*** [3 out of 4 stars]
Mormon Cinema takes a step forward with this tale of LDS missionaries abroad.
Rated PG for thematic elements; 110 minutes.
Opening today at area theaters.
The last time I reviewed a Mormon Cinema entry, someone who appeared in that movie -- a radio personality who assailed my abilities and questioned my sexual orientation on-air -- complained that I shouldn't judge these made-in-Utah movies by the same standards I apply to big-budget Hollywood fare.
That's nonsense, of course. Firstly, theaters charge the same $7.50 whether it's an LDS film or "The Lord of the Rings," so my ratings should be equal, too. Secondly, I knew an LDS movie would come along that wouldn't need any such handicap, but could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the good Hollywood films.
"The Best Two Years" is the LDS movie I've been waiting for.
Well acted by a natural ensemble of young actors, and smartly written and sensitively directed by Scott S. Anderson, "The Best Two Years" is a warm comedy that gives some insight into the daily life and personal turmoil of LDS missionaries abroad.
Based on Anderson's play, which was inspired by his own mission experiences, the movie follows four missionaries in Holland. First we meet Elder Johnson (David Nibley), the easygoing district leader, and his effete companion, Elder Van Pelt (Cameron Hopkin), who lead the group in hours proselytizing and Books of Mormon distributed. On the other hand is Elder Rogers (KC Clyde), who has become disheartened and lazy -- ever since his girlfriend back home in Utah dumped him.
Enter Elder Calhoun (Kirby Heyborne), newly hatched from the Missionary Training Center, eager to preach but lacking finesse or much command of Dutch. Of course, the "greenie" gets assigned to a reluctant Rogers. Though Rogers first tries to rein in Calhoun's enthusiasm, eventually the older elder begins to rediscover, at Johnson's suggestion, "what you're doing here."
Anderson finds gentle humor in the details of mission life, from creative plumbing arrangements to the way mission companions can get on each other's nerves. But Anderson, getting beyond the green Jell-O jokes present in so much of Mormon Cinema, also explores the spiritual side of mission work -- not merely the rote recitation of LDS history, but the finding of purpose through the work itself. Even for non-Mormons, there is an undeniable power in the scenes where these young men talk about their faith.
The four actors play off each other with a natural, relaxed rhythm, and each gets a moment to shine. Clyde is sympathetic, taking Rogers from weary resignation to emotional intensity. Heyborne, a familiar face in Mormon Cinema, is hilarious as the hick from the sticks, but wisely dials it down when the movie's mood turns serious. Another welcome face belongs to veteran Utah actor Michael Flynn, who, as the mission president, injects a kind but stern fatherly tone.
With Anderson's deft directing and cinematographer Gordon C. Lonsdale's beautiful location photography in the Netherlands (the interiors were shot in Alpine, Utah), "The Best Two Years" has the professional sheen of any Hollywood production.
The movie proves that Mormon Cinema, even on a small budget, can play in the big leagues.
Mission companions Elder Calhoun (Kirby Heyborne, left) and Elder Rogers (KC Clyde) play chess in "The Best Two Years." (HaleStorm Entertainment)
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
KC Clyde, Kirby Heyborne, David Nibley, Cameron Hopkin, Scott Christopher, Michael Flynn; rated PG (vulgarity, violence).
Ever since "God's Army" was released in 2000, aspiring LDS filmmakers have been trying to best that film in terms of quality -- or at least come close to matching the quality-bar set by that film.
Unfortunately, none have really come all that close until "The Best Two Years."
Here's a locally made, LDS-centric film that not only reaches the bar, but it could be argued that this one actually sets it a little higher.
Not only does this surprisingly warm and funny -- and well-acted -- comedy-drama stand head and shoulders above the most recent crop of LDS features, it's a film that may appeal to moviegoers outside its obvious target audience.
Despite occasional ham-fisted and off-key moments, the film makes you look forward to whatever its writer-director, first-timer Scott S. Anderson, does next.
Given the religious slant of the film, the title obviously refers to LDS missions. That's where Elder Rogers (KC Clyde) finds himself, serving in Holland. Now, as he's coming close to the end of his mission, he's also lost his zeal and passion for the work.
But that may change when he gets a new companion, "greenie" Elder Calhoun (Kirby Heyborne). Though Calhoun is a bit of a nerdy hayseed -- complete with horn-rim glasses -- he's also pretty gung-ho about hitting the streets and knocking on as many Dutch doors as possible.
Meanwhile, the other two missionaries sharing their apartment, Elder Johnson (David Nibley) and Elder Van Pelt (Cameron Hopkin), are astonished at the changes taking place in Rogers' demeanor. Especially when he starts giving lessons to one of Calhoun's would-be converts (Scott Christopher).
Anderson adapted this material from his stage play, "the Best Two Years of My Life," which was based on his own missionary experiences in Holland. Though it is a bit predictable, it is also well-paced and beautifully shot (especially the portions done during some limited location work in the cities of Amsterdam and Haarlem).
All of the performances are solid, and while Heyborne's hickish shtick is occasionally a bit much at the beginning, it provides a nice counterpoint to the considerably more low-key Clyde (the son of local filmmaker, screenwriter and actor Craig Clyde).
There's even a nice, completely straightforward, supporting performance by Christopher that might make a few reconsider their previous stance concerning his acting talents (especially if he can prove this is not a fluke).
"The Best Two Years" is rated PG for some crude humor involving bodily functions (mild by today's standards), some horseplay and brawling (done for laughs) and use of some creative "profanities." Running time: 108 minutes.
KC Clyde, left, David Nibley, Kirby Heyborne and Cameron Hopkin in "The Best Two Years."
It's been awhile since I've seen a so-called "Mormon-genre" movie that's impressed me. So it was a pleasure to sit through "The Best Two Years" and find it thoroughly enjoyable.
This is, what, the fourth year of LDS-themed movies? And out of a dozen over that time, maybe three or four are worth watching again.
Richard Dutcher's "God's Army" in 2000 was so successful and such a pleasant surprise that it was bound to open the floodgates, and following Dutcher's second film, "Brigham City," we began to see LDS movies in earnest, opening in Salt Lake theaters one after another.
Some have gone on to play in other areas of the country, some have fallen into the home-video chasm (where movies either make up their theatrical losses or drift amid the ridiculous array of movies that line rental-store shelves), and others have just faded away. And most have not been very -- if at all -- profitable.
In terms of quality, the bag has been even more mixed.
I know there are some LDS moviegoers who feel that any and every "Mormon movie" should be supported, whether it's good, bad or ugly. But it's my feeling that if you're going to spend $7 or $8 per ticket (plus concession expenses and -- if you go to the Gateway Megaplex 12 -- parking), the picture had better be at least as good as the one in the next auditorium.
Of course, these days, that's not saying a whole lot.
It wasn't too long after "God's Army" that we got "Brigham City," "The Other Side of Heaven," "The Singles Ward," "Charly," "Handcart," "The R.M.," "The Work and the Story," "Day of Defense," "The Book of Mormon Movie, Vol. 1: The Journey," "Pride & Prejudice," and, currently, "The Home Teachers." (I have deliberately left off this list the film "Out of Step," which strikes me more as a movie that simply has Mormon characters, rather than a Mormon-centric film. I would put the upcoming "Saints and Soldiers" in the same category.)
This is strictly my opinion, of course, but after the first three films, there began a downhill slide in terms of quality, and until "The Best Two Years," none has managed to reach the level that started it all.
In a way, we've come full circle. Like "God's Army, "The Best Two Years" is about young LDS missionaries "in the field."
"The Best Two Years" is based on a play that circulated throughout the region some 15 years ago, and the film has been written and directed by the playwright Scott S. Anderson.
One of the more surprising things here is that Anderson shows a maturity in his directing choices that is seldom in evidence with first-time filmmakers. The film is also given an enormous boost by Gordon Lonsdale's excellent cinematography, which shines best in the outdoor scenes in Holland, where the film was shot for two weeks before moving to Alpine, Utah, for interiors.
But none of that would matter if the story and characters were not on point, and, fortunately, they are.
The focus is on four young missionaries living in a rundown apartment and not having a lot of luck as they proselyte to the unmoving Dutch populace.
It's one of those areas where one baptism during a two-year mission is a huge accomplishment. And no baptisms is the norm. In fact, the only person these characters make any progress with is the lone American they meet.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this film is that the missionaries are very much young twentysomethings. There's a believable level of immaturity to each of them as they interact with each other, and when we see them grow and change over the course of the film, it's subtle and seems real.
The performers in this ensemble comedy-drama are all quite good -- KC Clyde is excellent as Elder Rogers, who is still recovering from a devastating "Dear John" situation; Kirby Heyborne is a hoot as the newest of the four, Elder Calhoun, a naive rube who revitalizes the others; David Nibley is good as Elder Johnson, the leader the group, who has a few things to learn himself; and so is Cameron Hopkin, as ambitious, anxious Elder Van Pelt.
The real surprise, however, may be Scott Christopher, who has always struck me as a low-rent Jim Carrey wannabe, as demonstrated by his obnoxious performances in "The Singles Ward" and "The R.M." But here, Christopher tones it down and is both amusing and endearing. It's amazing what a strong director can squeeze out of a willing actor.
And that leads me to the biggest surprise of all. "The Best Two Years" is being released by HaleStorm, which has also given us "The Singles Ward," "The R.M." and "The Home Teachers." And next . . . I kid you not . . . "Church Ball."
The difference here is that "The Best Two Years" was not made by HaleStorm. It is an independent production picked up for distribution.
Here's hoping the HaleStorm folks take a good, long, hard look at this film and learned something from it about story and character.
"The Best Two Years" earns its laughs, and none of them are cheap.
Like floating bits of carrots suspended in green jello, Mormon-based cinema has just been hovering out there, waiting for someone to give it that extra ingredient to make it truly delectable.
So, believe me when I tell you, "The Best Two Years" is the Cool Whip that's taking this gelatinous genre to a new level.
Up until now, I think most Mormons have considered attending these LDS-themed films as a sacred obligation. It's like collecting fast offerings or paying tithing -- they do it because they have to support the cause.
Here's a refreshing thought. What if they could see these movies because they actually WANT to?
This film offers a polished, inspiring viewpoint to the Mormon Missionary experience in a way that's not condescending to the non-LDS.
It's simply the story of four young elders living and working in The Netherlands, a traditionally difficult place to acquire a vast number of converts. In fact, one or two baptisms during the entire two years isn't uncommon.
It's in these circumstances that we find Elder Rogers (KC Clyde).
He's in the last couple of months of his mission and has definitely lost his edge for the work.
The Mission President (Michael Flynn) has assigned him a "greenie," a kid fresh from the States who can't speak the language. This Elder Calhoun (Kirby Heyborne) is an enthusiastic recent convert from Oklahoma.
Rogers rolls his eyes at Calhoun's naivete. This guy thinks he's gonna set the world on fire from the moment he steps off the train. Boy, is he in for a rude awakening. And Rogers can't wait to burst his bubble.
The other two elders sharing the apartment have their own set of problems.
The district leader, Elder Johnson (David Nibley), must try to motivate Elder Rogers to get back in the game, while dealing with his own egocentric companion, Elder Van Pelt (Cameron Hopkin), who gets a stream of letters every day from his bevy of babes back home.
This slice of missionary life is the most realistic and enjoyable depiction so far, with all due respect to "God's Army."
Writer/director Scott S. Anderson has not only created an engaging script, but has filmed it in such a way that the entire thing looks like it was shot in The Netherlands (interior shots were done in Alpine).
And while most can appreciate another fine performance from Heyborne, it's Clyde who dominates this film with his silky-smooth charisma.
When he has his "I get it" moment in the film, you'll actually feel his spirituality grow, no matter what religious belief you prefer.
"The Best Two Years" is a good movie that just happens to be about Mormons, rather than a Mormon movie that tries to be good.
It's a step in the right direction for a genre that's hopefully leaving its infancy and "lengthening its stride" to greater heights.
Now, I wonder how Cool Whip would taste in funeral potatoes?
THE FILM: 'The Best Two Years'
OUR RATING: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
STARRING: KC Clyde, Kirby Heyborne, David Nibley, Cameron Hopkin, Scott Christopher and Michael Flynn
BEHIND THE SCENES: Written and directed by Scott S. Anderson in his feature film debut. Filmed in Alpine and The Netherlands.
PLAYING: North Pointe, Layton Tinseltown, Newgate Tinseltown, Walker 6. Runs 108 minutes.
MPAA RATING: PG
The Best Two Years" is like "God's Army" without the melodrama. Its characters are Mormon missionaries who are ordinary and therefore relatable. Their stories are commonplace, especially to anyone who has been a missionary, but they are told with insight and compassion.
The film is set in a typically squalid missionary apartment in the Dutch town of Haarlem (which is far nicer than the area of Manhattan that was named after it). Two sets of missionaries live there. One is level-headed district leader Elder Johnson (David Nibley) and his companion Elder Van Pelt (Cameron Hopkin), a preening, fatuous title-seeker. The other companionship is Elder Rogers (KC Clyde) -- once productive but lately unmotivated to work -- and his brand-new companion Elder Calhoun (Kirby Heyborne), who is straight from the backwoods of Oklahoma by way of the Missionary Training Center.
The mission president (Michael Flynn) has sent Rogers a greenie in the hopes that training someone new will be the kick-start he needs. Rogers resists such maneuvers, but Calhoun is too enthusiastic to be restrained, and Rogers soon finds that his four-hour work weeks have turned into more standard 60-hour weeks. They meet an American named Kyle (Scott Christopher) whose interest in hearing the gospel is weak but who, like Rogers, can scarcely defend himself against the whirlwind of naive fervor that is Elder Calhoun.
Van Pelt and Johnson, meanwhile, have their own differences, which they mostly manage to keep out of the way of their work. Van Pelt gives Johnson grammar tips (most of which, I might add, are incorrect) and won't let him use his favorite slang term, "flip." Johnson puts up with Van Pelt's priggishness because he has received a tape from his girlfriend back home, which he plans to listen to as soon as they can find a working tape player.
Written and directed by Scott S. Anderson, and based on a play he wrote some 20 years ago based on his own experiences in Holland, the film accurately and poignantly reflects the most important elements of the missionary experience, even if it overplays some of the details. (Van Pelt and Johnson's manic reaction to the arrival of mail crosses over into farce, for example, as does their destruction of the apartment during a "flip"-induced brawl.)
At its heart is the idea that no one is perfect, that "good" missionaries have bad moments and that "bad" missionaries have good ones. KC Clyde, who as Rogers is the film's emotional center, exemplifies this perfectly with a very real, believable performance. Rogers isn't unrighteous; he's simply embittered and burnt-out. He doesn't know why he's on a mission anymore, and the moment he rediscovers it is genuinely sweet.
David Nibley is also very natural as Johnson, the other down-to-earth character. He plays him with integrity and with more comical physicality than I would have expected. (There are a number of highly amusing sight gags in the film, and Nibley's involved with several of them.)
It's Cameron Hopkin and Kirby Heyborne whose performances need to be reined in a little. Hopkin often is too strong and over-the-top as Van Pelt, trying too hard to play a character who tries too hard. And Heyborne's Calhoun character just puzzles me. He somehow managed to learn NOTHING in the MTC -- no Dutch, no missionary skills, nothing -- and even though he's supposedly a hardcore nerd chess champion (complete with unfashionable eyeglasses), he possesses little common sense or deductive reasoning skills.
Ah, but I like him anyway. I like all four characters, in fact, even in their less well-scripted moments, because of the chemistry among them. They really capture the camaraderie of missionaries, the rivalries and disagreements that are underscored by love.
I admire Anderson for setting most of the film in a single apartment without letting it get claustrophobic, shooting from enough different angles and keeping the dialogue interesting enough to make the setting feel expansive.
He also deserves credit for elegantly mixing comedy with drama, often within the same scene. Rogers and Calhoun's first lesson with Kyle is a prime example -- uproariously funny one moment, touching the next, then back to funny again.
There is a conversion in the film, and it's oversimplified and easy, but I think that's beside the point. The film isn't about how to convert someone. It's about converting yourself, about figuring out what you're doing with your life and going with it. It's a thoughtful and entertaining film. Grade: B
Rated PG, [for] no reason, no reason at all
1 hr., 53 min.
**.5 [2.5 out of 4 stars]
After being subjected to so many "Mormon cinema" movies that eschewed essentials like a focus puller, a script or competent actors, it would be easy to overreact to the simple pleasures of Scott S. Anderson's missionary tale. Based on Anderson's own 20-year-old play, it follows cynical Elder Rogers (KC Clyde) as he fumbles for purpose in the final weeks of his mission in Holland -- until wide-eyed "greenie" Elder Calhoun (Kirby Heyborne) arrives to goose him into action. Anderson hits all the expected touchstones -- "Dear John" letters, homesickness, personality and culture clashes, the baptism-as-big-finale -- but dresses it up with a few great gags and some genuine emotion. And much of both comes from Clyde's impressive lead performance, which is so sly and natural that it clashes brutally with Heyborne's broad Oklahoma hick shtick. That's just the most obvious example of where tone problems get Anderson in trouble, only to be balanced by an actual cinematic sensibility. In a genre that's too often more concerned with testimony than with insight, this entry at least offers a touch of class. Opens Feb. 20 at theaters valleywide. (PG)
If you had to pick the best two years of your life, when would they be? Marriage? School? Military? Jail? With those as a guideline, picking the worst two years might be easier.
In Mormon parlance, "the best two years" specifically refers to a church mission, a 24-month trial by gospel fire in places sometimes too weird even for the CIA.
LDS missionaries -- those who behaved themselves anyway -- are obliged to speak in church when they come home. Invariably, they utter the line "the best two years of my life."
The claim, coming as it does from someone barely out of puberty, is no real endorsement of life or missions. I mean, seriously, what life?
If I had to come up with the best two years of my life at the half-century mark, it would be bits and pieces glued together from various episodes. There isn't one two-year stretch that really stands out as the best.
I rather enjoyed the two years before I went on a mission, which ironically almost kept me from going. I also liked parts of the Army. I really enjoyed the births of my daughters and grandkids. And if I know what's good for me, marriage is still great.
My own two-year church mission was, in general, only a good two years of my life. Parts of it were great. Parts of it were just awful.
"The Best Two Years" is now a movie. I went to the premiere Wednesday night, which was a mistake. Oh, the movie was good, but we had to wait to see it while anyone even remotely involved in the production was thanked, starting with Kennewick Man.
As Mormon films go, TB2Y is far better than the rest. It's the tale of four missionaries ranging from fire-breathers to deadbeats stuck in the typical missionary dump in Holland.
Enter Elder Calhoun, a new missionary and convert from Oklahoma played by Kirby Heyborne (no relation of mine). Everyone gets a chance to learn something valuable (and painful) from Calhoun.
Anyone who was ever a Mormon elder had an Elder Calhoun for a companion. Many of us count our missions as successful for no other reason than the fact that we didn't kill him.
I wasn't prepared to, but I liked TB2Y a lot. However, to cover the needs of most potential viewers, the Spirit moved me to offer five separate (and short) reviews.
A. If you are the sort of Mormon who cannot conceive of President Hinckley ever viewing any movie other than a G-rated one, give it a pass. TB2Y is rated PG.
B. If you remember your mission fondly and don't mind revisiting the good parts as well as the bad, this is the movie to see.
C. For those who don't know anything about Mormon missionaries but always wondered, it's still worth the money.
D. If your typical movie fare is Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal, this definitely ain't it. Only one fight scene and nobody gets kicked in the face.
E. If you are anti-Mormon, save your money. It fails at every turn to illustrate the LDS Church as the primary source of agony in the world.