SALT LAKE CITY -- Odds are long that any of the LDS-themed movies flooding Utah screens will duplicate the small-budget, big-return success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a $5 million movie that's earned more than $185 million -- so far -- at the box office.
LDS moviemakers may be holding out for crossover appeal. But even if they don't make $100 million, a market filled with the state's religious majority is sure to keep cameras rolling.
...The films have a 1950s sensibility about them, unsurprising given that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are discouraged from watching R-rated films. Sex, swearing and graphic violence are all absent.
...Sean Means, movie reviewer for the state's largest newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, says films like "The Singles Ward," "Handcart" and "Charly" mark a sophomore slump for LDS cinema. They're plagued by bad scripts and boring plots, he says.
Because they aren't good enough to succeed elsewhere, Means says, they end up being marketed squarely at locals. And there's enough of an audience here to pull down a profit; the church claims 70 percent of Utah residents...
Moral Rating: Better Than Average
Moviemaking Quality: **** [4 stars out of 5]
Primary Audience: Teen to adult
Genre: LDS Romantic Comedy
Length: 1 hr. 43 min.
MPAA Rating: PG
Charly is, well, almost charming... It's the story of a New York girl (Heather Beers) who heads out to Utah on a visit. Salt Lake City, to be exact. Of course, this is the worldwide headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the man she immediately meets couldn't be more opposite. He's a straight-laced Mormon (played by Jeremy Elliott), committed to his faith and the values that the LDS teachings uphold. Charly is a complete skeptic and downright cynical about the Mormon church. As an effective piece of Mormon propoganda however, we naturally know that she will come around to adopting the Mormon faith.
Charly reads the Book of Mormon (much to the surprise of Sam Roberts) and finds herself believing what she reads. Her entire demeanor changes -- she becomes more hopeful in her outlook on life, more serious about life in general (and especially Sam), and more chaste in her appearance. Her live-in fiance back in New York, along with her non-LDS parents in Salt Lake, become increasingly concerned with their newly church-going daughter, conspiring to bring her "back to her senses". Will they succeed, or will Charly end up marrying into the LDS family?
Charly's strongest themes include chastity and purity (abstinence before marriage--that's good), the "families are forever" theme (Mormons believe that those you marry on earth will also be your spouse in heaven), and the promotion of a clean lifestyle (Charly used to drink alcohol and caffeinated drinks, but stops that). It is a quality production technically with good humor and wit, while totally switching topic the second half of the film when Charly is diagnosed with cancer. Deeper topics of loss, grief, anger with God, prayer for healing, and more saturate the conclusion.
This film is fun, albeit only for those who are already in the LDS faith. The Mormon church is following suit after [other] Christians in using film to help to promote their faith. In the past 2 years The Other Side of Heaven, Brigham City, and God's Army have all made it into the mainstream. As I sat and watched this, I wondered to myself if this is what it must feel like for non-Christians when they watch an overtly Christian film.
A word of warning before I start in on this week's column -- if you didn't enjoy the subject matter, blame Hollywood! After all, it's because of my boredom with the continuing glut of lookalike, soundalike cinematic mediocrities that I've revived one of my most annoying in-the-theater hobbies: collecting movie "scrambles."
For those unfamiliar with the concept, these scrambles are concatenations of movie titles -- movies that have similar titles or share similar words in their titles, jumbled together for a . . . hopefully . . . comic effect.
You could also blame my colleague/competitor to the south, the Provo Daily Herald's Eric Snider, for getting me started this time. He's the one who suggested "12 Angry Monkeys," a combination of the oddball sci-fi thriller "12 Monkeys" and the classic 1957 drama "12 Angry Men." Could Bruce Willis' possibly crazy "Monkeys" sway "Angry Men's" squabbling jurors? You be the judge.
In the meantime, here are a few more choice scrambles:
THE TRUTH ABOUT JACK WEYLAND'S CHARLY ("The Truth About Charlie" and "Jack Weyland's Charly")
The truth is that neither movie is very good. Actually, the charismatic female leads in each (Thandie Newton and Heather Beers, respectively) could go in search of more interesting male counterparts (as opposed to Mark Wahlberg and Jeremy Elliott).
Richard Dutcher, LDS filmmaker, discusses the recent LDS-themed movie trend. He said the films have had a critical lack of quality in the last few years. Dutcher created, among others, God's Army and Brigham City.
Richard Dutcher, a pioneer filmmaker of Latter-day Saint cinema, told a BYU-Idaho crowd Thursday he agrees with some critics that the genre has hit a rut.
Seven LDS-themed films have made it to local screens since 2000, including two of Dutcher's movies, God's Army and Brigham City.
Recent films such as The Singles Ward, Handcart and Charly mark a sophomore slump for the films, which are based on themes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah film reviewers said.
"We finally get a chance to say something, and we're just reinforcing stereotypes," Dutcher told more than 800 BYU-Idaho students and faculty Thursday during a speech on the LDS film industry.
But LDS cinema is headed in the right direction, and it has made great strides in recent years, Dutcher said.
"Three years ago nobody thought we'd be where we are now," he said.
Dutcher began the LDS movie trend in 2000 with his first film God's Army. The movie cost $240,000 to make and netted $2.6 million.
"He is the pioneer," Jack Weyland, author of the book Charly, which recently was released on film, said. "Without God's Army none of these other films would be possible."
Weyland said he understands Dutcher's point about stereotypes, but he also said there needs to be a variety of films in LDS cinema.
Dutcher's next project is to bring the life of Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, to the big screen, he said.
The $10 million project has been stalled because of a lack of money.
Dutcher is now concentrating on getting funding for the film and he is keeping a backlog of other stories he has to tell.
"I really think Richard Dutcher has the perspective of where we need to go with Mormon cinema," BYU-I student Spencer Stapleton said. "He's out to make an impact through his film's content."
Dutcher is just one of many high-profile names in the LDS community to recently speak on the BYU-I campus. Others include Sheri L. Dew, chief executive officer of Deseret Book, and Rear Adm. Richard B. Porterfield of the U.S. Navy.
For 20 years, fans of Jack Weyland's LDS teen novel "Charly" waited to see how the title heroine would come across on film.
For a year, actress Heather Beers wondered if they would approve.
"It was much more nerve-wracking waiting for this baby to hit the screen than it was filming it," said Beers, the Salt Lake City actress who starred in "Charly," which was released to theaters on Sept. 27. "Filming it was a blast. You don't think about how it's going to turn out."
The film, by first-time director Adam Anderegg, received middling reviews from critics, but even those who didn't like the film generally liked Beers. Steve Salles, writing for the Ogden Standard-Examiner, called her "the perfect Charly"; Sean P. Means, at the Salt Lake Tribune, said she "shows impressive range." The Daily Herald review said she was "splendid," with "charm, energy and wit."
Beers was glad to have the approval of the critics, but even more glad that fans of the book liked her.
"That was a big old fat relief," she said. "Put yourself 30 feet high on a screen and let people poke at you, see how you like it."
At the film's special premiere screening, Beers was approached by a woman who said, "You better be good, because I loved this book."
"Afterward, she came out with big puffy eyes, crying, and just hugged me and said, 'Thank you, that's just how she should have been,'" Beers recalled.
She said she was happy to have not disappointed people. "They paid seven bucks to see it, dude, you don't want to disappoint," she said.
Shooting for the film lasted 20 days in the fall of 2001. It was Beers' feature-film debut, though acting has been in her blood since her childhood in Southern California, where her mother directed community theater.
The 32-year-old Beers, who in conversation is often as light-hearted and funny as Charly herself, continued acting occasionally while at the University of Utah, where she majored in English. Her biggest credit before "Charly" was an episode of the USA Network's series "Cover Me."
"I got drowned and poisoned," she said. "I was poisoned first, didn't know it, went for the exercise swim, and drowned. They had the underwater shot, where your eyes are open and you're floating. Very dramatic stuff."
Beers has been married for 10 years to "the best boy that ever lived." She won't give his name out of concern for their privacy; she is also mum on her two young boys.
She and her husband run a communications and marketing firm in Salt Lake City -- a firm that has yet to get a name. "We're branding everyone else, but we haven't named ourselves yet," she mused.
"Charly" has grossed about $550,000 so far, with weekend per-screen averages in the $1,400 range -- not stellar, but solid, and surprisingly consistent. Where most films see a large drop-off from week to week, "Charly's" audience has been steady.
"I think it touches on universal themes that anyone, anywhere, will understand," Beers said of the movie's appeal. "It's about people coming together through differences to love each other."
Beers still goes to auditions regularly but has no plans to give up her day job and act full time. "Acting is something that I enjoy a lot," she said. "But there are a lot of things that I like to do. For now I'm just enjoying life."
LDS Cinema marched on in 2002, though some movies found an obstacle at the Utah state line.
The most popular new title was "The Singles Ward," Kurt Hale's romantic comedy... "Charly," the "Love Story"-like drama based on Jack Weyland's novel, cleared more than $500,000 at the box office, mostly from LDS audiences. Crossover dreams also eluded the LDS-themed movies "Handcart" and "Out of Step."
RATING (0 TO ****): ** 1/2
Adam Thomas Anderegg's CHARLY is a romantic comedy/drama that's something akin to a Mormon version of LOVE STORY. They even passed out free Kleenex at our screening, which many members of our audience found quite handy.
I have to confess that I'm a fan of Mormon movies, a tiny genre that flies below the radar screen of most critics. Their production values are high, being handsomely shot, warmly scored and well acted without a trace of Hollywood pomposity. They are also naturally funny, with characters never ashamed to laugh at themselves.
Playing the Ali MacGraw part, Heather Beers steals the show as Charlene "Charly" Riley, an art major from Manhattan. With a model's physique and creamy skin, she is a stunner who easily turns heads. Supremely self-confident, she has spunk to burn. Currently living with Mark Reynolds (Adam Johnson), her would-be fiance, she has come to Utah to visit her parents.
Reluctantly, Sam Roberts (Jeremy Elliott) accepts a bribe from his father to meet Charly at the airport and show her Salt Lake City's highlights. He's an Information Technology major who says that he "laughs responsibly" once his work is done. In short, he's as rigid as Charly is a free spirit. As an actor, Elliott is too much of a blank slate, in contrast to Beers, who, when she's given the right lines, can charm the paint off the wall.
Janine Whetten-Gilbert's script, based on Jack Weyland's novel, goes wrong at several key junctures. No sooner has Charly laid eyes on the rather homely Sam than she instantly falls for him. Similarly, her first introduction to the church is quickly followed by her complete conversion. The audience needed and deserved some character development and buildup to these life changing events in Charly's life. And I could have done without the whole sappy last act since, as a romantic comedy, the picture had considerable success. It didn't need to tug at our heartstrings to make us like it.
What I'm most likely to remember about the film aren't any of its problems, but Beers's delightfully playful performance. There is a scene set on a Ferris wheel that is improbable but especially sweet and inviting. Charly takes most of the bribe that Sam got from his dad and purchases the world's longest ride. I'll bet that you'll wish it was you, and not Sam, sitting next to her as their world turns.
CHARLY runs 1:43. It is rated PG for "thematic elements" and would be acceptable for all ages.
The film is playing in very limited release now in the United States. In the Silicon Valley, it will be coming this month to the AMC Saratoga.