*** [3 out of 4 stars]
Set in the 1950's, The Other Side of Heaven is a story about John Groberg (Christopher Gorham), a young man from Idaho Falls who is in love with Jean Sabin (Anne Hathaway), but also committed to the Mormon Church. He decides to embark on a two-and-a-half year mission to the Tongan islands, where he must learn the native language, become friends with the inhabitants, and spread the faith by converting as many of the islanders as he can. He has a companion during his work, Feki (Joe Folau), who helps him with the language and the two become good friends. John wants Jean to wait for him and not marry anyone else before he returns, though both of the characters endure hardships in The Other Side of Heaven.
Many critics have attacked The Other Side of Heaven for coming across as too preachy and insulting, even condescending, but such comments really seem mean-spirited. The critics who have bashed the film with such reckless abandon really seemed to miss the point of the movie, which is not primarily about religion and conversion to the Mormon Church. The movie is actually a beautifully shot film that captures the difficulties of interacting with a totally different culture, learning their language, and understanding their customs. Ultimately, viewers will notice that John undergoes the most significant growth through his journey, not the natives who he converts.
The Other Side of Heaven is a slow-paced movie for the most part, but the wonderful cinematography and funny, witty script carry it through most of the slower moments. The acting is strong throughout, too, even without an established cast of stars. A few scenes in the movie seem to be a bit preachy and the movie basically presents the message that John's faith is correct and infallible. Nevertheless, concentrating mostly on the main plot point, which is really the relationships that John establishes with the islanders, viewers should really enjoy the movie.
The Other Side of Heaven is not really a romance movie, but it has strong romantic elements without being sappy or overly sentimental. Teenagers looking for a fast-paced and exciting movie with a daring and adventurous plot definitely have the wrong film. Still, moviegoers who do not mind a slower moving, funny movie about one man's experience far from home in a beautiful and unfamiliar land will really enjoy The Other Side of Heaven.
** [2 out of 5 stars]
The critical acclaim for "The Other Side of Heaven" comes from three Utah newspapers, CNN's Larry King and conservative film critic Michael Medved.
So it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a Mormon family movie, and a sappy, preachy one at that.
Christopher Gorham stars in the true story of John Groberg, an Idaho farm boy attending Brigham Young University in 1953.
John is a free spirit -- well, as much as one is permitted at BYU during the 1950s. He meets Jean (Anne Hathaway of "The Princess Diaries") at a school dance and asks her to wait for him until he returns from his mission.
"No matter where they send me, we'll be under the same moon," he says. (This sets up the squeaky-clean "True Love Waits" subplot of the film.)
John later learns that he's headed thousands of miles to Tonga in the South Pacific with the assignment to "learn the language" and "build a kingdom." Following the fish-of-out-water playbook, first-time director Mitch Davis serves up the usual assortment of odd customs, odder food and John's struggles to learn the language.
John has help from his church-assigned companion Feki (native Tongan Joe Folau), the only other person who speaks English. They encounter resistance from the villagers, typhoons and fierce seas.
The film's problem is that it's just not very compelling. John overcomes obstacle after obstacle, starting with the temptation of a young island woman, moving on to flesh-eating rats and ending with a typhoon that devastates the island.
It's the typhoon scene, when the island waits for weeks for supplies, that's tragically neglected. What better time to explore the commitment to faith than when you're trapped on an island thousands of miles from home, slowly starving to death?
The film also never deals with the issue of whether it's proper for Christians to impose their beliefs (and later their culture) on the Tongans, who seems quite happy with their own beliefs. Could the Tongans live peaceful and charitable lives without reading "The Book of Mormon" and listening to "The Lone Ranger"?
It feels, well, impolite to be harsh on a film so deliberately wholesome, but there are just so many questions. How many razors did the perpetually clean-shaven John bring? How do you keep those white shirts looking so freshly starched and pressed on a tropical island? And how did all the islanders learn to not only speak perfect English by the end of John's mission, but also beautifully sing "God Be With You Till We Meet Again"?
Movies don't get much more wholesome and earnest than The Other Side Of Heaven, a handsomely mounted but empty-headed drama that attempts to do for fresh-faced Mormon missionaries what Top Gun did for cocky fighter pilots. Adapted from the memoirs of John H. Groberg, whose story seems designed to single-handedly refute the maxim that nobody's perfect, Heaven documents the super-missionary's Eisenhower-era adventures saving souls and taking names. Heaven begins at Brigham Young University, where Groberg (Christopher Gorham) must bid his best gal (Anne Hathaway) goodbye before heading off to the Tongan Islands. The film's first few moments include a burst of nostalgic sentimentality and Norman Rockwell-style Americana, but its perversely anachronistic worldview doesn't become fully apparent until it reaches the Tongan Islands. At first, Gorham has a tiny bit of difficulty, due to his inability to speak the local language and the opposition of a h! ostile rival minister, but after an intense studying-with-a-Bible montage sequence, Gorham is transformed into a lean, squeaky-clean, soul-saving machine. With the help of his adoring native sidekick, Gorham sets about turning the Tongan people into non-smoking, non-drinking, tie-wearing, English-speaking Mormons. He succeeds with almost comic ease. Without bothering with newfangled moral or cultural relativism, The Other Side Of Heaven takes it as a given that accepting Christianity and becoming Westernized is an inherent good that benefits everyone; accordingly, it doesn't feature a single character who feels otherwise. A Christ-like do-gooder whose faith never wavers for a millisecond, Gorham is clearly intended to serve as an inspirational figure to faith-minded youngsters. But he's such a wildly implausible caricature of moral perfection—Heaven is basically Ned Flanders: The Missionary Yearsthat his faith and devotion have nowhere near t! he power that they would if he were a more complicated, conflicted, or human figure. The Tongan people all but worship Gorham and his Western ways, and by the end of the film, they seem prepared to move to Utah, vote for Ike, and bake apple pies and stitch American flags in their spare time. A postcard-pretty Sunday-school lecture in film form, Heaven preaches gingerly to the converted, but even the faithful are likely to see through its black-and-white moral universe.
Editor's Note from Maurine Proctor: Meridian's film editor, Kieth Merrill, is a sort of father figure to the rising generation of LDS filmmakers. At Meridian, we get hundreds of letters from the hopeful asking Kieth for everything from his help breaking into film to his opinion on the latest offering in the world of "Mormon Cinema". People look to him not only because of his long list of successful films, his many awards--including an Oscar -- or his filmmaking gems, Legacy and Testaments, but because his savvy and insights have been honed in a few trips around the filmmaking block. So, finally it was my turn to ask a question.
I have quoted President Kimball so often that you must wonder if he was the last General Authority I ever listened to. He isn't. But few of the Brethren have articulated the vision and power of Mormon media and movies any better.
"The full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculptured nor spoken, [nor filmed]. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy.
"Our writers, our moving picture specialists, with the inspiration of heaven, should tomorrow be able to produce a masterpiece which would live forever. Such masterpieces should run for months in every movie center, cover every part of the globe in the tongues of the people, written by the great artists, purified by the best critics."
We believe in prophets. Prophecy defines our lives and bolsters our confidence in the future. We all imagine and even foresee that the day of the epic Mormon films will come. Some have mistakenly hailed "Mormon Cinema" as the dawning of that great day. For a lot of reasons -- with a few isolated exceptions like Other Side of Heaven -- with a big enough budget and broad enough appeal to have a shot at crossover -- it isn't.
Is the buzz we hear about Book of Mormon movies the opening of that ultimate era? Are these "epic" Book of Mormon films a shimmer of prophecy rising? Probably not. Neither project is designed nor destined for "every movie center" nor "every part of the globe," at least according to the respective producers.
Only two years after being converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Anita Schiller had the opportunity to be a part of the making of "The Other Side of Heaven."
"I had only been a member of the church for two years, and seeing the reverence of the film-making process - even though none of the film crew or actors were members - was really neat to see," Schiller said. "When the spirit is present, people can feel it whether they choose to or not."
"The Other Side of Heaven" is a film based on the memoirs of Elder John H. Groberg during his mission to the Tongan islands.
The film follows his "journey of faith" during the course of his mission. It documents his trials from learning the language to surviving a horrendous hurricane.
The book, "Journey of Faith: The Making of the Other Side of Heaven," visually takes the reader through the film-making process, side by side with actual pictures, letters and journal entries from Elder Groberg's mission.
Schiller volunteered her photography skills to document the making of the film.
"I met the director, Mitch Davis, shortly before the filming began," Schiller said. "When he told us about the film I jokingly said he would need a photographer to document the process. Three weeks later I was on the set in New Zealand."
Schiller said photography has always been her hobby and until now, her dream has been to make a book.
Including the photography talents of photographers Ken George and Hugh Hogle, her dream has come true.
For Schiller, being on the set was truly an amazing experience. Crewmembers even told Schiller they were pleased to be working on a project that was not just about worldly things.
When documenting the film, Schiller said she took pictures of whatever interested her.
"I was not hired, I was there as a guest so I took pictures of what intrigued me," Schiller said. "My pictures document behind the scenes of the movie."
Schiller's pictures include the scenery, the extras, the towns and the equipment. To Schiller, these pictures tell more about the making of the movie and the story itself.
"The really neat part of the book is that Elder Groberg let us put in pages from his mission journal," Schiller said.
The journal entries add an element of reality to the story and to the purpose of the film.
"The film is so wonderful because it really touches people in a way to think about missions or even investigating the church," Schiller said.
To Schiller, this is why making the book was such a great experience.
Schiller's hopes for the book are not about the sales, but about how the book can touch the lives of those who read it.
"I hope people take the time to read the words in the book," Schiller said. "If they do that, they will get pulled along on the journey as well."
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."
"The Other Side of Heaven," the missionary tale that hit Utah theaters in 2001, went nationwide in April 2002 and did a fair amount of business -- clearing more than half its $4.7 million box-office take after the national rollout.
"Nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget," obsessed loner Saul Parrish (Robin Williams) observes in "One Hour Photo." Likewise, the movie year of 2002 certainly had its share of unforgettable, indelible images.
Many of us saw Tobey Maguire plant a 180-degree smooch on Kirsten Dunst in Sam Raimi's $400 million- grossing "Spider-Man." Slightly fewer of us were captivated by a naked Inuit sprinting for his life across a frozen tundra in "The Fast Runner." And then, perhaps the year's most artistically frame-able shot: MTV sadomasochist Johnny Knoxville driving over his own head with a golf cart in "Jackass: The Movie."
Of course, when he was waxing poetic about pictures, ol' Saul probably wasn't thinking about the down-on-their luck filmmakers who would be delighted to forget about the film they exposed in 2002, including Jonathan Demme ("The Truth About Charlie"), Andrew Niccol ("Simone"), Paul Schrader ("Auto Focus") and Barry Sonnenfeld ("Big Trouble"). All told, those four high-profile, star-laden movies grossed less than $30 million, not enough to pay for Peter Jackson's craft services.
However, on the whole, 2002 was a profitable year for Hollywood. Movie theater admissions climbed to about 1.488 billion this year -- about five for every American -- the highest number since 1959 and a hefty 10 percent increase over last year.
Credit the resurgence of the event movie. When the dust settles, "Spider-Man" and a quartet of sequels ("Men in Black 2," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers") will have alone generated about $1.5 billion.
With all of these cinematic titans shuffling in and out of theaters, it might be easy to forget that 2002 was a boffo year for independent cinema, led by "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," unqualifiedly a small- production success story for the ages ($213.9 million).
Other indies fared less well with audiences but better with critics: Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven," Michael Moore's scathing gun documentary "Bowling For Columbine"...
Two years ago, pundits were in a huff, labeling 2000 the "worst year ever" for American film, and when a handsome piece of broadsword fluff such as "Gladiator" can win a Best Picture Oscar, they might have had a point. This year, from a critical standpoint, was much more distinguished.
We had the pleasure to witness a handful of legitimate breakout performances by actors and actresses with fantastically bright futures, including a complex, soulful turn by Derek Luke ("Antwone Fisher"), two masterful performances from delinquent specialist Kieran Culkin ("Igby Goes Down," "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys") and brilliant work from Aussie transplant Naomi Watts ("The Ring"), the thinking man's scream queen.
Faith-based cinema continued to win converts in 2002, ranging from the tolerable ("Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie," "Joshua") to the utterly sacrilegious ("Left Behind 2"). Mormon audiences were treated to a sanguine vision of missionary work in "The Other Side of Heaven," which should at least make up a little for Trey Parker's somewhat less pious take on the subject in "Orgasmo" (1999).
Not everything found such an auspicious niche market. Among the worst offenders were a pair of irredeemably violent and nihilistic movies that practically no one wanted to see ("Formula 51" and "The Rules of Attraction") along with twin visions of free-and- loose 20-something sexuality ("40 Days and 40 Nights" and "The Sweetest Thing") that would make Christina Aguilera herself want to take an oath of celibacy. Not a pretty picture, is it?
Books are often adapted and made into movies. Sometimes the movie is better than the book but not often. A book on which a movie is based in the vernacular of Hollywood talk is called "the property". It makes me shudder to think of the Book of Mormon in such crass commercial terms.
I did not need your comments to be reminded that the Book of Mormon is not Tolkien's, Lord of The Rings, or Rowling's, Harry Potter. And in the realms of Mormon Cinema, it can hardly be equated with Groberg's Eye of the Storm -- or Charly, by Jack Weyland.
...The Book of Mormon is scripture. It is revelation from God. It is sacred text. It is the keystone of our religion. It is the most correct of any book on earth. It is published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Funny how things turn out sometimes. There was freelance photographer Anita Schiller at a party, talking to Mitch Davis, who was about to start filming "The Other Side of Heaven."
She jokingly told him, "Every good film needs a photographer to document the filmmaking process." They all laughed. But three weeks later, she found herself flying down to the Cook Islands to do just that.
"I'd never even been on a movie set," said the California-based photographer during a recent visit to Salt Lake City. She spent a month with the film crew on the islands, watching and learning about the filmmaking process from behind the scenes. "The most interesting thing for me was seeing the effect the film had on the cast and crew. They were not members of the (LDS) Church, they were not familiar with the story. Many of them were what you think of as typical 'Hollywood types' -- into body-piercing, smoking, drinking. But they had a reverence for the story. They didn't smoke on the set. They made a real effort to show respect."
"The Other Side of Heaven," which tells the story of the experiences of Elder John H. Groberg, who served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the remote island kingdom of Tonga during the 1950s, was released in theaters nationally in April 2002 and will be released on video later this year. Schiller's book, "Journey of Faith: The Making of the Other Side of Heaven," (Vantage Point Press, 224 pages, $39.95) landed in stores in November.
The biggest difference between the book and the film, Schiller said, is that the "film was intended for the world. It is a wonderful story of faith, romance and adventure set in a beautiful place" that anyone can relate to. But the book is intended for those who already know the story.
"It is meant to be a mechanism for people familiar with the story to dig deeper, to learn more about the filming. It doesn't re-tell the entire story; it's not intended to." What it does do, through memos and remembrances of filmmakers Mitch Davis, John Garbett and Gerald R. Molen, is describe how the project came to be, how it evolved from idea to finished project. The book includes art-quality photographs taken by Schiller and other still photographers and includes historical photos and journal excerpts provided by the Grobergs.
The text is minimal but chosen for effect, she says. For example, Groberg talks about his struggle with the language in a March excerpt from his diary. "Then," Schiller said, "by July, he is writing in Tongan. To see that, in his own handwriting, with the dates, makes it real. I wanted people to see that."
Schiller said the book really tells of two parallel journeys -- that of the Grobergs and that of the filmmakers. But they were both journeys we can learn from, she said. "My main message is that with faith and perseverance, anything is possible. There are a lot of examples of that in Groberg's story."
And in the work of the filmmakers. "We had a dream," they write in the introduction, "to make a movie that said something about Mormonism, and to make that movie 'boldly, nobly and independent.' But the dream was huge and we were small, until others joined us to make the dream real."
They talk of investors from across the country; actors from New Zealand, the Cook Islands, New York and California; a technical crew from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada; musicians from London, Los Angeles and Prague. "There were ministers of many faiths who prayed the rain away during our eight weeks of shooting in the Cook Islands. There were car accidents and motorcycle accidents, broken bones and broken hearts."
And while all that came together to help them realize their own dream, there is a message in it for anyone, they say. "To the thousands who read this book, we hope it inspires you to pursue your dreams and take your own journey of faith."
PHOTO CAPTION: Photographer Anita Schiller spent a month with "The Other Side of Heaven" film crew on the Cook Islands.
Commercial LDS films of note include: "God's Army," "Brigham City," "The Other Side of Heaven," "The Singles Ward," "Out of Step," "Charly," "Handcart," and "The RM." Scores of LDS films are currently under production as BYU film graduates try to produce films fast enough to write their story on the plates of gold that Dutcher has unearthed.