LDS Cinema has a lot of potential. With recent films like The Saratov Approach and Saints and Soldiers enjoying mainstream success and critical acclaim both inside outside of the LDS community, as well as high profile parodies like The Book of Mormon, it seems like the limelight is ready for us. The question is: are we ready for the limelight?
Around 1999, following the moderate mainstream success of God’s Army, LDS Cinema began to blossom. LDS artsits began to make films that explored different facets of LDS life and culture. Some of them were specifically endorsed by the church, and others were not. For this piece, I will be reviewing just a few of the more notable Mormon movies that have been released over the last few decades (more will come later). However, I am a really nice guy, and it is impossible for me to publish a negative review of anything (well, except for that time I wrote Charmin about their ‘pooping bears’ ad campaign).
So, I’ve asked my unfettered, ferocious alter ego Tomas to help me with the movie review. Together we are going to try and paint a realistic picture of the movies we have chosen to review. Let us begin!
Movie: God’s Army
Summary: A young LDS convert decides to go on a mission. There, he learns a lot about livin’ and a little ‘bout love (even though missionaries aren’t supposed to). His companion, a pretentious former filmmaker, teaches him how to sacrifice himself to God, while his fellow housemates conspire on who they will next photograph while on the toilet.
Thomas: The filmmaker, Richard Dutcher, makes a mission story that is not completely whitewashed or solely faith promoting. It portrays imperfect people making less than perfect decisions, but trying hard to do what is best. It also is a story about finding faith among trails.
Tomás: So this is the reason why I hate God’s Army: It’s the story of an aimless doofus who goes on a mission, falls in love with a sister that is way smarter than him, and then marries her. The whole scene where the sister asks the guy what his favorite books are, and he names off the standard works…it just makes me want to dropkick that dude off the side of the Grand Canyon. They should rename the movie God’s Army: Lower Your Standards.
Movie: God’s Army 2: States of Grace
Summary: A story about a rough-around-the-edges young man who decides to serve a Mormon mission. His first companion is a squirrely, holier-than-thou twerp from Utah who ends up sleeping with his former-porn star neighbor. They meet enough odd people to realize that the world is a madhouse and we all need Jesus, really bad.
Thomas: Dutcher tried to explore some challenging themes in this film. I am glad a Mormon filmmaker decided to take on something tougher than a basketball game or an uncomfortable rejection.
Tomás: Yeah, OK. Dutcher didn’t just try to take on some tough themes. He took on all challenging themes, ever.The plot of God’s Army 2: States of Grace was probably lifted from a Maury Povich episode-…Or a Stefan club description.
In short, States of Grace: Save the drama for yo’ mamma.
Movie: Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration
Summary: A film portrayal of the turbulent, inspiring life of the prophet Joseph Smith.
Thomas: This movie gives me lots of warm fuzzies. My warm fuzzy jar is filled every time I watch it. It reminds me of the sacrifices made by Joseph Smith, and helps me appreciate the beginnings of my faith.
Tomás: I don’t know how someone could watch this movie and NOT think Mormons worship Joseph Smith. I mean, not only was he a prophet, he was an insanely nice, charismatic, muscular, attractive dude! Not only did they portray him without any major flaws, but they showed a scene or two where he hits a baseball into the stratosphere and stick pulls a guy into oblivion! They completely forgot the scene where Joseph rescued hundreds of children in the burning orphanage, defeated Hitler in World War 2, thwarted the Cuban Missile Crisis, and put Lucifer in a headlock. I mean, they could have at least shown a scene where he stubbed his toe on the box holding the golden plates and ALMOST swore, so that we could at least relate with him.
Movie: The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd
Summary: In some unspecified location in the Americas, a civilization finishes out the pride cycle and ripens itself unto destruction. Meanwhile, a Ben Stiller lookin’ guy named Jacob forsakes his family so that he can help build set pieces for a Nephite heavy metal singer named Kohor. Christ comes at the end, and there is much rejoicing.
Thomas: The Testaments may be the only feature length film to portray Christ’s visit to the Americas. It is hard not to feel inspired by the storyline. The final scene, when Christ heals Jacob’s father, is very touching. The movie is a tender reminder that Christ knows each one of us individually.
Tomás: This movie makes my blood boil. First of all: We know they are in the Americas somewhere, right? So all of the actors have darker skin. However, it is clear that all of the major protagonists have heavy makeup and spray tans, while the other actors seem to be more authentically ‘American’. Out of the millions of Latin American members, could they not have picked a darker skinned protagonist? Instead it ends up like West Side Story- (which featured authentically Hispanic ensemble actors and white leads with makeup to make them look darker, even in the Hispanic roles), except The Testaments has no singing, no dancing: just a whole lot of suck. Secondly: Any live action movie that features a monkey as a main character should send you fleeing in the other direction. I have never wanted to eat a monkey before, but after watching The Testaments, I was thinking about different ways I could roast that thing. Thirdly: I am starting to notice a pattern here in Mormon movies: lame, aimless slackers somehow manage to end up with really nice, sweet, spiritual girls. While I will give credit for the realism here of the writers of The Testaments, I could have used something a little less realistic here.
So, LDS filmmakers- let this be your clarion call. We are still waiting for our Mormon Renaissance! Look out for more reviews from Thomas and Tomás in the future.
I’m with Tomás. Except the first time I saw the Testaments I cried buckets. BUCKETS.
Don’t tell anyone…but Tomás cried too. Of course it was the production values that made him weep.
No, that scene where that guy gets his vision restored. The tears spring forth like waterfalls.
YES! That is exactly the moment I lost it. So many feels.
Ah, Testaments! I was working retail at the Orem LDS Distribution Center when the Church released it on DVD for the general membership to own and we had one of the two TVs playing it on a CONSTANT loop. Let me tell you, when you’ve seen a movie as bad as Testaments dozens of times in a row it actually begins to pick up a certain charm. There are some bad movies that are so bad that nothing can save them, but Testaments is a _perfect_ Mystery Science Theater 3000/Rifftrax movie.
Some of my favorite highlights:
* During the chaos after the kingmen take over and Helam is rushing through “Zarahemlish” looking for his son it is _raining straw._ Like some bale of hay down the next street over exploded for some reason. Or perhaps the volcanoes around Zarahelmlish are full of alfalfa and are now erupting?
* Before his murder, the prophet walks away from Helam who begins a short two-minute discussions with his son who has come to warn the believers. After Helam realizes the danger, he rushes from his son, _racing_ through the jungle to try and catch up to the poor prophet who has been walking at a slow leisurely pace over the past few minutes. They actually cut back and forth between the two for a bit: walking, running!, walking, running!, walking, running! Oh noes!! Helam was too late! If only he had _walked_ instead of run he might have been able to catch up!
* The marketplace of Zarahemlish does not seem to operate on any system of economics that I am familiar with. It is _packed_ with merchants and their wares but nobody pays for anything or asks for anything. And it has these few people who only waves giants flags around the central water fountain (which is also serving no discernable purpose): why do they do this? “My dad works at the market! He’s a flag-waver! Every day he’s out there helping provide for his family by waving a giant piece of fabric around. We’re so proud of him.”
* With the sheer amount of feathers worn by the costuming it’s a miracle that there are any birds left anywhere within a hundred miles of Zarahemlish.
* The motivations of the “villain” are really, REALLY odd when you watch the film focusing on him as a character and thinking about why he’s doing what he’s doing. He hires Helam’s son because he wants “immortality” on a stela. He knows that the boy’s loyalties are divided and still invites him on a hunt with the other secret kingmen where the boy might overhear something he shouldn’t. Which he does, at which point the villain sends the boy to warn the believers while his friends move on to kill the prophet. To try and keep the court case from being decided he sends the boy away so he can’t testify (oh what? Kohor already showed initiative that he wanted the prophet to not be killed by sending the boy to warn him!). And he launches into his masterful defense of, “The prophet couldn’t have been killed by these guys here because there is no Messiah.” To which Helam stands up with the stunning response of, “Nuh-uh, there IS a Messiah, so there! Also, I have some material evidence.” All of which forces Kohor to begin his takeover of the government. Which it seems is what he was planning to do all along anyways? So is Kohor a supervillain with plots within plots, because it seems to me that he’s just a bad guy who makes every decision as a character based on furthering the plot and not because it makes any sense to him personally.
It’s a terribly awesome bad movie.
Love this response. Also, when the prophet is killed, there is some sort of weird roar, like a dinosaur or something. Remember that?
“To Kohor, the jaguar is beauty.”
ohmygoodness! The Stefan meme made me laugh SO HARD! haha loved it all!
I LOVE THIS.
99.9% of “Mormon” movies are pretty lousy. Thank goodness I got out of Utah and don’t have to put up with everyone talking about how funny “The RM” of “The Home Teachers” are.
The best thing about Testaments is how the bad guy, Kohor is the same incredibly over the top actor that plays the bad guy in the 80’s worst movie, “The Warriors”. Pretty sure that’s the guy’s whole career.
I haven’t seen any of these movies. I think I now actually want to see them more – for the amusement factor.
I’m going to put on my psychoanalysis glasses here and contend that the consistent portrayal of “lame, aimless slackers somehow manag[ing] to end up with really nice, sweet, spiritual girls” has to do with sub-conscious guilt about gender inequality in the church.
It connects with the well-worn trope that women never serve in administrative leadership/hold the priesthood because they’re so much better than men. Men need those things so they can bring their spirituality up to the level of women. Of course this line of thinking has no bearing with reality, but it does help the cognitive dissonance go down easier.
I look forward to your alert ego’s review of The Saratov Approach. I wasn’t a huge fan. Although it had some good parts, the ending didn’t quite satisfy me. I would go into more detail, but I don’t want to reveal spoilers.