lives with her father in the small English village of Wyndenham.

Jenny has long been caring for his father who, for some reason, is considered competent to pastor a congregation but not to care for his own needs in his own home. We soon learn that Jenny is in love with an engineer, David (John Gregson), who is about to leave on a six-year-long assignment in South America. David would like to marry Jenny, but she feels obligated to stay with her father. It is apparent to everyone, especially Jenny’s aunts, that she is in love and would like to marry David. But Jenny’s father seems oblivious to Jenny’s desire to be with David. He expresses envy of David’s travels, saying as a young man, he desired to be a missionary in South America. It takes a special kind of self-absorption on the pastor’s part to ignore his daughter’s needs and desires.
He seems just as ignorant of the private lives of his other two children.

Michael is in the army, and we first see him bending the curfew rules to be with a girl. He needs to use a great deal of blarney to be allowed to come home for Christmas. He is quite bored in his family home on Christmas Eve, as most any young man would be with his rather dull family. He and his sister, Margaret, tell everyone they are going off to the movies. But Michael and Margaret go off to the local tavern and get schnockered. When they return home drunk, the Reverend rails against Michael for corrupting his sister. Michael tries to tell his father that his sister is not a novice drinker, that in fact, the tavern was her idea. This infuriates the Reverend all the more. Michael tells his father that his children never talk to him because he won’t listen to the truth. The father dismisses this statement as impudence.

Margaret is really the daughter who is hiding the most from her father. She works in London as a fashion reporter. There is a sweet moment when Rev. Gregory talks about his delight in reading his daughter’s articles, though he wouldn't have thought fashion would otherwise interest him.

But there have been huge events in Margaret’s life that she has hidden from her father. She had fallen in love with an American aviator, but that man died in a flying accident. Margaret was pregnant with the man’s child and kept the baby. She raised the child to the age of four when he died from meningitis. This led her drinking heavily, to the point of alcoholism. But she has kept all these things secret from her father.

Michael takes it upon himself to tell his father Margaret’s story. The vicar finally must confront the fact that his children are unwilling to bring their problems to him because they think his “religion” will keep him from understanding and sympathizing with their situations.

He admits his failings, “A fine caricature I've made of religion if that's how it seems to my own children. Should be because of religion, I have more sympathy and understanding for people. But I have, Margaret, I have. Do I seem the type of man that'd turn away from the sorrows of his own children?”

He has a heart-to-heart talk with Margaret as she prepares to leave the house to return to London. He tells her that she should have talked to him because he understands the problems in the world -- that is the reason he became a pastor. They do resolve their differences, and she decides to stay.

So the Reverend Gregory hasn’t done a great job as a father. Was he a poor father because he had poured himself into his work as a pastor? The film implies that a bit, but frankly, he doesn’t seem to have been any great shakes as a pastor.

At one point in the film, he says, “There's the church. A great little country church standing up there in the middle of the town. It's the center of the place architecturally. It should be the center of the place spiritually too. But it's not. No. That little tin-pot shack of a cinema they're going to tonight has more influence on the lives of people here than the church.”

It seems he hoped that people would come to church and hear his sermons, rather than his making an effort to go out to be among the people. From what we hear of his sermons, they don’t seem to be life-affirming or life-changing. On Christmas Eve, he is still speculating about what he’ll talk about the next day. He’s considering talking about the pagan traditions that led to Christmas traditions, such as “the holly and the ivy” as a symbol of the conflict between male and female. He admits to hating Christmas morning sermons because he knows everyone would rather be at home. In the end, his whole family does go to church that morning, but perhaps they are the exception that proves the rule. They would rather be at church than the vicarage.

The Reverend Gregory seems to be a nice enough fellow, but not a great father or pastor, rating Two out of the possible Four Steeples in our Movie Church ratings.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Encore Christmas Post: The Bishop's Wife and The Preacher's Wife

(This post first appeared years ago in Dean and Mindy Go To Church, before this current site began)

This is, of course, a review of the churches in these films, not the films themselves; which is probably for the best as the original film and its remake share a frankly bizarre plot. A clergyman and his wife are having marital difficulties, so God sends an angel to have a platonic affair with the wife. You know, like the Creator of the Universe does.

Fortunately, I don't have to explain why the title character of The Bishop's Wife, Loretta Young, seems oblivious to the fact that people will gossip if she goes dining and ice skating alone with Dudley the Angel (Cary Grant). We don't have to puzzle over why the title character of The Preacher's Wife, Whitney Houston, thinks it's okay to "window shop" for a man other than her husband, mistaking angel, Dudley again, (Denzel Washington) for a man.

No, thankfully, we just have to look at the churches. The Bishop's Wife has two Episcopal churches: St. Timothy's, the church Bishop David Niven used to pastor, and the other church he currently pastors in the film. I didn't catch the name of that church, so for our purposes we'll call it St. David's. The church in The Preacher's Wife is Saint Matthew's, an unusual name for what seems to be a Baptist church. We'll look at different aspects of ministry in each of these churches.

FOCUS AND VISION: The leadership of both St. David's and St. Matthew's seems primarily concerned about the Building Program and Fundraising. For some reason, most churches in Hollywood films (from Going My Way to Sister Act) seem primarily concerned with building programs and fundraising. I've attended enough congregational and leadership meetings to attest to the fact these are among the more dull functions of a church. St. Timothy's, on the other hand, seems to be primarily concerned with its music program, their boys' choir.

MUSIC PROGRAM: As just mentioned, St. Timothy's has a quite wonderful boys' choir. The highlight of the film for me was their performance of Charles Gounod's "Noel". The choir does have a rather odd rehearsal schedule.  The boys come together for one song and then depart. But it seems to work. There's not much to say about St. David's music program. As for the music at St. Matthew's, with Whitney Houston as choir director and soloist and Lionel Richie playing the piano, there certainly is a degree of excellence.

PASTORAL LEADERSHIP: The current pastor at St. Tim's seems to be a good guy, but is rather obsequious toward the Bishop. Bishop Henry used to be fun and compassionate but has become weary and burdened. Preacher Henry seems incapable of delegating, taking on every ministry of the church -- from visitation to youth ministry to preaching to legal representation -- on his own.

TEACHING AND PREACHING: We don't really learn much about the teaching at St. Timothy's but the theology of the one song we hear sung there is sound.  The final sermon we hear at the end of The Bishop's Wife by Niven isn't too bad. It's about not leaving Christ out of Christmas. Of course, it's written by Dudley the Angel, but the Bishop takes the credit. The teaching at St. Matthew's is pretty awful. The preacher's final sermon is sort of a new age "we just have to believe in ourselves and we can do anything if we just believe" kind of thing.

PRAYER: Again, nothing about prayer from St. Timothy's. The Bishop does pray for the problems of the church and learns to accept God's will rather than his own in answer to his prayers. Preacher Henry on the other hand presents one of the worst analogies I've ever heard about prayer. Talking to a young man facing trial he says, "Do you play basketball? Prayer is like when you take a shot and the time between the shot and the basket, you hope. And that is what prayer is like." So I guess in that analogy: Shooter = Person Praying, Shot = Prayer, Basket = God. As someone who is a horrible shot in basketball, I must say I really hate that analogy. If I had to have a sports analogy for prayer, I'd rather compare it to a son having a catch with his father like in Field of Dreams.

So if I had to choose one church to go to, it would be St. Timothy's. Because they really do have a good boys' choir.

Since it's Christimas season, we will generously give all the churches a rating of Three Steeples, if just for the musical excellence to be found.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Veterans Month: Last Flag Flying

Last Flag Flying (2017)
On Veteran’s Day, we in the United States honor those who have served this country in the military. Here at Movie Churches, one day just wasn't enough, so we've taken the entire month of November to look at films that feature either veterans of wars or soldiers in war. We're finishing the month this week with 2017’s Last Flag Flying.

It's directed by five-time Oscar nominee Richard Linklater, who also wrote the screenplay (based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicscan). When the film came out, it was thought to be a sequel to the classic 1973 film, The Last Detail, but it isn’t exactly that. Ponsicscan’s novel is a sequel, but the film introduces a new cast of players instead of the characters portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid.

This film is set in December of 2003, with a Vietnam vet, Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell), seeking out two of his war buddies to help him bury his son, who was killed in the Iraq War. He first finds his friend, Sal (Bryan Cranston), a tired-looking bartender, and together the two go find another friend, Richard Mueller.

They arrive at the Beacon Hill Baptist Church. The sign in front of the church reads, “Come to me all you who are burdened and heavy laden, and I will give you rest - Jesus.” 

Sal isn’t sure about going inside the church, commenting, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” 

But Doc says, “You’re going to love this, I promise.”

The Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is preaching, A banner up front reads “Holy Unto the Lord,” and there is a Christmas tree (helping this post make a nice transition from November's Veteran Month to December's Christmas Month here at Movie Churches). “See, as Christians, brothers and sisters, we have choices. We can lay down our will and follow God’s will.” Doc and Sal sit in the back of the sanctuary, behind an enthusiastic African American congregation. Rev. Mueller sees them and is obviously disconcerted.

After church, Richard invites Doc and Sal to his house for Sunday dinner and introduces them to his wife, Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster). “You married up,” Sal says. 

Doc asks Richard to join them in the mission to bury his son. Richard is hesitant. He talks privately with his wife. “I try to be a decent man. I regret any role I played in all that foolishness back in Vietnam. I grew up. I found my way.” He is afraid of backsliding if he joins his old friends. 

His wife reprimands him for even thinking of not helping his old friends, “Are you demonstrating Christ-like behavior? You can’t refuse anyone, you’re a preacher.”

So the Reverend tells Doc, “Whatever it is that’s troubling you, it is best to talk about it.”

Doc tells him his wife died a couple of years before, and “Larry Jr. joined the Corps a year ago. Two days ago they told me he was killed. He’s coming home tonight. He will be buried in Arlington, and I was wondering if you guys could come with me.”

Richard responds with a somewhat canned response, “I can promise you, you will see your wife and son again in a better place.” 

Which brings Sal to say, “What better place? Can you find it on the internet? How come none of those floating in heaven got word back to me?”

Still, the three old friends get on the road. Sal’s mad driving leads Richard to swear from the back seat, which delights Sal, “I thought you were lost forever, I really did.”

When they arrive at Arlington, they learn that though Doc’s son is to be buried with honor, it is under false pretenses. The official position is that he died in battle, but actually, he was killed accidentally by friendly fire.
Doc decides he doesn’t want his son to be buried at Arlington. He wants him buried back in his hometown next to his mother. He asks for the body, but is told, “ I can not release the body to anyone but a licensed mortician.”

Richard steps forward, “Or a clergyman, right?” And yes, they're told, the body can be released to a clergyman. They rent a U-haul to take the body back home.

Sal and Richard continue to dig at each other as they travel. Sal says, “You used to be fun.” 

The Reverend responds, “I still am, when it’s right in God’s eyes.” 

Sal continues to protest that he doesn’t believe in God, so Richard tells him, “You don’t believe in God, but he believes in you.” Richard tells how he went from being a bad man to a preacher. God talked to him, telling him to go to church, where he met Ruth. Richard says Jesus and Ruth changed his life and led him to become a preacher.

During their trip, the trio decide they need to make a side trip. They talk about their part in a man's grisly death when they used the morphine he needed for themselves. They decide to go to his mother's home, but when they get there, they decide that instead of confessing the truth, they should tell her that her son died a noble death. They decide her need for a happy resolution is more significant than their need for confession.

When they arrive in Doc's hometown, Sal and Richard put on their dress blues to honor Doc’s son at the funeral.

Burying the dead and comforting families is one of the most essential duties for clergy. Sadly, it takes some pressure to make Richard perform this duty, but he does, so we’ll give him a Movie Churches rating of Three out of Four Steeples.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Veteran's Month: The Eagle Has Landed

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
A challenge thoughtful church leadership often faces is what, if any, place patriotism should play in the life of a church. Here in the U.S. of A, when Veteran's Day or the Fourth of July rolls around, the question arises whether these holidays should be acknowledged. Some churches add patriotic hymns to the order of worship at such times, with “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” joining the program with “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

But some churches express concern that the inclusion of such patriotic, explicitly American songs, along with, perhaps saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, may well be a form of idolatry, using the time and place set aside for worshiping God to worship a country. Such a church might use more ambiguous “patriotic songs” such as “Faith of Our Fathers” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

There are also churches that avoid even a whiff of patriotism.

I think there are good arguments on both sides of the patriotic debate. C.S. Lewis argued that when Jesus cried over Jerusalem He was exhibiting a kind of patriotism, but Lewis strongly argued that while there can be good in patriotism, it can distract us from giving God the honor due Him.

Ultimately, I think the priest in 1976’s World War II adventure The Eagle Has Landed fails to balance faith and patriotism properly.

The film was directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape) and the plot is preposterous. During the war, Nazis want to send paratroopers to kidnap (or assassinate) Winston Churchill. Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall with an eye patch) recruits Oberst Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) to lead the mission, with the assistance of an IRA spy, Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland). Through a bit of “synchronicity,” the Germans learn that the Prime Minister will be visiting the English seaside village of Studley Constable.

One of the few people in the village who's aware of Churchill’s impending visit is the local priest, Father Verecker (John Standing). Though Studley Constable is an English village, the only church is Catholic, not Anglican.

The spy Devlin comes to visit the church; he bows to the altar, as does the priest.

The priest greets him and says, “We have a small but faithful congregation here, Mr. Devlin. I look forward to your adding to it. You are Catholic?”

Devlin answers, “Yes.”

“Did you come for confession?” the priest asks.

“Father, I’m afraid this poor soul is well past redemption,” pleads the spy.

“I could do with a spicy revelation every now and then,” the priest responds. “And don’t forget the words of our Lord, ‘The last shall be the first.’”

“In that case, Father,” Devlin answers, “Then I’m assured a place at the head of the line.”

The next time the priest sees Devlin, the Irishman is in the midst of a fistfight. The priest doesn’t intervene. Devlin yells to the priest, “It’s alright Father, I’m just explaining the Holy Trinity.” The priest just smiles.

The priest unknowingly encounters another member of the plot against Churchill. He hears someone playing the organ in the church. He finds one of the “Polish” paratroopers playing. He is impressed with the soldier’s skill, “Bach needs to be played well. That is my frustration every time I take that seat.”

“Col. Miller” (Steiner/Caine) asks the priest if troops can do exercises throughout the village. Apparently, the priest has the authority to make these calls, which seems odd.

While doing those exercises, a little girl falls into a stream leading to a mill wheel. One of the "Polish" soldiers dives in to rescue the child. The soldier dies in the rescue, and when he is pulled out, it is revealed he is a German. The priest is outraged, “My God, you’re a German. Colonel. I know what you’re doing, and I know what you want. You won’t get away with it.”

The Germans send all the witnesses to be held in the church. Steiner inspects the church and finds a locked door. He asks why the door is locked. The Father replies, “It is the sacristy. It is where I keep the church records, my vestments, and such. The key is at my house. I’ll go and fetch it if you like.” Steiner wouldn’t like.

Father Verecker tries to encourage his fellow hostages, “At times like these, there’s very little left but prayer, and it frequently helps.”

But the priest only sees the worst in Steiner and his soldiers. He never acknowledges the unselfish act of the soldier who gave up his life to save the child. And he never learns that Steiner had risked his own life back in Germany trying to save the life of a Jewish woman he didn’t know, or that his paratroopers backed his actions.

One of the last things we see Father Verecker doing in the film is swinging a chair at Devlin, calling him a bastard. There is something to admire in the priest's determination to serve the people of his village. But he never seems to acknowledge that the Germans, too, are men made in God’s image. Therefore, Father Verecker loses a steeple in our ratings, earning Three Steeples.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Veterans' Month Week 3: Unbroken: Path to Redemption

Unbroken: Path to Redemption (2018)
Unbroken: Path to Redemption had an interesting path to become a sequel. In Hollywood, a sequel is usually made because of money. If the original makes a whole lot of money, the studio says do it again, especially if it features a superhero or action hero, but 2014’s Unbroken was a biographical film about World War II hero Louie Zamperini based on the bestselling book by Lauren Hillenbrand.

The 2014 film, directed by Angelina Jolie from a screenplay written by Joel and Ethan Coen, told the story of Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was captured by the Japanese during World War II. He served in a prisoner of war camp and was tortured by a sadistic guard known as The Bird. He survived and was released from the camp at the end of the war, “unbroken.”

If you’ve read the book, you know that isn’t true. Zamperini was a very broken man. That's where the film ends though, at the end of the war.

The first film was made with a 65 million dollar budget and grossed about a hundred million more. Certainly, that's a respectable profit, but usually, that wouldn’t be enough to lead to a sequel.

The sequel was made was because the first film left out what many would consider the most important part of Zamperini’s story: his coming to faith in Jesus. Universal was a producer of both films, but the original was released by Legendary Studios while the sequel was released by Pure Flix. Pretty much an entirely different cast and crew were brought in for the sequel. Harold Cronk directed a screenplay by Richard Fiedenburg and Ken Hixson. Jack O’Connell played Zamperini in the first film, Samuel Hunt played him in the second film. About the only name the two films have in common is Laura Hillenbrand.

Path to Redemption opens with Zamperini visiting Tokyo in 1950. Someone tries to give him directions and he remarks that this is “not my first time in Tokyo.” It's where he served as a prisoner of war. We go back in time to the end of WWII and Zamperini’s release from captivity.

We see him being welcomed joyfully home, where his parents had been told by the government he was dead. The local priest is asked to join the homecoming. Louie greets him as “Padre.” The priest tells him, “All of Torrance was praying for you. God’s not to blame for your suffering.” 

Louie doesn’t seem to be buying it. Later in the film, he admits he felt that not only was God to blame for his suffering, God was his enemy.

The Army recruits Zamperini to go on tour to sell war bonds. Initially, this goes well, as he tells about encouraging other POWs with stories about his mother’s fine cooking. But as the tour goes on, Lou begins to drink more and more heavily, sometimes before speeches. His C.O. demands he take a break from the tour, going for several weeks of R. & R. in Florida. At the beach, he meets the woman who soon became his wife, Cynthia Applewhite (Merritt Patterson).

Cynthia asks Louie whether he prayed during his wartime experiences. “Begging (was) more like it,” he answers. She asks him about his faith and he answers, “I didn’t pay much attention in Mass.” But after they visit the church she grew up in, he agrees to a church wedding. The couple then returns to Louie’s hometown of Torrance to live.

Though they get by for some time on funds the government provided for back pay and insurance for Louie’s time in the camp, funds soon get tight. Louie can’t find work. Or at least, he can’t find a job he thinks is befitting his history as an Olympian and a war hero. So again he drinks. Heavily. Days he claims to be looking for work he’s actually spending in bars.

He also has night terrors, making him fear that he’ll harm Cynthia. He goes to see a government-provided psychiatrist, Dr. George Bailey (played by Gary Cole rather than Jimmy Stewart.) Though the doctor doesn’t use the term “PTSD,” it’s clear that's the problem. And Louie is trying to address it through alcohol.

Cynthia has a child, but that doesn’t make the marriage better. Cynthia begins to consider divorce, but a neighbor, Lili (Vanessa Bell Calloway), encourages Cynthia to “fight for him.” Lila also takes Cynthia to a revival meeting -- the Greater Los Angeles Revival -- Billy Graham Every Night, 7 PM -- which, in 1949, was scheduled to run for three weeks but continued for eight.

Louie tells Cynthia he won’t consider going with her. He describes the revivals of his youth as frauds,  saying, “Hide your wallet, the circus is in town.” While she goes to the revival, Louie drinks at home from a bottle in a hollowed-out Bible.

Eventually, Louie does go to the revival, drinking from a flask on the way. A tent on the fairgrounds is decorated with a large cross with a sign on it “Jesus Saves.” A choir sings “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Billy Graham (played by the evangelist's grandson, Will Graham) is at the pulpit. At the beginning of his message, he jokes at the beginning of his message, “I will keep the message brief, but I always say that, so don’t get your hopes up.” He goes on to say, “God has a lifeline. I do not believe that any man can solve the problems of life without Jesus Christ. Have you trusted Christ Jesus as savior? Tonight, I’m glad to tell you that the Lord Jesus can be received, your sins forgiven, your burdens lifted, your problems solved, by turning your life over to Him and repenting of your sin and turning to Jesus Christ as savior.”

Louie goes again. Billy preaches, “Why doesn’t God stop suffering? I can see the stars and I can see the footprints of God. What God asks of man is faith. I believe God is still transforming lives.” Lou starts to leave, but Billy says “Don’t leave, you can leave while I’m preaching, but not now. This is it, God has spoken to you. It is time. Come forward.”

Louie flashes back and remembers the time his plane went down and he was stranded on a raft at sea. He begged God, “If you save me, I will serve you all my life.” He was saved. By Japanese who imprisoned him, but he was saved.

At the crusade, years later, he kept that promise. When he trusted in Christ, God changed his life around.

A final title card reads: “Nearly forty years after WWII, more than 85% of former Pacific POW’s suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Every man had to find his own path; Louis Zamperini found profound peace. After his conversion, Louis never drank again. He began a new life as a Christian speaker, telling his story all over America, from grade school classrooms to stadiums. In 1952, Louis established Victory Boys Camp to help at-risk youth, which the Zamperini family continues today. Matsuhiro Watanabe “The Bird” was one of the most wanted WWII criminals in Japan. He remained in hiding for several years until he was granted amnesty by the U. S. in its efforts to reconcile with Japan. Louis and Cynthia were married for 54 years.”

Zamperini was a great man. As was Graham, the clergy member in this film. He earns our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.