Sunday, December 27, 2020

No Top Ten for 2020, but a Different Top Five

I'm not making a Top Ten Film list this year. Usually, by this time of year, I've seen 50 - 70 films, half of them in a movie theater. From those films, I easily found more than ten films I liked and respected enough to put in a top ten list. The challenge was to narrow down the list to just ten films I thought were important, fun, and rewatchable. 

2020 was 2020, and fewer films were released. Many films that looked good were scheduled to be released this year, but most of them have been postponed until 2021 since theaters weren't open this year (in most places most of the time). Some of those will end up streaming next year, but they were held back in the hope they’d get a theatrical release in 2021.

So, frankly, the films I’ve seen this year haven’t been that great. The only film I’m sure would make my top ten list in a usual year was Pixar’s Soul, which debuted on Disney Plus on Christmas Day. It was unique, funny, imaginative, and thoughtful. I wish it had a church because I’d love to write a post about it and what it has to say about life’s purpose.

But there was still joy to be found in film this year -- even in going to the movies. So instead of my favorite films, I’m writing about my five favorite movie outings this year.

People were less grouchy than they look here
People were less grouchy than they look here

In the Before Time
: Weathering With You (January 15 - AMC Pacific Place, Seattle, WA)

Before we knew the virus would be stealing much of our freedom, I went to the movies without thinking it was anything special, and I saw some holdovers from 2019 (such as 1917 and Just Mercy)

I managed to see one newly-released film before things started shutting down: Weathering with You. It’s a Japanese film that came out overseas last year and debuted in the US in 2020. My wife and I went with our son, one of our daughters, and our son-in-law. All of them are much bigger anime fans than we are, but I liked it too. Maybe it would have had a shot at my top ten list. But I look back on it now for the joy of watching a movie inside -- without masks -- with my family.

Before Washington's Hard Lockdown
: Onward (March 22 - Rodeo Drive-in, Bremerton, WA)

Indoor theaters were shut down already, but the drive-ins had just opened for the season. Disney/Pixar released their new animated film, Onward, not knowing where it would ultimately show in America (turns out the gross was not high). We drove an hour to the closest drive-in to see this enjoyable story of a world where fantasy figures live in suburbia. Washington state shut down drive-ins as well the next day, so we were glad we made it. (We’ve gone to this drive-in a few times again since it re-opened in the summer when we wore masks outside the car, but this was certainly the best film we saw there this year.)

Out of State: Tenet (September 8, Century Park Lane 16, Reno, NV)

I am a big fan of the filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk), and he rather boldly pushed for his newest blockbuster, Tenet, to be released in theaters in September. It was a gamble, and one I wanted to support. But unfortunately, Washington theaters were still closed, and Nolan’s type of epic is best seen on a big screen in a movie theater. Fortunately, my son and I were already planning a trip from Seattle to visit family in Santa Rosa, CA. If you’ll look at your maps, you’ll see that Reno is right on the way. (Well, maybe just a dozen hours of driving out of the way.) So that's the route we took. We wore our masks in the theater and were socially distanced. The film, best described as a Bond spy film with time travel, was definitely lesser Nolan. But I was glad to see for myself. 

Almost Normal:
Honest Thief (October 17, Admiral Theater, Seattle, WA)

For a brief time, Washington State allowed theaters to open again. My wife, son, and I were happy to don our masks to see a Liam Neeson film wherein Neeson played a man with a “special set of skills” that he uses against ner-do-wells. Fortunately, it was as formula-bound and comforting as we hoped. We were happy to see yet another version of Taken.

One Last Gasp
: Freaky (November 15, AMC Southcenter, Tukwilla, WA)

That brief opening didn’t last for long, so when Governor Inslee announced theaters were closing again at midnight Monday, I went twice by myself, Saturday and Sunday. First I saw Let Him Go, a brooding, violent film with Kevin Costner playing the Liam Neeson role, and the next day I saw Freaky, which was like a remake of Freaky Friday but with a serial killer. Both films were justly rated R, and would not have made my top ten list in an ordinary year, but me and my free popcorn (from theater chain promotions) had a good time.

I do hope that in 2021, a proper list of top ten films will be a possibility, and I also hope that I'll have seen most of them in a movie theater instead of my living room. 

More pictures from the Rodeo Drive-in:

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Christmas Cameo Month: Noëlle

Noëlle (
or Mrs. Worthington’s Party) 2007

I realize that most of this month's films haven't been what people think of as Christmas movies, but this week’s film...Well, just look at that title! (The first, not the second title.) This is certainly a Christmas film with the Christian meaning of Christmas coming right through in its presentation of priests and the Church. 

Unfortunately, it's not very well made -- but that isn’t really our concern here at Movie Churches. It did win not one, but two awards at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (Best Director and Best American Indie Runner Up) but this film doesn’t make me want to seek out other Fort Lauderdale winners.

This film was written, directed, and produced by David Wall -- who also stars as Father Jonathan Keene, a priest who specializes in euthanizing churches that are struggling financially. He is sent to a small fishing village, Swan River, in Cape Cod.

Father Keene goes to the Sacred Heart Chapel. We can see from the church sign that the church used to have many services, but all have been scratched off the sign except for one service at 10:00 am on Sunday mornings. Keene goes in to see the pastor of the church, Father Simeon Joyce (Sean Patrick Brennan), but can’t find him on the property. He searches through the small town to find him and eventually discovers him at the Old Inn.

Father Joyce is with a group of other men at a table in the bar, quite drunk. Father Keene sees him, confronts him, and Father Joyce responds with a twisting of Scripture, saying he is practicing “being filled with the spirits.”

We find out that the priests went to seminary together. Joyce knows Keene’s current job and isn’t happy to see him. He rightly discerns Keene is there to decide whether Sacred Heart should be closed. He refers to Judas as he asks Keene, “Shouldn’t you greet me with a kiss?” Joyce calls Keene the “hitman” of the Archdiocese.

Keene attends a Sunday morning worship service with meager attendance and anemic worship. He confronts Joyce with attendance figures. Previously 150 people attended but attendance had fallen to twenty people. Joyce tells Keene that he may be right, “Maybe we are dead.” They have this discussion with the congregation listening (one woman sticks her tongue out at Keene).

Keene tells Father Joyce he might have a solution to the church’s problems. Christmas is coming and the church could do a live Nativity scene, with a real Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and wise men. Why he thinks this one-time gimmick will make a difference in the health of the church baffles me, but all agree.

The biggest challenge in doing this outdoor nativity scene is that almost everyone who attends the church is AARP eligible. All the men are really too old to play Joseph, but the real problem Father Keene recognizes is that any of the women available to play Mary have grey hair  -- which doesn’t work with the audition call sheet. So naturally, Father Keene thinks of recruiting the woman he met at the train station when he came to town, Marjorie Worthington. Majorie is played by Kerry Wall (yes, the wife of the producer, director, and star of the film. Kerry’s audition for the film must have been a real nail-biter.) 

The Walls had been married for twenty years when they made this film (and had three children), so Kerry wasn’t exactly ideal casting to play the teenage mother of the Son of God either, but…

Majorie doesn’t attend Sacred Heart Chapel, but her mother does. Her mother also throws a big Christmas Eve party every year, big enough to be one of the alternate titles of this film. Father Keene, however, wants to do his outdoor nativity scene in very cold weather with very old people at exactly the same time as the party. I don’t believe Father Keene went to any church growth seminars.

Keene makes a great effort to convince Majorie to play Mary. He finally convinces her, but soon everyone learns that Majorie, an unmarried woman, is pregnant. 

Father Keene tells her she can’t possibly play Mary in the church's nativity scene. After all, how can an unmarried pregnant woman possibly play Mary?

Even worse, the father of Majorie’s child is already married and isn’t interested in leaving his wife for Majorie. Having compassion for Majorie and her situation, Father Joyce offers to leave the priesthood and marry her. I guess he figures his church hasn’t been going that great anyway. But here is the big spoiler -instead Father Keene ends up leaving the priesthood and marries Majorie. You see, the only reason Keene entered the priesthood in the first place is that he got his girlfriend pregnant in college and forced her to have an abortion. He became a priest out of guilt, which is not exactly a calling.

But Father Keene’s last act as a priest is allowing Father Joyce’s church to stay open. And for unexplained reasons, we learn in an epilogue that the church grows in the next three years. Maybe a priest threatening to marry a parishioner spurs church growth? God does work in mysterious ways.

Anyway, two priests so anxious to abandon their vows leads us to give to the priests and church in this Christmas film two out of four steeples.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Christmas Cameos Show Up Again: My Night at Maud's

My Night at Maud’s

In the 1975 noir film, Night Moves, detective Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) gives this bit of cinematic criticism, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” 

This week’s film, My Night at Maud’s, is written and directed by Eric Rohmer. I’ll admit nobody would confuse it with Die Hard for excitement, but it does share the same seasonal setting: Christmas.

The film opens with a man going to Mass. He notices a pretty woman and tries to follow her when the service ends. He quickly loses her in on the Christmas decorated streets. That man, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), says in a voice-over, “On December 21st I knew without a doubt that Francis would be my wife.”

The film takes a while to introduce Jean to Francis (Marie-Christine Barrault). In the meantime, we learn he is an engineer who has taken an assignment in Clermont-Ferrand, a city where he believes he is a complete stranger. But when he visits a bookstore, he encounters Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a friend from college. Vidal invites Jean to a concert and then they go to dinner. In their conversation, we learn Vidal is a Marxist, and the two venture into a prolonged conversation of the philosophy of Blaise Pascal, particularly “Pascal’s Wager.” (In the bookstore, both men had examined Pascal’s classic work, Penses.)

Here’s where Moseby’s criticism comes into play. Can you imagine a Hollywood blockbuster taking a ten-minute break to discuss the views of a mathematician, philosopher, and theologian who'd been dead for three hundred years? (Admittedly, Woody Allen used to give time for discussions of Kierkegaard, but he spent two minutes, tops.) But I found the discussion intriguing. If you don’t know Pascal’s proposition, it’s basically this: A rational person will choose faith in God and live for Him. If God does exist, that person will reap infinite gains for the “wager” and lose out on only a few earthly pleasures. If the person is wrong and death is the end, little has been lost by “betting on God.” But if the person instead bets that God doesn’t exist, there is only the chance of gaining a few earthly pleasures, along with the risk of eternity in hell.  Betting that God doesn't exist is a foolish wager.

I found their conversation intriguing, partly because it is the atheist, Vidal, who takes the side of Pascal while Catholic Jean-Louis argues against it. Jean-Louis thinks an argument for faith on purely rational grounds is somehow objectionable. 

Jean-Louis says, “I’m a Catholic, at least I try to be, but he doesn’t fit my notion of Catholicism. It’s because I’m a Christian he offends me. If that’s what being a Christian is, I’m an atheist. What I don’t like about Pascal’s wager is the calculated exchange, like buying a lottery ticket.”

Vidal adopts the argument to his Marxism, saying, “I’m a Marxist, so Pascal’s wager is important to me. I must choose to believe life has meaning to have a chance at meaning.” He must act as if the Worker’s Paradise will be an actuality, even if he doesn’t see proof of it, because his work might make such a thing possible. If it isn’t possible, he will never know his work was in vain anyway.

The next night is Christmas Eve, and the men agree to meet for the Midnight Mass. In his homily, the priest proclaims, ““Christmas is a living joy. It’s not just the birth of Jesus Christ, it’s our birth. Believe in a new fervent joy. This is the core of our hope.” After the service, Jean-Louis agrees to go with Vidal to the home of his friend, Maud (Francoise Fabian).

Maud’s home is decorated with lights and a Christmas tree. Maud’s young daughter comes out for another look at the decorations before going back to bed. The conversation goes back to religion. Maud tells of her background, “I was never baptized. I was from a family of free thinkers.” She still isn’t a Christian because “one thing I dislike about the church is the bookkeeping aspect of good deeds vs. sins.”

It is interesting that the priest, when Jean-Louis next visits the church, seems to answer this objection. Unfortunately, neither Maud nor Vidal is with Jean-Louis. The priest preaches, “Christianity is not a moral code, it’s a way of life, an adventure. The most splendid adventure of all. Many are afraid of the progression to holiness, but one must have faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, a faith that reminds us that God loves us.”

Someone else is at that service: Francis (Francoise in French). Jean-Louis is finally able to introduce himself to her, and the two are able to pursue the adventure of following God together.

I don’t believe Alan Sharp, the screenwriter for Night Moves, really thought Rohmer’s films were dull. There is enough similarity between their work to think he may well have been a fan (even more in common than the use of “Night” in their titles.) And there is much more to My Night at Maud’s than I'm writing about here. There is much more to the relationships between the characters and unexpected connections. If you haven’t seen the film, I encourage you to seek it out. If watching this film is like watching paint dry, I really must give watching paint dry a chance.

As for our Movie Church ratings, I give the priests and churches of My Night at Maud’s our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Christmas Cameos Continue: Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus (1947)

First things first: Black Narcissus is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team of directors, made this and a number of other films noted for vibrant colors, striking imagery, and creative framing. This film won Oscars for cinematography and art direction. Though filmed in a studio, the matte paintings of the Himilayas used in the film are magnificent.

But since the beauty of a film is not our concern here at Movie Churches, we think the important thing is that Black Narcissus is about nuns. Anglican missionaries from the Convent of the Order of Sisters of Mary in Calcutta go to the mountains to establish a school, hospital, and church in a palace formerly used by a local ruler to house his harem. The nuns were invited by General Toda Rai (Esmond Knight), partially for the education of his son (Sabu) who will eventually take his place as leader.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is appointed Sister Superior to direct four other nuns: Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson) the gardener, Sister Briony (Judith Furse) to run the infirmary, the popular Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) to teach, and the unwell Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) to teach as well. If I were just writing about the nuns' interaction with each other, there would be plenty of material. There would also be plenty to say about the nuns' interaction with the locals. 

The General’s agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), tells Sister Clodagh that the people living in the area are like children. Sister Clodagh readily agrees, “They’re like unreasonable children.” 

If I wanted to write about the ugly way the nuns infantilize the natives and the racism that leads to it, there might be fertile ground. But it’s December and I really need to write about Christmas. Thankfully, for my purposes, a crucial scene in the middle of the film takes place on Christmas Eve.

The sisters are celebrating with a worship service. After we hear them singing "The First Noel," they sing "Lullay My Liking" -- a rather strange carol based on a Middle English lyric. In the song, Mary is singing to her infant, “Lullay my liking, my dear Son, my Sweeting; Lullay my dear Heart, mine own dear Darling, I saw a fair maiden sitten and sing; She lulled a little child, A sweete Lording, Lullay my liking.” The song reminds Sister Clodagh of her days as a young woman in Britain, and the spoiled affair with a young man that led her to become a nun.

Then Mr. Dean and the young general stop by to pay their respects.

The young General says to Sister Clodagh, “Sister, may I congratulate you on the birth of Christ?”

“Thank you, General.”

“I am very interested in Jesus Christ,” the General says, but he sees that he somehow offended the nun, “Did I say something wrong?”

Sister Superior tells him, “No, but we usually don’t speak of Him so casually.”

It’s Mr. Dean, the General’s agent, who responds to the nun's absurd statement appropriately, “But you should! You should speak of Him casually, and He should be as much a part of your life as daily bread.” 

Unfortunately, Mr. Dean has obviously been drinking more than a little.

Sister Superior scolds him, “How dare you come here like this tonight? You’re unforgivable! You’re objectionable when sober, and abominable when drunk. If you have a spark of decency, you won’t come here to us again.”

I know, I know. Who has ever heard of anyone drinking during the holidays? The Sister seems to be quite taken aback at the concept.

I am much more appalled by Sister Clodagh's theology and her failure at evangelism. A man -- a leader in the community she and her Sisters have come to serve -- comes to her and expresses an interest to hear more about Jesus. Instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to share the Gospel, theoretically the reason she traveled thousands of miles to be in this place, she scolds the man for his manners.

And Mr. Dean is right. Of course, Jesus should be a daily part of her conversation. But she seems to think the name of Jesus should be reserved for homilies or some such nonsense. Her self righteous attitude about Dean’s drinking is also something that the Man who turned water into wine would not appreciate.

Just from that Christmas Eve Service and the Sister Superior's treatment of a member of the community (and Mr. Dean, the Englishman), it is quite evident that her ministry will fail. If you can’t show love and grace at Christmas, what will you do the rest of the year?

Critics through the years have given Black Narcissus the highest of ratings. But the best rating we can give Sister Clodagh and her Sisters, even with generous Christmas Spirit, is a Movie Church rating of Two (of a possible four) Steeples.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Christmas Cameo Month: I Still Believe

I Still Believe

This film is an anomaly for 2020 -- it's a new film that debuted in movie theaters (admittedly, I watched it via streaming on Hulu). I Still Believe seems to join I Can Only Imagine in a new genre: Contemporary Christian Music hits made into biopics. ICOI was about the founder of MercyMe and his troubled relationship with his father. I Still Believe is the story of Jeremy Camp’s first romantic love.

There is very little Christmas in the film (we take what we can get), and there isn’t much church in the film, but there is an interesting observation about clergy.

The film opens in Lafayette, Indiana in the fall of 1999 (shout out to my brother- and sister-in-law and family in said city). Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) is preparing to go off to school at Calvary Chapel College in Murrieta, California. Even if IMDb didn’t tell me, I would know this wasn’t filmed on location but instead in Mobile, Alabama. The school seems to be right by the beach instead of the 45 miles across southern California freeways. And Pacific Ocean beaches look different from Gulf Coast beaches. For instance, I can't think of anyplace on the California Pacific coast where the sun rises over the ocean as it does in the film when Jeremy’s love interest, Melissa (Britt Robertson), goes for a morning jog.

At his new school, Jeremy makes friends with Jean-Luc LaJoie (Nathan Parsons), the front-man for a Christian music group, The Kry. Jean-Luc and Jeremy bond over their love of music, but unfortunately, both have feelings for Melissa. If you ever had to deal with a tedious love triangle like this when you were in school, do you really want to relive it in a film?

It is here Christmas makes its cameo appearance. Jeremy goes home to Indiana for Christmas to be with his parents, Tom and Teri (Gary Sinise and Shania Twain), and his brothers, Jared and Josh (Josh is disabled). That house is well decorated for Christmas, tree, lights and all. At home, Jeremy receives a call from Jean-Luc who tells him that Melissa is very sick. Jeremy drives back to school in his father’s Pizza King delivery car. (Won’t this impact family finances during the holiday season?)

Jeremy drives straight to the hospital back in California and learns that Melissa has stage 3 liver cancer. It is at this time that Melissa and Jeremy admit their love for each other. Jeremy goes to the hospital chapel to pray (a bit of church). I found it a little strange that although Melissa and her family are all devout Christians, we never see clergy -- or anyone else -- from their church visit Melissa. 

Miraculously, Melissa seems to recover, and six months later, Jeremy and Melissa marry.

I was hoping for a church wedding, for the sake of the blog, but the happy couple marries on the beach. I was looking for a clergyman at the wedding, but I didn’t think I saw one. Then I realized that Jeremy’s father, Tom, performed the ceremony. Because the wedding is -- supposedly -- in California, and Melissa’s family pastor doesn’t perform the service, I realized that Tom is probably a clergyman of some kind. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would get his ordination from the back of Rolling Stone Magazine or online (especially at the turn of the century).

But when Jeremy and Melissa return from their honeymoon, she becomes ill again. As Melissa returns to the hospital, Jeremy begins to question his faith. He sings Melissa a song he wrote on their honeymoon, “Walk By Faith”, and then Melissa dies. We don’t see a church for the funeral, but rather a graveside service, again officiated by Jeremy’s father, Tom.

Jeremy talks to his father about his disappointment with God and the seeming futility of his prayers. He asks his father about his disappointments in life, about the prayers God didn’t answer. “I remember I prayed and prayed in this room for Josh to be born healthy. And you prayed for your ministry and nothing. And I prayed for Melissa. What am I supposed to do with that?”

So apparently, Tom had hoped to be in full-time ministry but was unable to make his living in ministry. One of the great disappointments in life is not being able to pursue what you believe you're called to. Think of those who want to be in show business or professional sports when those dreams die. I know the pain of those who feel called to ministry (for myself and friends) when things don’t work out. You can feel like you've disappointed God as well as yourself.

But Tom’s answer is interesting. He says, “Josh’s disabilities were disappointing, sure. Did I have big dreams that didn’t come true? Yes. Do I know why Melissa isn’t here? No, I don’t. But I have had a full life. I don’t know how to answer your questions. But my life isn’t full in spite of my disappointments....It’s full because of them.”

Jeremy returned to his music. His songs “Walk By Faith” and, of course, “I Still Believe” inspired by the events depicted in the film, became enormous hits. If Tom, in the eyes of the world, didn’t have much of a ministry, he raised a son who ministers to millions.

That said, how would the clergy and church -- such as they are -- in this film do with our steeple ratings? I give Tom Camp (and his ministry) a solid three steeples.