Review: Church Ball

After having directed three consecutively worse comedies, the real question one has going into Kurt Hale’s fourth LDS comedy is just how bad is it? Suprisingly, it’s not that bad. In fact, I’m willing to say it’s actually his best. It’s a major upswing from The Home Teachers, at least. It was also much better than Halestorm’s recently released Suits on the Loose, which was so bad I didn’t even feel like typing out a review. Continue reading “Review: Church Ball”

Film: See ‘New York Doll’ for a dollar (in Provo)

The fantastic Mormon/punk-themed documentary “New York Doll” is playing at Movies 8 aka the ‘dollar theater’ in Provo through Thursday, Jan. 26. Show times can be found on the Cinemark Web site.

Movies 8 is located at 2424 N University Pkwy. Ticket prices range from $ .75 to a whopping $1.50.

Also: Read my review of New York Doll.

News: LDS Film Festival, Jan. 18-21

The 5th Annual LDS Film Festival starts this Wednesday and goes through Saturday at the SCERA Center in Orem. I thought I’d mention a few things that stand out in the program because it looks like they’ve got a lot of really good things going on this year. Continue reading “News: LDS Film Festival, Jan. 18-21”

Review: Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration

The Snarker appears upset at the omission of discussion of the recently released, church produced film, Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, so I thought I’d appease him. The bloggernacle will no doubt provide better commentaries on the film from people who know their history better than I, so I will leave the details of the historicity of the film aside. Instead, I am interested in the aesthetics of the film. Continue reading “Review: Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration”

Review: ‘New York Doll’

Even though I was thoroughly enjoying it, about 15 minutes into the documentary “New York Doll” I began to get a bit worried. The Mormons seemed too nice and naive, the punks too decadent, and Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, the washed-up punk bassist turned Mormon too awkward and goofy (and too much of a loser, frankly). The whole story was still fascinating, of course, but great Mormon art? Eh.

But then when Arthur travels to New York to reunite with his former band members and then to London to play Morrisey’s meltdown the threads began to come together. The situations got more intense, and the whole narrative became funnier, harder, sweeter and, in the end, tragic. I don’t want to spoil things for those who haven’t seen the film, but there are some amazing moments. Some amazing Mormon moments.

And in the end, well, I began to see Bro. Kane as those around him — both punks and Mormons — saw him as a humble, talented guy with an inner strength and optimism that is truly inspiring.

“New York Doll” is not only a fine, entertaining documentary, it is also a genuine piece of Mormon art. I grant it instant canonical status.

If you remain unconvinced, check out Brian Gibson’s in-depth review at By Common Consent.

More on the documentary, including showtimes, at the New York Doll Web site


1. I attended a screening last weekend at the Roxie in San Francisco. The crowd was probably 75-80% punk fans and 20-25% Mormons (not counting the overlap between the two). Director Greg Whiteley was there for a Q&A — some fascinating questions. It took one young punk girl about two minutes of hedging to finally get out here question about whether or not the profits from the film would go to Mormon church. Greg deftly handled the question, explaining that the profits go to the production company, but that as an active church member he would indeed be paying tithing on the ‘millions’ that would he would be personally earning from the film (all of his Q&A answers were honest, to-the-point and generally funny and he really seemed to connect to the audience — specifically to all the punks sitting down in the front).

2. The canonical status thing is a bit of joke. A serious one. But I stand relatively firmly in the camp that we just don’t have enough works of Mormon art yet to seriously talk about a Mormon canon (an aesthetic canon — doctrinal/historical canons are a different matter).

3. If you haven’t seen it yet — pay attention to the music and the graphics. I would need to see it several times before I could do a worthwhile analysis, but I think we’re seeing the glimmer of a Mormon aesthetic. Or at the very least, an excellent example of how Mormon materials can be used aesthetically.

Review: Eric Samuelsen on “God’s Army II: States of Grace”

Eric Samuelsen, professor in theatre history, theory and criticism at BYU, has kindly granted AMV permission to re-post his AML-List review of “God’s Army 2: States of Grace.” I encourage any readers who want access to timely and interesting reviews, excellent discussion of Mormon art and culture, and insider perspectives on the Mormon market to join the AML List.

Samuelsen’s Review:

Last night, I was fortunate enough to attend the premiere of Richard Dutcher’s latest film, “God’s Army 2: States of Grace.” (It was an interesting night — I also had tickets to attend the premiere of “New York Doll.” Couldn’t go to both, so my son went to “New York Doll” and then we exchanged notes. They’re both terrific films — at least the one I saw was, and my son is a very thoughtful film viewer — I trust his judgment.)

“God’s Army 2″(I actually prefer the title “States of Grace”) is, in my view, the best LDS oriented film in the movement so far, unless you count Napolean Dynamite as an LDS film (I do), in which case, “God’s Army 2″is tied for the best LDS oriented film so far. (SOG is so completely different from ND in style and approach, it’s impossible to compare them — I think they’re both stunning achievements.) I think the three Dutcher films so far have each explored one central tenet of Mormonism. “God’s Army” dealt with conversion, what it means, and more importantly, what it requires of us. “Brigham City” may have been a murder mystery, but at its heart was the meaning of ordinances, their centrality in Mormon belief and practice. With “States of Grace” (as the title implies), Dutcher explores the meaning and significance of the atonement. Essentially the film explores the relationships between five superbly realized characters, each of them, in his or her own way, lost and hurt and damaged, and in need of the atonement. Although the stories are left, in some ways, unresolved, the film ends in a marvelous way, abandoning naturalism and moving into a final symbolic scene of pure transcendence. In many ways, it reminds me of a great Robert Benton film, “Places in the Heart,” which similarly moves us beyond realism at the end of the film into a tableau of transcendent power. Some people may not care for the ending of “States of Grace” — I’m already anticipating that some critics may find it sentimental. But it’s not — it’s a richly evocative ending, the right ending for a film that deals so powerfully with the need for Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Only two of the characters from the first God’s Army return in this film, both in reasonably small but significant roles. The African-American missionary from the first film, Elder Banks (DeSean Terry), is now a district leader in the same mission as the first film, and President Beecroft (John Pentecost) is still the mission president. “States of Grace” primarily focuses on the companionship of Elder Lozano (Ignacio Serricchio), a burned out Hispanic elder a couple of weeks from finishing his mission, and his junior companion, Elder Farrell (Lucas Fleischer), who’s a little over his head as a missionary, a nice kid who wants to do well, but something of a born follower, and who also is way too interested in Southern California young women. Lozano is a fascinating character. A former gang banger, he joined the Church after being wounded in a gang war, when he met a missionary in the hospital. However, his own mission has been a disappointment, and he ruefully admits that he was always a better mission story than missionary. Initially, Farrell seems, in comparison, a trifle bland, but his character, too, grows in complexity and interest.

The film is basically structured around Lozano and Farrell’s interactions with Carl (Lamont Stephens), a black gang member, Holly (Rachel Emmers), a young, unsuccessful actor, and Louis (Jo-Sei Ikeda), a homeless street preacher. When we first meet Carl, he angrily provokes a confrontation with Farrell, which nearly leads to violence. Lozano pull Farrell aside, and is explaining how to deal with street provocations, when a drive-by shooting erupts, and Carl is shot. Lozano manages to save Carl’s life, and an odd friendship is formed among the three young men. The drive-by shooting does something to Lozano, though — he seems to decide that the last three weeks of his mission, he’s going to ignore mission rules when he has to, because he feels a higher Christian imperative. And so you think, oh, okay, it’s a film about being a Christian and not just a missionary. Except that’s not quite it either — Lozano’s willingness to break mission rules doesn’t always work very well — in one case, it has disastrous consequences.

One of the things I most admire about this film is how right, how inevitable the decisions the characters make seem, and yet simultaneously, how unpredictably the story unfolds. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, the characters do or say something quite surprising, and then you realize we’ve also been prepared for that revelation or decision. For example, the film is, in part, Carl’s conversion story. But in fact, Carl’s baptism and confirmation (especially his confirmation, which is a major turning point in the film — so typical of Dutcher to use ordinances so thoughtfully), does not solve all his problems. At the same time, it’s also not treated as insignificant or trifling. Carl has to learn and relearn what repentance really means, and what spiritual rebirth genuinely implies — essentially, he’s baptized and confirmed twice.

The film is about Lozano, and secondarily about Farrell, and then about these three people they work with as missionaries, but that’s not right either. Half-way through the film shifts focus, and in a wonderful way — all five of the main characters in the film are ultimately given equal weight structurally, and the emotional center of the film becomes Holly. Emmers (who is a former student of mine at BYU), gives an absolutely extraordinary performance as a young woman who, we learn, is just barely hanging on. She’s grown to loathe herself, and then does things that make her hate herself even more, and before long, we wonder how she can stand it — you’re genuinely afraid she’s going to do violence to herself. And then, just when Farrell starts to get through to her a little, reaches out and helps her understand, just a little, how God sees her, and how Christ atoned for her, Farrell promptly wrecks it, hurts her worse than she had even been hurt before, and hurts himself just as badly in the process.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story, because I desperately want you all to see this film, and I think spoilers can hurt box office. I just need to say one thing more.

A few years ago, I was talking to some friends at Excel, and they said, proudly, that the LDS film movement now could boast strong films in many of the major Hollywood genres. We had our first coming-of-age story (“God’s Army”), we had our first women’s melodrama (“Charly”), we had our first romantic comedy (“Pride and Prejudice”), our first murder mystery (“Brigham City”), and we had our first biopic (“The Other Side of Heaven”). Since then, we’ve added two sweeping historical romances (“The Work and Glory” films), two mockumentaries (“The Work and the Story” and “Sons of Provo”), as well as several more romantic comedies and a couple of all out farces. But as I’ve studied all these films more closely, it occurs to me that structurally, none of these films really explores Mormonism in any kind of depth or with any genuine insight. The most obvious example is The Other Side of Heaven, which structures itself narratively following standard Hollywood forms, and which as a result fundamentally distorts actual Mormon belief and practice.

All writers have models they follow, and every aesthetic builds on previous aesthetic foundations. What seems significant to me is the way in which our best films have followed what we might call an indie model, ignoring conventional Hollywood approaches and forms, and speaking with a new voice, one deeply rooted in Mormon belief and theology. That’s what “States of Grace” does so brilliantly. The most powerful and important moment in the film (and one you would never see in a major studio release), is a very long, dialogue-driven scene in which Holly (who is sitting around a house corner from Farrell, who she can’t even see, in what struck me as a strangely Mormon version of a Catholic confessional booth) tells Farrell about her past, and why she has become so unhappy and why she feels so unloved. And then he reaches to her, and that gesture becomes ambiguous and troubling — comforting, and also selfish — kind, and also dangerous.

To me, the most “˜Mormon’ film of the last two years was “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which packed the entire plan of salvation into its final two minutes. But “States of Grace” takes that a step further, finding in one gesture a metaphor for mortality — morally ambiguous and frightening, but also necessary and comforting; tempting, but also sanctified, and ultimately, insufficient for salvation without God’s grace. It’s a profoundly Mormon film in its structure and approach, which is a very different thing from something like “The Work and the Glory” films, which sprinkle Mormon elements into structures that feel very old-school Hollywood. Richard Dutcher started the Mormon movie movement. Now, with “States of Grace”, he has made the first genuinely, completely Mormon movie. Please, see it this weekend.

–Eric Samuelsen

Thanks, Eric.

NOTE: “God’s Army 2: States of Grace” opens Friday, Nov. 4, in select theatres. AMV will work to bring you details of when and where. The trailer to “States of Grace” can be found here.

Review: The Work and the Glory: American Zion

The primary problem in dealing with a film like The Work and the Glory: American Zion is its episodic nature. Kind of like the second of The Lord of the Rings, American Zion has neither a real beginning nor a real end. After quick introduction to the characters and back-story, the film begins with the marriages of Nathan and Joshua Steed and ends with all narrative and thematic threads up in the air. Though its episodic form is understandable, I still think some temporary closure could have been brought to the some of the storylines, at least so that it felt more like a movie than an episode of a soap opera. Overall, though, I do think it’s a better product than its predecessor. Continue reading “Review: The Work and the Glory: American Zion”