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

Henry’s Crime


 

Henry's Crime

Henry looks at life through a constant haze of befuddlement.

(2010) Dark Comedy (Moving Pictures) Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga, Judy Greer, James Caan, Fisher Stevens, Peter Stormare, Danny Hoch, Bill Duke, Chris Cardona, Rosemary Harris, Mark Anthony, Carlos Pizarro, Currie Graham, Audrey Lynn Weston, David Costabile. Directed by Malcolm Venville

There is a saying that goes “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” It has to do with taking risks. Of course, the opposite may well be true – if you’re gonna do the time, you may as well do the crime.

Henry Torne (Reeves) is the kind of man who is blown by the wind. He rarely gets angry and stares at life through the glass of his toll booth on the New York Thruway with an expression of a man who isn’t quite sure how he got to that point. His wife Debbie (Greer) has made it clear that she is kind of disappointed in him but he doesn’t seem disposed to changing things and frankly, neither is she – he’s a decent enough fellow.

One day his friend Eddie Vibes (Stevens) asks for Henry to give him a lift to the softball game he and a friend were playing in – Joe (Hoch) was supposed to drive them but had come down with a stomach ailment so they needed a favor. Henry, ever accommodating, agrees to do this not realizing that there’s no softball game; in fact, Eddie is going to rob a bank and needs Henry as a getaway driver.

Of course such well-made plans are bound to go sideways and both Eddie and his accomplice are fouled up by an off-duty security guard named Frank (Duke) who manages to capture Henry, who is then tried and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Being the kind of guy he is, he doesn’t finger his friend Eddie for the caper, so he goes to jail alone.

There he meets Max Saltzman (Caan), a con artist who acts as a kind of father figure and mentor to Henry. It is he who plants the idea in Henry’s head  that if he was going to pay the penalty with jail time, he might as well commit the crime. The two form a quiet bond.

Eventually Henry serves out his sentence and is released back into the world. In the intervening time, Debbie divorced him and married his friend Eddie Vibes, who has gone legitimate and has become, well, successful. Henry’s stuff has been relegated to a bunch of boxes which he collects and takes to a cheap apartment which is all that he can afford.

His friend Max has also been paroled and has come into the information that the bank that Henry was convicted of robbing was once connected by a tunnel to a theater next door. That tunnel is sealed off today since it led to the vault but it wouldn’t be too hard to knock down the wall and access it again. The two of them come up with the brilliant scheme of getting Henry a job there, and then during his off hours dig their way to riches.

It so happens that the theater is putting on a performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard which is being directed by the temperamental Darek Milladragovic (Stormare) and stars Julie Ivanova (Farmiga), who Henry has become quite taken with. She had been featured in a lot of state lottery commercials and Henry had already had a bit of a crush on her. When the leading man is fired by Milladragovic, he casts Henry, who had been the janitor, in the role and Henry seemingly against all odds catches the bug, so to speak. Being onstage lights him up.

However, Max is counting on him. Can he get the loot and play his onstage part? The show must go on after all, but can it when so much is at stake?

This is a low-key laid back kind of movie with elements of both a crime caper movie and a bit of black comedy thrown in for good measure. For the most part, the film is pretty well-written with some nice dialogue and  a bit of a quirky nature that isn’t so much indie-quirky as it is just a little bit offbeat.

Reeves has never had a reputation for being a really emotional actor. However, he comes pretty close to it here, particularly during the scenes when he’s assaying Chekhov. He also has some of his best chemistry ever with Farmiga; his character’s attraction to her is very well-portrayed and you get the feeling that these two actors genuinely like each other offscreen.

In fact, the acting is pretty uniformly good and most of the main players get at least one scene to shine. My favorite was one where Duke tells Reeves and Caan the reasons why he is doing what he does. It’s a heartbreaking scene delivered by a reliable actor who doesn’t get the opportunities to show what he can do often and takes advantage of it here. Caan also delivers another winning performance; of late he has perfected a certain kind of role that can best be described as a tough guy with a heart of gold. He nails that here.

The movie’s drawbacks lie in its pacing, which is quite slow, and it’s ending which is a little bit preposterous. I don’t mind laid-back but I do have an issue with comatose. A little more liveliness and passion might have done the movie some good. Still, it’s worth seeing just to watch Keanu Reeves perform a little bit differently than he has previously which isn’t always a bad thing for an actor.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Reeves’ better performances. Kind of a nice dark comedy angle. Fine supporting performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks verve. Sometimes too low-key for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The building used as the bank is an actual bank; it was built in 1901 and is currently home to a branch of M&T Bank.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $204,940 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Maiden Heist

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Italian Job (2003)

Trucker


Trucker

Michelle Monaghan discovers the joys of motherhood.

(Monterey Media) Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams, Jimmy Bennett, Bryce Johnson, Brandon Hanson, Maya McLaughlin. Directed by James Mottern

For everything in life there is a cost. Even freedom to do what you like doesn’t come without a price. That price can be more than you might be willing to bear, but it’s nearly always too late by the time you figure that out.

For Diane Ford (Monaghan), she has lived by her own rules her entire life. As a big rig driver, she competes as a woman in what is very much a man’s world. She has to be twice as tough as any man to survive and she knows it; what’s more, she’s okay with it. She drinks to excess, uses caffeine and cigarettes far too much and sleeps around.

One of the few guys she won’t sleep with is her neighbor Runner (Fillion), who is married. The two are best friends and drinking buddies and Runner has surely got a thing for Diane. Most men do, as a matter of fact, but she wants or needs no man. She had a kid eleven years earlier during the one tryst that lasted more than a night, but that relationship couldn’t stand up to the call of the open road.

One afternoon there’s a knock on the door of her small southern California home. It’s Jenny (Adams), the girlfriend of Len (Bratt) who was the man she had her son with. It turns out that Len is very ill, colon cancer. Jenny is no longer able to care for his son – Diane’s son – and care for Len. She needs Diane to care for Peter (Bennett) – that’s her son’s name – for a short while.

Diane takes to this like a cat takes to platform diving. It would be bad enough to take on a roommate after years of taking care of herself, but a kid? The thing is, Peter is a pretty sharp tack. He understands that his mom really doesn’t want anything to do with him, and he can see pretty clearly just how messed up the situation is, but rather than whine about it he just deals with it. It’s a pretty mature performance, and also very nice to see a kid who’s not precocious in a sickly sweet way.

Diane is forced to take Peter along with her on the road, something which crimps her style more than she’d like but as it turns out, the company is kind of a welcome thing in a twisted way. The two are like a couple of caged bantam roosters warily circling one another. Bonding is certainly not going to be very easy. Is it even possible?

First-time director Mottern should be applauded for delivering a slice-of-life type of movie that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to show the warts. The characters aren’t heroic; these are real people just trying to make their way through day by day, just like the rest of us. They aren’t especially brave, nor smart nor particularly talented; they just do what they do.

Monaghan is impressive here, giving the kind of performance that can only come from deep down inside of a very talented actress. Although she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for her work, she surely could have been – and maybe should have been. Unfortunately, this was distributed by a small company rather than one of the major studio affiliates; I’m pretty sure the performance didn’t get the kind of publicizing that other actresses got.

Bennett is also worthy of mention; most twelve-year-old actors come off as stiff and mannered; you see it all the time on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or ABC Family. Bennett instead is natural and raw; he doesn’t hold anything back. It’s one of the better juvenile performances I’ve seen in a very long time.

Fillion, Bratt and Adams deliver solid backing performances in roles that have more depth to them than most supporting roles, and the three of them known what to do with characters who have some meat on their bones.

There are times that the movie gets overly raw; some of the emotions that come to the surface are painful, even. However, there is a sexual assault that occurs nearly two thirds of the movie that just left me going “huh?” with a bit of a slack jaw. It didn’t really need to be in there, other than to highlight the vulnerability of a single woman and that’s kind of a given.

Short of that one misstep, this is solid work elevated by a scintillating performance by Monaghan. I have never had an ambition to drive a rig, but I do understand the siren song of the open road. I also understand the pain of living exactly the way you want to. Sometimes it’s getting what we want that causes us the most pain.

WHY RENT THIS: Michelle Monaghan gives the performance of her career. Her supporting cast gets kudos for fleshing out roles that for the most part are layered and deep. A great example of a “slice of life” film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie can be a little too raw in places. The sexual assault scene comes out like it’s almost part of a completely different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of swearing (hey, it’s about truckers) and some sexuality, including a scene depicting a sexual assault. There’s also significant amounts of drinking and a little drug use, some of it involving minors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monaghan learned to drive a big rig for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Education of Charlie Banks