Sunday, June 10, 2018

Reign of Judges: Title of Liberty - Concept Short Review

About 15 years ago, a man had a dream to bring "The Book of Mormon" to the big screen. That man's name was Gary Rogers. I absolutely love this man's intentions. They were perfectly noble as he simply wanted to share "The Book of Mormon" with the world. He thought that the perfect solution would be to make a series of theatrically-released movies, each focusing on a main section of "The Book of Mormon." Thus in 2003 was released "The Book of Mormon Movie, Volume 1: The Journey." And it was a disaster. Personally I think there's elements of that movie that work just fine and I don't hate life while I'm watching it, thus I personally don't find the movie offensive, per se. But there's also so many cringe-worthy elements that you can tell it was made by an amateur filmmaker who didn't have much knowledge on how to properly make a film. That's my nice take on it. In general, the movie is mocked by most members of the Church, carrying a 3.1/10 on IMDb. It didn't make its budget back. Even if you like the movie, you'll most likely never use it to introduce a non-member to the Church. And, well, the biggest stinger is that if you look up Gary Rogers on IMDb, that movie is still his lone credit. Volume 2 was never made. Unfortunately that's probably a good thing.

Fast forward to 2018 and we have another man with the same vision as Gary Rogers. This man's name is Darin Southam. On March 15, 2018, our second try at a "Book of Mormon" movie premiered in theaters. Well, kinda. This time around, it was just a 10-minute concept short film, not a full-length feature. The short film has slowly been taking the rounds across the globe to show to members and at the moment it's right in the middle of a limited two-week run in seven different Megaplex theaters across Utah (The Gateway, Geneva, The District, Thanksgiving Point, Jordan Commons, Pineview and Providence) for just $5. I can't remember when I first saw this idea posted, but it's been quite a while. This journey began back in 2014 according to their Facebook, and I'm pretty sure I stumbled upon it around that time. I don't want to spend too much time on the history of this short film, but the gist of it is that Darin also wants to bring "The Book of Mormon" to the big screen, but he wants to do it right by making a quality production that people will enjoy. So he began a Kickstarter fund to raise money for a concept short film with the idea that said concept short film would be able to fund the feature-length movie. I recently saw the concept short film and this is my review.

This review is a fairly unique opportunity for me because normally I'm reviewing a final product and the point of the review is to let my friends know if they should see it or not. In this case, I'm reviewing a concept short that's very much a work in progress. I can give my opinion on what I liked and what I didn't like and there's a chance that my opinions can be taken into account when it's time to move forward with the feature-length movie. I have had friends in the film program and I've sat in script readings, thus I know that writers and other filmmakers in situations like this want honest feedback because it helps them know how to proceed moving forward. They might have an idea of what they want done, and I'm sure the actors and other members of the crew gave plenty of suggestions along the way, but the most important group of people are the audience of your film because they're the ones paying to see it. This is a great opportunity as a casual audience member to give feedback on this film. To make this situation even more unique, there's a chance that Darin Southam might actually read this as he sent me a message on facebook to my blog's facebook page back in August. I don't know how he found me, but he did. So this is my letter to him.

My genuine, honest, first reaction to this movie when I sat in the Geneva Megaplex this past week was that it gave me chills. The title card "Reign of Judges: Title of Liberty" came up, the music began to play and we had the text come across the screen, briefly describing "The Book of Mormon" to the casual, non-LDS audience as we had a beautiful camera shot across the water. Suddenly it dawned on me that this was actually happening. I was watching a properly done movie about "The Book of Mormon" in theaters. It felt surreal. Growing up LDS and being a fan of film, I've always had the idea in the back of my head of what my favorite "Book of Mormon" sequences would look like in a major motion picture. Up to this point, all I've had is that cheaply done 2003 movie, which only created a stronger desire in me to have it done right. However, this ultimately felt like an impossible dream. One that would never come true because there's too many obstacles that stand in the way of making this happen. Which is why I was filled with pure joy when this began because it felt like a dream come true. An event film on level of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" or "The Avengers" when I was in the theater for those the very first time. It was magical.

Then the short film itself started and I instantly put my critical hat on, ready to analyze this thing. In talking about specifics, I'm going to warn you of spoilers. If Darin Southam is actually reading this, I want him to know if specific emotions that I felt. Even if he doesn't, I want to look back on this review when the full movie comes out to compare notes. If you don't want a 10-minute short film spoiled, then go see this. You have four days left to find your nearest Megaplex if you live in Utah to watch this. Then come back and read over my thoughts. With that out of the way, after our introductory title sequence, we immediately jump to Moroni. No, not Captain Moroni who will probably be the focus of the feature-length movie. Son of Mormon, Moroni. The guy who buried the plates and showed up to Joseph Smith 1,400 years later. That's the subject of this short film. But we don't have the cliche sequence of him burying the plates, appearing to Joseph or wandering in the wilderness. We have him on the run from a group of Lamanites, who finally catch up to him and confront him. Old man Moroni then takes out his sword and participates in a duel with the three main Lamanite soldiers. Yeah, this is a short film that takes place after "The Book of Mormon."

Personally I found this choice to be curious. Not necessarily bad or good, but curious. If the idea with this concept short film was to raise funds for a feature-length film, I was thinking they would do a scene from the war chapters, like Teancum sneaking in to kill Amalickiah, Captain Moroni cornering the armies of Zerahemnah or, dare I say, a sequence involving the Title of Liberty? Portraying Moroni, son of Mormon, in his final moments was a cool sequence, but I'm not sure how that showcases what our feature-length movie portraying the war chapters is going to be like. The other curious thing was taking creative liberties about what Moroni's final moments were actually like. I know there's one story of a person in the late-1800's who said at some stake conference that Joseph Smith told them a vision of Moroni's final moments. Or something to that effect. But I'm not convinced we actually know. For all I know, he could've wandered in the wilderness for the rest of his days without the Lamanites finding him or maybe he got translated shortly after burying the plates because his work was finished. So shouldn't we be portraying an actual sequence from "The Book of Mormon" rather than a fictionalized interpretation of what could've taken place?

With that thought out of the way, if I accept the fact that this is what it is, the execution of this short film was great. I think we had a great setting for a final confrontation. The three Lamanite warriors were well cast and it was enjoyable watching Old Man Moroni fight them off with some really good fight choreography. Selling it was some phenomenal cinematography and an excellent score. Bengt Jonsson was the cinematographer while Kyle Warr did the music. If this full-length movie gets funded, bring those gentlemen back to continue their roles. I also think the costume designers and make-up artists had a lot of fun with their roles as they did a great job of making this feel authentic to 400 A.D. with Lamanites chasing down Moroni. Overall this felt very professionally done, which is why I'm excited about this project moving forward. Darin's goal was to do this right with professional filmmakers, a proper budget and well-trained actors who know what they're doing. On that final note, instead of signing up local LDS actors, a genuine effort to recruit professionally-trained actors paid off here, with Ben Cross as King Aaron, king of the Lamanites, being the standout, while Karina Lombard and Eugene Brave Rock were solid in their supporting roles, even though they didn't have much to do.

On that note, while I praise the effort of getting bigger name actors (Ben Cross was in the 2009 "Star Trek," Eugene Brave Rock was in "Wonder Woman" and Karina Lombard was in "Legends of the Fall"), I would be careful with the casting moving forward. I think Ben Cross did excellent and it was fun to see him and Darin Southam, who stepped in as Moroni, banter back and forth. But I was a bit confused as to why a white British guy was king of the Lamanites. I don't know if you need to have a strict Native American cast when it comes to the Lamanites, but I would say they need to look like Lamanites so we can easily make a distinction that they are Lamanites and not just assume they are based on makeup and costumes. Casting white people to play non-white roles is called white-washing. We don't need any of that in this movie. If we are assuming the king of the Lamanites is a former-Nephite like Amalickiah, then that needs to be clear. Also, the camera work had me a bit nervous. There was a lot of "Hunger Games" style shaky cam during this short duel. If there was too much of that during the feature-length movie, which will be heavily set around war and action sequences, that needs to be ironed out because that has the possibility of ruining the movie.

When all is said and done, though, this short film had me very encouraged about the future of this project. The worst part of this whole thing was that it ended too quickly, which is a good thing. As I sat down in the theater, I was ready to be there for the whole two hours, thus when the credits came up after 10 minutes, I was really disappointed. I knew that's what I was getting in for, but still. I wanted more. And I think that was the point of this. So well done, Darin Southam. Yes, there's a lot of work to be done here and I think Darin would be the first one to tell you that. Shooting a 10-minute short film is one thing. Transforming that into a two-hour feature film is a whole different ball game. Casting and shaky cam is what has me most nervous, but this can work. And I want it to work. I hope Darin gets funding to make his film and I hope that film does well enough to warrant him making the whole trilogy, because I love this idea and to see it played out would be the real dream come true. I also hope that the Church themselves don't steal Darin's thunder with their upcoming "Book of Mormon" videos akin to their "Bible" videos. The two separate projects can work in harmony together, right? My grade for this "Reign of Judges: Title of Liberty" concept short film is an 8/10. 


Note: Darin Southam did read through this and had this to respond to a couple of my points that I made, showing why he's the director and I'm simply a casual movie blogger:

"Good review. King Aaron was a defecting Nephite and so we portrayed him with fairer skin as per Nephi's vision seeing the Gentiles settle America and saying they looked "like unto my people before they were slain". Yes the opening sequence is based on the vision Joseph Smith had of the death of Moroni "At a meeting at Spanish Fork, Utah Co., in the winter of 1896, Brother Higginson stated in my presence that Thomas B. Marsh told him that the Prophet Joseph Smith told him (Thomas B. Marsh, he being then President of the Twelve), that he became very anxious to know something of the fate of Moroni, and in answer to prayer the Lord gave Joseph a vision, in which appeared a wild country and on the scene was Moroni after whom were six Indians in pursuit; he stopped and one of the Indians stepped forward and measured swords with him. Moroni smote him and he fell dead; another Indian advanced and contended with him; this Indian also fell by his sowrd; a third Indian then stepped forth and met the same fate; a fourth afterwards contended with him, but in the struggle with the fourth, Moroni, being exhaused, was killed. Thus ended the life of Moroni. (Evans)""

The idea of King Aaron being a defecting Nephite is what I was guessing. That vision of Moroni is something that I've heard, but it's still a bit of a grapevine story. Bro. Higginson said that Bro. Marsh said that Joseph said that this vision took place. If you know what I mean. It's believable. But I'm still not 100 percent convinced of its authenticity as opposed to being something that's more of a direct source from Joseph himself in Church history. 

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