Friday, January 28, 2022

Yeah, There's a Church, But We Just Wanted to Plug the Movie

Local Hero
As we’ve said here many times, we at Movie Churches aren't here to review movies. We're here to review the clergy and churches in movies. Sometimes, though, we can’t resist saying, this is a really great movie and if you’re reading this and haven’t seen this movie, open a new tab and find a way to see it ASAP. Thankfully, Local Hero has a church and a pastor so we can talk about it here.

The Scottish writer/director Bill Forsyth made a handful of great films in the 1980s. Gregory’s Girl, Comfort and Joy, and Housekeeping are all great films, but Local Hero is his most beloved.

It tells the story of “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), an executive for Knox Oil and Gas headquartered in Houston, Texas, who's assigned to buy up the village of Ferness on the Scottish coast in order to build a refinery there. 

As Mac finds himself falling in love with the quaint little town, he worries about the beautiful place being torn down for a filthy profit. The people of the village sell Mac on the glories of their lives even as they dream of selling their town for a life-changing profit.

Ferness is full of eccentrics, such as a marine biologist who might also be a mermaid, a young man who rides his mini-bike up and down the village streets at all hours, and Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), a man who works quite a number of jobs in the town, including negotiating the sale of the village. None of these people, however, are as eccentric as the owner of Knox Oil, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), who eventually comes to Scotland from the States to close the deal.

I can’t speak highly enough about the film -- but what about the church and clergy in the film? (Because, after all, that’s what this blog is all about).

While Mac is negotiating with Gordon, he mentions that all the buildings in town will need to be purchased. Gordon says, “You’re talking about the church too?” 

Mac tells him he is, and Gordon responds, “That’s going to be tricky, the church has very definite views on property.” 

So Mac says, “Let’s talk to the preacher.”

When they meet, Mac can tell that the Reverend “Murdo” MacPherson (Gyearbuor Asante) doesn’t seem to be a native of the town. Murdo himself brings it up. “You’re not Scottish, are you? I’m not either, I’m African. I started on a student mission and it got away from me. You want to buy my church?”

Mac says, “Well, not as a going concern.” He asks Murdo to keep the talk of the sale quiet. 

The reverend answers, I’ll be as discreet as the next man. But word spreads quickly in these parts.”

He acts as if he’s quite hesitant about selling the church, but he attends the secretive town meetings about the sale. In fact, those meetings are held in the church. Everyone in town is there.

The pastor says at the start of the meeting, “I’d like to say a short prayer, while we’re all here.” 

Gordon says, “Sure, Murdo,” but after the prayer, he keeps quiet throughout the meeting, Like everyone else in town, his highest priority seems to be how much money they can make from the sale.

The film would receive quite a few, I don’t know, say, stars, if that was our system. Four or Five Stars, whatever was the maximum, but I’m afraid the best we can do for the Rev. MacPherson and the church of Ferness here at Movie Churches is Two Steeples.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Habits of Men in Drag

Nuns on the Run

I can’t imagine this film being made today. Nuns on the Run is a drag comedy of the kind that is uncomfortable at this moment in history.

It’s strange to think back to the days of Shakespeare when women were forbidden from performing on the stage, so all the women’s roles were played by men. Even so, the Bard still played with drag concepts in comedies such as Twelfth Night. When actresses eventually took their place on the stage, men dressing as women became an even greater source of comedy. In 1893, Charley’s Aunt -- with the central premise of a man pretending to be a woman -- has as its primary source of comedy how funny-looking Lord Fancourt Babberley is as Aunt Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez. Audiences laughed at a man with a deep voice and five o’clock shadow in a dress.

Since that time, many movies expected audiences to laugh at the same joke. They laughed at Milton Berle for years whenever he put on a dress on television. They laughed at Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon in dresses in Some Like It Hot. I’m not sure that many audiences laughed at Marlon and Shawn Wayans dressed as sorority girls in White Chicks, but that was the goal.

But these days drag has become more mainstream. And we have trans women in a variety of roles in sports, politics, show business, etc. So are we supposed to laugh when we see a man in a dress anymore?

The comedy in Nuns on the Run is supposed to come from men dressed as nuns, so the comedy doesn’t just come from men dressing as women, but crooks dressed as clergy. Similarly, Sister Act found comedy in a lounge singer dressed as a nun.

Jonathan Lynn, the director of My Cousin Vinny, wrote and directed this story of Brian (Eric Idle) and Charlie (Robbie Coltrane) as two small-time crooks who double-cross some big-time drug dealers. They steal a great deal of money from them and, as the drug dealers chase them, they head through an open door into what turns out to be a nunnery. They find some nuns' habits in the laundry room, pull them on, and introduce themselves to the Sister Superior (Janet Suzman) as “transfer nuns.” Though Sister Superior has heard nothing from the convent they are supposed to be transferring from (and makes no effort to contact that other nunnery), she gives them rooms and gives them work to do at the women’s college attached to the convent. Sister Superior is not the best at administration.

In fact, Sister Superior’s lack of due diligence puts the other nuns in the convent and especially the young women in the college in danger in a number of ways.

Primarily, she has invited two criminals to live in the convent. Those two criminals have brought with them two suitcases filled with large amounts of cash. Even more criminals may come to the convent searching for Brian and Charlie -- and the cash. This is not safe, and safety should be a primary concern of anyone responsible for the lives (and homes) of others.

Also, Brian and Charlie are assigned to teach classes in the college without any research into their qualifications. Charlie is assigned to teach physical education. Fortunately, Charlie is a very competent basketball player and is able to impress the women with his/her/their skill. Unfortunately, Charlie monitors the women showering after class (soon joined by Brian), and the “Male Gaze” is much in evidence.

Brian is assigned to teach theology. The topic of the day is the Trinity. The young women ask such questions as, “How could God be in a physical body if God is spirit?” Though Brian, who has absolutely no religious background, tries to counter such questions with the example of the shamrock (suggested by Charlie), saying, “Though there are three leaves, it is one plant,” he is clearly flummoxed. Brian says of the doctrine to Charlie, “It doesn’t make any sense.” Charlie responds, “If it made sense we wouldn’t need religion.”

The filmmakers seem to imply that since two poorly educated criminals and young college students think the Trinity is nonsense, it’s nonsense -- Charlie and Brian obviously know more than Justin Martyr or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. (It's rather like if Brian had been sent to teach physics, and he found the concept of light being both a wave and a particle incomprehensible, so we let's throw out the work of Max Planck.)

Then we learn that this isn’t the first time Sister Superior has made poor judgment calls.

For instance, she put Sister Mary (Doris Hare) in charge of the funds for their Drug Rehabilitation Center. Sister Mary quite obviously has a problem with alcohol abuse (we often see her sneaking gulps from a whiskey bottle). Sister Mary also has a weakness for playing the horses. Sister Mary loses $50,000 (or was it pounds?) betting on the races. Though she's aware of it, Sister Superior does nothing about this, doesn’t report the embezzlement to ecclesiastic or legal authorities, and waits for the accountants to discover the loss. She tells Sister Mary, “Mary, you have to get this under control,” rather than, I don’t know, sending her to an alcohol rehabilitation center.

There also seems to be an ongoing problem of sexual impropriety. Father Seamus (Tom Hickey) hits on the new “nuns” as soon as he meets them, and we learn that this has been an ongoing problem (it is said he “can’t keep his hands to himself”). But the Sister Superior has done nothing about it.

Eventually, after much plot takes place, Charlie and Brian leave the convent, leaving behind one of the two suitcases full of cash. Instead of reporting this to the legal authorities, Sister Superior decides to use the money to replace the drug rehab center money embezzled by Sister Mary. (“We’ll use the money gained by hooking kids on drugs and use it to get kids off drugs,” she says.) Situational ethics rather than Biblical ethics seems to be her stock in trade.

She earns herself and her convent a lowly Two Steeple Rating.

If Nuns on the Run seems like a film of its time, this is even more true of 1977’s Nasty Habits. Based on a novel (The Abbess of Crewe by one of my favorites, Muriel Spark), this story of an election in an abbey is a prolonged allegory for the Watergate scandal during the Presidency of Richard Nixon. There aren’t many people left these days that will find the story relevant or interesting, but if Glenda Jackson as a Mother Superior saying, “You won’t have Alexandra to kick around anymore” sounds like your cup of tea, you can find the film for free on Youtube. But Alexandra and her whole convent earn a lowly Two Steeple Rating as well.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

It's Satire -- You Get It, Right?

Believe Me
 (2014) & Faith Based (2020)

Satire is a tricky business. The goal is to (comically) look at a topic and exaggerate to make a point. The satirist must decide whether to exaggerate slightly or greatly.

For instance, there have been many satires of Western films; for example, Destry Rides Again and Cat Ballou slightly tweak the conventions of the Western. In Destry, James Stewart plays a lawman who doesn’t like to use a gun. In Ballou, Jane Fonda leads a gang of outlaws. They made minor adjustments to the conventions, but films like Blazing Saddles and Three Amigos made broad changes, with a man punching a horse and a singing cactus and breaking the fourth wall and admitting it’s all just a show.

There’s a place for both approaches, but the satirist needs a good grasp on the subject. Blazing Saddles is revered as the best satire of Westerns, even with its extreme silliness, because writer/director Mel Brooks has a great knowledge of and affection for classic Hollywood Westerns.

This week we’re looking at two satires of modern Evangelical culture, Believe Me and Faith Based. One takes a much more broad approach to satire and one seems to be more knowledgeable about the subjects involved.

Believe Me is about a college student, Sam (Alex Russell), who decides to pay off his college debt by starting a phony charity. He recruits three of his buddies to promote “Get Well Soon,” supposedly a project to build wells in Africa. They give such a good presentation at one church that a large ministry books them on a national tour. They realize that they need to be careful to avoid getting in trouble with the law, so the three decide to give all the credit card gifts to Africa and only keep some of the cash gifts.

Faith Based is about a pair of buddies, Luke (Luke Barnett) and Tanner (Tanner Thomason), who learn how lucrative Christian films have become -- so they decide to make one. Even though they aren’t Christians. But Luke’s father is a pastor, so they raise money from the father’s church.

It is interesting to see how both films handle some of the foibles in the church. 

Both films have vacuous worship leaders performing inane praise choruses. In Faith Based, worship leader Ezor Wallbath (Ryan Harrison) and his band Lambsong perform a song called, “I Hung a Cross.” Here are the lyrics:

I hung a cross to remember you by,
It’s eight feet tall and six feet wide.
To remember the things you said,
I hung it over my bed.
That monstrosity that was your tomb,
It takes up most of the room.
I hung a huge cross,
Because your love’s so pure,
And if it fell when I was sleeping,
I’d be crushed for sure.

The song is funny, bragging about an empty outward display of faith, but I didn’t really believe this song would actually be performed in church.

In Believe Me, the song leader Gabriel (Zachery Knighton) leads a song that consists entirely of the name, “Jesus.” The song is apparently a hit on the Contemporary Christian Music charts. He says, “I realized it was supposed to be about Jesus, so what were all those other words doing there?” I' ve sung praise choruses with almost as little content, so I found this much more believable.

Both films satirize prayer in evangelical circles. Luke’s preacher father (Lance Reddick) in Faith Based uses a lot of “Lord, Father God” phrasing in his prayers, and the larcenous college students in Believe Me do an in-depth study on prayer clich├ęs and prayer stances. “There are four basic hand raising methods: The Gecko [hands at side], The Five [one hand up], The Strait Jacket [palms out, arms down], The Shawshank [both arms up]”.)

Both films, obviously, center on money-making schemes. In Faith Based, the goal is to make money by making a Christian film. When Luke and Tanner look at the grosses of films like God’s Not Dead and The War Room and decide they want a piece of that. I'm sure many people today have that mercenary dream, but the silly twist in this film is they decide to make a green screen sci-fi thriller titled Prayer in Space. The idea is that the astronaut in the film will make the first prayer made in space. They use the tag line, “One Woman, One Planet, One Prayer.” The astronaut does have a funny line, though. She tells her mother, “I’m a scientist now, I’m not allowed to believe in God.”

Those ideas of science being opposed to faith are funny and a part of our culture, but of course, there have been many prayers made in space. Many astronauts have been people of faith. On Apollo 8, the astronauts read Genesis 1 on Christmas Eve. Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian elder, brought bread and wine to the moon for communion.

But that’s all fine, because Luke and Tanner are portrayed as idiots, and they could well not know these things.

A great bit about their quest to make a film is their goal to have a minor celebrity take a role in the film, because so many Christian films have the likes of Lee Majors, Billy Baldwin, and Robin Givens. Luke and Tanner unsuccessfully try to get their childhood hero Butch Savage (David Koechner) in their film when they learn he has been born again. (It is baffling to see a flashback of the boys watching a Butch Savage movie on TV where Butch both drops an F-bomb and does a commercial. What strange blend of HBO and TBS would this be?) Eventually, Kevin Sorbo is added to the film.

The money-making scheme in Believe Me is much more nefarious. There is a real need for wells in many parts of the world, and lives are at stake. To falsely claim to be giving people’s money to that cause would be an awful thing. To their credit, Sam and his friends Pierce (Miles Fisher), Tyler (Sinqua Walls), and Baker (Max Alder) come to release this. A couple of them want to get out of the project, but worry about implicating their friends. They all come to see that “most” of the money should go to the wells in Africa, but when the leader of the national organization sponsoring “Project Get Well Soon” learns the men are not on the up and up, his reaction is, let us say, nuanced. 

Ken (Christopher McDonald) realizes that if he goes public with accusations of fraud, it will hurt the giving to his organization, which has endorsed the well project. He tells Sam to finish up the tour and give the money to legitimate projects. If he does these things, Ken won’t turn him over to the authorities. I found the tolerant attitude toward corruption to protect a Christian organization’s reputation frustratingly true to many Christian organizations in the real world.

We also see some corruption at the top of the film company, Jesusflix (obviously a nod to PureFlix) in Faith Based. Margaret Cho plays Jane, one of the film company’s executives, who's obviously primarily concerned with making money rather than spreading the Gospel, and she's also rather free with vulgar language. I didn’t find this quite credible, because someone in such a position should at least be able to put up a convincing front when meeting new filmmakers. You'd expect she'd need to assume the filmmakers are Christians. (I do like Jane’s assertion about Christian films, “They don’t have to be bad… But they don’t have to be good.”)

I found it interesting that both films showed people with genuine faith who seemed to be living a true Christian life. Callie (Johanna Braddy), Sam's love interest in Believe Me, seems to be a true believer. Tanner’s love interest Lisa (Lisa Schwarz) invites him to a small group at Elevate Church, and he seems to appreciate it, calling it “just a group of people trying to do life together.” Tanner, a bartender, says toward the end of the film, “There’s one thing the church and the bars have in common. They both believe in community.” 

Since my wife and I spent a year (and wrote a book) about this very thing, we appreciated this.

Faith Based is the much broader satire of the two, and I felt like it didn’t know the church quite as well as Believe Me. In Faith Based, all ends well with the heroes not only making their film, but coming to have a positive relationship with Luke’s father and his church. Believe Me has a much more Lady or the Tiger? ending not quite revealing whether Sam decides to pursue a life of faith.

I’m giving the churches and Christian organizations of both films a rating of just Two Steeples, but I appreciated that both films take faith seriously.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Movie Churches Has a Laugh

Oh God!
 (1977, 1980, 1984)

It's rather amazing that a little under half a century ago, one studio executive said to another, “I think we can make a movie star out of John Denver.” 

Hey, nothing against the guy. When “Country Roads” or “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” come on the radio, I happily sing along. But he wasn’t much of an actor or comedian.

Denver’s limitations didn’t keep 1977’s Oh God! from being a hit, though. It even knocked Star Wars out of the top spot for a week, but the film’s success can probably be attributed to the comic gifts of then-octogenarian George Burns and the high concept of "what would happen if God visited an ordinary guy."

With a screenplay by Larry Gelbart and directed by Carl Reiner, the film tells the story of Jerry Landers (Denver), a grocery store manager who receives a mysterious invitation to meet with God (Burns). It takes some convincing (such as a rainstorm inside a car) for Jerry to finally believe God really was appearing to him in the form of a little old man with glasses.

God gives Jerry a simple message to bring to the world: He exists and humankind can work things out. Jerry tries to share this message through the Los Angeles Times and television, but he ends up with his marriage and job endangered. Everyone thinks he’s crazy.

Fortunately for this blog, Jerry draws the ire of the religious community. An ecumenical group of religious leaders including a Roman Catholic bishop (Barry Sulivan), a Greek bishop (Titos Vandis), a rabbi (George Furth), a televangelist (Paul Sorvino), and other religious leaders gather to question Jerry. 

I was totally baffled that all the leaders at this meeting talk about the impossibility of God appearing as a man. Maybe it makes sense for the rabbi to make the point, but I'd expect the Christian leaders would all be pretty invested in the idea that God had already appeared as a man, but not one mentions Jesus.

The religious leaders make Jerry submit to a test. They lock him in a hotel room and give him a long list of questions written in Aramaic. (This was a more difficult task in pre-internet days.) God appears and helps him through the quiz. One of the questions is whether Jesus is the Son of God. God says Jesus was the Son of God, as was Gandhi and the man in the kitchen who charged $11 for a room service steak. Obviously, this film doesn’t purport to be based in Christian theology.

The one member of the clergy who continues to play a part in the film is Sorvino’s Reverend Willie Williams. The characterization of this televangelist is rather baffling. He is presented with all the cliches of a fundamentalist preacher -- a loud polyester suit and a Southerner's vocal cadence -- but he brags about breaking bread with the Rabbi and getting along with all the religious leaders. Very ecumenical, while a stereotypical fundamentalist would pride himself on keeping separate from such "blasphemers."

God sends Jerry to one of Willie's worship services to denounce Willie as a money-grubbing fraud. Strangely, asking for money is the only thing Willie does in the service. Usually, there's a promise of healing or prosperity or (at least) salvation, but instead, he just talks about love (“porno is lust, not love”) and asks for cash. I’ve never seen such a preacher not spend at least some time talking about Jesus or the Bible.

Willie sues Jerry for slander. (Also something very unlikely, since such a court case would open the evangelist’s financial records to discovery.) At the trial, God reveals Himself to the court. Jerry gets off without a penalty. Willie comes under sharp scrutiny in the Movie Churches Steeple Ratings.

The success of Oh God! led to a sequel, 1980’s Oh God! Book II. George Burns returns as God, but John Denver is nowhere to be seen. Instead, God appears to a young girl, Tracy Richards (Louanne), the daughter of Paula (Suzanne Pleshette) and Don (David Birney). Don is in advertising, so Tracy tells God He should advertise. God challenges Tracy to start a “Think God” campaign, encouraging other kids to put up posters with the motto all over town -- which gets Tracy in trouble with her school principal, who threatens to have Tracy institutionalized. God must appear to a group of psychiatrists to keep Tracy out of an insane asylum.

There is a much smaller role for the church and clergy in this film. One of Tracy’s friends begins to spray paint “Think God” on the wall of a Church of Christ building but runs off when the pastor comes out and yells at him. Then the pastor finishes the job.

Lucy looks for God in three churches and a synagogue but doesn’t find Him there. He tends to appear to her in restaurants.

In 1984, one more sequel was released. Jerry and Tracy are missing, but George Burns is back one last time as the Almighty in Oh God! You Devil! Ted Wass (an actor Hollywood kept trying to make happen but who never really happened) plays Bobby Shelton, a songwriter who makes a deal with the Devil (also played by George Burns) trading his soul for stardom.

Like Tracy, Bobby isn’t successful when looking for God in a church. He talks to a priest in a confessional and asks for ten minutes to talk to the Big Guy. The priests in the church think Bobby's crazy, so he flees the scene. Bobby has better luck with a street preacher standing near a van with a bumper sticker that reads, “What are you doing for Heaven’s sake?” There's writing on the side of the van, too: “‘And those that seek me earnestly…Shall find me.’ Proverbs 8:9 (17)

Bobby asks the preacher where he can find God. The preacher responds, “He’s in the desert! Look to Him, for Him, in the desert!”

Which turns out to be true. Bobby finds God in Las Vegas. Where God and the Devil gamble for Bobby’s soul.

So the Movie Churches Steeple ratings vary greatly between the Oh God films. Willie and company in the first film receive a meager One Steeple rating, Three Steeples for the Church of God cameo in the second, and Four Steeples for the street preacher in the third film for apparently actually listening to God.