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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White Noise 2: The Light


White Noise 2: The Light

Katee Sackhoff is thrilled that fans think "Battlestar Galactica" is better than "Firefly;" Nathan Fillion isn't so sure.

(2007) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Nathan Fillion, Katee Sackhoff, Craig Fairbrass, Adrian Holmes, Kendall Cross, Teryl Rothery, William MacDonald, Josh Ballard, David Milchard, Tegan Moss. Directed by Patrick Lussier

I don’t often review direct-to-home video releases; they are almost always uniformly bad. I caught this one because it was initially going to get a theatrical release but was pulled and exiled to direct-to-video land instead. I expected the worst; instead, I actually was rewarded.

Abe Dale (Fillion) has a wonderful life that becomes shattered when his wife (Cross) and son (Ballard) are murdered before his very eyes while taking breakfast in a local diner by a psycho named Henry Caine (Fairbrass) who then turns the gun on himself. They had just been sitting down to pancakes; the crime was as senseless as it was brutal.

Understandably, Abe is distraught and eventually becomes overwhelmed by grief. He takes a bunch of pills with the intention of easing his pain permanently but his best friend Marty Bloom (Holmes) discovers what he’s up to and rushes him to the hospital. There Abe dies and experiences travelling through a tunnel of light where he sees his wife and son waiting for him, but it is not to be. His heart is re-started and he returns to the operating room.

He wakes up in a hospital bed and things don’t look quite right. He is administered to by a sympathetic nurse named Sherry Clarke (Sackhoff). Dr. Karras (MacDonald), his attending physician, writes off his enhanced eye-sight as a by-product of the trauma to his system, believing the effect will go away after a few days. Abe can see electrical auras, discharges from iPods and cell phones, even the auras of people. The horror is that the only auras he can see are in people who are about to die.

He also discovers that he can prevent those about to die from expiring and when he does, their auras go away. However, he then discovers to his horror that three days after their lives are saved they are possessed by the Devil and go on a murderous rampage. He also is shocked to discover that Henry Caine is still alive and moreover had the same ability as Abe does. It becomes his mission to get to the bottom of it and discover how he can prevent the devil from possessing the saved – because one of those he saved was Sherry, whom he has developed a certain attachment for.

Director Patrick Lussier makes some really smart choices here, going for more of an atmospheric thriller and distancing the movie from White Noise, a surprise hit horror film that concerned itself more with Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) and wasn’t nearly as good as this is.

Much of the reason this works so well is Nathan Fillion. I think he’s one of the most underrated actors out there; he is just so damn likable, even when he’s playing a scoundrel (as he does in Serenity). I’d be willing to bet that Katee Sackhoff is going to join him on that list. She’s as far off from Starbuck (her “Battlestar Galactica” character) as it’s possible to get, and she’s actually very likable here.

The problem with the movie has to do with a couple of elements. First off is the ending of the movie. I don’t mind a movie taking a leap off the deep end into fantasy, but when it does so sideways and in a manner that defies logic, I take exception. Without going into much detail, Abe – who’s shown himself to be a smart fella throughout the movie – does some pretty dumb things. That’s a screenwriting sin that just absolutely drives me crazy; changing a character for the sake of advancing the climax. Write better is the only advice I have in this case.

For the most part, this is well-directed, well-acted and well-conceived. While it fails when it tries to combine science with the supernatural, it nonetheless is a solid bit of horror entertainment (although I somehow doubt most would qualify this as a horror film – it’s more of a supernatural thriller). And as for a direct-to-video sequel outshining the original? That in itself is a feat worth recording.

WHY RENT THIS: Fillion is one of my favorite actors right now. There is a pretty good concept here that deserved a better fate. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending dives into the deep end of the preposterous pool.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing images and a few instances of blue language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Dr. Karras character’s name is an homage to Father Karras, the priest played by Jason Miller in The Exorcist.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted scenes are a home video staple, there is more than half an hour’s worth of them, making this an abundance of unseen footage. There is also a nifty featurette on Near Death Experience survivors.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Surveillance

Hereafter


Hereafter

Despite how it looks, Matt Damon is NOT sleepwalking his way through this movie.

(2010) Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr, Richard Kind, Thierry Neuvic, Lyndsey Marshal, Derek Jacobi, Steve Schirripa, Rebekah Staton, Declan Conlan. Directed by Clint Eastwood

There are three things we all have in common; we were all born, we all are living our lives and all of us will eventually die. The last is perhaps the most terrifying thing in our reality; when we die our existence is over…isn’t it?

Marie LeLay (de France) is a popular French television journalist who is on assignment (or is it vacation? The movie isn’t too clear about that) in an unnamed South Pacific/Indian Ocean coastal city. She is there with her producer Didier (Neuvic) whom she is also romantically involved with. He’s a bit of a lazy slob; it’s their last day in paradise and he hasn’t gotten gifts for his children. Good-naturedly (and perhaps wanting one last crack at the marketplace) Marie goes downstairs to the town to shop.

As she is shopping, she is startled to see a wall of water coming at her – the town is being hit by a tsunami. She tries to run, but there’s no outrunning a wave like this. She is sucked under and dragged out towards the sea. She fights with all her strength to try and get a handhold anywhere, but she is struck in the head by debris and sinks to the bottom. Game over, no?

No. A pair of men pull her out of the water and try to revive her. She eventually comes to but only after having an experience she can’t explain, one with white light illuminating darkness, strangely familiar figures in the light and a sensation of peace.

The experience shakes her up. After reuniting with Didier (who was on a high enough floor in the hotel to not even get his feet wet), she goes back to Paris to resume her duties and finds herself distracted. Didier urges her to take some time off and write the book on Francois Mitterrand that she always wanted to write. Realizing she isn’t at the top of her game, she reluctantly agrees.

In London, a pair of twin brothers Marcus and Jason (the McLaren brothers, who alternated in the two roles) are desperately trying to keep social workers from discovering that their mother Jackie (Marshal) is messed up on drugs and alcohol again, knowing that if the authorities discover the truth they’ll be taken away from their mother for sure. With a bit of luck they are able to fool the social workers. Relieved, Jackie sends Jason, the more outgoing of the two, to the chemist’s to pick up a prescription, one that will finally begin the rehab process for her. Jason and Marcus are absolutely overjoyed.

That joy is short-lived. A group of young street thugs spy Jason talking on a cell phone and they want it, as well as the drugs he’s carrying. They chase him down the street, and Jason runs into traffic to escape, directly into the path of a lorry. He’s killed instantly despite Marcus’s pleas to come back (Marcus heard the whole thing over the phone and went running out to save his brother, fruitlessly as it turned out).

In San Francisco, George Lonegan (Damon) is annoyed at his brother Billy (Mohr). Billy has brought over a client named Christos (Kind) for a reading. Not the book kind of reading; you see, George is a kind of a psychic. His readings involve communicating with the dead, and Christos wants to talk to his late wife in the worst way.

The trouble is, George has given the life of a psychic up. He was once fairly well-known – a book was even written about his gifts – and he had a thriving business with a website and everything. However, the cost to George’s soul was too great, and he yearned for a normal life. He is setting out to provide himself with just that, taking a job in a sugar factory and taking Italian cooking lessons from a chef (Schirripa) in a local learning annex, meeting a sweet and somewhat chatty girl named Melanie (Howard) in the process. He is just beginning to really fall for her when she discovers the nature of his talents, which leads to him discovering something about her that she had wanted to keep buried.

All three of these people, touched in one way or another by death are on paths that are getting ready to intersect. What will happen when they do is anybody’s guess.

I had very high hopes for this movie. After all, Eastwood has become the most consistently high-quality director in Hollywood, and writer Peter Morgan has such acclaimed works as The Queen to his credit. The subject matter is also intriguing, to say the least.

Unfortunately, I was left feeling kind of flat by the whole thing. There doesn’t seem to be much insight going on, other than to say that most people who spend too much time thinking about death are forgetting that they have a life. While Damon and de France are solid in their parts (particularly Damon who turns into one of the most compelling performances in his career), the McLaren brothers – who are amateur actors – seem a bit overwhelmed by what they’re doing. Unfortunately (and I hate to criticize child actors), they were terribly inconsistent in their performance. At times there seemed to be some talent there; at others, they seemed completely lost. Eastwood deliberately cast non-professionals in the role because he didn’t want veterans of “Child Acting 101” to deliver an unbelievable performance. While I agree with the sentiment, unfortunately he needed someone along the lines of a young Haley Joel Osment or even an Abigail Breslin to really make that part of the movie work.

The opening tsunami sequence is absolutely astonishing, giving viewers a you-are-there feel and is some of Eastwood’s best filmmaking work to date. Not known for big special effects shots and computer imaging, I thought this scene had enormous power and really set the movie up quite nicely.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really go anywhere and the ending kind of peters out. Eastwood has said in several interviews that he didn’t want to create an afterlife movie, but rather begin a conversation about the afterlife and whether or not it exists. The movie seems to opine that some sort of consciousness remains when the body dies but whether or not this is Heaven, Valhalla or just the brain shutting down is left up to the discretion of the viewer and in that sense, the movie works marvelously. Still, I felt a bit let down at the end and while perhaps I just wasn’t on the same page as Eastwood for this one, I think it fair enough that my reaction be part of the review. Eastwood is a master craftsman and this movie certainly reflects that craft, but it left me feeling…well, nothing.

REASONS TO GO: The opening scene is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and Damon puts on one of the performances he’ll be remembered for.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit vague, and leaves one wondering what the purpose of the movie is.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images regarding death and the afterlife, and a few bad words here and there but for the most part, suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes depicting the tsunami were filmed in Lahaina, Hawaii.

HOME OR THEATER: The opening scene should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: MegaMind