Thursday, November 6, 2014

Mormons at the Movies



" One can still find movies...that entertain and uplift" 
- Elder M. Russell Ballard1
             





         Utah Mormons love a lot of things, but if there’s one thing we definitely love, it’s movies. Recently the Church came out with its own movie, a feature-length documentary entitled Meet the Mormons. This film is a milestone in both Mormon history and the history of cinema. Never before has the Church been officially represented on the silver screen.




            But before there was Meet the Mormons, a number of other Mormon films made their way to a theater near you, and although most so-called “Mormon” films are not actually produced by the Church, there have been a number of movies with Mormon subject matter that are both artistic and uplifting. (There are also plenty that are downright awful, but why focus on the negative, right?) So in case you’ve already “met the Mormons,” or you’re just looking for a wholesome movie to watch over the weekend, let me suggest some great LDS films for your viewing pleasure. I’ve selected five films, each in a different genre, that I think constitute the best of LDS cinema. Here are my top picks and the reasons they each deserve their place at the top.



            Drama


            My pick: 17 Miracles 

            I remember learning about the Willie and Martin handcart companies when I was just a kid. As a teenager I went with the youth of our stake to Martin's Cove, Wyoming, where we participated in our own pioneer trek (ours was much shorter and much warmer than the original). As I learned about those pioneers who sacrificed everything for the gospel, I thought the pioneer trek would make a great movie. But I quickly brushed the idea aside and accepted the fact that no movie could ever do the story any justice. I was wrong! 17 Miracles portrays the story powerfully. The film chronicles the journey of Eli Savage, who guides a naïve and under-prepared group of saints across the American wilderness in the dead of winter. As these distressed pioneers pursue their homeland of Zion, they experience 17 miracles that help sustain them along their way.

Director T. C. Christensen gives the film a great reverence without being overly sentimental. Jasen Wade gives an incredible performance as Eli Savage, but every member of the cast really gives their all, as well. This is a movie that teaches lessons essential to the Mormon story and packs an emotional punch. If you haven’t seen it—rent it! Then watch and see if you can pick out each of the 17 miracles that occur along the trail. You may have to watch it again to make sure you got them all.


Comedy


My pick: The Best Two Years 

There was a time that Mormon moviemakers were turning out so many comedies that many got sick of them. But there are a handful out there that are worth your time and will leave you laughing. The Best Two Years definitely tops that list. The writing is sharp and witty, seamlessly depicting both the struggles and humor that exist in missionary life. There is some great music in the film, as well, with original songs composed by Michael McLean that do much to underscore the film’s mood and message. Kirby Heyborne (who starred in many Mormon films both before and after this) really disappears into his role as the awkward, naïve missionary Elder Calhoun. His performance delivers the bulk of the laughs, although the rest of the cast keeps up nicely. K. C. Clyde is great as Elder Rogers, a wayward missionary trying to regain his testimony who also serves as straight man to Elder Calhoun. While no movie has yet fully captured missionary life (which may be impossible since the experience is different for everyone) The Best Two Years is the funniest and most appealing of missionary flicks.


Action/Suspense


My pick: The Saratov Approach 

When you think of Mormon cinema, you don’t immediately think of action movies. But they’re out there! The most suspenseful of these is definitely the 2013 film The Saratov Approach. Corbin Allred and Maclain Nelson star as two real-life missionaries who were kidnapped and held for ransom in Russia in 1998. The film does an excellent job telling the missionaries’ story with gritty detail and realism. The camera work is superb, with an almost documentary-style feel throughout. The cast is great, with terrific performances not only from the two leads, but also from Bruce Newbold and Jennifer Erekson, who play the parents of Elder Propst, as well as Nikita Bogolyubov, who plays the sympathetic yet dangerous Russian native who lures the Elders into a trap.

The great thing about The Saratov Approach is its ability to tell a moving moral story while keeping it realistic. The film gives one of the most poignant messages on the Atonement ever depicted on film, and yet it is delivered with careful subtlety. The film also carefully balances the concepts of mercy and justice in regard to those who do bad things to good people. If you have not yet seen this film, watch it at the next available opportunity. It may be too intense for the little ones, but youth and adults will enjoy this powerful movie.


Documentary


My pick: Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land

For a film as good as this is, I’m surprised it hasn’t received more publicity. Like the recent Meet the Mormons, this documentary premiered at a BYU Education Week before going on to distribution2. It follows the journey of Lehi’s family as described in 1 Nephi and features the biggest names in gospel scholarship. Through scholarly narration and on-site footage, the viewer is guided down the trail Lehi’s family would have followed as they made their way out of the Holy Land and beyond. We are shown landmarks and locales that match exactly those described in the Book of Mormon. The most startling of these is a fertile strip of land on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula that has all the makings of the land Bountiful. The scholars are all engaging and offer cutting edge academic insight into the story of Lehi as well as offering spiritual perspectives. The film also features great original art by Joseph Brickey and beautiful music by Arlen Card and Nicholas Gasdik. For anyone interested in Book of Mormon archaeology, Journey of Faith is the film to see.


Romance


My pick: The Other Side of Heaven

This is another missionary movie, and with that in mind it seems an unlikely candidate for best romance. But The Other Side of Heaven is one of the most romantic Mormon movies out there. Christopher Gorham is excellent as Elder John Groberg, who goes on a mission to Tonga while keeping in touch with his sweetheart back home, played by none other than Anne Hathaway. These two do a great job of bringing heart and truth to their romance, especially considering their interactions consist mostly of narrating the letters sent back and forth by their characters. But their connection rings true and as you watch John go from one perilous episode to another, you want to see him make it out if only so he can see Jean once again. All this makes their eventual reunion the payoff it’s meant to be and you’re happy to see these two run off into the future together. So while there’s only one brief kiss in the entire film, The Other Side of Heaven is a romance that will tug at Mormon heartstrings for years to come.



So what do you think? Do you agree with my list? Do you have a favorite Mormon film that I failed to mention? Let me know in the comments below. 




...Thanks for reading!


Sources: 
1. Ballard, M. Russell. "Let Our Voices Be Heard." Ensign Nov. 2003: n. pag. Lds.org. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <https://www.lds.org/liahona/2003/11/let-our-voices-be-heard?lang=eng&query=let+our+voices+be+heard>.
2. "Journey of Faith Films - Book of Mormon Documentaries from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute." Journey of Faith Films RSS. The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2014. <http://journeyoffaithfilms.com/>.


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