Monday, September 28, 2020

Apocalypse Month is Coming!

The obvious question for October 2020 is, "Is it redundant to watch an apocalypse on a screen when we can just look out the window?" But, of course, this year has only three or four varieties of the apocalypse while film history offers so much more.

Films have apocalypse by disease, reminiscent of our Covid-19, but Outbreak and Contagion are even grimmer. We have rioting in the streets, but nothing yet that can be compared to the Mad Max saga. And, of course, there is the apocalypse that comes as society and politics become stupid, as represented in Idiocracy which….Well, that one’s pretty much spot on.

But films present many other kinds of apocalypses that we haven't experienced. During the last century, the most common means of ending the world in cinema was nuclear war in grim films like On the Beach and comedies such as Dr. Strangelove. One of the most popular genres in this century is stories about zombies, from the epic canvass of World War Z to comedies like Zombieland. Climate change is often the cause of the end of all things in films, with cheesy selections such as Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow, and Geostorm. In many apocalypse films, animals have not been our friends, as in The Birds and Frogs.

The threat often comes from above. In 1998 meteors threatened the world twice, in Deep Impact and Armageddon, but it had happened before in films such as When Worlds Collide. Aliens also came from the skies to threaten our world in a host of films such as Independence Day and Mars Attacks! and several versions of War of the Worlds.

An interesting thing about many of these films is they rarely feature churches or clergy (1953’s War of the Worlds is an exception). I think part of the attraction of these films is they are depression porn, made to present hopelessness. Perhaps we like to watch the end of the world in a film because when it ends, the world we live in doesn’t seem so bad.

It's a good thing that there are exceptions; some apocalypse films don't dodge faith and provide us with church and clergy (the mainstays of this blog). Biblical Apocalypse films, a subgenre of apocalypse films,  portray the End Times as presented in Scripture (with wide degrees of fidelity to the Biblical text). By their nature, these films tend to make clergy and churches are a central feature. (Though not always, of course. 2010’s Legion is a strange film in which God decides to destroy humankind with angel attacks. Angels that swear and bite. Weird film, but no clergy and no churches, just a diner, so we won’t bother with it here.)

So we will be looking at Apocalypse films of the "Biblical" variety all month. I'm hoping these films will provide a pleasant diversion from pandemics, social unrest, and presidential elections. (Of course, there's another reason to discuss this topic in October. These films could all be classified as horror, and Halloween is coming.)

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Back to back to school month: Heathers


We’ve had some bad Christian Slater films here, with another scheduled for next month (coming attractions -- Apocalypse Month). Heathers, though, is a classic in the high school genre. Drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs argues it's the best high school comedy, knocking out all the John Hughes contenders. Director Michael Lehmann won the Independent Spirit Award for this film as Best First Feature. Empire Magazine ranked the film #412 in the 500 Greatest Films of All Time.

Heathers is a dark satire about adolescent suicide and murder. Veronica (Winona Ryder) is a part of her Ohio high school’s top clique, the Heathers -- though she's the only girl in the group not named Heather. The Heathers and the young men who follow them dominate the school, forcing other students to bow to their narcissistic whims. Things change when a new kid, J.D. (Slater), comes into the school. He's a rebel who charms Veronica into considering the attractions of homicide. 

Admittedly, there isn't a lot of church and clergy in this film, but what is there is choice.

Glenn Shadix (of Beetlejuice fame) plays Father Ripper, the priest who conducts Heather Chandler's funeral after J.D. and Veronica accidentally (?) poisoned her. The couple forged a suicide note for Heather, causing great concern in the school and community that it may be a harbinger of a plague of teen suicides. Father Ripper, dressed in a white robe, collar, and paisley stole, addresses these concerns in his homily at Heather’s funeral:
“I blame not Heather, but rather a society that tells the youth that answers can be found in MTV video games. We must pray that other teenagers of Sherwood, Ohio, would know the name of that righteous dude that can solve their problems. It’s Jesus Christ, and He’s in the Book.”

The packed house in this formal church answers the priest's words with a loud “Amen.”(It was filmed in Pasadena's Church of the Angels, an Anglican church with stone walls and elegant stained glass windows.) 

It’s an open casket service and a rather strange quirk in proceedings is to encourage individuals to come forward and pray beside the body. The audience is allowed to hear the silent prayers, including Veronica’s apology for killing her friend. Not all of the attendees treat the setting with respect (one of the remaining Heathers uses holy water to straighten her hair).

More die in the film. J.D. tricks Veronica into helping him kill two of the school's football stars, Kurt and Ram. Again, a fake suicide note is produced, this time making it appear the young men were gay lovers who killed themselves to hide their passion from the world. We don’t get to hear Father Ripper at this funeral, but we do hear Ram’s father stand by his son’s open casket (both boys lie in state, wearing their football helmets). The priest watches as the father looks at his dead son and loudly proclaims, “I don’t care that you were a pansy. You made me proud. I love my dead son.” (J.D. ponders a little too loudly at the service whether he would still love his gay son if he “had a pulse.”)

We do see one more funeral at the church, though it is actually part of a dream of Veronica’s. Now Father Ripper is dressed in a flowery, hippy robe with a plethora of beads. Everyone in the pews is wearing white robes and 3-D glasses.

Though the sermon is just a figment of Veronica’s imagination, the words she puts into Father Ripper’s mouth are interesting and strange, “‘Eskimo.’ Heather underlined a lot of things in this copy of Moby Dick, but I believe ‘Eskimo’ is the key to understanding Heather’s pain. On the surface, Heather was the vivacious young lady we all knew her to be. But her soul was in Antarctica, freezing with the knowledge of how her fellow teenagers can be cruel, the way that parents can be unresponsive. And as she writes so eloquently in her suicide note, ‘the way life can suck.’ We’ll all miss Sherwood’s little Eskimo. Let’s just hope she’s rubbing noses with Jesus.”

In this same dream, the first dead Heather appears to Veronica and tells her she is SO bored of Heaven, “If we sing Kumbaya one more time…”

From Veronica’s dreams and attitudes, it seems she doesn’t believe that Father Ripper understands or cares about young people more than any other adults. Just as teachers are only concerned about their jobs and parents are concerned about themselves, the priest is just concerned about selling Jesus. But Father Ripper doesn’t kill others or himself -- which isn’t nothing in this film, so he avoids our lowest rating. We give Father Ripper and his church a Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples. 

(Heathers is rated 'R' and currently available on Amazon Prime. If you've already seen the film, the best way to watch it again is on Joe Bob Brigg's Last Drive-In Theater supplemented by excellent commentary.)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Back to Back to School Month: Catching Faith

Catching Faith

I know I need to talk about churches and clergy in these films, but I have to deal with another issue here at the start, because it bothered me the whole time I was watching Catching Faith.

A Christian high school football team is a major part of the plot of this film. The son of the family, Beau Taylor (Garrett Westton), is a senior and a star player -- presumably on the varsity team.  The football games are played on school days (Fridays?) in the afternoon. My high school had some varsity day games, but they were on Saturdays.

Surely this school has a junior varsity team. If the Varsity plays after the end of the school day and after a JV game (and perhaps after a freshman game) in Wisconsin in the fall, surely the sun would not be burning bright as it is during all the games in this film -- including the end-of-season championship game.

Okay, there is one other thing that bothered me in this film -- let me vent, and then we'll get to the part where we talk about the church and clergy. Early in the film, the mother of the Taylor family, Alexa (Lorena Segura York) is asked, “What do you do?”

Her answer was, “We have twins. My son is the star of the football team. My daughter is a valedictorian.” I have all kinds of problems with this, including, of course, that this woman defines herself solely by her offspring, but that's not even my biggest issue with this. Something else that bothers me more is that she calls her daughter, Ravyn (Bethany Peterson), a valedictorian. Since the football season is in process, this is obviously the fall (even though the sun sets inexplicably late), so that year's valedictorian is months away from being decided. We also see Ravyn's dad (Dariush Moslemi) hand her a thin, business-sized envelope at a football game. The skinny envelope contains early acceptance at some great college (anyone who watched Gilmore Girls knows skinny college envelopes don’t have good news. You want a fat envelope. Also, this movie is from 2015 -- didn't that kind of thing come in an email or online portal?) Ravyn's parents give her a quick pat on the back and then go back to watching the game. 

Also, the letter says she has to keep her grades up to keep her acceptance,t wasn’t  so it isn't really an acceptance letter.

Alright, enough of preliminaries. Is there any church or clergy in this film (since that's what we're here to talk about)? We do see Alexa leaving a church service. The building is a big brick edifice; I’d guess it was a mainline church. We never go inside that church or meet clergy from there, but there are two other Christian institutions depicted in the film: a Bible study and a Christian school.

Alexa has just started attending a small group with women who all seem to be about her age, all attractive, well dressed, and able to meet during the day. It could well be that this is a Bible study affiliated with a church, but they never talk about a church. It certainly isn’t Bible Study Fellowship, but if it is some other parachurch organization, we never hear what it is.

The group is starting a new study which doesn’t focus on any particular book of the Bible or concept in Scripture, but rather on self-discovery. (At the end of one session the group leader does say, “Read I Kings chapters 17 and 18,” but we never hear the group discuss that, or any other Scripture.)

Alexa seems to like the people in the group, but initially, she's unwilling to discuss anything personal. She feels pressured to share more deeply, and snaps at one point, “You don’t like or accept my answers.” But eventually she seems to find the women in the group to be a source of encouragement and strength.

The big conflict in the film is when Beau goes to a drinking party after a game. The police bust the party, but let Beau off. But the school has a Code of Conduct that says drinking, among other offenses, makes him a student ineligible for extracurricular activities. Beau’s parents insist on Beau reporting himself.

The school coach, Coach Z (Bill Engvall), doesn’t try to work around the school rules to have Beau play. He lets Beau sit on the bench, but he doesn’t let his star play. And he encourages Beau by telling him that just as a receiver must trust the quarterback, on the field of life each of us must trust God as our quarterback. As a teacher at a Christian school, he does serve a pastoral role and does it well.

I appreciated how Beau and Ravyn were depicted dealing with real temptation and moral choices and their relationship with each other. I was disappointed that the film culminated with the Big Game. (Will there be a way for Beau to play in the playoff game? Will the school win the game? I’ll leave you in suspense.)

The school and Bible study do encourage the Taylors to see God and live in integrity, so I’m giving them Three Steeples out of Four. (If that Bible study actually studied the Bible, they might have rated higher.)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Back to Back to School Month: The Devil's Playground

The Devil’s Playground
There are quite a lot of films called The Devil’s Playground, but few of them would work for the purposes of this blog about churches and clergy. The 1932 documentary on fishing around the world certainly wouldn’t help. Neither would the 1937 romance with Richard Dix as a submarine officer and Delores del Rio as a dance hall girl. I love Hopalong Cassidy as much as the next guy, but his 1946 adventure pits him against a corrupt sheriff, not a corrupt clergyman. The 2002 film about Amish youth on Rumspringa comes closer, but it’s a documentary and we generally do feature films here. I’m also not going to bother with the 2010 feature about a mercenary seeking a cure in a zombie apocalypse or the 2018 short about military veterans who become cartel hitmen.

No, the best The Devil’s Playground for our purposes was made in 1976 by writer/director Fred Schepisi. Schepisi was a part of the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s that included directors such as Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), George Miller (Mad Max), and Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant). Schepisi first received international attention with his film about Aborigines, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Schepisi based the script of The Devil’s Playground on his own experiences as a student in an all-boys Catholic school in the 1950’s. The film opens in the beginning of a school year in 1953. Tom Allen (Simon Burke) is a thirteen-year-old student at a De La Salle Brothers seminary for young men in Melbourne.

In much of the film, the priests deal with the “coming of age” of the boys (chiefly issues of sexuality). The sexual abuse of young people by priests has been an important story for some time now, but this film made in the 1970’s doesn’t portray any physical abuse of the children (but emotional and psychological abuse perhaps).

Let's look at the individual priests of the Brotherhood at the school. They certainly vary in temperament and suitability for caring for young students.

Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) most probably should never be allowed within hearing distance of adolescents. We first meet him as he is watching boys shower. Most of the boys are wearing bathing suits, but one is naked. He says, “That’s disgusting. The body is the enemy of the soul. The rest of you boys, avert your eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul. Guard against your senses at all times. Preparing to be a brother requires… self-denial, self-discipline to be one of God’s chosen few.” (As a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, Brother Francine should know that calling the body evil in this way is Gnostic heresy. God made our bodies and our bodies are not “enemies.”)

Brother Francine is the character who drops the title line, saying, “Undisciplined minds are the devil’s playground,” but as the film goes on, we learn that his mind is not disciplined. We see him take the boys to a public swimming pool and Francine peeps at women and girls in the changing room (I do hope most public restrooms in Australia were built better. In the film it is scary-easy to look into the changing rooms from the outside). As Francine rests in his bed, we see some of his lurid fantasies of swimming with naked women.

Eventually, we see Francine break down utterly in front of his fellow priests. He's sent off to a psychiatric facility after this outburst, “I hate life. It’s evil, sick, despicable. The body dominates the mind. It always wins. What else are you thinking, Frank? Your mind is a cesspool of desire. The only answer is to give in, or lose your mind. I have a damn good body, but no one has looked at it for years, let alone touched it. It’s done nothing. But the mind, it has. It’s sinned. Oh, how it’s sinned. Twisted, cowardly, perverted sins. I hate life. I hate it.” This is a man who should not have been allowed around young men.

The school brings Father Marshall (played by novelist Thomas Keneally) to speak at a special retreat for the boys that focuses on sexual purity and preparing for a future in ministry. He has a much more positive view of life than Francine, “Don’t give into falderal and fanatics, be yourself. Keep your smile seen around the world.” He concludes the conference with these words, “I’m sure you all have a future in the religious life. This retreat should have helped you grow in confidence for your future vocation. I have no more to say. I’ve enjoyed being with you. I’d give my right arm to stay with you longer. By the way boys, if you ever become a missionary, don’t use that phrase with a cannibal.” He then blesses the desserts the boys are about to enjoy after a two day fast.

We see Brothers Jim (Peter Cox) and Frank in civilian clothes when they go to a soccer game in the city. After the game, the men stop at a bar where they drink freely. Frank begins to flirt with a woman in the bar, and when he is asked what he does for a living he responds, “I’m a school teacher.” Jim is shocked by Frank and stumbles drunkenly out of the bar and Frank must follow him. (At the end of the film -- spoiler! -- when young Tom flees from the school, Jim and Frank give him a ride to the boy’s home in the city.)

Brothers Frank and Jim seem like nice guys who encourage the students. Brother Arnold (Jonathan Hardy) who leads the boys in singalongs and soccer games. Brother Victor (Nick Tate) is assigned for sharing the facts of life with the students and seems to do so in a comfortable and practical way.

Also on campus is a retired member of the faculty, Brother Sebastian (Charles McCallum), who seems to be getting senile. He has a different view of things than most priests saying, "What’s so wrong with masturbation? We spend so much time hating our bodies.” He is opposed to Brother Francine in every way, particularly in temperament. Toward the end of the film, Sebastian talks with Tom and encourages him to live his own life, which is a turning point in Tom deciding to leave the school.

So the priests are a mixed bag. A worrisome thing is that the school doesn’t quash a secret society of students whose sadomasochistic practices lead to the death of a student.

So what's the steeple rating for the seminary and clergy in The Devil’s Playground? Two Steeples, which isn't our lowest rating, but it isn’t great.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Back to Back to School Month: The Mighty Macs

The Mighty Macs

This film makes an ideal transition from Nun Month to Back to School Month (though it would also work as a changeover to Sports Month). The Mighty Macs tells the true story of Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino), a first-time college basketball coach who led the women’s team of a small, Catholic college to a national championship (actually three national championships.)

Like any film based on true events, some liberties were taken with the facts, but some of the more incredible details of the movie were true. Rush was only 22 years old when she began coaching, barely older than her students (though Gugino was 38 when she played the role). She was married to Ed Rush (David Boreanaz), an NBA referee (the film leaves out that she was already the mother of two young children who she would sometimes bring to practices). 

The school was sadly lacking in supplies. Rush began coaching at the school with only one basketball and no gym (it had recently burned down; all games the first season were away games). The school couldn’t afford new uniforms, so they were forced to go with a “retro” look.

But we, of course, are not here to write about basketball but about the clergy in the film, which in this case is nuns. And to start with, this is a pretty good group of nuns.

Immaculata University in rural Pennsylvania was founded in 1920 by nuns of the order of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and run by nuns. When the film opens, in November of 1971, the school is financial straits. Rush goes in for a job interview with the school’s head who is also the convent's Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn).

In the film, one of the first questions the Reverend Mother asks Rush is “Which Catherine are you named after?” 

Rush dodges the question but does nothing to dissuade the Reverend Mother from thinking she was from a Catholic background (which was not the case). The Mother Superior makes it clear her main objective for the basketball program is to suppress the girls’ hormones. She is rather alarmed by the thought that Rush’s coaching policy is to turn the girls into real athletes but offers Rush $450 a year to coach the team. Rush accepts (this was indeed her salary). 

The coach tells her, “Mrs. Rush, I hope you are a better coach than negotiator. I would have paid you $500.”

Rush laughs, "I would have done it for nothing."

The sisters, students, and staff attend mass together, though we do see Coach Rush arriving late (she does cross herself upon entry). She passes a note to a student during the service, urging her to join the basketball team. The coach seems to take every opportunity to recruit.

Rush also works to raise funds for her team (really, to obtain any funds at all for her team) from the school's administration, but the Reverend Mother responds, “We’re also requesting once again for the heating system in the freshman dorm be replaced.” As Rush continues to pester her for money, she eventually shows the coach the meager resources used to care for ailing and elderly retired nuns on the grounds and her own quite humble living quarters. She tells Rush, “This is my room, you can help yourself to anything I have.” 

Rush begins to seek outside sources, appealing to the townspeople and alumni.

Rush gets assistance from a Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), a young nun who serves as her assistant coach. The young nun had been praying for God’s guidance about continuing in her calling and taking her final vows. We see her in the church praying, “I implore You to send me a sign. I am listening for Your voice.” Just then, she hears a basketball whistle downstairs. She goes downstairs to see the team working out in the cramped recreation center and is recruited. She enjoys working with the practices and Rush appreciates having another driver to get the team to games.

Sister Sunday and Rush invite local boys to scrimmage against the girls. (We actually see Sister Sunday slap one of the boy’s butts during one of these practices!) When the Reverend Mother learns of this, she reprimands them -- no males were allowed on campus at that time. Rush also gets into hot water when they run some unorthodox drills. When it's found out, Sister Sunday takes the responsibility and the hit, but the Reverend Mother threatens this will be Rush’s last season.

Rush and Sunday and their team do quite well. They are eventually invited to the National Tournament, but they have no money for transportation to the tournament. But the girls on the team sell soaps and “soothing creams” that were donated to the school, going door to door in the community. They also sell buttons reading “We Will Be #1.”

The Mother Superior is eventually won over to their cause. She gives them the money she saved from her poker winnings. (Poker night had, in more prosperous times, been one of the more unusual recreations for the sisters at the school.) There's enough to buy bus passes for the team, but not the coaches.

They discover another way to cut costs. At that time, airlines allowed clergy to fly free. Sister Sunday wears her habit -- and Coach Rush dons one too. As they wait for their flight, Rush confesses another “sin” to Sister Sunday. She isn’t really a Catholic, she’s a Baptist. Much is forgiven by those who win games. Even that.

The other nuns at the school also support the team, dipping into their personal funds to support the team by attending the championship games. A banner can be spotted in the stand at one of the Macs' games, reading “Mark 9:23.” (“Everything is possible for one who believes.”)

Rush and the Macs did win that championship -- and two after that. But that isn’t our concern here. What is important to us here at Movie Churches is that the Sisters of Immaculata University guide their students with love and care and present an example of simple, godly living, earning our highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.

(This film is rated 'G' which is pretty rare these days.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Movie Churches goes back to Back to School

Is it just me, or do other people find it strange that stores are still having “Back to School” sales in areas where kids will just be going to school virtually? Do kids really need a new backpack to show off on the Zoom calls? 

So much is different in this school year, even for those physically going back to campus. Most school sports aren’t happening -- at least not this fall --  and I have no idea what life on the playground is like these days. Fortunately, at least one thing about this back-to-school season hasn't changed one darn bit, and that is Movie Churches “Back to School” posts. Yes, we’re going back to it. 

It has been a whole year since we did this, so if you want to review any of our past posts, here’s your opportunity to review in order to be head of the class.

- Another Christian film from the Kendrick brothers about the superiority of Christians in sports. (This film has a bonus of really questionable ethical competitive choices.)

Heaven Help Us - There is a subgenre of Catholic High School films, and this is a decent representative of the form. We’ll be returning to more of the same this month.

Breakthrough - A well-produced Christian film based on a true story about the miraculous healing of a young man who fell beneath the ice.

Girls’ Town - As a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I was happy to be able to enjoy snarky one-liners as I watched yet another film about a Catholic school (though this was an all-girls school for delinquents.)

Holy Goalie! - Can a school be saved by its soccer team winning the big championship game? I’ll leave you in suspense.

Sister Act II: Back in the Habit
- Will Whoopi Goldberg ever return to this franchise (this time as a teacher at a Catholic School)? I kind of hope so, because at the least, these films have decent soundtracks.

A Matter of Faith - This film deals with the conflict between Creationism and Evolution. The judge is from Night Court and there's not a lot of nuance.

Saint Ralph - The cross country running of Overcomer joins up with the Catholic school of Heaven Help Us. We called it a miracle film in the original review.

St. Vincent - If Bill Murray is in a film, I’m there. Yet another visit to a Catholic school.

God’s Club
- When you see a powerhouse cast like Stephen Baldwin, Corbin Benson, and Lorenzo Lamos, you know you’re in for a filmmaking tour-de-force… Or more likely a whiney, craptastic Christian film.

Au Revoir, les Enfants - Frankly, we don’t often get to look at great films from great filmmakers in this blog, but we got to with this Louis Malle classic.

Saved and Boys’ Town - This double feature came early in the history of Movie Churches with two very different films. Saved is an occasionally vulgar spoof of contemporary Christian schools. Boys’ Town is a rather saccharine telling of the founding of a longstanding Catholic ministry in Nebraska.

Fortunately, you don't have to physically go back to school or the movie theater to get schooled on these Movie Churhes.