The husband and I do not get out to the cinema much.  The last movie we saw in an actual theatre was a charity screening of Serenity, benefiting Equality Now, back in June.  Before that, I don’t know…I think it was X-Men.  Just kidding.  Golly, I honestly don’t remember.  Point being, we see most of our movies on DVD, but lately–what with The Simpsons being on DVD and all–we haven’t even been renting any movies lately.  But Friday night we felt like watching a movie, so Sugar Daddy went to the Blockbuster and came home with two rentals.  You will never guess which two.  No, don’t even bother because it is impossible that either of these titles would ever cross your mind in a million years.  Are you ready?  Battlestar Gallactica and Church Ball.

For the blissfully ignorant, Church Ball is one of many films produced by Halestorm Entertainment, the premier B-movie studio of Mormon cinema.  Technically, all Mormon cinema is B-movies, so Halestorm is really the premier C- or D-movie studio of Mormon cinema, but I digress.  Halestorm specializes in self-consciously Mormon comedies of low budget and marginal quality.  Some of these films have flashes of brilliance, or at least really funny parts, but most of them are just unadulterated crap.  Like you look at the box and think, “There is no way this could possibly not suck.”  And none of their films could possibly appeal to anyone outside the Mormon community.  They are designed to make money off of those Mormons with disposable income who will laugh at anything.   Halestorm’s best contribution to the genre thusfar is Sons of Provo, a mockumentary about an aspiring Mormon boy band called Everclean.  It’s no Some Like It Hot, but it is consistently entertaining.  If you like that sort of thing.  We got enough laughs out of the trailer to gamble that it would be worth a look-see, and ’twas. 

Anyway, perhaps it was the success of Sons of Provo which led us to have elevated expectations for Church Ball.  That and the fact that Gary Coleman has a supporting role.  Yes, Gary Coleman and Fred Willard.  How could it not be at least a little bit good?  Oh, come on!  Somehow, though, Halestorm managed to screw it up.  As SD said, it was like they had a brainstorming session about what would make a funny movie and then filmed the brainstorming session.  Only it was one of those brainstorming sessions where you realize afterwards that the ideas only sounded good because you were drunk at the time.  Except that the Halestorm guys are Mormons and thus probably were not drunk, but maybe goofed-up on Mountain Dew.  Who knows?

It started promisingly enough, what with an elderly sister being escorted past the church gymnasium and getting beaned in the head with a stray basketball, but it was all downhill from there. 

Here’s the story.  Once upon a time the Church embraced basketball as a fun and wholesome way to build community and promote fellowship (as opposed to the usual, unwholesome fellowship people had been subjected to in the past).  As a side note, this is actually how my uncle–my mother’s brother–was introduced to the LDS church, through a church ball league.  Unable to play basketball for his school team, he accepted a Mormon friend’s invitation to play for his church team, the only catch being that he had to go to church with him (at least as long as the basketball season was going on).  My uncle really did want to play basketball that much, and eventually decided he wanted to be a Mormon, too, so he got baptized, and shortly thereafter so did my grandparents and my mother.  So in short, if it hadn’t been for church basketball, my mother would never have become a Mormon and thus probably wouldn’t have married my Mormon dad, and I would never have been born.  So if you enjoy reading this blog, thank a Mormon basketball player.  Or something.

Anyway, the joke is that basketball is the official church sport and that the men take it way too seriously and are so competitive and crazy when it comes to actual games that all Christian sensibilities and decorum fall by the wayside–a situation fraught with opportunity for humor, both wholesome and otherwise.  (Actually, when some Mormon friends of our heard there was going to be a movie about church basketball, they asked, “How are they going to keep it PG?”)  So we have our hero of Church Ball, a guy named Dennis, who plays for the Mud Flats team, a ragtag bunch of lovable losers who love the game but can’t play it worth a darn and whose uniforms don’t match.  The Mud Flats team is in a deep-seated rivalry with the Crystal Springs (I think–Crystal Something) team, who are their polar opposite:  they have awesome uniforms, play like professionals and in short are “winners”–not the good kind of winners, though, but the kind of winners that are jerks and need to be taken down a peg or two.  Crystal Springs has been the church league champion for like, twenty years, and they are just soooo freaking obnoxious about it.  Why are these two teams rivals when there’s no real competition between them?  Well, Virginia, it seems that it’s personal.  The two brothers who dominate the Crystal Springs team, Brad and Brent–or Buck and Bradley, I don’t remember–have been bullying Dennis ever since they were all kids, and that really irritates him.  But what can he do?

So the Mud Flats bishop (Fred Willard) is a former church ball player who also nurses an unhealthy obsession with the sport.  You can tell he is something of a “character,” because he insults the referees from the sidelines and works on a playbook that he hides behind his scriptures during church meetings.  Also, he wears an eyepatch.  This is possibly the funniest thing about the movie.  But I digress.  The bishop tells Dennis that the Higher-Ups have decided that the church won’t sponsor the basketball league anymore and that this is their last chance to win that championship trophy and he wants Dennis to lead Mud Flats to victory, once and for all.  Dennis protests that he’s no coach and besides, their team is terrible, so how could they ever win?  The bishop appeals to his sense of religious duty, so Dennis accepts the challenge.  Then he breaks his tailbone in the first game and has to scramble to find a replacement so they won’t have to forfeit the rest of the season.  The rest of the movie is a journey toward self-awareness and redemption, wherein Dennis and his teammates fellowship a disaffected (but athletic) church member, recruit Gary Coleman (it’s a long story), eat fewer doughnuts, and meet a Magical Black Man, whose sole purpose is to teach the clueless white guys that everyone is a winner, you just have to look inside for their special talent. 

This would all be well and good if it worked, but it doesn’t, for the following reasons (in no particular order):

1.  The actor who plays Dennis is miscast, at best.  He is what you would call “low-key.”  He conveys absolutely no energy or enthusiasm or emotion of any kind that would indicate that he is invested in the outcome of this story.  In any given scene, games included, he looks like he would actually rather be taking a nap.  I wished he would take a nap, too, and maybe he would wake up and be interesting, but that never happened.

2.  The film is narrated by Dennis’s wife, a peripheral character who has nothing to do with ninety percent of what transpires onscreen.  So why is she narrating the story?  So she can tell us that Dennis loves basketball.  Because we would never know if it was up to Dennis to show us how much he cares about basketball.  The film relies a lot on Dennis’s wife to tell us how Dennis feels about what is going on around him.  And also to point out how silly all of this male posturing is.  My goodness, boys, it’s just a game.  Why don’t you get that???

3.  Like most Halestorm pictures, the editing is slightly off.  Key characters are introduced far too late.  Everyone’s timing is half a beat too slow.  You know where all of this is going and you don’t understand why they don’t just get there already.  What’s taking so long?  Mormon Standard Time?

4.  The film relies on stereotypes but they’re really poorly-drawn stereotypes.  Most of what we know about them is what Dennis’s wife tells us. 

5.  Like 99% of Halestorm pictures, the tone is uneven.  It can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be.  The good thing is that there’s no distracting conversion/coming-to-Jesus subplot, but there are all these other distracting subplots that I think are supposed to be funny and/or heartwarming (like the Mud Flats janitor with the bad heart who’s in love with the overweight church organist), but are actually just mildly irritating.

6.  Fred Willard is utterly wasted.  And I don’t mean that he appears to have been stoned during filming.  That would have resulted in a more entertaining movie.  No, he is far too restrained here.  Fellows, you don’t hire Fred Willard so you can rein him in.  He needs to be let loose and free to say whatever insane thing comes to his brain.  His character habitually makes fleeting references to wild times in his past–like the time he almost lost his spleen–but keeps cutting himself off with, “But that’s a story I’ll save for another time,” and you just want to scream, “No, Fred!  Don’t save the story for another time!  Tell the story now!  Any story would be better than the one we’re watching!”  Don’t put Fred Willard in a corner, people.  That’s all I gotta say.

And lastly, but definitely not leastly,

7.  Mormonism has been neutered out of the picture.  There are no explicit references to anything specifically Mormon, no one ever says the word “Mormon,” and this may very well have been a self-preservation strategy, because if I were the Church and somebody made this crap movie about me, I would have to excommunicate some people.  Just kidding!  But seriously, in a misguided attempt to give the story a more generic framework–and theoretically have a wider appeal, as unlikely as that seems?–they lost the opportunity to make a story about something real.  These folks are all certainly Mormon (except for Gary Coleman–it’s a long story), but it’s a secret–shh.  The result is that it feels phony–neither hot nor cold and therefore to be spewn out of the mouth, if you will.  Mormon stories don’t have to be a niche market, if you invest them with some authenticity.  People enjoy well-told stories about real people and situations; they don’t want to have to fill in the blanks themselves–that’s the storyteller’s job.  You need to let your freak flag fly, Halestorm.  That’s my advice.

I’d promise you a review of Battlestar Gallactica and an essay on the Mormon obsession with it, but I’m afraid I’d have no intention of keeping that promise.  Happy Monday to all!

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