Several people have written to ask me why, with the recent releases of Pride and Prejudice and Halestorm's latest feature The Home Teachers, I haven't written any reviews of these films. The fact is that I have been sequestered from the world in preparation for some very important exams that are just around the corner for me, and it would take something extraordinary to bring me out of my cocoon right now. Well, actually it took TWO extraordinary things...
...By the way, in case you haven't been counting, The Best Two Years is the 15th LDS Cinema feature film (not counting The Legend of Johnny Lingo, which is not technically LDS Cinema, although a large portion of its audience has certainly consisted of members of the church familiar with the original Brigham Young University-produced short film).
[Not reproduced here is a detailed review of "The Best Two Years."]
Saints and Soldiers
The other extraordinary event that has brought me once again to the reviewer's desk is the recent announcement that Saints and Soldiers, the next scheduled LDS Cinema release, was given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Of course, the filmmakers appealed the decision (the appeal was denied) and have since been working with the MPAA to see if it would be possible to somehow edit the film in such a way that will maintain the integrity of the story and yet meet the association's requirements to at least receive a PG-13 rating.
This is shocking news, especially with the many films that Hollywood releases each year that somehow get a PG-13 rating when it seems quite obvious that they should be rated R. It would seem that by the MPAA's own standards, there is no possible way that Saints and Soldiers deserves an R rating. It is also quite a blow to the film's financial prospects, meaning that the ever-elusive crossover audience becomes all the more important, because regardless of whether the film's content actually deserves that rating or not, there are many Latter-day Saints who will choose not to see it.
I saw the film at the Gloria Film Festival last fall, and I was stunned to hear about the rating. It did not strike me as a particularly violent movie (most of the movie is completely free of violence actually) but of course, being set during World War II, there is some violence involved. You do see some blood, but the subject matter is handled about as tastefully as war can ever be handled, and it certainly isn't a gory film. There is also a little bit of profanity and some of the non-LDS characters smoke in the film, but if this film deserves an R rating because of its violent content, then OBVIOUSLY the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, every single James Bond film and superhero films like Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Batman films should have received R ratings as well, because they are far more violent than Saints and Soldiers. What's more, every single war-themed film in which someone actually dies should receive an instant R. Giving these films a PG-13 and Saints and Soldiers an R seems tantamount to giving Saddam Hussein a slap on the hand and then sending a jay walker to the electric chair.
At a recent film festival, 400 audience members were polled as to what rating they thought Saints and Soldiers would receive. Out of these 400, only 5 people (just over 1%) felt it deserved an R rating. 395 felt that it deserved a PG or PG-13 rating. I don't know. Perhaps the ratings board gave it an R rating because they felt teenagers couldn't possibly handle the sight of seeing Kirby Heybourne, who previously has played squeaky clean LDS characters, holding a cigarette in his hand. The fact is that I shouldn't have been too surprised; not after that same ratings board made The Book of Mormon Movie: Volume 1 the tamest PG-13 movie since that rating was added to the system back in the 1980's.
This is how messed up the system is: By the implication of the wording of the PG-13 rating ("Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13") and according to the ratings given to a number of films, the ratings board apparently believes that it is appropriate for teenagers (13 and older) to see nudity, to be exposed to be repeatedly crude and vulgar language including limited use of the word that used to be known as the R-rated word, and to witness multiple acts of violence where the violence is glorified and free of consequences for anyone except for the characters designated as "bad guys" - even when the behavior of the "good guys" is sometimes as crude as that of the "bad guys." At the same time, according to this same ratings board, apparently a film that tastefully shows that war is not a party, that there are often good people on both sides of war, and that recognizes that there are consequences for violent acts and that in war, sometimes people you care about get hurt, even killed, is not appropriate for those same teenagers to see without an accompanying parent or adult guardian. What's more, this same film has very little profanity, no nudity and no sexuality. Whatever. To me this seems like a blatant inconsistency.
MPAA Ratings Are Inconsistent
The MPAA ratings board does not base their decisions upon the morality of a given film. Their entire function is to try to inform parents about the content of films so that parents can decide if the film is appropriate for their children to see. In fact, their web site (http://www.mpaa.org) states "If you are 18 or over, or if you have no children, the rating system has no meaning for you. Ratings are meant for parents, no one else." Yet to read their description of what content is permissible under each of the ratings, it is clear that the 8-13 people who at any time are members of the board probably do not have the same standards for their children as most LDS parents.
According to the MPAA web site, in a G-rated film "Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions. No stronger words are present in G-rated films." It wasn't that long ago that we used to speak of a film having an obligatory swear word so that it could avoid the G rating and get a PG. Now, apparently, that isn't enough.
In the MPAA description of PG, emphasis is placed on the fact that since PG means parental guidance, there are some things present which "parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, but the parent must make the decision. Parents are warned against sending their children, unseen and without inquiry, to PG-rated movies." According to the site, this material may include, "profanity, ... some violence or Lbrief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance."
As for PG-13, the MPAA site describes it as a film which "leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, or other contents, but does not quite fit within the restricted R category ... If nudity is sexually oriented, the film will generally not be found in the PG-13 category. If violence is too rough or persistent, the film goes into the R (restricted) rating. A film's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, shall initially require the Rating Board to issue that film at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive must lead the Rating Board to issue a film an R rating, as must even one of these words used in a sexual context. These films can be rated less severely, however, if by a special vote, the Rating Board feels that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents."
MPAA Is Not Independent
Of course, that the MPAA ratings board does not share the same values as the average Latter-day Saint, or even with mainstream America in general, is not a new revelation. This is a battle of words that has been going on for years. The PG-13 rating was originally created two decades ago to try and silence the complaints of many who felt too many films that should have been rated R were sneaking through with a PG rating. What many Latter-day Saints may not realize, however, is that the image of the MPAA ratings board as an independent entity handing down sober and impartial judgments is not completely true.
Quoting the MPAA web site yet again: "The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) serves its members from its offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. On its board of directors are the Chairmen and Presidents of the seven major producers and distributors of motion picture and television programs in the United States. These members include: Walt Disney Company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., Paramount Pictures Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Universal Studios, Inc. and Warner Bros." There is nothing independent about the MPAA. It is controlled by Hollywood's major studios. Furthermore, the official title of the motion picture rating system is the "Voluntary Movie Rating System." It was created as a system whereby the studios would advise parents of the content of the films they released. In other words, the studios are essentially rating themselves. The potential for a conflict of interest is obvious - even though the ratings board is not paid directly by any of the studios. Could it be that this possible conflict of interest is in part responsible for the inconsistencies between ratings assigned to Hollywood-distributed blockbusters and independently produced and distributed films like The Book of Mormon Movie and Saints and Soldiers?
Of course, it would be ridiculous for the ratings board to give a G rating to a film that deserves an R. That would shut down the whole system. But isn't it conceivable that there might be some incentive to let major studio releases slide by with a PG-13 rating and increase the potential audience and income of the film? And wouldn't that lead to the general slipping of the scale and lowering of standards that seems to have happened over the years?
It seems apparent that if Hollywood cannot apply a consistent standard to its rating system that applies equally to studio distributed and independent films or if even in applying the ratings system the board has lost touch with the value systems of the average American family that perhaps a stricter, more independent ratings system might be appropriate. In any case, Latter-day Saints are certainly becoming more aware that we cannot rely on any ratings system alone to guide our theater-going decisions. It is up to us to become more informed, using whatever resources we can find (for example screenit.com -- a site which gives detailed information about the content of every major film) as we seek out those films which are "of good report or praiseworthy" and try to avoid those influences that would tear our society apart.
Contrary to popular belief, Kirby Heyborne has not been in every LDS movie ever made. But he has been in quite a few -- especially over the past couple of years.
For those who don't recognize Heyborne's name -- or face -- here's a quick role call:
- In "The Singles Ward," Heyborne co-starred as a would-be missionary waiting for his call.
- In "The R.M.," he starred as the title character, a returned missionary.
- In "The Work and the Story," he had a bit part as a member of a film crew.
- In "The Book of Mormon Movie, Vol. 1: The Journey," he was Sam, the brother of Nephi.
- In "The Best Two Years," which opens today in local theaters, he plays yet another missionary.
- And two upcoming films in which he'll appear are "Saints and Soldiers," a World War II drama, and "Sons of Provo," a boy-band spoof.
"I was not in '(The Legend of) Johnny Lingo,' " he quickly points out, adding with a laugh, "Also, you may not have noticed this, but I'm in the background in Richard Dutcher's movies. I'm playing 'the set.' "
The 27-year-old Heyborne is humble about his rising success in Mormon cinema, as well as his future acting prospects. "I certainly don't think I'm the most talented actor -- here or anywhere. I do think I might be the luckiest one, though. I've either auditioned very well or people just seem to like me. Either that, or they've pitied me and given me jobs. That really is something I should look into."
"The Singles Ward" was his first film; before that, he was selling insurance in Utah County.
Heyborne said he is thankful for the breaks he's received in mostly local feature-film productions. Though he admits that it also led to him being typecast as a missionary. (In real life, he served an LDS mission in the Dominican Republic.)
In "The Best Two Years," Heyborne plays Elder Calhoun, a newly arrived LDS missionary in Holland whose enthusiasm for his work rubs off on his jaded companion, Elder Rogers (KC Clyde). "I'm what they like to call in the industry a 'plot device,' " he said during a telephone interview from Southern California.
Actually, Calhoun, a bit of a naive rube when he first arrives in Holland, is something of a departure for Heyborne. "He's the least cool character I've played -- or maybe he's the most cool one, I'm not exactly sure."
Most of "The Best Two Years" was shot in Alpine, with Heyborne shooting just a few days of exterior footage in the Netherlands. "That was really nice. And the film itself ain't too bad."
Heyborne said he's quite proud of the movie. And he's also happy that "Sons of Provo" is "a real change of pace. And believe it or not, it's actually us singing and dancing in the film. So I hope we don't come off as complete idiots. Or if we do, I hope people enjoy watching us come off as complete idiots. That would be all right. It would be par for the course."
He's also proud of his work in "Saints and Soldiers," in which he plays a British spy during World War II, complete with an accent that was honed through his improv work with the Comedy Sports troupe in Provo.
"I'm excited to be in my first R-rated movie," he said, joking about "Saints and Soldiers' " rating, which ignited a local controversy a couple of weeks ago. 'I'm hoping it will give my career that needed edge."
Though Heyborne shot all these films while living in Utah, he's now in Los Angeles, where he and his wife, Trisha, and their two young children moved over the holidays. He's hoping that his success here will also translate there. "I'm trying to be realistic about it. It's hard work to make it as an actor -- doubly so in Hollywood. I mean, you may be the big cheese in Utah, but here you're simply another face with a few movies on your resume. And it takes time just to get the casting people to recognize your face or name."
When they decided to make the move, Heyborne and his wife came up with what he calls their "seven-year plan." "Hopefully by then I'll be making money. Otherwise, we'll be back here."
Although he jokes about being in the (currently) R-rated "Saints and Soldiers" -- and although that film does have him "smoking" (with stage cigarettes, not tobacco) -- Heyborne said he is concerned about the kinds of roles he'll play. If a part conflicts with his LDS values, he says he simply won't take it. "Fortunately, nobody wants to see me with my shirt off."
While on "Saints and Soldiers," Heyborne met fellow LDS actor Corbin Allred, who also lives in L.A. -- and who is already a seasoned veteran, though he's still in his 20s. Allred has been acting since he was 12, starred in a TV sitcom ("Teen Angel") and has more recently been seen in guest spots on such high-profile shows as "ER" and "CSI." "He was very supportive, and the fact that he is still so successful and so humble makes you believe it can really be done."
However, he has been busy auditioning for guest spots and bit parts in television series and pilots. Most recently, Heyborne auditioned for a role on the ABC sitcom "It's All Relative," which, from his perspective, seemed to work. "I think it did very well, but you know how it goes, Hollywood people will say anything to humor you. I've got my fingers crossed. Obviously, that doesn't help pay the bills, though."
Kirby Heyborne is a British spy in the World War II drama "Saints and Soldiers."
Heyborne plays chess with a fellow missionary played by KC Clyde in "The Best Two Years," which is opening today in local theaters.
Heyborne appears in the LDS parody "The Work and the Story."
...Heyborne's leap, from big fish in a small pond to little fish in a huge pond, comes just as two LDS-themed films in which Heyborne co-stars hit theaters -- the upcoming World War II drama "Saints and Soldiers," and the missionaries-abroad comedy "The Best Two Years," which opens here today.
...Heyborne also co-starred in the insider-spoof "The Work and the Story," and later this year will be seen in the boy-band mock-documentary "Sons of Provo," directed by his "Singles Ward" and "R.M." co-star Will Swenson. And he has branched into drama, playing Nephi's brother Sam in "The Book of Mormon Movie" and, perhaps more tellingly, a British soldier in "Saints and Soldiers."
Doing drama is "breaking me away from that stereotype," he said. "I'm not just this cute funny guy, but I can act."...
The other week, I had the pleasure of viewing "Saints and Soldiers" at the Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival. I was genuinely moved. While the filmmakers have captured the brutality, fear and indiscriminate nature of war, it is neither covertly graphic nor gratuitous. As Adam Abel stated, "Violence is not the star" of this movie.
How then did the Motion Picture Association of America arrive at its astonishing decision to give the film an "R" rating? I challenge the MPAA to provide a rational explanation.
It is my hope the filmmakers will not have to make any concessions to get the PG-13 rating. However, if the MPAA doesn't budge, I would urge moviegoers who usually forgo R-rated films to make an exception in this case. This outstanding film is not only visually and emotionally compelling, but it reveals an important message about war and the sacrifices made by our predecessors.
Victoria, British Columbia