If you've never heard of The Singles Ward or God's Army, chances are you're either not LDS or you've been living in a cave for the past few years. Mormon filmmakers have been capitalizing on our culture for some time now.
There are a truckload of these movies. So many in fact that if your DVD collection only consisted of LDS produced films, you'd need a decent sized shelf to hold them all.
And more are coming.
The best of the bunch is Saints and Soldiers, one of the most profoundly moving films on faith and war I've ever seen. This is the pinnacle of Mormon filmmaking, folks. Every aspect of the production is as good as, if not better than, any pricey Hollywood-studio-produced summer extravaganza.
Much of the credit goes to Ryan Little, the film's director, cinematographer, and co-producer. Little is one of those rare artists who possesses equal portions of talent, vision, and humility.
I knew Ryan back at BYU. You can't not like this guy. He's one of the most sincerely friendly people you'll ever meet. A great collaborator.
Which explains why the actors' performances in the film are so believable. Ryan knows real human emotion when he sees it.
Special kudos go to Corbin Allred, who plays American soldier and sharpshooter Nathan Greer, or as his commanding officer likes to call him, Deacon.
You see, Greer is LDS, and since he served his mission in Germany before the war, he holds a special place in his heart for the people he's attacking.
It's an inner turmoil that could have been pushed to the point of melodrama. But Allred delivers with subtle grace, hitting every emotional peak with the same ease and accuracy that he supposedly wields with his rifle.
Applause also goes to the nearly unrecognizable Kirby Heyborne, a familiar face in Mormon cinema who breaks any mold his other films may have put him in. Heyborne is Flight Sgt, Oberon Winley, a fiery English intelligence officer who provides the film with its rising sense of urgency.
To ensure the film faithfully represented World War II combat, Little used authentic period uniforms and shot much of the film with the camera on his shoulder. The result is battle sequences that are terrifyingly realistic. Little and editor Wynn Hougaard put you in the action.
But the crown jewel of this film is the score by J Bateman and Bart Hendrickson. Because I don't know musical terms, I won't even begin to try and explain why it's great. I just know it is. I just know it works. It's the type of music I'd buy on CD and listen to in my car. It reminded me of Glory, that right mix of military cadence and gentle human themes.
So in short, you must see this film.
But don't take my word for it. Check out how Saints and Soldiers has faired at recent film festivals:
Best Picture: San Diego Film Festival
Best Picture: Sacramento Festival of Cinema
Best Picture: Long Beach International Film Festival
Best Picture: Marco Island Film Festival
Best Picture: Ojai Film Festival
Best Picture: Heartland Film Festival
So mark your calendars. It hits theaters August 6. For more information go to www.saintsandsoldiers.com.
Another film to watch out for is the soon-to-be-released Sons of Provo. Many of you have already heard the music from this film. The album has been selling like hotcakes all over Utah for several months now.
For the uninformed, Sons of Provo is a mockumentary (i.e. fake documentary) about the rise and brief fall of Everclean, an LDS boy band from Provo, Utah. Like most boy bands, the boys of Everclean rely on their harmonies, dance moves, and flashy outfits to climb their way to the top.
But unlike other bands, the boys of Everclean are...well, clean. They don't cuss, drink, or fool around with the ladies. They're straight arrows. Or at least they think they are.
And to ensure no one doubts their sincerity, their music preaches what they practice. Songs like Word of Wizzum and Dang, Fetch, Oh My Heck parody both traditional hip hop and unique aspects of Mormon culture without being sacrilegious.
The lyrics are hilarious. I laughed out loud several times. But I was most impressed to learn that it was the actors singing and not professional vocal artists. These guys can really sing.
Will Swenson, whom I tolerated in The Singles Ward and The R.M., shines bright here. It's his best comic turn yet. His portrayal of Will, the self-centered and self-appointed leader of the band, is a master stroke of both dead-pan humor and improvisational comedy.
And why improvisational comedy? Well, because much of the film's dialogue was made up on the spot. Rather than write a complete script, Swenson and co-author Peter Brown wrote scene outlines, basically explaining the purpose and direction of each scene. Then the cameras started rolling and the actors started talking.
The result is very natural dialogue. It feels like a real documentary.
If you've seen any of Christopher Guest's films, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Sons of Provo is a cleaner and much funnier version of This is Spinal Tap.
Kirby Heyborne (this guy is everywhere) is also bust-a-gut funny as the newest and most tepid member of the band. When he's not singing or dancing, Kirby's either putting in hours at the scrapbook store or cleaning up after and cooking for his roommates. In short, he's every Molly Mormon's dream. But more importantly, he's the perfect foil to Swenson's unrighteous daddy mack dominion. Together these two make funny look easy.
For more information on the album go to www.sonsofprovo.com. You won't find any information about the film there however. I'm hoping they post that as soon as they know when it's going to be released. That's still undecided.
But these aren't the only two grapes on the vine. More Mormon movies are on the way. For a complete list go to www.ldsfilm.com. Some sound promising. Others not so much.
And just for fun, here's my opinion of previous films.
Thumbs up. Richard Dutcher got the ball rolling. And he can act too. But that mission president...
The Singles Ward
Thumbs up. But I can only watch this one once. Some of the acting hurt me. Hurt me real bad.
Sorry, ladies. I'm giving this one a big thumbs down. A few of the supporting roles were so poorly acted that I thought that clips of bad screen tests had been inserted directly into the film. Let me guess, the producer's wife always wanted to be a movie star.
Thumbs up. But if not for Kirby Heyborne, this would be thumbs way way down. What was the deal with that attorney in the court room scene? Did that guy think he was Jim Carrey? News flash, pal: Jim Carrey you ain't!
The Other Side of Heaven
Thumbs up. The native missionary companion (Feki) made this film for me. That guy rocked. Hurrah for Israel indeed!
Yeah yeah. This one isn't exactly a Mormon movie. But it was made by Mormons. I give it a very unenthusiastic thumbs up. And that's only because my expectations were very high. I expected to be rolling in the aisles. But frankly I found much of this movie annoying. Opening credits: cool. Napoleon lying about having a girlfriend out of state: uncool. I'm supposed to like this guy, right?
And now, some movies I haven't seen.
Heard mostly good things.
The Book of Mormon Movie
My mother, who typically likes what she watches, said this was "Awful awful awful awful awful awful." That's a direct quote, folks.
Pride and Prejudice
Heard good things.
The Home Teachers
Heard terrible things. Bad bad bad. Not funny. Not funny. Not funny.
I know some of the actors in this movie. By their own admission this movie is bad bad bad.
The Work and the Story
Again, I know some of the actors in this one. Their parts were apparently funny. Everything else: not funny. My biggest beef with this film is it's premise. It's -- how do I say it? -- dumb.
The Best Two Years
Heard good things. And is it just me or do these missionaries look thirty years old?
So there you have it. My take on Mormon cinema. Hopefully it will last. It keeps getting better. Oh, and look out for God's Army 2. I heard that was coming out soon too. But don't ask me why they made it. I have no idea. Who wants to see that? As the boys of Everclean might say, "That's whack, Daddy-O."
Copyright © 2004 by Aaron Johnston
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