While most low-budget independently released feature films find it nearly impossible these days to garner any kind of play in the theatrical marketplace, instead going straight to Video On Demand, streaming sites or Redbox-style retail DVD rentals and sales, there is one sub-genre of such pictures that has seen a slow but steady increase over the past two decades. That’s Evangelical Christian-oriented movies.

Whether they’re heavy-handed proselytizing screeds masquerading as even-handed documentaries or simply old-fashioned morality plays covered in a waxy layer of modern-day born-again rhetoric, this cottage industry has found a lucrative niche in advertising to, and through, Fundamentalist churches, especially in small towns and rural areas where the cultural influence of such houses of worship is unusually outsized. By creating fairly polished entertainment that proudly wears its religious affiliation on its sleeve, such movies inherently set themselves up in opposition to Hollywood’s standard-issue “secular” fare.

This motivates the faithful to mobilize and support such features which would otherwise routinely go virtually unnoticed, and unrecouped, were it not for the fervor and thus the reliable patronage of their target demographic.

 

The historic Mars Theatre in Springfield, just a half-hour drive from Savannah’s city limits, is almost tailor-made for such fare. It’s a venue of a little over 220 seats that caters to locals and the occasional guests from the surrounding areas by programming country, blues and gospel concerts along with family-oriented, mainstream movies and a decent number of Christian-themed indie flicks.

The latest such booking at the Mars is the recently-released “Indivisible,” which plays there once daily on Dec. 13, 14 and 16. The tale of a newly trained Army chaplain whose harsh and debilitating tour of duty in Iraq wears mightily on his wife and three young kids. Based on an actual Army chaplain who spent time at nearby Fort Stewart, “Indivisible” has been praised by Forbes Magazine as “a step up from many similar films,” yet panned by the Hollywood Reporter as an earnest but almost absurdly simplistic portrait of an extremely complex and multifaceted issue.

“It would be more at home in the rec rooms of churches than in movie theaters,” says the magazine.

That, argues their critic, is because today’s “faith-based” cinema is entirely different from the challenging, open-ended Christian-themed films of yesteryear, which often left questions in the minds of their viewers, begging them to search their own souls and minds for evidence of a personal revelation or perhaps a rejection of faith in a supreme being. However, the overwhelming majority of modern-day Christian movies offer pat answers designed to reward the existing faithful and in essence disregard those who have yet, or choose not, to embrace that belief system.

In other words, if you are not already “saved,” you may find it hard to relate to this drama that most are calling both extremely predictable and rather forgettable. Then again, if you are, you might just love it. The film’s cast does include a few folks who previously appeared on the popular TV series “Gray’s Anatomy,” so if you’ve been jonesing for a reunion, this might be the closest thing you’re gonna get. Admission and times for all our Film Scene listings can be found in the accompanying sidebar.

Poppins is back

A week later, starting on Dec. 20, the Mars presents a lengthy run of Walt Disney’s brand-new romantic musical fantasy “Mary Poppins Returns,” a sequel to the beloved 1964 romantic fantasy musical which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Appearing almost 55 years since the first film, Dick Van Dyke is the only cast member to appear in both films, and in this one, the 93-year-old actor plays the son of his original character!

Three years in the making, the film features a fairly stellar cast, including Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury and David Warner. One of the most highly anticipated movies of the holiday season, no critics have published advance reviews of the film to date, which could either be read as a positive sign, meaning the studio knows they have a massive hit on their hands and want a big reveal on it’s Dec. 19 nationwide opening or as a negative one, meaning they know it is a disappointing dud and are hoping to pack as many people in on opening weekend before any harsh reviews come to light.

Either way, this lighthearted, family-oriented lark has been in the works for almost 20 years and will likely draw massive crowds, buzz or no buzz.

 

The undocumented

On Dec. 16, local film organization CinemaSavannah presents another recently released foreign film for one show only in the auditorium of the Jewish Educational Alliance. “Most Beautiful Island” is the directorial debut of Ana Asensio, a Spanish thespian who not only stars in the film but also wrote, produced and directed it, as well.

A psychological thriller dealing with the dangers faced by undocumented female immigrants to the U.S., it takes place in New York City during one harrowing day in the life of just such an immigrant. This ominous allegory has been likened to the early works of Roman Polanski and wound up talking home the coveted Grand Jury Prize at the esteemed SXSW Austin Film Festival. The film is in English, Spanish and Russian, with English subtitles where applicable. Showtime is 4 p.m., with seating beginning at 3:30 p.m. Note that all CinemaSavannah events are cash only.

 

Bizarre Christmas

A few nights later on Dec. 19, the Psychotronic Film Society’s long-running Wednesday series of underappreciated or marginalized feature films from around the world continues at the Sentient Bean Coffeehouse on Forsyth Park with a special holiday screening of one of the strangest and most surreal Christmas-themed movies ever made: The super-freaky 1959 Mexican children’s adventure-comedy “Santa Claus,” also known as “Santa Claus vs The Devil.”

Directed by legendary Cuban-born Mexican filmmaker Rene Cardona —  whose unusually varied filmography includes over 140 feature films which range from the critically praised 1976 docudrama “Alive!” to such bizarre Drive-In schlock as 1969’s “Night of the Bloody Apes” and 1964’s infamous “Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy.” This twisted picture defies easy description. It’s a variation on the traditional Christmas story in which Santa lives not at the North Pole but rather in outer space, and he must attempt to defeat a red, horned demon named Pitch who is sent by Lucifer to murder Santa and thus end Christmas forever.

A hallucinogenic mess of a movie that’s one part standard-issue Yuletide cheer and three parts bad acid trip, the American theatrical rights to the original Spanish language film were purchased for next to nothing by fabled Florida-based huckster K. Gordon Murray, who dubbed it cheaply into English and released it every Christmas season for well over a decade in drive-ins and run-down inner-city theaters, where it confused parents, scared kids and made a small fortune for the low-rent impresario. In 1990, it was memorably lampooned by the cast of TV’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it’s rarely seen in public these days.

The PFS of SAV will screen the best-quality English language print of this guilty pleasure still known to exist. 8 p.m. showtime, with a full award-winning vegetarian dinner menu available and discounts on craft beer and organic wine during the show.

 

MUSICAL HOLIDAY

And finally, Tybee Island’s historic Post Theater screens the famed 1944 MGM musical “Meet Me in St. Louis” on Dec. 20. The film, which stars Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Tom Drake, June Lockhart, Joan Carroll and many more was a massive hit for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and marked the debut of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which almost instantly became a holiday standard and remains so to this day.

Based on a series of short stories published by the New Yorker Magazine, it’s a song-packed family drama that takes place in 1903 St. Louis, and holds the distinction of earning a 100 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com. It’s also regarded as one of the most beautiful examples of Technicolor cinematography ever created. Showtime 7 p.m., with optional pre-show dinner available for advance reservation at a popular restaurant just a few blocks from the venue (see the post’s website for more information).

 

Until next issue, see you at the movies, be kind to those around you and don’t forget to turn off that cell phone.

Jim Reed directs the Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah.