Review: Mobsters and Mormons

I groaned at the appearance of the first Mormon joke of the movie. A tall man walks up to give a talk and the new counselor has trouble with the podium, making it go up and down ten times before deciding to come up to it and, in an attempt to raise it, rips the top of the podium right off and knocks down the speaker. Fortunately, the scene almost seems to be a joke on the audience ““ horrifying us with the prospect of another Home Teachers before settling into a somewhat more mature comedy. Unfortunately, the comedy that we do get isn’t that much funnier.

Mobsters and Mormons is the story of Carmine (Mark DeCarlo) a New York mobster who, after ratting out his co-mobsters, is placed in a witness protection program and relocated with his family to Utah. Most of the humor is then derived from Carmine’s tough-guy reaction to a rather stereotypically portrayed Utah Valley. There are a few laughs, but DeCarlo’s antics quickly wear thin. He’s got a lot of energy, but if you don’t find his rather childish behavior funny, it’s almost difficult to sit through.

As Carmine’s family ““ now renamed the Cheeseman’s ““ move into the neighborhood, they are eventually shunned by everyone but one family. Sadly, the neighbors who hate the Cheeseman’s are all cartoons. Not only do we fail to really understand their hesitance, but they actually act like cartoons. Maybe it’s because Carmine himself is always acting like a cartoon. In any case, I think it’s precisely this kind of camp that puts off so much of its Mormon audience.

In spite of the flatness of its humor, Mobsters and Mormons is still possibly the best LDS comedy to date ““ strangely enough ““ because of its serious side. The narrative of the film is actually rather steady and its climax surprisingly compelling.

Though he’s terribly one-dimensional, I like Michael (Scott Christopher), the father of the family who embraces the Cheesemans. He reaches out to the new family in every way that a good-hearted bishopric member might. Our failure to see the motivation in his actions actually works out rather well ““ he’s just a genuine Christian and his motives are pure.

Though initially resistant, Carmine is ultimately touched by the kindness, the devotion to family and the religiosity of his neighbors and slowly embraces a tenderness, concern for family and a spirituality of his own. The story eventually manages to be a stirring reminder to both Mormons and Non-Mormons of the senselessness in judging each other. I don’t think there’s been an LDS film yet that’s been better at directly addressing both insider and outsider audiences in a meaningful way. Now if it could just succeed in its humor attempts, we might be getting somewhere.

Review: American Mormon

Released on DVD one week ago today, American Mormon is a short documentary made by Daryn Tufts (Eldon of The Singles Ward) and Jed Knudson (of The Whole Armor of God). Much in the style of Leno’s Jaywalking spots, Tufts goes around asking random people all about the Mormons ““ what they think of them, what they can and can’t do, what they believe, some basics of church history, and so forth.

Though rarely laugh out loud material, it’s a continually amusing spectacle. There are a lot of responses that you might expect (comments about polygamy), and then some that you wouldn’t (at least Mormons don’t come to your door like those JW’s, thank goodness). They manage to hit some normal people as well as some rather unusual people as well, getting a nice variety of answers. Some people know what they’re talking about, some admit to not knowing basic things, and others make false assertions with some assurance. While we’re generally humored by misconceptions and funny answers, it quickly becomes apparent that some people have simply confused Mormons with the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and don’t actually think such things of Mormons.

Because responses have been chosen out of 20 hours worth of material, it’s probably not a good sociological reference for Americans’ opinions of Mormons. Particularly notable is the absence of any serious criticisms or misgivings about Mormons. Tufts mentions in the DVD commentary that he was surprised that all the people they ran into were so positive about Mormons, which I’m willing to believe ““ but I think most people figured out that the filmmakers were Mormon and that it wouldn’t have been polite to say anything harshly critical. Regardless of its accuracy in capturing general opinion, it’s still something that I think would be of interest to a people who are so concerned about what others think of them.

It’s only 35 minutes, but we wouldn’t want it any longer. Dragging it out any longer would probably have become tedious, but the near-equivalent of a TV show is just long enough that you can get a good feel for the matter. DVD extras include a commentary track, some outtakes, and an advertisement for a Book of Mormon game.

The biggest problem with American Mormon is the price. I paid 12.99 plus tax for the half hour show, and then they had the gall to tell me I saved seven dollars by shopping at Deseret Book. Who in their right mind would pay 20 bucks for this thing? In fact, I’m curious as to who’s going to pay $13 for it (besides me). I also want to know who’s actually going to be charging $20 for it ““ certainly neither Wal-Mart nor Seagull. Why don’t they just say it’s $100 and then tell us we saved $87? This business of hiking up list prices so that retailers can sell them at extravagant “discounts” seems very silly to me ““ particularly so when all of the retailers are going to be selling it at the discount price.

American Mormon would have been a great addition to a collection of LDS comedy skits or as an extra on another DVD. It’s definitely worth a half hour of your time; it just isn’t worth over thirteen dollars of your money.

News: SL Trib on Mormon films this fall

As a follow-up to Eric’s excellent fall preview of Mormon cinema

Yesterday’s edition of the Salt Lake Tribune featured movie critic Sean Means’s a preview of fall Mormon cinema titles. The article also discusses attempts by Mormon filmmakers to create crossover hits.

Movies discussed include “States of Grace: God’s Army 2,” “Mobsters and Mormons,” “The Work and the Glory: American Zion,” “Church Ball,” “Just Like Heaven” and “Suits on the Loose.”

As usual, critical favorite Richard Dutcher had some interesting things to say about Mormon cinema:

” Even with familiar non-Mormon actors, Dutcher said, some LDS filmmakers have ‘this deluded sense of making a film that would only appeal to Mormons, but somehow believing it’s going to cross over into the mainstream.’

“The other unwelcome trend, in Dutcher’s view, involves films that are sold to investors as LDS-themed, but ‘by the time the movie gets to the market, you can’t really recognize any Mormonism in it — and still calling it a Mormon film just because Mormons make it./

“Dutcher vows that won’t happen with ‘States of Grace.’

“‘It’s not another treatment of a day in the life of LDS missionaries,’ Dutcher said. ‘This time, it’s LDS missionaries who are part of a much larger story. It’s more of an ensemble film that has characters from different religions, and no religions, and how their lives intertwine in present-day Santa Monica. . . . It’s very much designed not to just be accessible to Mormon Christianity, but hopefully embraced by all Christians.'”

Also in the article, director/writer John Moyer explains his approach to “Mobsters and Mormons”:

“‘Mobsters and Mormons,’ Moyer said, was an effort to ‘find something that would appeal to LDS audiences, but also possibly be able to spill over outside of the LDS market — that there were no inside jokes that if you weren’t LDS, you weren’t a home teacher or an elder, you wouldn’t get. I tried to steer away from that stuff consciously, and tried to find stuff that would play off of the world’s generalized concepts of what Mormons are.’

Criticism: Fall Mormon Movie Preview

Entertainment Weekly has released its Fall Movie Preview, so I think it’s a good time for a Fall Mormon Movie Preview, especially since a quarter of the lineup will already be out this Friday. Film titles lead to their trailers.

Mobsters and Mormons. Sept. 9.

Written by John Moyer, who wrote three previous Halestorm films (Singles Ward, RM, and Home Teachers), but this one is also directed by Moyer; the other three were directed by Kurt Hale. There’s already one positive review out, but the trailer doesn’t look promising. It looks to me as if it will be very much along the same lines of the previous Halestorm pictures ““ simply a scenario that allows for a lot of hit and miss jokes about Mormon culture. But who knows, perhaps by directing it himself, Moyer will be able to better execute his ideas on the screen.

God’s Army 2: States of Grace. September?

Word on the street was that it’s supposed to come out in September, but if that were the case, you’d think we’d have heard an official release date by now. We’ve already had some discussion on the trailer. It seems a bit melodramatic ““ but then that’s the nature of trailers. I really like what I see in strong themes of understanding others and coping with a dark past. I expect another powerful film from Dutcher.

The Work and the Glory: American Zion. Oct. 21.

I’m not a big fan of the books, even though I read them all for some reason, but I was pleasantly surprised by the first film. Considering the material it had to work with, I think it did just about as good a job as it could do. Interestingly, there’s a new director at the helm: Sterling Van Wagenen, who is perhaps best known for his 1992 film, Alan and Naomi, which I have never heard of in my life. The trailer does look handsome though. The screenplay is written by Matt Whitaker, who previously penned Saints and Soldiers. Allegedly it’s set for a national release in October, but I’m not sure how many theaters it’s actually going to reach. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how national it really is. And does anyone else think Joseph looks constipated in this picture?

Stalking Santa. Holiday Season.

A mockumentary of sorts about “sightings” of Santa Claus, much in the style of a documentary about Bigfoot. Made by Daryn Tufts (Eldon of The Singles Ward) and Greg Kiefer. I’m actually not sure if there’s anything Mormon in content. The trailer looks like fun, but if it doesn’t keep fresh, it could get old fast. Supposedly it’s going to be a theatrical release, but I wonder if it won’t just come direct to video like Tufts’ other recent documentary, American Mormon. Everyone loves a Christmas movie at Christmastime, but is it seriously going to try to compete with Harry Potter, Aeon Flux, Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong all at the same time?

Film: LDS script competition winners

The LDS Film Festival has announced the winners of its 2005 script competition. First place went to D. Kohl Glass for “The Strawberries of Eldritch” (great title that). Glass is a BYU graduate. His short film “The Promethean” won several awards in 2003/04, including first prize in the 2004 LDS Film Festival film competition. Here’s an IMDB review of the film.

Helene Holt won second place for “Phantom Justice.” She is the author of Exiled: The Story of John Lathrop and won a 2003 scriptwriting award for her adaption of the book.

Third place winners are Aaron Johnston for “Sarah, Woman of Genesis” and Tyler Measom for “Weekend Wedding.” Johnston is a member of Orson Scott Card’s posse. And I would guess that his screenplay is an adaptation of OSC’s historical novel of the same name. Measom has won previous LDS Film Festival contests and wrote and directed a short comic film titled Fall of Man that is described as: “When a man gets stranded in the desert, the only person to come to his aid is a pale skinned tourist who claims to be Lucifer.” It can be viewed here.

Film: The Work and the Glory to become a trilogy

KSL-TV is reporting that Larry Miller has agreed to finance the next two films in “The Work and the Glory” series. A new director — Sterling Van Wagenen, head of the film program at the University of Central Florida — has been brought on board.

Millder admits that the ticket sales for volume 1 have been dissappointing and told KSL: “I won’t say we feel confident, but we felt comfortable enough that it would be in the vicinity of the success level we needed in order to make the decision on two and three.”

Film: Rick Schroder’s LDS-related project

Weekend Standard (subtitle: China’s Business Newspaper) has posted an in-depth article on actor-turned-filmmaker Rick Schroder. It mentions his next project — “a feature film he did not write called The Principle Wife, a story set in the 1870s about Mormons and polygamy.”

The story also focuses on how he found financing and the difficulties he had in distributing his last film “Black Cloud.” And it confirms that he self-identifies as Mormon.

I haven’t seen “Black Cloud” so I can’t comment on his filmmaking skills, but he seems like a down-to-earth guy, and I enjoyed the candid, personal quotes he contributed to the article.