Movies this weekend
August 31, 2007
What did it mean to be Mormon in 1857? That question is answered in “September Dawn,” a Christopher Cain film that funnels historically-based events through Cain’s sociopolitical perspective.
According to the director, being a Mormon meant giving up one’s individuality to follow the dictates of a fanatical theocracy. By many accounts, Cain’s suppositions are legitimate. However, without any justification (aside from appealing to the lowest common denominator) the director muddies the water by adding a fictional romance to this harrowing tale.
During the early 1800s, innumerable new religions and Christian sects were born in the United States. One of these was the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormon faith.
Several decades of persecution prompted Mormons to travel further into the West because they were tormented and reviled for practicing polygamy, and blood atonement, defined as ritually cutting the throat of an irredeemable sinner, whose only hope of receiving forgiveness was to shed his blood.
Having lost founder Joseph Smith (portrayed here briefly by the director’s son, Dean Cain) to death by gunshot from an angry mob, the Mormons finally settled the Utah Territory under the leadership of Brigham Young (Terence Stamp). In 1857, Young was profoundly affected by news that the U.S. government was marshaling an army and appointing a governor, to see that the Utah Territory residents obeyed federal law.
Christopher Cain’s mix of fact and conjecture confuses these issues. He invents Jacob Samuelson (John Voight), as mayor of Cedar City and a glowering Mormon bishop commanding a militia, to be our major conduit into Mormon thinking. Samuelson and his two sons, Jonathan (Trent Ford) and Micah (Taylor Handley), arrive to negotiate the terms by which a wagon train may rest up in a Utah mountain meadow before continuing its California-bound migration.
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A tour of the wagon train reveals 140 settlers, accompanied by 500-head of high grade cattle and Kentucky Thoroughbred breeding stock. Wealthy Arkansas landowner, Captain Alexander Fancher (Shaun Johnston), leads the company, riding a horse for which he’d paid the then princely sum of $2,000. To the mind of comparatively simple-living Samuelson, a man boasting 18 wives and untold children, both Captain Fancher and his gun-toting, pants-wearing, right-hand woman, Nancy Dunlap (Lolita Davidovich), represented abominations to God.
While Samuelson secretly rages against the Christian immigrants, his unmarried son Jonathan falls in love with wagon train member, Emily (Tamara Hope). Cain’s screenplay makes it clear that both Jonathan and his brother Micah are the unfortunate victims of the Mormon scheme that killed 120 of these Christians.
Though Mormons now condemn polygamy and have publicly denounced the concept of blood atonement, the LDS continues to exercise secret rituals that include large scale baptizing of the dead, meant to save their souls postmortem. A history of secret religious practices has primed some to believe that Brigham Young, delivering recorded sermons encouraging blood atonement, was complicit in the Meadow Mountain Massacre. Assuming we are to believe Young’s assertion that he knew nothing before the fact, it was, nevertheless, his leadership and promotion of blood atonement, that laid the groundwork for the massacre.
While there is no direct proof of Young’s participation, he certainly was an iron-fisted dictator unlikely to look kindly on any serious action occurring without his consent. It is an accepted fact that a group of Mormons made a deal with the relatively peaceable Paiute Indians, to do the deed on September 11, 1857. Following an initial Indian attack killing a few settlers, and some braves, the Indians withdrew. Over the next four days, the Mormons concluded they must finish the job because it was only a matter of time until their role in the attack came to light.
Setting aside the forgettable and fictional romance, the movie does a passable job of depicting actual events. Representing Mormons forced to go along with the ruling, Bishop Samuelson reveals that he had previously been stripped of a favorite wife coveted by an apostle, then forced to bear witness to her death as blood atonement for her adultery.
Because there is much sensitivity concerning this dark chapter of LDS history, it’s regrettable that Cain choose to fictionalize any characters or portion of events, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. He has produced a good looking, heartfelt, but ultimately unreliable account that is more likely to stir the debate than settle it.
Lingering over a drooling, confused young Michael Myers, director Rob Zombie spends half the movie documenting a psychopath hatching, yet his screenplay offers no explanation regarding what went wrong. Malcolm McDowell appears as Myer’s psychiatrist during a 17-year incarceration. The gore-factor pushes the MPAA’s R-envelope, though the only scare factor is imagining the minds that greenlit this disaster. Lackluster test screenings reportedly inspired reshoots that added six grisly murders and made the ending more gruesome. Per usual, Zombie casts his wife, Sheri Moon, in a supporting role. Though unlikely to please devotees of the 1978 classic, patronage by Zombie-fans may give this remake box office life.
“Reno 911’s” creative team, Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, pen the latest comedy for and about nerds. Christopher Walken portrays ping pong promoter Feng, appearing in Geisha drag. The bouncy plot revolves around an international, underground table tennis tournament where “there can be only one.” Washed up champ Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), is recruited by Agent Rodriguez (Lopez) to compete and help expose the illegal event. Daytona’s flagging skills get a tune-up from blind coach Wong (Hong), and the man’s lovely niece (Maggie Q). Outfitted in ping pong’s uncoolest ensemble, affable Daytona competes for the championship title against any number of Asian stereotypes, but the film’s bad taste culminates in his match against a moron (Thomas Lennon) who pours himself into itty-bitty hot pants.
After a gang viciously kills his teenage son, Nick Hume (Bacon) is shocked when the court sets his son’s killer free. Nick hunts down the thug and shoots him, bringing down the gang’s promise to kill Nick’s wife and surviving son. The beauty of director James Wan’s film, the sequel to 1974’s “Death Wish,” is its recognition that middle class Hume lacks either street smarts or gun experience when he realizes only he can protect his family. Wan is careful to make Nick a clumsy vigilante with a conscience. However, this characterization does not preclude filming extraordinary action sequences including a car and foot chase through a parking garage that ends with a bang.
A college grad uncertain of her next move, Annie (Johansson) accepts a nanny position on Manhattan’s Upper East side. She is ignored by philandering Mr. X (Giamatti) and treated with disdain by haughty Mrs. X (Linney). Despite her cramped quarters and piles of extra duties, Annie bonds with her charge, little Grayer. Annie flirts with a Harvard student and neighbor’s son (Evans) who routinely catches Annie at her most compromised moments. Johansson brings gobs of comic timing to match Linney’s memorable jealous socialite, but the screenplay gives us only caricatures, preferring to chatter on about the entitled elite. Yawn.
Someone deserves a pat on the back for conceiving a martial arts face-off between action stars Jason Statham and Jet Li. The result is a 2-for-1 powerhouse promising the most exciting onscreen hand-to-hand combat since “Crouching Tiger.” After his partner is murdered, FBI Agent Jack Crawford (Statham), is more concerned with taking revenge than performing his assigned duties. Suspecting elusive assassin, Rogue (Jet Li), is responsible, Jack insinuates himself into an Asian mob war, calculating it’s only a matter of time before Rogue’s services will be called upon. My advice? Don elbow pads before getting anywhere near these combatants.
Ten years after Britain’s “Mr. Bean Movie” racked up record-breaking theatrical receipts in the UK, the sequel returns Rowan Atkinson to the role of a pencil-legged oaf. Having won a free vacation to the South of France, Bean blunders from one French locale to the next, engaged in a struggle to survive his own stupidity. Circumstance makes it appear that the dimwit has kidnapped a Russian director’s (Karel Roden) 12-year-old son (Baldry), but video camera-crazy Bean remains ignorant of the fracas as he accidentally shoots footage key to the director’s film. Sixteen years after creating the moronic Brit, Atkinson claims this will his last scamper up the Bean stalk. For every mourner, someone else breathes a sigh of relief.
Director Rod Lurie is noted for examining prickly ethical issues. Desperate to pen an article worthy of his deceased journalist father’s excellent reputation, Erik (Hartnett) seizes on a chance encounter with a homeless, alcoholic claiming to be a onetime boxing champ (Jackson), as his subject. A wealth of opportunities follow Erik’s sensational story, until the reporter’s facts are questioned by a boxing historian (Peter Coyote). Identifying who failed to conduct the proper background checks is central to the ensuing controversy.
This troubled, fourth production based on 1955’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” was largely reshot by James McTeigue because Warner Brothers was unhappy with director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s version. The updated story incorporates the space shuttle as the unwitting carrier of an alien, body-snatching virus. Moving beyond the pod people birthed by earlier versions, these aliens invade our DNA, completing their takeover as we sleep. Government officials engineer a cover up while scientists work feverishly to find a cure. Nicole Kidman stars as the protective mother of a young boy resistant to the virus. Jeremy Northam plays her infected ex and Daniel Craig appears as her closest friend. The first-rate cast includes Veronica Cartwright in a role similar to one she played in the 1978 adaptation.