Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

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This is 40


Love can make anything bearable.

Love can make anything bearable.

(2012) Dramedy (Universal) Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Melissa McCarthy, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segel, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Annie Mumolo, Robert Smigel, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Graham Parker, Michael Ian Black, Lena Dunham, Joanne Baron, Tatum O’Neal, Chris O’Dowd, Lisa Darr, Ava Sambora. Directed by Judd Apatow

As we get older our priorities change and in changing that aspect of our lives, we ourselves change. In a relationship, we’re constantly having to adjust not only to who we are but to who our partner is. Sometimes, those changes come at the expense of our relationships.

Pete (Rudd) owns a boutique record label that specializes in re-releases and new releases by bands from the 80s and so on. He is thrilled to have Graham Parker on his label, even though most of his friends and loved ones tell him that Parker isn’t going to sell any digital downloads. He is turning 40 although doesn’t look it. His record label is going down the toilet and he’s hinging his future on Parker; to fight the stress he retreats to the bathroom for hours on end and sneaks cupcakes that he swears he’s not eating. He also continues to lend money to his dad (Brooks) even though he can barely keep his own head above water.

His wife Debbie (Mann) is also turning 40 but she’s far less sanguine about it. She tells everyone she’s turning 38. Her trendy clothing store is being robbed blind by one of her employees; the mellow Jodi (Yi) swears it’s Desi (Fox) who drives an expensive car, wears expensive clothes and always seems to have a lot of money. Debbie fights stress by sneaking smokes when she thinks nobody is looking, even though her family thinks she’s quit. She’s completely estranged from her Dad (Lithgow) who ran out on the family when she was four, and the two of them are having trouble finding a way to bond.

Debbie and Pete snipe at each other and argue a lot which drives their kids – teenager Sadie (Maude Apatow) and her little sister Charlotte (Iris Apatow) nuts which they act out by constantly being at one another’s throats. This isn’t a happy family but it’s likely a family you’ve run into in your own neighborhood.

This is kind of a sequel to Knocked Up inasmuch as it concerns two characters who constituted the younger sister and her husband of the main female character. However don’t expect a similar tone as that movie because this is completely different. This isn’t as out-and-out funny as the previous film, for one thing. It’s listed as a comedy but there’s a whole lot of drama here with real world problems creeping into the marriage – financial stress, lack of communication, lack of desire, teenage hormones. Some viewers might find it hitting uncomfortably close to home.

Rudd and Mann come off as a real couple and while they clearly have some intimacy issues, they do have that easy familiarity when it comes to intimacy that couples that have been together awhile possess. It’s easy to picture them as a married couple, which is unsurprising as Mann is Apatow’s real life wife and Rudd has been a friend of his for a long time. The kids are also Mann’s children so her feelings for them (and theirs for her) don’t seem forced.

I was impressed by Mann’s performance particularly. There’s a moment when Debbie asks Pete if they’d have stayed together if she hadn’t have gotten pregnant (which is a bit of the flipside to Knocked Up) and when he hesitates, her look is absolutely priceless and heartbreaking. She does it all non-verbally and I was thinking in the audience “why oh why hasn’t this woman gotten better roles” because frankly she shows here that she can handle anything. I really hope she gets offered a few dramatic leads just so we can see what she’s really capable of. She, like Judy Greer, is much more than a second banana which is what both actresses seem to be cast as mostly.

I thought a few scenes ran a little too long and the pacing could have been a bit better. Universal is selling this as a comedy so I suspect it’s going to get some hating because people are walking into it expecting a laugh riot (and to be fair, with Judd Apatow’s name on it that’s not an unreasonable expectation) and will walk out disappointed. I’m sure that’s affected my rating of the film.

Being not what I expected isn’t a bad thing. There’s a lot to be said for throwing a change-up every once in a while. Young people might look at this and be turned off of marriage for good. All I can say about that is this: every relationship is a struggle and takes a good deal of work. Nothing is ever easy. But making a good woman happy is one of the noblest things a man can do, as is making a good man happy one of the best things a woman can do. In order to do it, there needs to be a lot of communication, a surfeit of honesty, a great deal of humbleness and a glaring lack of ego. These qualities are not always there in quantity and certainly not at every moment. We all go through rough times and they look a lot like this. Kudos to Apatow and his cast for attempting to capture that; it just may not necessarily be what you go to the movies to watch – it maybe what you go to the movies to get away from, and that needs to be a consideration before plunking down your cash at the box office.

REASONS TO GO: Great chemistry between Rudd and Mann. Some moments that are relatable and real.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little too long. Lacks the real laugh-out-loud funny jokes. Might be a little too “real” for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of sexual material, lots of bad language, a little bit of drug usage and some crude jokes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While neither of the main characters from Knocked Up appear in the film a picture of Alison (Katherine Heigl) can be seen on the wall of the home and Pete mentions that he got the marijuana cookies from Ben (Seth Rogen).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

GRAHAM PARKER AND THE RUMOUR LOVERS: In the film, Parker is signed to Pete’s label and performs a couple of songs live – one solo and one with the band. In real life Parker just released a new album which has been acclaimed as one of the best albums he’s ever done.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Waiting For Forever