The Church (2018)


Not every church is a sanctuary.

(2018) Horror (Hard Floor) Bill Moseley, Matthew Nadu, Daniel Wyland, Ashley C Williams, Clint Howard, Kenneth McGregor, Keith Stallworth, Lisa Wilcox, Deltra Leak, Holly Zuelle, Meghan Strange, Shaun Paul Costello, Michelle Romano, Vito LoGrasso, Victoria Gates, Scott Lehman, Jack Hoffman, Michael Connolly, Marcia C. Myers, Marie A. Garton, Belinda M. Wlson. Directed by Dom Frank

 

We tend to have a bit of a fixation on religion and the paranormal. From The Exorcist on down, we stand in awe of cathedrals and the rites of the church. Some churches though are less holy places than others.

The First Corinthians Baptist Church in downtown Philadelphia was once a magnificent edifice, a tribute to the glory of God. Of late it has fallen on hard times however. The membership has dwindled as the neighborhood has become less affluent and nearby mega-churches has enticed others away. Pastor James (Moseley) whose family has been at the church for generations is at a crossroads; gentrification is beginning to creep into the neighborhood and developers want the valuable property to tear down the aging and decrepit church and put in a new multi-use facility; they’re even willing to build a brand spanking new mega-church for the pastor to preach in, much to the delight of his ambitious wife Loretta (Romano).

The pastor is reluctant to give up on the building that is in many ways his family’s legacy but the developer in the person of Ronald Lawson (Nadu) is persuasive and at last the pastor gives in. However the subject has to be approved by the church’s various boards and with Loretta working diligently behind the scenes, the measure squeaks by.

When Lawson comes to the church several nights later for the signing of the papers that will mean the end of the grand old lady, he brings with him the secretary he’s having an affair with (Williams), the Romanian financier that is his partner (Wyland), a local community leader who has also partnered with him (Stallworth) and his bodyguard (LoGrasso). Pastor James has with him his wife, the head of the board of Deacons (McGregor), the church secretary (Wilcox) and a board member (Zuelle). It’s literally a dark and stormy night but all who are in the church don’t realize that the building is not at all happy at the prospect of being torn down and isn’t going to let them go to carry out the deed.

First of all, the First Corinthians Baptist Church is a real one and it is absolutely a beautiful building. It is the perfect location for this kind of a movie; nearly 200 years old and full of the kind of architectural detail that modern churches last. It feels like a place of worship which makes the haunted goings-on therein all the more shocking. Kudos to Frank for taking full advantage of his location filming.

There aren’t a lot of digital effects here and the production could have sorely used them but one can’t get picky when you’re on a budget. The big problem is the script is a bit inconsistent; various characters are “taken” by the church to be pulled into a purgatory-like dimension in a puff of black smoke. Some of them seem to burn (at least there are flames superimposed on the actors) while others don’t. We don’t get enough backstory to the various characters to understand why some get the flames and others don’t. As to why this is happening, there really isn’t much of an explanation; the Romanian mutters about old Romanian myths about holy places that sit in judgment of those who are evil but again, everybody seems to be victimized without a lot of rhyme or reason other than maybe being part of the plan to knock down the building.

The acting is a bit on the wooden side for the most part and the presence of horror cult favorite Moseley excepted, the biggest name actor (Howard) is essentially unrecognizable as a bearded monk who appears as an apparition in a couple of scenes and has no lines. That seems a bit of a waste to me.

This has been described as a faith-based horror film and in my notes I wrote down that it gets a little preachy at times but for the life of me I can’t remember any such occasions. I do remember the ending which is abrupt, unsatisfying and seems to exist to set up a sequel which the filmmaker has already stated is going to happen. All in all, Frank got the atmosphere right but needed to flesh out his script with a bit more information about the various characters and the history of the church – we see a brief headline from an old newspaper about a wicked family being punished by the church but it’s so quick we never get any details.

With so many new movies to choose from for your Halloween horror movie fix this year it’s hard to recommend this one but there are definitely some plusses to consider. The scares are a bit weak but given that Frank didn’t have a whole lot of cash to work with I think he did the best he could. Hopefully for the sequel he’ll give us a more fleshed out story and maybe a bit more of a budget to work with.

REASONS TO GO: The filming location is awesome.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit abrupt and disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, profanity, spooky images and light sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in downtown Philadelphia’s First Corinthian Baptist Church which Frank’s family has been attending for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Borderlands
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Samuel Project

Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

The 5th Quarter


The 5th Quarter(2010) True Life Faith-Based Drama (Rocky Mountain) Andie MacDowell, Aidan Quinn, Ryan Merriman, Andrea Powell, Michael Harding, Stefan Guy, Anessa Ramsey, Jillian Batherson, Ted Johnson, Patrick Stogner, Bonnie Johnson, William Smith Yelton, Maureen Mountcastle. Directed by Rick Bieber

 

None of us get through life unscathed. Sooner or later we all lose someone close to us. One of the worst things we can experience, however is losing someone long before their time. However, when we are in the depths of that despair we can sometimes find inspiration.

The Abbate family is a close, tight-knit family that is strong in their faith. Their son Jon (Merriman) is attending Wake Forest on a football scholarship and his little brother Luke (Guy) looks to be going down the same road. Mom Maryanne (MacDowell) is proud of her boys as is Dad Steven (Quinn).

But then the unthinkable happens. Luke goes out with a group of his friends; behind the wheel is a boy who is reckless, driving way too fast and too inexperienced to handle it. The car crashes. Some of the boys in the car are killed instantly; Luke lingers on for several days before the decision is made to let him go. Luke had signed up as an organ donor and the members of the family have a difficult time respecting that decision but after much soul reflection and speaking with their pastors, they at last give in. Luke’s organs are harvested.

The grief hits the family hard. Maryanne sinks into a deep depression while Steven throws himself into work. Jon goes on a bit of a rollercoaster ride; sometimes he is the rock the family leans on, other times he is furious at the Lord for taking his brother and other times he seems to have given up, sinking into a beer-colored haze.

After an intervention by Jon’s girlfriend (Batherson), assorted pastors and his weight trainer, Jon gets his life back on track. When the football season begins, he tells his coach (Harding) that he wants to switch his number from 41 to 5 which was the number Luke wore. As the 2006 season begins, the Demon Deacons – predicted to finish dead last in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference – start the fourth quarter of each game with Jon holding his hand with five fingers outstretched in tribute to his brother – the fifth quarter. Soon, his teammates take it up as a show of solidarity, then the fans pick it up and by the end of the year, even opposing players do it as a sign of respect to Jon and his deceased brother.

While the Deacons have an unbelievable season which ends up with an ACC title, a BCC bowl game (the first in the university’s history) and an eventual rating in the top 20, Jon’s family is still having real issues dealing with their grief and holding onto their faith, once a cornerstone of the family. Can they find their way back to happiness, or at least acceptance?

I’m not really a big fan of faith-based movies. I personally don’t like being preached to about how I should accept God’s plan and that if I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior I’ll find eternal life and so forth. That’s all fine for Church but watching a movie isn’t going to convert me and if you need to have a movie re-confirm your faith, you’ve got problems, son.

Still, this one is a little more subtle about it than most which is fine by me – there is nothing wrong to my mind with portraying that a character or their family has faith, nor is portraying a crisis of faith something that should be avoided and it’s quite true that Hollywood tends to avoid anything that smacks of religious faith, so much so that Evangelical Christians have taken to making their own movies.

That’s fine and dandy. Most of them have been quite frankly just plain awful, having no edge to them whatsoever but kind of an attitude that no matter what life throws at you, everything will be better so long as you believe. The Polar Express is a lot like that but at least the visuals are better.

This at least has a bit of an edge, and some of the acting performances are all right particularly from Quinn as the grieving dad. While there are plenty of amateurish performances on the acting side, and a whole lot of cornball in the script, I’ve seen worse from more seasoned professionals so you can’t really complain too much.

This isn’t really a football story and the success of the Wake Forest team is really not what the movie’s about either; it is about the healing of a family. Personally (and nothing against the Abbates) but would a movie have been made if Jon Abbate hadn’t been a star football player and his team performed well above expectations? In making this a non-football story about a football player and his family, it kind of cheapens the similar experiences other families who weren’t lucky enough to have a star football player in their DNA have been through, and that’s really my main problem with the movie; if you’re going to use a football player in the movie, it should be a football movie. If you’re going to make it about a family, any family should do.

Otherwise, those who are devout Christians (and I’m not sure how many of those read my reviews to be honest) will find it a refreshing change of pace from typical Hollywood films. Those who aren’t can rest assured that they won’t feel too preached to during the course of the film. However to both sides I can say that the movie is merely average and won’t really tell a story with characters you can get to know and relate to. Perhaps that would have been the miracle this film needed.

WHY RENT THIS: An inspiring story. Quinn does a nice job as does MacDowell.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film meant for a Christian audience; can be preachy in places. Overdoes the sentimentality.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes might be a little bit rough on the young and impressionable. There are also some medical scenes that are a bit strong and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the pastors in the film are played by real-life pastors. The weight trainer in the film is played by Jon Abbate’s real-life trainer.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $408,159 on an unreported production budget; I think it’s likely the movie barely broke even or possibly even made a little bit of money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian’s Song

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cafe