Thursday, December 8, 2022

Films We Never Got to Review

When this blog was just beginning, my friend, Tim Stafford, told me he didn't think the blog go last very long. "After all," he asked, "how many movies are there about churches and pastors?"

It's seven years later, and we've looked at a different film every week. There were a few weeks we ran a repeat, but there were quite a few weeks when we discussed more than one movie. That means we’ve looked at more than 350 films, and we still haven’t run out of films to review. I have a list with nearly 300 potential films, and assuming churches keep showing up in new movies -- I think I already have enough to write about for another seven years. But I'm tired and ready to move on to other projects.

You have to pull the plug sometime, but nonetheless, I regret not having a chance to review some great films that had interesting things to say about faith. Some of the films on this list are pretty awful, but still have interesting things to write about. 

Some of the movies on this list are ones I haven't seen, but they might have interesting things to say. 
There are also films that deal with topics that we rarely touched on.

So these are twelve of the films I most regret not getting around to writing about.

12) Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
I've seen this film more than once, and I like it very much. We've looked at musicals (Sound of Music, Cabin in the Sky, Sister Act) but Fiddler would have been the first musical featuring Eastern Orthodox clergy. There haven’t been many films featuring Orthodox clergy -- the only one I can think of is the Mel Brooks comedy, The Twelve Chairs. I could also have written about Andrei Rublev, a painter of icons used for Orthodox worship, or Beyond the Hills about a Romanian Orthodox Covent, but really, I just wish I'd taken the opportunity to drag the priests in Fiddler over the coals for the way they treated Tevye. 

11) The Quick and the Dead (1995) 
I really enjoyed this Sam Rami western, and I would have liked to write about Russell Crowe’s haunted pastor with a history as a desperado. I would have been happy to have an excuse to watch this again. Most of the westerns I’ve written about haven’t been good westerns (we did get to watch the classic High Noon, but most have been along the lines of The Deadly Companions and God’s Gun). It might have also been fun to get to Charleton Heston’s Will Penny in which Donald Pleasence plays a very creepy, evil preacher.

10) The Exorcist 2: The Heretic (1977) 
It really is a shame I couldn't write about this film, since we reviewed the clergy in the original Exorcist. I have read about this film for a long time, starting with Michael Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards (a salute to bad films), but I’ve never seen it. It really is a shame I couldn’t get to Exorcist 2, since we did review the original Exorcist as well as the second sequel. The Heretic stars Richard Burton in a performance legendary for hamminess. Instead, I've settled for the hammy Burton performances in The Sandpiper and The Robe.(FWIW, another bad film I didn’t write about was God’s Not Dead Part IV: We the People. I watched it in the theater, but never got around to writing about it, though we featured the first three God's Not Dead movies.)

9) Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955) - Please don’t assume it is prurient interests that drew me to curiosity about this film (which I’ve never seen). In all the pictures of Maureen O’Hara as the historical streaker, she seems to be surrounded by nuns. All right. I am curious how the filmmakers handled the nudity in studio days with the Hays Code in full effect. (The Song of Bernadette is another faith-centered story from the golden age of Hollywood. It was quite acclaimed. I’ve never seen it, but it looks rather stodgy, and that's kept me from watching it.)

8) The Devils (1971) 
In the blog, we've tried not to shy away from films that are critical of churches and clergy or even the Christian faith. As a result, we’ve looked at films by famous critics of religion like Michael Tolkin and Luis Buñuel. This notorious “historical” work by writer/director Ken Russell (from a story by Aldous Huxley) is one I never got around to watching. It's difficult to find an unedited version of this X-rated film in which Oliver Reed played a priest with unorthodox views on faith and sex whose followers included licentious nuns. But it was not to be.

7) Ganja & Hess (1973) 
Arguably, this blog didn't cover enough vampire blaxsploitation films, and this movie would have helped remedy that oversight. Sadly, this film was also difficult to find in its original form. (Fun fact: Duane Jones's only other starring performance is in Night of the Living Dead.) The Church seems to play an important part in the battle against dark forces, so I do need to get around to watching this sometime even if I don’t have anywhere to write about it.

This is yet another tough film to track down, with one of my favorite directors (Frank Capra), and starring one of my favorite actresses (Barbara Stanwyck). I'm baffled to realize that we haven’t featured any films by Capra or Stanwyck. Though I haven't seen this film, in it, Barbara becomes disillusioned with the Church and takes up a career as a fraudulent evangelist. Pre-Hays Code films like this one had much more freedom to be critical of the Church. I will manage to write about this one someday, even without this blog as a vehicle.

5) Dogma (1999) 
I have seen this Kevin Smith satire of the Roman Catholic Church and angels and demons that was condemned by the Church even before it was released. While I have grave reservations about the theology in the film, at times it's quite funny and would have been interesting to write about.

Robert Bresson was one of France’s greatest directors, and I was able to review his classic, Diary of a Country Priest. This film contains just a little about church and clergy. Others of his work, such as Angels of Sin (about a convent that rehabilitates convicts) or The Trial of Joan of ArcAu Hasard Balthazar is Bresson’s only film (and perhaps the only film of any kind) that features the baptism of a donkey.

3) Les Miserables (1935, 1952, 1998, 2012, or any of the other versions)
There are many adaptations of this Victor Hugo film, but I didn’t get to any of them. This is too bad, because Bishop Myriel, who cares for Jean Valjean, is one of the best portrayals of clergy in literature and cinema.

I’ve read Umberto Eco’s novel, but I’ve never seen this adaptation of the book, and it’s hard to track down. It’s a retelling of a Sherlock Holmes story using Franciscan monks in a medieval abbey. It stars Sean Connery as a friar, William of Baskerville. It also stars Christian Slater and we at Movie Churches do love Christian Slater films (the good and the awful.)

1) Amazing Grace (2006) 
I saw this film and like it very much. Directed by Michael Apted, it tells the true story of William Wilberforce and his campaign against England's slave trade. Wilberforce's pastor was John Newton, the former slave trader and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” He definitely would have received our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

If only I could have gotten to these dozen films. And maybe, St. Benny the Dip. And…

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Movie Churches' Bottom Ten Worst Films

As you read this, remember that any list of worst films doesn't really list the worst films. The worst film ever made was probably a community college film class project in Staten Island or Terre Haute or Fresno. They didn't have any money to make the film, and it was made only to fulfill a general ed requirement. Fortunately, most of us won't ever see the film (unless we happen to be in the same class -- and then we'd have the satisfaction that at least our film wasn't that bad). 

But it’s one thing to make a bad film with little talent and few resources. It's really painful for an audience to watch a bad film made by a studio with millions of dollars and an experienced cast and crew.

It’s also worth noting that some bad films are very entertaining. For instance, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space is often listed as one of the worst films of all time, but it’s quite funny with its wooden performances and cardboard tombstones -- and I’d rather watch it again than many Best Picture Nominees.

There are two things likely to earn a film a place on this list. First, being boring. I’d much rather watch an outrageous film that is poorly acted and written than a “well-made” film in which nothing happens. (I’m not talking about a film like My Dinner with Andre. Sure, all that “happens” in that film is two men having dinner, but so much “happens” in their conversation, and it is quite entertaining.)

The other thing that earns a film a place on this list is the film’s message. Since ultimately this is a blog about faith, there are films that present lies as the truth and hope that is really despair. Those are the worst films in my opinion. 

Anyway, here are films I really couldn't stand -- the worst ten:

10) The Redeemed aka Act of Contrition (2019) 
It seems like I reviewed this film just last week. Because it was just last week I reviewed this film. It was the last film I watched for this blog and one of the worst. Global Genesis Group, producers of many low-budget films, brought us this mess about a member of a mob family trying to reconcile with his family before he dies. Or something like that. It was such a mess of wooden acting, lecturing dialogue, flashbacks, and voice-overs that I couldn’t properly follow the plot. And I didn’t care about the plot. And the clergy in the film were awful.

9) God’s Club (2015)
I’ve watched many Christian films for this blog, and as a rule, they're bad. Frankly, I have some sympathy for the filmmakers. I’ve written a lot of skits and Christmas programs for churches, and it's tough to balance the message with entertainment with realism. Propaganda isn’t necessarily bad, but it is very difficult to do well. If the message is “love your neighbor as yourself,” that’s swell -- but if the message comes out preachy, few will be reached with it. 

The worst are Christian films that don’t even get the message right. God's Club is one of those stories of good Christians versus bad unbelievers. A town that doesn't seem to have a single church, but does have a pretty good sized high school (I don't believe such a town exists in the United States). There's a Christian club at that high school that the bad secularists are trying to destroy. 

Worst of all, the film includes bad theology: according to it, any suicide leads to the lakes of hell. That's not supported by Scripture, and it's damaging to people suffering from mental illness (and their loved ones).

And be wary if Stephen Baldwin is in the cast. If Corbin Bernsen and Lorenzo Lamas are in the cast as well, really, there's no hope.

8) Van Helsing (2004) 
I admit it, I have a fondness for horror films, even poorly made ones. But this big-budget film starring Hugh Jackman has no excuse for being so bad. Universal has a rich heritage with their films about Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man, but this film is a sorry hash. Worst of all (for us here at Movie Churches, anyway) is the character who drinks, curses, and sleeps around but explains, “I’m a friar, not a monk.”

7) The Confessor aka The Good Shepherd (2004) 
Christian Slater made some pretty good films in the 20th century -- we even looked at a couple of them here in Movie Churches (Heathers and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). But in the 21st century, his films have been, as a rule, direct-to-DVD or streaming and awful. We’ve featured some of his bad films as well as the good ones: The Way of the Wicked, Sacrifice, and worst of all, The Confessor.

In this film, confessions at a Catholic church are tape-recorded and used for blackmail. Of course, there’s murder and fundraising, most of the worst stuff found in the Roman Catholic Church but not, you know, presented in an interesting manner.

6) Robin Hood (2018) 
I just mentioned a Robin Hood film, and we'll look at another version in Movie Churches’ best films. This film, though, tosses the traditions of the character away and makes the film fit the mold of any other modern action film. Plus it goes out of its way to make the church as abhorrent as possible.

5) The Sandpiper (1965) 
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made eleven films together, and some of those films were excellent, like The Taming of the Shrew and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They also made some bad ones. Cleopatra was such a bomb it nearly bankrupted a studio. The Sandpiper was one of the bad ones.

Burton plays an Episcopal priest who runs a parochial school. He’s also married to Eva Marie Saint. But when he meets the beautiful mother of one of his students, he considers leaving his ministry and marriage for the woman. Is there a more difficult question in ministry than blonde or brunette?

4) Shanghai Surprise (1986)
No doubt much of the marketing for Burton and Taylor films was based on their offscreen romance. That was also the marketing hook for this film starring newlyweds Madonna and Sean Penn. It's the only film they made together -- no one wanted another after that. It does make one wonder who thought, “Do you know who would make a great missionary? Madonna!”

3) God’s Not Dead (2014) 
This was the film that let studios know that Christian films could make money. Sure The Passion of the Christ had made millions a decade before, but that was a Mel Gibson film. This film showed that a well-marketed Christian film could make money with no more star power than Duck Dynasty. This might have been fine, but in the cheesy world of Christian film, this piles the cheddar even higher.

There are many things I dislike about the film, but among them is that it sparked getting into an argument with a stranger in the theater. One of the plot lines in the film is about a Muslim father and daughter who are torn apart when the daughter becomes a Christian. As we watched this film in a discount theater, a man nearby scoffed, "That would never happen!"  I responded, "Yes it does." It doesn’t take much googling to find stories about honor killings in the western world, but this movie presents the situation in such a melodramatic way, I could understand the scoffing.

The worst part of the film comes at the end when two pastors pray with a man, who receives Christ as his savior just before he dies from injuries due to an auto accident. After he dies, the pastors celebrate, virtually high-fiving each other for their evangelistic victory. It's one of the more tasteless displays of religiosity I have ever seen.

2) Love Actually (2003) 
Yes, I know many people love this film. It’s a Christmas staple for many. But this film has no idea about what Christmas is all about. I really hate this celebration of debauchery.

1) License to Wed (2007) 
I met Robin Williams one time. I liked him very much. He did a number of great films. This was not one of those films.

The film is about a pastor of a church in an undeterminable denomination who becomes a psychopath in premarital counseling. Watching this film would make any normal person want to stay far, far away from any church or clergy. The whole point of this blog is to demonstrate that the world could use more good churches and good clergy.

And yes, I am ranking William’s Reverend Frank below pastors who were thieves and murderers. This was a miserable film.

For the sake of this blog, I watched these bad films all the way through. Sometimes twice. This blog now is almost done, and I can quit miserable films like that a few minutes in. So can you.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Final Films (bought for the blog)

The Ministers
and Act of Contrition (The Redeemed) (2019)

I wonder how many other people in the world have seen both films I watched for this week’s Movie Churches. I don’t think there are a great many people in the world who have heard of both of this week’s films -- or either of this week’s films. They're not on most of the streaming services, but you can look them up on IMDb. As you can see by the photograph, they do exist in DVD form. In fact, I purchased them for this blog.

During Movie Churches' seven-year life, we've looked at a mix of obscure films and classics, very popular contemporary films and widely ignored modern movies. We’ve featured The Godfather and Sound of Music, as well as Oscar winners like Spotlight while they were still in the theaters. Sometimes we’ve featured wonderful (and awful) foreign films that were well known in their homelands, but not so well known here in the U.S. Some films we've talked about caused a stir back in their day, but are now widely forgotten.

The whole point of this blog has been to bring those in the church to consider how they are portrayed in the world and to bring some filmgoers to consider the accuracy of the portrayals of the church and clergy in what they viewed. But what about films that have, it seems, no cultural impact whatsoever?

On the other hand, a great number of people devoted time, energy, talent, and funds to bring these pictures about, and it does seem the filmmakers were trying to say something about issues of faith, so more power to ‘em, I guess.

2009’s The Ministers is about twin brothers (played by John Leguizamo) who want to avenge their father’s death. He was murdered by corrupt cops (among them Harvey Keitel). The brothers commit a number of other jobs, often of the vigilante variety, leaving behind religious tracts that their late father had used. Their father, a minister who cared for his community, would almost certainly have been displeased by his sons' actions.

The Ministers pray for forgiveness before they go out to do their killings, but I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work -- the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t say, “Forgive our upcoming transgressions.” They also quote Scripture, even at the scene of the crime, which in my book makes what they do worse rather than better.

2019’s Act of Contrition (aka The Redeemed) stars Joe Estevez as a gangster who tries, on the last day of his life, to return to his estranged family. There are abundant voiceovers and flashbacks in the film but I’ll admit I had great difficulty following the plot. (Usually, when I have trouble discerning a plot point, I go to Wikipedia’s film summary, but The Ministers had a two-sentence plot summary and Act of Contrition was not to be found.)

Father Victor (Gregory Patrick Agnew), a priest, lies to the authorities to cover for his family. He also has a history of drinking problems and yet pulls out a bottle when visiting a member of the family in the hospital (“for old time’s sake”). Another priest, Father Boyle (Matt McCoy) says about him, “He is a spiritually charged, renegade priest.” But he seems like a poor representative of his faith to me.

So what do we have for Steeple Ratings for these two films? The pastor we see briefly in flashbacks in The Ministers seems decent enough, so we’ll give him three steeples. (His parenting skills -- raising murderers who expect preemptive forgiveness -- brings him down a bit.) Father Victor in Act of Contrition earns a meager two steeples.

This is the last weekly review for Movie Churches, but next week we’ll start a month of review starting with the worst films in our seven-year history.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Double Demons

The Last Exorcism
and Lost Souls (2000)

Exorcism films have been a staple here at Movie Churches because they pretty reliably have clergy. The masterpiece of the genre is, of course, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, with noble, heroic priests willing to sacrifice their own lives to serve the tormented and afflicted. The priests in the second Exorcist sequel are also quite admirable, as is the priest in the courtroom drama The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But sometimes the clergy in these films…aren’t that great.

The clergy in today’s films remind me of the would-be exorcists in a very funny story found in the book of Acts. From chapter 19, verses 13 - 16: “Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, ‘In the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out!’ Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?’ Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.”

The charlatan exorcists in today’s double feature would have been grateful to come out as well as the seven sons of Sceva.

In 2010’s The Last Exorcism, it is made clear relatively early in the film that the "exorcist" is a phony. The Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) brings in a documentary film crew to record what he believes will be his final (bogus) exorcism. The film crew consists of two members: producer Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) and cameraman Daniel Moskowitz (Adam Grimes).

We first see Rev. Marcus getting ready for church in Baton Rouge, LA, with his wife and son. He tells his son, “Get in the shower, we’re going to church.” At the church, Cotton's father (another Reverend Marcus) introduces him. Cotton tells how he was a child prodigy preacher. 

His wife Shanna (Shanna Forestall) tells the film crew, “He’s a showman. People aren’t bored when they come to church. He does local theater, does special effects, he entertains like nobody’s business.”

He uses magic tricks for sermon illustrations and often speaks spontaneously. He bets Iris $10 he can do a sermon about banana bread -- and does so. (Of course, he's a hustler and probably already had that sermon in his back pocket.) 

His father (Justin Shafer) tells about his valuable volume that describes various demons and how to cast them out. He says, “If you believe in God, you have to believe in the devil. Jesus was an exorcist.” He claims to have practiced 150 exorcisms.

But when they leave the elder Rev. Marcus, Cotton makes a frank admission. “I do not believe in actual demons, no. But I’ve acted like I did. I helped heal them of what ailed them. If they believe it, I maybe helped them.” Marcus said he began to doubt the reality of the supernatural after his son’s birth. His son nearly died but was saved, and Marcus was shocked to find himself thanking the doctor but not God. He realized he might not believe in God anymore.

But he had continued to preach and practice exorcisms. A news story that led him to believe he needed to stop. A young boy, the same age as his son, was killed in a botched exorcism. Marcus says, “I want to expose exorcism for the scam that it is. If keep one kid from being suffocated, I will be doing God’s work.”.

Which is why the documentary crew is accompanying the Rev. Cotton to an exorcism at the Sweetzer Farm in Ivanwood, Georgia (an envelope was picked at random). As they drive to a remote location, Cotton says of the country, “You got voodoo, Roman Catholism, Pentecostalism… Perfect breeding ground for demons and evil.”

He meets Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) who had written to ask Marcus to exorcise his daughter. Marcus is initially quite upset by the presence of the camera and tells Daniel to stop filming (he doesn’t), and then talks Louis into allowing him to film as he works with Nell (Ashley Bell).

We learn that after Nell’s mother died, Louis had been afraid of worldly influence, so he took Nell out of school and homeschooled her. He was also worried about the worldly influence in the church they were attending -- Pastor Manley (Tony Bentley) allows secular music. So Nell was taken out of Sunday School. Teenagers Nell and her brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) had been kept isolated on the farm for two years.

But then someone or something begins to brutally slaughter the animals on the Sweetzer farm. Louis believes it's the work of his daughter, Nell, who he believes is demon possessed. When Cotton interviews Nell, she seems quite sweet -- but he agrees to give her a full exam. He first gives her a medical exam (though he admits he’s no doctor) and then gives her a more specialized exam.

Cotton has Nell put her feet in a foot bath. Suddenly, the water begins to bubble. He says they need to continue with the exorcism and goes to his book, claiming to find her demon, Abalam, a powerful demon that defiles his prey. Cotton has Nell lie on her bed and asks her questions, and a powerful voice is heard, shouting and screaming. Cotton calls out the demon and claims Nell is healed.

Marcus talks with the film crew, away from the family, and admits that he used trickery to make the water boil and for the voice of the demon. Marcus takes a large amount of money from Nell’s father, but magnanimously says, “No need to count it, I trust you.” Marcus tells Louis to keep the devil away by loving his daughter. And Marcus and the crew depart to a motel many miles away from the Sweetzer Farm.

Nell comes to their motel, distraught and in horrible condition. They take her to the hospital (where they are asked not to film, but Daniel films away anyway). Nell is pregnant, so when Nell’s father comes to pick her up, there is a greater concern about whether she’ll be safe at home. 

At home on the farm, everything gets worse. And Louis asks Cotton to exorcize Nell again. Things do not go well. When Pastor Manley comes to help, let’s just say he isn’t helpful and does nothing to raise the already very low clergy rating for this film.

The clergy isn’t much better in 2000’s Lost Souls. Catholic school math teacher Maya Larkin (Winona Ryder) joins a team of exorcists to work with a mass killer. (I guess Maya is qualified to help because she was formerly possessed). But Father Lareaux (John Hurt), the pastor who leads the team, ends up being possessed himself. The other prominent priest in the film, Father James (Philip Baker Hall), is leading a plot to bring the antichrist into the world.

I should note that the film opens with an utterly bogus “Scripture” reference: “A man born of incest will become Satan and the world as we know it, will be no more” -- Deuteronomy Book 17. Apparently the qualities of the anti-christ are these three things: born of incest, with no faith, and unbaptized. So it's a pretty narrow field of applicants -- only a few million people have met those three qualifications over the last two thousand years.

I’m giving all the clergy in these films our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple. 

(As we've been mentioning, throughout this month we are featuring DVDs I purchased for Movie Churches, but never got around to viewing. The reasons for procrastination include movies not fitting the themes of the month and films looking rotten, so I haven't been anxious to review them. Lost Souls was pretty bad, but The Last Exorcism was much better than expected.)

Thursday, November 10, 2022

A Musical Double Feature

Something to Sing About
and The Fighting Temptations (2003)

Watching these two films, you certainly get the idea that no one in Hollywood has any idea what a choir director does.

In 2000’s Something to Sing About, new Christian Tommy (Darius McCrary) joins a church choir and takes a seat surrounded by other choir members. Yes, they sing sitting down and no effort is made to divide the singers into soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sections. 

In 2003’s The Fighting Temptations, Darrin Hill (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is essentially a con man who takes over a church choir to get his dead aunt’s inheritance (long story and the film’s plot), but he seems to know nothing about tempo, pitch, or volume and never really gives his choir any real instruction. In spite of these flaws, someone must have known something about music; both films are essentially musicals.

Something to Sing About
is a production of World Wide Pictures, which means it’s a Billy Graham production. The opening credits assure us that there is a “special appearance” by Dr. Graham, but that might be an understatement. Whenever anyone turns on a TV, one of his crusades is being broadcast. (In addition, when a film is shown in church, it also is a World Wide Pictures production with a special appearance by Billy Graham, probably just so they wouldn’t have to pay anyone residuals.) This film is the story of an ex-con, Tommy, who was sent up for a crime he didn’t commit. After being released, he has a hard time finding work or even feeding himself. He meets a nice old lady, Memaw (Irma P. Hall), who invites Tommy to her house for pork chops and collard greens. She also gets him a job and invites him to church.

Tommy goes to church and is surprised to see liturgical dance as part of the worship service. The pastor, Rev. Washington (John Amos), cites the call to worship God in dance found in Psalm 149:3. He then goes on to urge all in the congregation to raise their hands if they will be inviting a guest to the church for an evening showing of an evangelistic film. 

Tommy raises his hand and invites his friend G Smooth (Rashaan Nall) who responds, “What is this? Invite Your Drug Dealer to Church Day?” Which might not be a bad idea. Smooth doesn’t seem uncomfortable when he attends, which might say something very good about the church.

I have a number of not-good things to say about the church in The Fighting Temptations (directed by Jonathan Lynn of My Cousin Vinny fame). The film opens at the Beulah Baptist Church in Monte Carlo, Georgia in 1980. The choir sings a lively number, and I found it interesting to see kids as part of the (largely adult) choir. A woman screams ecstatically and falls down; someone says, “It wouldn’t be a normal Sunday if Faye wasn’t slain in the Spirit.”

Two young kids, Darrin and Lilly (Nigel Washington and Chloe Bailey -- as the child version of characters later played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyonce) flirt innocently. Darrin says he likes Lilly, but Lilly says she’s going to marry Michael Jackson. Suddenly a ruckus breaks out. Paulina Pritchett (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) shouts at Darrin’s mother, Maryann (Faith Evans), accusing her of singing “the devil’s Music” -- R & B -- at a local honky-tonk. 

Paulina drags her brother, Rev. Lewis (Wendell Pierce), to cite the church bylaws that members of the choir must live an upright life. Paulina says Maryann must choose between singing in the choir and singing secular music. Maryann chooses to pursue a career in music, leaving town with her son.

When the grown Darrin returns to Monte Carlo after being fired from his advertising job in New York City. His aunt, who had spoken up for his mother against Paulina, has recently died, and in her will, she said that Darrin would receive her fortune if he directs the church choir and took them to the Gospel Explosion competition in Columbus, GA. The choir is quite small, so he advertises for members on the local radio station. The first ad states they are looking for “anyone who has any musical ability that is fully committed to God.” He intends to follow the bylaws about choir members' lifestyles. 

When the first ad doesn’t bring promising prospects, the copy is changed to “Applicants don’t need to be fully supportive of God’s work, but shouldn’t be against it.” When this doesn’t work, the ad is changed to “Atheists may now apply.”

Darrin even recruits choir members from the local prison, which is his best idea in the film. When Paulina raises the point that all choir members are supposed to be baptized, Rev. Lewis baptizes the inmates along with a reluctant Darrin.

As for whether the choir wins the big Gospel Music competition, I’m not going to spoil it for you, just in case you’re someone who has never seen another movie in your life.

So how do these churches rate on our Movie Churches scale? The church in Something to Sing About seems to be a loving church that proclaims Jesus, so we’re giving it our best rating of 4 Steeples. As for the church in The Fighting Temptations, it seems full of backbiting and gossip with a spaghetti-spined pastor who does whatever his sister tells him to do. It is saved from our lowest rating because the choir sounds pretty good when Beyonce and the O’Jays are added, so 2 Steeples. 

In this, the penultimate month of regular Movie Churches reviews, we are using double features of DVDs I’ve purchased but never got around to before

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Double Feature Month Begins

The Grace Card
and The Second Chance (2006)
If you look at the archives here at Movie Churches, you might notice that we've been around for seven (very fun) years. But even fun things must come to an end, and after the end of the year, I won't be posting weekly anymore. When this blog started, a writer friend of mine said, “It won’t be long before you run out of movies to write about.” 

This has not been the case. 

Researching films took some work. Initially, I went to Wikipedia and looked up “Fictional Clergy” which provided fodder for years. When reading about films, I would note whenever clergy or a church was mentioned. I had a long list of potential films from the very beginning (I still have a long list of potential films).

The next challenge was actually watching the films. In a perfect world, I'd watch the film on a big screen, but this was possible with very few films. Some were readily available on streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Youtube, Tubi, etc.) while others were not. Some movies were available on a streaming service, but they'd vanish before I watched them. I was able to get some films from the library (both DVDs and their streaming services, such as Kanopy.) This just confirmed my preference for actual physical media -- I want to know the film is there to watch when I want to watch it, so I kept my eyes open for titles from my list (particularly at garage sales and thrift stores). 

As we reach the end of regular updates on this blog, I have quite a few films that I own that I haven't written about. This month, therefore, is dedicated to those unblogged DVDs on my shelves. I won’t get to all of them, but I'll do my best. This month, you get a double feature every week.

We’re kicking off with two films about race which could also be loosely defined as buddy films. You know, the films with two guys (or two women or more rarely, a man and a woman) who are completely different and can’t stand each other but as the film goes on they build a grudging respect and become a team. This could describe films from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to Green Book to Up. In the strictest Hollywood formula, it’s two cops. One plays by the rules while the other is a loose cannon. One is young, and one is old. One is black, the other is white. The Lethal Weapon films are the purest essence of the cliche that is the Buddy Cop film. And that's what The Grace Card proves to be as well.

Bill ‘Mac’ MacDonald (Michael Joiner) has been on the Memphis police force for years working (and failing) to be promoted from patrolman to sergeant. The much younger Sam Wright (Michael Higgenbottom) has just been promoted, and Mac wonders if the fact that Wright is black influenced the promotion. In addition to his work as a police officer, Wright is a pastor. (Another cop asks if Wright will hear his confession; Wright responds, “I’m a Nazarene.”)

Naturally, their captain (adhering to the formula for this kind of movie) assigns Mac and Sam as partners. Mac is not pleased. When Sam tries to sing hymns in the patrol car, Mac tells him to shut up (Mac does have a point there). Sam asks him, “Is it just the sergeant thing, or is it a black thing too?” (Not a plot point, but I couldn’t help noticing that these cops in a 2010 film aren't wearing seat belts.)

Sam is keeping up with his church gig as well. His wife says, “I thought we’d be in full-time ministry now. I thought this cop thing was just until the church was up and running.” 

But Sam’s mentor (and grandfather) Lou Gossett Jr. tells him he should stick with his police work because it's keeping him involved in the community. (Free tip: always listen to the Oscar winner.)

Eventually, we get to see Sam in a church service. Since we evaluate churches as well as clergy in movies, I want to mention that the church's music is quite good, and the people in the worship service seem to be enjoying being together. Sam begins his sermon by saying, “I want to get to Sunday supper just as much as you do.” (This kind of thing makes me worry I’m in for a long sermon.) Sam brings his frustration with his partner to the pulpit and gives a sermon on the importance of loving your enemies, even racial bigots. The response is not very positive, and he wonders whether he should continue in ministry.

But things continue to be difficult between the partners, as Mac acts recklessly and threatens suspects. Both cops want to quit. But then (spoilers) Mac’s son needs a kidney transplant and film-viewing experts will know who the only suitable candidate to provide the transplant will be.

Mac and his family and other white people begin attending Sam’s church, and it begins to prosper. That grudging respect between the partners grows into genuine love.

In 2006’s The Second Chance, we don’t have policemen. We have two pastors. One is black, one is white. One's from a wealthy megachurch, and the other from a struggling inner-city church. They are both young, so they have that going for them.

Christian singer Steve Taylor wrote and directed this film and cast an even bigger Christin recording star, Michael W. Smith, to play Associate Pastor Ethan Jenkins. Jenkin’s father’s church, The Rock, supports the inner city church Second Chance. When Ethan allows Second Chance’s pastor, Jake Sanders (Jeff Obafemi Carr), to speak at The Rock, he berates the congregation for supporting his church with only money and not time and energy. Ethan gets in trouble with the Board. He is sentenced to intern at Second Chance.

There is an Instagram account called PreachersNSneakers. It features pastors that wear very expensive shoes -- leading observers to ponder whether the pastor’s priorities are in order. Ethan doesn’t wear sneakers, but rather Gucci shoes. Jake takes to calling him Gucci. (I work in the inner city and can confirm that people are often judged by their shoes.)

Ethan makes some rookie mistakes. He drives his expensive car to church and leaves it unattended on the street. Not surprisingly, someone breaks into the car. He gives a man in a recovery group a big wad of cash, not thinking that the man might use cash on drugs. 

But he learns. 

And he begins to work well with Jake, saving the pastor when he’s threatened by a group of young thugs.

When The Rock, a megachurch, colludes with the city to tear down Second Chance in order to build a sports arena, Ethan and his father support Jake and the congregation of Second Chance -- the two young pastors not only become buddies, they bring in Ethan's dad as a mascot of sorts. 

So how do these churches and pastors rate on the Movie Churches Steeple Scale? Sam’s church in The Grace Card gets 4 Steeples, as does Jake’s church in The Second Chance. But the megachurch, The Rock, in The Second Chance rates only 2 Steeples. 

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Bonus Halloween Zombie Treat

Valley of the Dead (Malnazidos)

Today we have a bonus Zombie Movie Church because I wanted to give this film a break. It had a rough time.

 Valley of the Dead (Malnazidos), a Spanish film, premiered on October 8, 2020, at the Sitges Film Festival. It was scheduled for a wide release in January 2021, but COVID-19 postponed its debut until September of 2021, then postponed its debut again to March 2022. This release, too, was canceled and the film never received a theatrical release. It went to streaming, including Netflix.

Valley of the Dead is set in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, though it isn’t completely historically accurate -- such as the part where the Nazis experiment with biological warfare by turning people into zombies. (I don’t remember Stephen Ambrose or Cornelius Ryan ever mentioning the Nazis' zombies in any of their World War II books. Of course, they kept pretty quiet about the Nazi search for the Ark of the Covenant as well.)

Something I appreciated about the film is that characters on both sides of the War, the Republicans and Francoists, are portrayed sympathetically. In addition, both sides include rather evil characters, though the worst are the Franco supporters who collaborate with the Nazis.)

The film opens at a church (boding well for this blog) as bells ring in celebration of a wedding. All seems joyful until Nazi soldiers appear wearing gas masks. They machine-gun the wedding party and spread a strange gas. It seems all attendees of the wedding are killed (but, we learn later, the bride survived).

In Franco’s military headquarters we see a lawyer commissioned as Captain Jan Lozano (Miki Esparbe), and given a dangerous assignment to cross enemy lines. A young enlisted soldier, Decruz (Manel Llunell), is assigned as his driver. As they drive, Jan asks the young soldier why he joined Franco’s army. 

Decruz rambles in what seems a pointless way, talking about the wonderful puff pastries made by the nuns of his small town, but then he explains he was afraid the Reds would capture or kill the nuns.

This seems rather extreme until the two are captured by Communist opposition soldiers. A woman soldier, Matacuras (Aura Garrido), is called “the Priest Killer” by her fellow soldiers. This nickname seems to be spoken with admiration. Eventually, she tells Jan about dealing with a priest in her small town who had abused her sister. Since then, her reputation as a killer of clergy has put her in good stead with her unit.

The Communist sergeant (Luis Callego) berates Jan and Decruz for “believing in nuns and priests.” Jan responds that nuns and priests do, in fact, exist. The Sargeant continues, “You believe God died and rose from the dead three days later in Bethlehem…” 

Jan tells him, “That was Jerusalem, and it was Jesus, not God.” Here I think the Sergeant was correct on the more important point -- but enough Christology.

The entire company is soon attacked by zombies and the group must work together to fight them. Brodski (Segio Torrico), a Russian, recalls that in the Motherland, “They say the demon possessed come back from the dead.” Brodski also says, “My grandmother used to say, ‘When hell is full, the dead will walk the earth.’” 

Which I though was just part of the Dawn of the Dead marketing campaign, but maybe it predates that. 

Someone wonders about similarities between zombies and the Ressurection. Someone else responds, “When Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t start f**** eating people.”

They seek shelter in a barn, where they encounter a nun and fighters from Franco’s army. They agree to an uneasy peace to battle the zombies. The nun, Sol Flor (Maria Botto), says “God guided our steps to here.” She treats the wounds of one of the Communist soldiers. When one of the men is killed by zombies, Sol says, “Though he is a Red, may God embrace him in His glory.”

As the battle with the zombies continues, Sol takes part. They find that the Nazis are hiding out in the church we saw at the beginning of the film, perhaps with a cure for the zombie plague. Sol is bitten by a zombie, meaning she will eventually turn into a zombie herself. She arms herself and says, “I am going back to the church. Someone needs to care for their poor souls. I have work to do.” She takes extra bullets which she calls her “consecrated hosts,” and gives her life to help others. (We apply our John 15: 13 rule here. Other things being equal, clergy giving up their lives for the sake of others earn our highest Movie Churches rating)

So we're giving Sister Sol Flor (along with those fine puff pastry-making nuns) a Four out of Four Church Steeple rating.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Sewer-Dwelling Zombies


I was working at a movie theater when C.H.U.D. came out back in 1984. It was playing at our sister theater down the street, so a group of us ushers went to see it, because who could resist a film about “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers?”

I know, many of you reading are saying, “I could!” That’s not the point. We couldn’t. Or at least didn’t. And we all thought it wasn’t very good.

But while researching for Zombie Month, I was reminded of something I’d forgotten about the film. One of the leads, Daniel Stern, plays the Reverend A.J. Shepherd, manager of a soup kitchen (and yes, “Reverend Shepherd” does seem rather redundant). For your sake, I did a rewatch after nearly, but not quite, four decades.

This was the only feature film that Doulas Cheek ever directed (though he did a TV documentary on the Apostles Peter and Paul, which we here at Movie Churches are interested in now).  The screenplay was written by Parnell Hall (though rumor has it that Daniel Stern assisted). The story takes place in New York City, where people are vanishing.  A police officer, Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry), interviews Shepherd -- who apparently was not always the director of a mission.

Bosch greets him with “So, you’re a Reverend now? What kind of scam is this?”

Shepherd says that he has been with the Mission for some time, and says, “This is my family, my flock, my congregation. My regulars.” Shepherd tells Bosch that a number of his people have vanished as well, particularly those who live in the tunnels and sewers below NYC. (Incidentally, NYC isn’t the only place the homeless live underground. I recently read a very interesting book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains by Matthew O’Brien).

Shepherd explains that some of those who live underground come to the surface for soup from the Mission, and those people have seemed scared. He tells Captain Bosch that they’ve started looking for weapons, for guns and knives. The Reverend asks Bosch why the police are finally paying attention to the plight of the homeless. 

Bosch tells him his wife is missing and Shepherd expresses sympathy.

Government agencies try to cover up the whole situation, but Shepherd threatens to make it quite public if people aren’t helped. Bosch and Shepherd work together to solve the mystery. Soon, they encounter the strange zombie creatures they call C.H.U.D. (Later we find out that those initials stand for something even more sinister than Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. But not nearly as cool.)

The Reverend explores underground and helps his people. Eventually, he's threatened by a government official who tries to run over his friends with a truck, and Shepherd shoots the man. Usually killing someone damages our rating for clergy, but this is self-defense and defense of his flock.

As someone who works in a Mission, I appreciate Shepherd’s dedication to his work and his people, but he doesn’t use the most important tools of ministry: prayer and God's Word. Still, we’ll give him a Three Steeple Rating (out of Four).

Oh, and as for the film itself? Four decades later, C.H.U.D. is still not very good.