A low point in LDS-targeted filmmaking
DAY OF DEFENSE - * [1 out of 4 stars] - Andrew Lenz, Brooks Utley, Michelle Wright, John Foss, Allan Groves, Lillith Fields, James Westwood; rated PG (violence); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for theater listings.
"Inherit the Wind" this ain't. Although, come to think of it, "Day of Defense" is pretty windy. However, seemingly endless scenes filled with religious and theological pontificating aren't the only things wrong with this drama, which is based on A. Melvin McDonald's best-selling novel. This well-intentioned but considerably flawed film is so stagy and so ham-fisted that it practically begs to be mocked by audiences, and it wears out its welcome in a hurry.
On the surface, "Day of Defense" would seem to have a lot going for it, not the least of which is a premise based on a subject -- religious freedom -- that's been on a lot of minds lately. Especially locally.
The subject is examined through the experiences of two LDS missionaries -- Elder Burke (John Foss) and Elder Davis (Allan Groves). They've just arrived in Marysville, a (fictional) Midwest community that's not exactly open to proselytizing. In fact, the town has a law that prevents anyone from preaching within city limits unless they have a license to do so. And the only way to get such a license is to go before the Christian Town Council, which seems dead-set against giving them one.
So to prove their point, they take their disagreement to the courts. However, they've got quite a challenge facing them when they have to convince the public defender, Thomas Bryant (Andrew Lenz), to even take the case. He's extremely reluctant to do so. And it's not just because he's afraid to incur the town's wrath. It turns out the prosecuting attorney is his best friend, James Radner (Brooks Utley), who wants to preserve the status quo at all costs.
This film may mark the low point of the recent glut of LDS-specific filmmaking. Its message is hammered home with such a lack of subtlety, and its characters are so unlikable, that you may wish for them to fail in their efforts.
And the rather amateurish performances by all involved don't help. Utley and James Westwood (one of the film's producers) practically twirl moustaches as the villains, while Lenz (who also wrote this adaptation) sometimes has the look of a deer caught in the headlights.
"Day of Defense" is rated PG for two brief scenes of violence (a scuffle and a vehicular accident, which is overheard but not shown). Running time: 102 minutes.
Day of Defense
Rated PG for thematic elements; 102 minutes; opening today at area theaters.
* [1 out of 4 stars]
Where's the ACLU when you need it? That's what two LDS missionaries (John Foss and Allan Groves) should be asking when they arrive in a town where a "Christian town council" issues licenses to control who can proselytize, First Amendment be damned. The elders are arrested and assigned a public defender (Andrew Lenz) who must prove in court that Mormons are Christians. This windy entry in the Mormon Cinema genre (based on a Deseret Book title by A. Melvin McDonald) delivers its message with all the heavy-handedness of a Jack Webb anti-communist propaganda film, handicapped by stilted dialogue, wooden acting, shoddy cinematography and an oppressive power-ballad soundtrack. Even the faithful may find it a long row to hoe.
Rated PG for mild crude humor; 88 minutes; opening today everywhere.
* 1/2 [1.5 out of 4 stars]
Matthew Broderick does not make a good dog. That agitated Ferris Bueller voice is more appropriate for a cat, or maybe even a hamster, than for the wirehair terrier to which it's attached in this insipid kiddie comedy. Broderick's dog character, Hubble, is adopted by a friendless 10-year-old, Owen (Liam Aiken), who learns that his new pooch is really an interstellar emissary from a race of dogs -- with a warning that all dogdom may have to leave if they can't prove they run the planet. Broderick's misplaced voice-over is just one miscalculation of many, amid the lame special effects, poorly sketched parents (Molly Shannon and Kevin Nealon) and forcing the great Carl Reiner to give voice to an old sheepdog's comments about flatulence. Bad dog!
Manna from Heaven [a Catholic-made movie]
Rated PG for language and some sexual references; 119 minutes; opening today at the Madstone Trolley Square Theaters.
* [1 out of 4 stars]
Five sisters from Buffalo produced this shoddy and sappy comedy-drama, proof that Utah has not cornered the market on bad regional cinema. An extended family once received a windfall when cash flew into their front yard -- and years later, one sibling, a nun (Sister No. 3, Ursula Burton), lays a guilt trip on the others to pay the money back. Thus, co-directors Gabrielle C. and Maria Burton (sisters No. 4 and No. 1) put a "Love Boat" worth of underemployed TV actors -- Shirley Jones, Frank Gorshin, Cloris Leachman and "Just Shoot Me's" Wendie Malick among them -- through a dumbly contrived plot (written by the Burtons' mom, Gabrielle B.). The movie's cloying cuteness and homespun sanctimony make the low production values even harder to forgive.
It seems odd that a film that tries so hard to inspire people to check out the Mormon Church appears to never have entered one of the other churches it uses as comparison.
Case in point in "Day of Defense": a rousing Southern Baptist gospel choir rocking the house at the local Catholic Church? I don't think so.
Anyway, two Mormon missionaries are assigned to a small Western town that doesn't take kindly to outsiders. A Christian town council decides who and what is said about Jesus -- and holds the opinion that Mormons know very little about the man from Galilee.
The two missionaries are ordered to appear in court because they lack the necessary license to preach in Sweetwater County.
A new judge agrees to put the Mormons on trial to see if they can prove they are actually Christian. (During this whole ordeal, I'm asking myself: Is this taking place in the United States? Has anyone in this movie ever heard of that whole freedom of religion thing?)
Apparently not, as we are forced to endure a painstaking, step-by-step explanation using a variety of quoted scripture to plead the case for Christianity.
Throughout, the so-called Christian townspeople aren't very friendly to these young missionaries. Kids throw rocks at them and old ladies turn their garden hoses on them.
The two local attorneys assigned to argue the case have been the kings of the plea bargains. But not now. They practically become bitter enemies, acting as if this is the greatest trial they will ever be involved in. Their respective wives are just as cranky.
It's all so mean-spirited and over the top that it starts to take on the feeling of a melodrama.
The filmmakers throw in a couple of extra twists designed to create some much-needed emotion, but the scenes come off as tragically laughable.
The script is so stilted that the acting has no choice but to be awkward and unnatural. Even the poor elders, whom we should feel some sympathy for, turn into pesky brats -- throwing temper tantrums on several occasions.
The only bright spot in this dismally lit and badly shot production is the soundtrack, which offers a few heartfelt tunes that were much more powerful than anything in the movie.
Faithful in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have got to be asking: Is someone, somewhere, going to get one of these movies right?
I was beginning to wonder until I saw "The Best Two Years," a film due in theaters in late February 2004. This well-made movie does get it right and will set the bar high for future projects in the LDS genre.
So, unless something surprising comes along in the next few months, you'll just have to grin and bear it until mid-winter.
THE FILM: "Day of Defense"
OUR RATING: *
STARRING: Andrew Lenz, Brooks Utley, Michelle Wright, John Foss, Allan Groves, Jim Westwood, Salina Starr and Bryce Chamberlain
BEHIND THE SCENES: Directorial debut of Adam Lawson
PLAYING: North Pointe, Layton Tinseltown. Runs 102 minutes.
MPAA RATING: PG
As the single worst Mormon-themed movie so far -- a record that I hope stands for a long time -- "Day of Defense" should be considered an embarrassment not just to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but to film-goers in general. In fact, even non-film-goers -- even obscure humans who have never set foot in a movie theater -- ought to be dismayed that a movie of this caliber was created by their fellow man. A national day of mourning ought to be set aside, and then there ought to be mass suicides.
Sorry, I go a little too far in my hyperbole sometimes. But the movie is bad. Based on an unworkable premise, written with an irredeemably bad ear for dialogue, enacted by seemingly untalented performers, and shot in many too-dark rooms on cheap-looking digital video, this is a film of astounding badness. It is jaw-droppingly, paralyzingly, laughably bad. It ranks not just as the worst Mormon film ever, but as one of the two or three worst films I've seen all year. And I saw "From Justin to Kelly"!
It is based on a book by A. Melvin McDonald that uses a courtroom setting to present a series of basic arguments and refutations regarding LDS doctrine. Someone says, "Well, what about THIS apparent contradiction," and the Mormon replies, "It can be explained THIS way," and so on, eventually "proving" the LDS Church is true. Missionaries like it because it helps them with the sort of discussions they get involved in on a daily basis.
Well, someone decided to expand this plot-free book into a movie. This meant either continuing to exist without a plot, or coming up with one. The problem is, how do you arrange to have two Mormon missionaries on the stand in a United States courtroom, charged, essentially, with believing a religion whose doctrines are false? In real life, in the real United States, such a trial could not occur, as there is no such thing as a doctrine so untrue that it is against the law to believe it. The book is fine as a rhetorical exercise, but to try to work it into a story set in modern-day America? Impossible.
Yet the film tries to do just that, putting two missionaries -- stubborn, road-weary Elder Burke (John Foss) and young, inexperienced Elder Davis (Allan Groves) -- in a little picket-fenced town called Marysville. To proselytize here requires a license, and to get a license, you have to prove to the Christian Town Council -- a Legion of Doom-style board consisting of ministers from the five accepted local religions, dressed at all times in their preaching costumes -- that you represent a Christian faith. (Heaven help the Jew in Marysville!) The CTC says Mormons aren't Christians; hence, no license, and the missionaries have to get out of town.
But not so fast. The town judge, a woman who I believe may be an android, thinks it would be interesting to run a test case on the CTC's rules. (She's only been judge there a month, and already the locals don't cotton to her way of doing things.) JudgeBot instructs the district attorney, James Radner (Brooks Utley), to prosecute the missionaries, and public defender Thomas Bryant (Andrew Lenz) to defend them -- not on charges of preaching without a license, mind you, but of not being Christian.
Somehow, Radner and Bryant -- lifelong friends whose families have dinner together each week -- made it through law school and passed the bar exam without ever realizing that being non-Christian is not against the law in the United States. At no point in this film is the First Amendment invoked, mentioned or referred to.
So you can see how already I am having trouble with the movie, when I can't even accept its basic premise as being remotely plausible. In a backwoods town 50 years ago? Maybe. MAYBE. But in 2003 in a town that, albeit small, has cops, a judge, indoor plumbing and what appears to be a normal level of sophistication and intelligence among its townspeople? No. This trial simply couldn't happen in the real world. (Oh, I forgot to mention: This is a JURY trial, too, composed of locals, even though it's well-established that the locals hate Mormons, making them the least impartial jury in recent memory.)
So somehow, the trial happens. Radner lets the town's pastors and ministers grill the missionaries for a day, except the missionaries aren't really allowed to defend themselves, making the film's title a bit of a misnomer. They just have to listen while the prosecution cites one scripture after another to demonstrate that Mormon doctrine is false. Elder Davis puts on his defeated, uncomfortable face, while Elder Burke remains stoic. They then have a week to prepare their defense. I don't know why a lawyer is even necessary; Bryant is certainly no use assisting them in the organization and explanation of their beliefs, since he thinks Mormons are as wrong as everyone else in town does.
So the film's plugging away, slowly and dully. The acting is uniformly flat and unconvincing, with many awkward, silent pauses in the dialogue. A lot of Peter Breinholt songs play on the soundtrack while the missionaries and Bryant talk and try to convert each other. The elders try to ingratiate themselves among the townspeople, who throw rocks at them. (Where is this strange, magical American town where EVERY SINGLE CITIZEN is THIS passionate about religion?) A local tramp (Lillith Fields) commits vague, unsexy acts of flirtation with Elder Davis. It is all tedious and poorly acted and awful, and you think it can't get any worse.
And then -- and this is really something special, some kind of hell-spawned miracle -- somehow, the film GETS WORSE! Yes! A major plot event occurs that causes the bottom to drop out altogether, quality-wise. I won't spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that it's really, really funny and isn't supposed to be. At that point, the film abandons all hope of salvaging itself. It is lost forever to the realm of bad filmmaking. We loved it, we tried to help it, but it had its free agency, and it chose darkness.
What amuses me most about "Day of Defense," which was directed by first-timer Adam Lawson, is that, despite being made by LDS people about LDS missionaries, it exhibits an alarming lack of knowledge of how LDS missionaries work. Missionaries haven't been in Marysville in a while, yet the elders already have an apartment there, waiting for them. (Evidently the mission has been paying rent on an empty flat all this time.) And there's no local LDS ward or branch, which means the elders wouldn't have been sent there anyway: They'd have been sent to wherever the nearest congregation was and simply included Marysville in their working area. (Maybe they're living in Marysville but covering a neighboring town, too, where the local ward is. But in that case, they'd need a car, or at least bikes, and they have neither.) And how did the mission office not know about Marysville's anti-preaching law? They're paying for an apartment in a town that won't even let their elders pound the pavement? Those are some seriously wasted tithing dollars, my friends.
Where the film seems to be heading is to convince us the LDS Church's doctrines are true doctrines of God. You expect it to end with the jury being converted and baptized, or the CTC bursting into flames, or something like that. Such a preachy outcome would have been heavy-handed, true, but at least then the movie would have had a point, serving as the celluloid version of a Mormon missionary pamphlet. Instead, it ends ambiguously, with a resolution that makes you think, "Well, what fetch was the point, then?" At least that's what I thought, though my exact words might have been slightly stronger.
I don't believe there is a single event in this film that is plausible, likely or even possible. It exists on some other plane, an entirely different reality from the one we know, where the laws of the United States are meaningless, where LDS missions are governed entirely differently, and where no one notices the quaintness of Mormon actors doing a poor job acting in a film where all they have to do is act like non-Mormons.
Rated PG for I don't know, a lot of arguing, I guess
1 hr., 42 min.
Though a worthy effort, "Day of Defense" proved to be a typical Mormon movie crippled by a low budget.
Not that the movie was completely bad. The story and message of the film were strong and gave the film some depth. But it became evident early on that this was director Adam Lawson's first feature film attempt.
With most mormon-based films, the actors come out of Utah with very little film experience. So it is with "Day of Defense."
The story begins with two missionaries played by John Foss and Allan Groves. They enter a fictional county called Sweetwater, somewhere in Middle America. Because the film was shot in Utah, it just so happens that Sweetwater has the Wasatch Mountain Range running through it.
As the missionaries enter a new town, they soon discover Sweetwater County has a law that prohibits non-Christians from proselytizing (which violates the First Amendment, but we'll assume this clause doesn't apply to Sweetwater).
The missionaries are appointed a defense attorney, who, reluctantly, must prove to a local jury that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are in fact Christian.
The film belongs on ABC Family on a Saturday night. Nobody would be home to watch it and that would probably be a good thing.
The story itself makes one wonder if it stayed true to the book it was adapted from. A. Melvin McDonald originally wrote "Day of Defense" back in the 1960s.
Some of the choices made in the film seemed as though they were not thought out at all. For instance, on both of the conservative female judge's hands, she has several rocker-girl-like rings on each finger. What does this mean?
Another aspect that doesn't feel right is that one of the elders flirts with a girl in the town and seems to be building a romantic relationship with her.
How about the time the missionaries decide not to inform their mission president they are going to defend the church in a court of law?
So the film takes some liberties, and in order for the audience to enjoy this story, they must accept the world they are presented with. Including the evil Christian Town Council, whose acting ability makes Screech from "Saved by the Bell" look like an Emmy winner.
The rest of the cast's performances were not the worst I've seen. But if their acting was anything like the missionary program, the church would be in big trouble.
The heart of this film comes to the surface when the missionaries are defending the church in the courtroom scenes. During these moments, what should have given the film strength instead turned into the cheesy Bible bashing we have all heard a hundred times.
It is difficult to make a well- thought-out film with a low budget, but the creators of "Day of Defense" made it look impossible. Everyone attached to this film must have gone out to lunch and never come back.
Even though it feels as though it should be shown on Lifetime, "Day of Defense" is at best a worthy effort to a unique story.
* [1 out of 4 stars]
Attention, makers of Mormon-themed films: If you charge people the same $7.50 they would pay for any other movie, expect to be held to the same standard. And by that standard, Day of Defense is just plain bad. Andrew Lenz plays a public defender forced to represent a pair of LDS missionaries challenging a staunchly religious Middle American town's ordinance prohibiting preaching without a license. A sort of Mormon Inherit the Wind follows, filled with ugly video images, ridiculous characterizations and a tragic plot turn that only forces the actors into more amateurish performances. Even the central conflict is unpleasantly petty, since the missionaries aren't arguing that everyone has a First Amendment right to preach, but that Mormons should be considered "Christian" under the town's narrow guidelines (Translation: Exclusion is fine, provided we're included). Please, put that $7.50 in the collection plate, where it might do some good in the world. (PG)