Thursday, January 28, 2021

Final Blow to Brit Film Month

Final Prayer
aka The Borderlands

This last entry in British Film Month falls in the specific, rather limited, genre of “found footage,” films that pretend all the film's footage was amateur video or film discovered after the events that make the story. The Connection, a film about a group of junkies waiting for their dealer (directed by Shirley Clarke in 1961) is thought to be the first such film. The first widely popular found footage film was 1999’s The Blair Witch Project which was made for $60,000 and grossed $140,500,00. Part of its success came through instilling the viewer with the belief that it was a documentary of real events. Many horror films have followed in the Blair Witch tradition, and Final Prayer (with the alternative title of The Borderlands) is one of them.

The film opens in a church that has obviously gone through some kind of disaster, torn apart and thrashed. A man cries out, “They’re all gone!” Those picking through the rubble find video cameras and a satchel with tapes.

Those tapes provide the rest of the film, which tells the story of a group of Vatican investigators sent to research an alleged miracle. The team consists of Gray (Robin Hill), a videographer who isn’t even a believer; Mark (Adian McArdle), a stuffy Vatican official; and Deacon (Gordon Kennedy), a veteran of miracle investigations with a dark secret.

Gray insists the team wear mini cameras and microphones, and Deacon is not thrilled with the idea. He might not want the camera capturing and reporting to the Vatican the large stash of booze he brought to their lodgings.

When Deacon and Gray go into town, Gray is quite condescending to the locals. Deacon asks a man, “Can you tell us where the church is?” 

When the man doesn’t answer quickly, Gray says, “You know, the building with the spire on top? God’s house?”

Once they find the church, they hear a rather bizarre sermon from the local priest, Father Crellick (Luke Neal). “In the year 700, a monk encountered the actual presence of Jesus Christ. The bread and wine were transformed into actual flesh and blood.”

Crellick, in standard priest’s garb, is surprised by Gray and Deacon’s casual dress, saying, “I thought I’d be underdressed.” 

Deacon responds rather self-righteously, “We are dressed in humility because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

The priest shows the investigators where “it” happened. He then shows them a video of a christening he performed, in which his nose begins to bleed, then the cup and bread on the altar begin to shake and fly off the table to the ground. It is rather baffling to see why anyone would consider this odd event a miracle of God, but the team is there to investigate.

Gray asks Deacon, “What happens if we find something?” 

Deacon answers, “We report it and move on. Very few things are reported as miracles.” 

“You’re saying that was fake?” Gray asks. Deacon says, “Yes.”

Gray brings up Deacon’s past investigations, “That girl in Brighton, with the stigmata, you can’t fake that…” 

Deacon answers, “Fake, and not a very good one. Her mother cut her hands and feet every day for ten weeks. The girl got septicemia and died. And the mother said, ‘Now you can make my daughter a saint.’”

Mark proposes the theory that the objects that moved in the church were disturbed by vibrations of a speaker planted under the table or somewhere else in the church. The team begins to search the building for evidence of fakery.

During their search, Deacon comes across Dr. Pritchard Mandeville's journal. The priest wrote in the 1800s that the Lord appeared to him and told him to open an orphanage. As Deacon reads through the journal, he becomes convinced that Mandeville went mad. He wrote about an ancient god from the pre-Christian era who lived under the church. There are indications in the journal that Mandeville sacrificed children from the orphanage to that god. Mandeville’s final journal entry diary reads, “I beseech you, readers, leave this place. He who lives beneath has a hunger for more. I understand the orphanage now.”

The investigative team begins to hear odd sounds: the cries of children and sinister laughter. The people of the village begin to turn on the team and have whispered conversations about this other god.

Gray asks Deacon, “Do you feel a presence in the church?”

Deacon answers, “Well, it is a church.”

Father Crellick is upset that the team seems to be working against him, “You don’t believe in my miracle, do you? I prayed for you to come, but if this is not a miracle, if this is not the hand of God…” And just then a large crucifix in the church falls from a wall to the floor, and the image of Christ smashes to pieces.

Father Crellick does not deal with these incidents well, but climbs to the roof of the church, diving off, and committing suicide. Deacon gives the last rights to Crellick, though he says, “The souls of those in a state of mortal sin descend into hell.”

The team comes to believe that the supernatural is at work in the church, but not necessarily the work of God. They call in Father Calvino (Patrick Godfrey), an expert on exorcism, to do his stuff. Not surprisingly, considering the shape of the church as we saw it at the beginning of the film, all hell breaks loose and everything takes a dark turn for the team from the Vatican.

Considering that at least two priests in the film turn to work for the forces of evil rather than for God and that the other priests are absolutely impotent in opposing evil, I’m giving this Hellmouth of a church (and these incompetent priests) our lowest Movie Church rating of one steeple out of four.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Brit Month suffers a near-mortal blow: Death at a Funeral

Death at a Funeral

We’ve dealt with originals and remakes before here at Movie Churches. One of the earliest (and still most popular) of our posts featured both The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and its remake The Preacher’s Wife (1996). Conversely, we used two posts for the two versions of Footloose (the 1984 version during ‘80’s Month and the 2011 version during Rebellious Teens Month.) Still, it is rather awkward to be getting to the original version of Death at a Funeral (the remake was featured last year in Comedy Month) this week in Brit Month.

The films are amazingly similar, screenplays by the same writer (Dean Craig) and filmed just three years apart. But watching the original film, I realized I had misread a joke and wrote with complete obliviousness when I wrote about it in the remake. I’ll save that embarrassing admission for the end of this post.

The original version was directed by Frank Oz (Yoda himself) and was set in England (obviously -- this is Brit month, after all). Matthew MacFayden (Daniel) stars as the son of the subject of the funeral. Keeley Hawes (Jane) plays Daniel’s wife and Rupert Graves (Robert) his brother. Two actors in this British film would return for the American remake as the same characters: Alan Tudyk (Simon) as the guest who accidentally consumes hallucinogenics and disrupts the funeral and Peter Dinklage (Peter) as the secret lover of the deceased who appears at the funeral to blackmail the family.

But what matters here, of course, is the relatively minor role played by Thomas Wheatley as the Anglican Priest, the Reverend Davidson. We first see the minister as he approaches the sons of the deceased and one of them uses the Lord’s name in vain. The priest quite obviously hears this and pretends not to have heard. (This is a set-up for a joke later in the film. When the priest is concerned about being late, he looks at his watch and loudly exclaims, “Christ!” This will certainly be a mark against when the Movie Church Steeple Rating is issued.)

He is quite impressed to be meeting Robert (a best-selling author) and lets him know he has read several of his novels. He asks Robert if he will be doing the eulogy and when the response is that Daniel will be presenting the eulogy, the priest does not do well at masking his disappointment.

The priest says, “Daniel, I really think we should start calling everyone in. Really, I’m only supposed to be here until 3.” (Maybe it’s just me, but a funeral or memorial really is a time when a clergyperson should make it clear they will be available as long as the family needs.)

A scene played out in both films is when one of Daniel and Robert’s cousin has to distract the priest while a corpse is being moved about. Cousin Howard (Andy Nyman) attempts to talk theology with the priest, “How is God today? God is a funny one isn’t He?” The priest is trying to make an important phone call, so he tries to move past Howard.

Howard tries another approach, “I’d like to become a priest because I’ve watched you today and you are amazing…” (Any priest who would fall for that line of flattery probably be better off in another line of work.) 

“I’m delighted to hear that,” the priest responds.

Howard then asks, “On Sundays, is it true the wine is sweeter, or not?”

“Listen,” the priest says, “We’ll deal with this later on. I need to get to a phone.” (Some of us remember the days when we would have to find phones.)

Howard tries one last ploy, “I have a confession to make, I have thoughts about a pen up me bum.” This certainly drives the priest along.

I’ve put this off long enough. When I wrote about the remake of Death at a Funeral, I wrote that it would be highly unlikely that a priest would use the story of David and Jonathan in a funeral service, that passages such as Psalm 23 or John 11 would be more likely. But the passage is used as a set-up for the revelation that the deceased was gay. In my defense, in the American remake, it seems that the priest doesn’t seem to have known the deceased and so using that story from Scripture is a bizarre choice.

The joke is set up much better in the original film, as the priest introduces the passage in this way, “Family and friends, I’d like to start with a favorite passage of Edward’s.” (It makes much more sense that the passage was the choice of deceased rather than the priest’s.) “It’s from the King James Bible.” (As if the story isn’t found in other translations.) “It’s the First Book of Samuel, chapter 18. ‘Then Jonathan and David made a covenant because he loved him as his own soul. And it came to pass the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David. And Jonathan stripped himself of his robe, and gave it to David and his garments and even to his sword and bow and even to his girdle.’”

I didn’t get the joke the first time around, but I do think Rev. Davidson should have figured this out as well. One of the many reasons the priest earns only Two of Four Movie Church Steeples.

(One final item that will be of interest to perhaps no one. The film concludes with the song “Love Our Time Today" written by Murray Gold. To me, the song sounded an awful lot like the song “Travel Hopefully” by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the musical By Jeeves. Probably the only one interested in this is Webber himself. If you win your suit, Sir Andrew, may I have a percentage?)

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Brit Month: "The Most Exciting Motion Picture Ever Made!"

Odd Man Out

A poster for this film claims it's “The Most Exciting Motion Picture Ever Made!” Admittedly, this was 1947 -- Steven Speilberg was barely a year old and hadn’t gotten around to directing Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Hitchcock had done some pretty effective thrillers, Universal had their monsters, and Fritz Lang directed some pretty suspenseful films in Germany and America.

But even if Odd Man Out isn’t all that poster said, it’s still a pretty great film. It was the first film to win the BAFTA Award (the Brit’s Oscar equivalent) for Best British Film. Director Roman Polanski (yes, I know the man has “issues”) often called this his favorite film. But most important for this blog, Odd Man Out has a pretty great priest.

Written by R. C. Sherriff (The Invisible Man) and directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), Odd Man Out tells the story of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), an Irish revolutionary who has been hiding from the government. He agrees to lead a heist to get money for his organization, the operation goes south, he's shot, and he kills a guard. McQueen has to go on the run alone, forced to depend on strangers and questionable allies along the way.

Many people are looking for McQueen: other Irish nationalists; the police; people wanting to collect the reward on McQueen’s head; and Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), a woman who loves him. All of them go to Father Tom (W. G. Fay) for help locating him.

A man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) sees McQueen being dumped by a hansom cab. He goes to Father Tom for help in apprehending McQueen and turning him in for a reward. 

The priest tells him, “You foolish man, money won’t make you happy. A thousand pounds would be a terrible burden.” 

Shell protests, “I’m a poor man, I’ve got no money.” 

The Father answers, “I’ll inspire you with faith.” 

Shell objects, “Will faith pay the rent and provide stout?”

Father Tom tells him, "Faith will give you real riches.” And Shell believes him.

Kathleen also goes to persuade Father Tom to tell her if he sees McQueen. She wants to help McQueen escape, but Father Tom won’t go along with that. He says, “I’ll hear his confession and provide him some peace. I’ll encourage him to give himself in, so he doesn’t hurt anyone else… You couldn’t hide him for long. He killed a man and must pay the penalty.” Father Tom worries for McQueen, “When people are in deep troubles they talk to me about killing themselves. But God gives them the courage to win. This trial is nothing but a trial for the life to come.” 

Kathleen is unpersuaded by the priest, “You’re wise father, and good, I know. But my faith is in love."

And when the police ask whether Father Tom knows McQueen and his compatriots he tells them, “I know them all. I taught them as children.” Father Tom says, “I’ve seen the bad in them and I’ve condemned that. But what should we do with the good in them?”

As Father Tom works to bring McQueen in, the injured and delirious fugitive sees Father Tom, his priest from childhood, in a vision. In his vision, he can see but not hear the priest, and McQueen calls out, “Tell me, Father, like you used to tell us. Louder, Father! Speak louder! We’ve always drowned your voice with our shouting, haven’t we, Father? We never really listened to you. We repeated the words without thinking about what they meant. But I remember when I was a boy, ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. If I have not charity, I am nothing.’”

I can tell you, almost every pastor or priest would be moved to know their words were remembered by those that seemed to be their most hardened parishioners in their final days. And Father Tom is there for McQueen until the end. Therefore we are giving Father Tom our highest movie church rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Brit Month Continues with H. G. Wells!

The Man Who Could Work Miracles

When people think of H. G. Wells, a writer of history, social commentary, and fiction, they usually think of his science fiction. Those are the works that have stood the test of time, and in the 1930s a couple of pretty great science fiction films came out based on his work: The Invisible Man (1933) and The Island of Lost Souls (1932, based on The Island of Doctor Moreau). This film, however, is based on a Wells fantasy story.

In 1898, the short story “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” was published in The Illustrated London News. The 1936 film, directed by Lothar Mendes and produced by Alexander Korda, has a screenplay co-written by Wells for London Films studio. The movie expands on the short story, bringing a political dimension with a warning against the threats of Communism and Fascism.

It tells the story of George McWhirter Fotheringay (Roland Young), a haberdasher’s assistant living in a small English village who is granted seemingly limitless powers by celestial beings (whether they are angels, gods, or something else is never made clear). Soon after he's given this gift, George argues in a pub that there are no such things as miracles. Then he performs one, turning a lamp upside down without touching it. He finds he can make all kinds of things float in the air, including people.

Out on the street, George attracts the attention of Constable Winch (Wallace Lupino), and the two get into an argument. George tells the police officer to “go to blazes” and we see Constable Winch in Hell. George regrets his action and sends the officer to San Francisco instead.

Maggie (Sophie Stewart), a woman who lives at the same boarding house where George lives, encourages him to see her Baptist minister, Pastor Maydig (Ernest Thesiger). Their landlady argues that he should see the local vicar instead, but George agrees to see Maydig.
The housekeeper at Maydig's house invites him into the parlor. When the minister enters, George says, "I'm told that you give good advice." George explains his newly found power to do “miracles,” virtually anything except force people to act contrary to their free will. 

Maydig responds, “There are no such things as miracles in the present dispensation.”

George makes a tiger appear in the room and then vanish. Maydig calls it a joint illusion. But then he sees paw prints.

Finally, Maydig agrees, “That was a miracle.” Soon, the minister considers the possibilities in their reach, “It’s power. Power! Power!” (sounding like the mad doctor this same actor played in Bride of Frankenstein) “What can you not do? Why not banish illness? Sweep it all away, a new age begins. A new hope for our race.”

George suggests they should consult businessmen about their plan of action, since, for instance, if they provide food and clothes to everyone in the world, Business would cease. 

The minister responds, “What do businessmen know?” He thinks ridding the world of poverty will be good for his business, “There will be conversions, I hope, all over the world. As people are healthy, they will be happy. If they are happy, they will be good.” (This seems to indicate a real lack of insight into human nature on the minister’s part.)

George takes some of the minister’s ideas for miracles. Colonel Winstanley (Ralph Richardson) finds all of the swords in his collections have been turned into plowshares. He goes to the police and asks, What is this Bolshevik thing?” 

The constable replies, “There’s been a serious outbreak of miracles.” 

The Colonel also finds someone has tampered with his bar and wine cellar. He asks his butler whether he turned his wine to water. The Butler answers, “I’d as soon poison a baby as doctor whiskey.”

Maydig and George confess to the Colonel they are responsible for changing his possessions. George says Maydig has been advising him; they plan to end all war. The Colonel says, “If you put an end to war, what are people going to do?”

Maydig answers, “People will go about loving one another. We are on the cusp of the biggest change in the history of the world. We must make them want to be artists. Healthier people are happier people.”

Maydig tells George they must make a plan for a miraculous new world. He asks George to bring together all who teach and preach and they will rule.

But then George begins to see that Maydig himself wants to rule. So George makes himself into the king of the world, and his foolish choices bring about disaster, nearly ending the world. Finally, George turns back time to before all his miracles took place and gives up his power. 

I’m not sure Pastor Maydig would have ever given up such power, so that’s why I’d only give the Baptist minister Two of Four Steeples for our Movie Churches rating.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The English Past

Last Friday, Movie Churches began our virtual tour of England with One of Our Aircraft is Missing. Of course, this isn’t our first trip to Blighty and so today we thought we’d pull out the scrapbook and think back on trips past.

A film made in 1942, the same year as 1oOAiM, Mrs. Miniver also was considered a great work of WWII War-Time Propaganda. Though it was supposedly set in England, it was actually filmed in the United States by an American studio, made primarily by Yanks. There was a mix of Brits and Americans in the cast.

The creators of 1oOAiM, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger reached their greatest level of acclaim with a film about Anglican nuns set in Nepal, Black Narcissus, which was one of our Christmas films just last month. As Charles Dickens knew well, England is a wonderful place to celebrate Christmas, as Movie Churches did with the films Millions and Last Christmas.

One of the advantages of visiting England via film rather than in person (along with avoiding new Covid strains and their Covid lockdowns) is that we can visit Merry OLD England as well as the present. In November of 2018, we spent a whole month in the 12th Century with Robin Hood, though our focus, of course, was on Friar Tuck. We went even further back in English history when we looked at Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail is just one of many English comedies we’ve viewed here at Movie Churches. We’ve seen classic comedies with great comedians such as Peter Sellers (Heavens Above!) and Rowan Atkinson (Keeping Mum). Though not always thought of as a comedian, Sir Alec Guinness made very funny films such as Kings Hearts and Coronets and The Detective.

Britain can be a funny place, but it can also be a scary place, as seen in the classic Universal Monster film, The Wolf Man set in England, though it was made in the United States. (We also viewed a film made in England, by English filmmakers, The Curse of the Werewolf, but it was set in Spain.) 

And when we in the States think of British films, we eventually think of James Bond and the world of espionage. Some time we might find a Bond film with prominent clergy and churches but until then, we’ve had to settle for Kingsman: The Secret Service.

So enjoy the rest of our virtual adventure in England, there are still four more stops in our journey this month!

Friday, January 1, 2021

Brit Month Begins

One of Our Aircraft is Missing

Happy New Year! 

I don’t believe we at Movie Churches have ever been so happy to say that, but there it is. Many of us are hoping we can do some things we weren't able to do last year, like going to the movies. And, like, well, traveling. So we're going to start this year off right by traveling to Merry Ol' England: films with British locations, actors, and filmmakers.

It's hard to name more acclaimed British filmmakers than the directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. There were other great British filmmakers, of course: Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, and Carol Reed. But all of those filmmakers eventually made films with Hollywood. 

Not Powell and Pressburger. They made films for their English studio, The Archers, and never “went Hollywood.” 

The first film the two men directed together was One of Our Aircraft is Missing. It was made in midst of the Second World War, and it is, in many ways, a propaganda film. But it's a well-done propaganda film that tells the story of a Royal Air Force (RAF) bomber crew forced to abandon their plane in German-occupied Netherlands. They must somehow make their way home to Britain.

The crew --  Rear Gunner Sir George (Godfrey Tearle), Co-Pilot Tom (Eric Portman), Observer Frank (Hugh Williams), Gunner Geoff (Bernard Miles), Pilot John (Hugh Burden), and Radio Operator Bob (Emrys Jones) -- must depend on the Dutch for help, and (fortunately for this blog), some of that help is found in a church. The crew puts civilian clothes over their uniforms (risking being executed as spies), and one even dresses as a woman.

They go to a Catholic Church and are unable to join in the hymn singing, it being in Dutch and all. During the service, they whisper with some of the resistance fighters and learn that the Germans have discovered one of their parachutes. The Germans are looking for them. The priest preaches, but it was in Dutch as well, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of his exegesis. There is some Latin as well. (It’s not Greek to me, because I actually know a tiny bit of Greek.) 

After the sermon, German soldiers break into the service. The organist begins to play the national anthem of the Netherlands. The soldiers don’t recognize the British crewmen, so they leave, and the congregation then joins the organist singing the anthem.

The crew joins a family and their friends for dinner in a home after the service. The priest, standing by the table, says grace in Latin before people dig in, but a traitor, a Quisling, enters the room and recognizes the British crewmen. (The term “Quisling” comes from Vidkun Quisling the Norwegian military leader who collaborated with the Nazis and headed the government of Norway during WWII.)

The men block the traitor’s exit with guns, but he says they wouldn’t dare fire the guns and attract the attention of the Germans. Suddenly, they hear the Dutch national anthem coming from the German headquarters. It turns out that the Germans had asked the Quisling to send them phonograph records. He in turn had asked a boy to select the records to be sent, and the boy had put recordings of the National Anthem in the jackets of other records. Though the boy had made the switch, the traitor would be blamed by the Germans.  

The traitor is caught between the resistance and the soldiers. He turns to the priest, bowing to him and crying, “Father! Help me! Tell me what to do. [The Germans will] be after me if they don’t find me at home!”

The priest responds, “Evidently, you know your friends. You don’t think they’ll believe you if you tell them the truth, do you?”

The traitor answers, “They believe everyone in Holland wants to kill them. They will shoot first and ask questions afterward. You are a servant of God! You can’t let them kill me!”

The priest tells him, “You expect God to help you escape, but I think you were meant to fall into our hands.”

During a war, Christians -- and especially clergy members --  are always challenged whether their loyalty should be primarily to God or to country. This priest certainly sees no conflict between his ministry and working for the Resistance, but it does seem he could have urged the traitor to turn to God.

Oh, I should note that the Dutch priest is not played by an actor from the Netherlands. It was an early role for the quite English Peter Ustinov. He would go on to be a star in Britain and in the States, eventually winning two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. But his priest in this movie earns the Movie Church honor of Three out of Four Steeples.