Saturday, December 31, 2022

Fin (for now)

Today, 2022 comes to an end, along with weekly posts here at Movie Churches. After seven years, we’re wrapping Movie Churches as a weekly blog, though we might, on occasion, see a film with a church or a pastor that just has to be written about. And this will be the spot to find that story, but we won't be posting weekly anymore.

Through these years we’ve found films that present encouraging stories of faith and some that present devastating critiques of religion, some films that quite accurately show the life of clergy and the business of the church, and some that seemed to have no idea of how people of faith live or minister.

Sadly, people who don’t know Christians or haven’t been to churches know only the twisted presentations of the Church in movies, which means the Christian Church has two big tasks before it. One is to get involved in the arts and see that there are realistic and encouraging presentations of faith, but even more, Christians need to be real, loving, and living examples of faith in the lives of friends and family.

I've got one final task before the year ends. It's been our tradition to note the best and worst of what we’ve seen this year, so without further ado…

The worst film we saw of 2022 was Morbius. Sony Studios has the rights to Spiderman and the citizens of the Spiderman universe such as Venom. Venom wasn’t a very good film and Venom: Let There Be Carnage is worse. And yet, with Morbius they managed to set the bar even lower. It's just a mess of CGI thrown together.

So on to cheerier things -- my five favorite films of 2022, with a note of which ones could have been featured if Movie Churches had gone on:

5) The Fablemans
Steven Spielberg wrote and directed this autobiographical roman à clef which tells about the family life and inspirations of a young director. It’s an uneven film, but there are some magical moments. There are no churches or clergy, but there's a young Christian woman who seems to believe making out is an important evangelistic tool.

4) Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
This year, two big-budget versions of this tale were released, but the live action version wasn’t very appealing to me. This stop-motion version gives a unique presentation, setting the film in fascist Italy. The songs were forgettable, but it made me laugh several times, especially when the wooden boy called out, “I wanna go to church! I wanna go to church!” The film does have a priest and church, so it could have been written about in this blog… But they wouldn’t have gotten a very good Movie Churches Steeple Rating. (But shame on you, Netflix, for not letting us see this in a theater.)

3) Top Gun: Maverick
I didn’t care much for the original film, but the sequel delivered all the fun and excitement you could hope for from a summer blockbuster. Tom Cruise delivers a real movie star performance. But there are no churches or clergy.

2) Everything Everywhere All at Once
If you haven’t heard about this film about a family and the multiverse, just watch it. Don’t learn more. It's very funny and poignant and Michelle Yeoh is wonderful. She’s always been a great action star. but in this film she’s also a very good comedian. And seemingly from out of nowhere, Ke Huy Quan (Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) gives an equally marvelous performance. But no churches or clergy.

I) The Banshees of Inisherin
I went to see this film only knowing it was written and directed by Martin McDonagh (the writer and director of In Bruges), and that was enough to get me in the theater. It is the story of two long-time friends -- well, more like acquaintances -- living in a small community on an isolated Irish island. When one tries to break off the relationship, both prove willing to take extreme measures to end, or prolong, the current state of things. There is a church and a priest in the film that provide good moments of humor, but again, wouldn’t receive a very high Movie Churches Steeple Rating.

It only seems fair to let you know all the films I watched this year, so you’ll know the pool these films were chosen from:

Viewed In theaters

The Outfit

Father Stu

Pompo: The Cinephile

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Top Gun: Maverick

Crimes of the Future

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Black Phone


Emily the Criminal

See How They Run


The Banshees of Inisherin

The Menu

The Fablemans

Violent Night

Viewed via DVD & Streaming 
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

Studio 666



Valley of the Dead




Death on the Nile

Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

Mr. Harrigans Phone


The Lost City


The Northman


Bullet Train

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Thank you for your faithful reading of this blog through the years. If you haven’t been reading faithfully, enjoy catching up! 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

We've been there!

Visiting film locations

There’s something marvelous about visiting the location where a favorite movie was filmed. When we watch a movie, we know it’s all make-believe, but visiting a location… Well, we feel like it might be just a bit real.

Over the seven years of writing Movie Churches, I've had opportunities to visit some favorite film locations. This list includes some from the Movie Churches blog and some not, but they're all places I recommend visiting.

5) Psycho - Universal Studios, Los Angeles, CA - Bates Motel and house

Frankly, this one seems like a bit of a cheat. After all, it's at a movie studio rather than a “real” place, but this is genuinely where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his classic -- and it is a little spooky being there.

4) The Graduate - La Verne United Methodist Church, La Verne, CA - Elaine’s wedding church

This was a location that we did visit for Movie Churches (and our church blog - Dean and Mindy Go to Church.) But I liked this film long before I wrote about it. The scene where Ben (Dustin Hoffman) interrupts the wedding of the girl he loves is iconic. Bizarrely, this has made the church where this scene was filmed popular as a wedding site.

3) Rocky III - Philadelphia, PA - The Rocky Statue

It is rather a meta-event that Philadelphia (in the movie) gave a statue to honor the boxer, and the film company gave the statue to the city to honor the actor Sylvester Stallone and the movie. In the film, the statue is at the top of the outside stair that leads to the Philadelphia Museum of Art but now the statue is at the bottom of the steps. (I have also run up the steps, as Rocky does in the films, but probably not as fast.)

2) High Noon - Saint Joseph’s, Tuolumne City, CA - church for town meeting

This is another location we visited for our blogs. The location of the church is very different from that in the film. It’s in the mountains, it was snowy the day we visited, whereas in the film the church seems located in a town in a flat, arid location in the Western frontier. It was cool to be where one of the greatest Westerns was filmed.

I)  Die Hard - Fox Plaza, Los Angeles, CA - Nakatomi Plaza

Though we never wrote about this film for our blog, it was fun to be in the location where one of the Christmas movies our family views every year was filmed. We took off our shoes because… Well, not because it is a sacred place exactly, but because… If you’ve seen the film, you know why.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Best Movie Churches Films

To be honest, most films don’t exactly have good life lessons. 

I love Liam Neeson action films, and while Taken does teach the important lesson that Father Knows Best (and as much as we in the audience cheer on his sadistic trail of revenge to save his daughter), we know that going out on our own to kill bunches of people would not lead to good places. We may delight in James Bond’s bon mots as he hops from one bed to another, but in real life, emotional and spiritual havoc is brought on by such behavior (leaving aside pregnancy and STDs).

I am a Christian and a pastor who also happens to love films. I recognize that most films, even ones that I enjoy, don’t present a healthy approach to decision-making or relationships. I’m with Paul who (in Romans 12:19) advised against taking revenge because that's God’s territory. Yet I still want to see Wayne or Eastwood shoot up the town. I agree with the writer of Hebrews in the 4th verse of the 13th chapter that the marriage bed should be kept holy, but part of me really wants Rick to fly off with Ilsa.

But every once in a while, the filmmakers get some things right and show characters making choices that would be wise choices in real life. The following films are sources of spiritual encouragement for me, and maybe they will be for you, too. 

12) Silence (2016) 
The first couple of films on this list aren’t the kind of films you’ll find on PureFlix, the Christian streaming channel. Martin Scorsese adapted this grim film about the persecution of the church in Japan from the novel by Shusaku Endo. It’s not a film about Christians boldly holding up to persecution; it’s a film about Christians giving in to severe persecution. It teaches that life can be hard, we can mess up, but God is still there and still faithful.

11) Wise Blood (1979)
John Huston adapted Flannery O’Connor’s tale of a man who tried to create a "Church without Christ," but instead finds he can’t escape Christ. These are two films in a row of people not being faithful where God is faithful. Both films encouraged me greatly.

10) Millions (2004) 
In Luke 16 you can read the parable of the Shrewd Manager about a man who used resources he was entrusted with for his own benefit. The point of the story is that we should use our resources for the benefit of others and eternity. This story is told in another way in this film. (I do have a problem with St. Peter's recollections in this film, but otherwise…) Bonus -- it's a Christmas film!

9) The Case for Christ (2017)
This is the only “Christian” film on the list. Most films made by Christian filmmakers are… what's the word? Oh yeah. Bad. This true story of Chicago Tribune reporter Lee Strobel’s investigation into the truth of the Christian faith works. For three Christmases, I’ve shown this film to men in a recovery program at my mission, and every time they've found it to be moving in a positive way. 

Ordet (1955) 
The great Scandinavian director, Carl Theodore Dreyer, told this story of a family and a town, divided by petty denominational differences, brought together by a man who seems mad -- and a miracle.

7) Chariots of Fire (1981) 
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” So says Eric Liddell in this Oscar-winning story of an Olympian who didn’t put his sport first. Liddell was a man who recognized what was truly important in life but found joy in secondary things as well.

6) Joyeux Noel (2005)
This is the second Christmas film on the list. Set in World War I, it tells the story of peace on Christmas Eve. If it could happen that one night, why not more?

5) Babette’s Feast (1987)
This Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language shows the joy to be found in sharing your gifts with others.

4) A Hidden Life (2019)
Terrence Malick isn’t known for making edge-of-your-seat blockbusters. This isn’t an exception to the rule. It's a meditative telling of a lone man's opposition to the power of the Third Reich.

3) The Apostle (1997)
Robert Duvall has starred in three of the best films about Christianity ever made. (If this was a top twenty list, I would have also included Get Low.) Duvall wrote and directed this film, as well as starring as the Apostle, E.F. There have been many films about flawed clergymen, but this film does an amazing balancing act of presenting a preacher’s mistakes and sins with the glory and value of the Gospel.

2) Leon Morin, Priest (1961)
Over this blog's seven years, I’ve seen many pastors on the silver screen. Some were crooks and murderers, but more often they were sappy and insipid. This French film presents an intelligent, funny, and wise man who is also faithful to God and his ministry.

1)Tender Mercies (1983) 
This is my favorite film about faith. An alcoholic country-western singer passes out in a small, rural motel. The motel's owner cares for Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) as he comes to recovery and new life. He still has pain and regrets. I work with men overcoming addictions to alcohol and drugs, and this film rings true. Mac’s walk of faith rings true. And do you know what else? The pastor and church in this film deserved the Four Steeple Rating.

Next week, we'll wrap up the blog and 2022.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Most Fun Films Featured in Movie Churches

My Favorites and Movie Churches Favorites

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the worst films I watched for this blog. There were some hard sits, but I can usually enjoy even a bad film -- especially if it’s in a movie theater with reclining seats and real butter on the popcorn. That’s my happy place. Home with popcorn is okay too.

Sometimes I was able to watch films I already loved, which makes the experience even better. There were even times I could watch my favorite films (not all my favorite films, of course, because not all of my favorite films have clergy or churches). 

I thought it might be fun to list my favorite films in different genres (whether they were blogged or not) and to list the best films in those genres that I did write about. On a few occasions, they were the same.

Science Fiction
Blade Runner, 1982 (favorite but not blogged)
This story of a policeman of the future hunting down fugitive androids poses interesting questions about what it is to be human. The encounters between artificial humans and their creators provide an odd reflection of real people’s encounters with their God. An amazing vision of the future (2019!) with dazzling special effects.

The War of the Worlds, 1953 (featured in the blog)
There have been quite a number of adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel about an alien invasion of earth. A clergyman in the film boldly tries to engage the alien invaders -- with unfortunate results. A church in the film provides a place of comfort. Other excellent science fiction films have been featured in the blog (Serenity, Contact), but this is a classic.

Singin’ In the Rain, 1952 (favorite but not blogged)
No clergy or churches in this film, so it’s not featured in the blog. I don’t even think God is mentioned, but the songs and dancing and comedy and romance in this film are divine.

The Blues Brothers
, 1980
(featured in the blog)
Jake and Elwood were on a mission from God. They were raised and cared for by rather surely nuns, but they were cared for. And we are allowed to observe a joyous pentecostal service, led by the Rev. Cleophus (James Brown). When I first saw this film, I thought, “What a stupid film. All it had was car crashes and blues music.” Then I saw it again and thought, “Hmmm. Nothing but blues music and car crashes.” The third time I saw it, “That was awesome! Nothing but car crashes and blues music!”

(This image above, from The Blues Brothers, may look
familiar to readers of the blog.)

War Film
The Great Escape, 1963 (favorite but not blogged)
Steve McQueen, James Gardner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and more -- a great collection of movie stars. Action, laughter, tension, and heroic sacrifice combine for what is sometimes my favorite film (when it’s not Lawrence of Arabia or It’s a Wonderful Life or Singin’ in the Rain). But it has no churches or clergy.

Patton, 1970 (featured in the blog)
This Best Picture winner and Oscar-winning (but award not accepted) performance by George C. Scott as the legendary General has a chaplain. The scene where Patton asks him to write a “weather prayer” is great.

Unforgiven, 1992 (favorite, not blogged)
Clint Eastwood made a lot of great Westerns, but this is his best --even better than any Howard Hawks or John Ford Westerns. It has much to say about what people deserve and don’t deserve. I think we see a church in the distance in the film, but don’t hear anything about it. And no clergy.

High Noon
, 1952
(featured in the blog)
For whatever reason, most of the Westerns featured in this blog haven’t been very good, but this is an exception. In lists of all-time best Westerns (and films), this Gary Cooper classic is generally included. It also features a crucial scene in a church, a church location I had the opportunity to visit.

And Then There Were None, 1945 (favorite, not blogged)
This great adaptation of an Agatha Christie classic sadly features no church or clergy. (We did get to write about another Christie: two versions of Murder on the Orient Express.)

The Detective, 1954 (featured in the blog)
In my opinion, G.K. Chesterton was an even better writer than Christie. He wrote a series about a crime-solving priest, Father Brown, played by Alec Guinness. 

When Harry Met Sally, 1989 (favorite, not blogged)
Yeah, some of the humor is raunchy and attitudes may be outmoded, but this film makes me laugh, and also makes me weepy on the final New Year’s Eve of the film.

The Sound of Music, 1965 (featured in the blog)
Yes, I could have listed this with the musicals, but I like Blues Brothers better. This is also a wonderful romance of a nanny who first falls in love with the children in her care and then their father.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 (favorite, not blogged)
God and His angel of death make a big appearance in the film, but there are no churches or clergy. Indy does mention Sunday School.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938 (featured in the blog)
This is the best film of the Robin Hood legend; all retellings feature a friar named Tuck.

North by Northwest, 1959 (favorite, not blogged)
Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I could only write about one: I Confess, which is far from his best. This film about a cross-country chase is wonderful, but Cary Grant never stops at a church.

Sorcerer, 1977 (featured in the blog)
It's an understatement to call this film downbeat. It's about some down-on-their-luck men transporting nitroglycerin. The church featured in the film is very corrupt, and the movie is tense as all get out.

It’s a Wonderful Life, 1947 (favorite, not blogged)
As mentioned before, this is a contender for my all-time favorite film. And it is a clear winner during advent. It even has some churches featured, but not enough to write about for the blog.

On the Waterfront, 1954 (featured in the blog)
This best picture winner and classic has one of the best depictions of a fighting (not so) young priest (played by Karl Malden).

Night of the Living Dead, 1968 (featured in blog and favorite)
We finally get to the last three films. They're not just my favorites from the blog, but also my favorites in their genre.

I had to quit watching this film on TV when I was at home, all alone, when I was in junior high. I eventually got around to watching the whole thing and loved it. We were able to visit the chapel h in the cemetery featured at the beginning of this film.

Airplane, 1980 (featured in blog and favorite)
The nuns on the plane allowed me to write about this film for the blog. I’ve watched it many times, and still laugh many times whenever I watch it. (Another contender for this slot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was also featured in the blog.)

The Godfather, 1972 (featured in blog and favorite)
A number of critics call this film about the troubles of a crime family the best film ever made. It is very, very good, but the Roman Catholic Church in this series is quite corrupt (just like most other societal institutions). It’s almost as if there were sinful humans in the Church.

I chose each of these films because I like them a lot and had fun watching them again. Next week will feature other films that I enjoy and also find to be among the most spiritually uplifting.

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.)