Four pieces of Mormon cinema news

This fall will see a flurry of minor but important developments in the evolution of Mormon cinema. I don’t know how things look on the ground in Utah (there were a few movies this year whose release dates came and went and didn’t blip my radar at all), but as far as I can tell we’re in a quiet period for the field so I’m pleased to see this much activity.

Here are the headlines: Randy Astle has started a networking site for filmmakers; Christian Vuissa’s new film is coming out this fall; the indie film “White on Rice,” by Mormon David Boyle,  is gaining some buzz; and the Audience Alliance’s first film “Broken Hill” will test Kieth Merrill’s hope for a family-friendly alternative to Hollywood.

Full details after the jump.

Networking site for LDS filmmakers

LDS filmmaker and critic/historian Randy Astle has started up a network for LDS filmmakers called the LDS Filmmakers’ Network. According to Randy, the site is “open to all Latter-day Saints over 18 years of age regardless of professional experience, regardless of whether their films are gospel-themed or mainstream.” It’s uses the Ning social network platform, which is a pretty good idea, in my opinion.  Ning is pretty decent platform for this sort of thing, that is special interest but casts a wide enough net to generate enough network activity for it to be worth joining. For example, Ning has been a good platform for small private high schools, churches and hobby groups. It goes beyond just what you can do with Google or Yahoo! groups (which are basically listservs at heart) with features for member blogs, event management, photo and video uploading, bulletin board discussions, etc.

As Randy notes, “Members are asked to join one geographical group to let others know where they live. There are then 66 professional groups with categories like directors, producers, screenwriters, actors, and more technical positions like motion capture specialists, caterers, location managers, animal wranglers, accountants, musicians, choreographers, gaffers, and everything else both above and below the line.”

As with any social networking endeavor the trick will be to get enough people sign up that it reaches that critical mass where there are enough active users to generate a decent amount of activity. Considering the collaborative nature of filmmaking, it seems like the type of project that could have some success.

Christian Vuissa’s next film

LDS Film Festival creator Christian Vuissa’s seventh film “One Good Man: Life as a Latter-Day Dad” (formerly titled “Father in Israel”) hits Utah theaters on Oct. 9. Here’s the thing: if it gets a strong opening, it will screen for longer in Utah. I mean, yes, you can always pick it up on DVD, but the communal nature of seeing a film like this is not to be underestimated. My favorite Mormon arts experience still has to be seeing New York Doll with a group of Mormons and punks in San Francisco.

The film had some good buzz around it when it debuted at the LDS Film Festival earlier this year. My sister Katherine reviewed it for Mormon Artist. It will be interesting to see how it does in the theaters. LDS Film.com, sadly, no longer updates box office data and Box Office Mojo appears not to collect data on films with such limited releases.

Mormon indie director’s “White on Rice”

Dave Boyle follows up his film debut “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” with “White on Rice.” Screenings are set so far for the LA area and Utah in September. The film features Hiroshi Watanabe as a goofy, freshly divorced guy living with his sister. That’s not the best way to describe the premise so check out the site and watch the trailer and read the reviews. Also: what we’re seeing with Boyle, imo, is a somewhat particularly Mormon phenomenon — that of the foreign RM who finds a way to make a career/art/continuing relationship with the country/region/language where he served. This type of quirk has served Jared and Jerusha Hess well so it’ll be interesting to see if Boyle can gain some traction. Sweet indie quirk seems like a natural fit for creative cosmopolitan Mormon types.

Audience Alliance’s first project debuts

Audience Alliance‘s attempt at a family-friendly, audience-driven and supported model for filmmaking gets its first test with the release of “Broken Hill.” The film is billed as a inspiring musical drama that’s based on a true story and  features a sheepherder’s son from the Australian Outback who loves classical music and through a series of plot points that I won’t detail here culminates in a prison concert. And it that sounds like a Hallmark special, well, that’s sorta the point.  “Broken Hill” opens Sept. 11 in Salt Lake City, Fresno, Dallas and Greenville, SC. Check the film’s website for details.  Kieth Merrill is the main figure behind Audience Alliance so it will be interesting to see if the pro-family formula wins over an Evangelical audience.

12 thoughts on “Four pieces of Mormon cinema news”

  1. While I hate to say it, I’m very pessimistic about the chances for the “Audience Alliance.”

    While the conservative Christian portion of the audience should support films like this, I doubt they actually will in the numbers needed to make a difference. My doubt is simply because I think when it comes right down to it, much of the group that complains about the violence, sex, drugs, etc. in film is hypocritical — it suits them politically to make charges, but they find ways to excuse their feelings and go to the films anyway.

    I am also very suspicious about the quality of the films that will get produced. Too often the audience in this group reads conflict as violence, and attraction as sex, etc., so that film makers, when they get feedback about film, end up removing all the real drama from the films, leaving melodrama in its place. I have no interest in films of the quality of cable’s Lifetime channel.

  2. I wouldn’t expect that all of AMV’s readership (or even mosts) would be the natural audience for Merrill’s project. It doesn’t sound like my kind of flick either, but I do think that it’s an interesting experiment and hope that it reaches those who it’s trying to reach.

  3. Thanks for this update, William. I’m excited about the networking group. That’s just the sort of thing I’ve been thinking about lately. I remember discussions about a need for it from the last two festivals, it seems. I’ve actually been planning to post about the role of networking in Mormon filmmaking, but I’m up to my eyeballs in church work, house work, work-work, and school work right now. Just squeezing family time in is tough enough right now. Oh well. This too shall pass.

    Does anyone know why Christian changed the name of his film? I’m just curious because I liked the other title better.

    I’m hoping to have a short documentary type film finished in the next month or so, also by way of update. I still have to get some permissions, so I won’t say much about it, but it was pretty spur-of-the-moment, so I’m hoping it turns out all right. Nothing to compare to what we’ve seen from others recently, I’m sure.

  4. I liked the “Father in Israel” title better too, but it sort of a complicated title to explain and the new title, while very generic, allows for a nice subtitle that, perhaps, better captures what the film is about.

    Make sure you drop me a line when your documentary is read for some publicity.

  5. Covenant Communications has sent me a screener copy of “One Good Man” which I will try to have seen and posted on before it’s release date in early October. I’m opening a show next week, so it will be later rather than sooner.

  6. About the new title: Christian indicated that his distributor was looking for something a little more accessible to a broader LDS audience. Kind of like Wm said–something that doesn’t take a lot of explaining. I wasn’t that into the name change, but the new title is growing on me.

  7. Broken Hill opened on Sept. 11, 2009. 12 Utah theatres, 24 in Texas, 1 in CA (Fresno), 10 in Carolinas.
    Overall, pretty good reviews.
    Dagen Merrill, writer/director. (Keith Merrill’s son, he got some national attention as a contestant on Project Greenlight in 2003, his feature film debut was Beneath (2007), a straight-to-DVD thriller which got poor reviews.
    Chris Wyatt, producer. (He was one of the producers of Napoloen Dynamite, and has produced several films with Mormon/Utah directors since, although all have been straight-to-DVD at best).

    Salt Lake Tribune (Sean Means)
    3/4 stars

    Deseret News (Jeff Vice)
    2.5/4 stars

    McClatchy Newspapers (Rick Bentley)
    A-

    Gannett Newspaper Chain (James Ward)
    Negative review

    Dallas Morning News (Cary Darling)
    3.5/5 stars

    I pasted the reviews on the AML discussion board.
    http://forums.mormonletters.org/yaf_postst783_MERRILL-Broken-Hill.aspx

  8. Mormon filmaker David Boyle directed and co-wrote “White on Rice”, his second feature film, which had a limited release on Sept. 11, 2009. It currently is playing in four theaters in California (San Franscico and Los Angeles), where it has done well, avaraging over $4000 a week per theater. It opens in two Utah theaters on September 25, and in Hawaii on October 30. It is a fish-out-of-water tale of a hapless Japanese divorcee who moves to the US to live with his sister, and then becomes roommate with a beautiful girl. The actors are Japanese and Asian-Americans, some of the dialogue is in Japanese. Boyle speaks Japanese, which he learned while serving a mission in Australia. He studied film at BYU. The film stars Hiroshi Watanabe (Letters from Iwo Jima). Boyle previously wrote/directed “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” in 2006. Budget: Less than one million. Co-writer, Joel Clark, is a British comedian. He worked for hire, he only met Boyle once.

    Reviews:
    San Francisco Chronicle
    Walter Addiego, Chronicle Staff Writer, Sept. 18. 4 stars (out of five-little man clapping)
    A cockeyed tale about a Japanese nebbish in suburban America, “White on Rice” will wring some laughs out of anyone but the most humor-impaired. All you need is a willingness to put up with another infantile adult male movie character, and a taste for goofball, “Napoleon Dynamite” humor.
    Our 40-year-old hero, Jimmy (Hiroshi Watanabe), bunks with his 10-year-old genius nephew (Justin Kwong), who’s clearly the more mature of the pair. Dumped by his wife in Tokyo, Jimmy now lives in the United States with his doting sister (the single-named Nae), and her dyspeptic businessman-husband (Mio Takada).
    Jimmy wants a new wife, but he’s socially clueless and his English has its ups and downs, so he turns for advice to his cool friend Tim (James Kyson Lee). Unfortunately, Jimmy has his eye on the acerbic Ramona (Lynn Chen). He’s not her type, to put it mildly, and she’s interested in Tim. There’s another plot strand involving Jimmy’s love of dinosaurs and urgent need for employment.
    Director Dave Boyle (“Big Dreams Little Tokyo”) has said that Jimmy and company wouldn’t be out of place in the funny pages, and he’s right.
    Watanabe’s appealing work compensates for some of the film’s obvious budget limitations. And as usual with goofball humor, there are jokes here that land with a thud.
    Fans of horror icon Bruce Campbell will be happy to learn that he provides one of the voices in the film’s parody of a cheesy samurai movie.

    Los Angeles Times
    Kevin Thomas, Sept. 11, 2009.
    Buffoonery, and not in a good way
    It’s revealing that writer-director Dave Boyle has said that in a way he fulfilled his lifelong ambition to be a cartoonist with the live-action “White on Rice” because his people in this wan, trite and increasingly silly comedy are little more than stick figures.
    Hiroshi Watanabe stars as Jimmy, a feckless, unemployed 40-year-old divorced man living with his sister Aiko (Nae) and his disapproving brother-in-law Tak (Mio Takada) in their suburban Salt Lake City home. The film opens amusingly with the family watching a badly dubbed lowbrow samurai movie in which Jimmy had starred years before, but it swiftly becomes draggy and uninspired.
    The film reaches its nadir when Tak slips on the kitchen floor where Jimmy has been doing an exceedingly messy job of peeling carrots, falling right into the knife Jimmy has been using. Rather than calling 911, Jimmy puts the seriously wounded Tak into a wheelbarrow, apparently headed for a hospital. Jimmy proceeds to paint himself as a hero when actually it is a passing motorist who saves the day. This act of stupidity compounded by self-promotion is beyond talented comedian Watanabe to redeem with humor — let alone the picture itself.

    Variety: Its amusingly off-kilter humor underserved by pedestrian packaging, Dave Boyle’s sophomore feature, “White on Rice,” is the kind of comedy that hinges on a protagonist near-imbecilic in all matters social, physical and especially romantic. Focusing on a Japanese emigre whose rudimentary English is the least of his shortcomings, this genial effort scores laughs but could have used some of the presentational snap of not-dissimilar exercises like “Napoleon Dynamite.” Self-distributing later this year, the low-budgeter has modest theatrical prospects that should presage improved ancillary exposure. Hajime, aka Jimmy (Hiroshi Watanabe), is a 40-year-old odd-jobber and bit-part actor (glimpsed in a mock samurai pic dubbed by Bruce Campbell and Pepe Serna) who moved to the U.S. when his ex-wife stopped taking care of him in Tokyo. Living with tolerant sister Aiko (Nae) and brainiac nephew Bob (Justin Kwong), he’s a torment — even a health hazard — to his brother-in-law, Tak (Mio Takada). Tactless, childish and skill-free, Jimmy is oblivious to his haplessness, especially when pursuing comely cousin Ramona (Lynn Chen). The script could have used another polish, but a bigger problem is the nondescript lensing and staging, which dampen the material’s quirky appeal.

  9. One Good Man opened in 14 Utah and Idaho theaters on Oct. 9. DN’s Jeff Vice and SLT’s Sean Means both gave it 2 stars out of 4, saying that it was well crafted, but lacked drama, and lead actor Threlfall was too low-key. Cody Clark at the Daily Herald gave it a stronger B review. Katherine Morris at Mormon Artist gave it a very strong review. I pasted all the reviews at:
    http://forums.mormonletters.org/yaf_postst794_VUISSA-One-Good-Man.aspx

  10. Gentlemen Broncos was released on Friday. Written by Jared and Jerusha Hess, directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite). It has received almost universally terrible reviews. I mean really bad. Ds and single stars all over the place. 13% positive at Rotten Tomatoes, 8% positive from “top critics”. Pretty depressing.

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