Thursday, September 26, 2019

Back to School Month: Girls' Town (with Robots)

Girls' Town (1959)
We often say we’re here to review churches and clergy in films, rather than review the films themselves, but we still want (as much as possible) to view the films as the filmmakers would prefer their work to be seen.

When we can, we watch films in a movie theater since films are designed to be viewed on the big screen. If that isn’t possible -- and since we usually aren’t viewing current films, it usually isn’t -- the next best thing is to watch films on DVD or streaming on a decent home screen. Watching a network or cable broadcast of a movie that's interrupted by commercials and edited for length and content is far less desirable. Even worse are films recorded from broadcast television and posted to Youtube. The video and audio quality of such postings are generally abysmal, but sometimes that’s the only place I can find some films.

On the other hand, sometimes I find movies on Youtube that aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and that can be the most pleasurable way to watch a film possible. The show is known to its fans as MST3K, and it began on an independent Minneapolis station in the 1980s. The show eventually moved to Comedy Central, then the SciFi Channel. It now makes its home on Netflix.

The premise of the show is that a man trapped on a satellite in space is forced to watch bad films with his robot friends. The hosts (first Joel, then Mike, and now Jonah), watch the movies with us, mocking them along the way. I doubt filmmakers appreciate having their films deemed satire fodder for the show, but it's fun for the viewer.

And it was through MST3K via Youtube that I watched Girls’ Town, a 1959 teen exploitation film about a Catholic girls' reform school. The film focuses on one of the young women, Silver Morgan (Mamie Van Doren), suspected of killing a young man, who's sent to Girls’ Town because there's not enough evidence to send her to prison. Silver struggles to get along with the nuns who run the institution and with the other girls who reside there. She also must deal with the vengeful friends and family of the dead man.

There is much for the robots (and the host) to mock in the film. For one thing, there are the young pop idols found in the cast. Mel Torme plays Fred, a young thug who's involved in a strange form of no-hands drag racing (one of the robots thinks Mel looks like “a young Jabba the Hut.”) The film introduces Paul Anka to the screen as a good guy who does charitable performances at Girls’ Town, even singing “Ave Maria” (“I love the Paul Anka Mass!” exclaims one of the 'bots.) The Platters give quite a decent performance, which puzzles the robots and Mike (they're not used to quality acts -- at Anka’s concert, one of the robots says, “You know, if they were Baptists they could have got the Platters.”)

On the other hand, the nuns of Girls’ Town come off very well. Mother Veronica (Margaret “Maggie” Hayes) welcomes Silver by saying, “Most of the girls call me ‘Mother.’” Silver is surprised to see no walls or fences around the buildings, and girls happily playing volleyball.

One of the nuns suspects Silver will be a hard case and says, “That one will get the back of my hand.” 

Another nun responds, “I think it would be better to give her patience.” 

“And when patience runs out?”

"Pray earnestly, until you give her a pop to the kisser.” 

It should be noted we never see corporal punishment used by the nuns.

Silver sees a statue of a saint and asks about it. She’s told it is St. Jude, the Patron Saint of lost causes (one of the robots says, “He used to be with the Mariners.”) Silver is told she can bring her requests to him. Silver asks what good that would do. She is told, “Just as television and radio carry voices from great distances, think of him as a microphone that brings your requests to the ear of God.”

As a Protestant, I’m not a big fan of praying through the saints, but Silver eventually comes to a breaking point and brings her requests to the statue of St. Jude. And God hears her requests.

Silver has problems following the rules of her new home, such as not smoking. The girls have their own system of discipline, and Silver is sentenced to mopping up the floor of the room where the Paul Anka concert was held. Mother Veronica comes alongside her to clean, but Silver says, “I don’t need help!” 

The Mother responds, “We all need help.”

And Silver definitely needs help. When her sister, Mary Lee (Elinor Donahue) is abducted by Fred and his thugs, the other girls at the home help rescue her. Even Mother Veronica, some other nuns, and Paul Anka come to her aid to take on the delinquents.

Silver tells Mother Veronica that she’s her “henchman” (her term for a reliable friend). Mother Veronica responds, “You’ve become my henchman too, Silver.”

Mike and the robots are not wrong to mock the hokey cultural relic that is Girls’ Town. But Mother Veronica and the other nuns in the film are compassionate and do seem to really change the lives of these troubled girls, earning our highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Christian School Month: Breakthrough

Breakthrough (2019)
It’s Christian School Month here at Movie Churches, but of course, we need to talk about church and clergy as usual, as well as schools. This week, we need to start off by talking about the NBA (National Basketball Association, if you’re acronym averse).

It's right there in the opening credits: “Executive Producer Stephen Curry.” Yes, that Stephen Curry, who plays for the Golden State Warriors.

My dad took me to my first NBA game in 1976, the year after Golden State won their first championship. Rick Barry was their star in those days. Today, Stephen Curry is their star, leading the Warriors to championships in 2015, 2017, and 2018. When we were on our bar and a church in every state tour in 2016, we watched every Warriors game we could catch as they went on to set the record for most wins in a season. (Even now, as I write, I am wearing Stephen Curry socks. I put on the socks because I knew I’d be writing this, but still…)

Anyway, Curry started a production company, Unanimous Media, and 2019’s Breakthrough is their first project. Curry said, “It’s a story about the power of prayer and perseverance and one I immediately connected to. After reading the script, I knew I wanted to be a part of bringing it to life onscreen.”

The script is the true story of John Smith, a 14-year-old boy who fell through the ice in a lake in Missouri, was declared legally dead, but revived when his mother prayed for him. John recovered fully, and his mother wrote a book about their story.

When we first see John (Marcel Ruiz) in the film, he’s talking with his dad at breakfast as John gets ready for school. His dad, Brian (Josh Lucas), talks to him about the upcoming game between the Kansas City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors. (I couldn’t help but wonder if that was in the script before Steph signed on.) His mother, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), takes John to Water of Life Christian Middle School. (Most Christian schools I know don’t have a separate middle school. Most I’ve known are K - 12 or K - 8. But such things do exist, and the real Water of Life school seems to be pretty big.)

John goes to his history class, where his teacher, Mrs. Abbott (Nancy Sorel), leads students in the Pledge of Allegiance. After that, each student is supposed to give an oral report on their family history, but when John is called on, he says he didn't have time to prepare it. He eventually presents a slap-dash report where he says that he's from Guatemala. “My mother didn’t want me.” The Smiths, who were missionaries there, adopted him and brought him back to the United States. John is obviously troubled and angry.

Basketball is important to him, but even there he’s having difficulties. He gets into fights with other players. (I was puzzled by John’s basketball schedule. He plays a game on Sunday afternoon of Martin Luther King Weekend. I’m rather surprised a Christian school would schedule Sunday games, especially on a holiday weekend.) After the game, during that holiday weekend, John and his friends play on a frozen lake, and all of the boys fall through the ice.

The other two boys are rescued pretty quickly, but John slips under the ice and spends many minutes in the freezing water. When he's found and pulled out, he's taken to the hospital and eventually declared dead. His mother prays for him, and John revives. Because he spent so long without oxygen, it's assumed he'd have brain damage and physical impairment, but he recovered fully. He was back to school in a month.

Topher Grace is the Hip, Young Pastor
When he returns to Mrs. Abbott's history class, she asks him to stay after class and asks him one of the most incredibly inappropriate questions I can imagine a teacher asking a student. “John, why does God chose to save some and not others? You see, my husband died two years ago, and…” 

Does Mrs. Abbott want John to suffer from survivor’s guilt? It seems like a lot to throw at an eighth-grader, but later, at a church worship service, he talks about his appreciation for her. He even quotes her. he does say nice things about Mrs. Abbott later at his church’s worship service, he even quotes her. 

Speaking of that church, and we do speak of churches here (it’s kind of the point of this blog), it sure has one happening pastor. Pastor Jason Noble (Topher Grace, yes, That '70's Show Topher Grace) is new, and Joyce doesn’t like him. She doesn’t like when he asks her to call him “Jason” rather than Pastor. She doesn’t like that he’s gotten rid of the organ and hymns and replaced them with choruses and a worship band. She doesn’t his haircut. She doesn’t like how he calls John, “J-Money”.

But when John is in the hospital, the pastor is there. Joyce tells him it’s not the time for him to interfere in her family's life, but he responds that it is his role to be there. He’s not leaving. He stays through that first night in the hospital. After John has had time to recover, Jason allows him to tell his story in a worship service. Firefighters, paramedics, hospital staff, and almost everyone from the school is there. The local news, which has covered his recovery, is there. Eventually, Joyce begins to appreciate Jason for his care and faithfulness (but she still hates his haircut).

As for our Movie Churches rating (which, of course, is not a rating of the film) for the church and Christian school, we’re giving them a Four Steeple Rating for the way they support of John and his family.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Back to School: Heaven Help Us

Heaven Help Us (1985)
I’m a sucker for coming of age films. I love classics like American Graffiti, The 400 Blows, Say Anything and Boyz n the Hood. In the last few years my favorites have included The Way, Way Back, Boyhood, and Sing Street.

This week’s “Back to School” film is very much a coming of age story. Set in Brooklyn in 1955, Heaven Help Us (1985) has all the elements of the genre: young love and a first kiss, learning to stand up to bullies, schoolhouse pranks, driving mishaps, and even our young hero coming to a new school. Especially good for us, that new school is a Catholic school -- which allows us to examine it here at Movie Churches.

Andrew McCarthy plays Michael Dunn, the new kid at St. Basil’s Boys Prep. He soon makes friends with the academic nerd, Caesar (Malcolm Danare), and makes an enemy of the school bully, Rooney (Kevin Dillon). And he finds love with Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a teen girl who manages her father’s malt shop down the street. These are all fun characters played by charming young actors but they aren’t our concern. We're here to look at their school's teachers and administrators, who are all Dominican Brothers. We’ll look at four of these clergy and see how they rate on the Movie Churches steeple scale.

Brother Timothy (John Heard) is also new to St. Basil’s. We first see him playing a game of chance with Rooney with baseball cards at stake. He takes the kid’s Mickey Mantle (but returns it later.) He hangs out in the malt shop where the boys from the school and girls from the neighborhood hang out and buy their cigarettes. (He smokes there as well. The Surgeon General’s Report on smoking came out in 1964.) It should be noted he doesn’t seem to be doing these things to be cool. He’s a young guy, and these are the things he does. And it does help kids relate to him. Michael feels comfortable even talking to him about girls. Brother Timothy encourages Michael to ask a girl to dance during a school function. Michael asks, “What if it doesn’t work?” 

Timothy responds, “Start thinking about joining a religious order.” Both of them laugh. 

All the boys seem to respect him and learn from him. He’d get at least 3 Steeples in the Movie Churches ratings.

Brother Constance (Jay Patterson) has been at the school for many years. When Caesar comes into his class chewing gum, the Brother forces him to keep the gum on his nose for the remainder of the day -- which is a minor thing compared to his treatment of Rooney. 

Rooney didn’t do an assignment, so he pretends to read from a blank sheet of paper when he's told to present his report to the class. Brother Constance pulls him to the front of the classroom by the ear, slams his head against the blackboard, and forces him to eat the blank piece of paper. Another time, when Rooney removes all the screws from Caesar's desk so it falls apart, Constance has all the students get down on their knees until “the joker comes forward.” Constance tells the students, “I’m not a man who enjoys violence, in fact I get better results with ‘Patience.’” 

He brings out a paddle with the word “Patience” burned into the wood. In a climactic moment towards the end of the film, Brother Constance punches a student. A student punches him back, bringing cheers from the whole school. Brother Constance would probably receive our lowest Steeple score of One.

Father Abruzzi (Wallace Shawn) has less time in the film. His big moment comes at the school dance, when the girls of Virgin Martyr get together with the boys of St. Basils’. He is given the assignment of giving a lecture before the fun begins. He says the purpose of the dance is to help “boys and girls grow with strong moral fiber.” He warns the students to “never confuse love with the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, lust.” Which confused me, as I’ve always thought of pride as the worst, it being Satan’s fatal flaw and all. He goes on to warn about “the deadly beast within you” that will take you “down in the farthest pits of hell… where your flesh will be ripped from your bones by hell’s serpents.” He closes this opening sermonette with, “Have a nice time, enjoy the dance.” His neglect of the grace and forgiveness found in the Cross leads to a lowly Two Steeple rating for Vizzini… Sorry, I meant Father Abruzzi.

And finally we come to Brother Thadeus (Donald Sutherland), the principal of St. Basil’s. Thadeus welcomes Michael to the school, informing him that at St. Basil’s the Mass is still in Latin, students should wear black shoes rather than brown, and that he will be addressed as “Brother Thadeus rather than sir” (to which Michael responds, “Yes, sir, Brother Thadeus, sir, I mean…” Michael seems quite intimidated.

Brother Timothy observes Brother Constance’s abuse of students and he brings his concerns to Brother Thadeus who tells him that Constance is a quite able teacher and being new, Timothy shouldn’t stir up trouble.

In the film’s conclusion, Brother Thadeus eventually demonstrates that he agrees with Brother Timothy, but this comes after many years of Brother Constance harming students. We can't do more than to also give Brother Thadeus a Two Steeple rating. And that brings St Basil's score to an average rating of Two Steeples.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Remembering Carol Lynley: Flashback to The Poseidon Adventure

Actress Carol Lynley passed away last week at the age of 77. Not that you really wanted to know, but she was a childhood crush of mine. I first saw her television, probably her guest spot on The Big Valley. I might have seen her next on The Night Stalker, a made-for-TV movie, but she was featured in movies before she did that TV work. Films like Harlow, The Shuttered Room, Bunny Lake is Missing, and The Cardinal (featured recently at Movie Churches) were among her credits. 

I first saw her on the big screen was when my brother Dale and I went to see The Poseidon Adventure. This was a big deal for us. It was the first GP rated film we saw without our parents. (Before there was PG, there was GP. Before that, it was M.) The film featured her as Nonnie, who sang the Oscar-winning "There's Got to Be a Morning After." I was in love. (The mini skirt may have had something to do with it. I know I shouldn't be admitting such things here at Movie Churches, but transparency is important.) Anyway, this seems as good a time as any to post this review that was featured first at Dean and Mindy Go to Church.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

I loved this movie as a kid. I thought it was pretty great. I watched it yesterday and it's still pretty great. It's just when I saw it as a kid I thought it was actually, you know, good; "camp" and "kitsch" most likely to be used to describe the film these days. But "entertaining" certainly still applies. The scene where the dining hall is turned upside down when the ship is hit by a tidal wave is still pretty amazing and I can't see CGI improving it. I still can't decide whether the dire circumstances used to disrobe the beautiful women in the cast are amusing or appalling. And I'm pretty sure Nonnie's brother in the band that sings the Oscar-winning "There's Got to Be a Morning After" is the first screen appearance of Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap.

But, as per usual here, I'm not writing about the film, but the clergy in the film. In The Poseidon Adventure, there are two. One of them seems like a pretty decent pastor. The other, judging him by his theology, is one of the worst pastors in screen history (and I'm including the cinematic clergy serial murderers with that).

RIP Carol Lynley
Before disaster strikes the good ship SS Poseidon, we see two clergymen in conversation. Arthur O'Connell plays Chaplain John, an old priest concerned about the young rebel, Reverend Scott (played by Gene Hackman). Reverend Scott hasn't quite been defrocked for his heretical views, but he is being shipped by his superiors to Africa. Whatever denomination he belongs to, they should probably reconsider their policy of sending heretics to the mission field.

We hear a sermon Reverend Scott delivers to his fellow passengers on the ship. In the sermon, the Reverend assures his listeners that God doesn't really care about them. He is concerned about the big picture, getting humanity to some great place beyond our comprehension. The individual is only important as a link from the past to this glorious future. (I'm sure most dictators and sociopaths are quite comfortable with this viewpoint.)

Prayer is a waste of time according to the good Reverend because God expects us to fight for ourselves. Scott talks about his childhood in the slums when you had to fight to feed yourself and keep warm and couldn't waste time on your knees. He is a man of action, which is why he fits in this category. When disaster strikes the ship, the Reverend Scott takes it upon himself to lead any passengers who will follow him to the safety of the ship's hull (you see, due to the tidal wave, down is up and up is down). He doesn't want to waste time with the weak folks who don't have the will or constitution to attempt an escape.

But Chaplain John does take time for the sick and injured. He stays behind with the weak to comfort and care for them. He dies caring for them, just as Jesus called His people to do. I'd certainly consider going to Chaplain John's church.

Though the Reverend Scott disparages prayer, he does talk to God eventually in the film. He blames God for his troubles, yelling at Him, "I don't expect you to do anything for me, but you don't have to fight against me!" He calls his companions who die on the journey through the ship "sacrifices" that God demands. He seems wholly unaware of God's sacrifice of His Son. But in the end, Scott sacrifices himself, so he's not all bad.

Still, Scott is at best a Two Steeple Pastor.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Back to School Month: Overcomer

Overcomer (2019)
As I was exiting the theater after a morning screening of Overcomer, a woman older than me (so, yeah, old) was throwing something in the trash. She said, “I’m glad I had enough tissue for that; it was so good!” She looked at me and said, “Wasn’t that good?”

I am glad to have this opportunity to confess. Atonement and all isn’t the purpose of this blog, -- we’re here to write about clergy and churches in film -- but I did lie to that woman in the theater, and lying just isn’t right. 

When she asked if the film was good, I nodded and said, “Oh,yeah, uh huh.” Which was not strictly true, because I didn’t really think it was very good. I found it tired and cliched, but I’m glad she liked it. So lady in the theater, if by some wild chance you’re reading this, I’m sorry for lying to you. I just didn’t want to offend.

But we aren’t here to apologize or review films, but rather review churches or (this month) church schools in movies.

Overcomer was written and directed by Alex Kendrick, also the star of the film. Alex and his brother Stephen are very successful independent filmmakers, first shocking Hollywood and the entertainment press back in 2006 with Facing the Giants. With little publicity, that was one of the ten top-grossing movies the weekend it debuted. Since then the Kendricks have consistently released films with a Christian message that have also achieved success at the box office. (In its debut weekend, Overcomer took in over eight million dollars, placing third on the box office chart, between #2 Good Boys and #4 Fast and the Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw.)

Overcomer tells the story of a basketball coach, John Harrison (Kendrick), at Brookshire Christian School (home of the “Cougar Nation”). We see him coaching the last game of the season, suffering a narrow defeat. In the postgame pep talk, Coach assures his team that their rivals will be losing their best players through graduation, but their team (which includes his son) will be intact in the coming season and will probably take it all.

Complications ensue when the local steel plant closes, taking with it the majority of local jobs. The school's enrollment is halved, from 580 to 240. Staff pay is cut by ten percent. Many of the staff resign, including the football coach who realizes he won’t have enough students to field a team. With all the resignations, the school’s principal, Olivia Brooks (as in Our Miss Brooks) informs Harrison he’ll have to coach cross country.

Harrison is not pleased with this decision, claiming “cross country is not a sport,” but Brooks reminds him of all the lectures he’s made as a coach about making sacrifices for the sake of the team. Harrison grudgingly agrees to coach. But when he holds tryouts, only a single student shows. That student, Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson), comes with her inhaler in tow; she’s asthmatic.

Harrison quite sensibly goes to the principal and tells her they should cancel the cross country program because there is only one student. She tells him the program will go on because “one runner matters.” Which is true. Every person is important. But if you are running a school with quite limited resources, does it make sense to use substantial resources on one student? The hours Coach Harrison will put into cross country could be put into his history classes or another sport that had more student interest. No one seems troubled by the idea of a male coach spending hours alone with one female student. Even if there is no moral problem, the optics are horrible.

The coach could do some recruiting, but he only makes a half hearted attempt to recruit his son, Ethan (Jack Sterner). His son says he’ll run if his father trains alongside him. Coach tells his wife, Amy (Shari Rigby), that their son isn’t interested in the sport.

We later learn that Miss Brooks has a reason to have a special interest in Hannah. She was friends with Hannah’s mother who died years ago from a drug overdose. Hannah has been told that her father died, and so she lives with her grandmother. Hannah is a petty thief and was expelled from her previous schools. The principal pays for Hannah’s tuition at Brookshire to give her one last chance.

Principal Brooks probably provides the best model of Christian behavior in the film. She is the one who lets Hannah knows that God loves her and is her true Father. She explains how Hannah can place her faith in Jesus as her Lord and Savior. 

And Hannah does. Hannah’s attitude changes from sullen to joyful. She repents of her thefts, returning all she stole (including the coach’s watch.)

We don’t ever see a church in the film, but we do see Coach Harrison’s pastor. The coach accompanies his pastor to visit another member of the congregation in the hospital. Since both the pastor and the coach can't be in the hospital room at the same time, Harrison waits in the hallway while the pastor visits with the patient. The coach then somehow stumbles into the room of a blind man. 

Spoilers, people! 

Turns out the patient whose room he stumbles into is Hannah’s father’s. Ken, Hannah’s father, used to be a cross country runner (took 3rd in State), so Coach Harrison begins to visit Ken regularly to get advice on coaching the sport (it never seemed to occur to Coach Harrison to Google tips on cross country training.)

And here's where one of my biggest qualms with Harrison’s ethics comes into play. In the Cross Country Association that Brookshire Christian School belongs to, there is a debate about whether runners should be allowed to use earbuds. The argument against the proposal is that some runners will have an unfair advantage, that some coaches might talk their runners through the race. It is then suggested that the rule be amended so that runners could only use one bud (so that they could hear officials and other runners with the free ear) and that they can only listen to prerecorded material.

Originally, Harrison opposed the rule change. But then he enthusiastically campaigns for the change. Which passes. 

The reason for Harrison's change of heart is a scheme to have Hannah’s father record instructions for running the course for the Big State Championship Race (you never doubted Hannah would go to “the Big State Championship Race,” did you?)

In this way, he gives Hannah the unfair advantage that many coaches feared -- the reason for the earbud rule. It is not a spoiler at all to say that Hannah wins the big race, because in these films our heroes always win the big game, race, meet, whatever, because we want everything to be as happy as possible before the credits roll.

So what is our Movie Churches Rating for Brookshire Christian School? The principal would earn a Four Steeple Rating, Coach Harrison would earn Two, so I'm combining the two to give the school a Three Steeple Rating.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Welcome Back to School at Movie Churches

School Ties (1992)
It's strange to reach a time in life when the school year is no longer a part of my personal calendar. Even before I went to school myself, having my older brothers and sisters leave for school at the end of summer was a big deal. Every year that I went to school, the night before school started was so full of excitement and anxiety that I couldn’t sleep. During the couple of decades when I had kids of my own going off to school, my life was still shaped by the rhythm of the academic year.

Through the centuries, the Church took the lead in providing education. A major focus of the Reformation was education; Martin Luther was concerned that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves. The Catholic Church has provided education on every level for centuries.

Fortunately, most of the Christian schools depicted in film also have clergy, so these schools are fair game for Movie Churches. Sadly, some of these “Christian” schools we'll be watching this month aren’t very Christian. (We have looked at Movie Church Schools before.)

St. Matthews, the prep school that provides the location for School Ties, is an example. The film opens with students in chapel singing “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” The students are then addressed by a school official assuring them of the nobility of their school tradition. They conclude with the Lord’s prayer.

The theme of the film is anti-semitism in the 1950s, but the film was made in 1992. Not exactly cutting edge. In the movie, the school's very wealthy students treat the new star quarterback, David Greene (Brendan Fraser), as a hero until they learn he is Jewish. When Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon) accuses him of cheating, people believe the charges because, well, David’s Jewish.

The other students are angry David didn’t tell them he was Jewish. When David asks his roommate why he didn’t mention his religion, his friend says, “I’m Methodist. But Jews, everything about them is different.”

The school administrators are uneasy about having a Jewish student, but they are trying to move into the future. A priest meeting with administrators says about David, “You represent the best of what we think of as St. Matthews student.” It doesn’t seem, though, that the priest or faculty have been full-throated in speaking out against prejudice.

Christians who are prejudiced against Jews have always baffled me. The Church was all Jews when it began. All the Apostles and Paul were Jewish. And Jesus, well, as I said, it baffles me.

So St. Matthews receives a meager Two Steeples for our Movie Church rating.