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.