Saturday, June 4, 2011

A not-so-sweet 17

REVIEW, TAKE TWO: Further reflections on 17 Miracles

LINKS: Daily Herald review of 17 Miracles

The writer in me is convinced that you can tell an interesting story about almost anything. And if your story is fact-based, then a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done. You just have find the right angle. That's part of what's frustrating about 17 Miracles, which opened Friday exclusively at theaters in Utah and envisions the ill-starred journey from Iowa to Salt Lake City of the 19th-century Mormon handcart companies led by James G. Willie and Edward Martin. Writer-director T.C. Christensen has two great angles, and probably could have made a wonderful film using either of them. The missionary and frontiersman Levi Savage is a fascinating historical figure and worthy subject for a film. And pondering the nature of miracles, particularly in a setting where people would have been desperate to stumble into them, is also an idea with a lot of potential. Is there a great film that could have been made by weaving those two angles together? Maybe. Looking at 17 Miracles, it's much easier to imagine how they would have been better handled separately. Other thoughts:

Humor is a funny thing: Almost all of the tension breakers in 17 Miracles are either too broad (like Levi's inadvertently pulling wax out of his ear in front of a lovely pioneer lady) or too precious (an apple-cheeked blonde moppet in a lumpy cap munching on a not-entirely-desiccated buffalo chip).

Loud and clear: One thing Christensen handles well in 17 Miracles is his frank depiction of Mormon elders conducting religious rites. There are a couple of times when the leaders of the handcart company bless the sick, or pray for the dying, and Christensen puts actual words of prayer in their mouths that sound both appropriately sincere and worshipful, and authentically spontaneous.

Boot scootin' boogy: Yes, there's a scene of a hoedown. Of course there's a scene of a hoedown. Did you really think a movie about hardy pioneer settlers in the American West wouldn't have at least one hoedown?

Dwarfed by his peers: There's a (historical?) little person depicted in the film who has a squeaky vocal register and adorably chipper demeanor. The camera practically pinches his cheek every time he gamely totters past on his nifty wooden crutches. You can't help but wonder, on the other hand, what might have been going through actor Travis Eberhard's head when he had to deliver a speech in which his character, Albert, laments the fact that everyone who meets him views him as being at least somewhat ridiculous on account of his physical limitations. The whole thing stings a bit more since the movie itself contains more than one joke at the expense of Albert's small stature.

Cue the violins: There are movies where the score is generally more notable by its absence than by its presence, and this is one of them. This or that character can scarcely open their mouth without swelling music suddenly rising up all around. Throughout most of the film, there seems to be a general terror that moviegoers might have an unprompted emotional response. I cringed most, however, during a scene that was backed by soaring (and generically inspiring) vocals either from the actual Josh Groban, or from someone trying very hard to sound like Josh Groban. Possibly in the role of Jean Valjean.

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