LDS Film Festival 2011: Day 0/Day 1 Report

Brief reports from Wednesday/Thursday from the 2011 LDS Film Festival:

Midway To Heaven

Directed By: Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn (The Dance, The Book of Mormon Movie) is a long-time veteran of LDS film so it’s no surprise his directing debut is very polished and professional.

Based on the book by Dean Hughes, Midway To Heaven focuses on Ned Stevens, a 43-year-old widower who lives in a grief-induced haze until his college age daughter shows up with her new boyfriend and shakes things up.  Will Ned use this opportunity to jump back into the dating scene himself, or merely sabotage his daughter’s relationship instead, under the principle of ‘misery loves company’?

Sharp writing and dialogue, along with a director who knows how to craft scenes and work well with actors makes Midway To Heaven a success.   Probably the funniest LDS comedy since The RM, and the dramatic elements work well, too.

(Full review and analysis forthcoming.  The film is scheduled to hit local theaters on Feb 4th.)

My Grade: B+

The Book of Life

Director: Marco Lui

Life is Beautiful meets Saturday’s Warrior in this Italian movie from writer/director/actor Marco Lui.  Like fellow Italian Roberto Benigni, Marco Lui is adept at physical comedy (and uses jokes and humor to distract attention from serious situations).   This beautifully-shot Italian fable centers around spirits’ journey from the preexistence to mortal life and beyond.

Lui himself plays a spirit who receives training in the preexistence about how to use comedy and jokes as tools to be an effective teacher in preparation for life on Earth.  He meets a lovely female spirit playing the piano and the two of them start up a courtship.  Of course, their memories will be veiled once they both come down to Earth, and Marco will have to find the girl and start the courtship all over again before their brief, mortal time runs out.

The Book of Life is one of the most overtly LDS films in recent memory — a surprise anywhere, but certainly coming from Italy, where LDS members are few and LDS filmmakers even fewer.  The plot is basically a dramatization of the LDS Plan of Salvation, with many sections of the Book of Mormon quoted word-for-word in the film.   Stylistic film-making, and high energy performances keep The Book of Life from becoming a dull motion-picture-length Sunday School video.   The film is anchored by Marco’s performance, who throws himself into his “clown” role with both infectious enthusiasm and physical skill.

Like Saturday’s Warrior, the use of the preexistence as a plot point lends itself to some speculative elements that don’t stand up to doctrinal scrutiny — a little more problematic here, because The Book of Life is obviously meant to be a direct parable of the Plan of Salvation and could end up teaching the wrong lesson.  In Lui’s vision, our talents, future occupations, romantic encounters, and even our mortal life-span are preordained from our time in the preexistence — a principle that can have some dangerous implications when taken to the logical extremes.  However, the film is straight-forward and innocent, and families will probably be able to treat story elements as story rather than hard doctrine.

While Marco’s courtship of Chiarra is sweet, there’s one casting nitpick:  Chiarra is an “adult” of unspecified age in the film, but the actress playing her looks like she’s 16 (while Marco is 30) and this adds a slight (and, I’m sure, unintentional) “creepiness” factor to the relationship that undercuts the romance.

Many have wondered when LDS filmmaking would stretch beyond Utah into other countries and languages. The Book of Life is evidence that it has already started to happen.  Even better, The Book of Life is as pure a family film as you can get, with spiritual content and entertainment for both children and adults (provided everyone is okay with reading subtitles).

My Grade:  B+

A Christmas Wish

Director: Craig Clyde

Martha Evans and her three kids have been abandoned by her husband right before Christmas.  Starting her life over again in a new town, she takes a low wage job as a waitress in a diner.  She struggles to make ends meet as her car breaks down, her rental house falls through, her hotel manager tells her he’s kicking her out on Christmas Day, and her boss announces that the diner is going to be closing down after the holidays, anyway.  There seems to be no hope in sight — although friendly and compassionate locals show up to answer her prayers and help Martha and her kids have a merry Christmas after all.

A Christmas Wish has a pretty generic title (its original title “A Root Beer Christmas” was better) and the story is fairly generic too, having a Lifetime Channel made-for-TV movie feel about it that’s hard to overcome.   There’s good work from the reigning King of Mormon Cinema, K.C. Clyde (The Best Two Years, The Dance) and young, future Queen candidate Danielle Chuchran (You’re So Cupid, Minor Details), and I’m always glad to see Kristy Swanson again (I’m in the minority in preferring her original Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s), who does her best to put personality and sweetness into the lead role of Martha.

(As an aside: Kristy Swanson is an interesting test of the “Anne Hathaway Principle” — seeing if LDS audiences will support an actress in a clean family film regardless of her previous work, or judge her to be “impure”…)

The actors are game, but don’t have much to work with, however, as the script contains broad characterizations without nuance, dialogue that’s frequently too on-the-nose, and a contrived way of piling one difficulty after another on top of our poor heroine and her family beyond the point of believability.  (We’re asked to believe, for example, government construction workers would need to start work on Christmas Day such that Martha and her family would be kicked out of their hotel room.)   Martha’s husband is so broadly drawn as a villain he may as well have had a long, thin, black mustache to twirl while laughing maniacally.  In keeping with the “tragedy porn” approach within the film, his one scene in the movie is to show up and take away one of Martha’s kids on Christmas Eve.  A bit too over-the-top…

One of the sub-themes of the film is about faith and prayer, although this is the type of “religious” film that can frustrate both believer and non-believer: where God is directly credited with things in the film that even to believers are obvious He didn’t really have much to do with.

A Christmas Wish has some good moments and a positive message, but is a little too “Lifetime-y” and religiously shallow to recommend whole-heartedly.

My Grade: C+