National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

DVD Picks & Passes

BY Steven D. Greydanus

July 15-21, 2007 Issue | Posted 7/10/07 at 3:29 PM

 

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER (2007)- Pick    

THE MORMONS (2007)- Pick

Written and directed by head-scratchingly quirky filmmaker brothers Mark and Michael Polish, The Astronaut Farmer appears to be a head-scratchingly un-quirky Hollywood movie — a big, earnest, old-fashioned ode to following one’s dreams no matter what.

Like Linus’ pumpkin patch, there’s nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see in this tale of a Texas rancher named Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) who has a dream of flying to the stars in a homemade rocket. The film fitfully evokes a real sense of wonder, but ultimately doesn’t quite rise above its clichés. Still, it’s pleasant enough, and an over-the-credits postscript may leave you with a smile on your face.

Co-produced for PBS by “American Experience” and “Frontline,” The Mormons is a two-part, four-hour documentary presentation on the history and social development of the Mormon church. Directed by Helen Whitney (John Paul II: The Millennial Pope), The Mormons is at once as scrupulously respectful and sympathetic as any religious adherent might hope for in such a treatment. Yet it also deals directly and fairly with such thorny subjects as Joseph Smith’s evolving accounts of his religious experiences, the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 120 travelers by Utah Mormons and the subsequent church cover-up.

With a clear intent to confront popular preconceptions and misunderstandings about Mormonism, Whitney emphasizes the church’s transition from self-imposed outsider status to the American mainstream, saving the topic of polygamy for the end. A plethora of talking heads represent various points of view, from Mormons to non-Mormons to ex-Mormons — affiliations that unfortunately aren’t always made clear. Discernment is needed to navigate some of the rhetoric dealing with the historical problems of Mormonism’s recent origins, such as the suggestion that historic religions like Judaism and Christianity somehow get a break by having origins obscured in the mists of time.

Oddly, the actual doctrinal content of Mormon theology is virtually absent. Whitney focuses on the movement’s historical odyssey, and touches on some of Smith’s kookier ideas, but he largely avoids discussing what the founders and leaders of this movement taught and teach about God and the afterlife. Still, as a historical overview of Mormonism’s origins, The Mormons is worthwhile introduction for discerning viewers.

Content advisory:  The Astronaut Farmer: An intense accident scene; references to a suicide; some objectionable language; mild innuendo; a fleeting sexual reference. Might be okay family viewing. The Mormons: Mixed discussion of problematic religious and moral ideas. Might be okay for well-grounded teens.