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 the End


Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World's End is opening after their film.

Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World’s End is opening after their film.

(2013) Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Martin Starr, Samantha Ressler, Jason Segel, Catherine Kim Poon, Anna Rekota. Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen   

 

This is the end

beautiful friend

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Of everything that stands, the end

Can you picture what will be

limitless and free

And all the children are insane.

                 – Jim Morrison

The apocalypse is very much on our minds this summer. Perhaps it was because the world was supposed to end last year (and maybe it did and nobody told the rest of us). Be that as it may, there are a bunch of movies out there (or about to come out) that have the end of days as a plot point.

This one comes from Pineapple Express co-writers Rogen and Goldberg (who in addition to co-directing this one also co-wrote it) who rope in fellow Express star Franco in a movie in which most of the actors are playing Bizarro-world versions of themselves.

Baruchel lands at LAX where he is met by good friend Rogen. Their friendship goes back to when they were both struggling comics in Canada. Baruchel is looking forward to a weekend hanging out with his good friend who supplies them both with copious video games on an HD 3D TV, all of Jay’s favorite snacks and of course ample amounts of weed.

Rogen drags a reluctant Baruchel to a housewarming party at Franco’s home which can best be described as a pretentious post-modern bunker. It turns out he has a creepy kind of friendship with Rogen, which Baruchel doesn’t appreciate. He also doesn’t like most of the people at the party, particularly Hill who seems sweet and giving (and whom everyone seems to adore) but for some reason Baruchel has real enmity towards.

There are plenty of celebrities there – a coke-snorting, butt-slapping Cera who Kaling wants to do the horizontal fandango with, a rapping Robinson who wears the name of his new rap song on a t-shirt and several other young stars, mostly from the comedy community. However, the party abruptly ends when a massive earthquake hits the L.A. area, opening fissures in the earth. Baruchel witnesses people ascending to the sky in a strange blue light but nobody believes him – Baruchel thinks it’s the apocalypse while the survivors who ran back into the house (after watching one of the stars get skewered by a street lamp and dragged down into the bowels of the earth) – Franco, Rogen, Hill, Robinson and Baruchel – scoff at his story. Me, I thought it was aliens to begin with.

They discover an uninvited McBride had been sleeping one off in Franco’s bathroom and had, unaware of what was happening outside, cooked almost all of their food for breakfast. As it turns out, Baruchel isn’t far off and in the world of hedonistic egos that is Hollywood, heaven isn’t an option. Or is it?

I had high hopes for this one coming in. Rogen can be hysterically funny as a writer and given all the talent involved, there was reason for optimism. The trailer rocked pretty hard too. Safe to say, this is a major disappointment.

For one thing, there’s an overreliance on dick and weed jokes. I’m no prude – trust me, I don’t mind crude, raunchy and drug humor – but after the same subject of jokes over and over and over again it gets old. Even stoners need a change of subject.

I’m not saying that the movie isn’t funny. There are some real laugh out loud moments (some of which weren’t even in the trailer) but I just expected more. High expectations (no pun intended) can sometimes shape a review, perhaps unfairly.

Yes, there is plenty of skewering of the self-centered and self-destructive behavior that Hollywood is notorious for, but do we really need another movie about that? I mean, it’s not as if this is some sort of new and revelatory information here.

It feels like a massive in-joke that maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get. I like these actors individually but this smacks too much of self-indulgence and just didn’t get me laughing enough to overcome the perception. While I’m fully aware that these “self-portraits” are characters loosely based on the celebrity involved (and in the case of Cera and I’m sure a few others, having nothing to do with the personality of the celebrity involved) it’s still not the point. The point is that the movie just isn’t as good as it should have been, nor did it tickle my funny bone the way it should have. I have no doubt that there are people who found this to be right in their wheelhouse – my good friend Adam has already proclaimed this the funniest movie of the year and the final scene set in the afterlife is certainly going to make my son cackle louder than a Who concert – but I’m just not going to be one of them. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: Really great cast and some nifty cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies way too much on dick and drug humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of crude humor, drug use, sexuality, quite a bit of foul language, some brief nudity, apocalyptic religious images and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the paintings in James Franco’s home were actually painted by James Franco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Man of Steel

The Lovely Bones


The Lovely Bones

Don't go into THIS light.

(Paramount/DreamWorks) Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Saoirse Roman, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver, Amanda Michalka, Reese Ritchie, Jake Abel, Nikki SooHoo, Carolyn Dando. Directed by Peter Jackson

Nobody really knows what happens after we die. What we do know is that the living must make peace with the dead; those of us who lose a loved one must learn to let go. What if the dead have to do the same for the living they leave behind?

Susie Salmon (Roman) has a lovely existence. 14 years old, beautiful, vibrant and surrounded by a family that adores her, she has all the self-doubts that a 14 year old girl has, and that terrible, crushing feeling that the handsome boy she has her eye on – Ray Singh (Ritchie) – doesn’t know she’s alive. She yearns for the first kiss, the one her Grandma Lynn (Sarandon) has said is special, and maybe the best kiss she’ll ever have. She has been given a camera for her birthday and in the way of 14 year olds, is obsessively taking pictures of everything.

That all comes to an end on December 6th, 1973 when she is lured by a neighbor she barely knows by the name of George Harvey (Tucci) into an underground clubhouse and chopped into pieces (we don’t actually see the deed; we only surmise the means of her demise through what occurs later).

For her parents, Jack (Wahlberg) and Abigail (Weisz), they only know she hasn’t come home. After a few days, the police led by sympathetic Detective Len Fenerman (Imperioli) discover the remains of the clubhouse, which Harvey has filled in. They also find a sizable amount of blood but no body. While it isn’t certain, it seems unlikely that their little girl is coming home.

As for Susie, she has ascended into a bright place of fields and forest, seashore and sunshine, moonlight and magic. It is, as she explains, her perfect world; not heaven exactly – as she is told by Holly (SooHoo), a young Asian girl who acts as a kind of a guide to Susie, meant to lead her from this place that Susie calls the “in-between” to heaven, which is apparently a tree. At least, that’s what we see; it’s possible Susie sees more.

However, she can’t bring herself to move forward into heaven. She is haunted by her murderer, who has gone undetected and is at large. She is suffused with a sense of outrage and just plain rage, wanting the man who robbed her of her life to pay with his own for the deed. From where she is, she cannot affect the living although she is detected from time to time by her little brother, a somewhat clairvoyant girl named Ruth (Dando) and her grieving father.

She watches the grief of her parents begin to tear them apart, despite the best efforts of her Grandma Lynn, who has come to stay and help in her own besotted way. She sees her father trying to piece together the identity of her killer. She sees her mother unable to cope with the enormous loss. She sees her little sister Lindsey (MacIver) growing into the role she once held in her family. And she sees her killer, preparing to take another victim.

This is based on a best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, one which I admit I haven’t read yet (although I understand it is wonderfully written) so I cannot compare this movie accurately its source. I can only review it on its own merits, which are considerable. This is a dark tale, one in which happy endings are not a guarantee. This is a world where bad things happen to good people, and where bad people act badly with impunity.

And yet I found myself drawn into this movie. We are told early on who the killer is, but the movie isn’t about the capture of the killer. This isn’t George Harvey’s story, its Susie Salmon’s and in order for the movie to work, the actress who plays her has to be special and Roman is indeed that. An Oscar nominee for her performance in Atonement (which came after she was cast for this), she is innocent and beautiful and poetic all at once. Her sadness is palpable; she misses her family. Her rage is undeniable; her future was stolen from her. Her innocence is a joy to behold; everyone should have a daughter like her.

Wahlberg also gives a powerful performance as her dad. The bond between her and Susie has to be strong, and Wahlberg conveys it well. Even though he is grieving, the movie isn’t about his grief per se; it’s about moving on and his grief becomes a peripheral element of the movie, but it is central at certain points as well.

The movie’s best performance, however, belongs to Tucci. He will make your skin crawl in a way no actor has since perhaps Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. You, like Susie, want to see him struck down and caused pain. You don’t merely want to be brought to justice, you want him punished and punished hard. This is Oscar-caliber work and a good reason to see the movie all by itself. Sarandon does a fine job in a role which is largely comic relief; I would have liked to see it developed a bit more but in a two hour plus movie, that may not have been possible.

Jackson’s vision of the afterlife is very lyrical in places, with dancing leaves, flocks of colored birds and roses that bloom in the ice. Some of the effects are downright breathtaking. However, it also must be said that his depiction of the darker aspects of the movie are as well executed. The scenes of Susie with her eventual murderer in the place of her death are gut-twisting; you may find yourself turning away from the screen, unwilling to watch this bright life snuffed (which thankfully we’re not shown).

I must also give a shout out to Brian Eno, the movie’s composer. He is best-known these days as the producer of U2 and other great artists, but he has a long and distinguished career first as a member of Roxy Music and later as an originator of ambient music in his own solo works. This is perhaps the best score I’ve heard in a movie this year and it has been sadly ignored in most of the reviews I’ve seen, as well as in the awards that have been handed out. To my mind, no score has augmented a film as well as Eno’s. Jackson also did an amazing job of picking out period songs to supplement the score.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, and it isn’t always a nice one. This is a movie not about life and death but about moving on. The events that surround it are tragic and sad, but there are also moments of joy to behold. This hasn’t gotten the kind of reviews I expected it to get and having seen it now, I can understand some of the criticism even if I don’t agree with all of it. At the end of the day, I can say this is a movie worth seeing because of the performances more than because of the subject matter, because of the style more than the substance. Still, I look forward to seeing some of the extras on the Blu-Ray because I’d certainly like to hear how the process worked in making this ultimately fascinating film.

REASONS TO GO: Tucci gives a creepy and stomach-turning performance as the serial killer and pedophile. Roman gives a remarkable performance of her own. Jackson’s images of the “in-between” are breathtaking. Brian Eno’s score, as well as the use of period music, is inspiring.

REASONS TO STAY: The murder of Susie Salmon, while never directly witnessed, is nonetheless a very difficult and wrenching sequence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some very disturbing imagery and subject matter, some of which may be too much for the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Peter Jackson makes a cameo as a customer in a camera store, looking through the lens of a Super 8 movie camera.

HOME OR THEATER: This is very much a big screen experience.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 10 Items or Less