Heaven is for Real (2014)

Heaven is for RealReleased: April 16, 2014. Directed by: Randall Wallace. Starring: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church. Runtime: 99 min.

Each year in cinema, trends pop up. May they be post-apocalyptic films, last year’s McConaissance, and Young Adult adaptations that just aren’t going away – sometimes these trends are here to stay. One trend of 2014 is religious and faith-based films. This year has seen the release of Son of God and the controversial Noah. The latest faith-based film is called Heaven is for Real

It’s a film set in the town of Imperial, Nebraska; based on an event that occurred back in 2004. A four-year-old boy (Connor Corum) has a near-death experience and claims to have seen Heaven. His parents Todd (Greg Kinnear) and Sonja (Kelly Reilly, Flight) don’t know how to interpret it. They don’t want their kid to become a laughing stock or just a piece of controversy. He soon does find the courage to share his son’s life-changing experience with his parish and then the world six years later, when he wrote a novel about it.

This does seem like a life-changing experience; seeing Heaven could give someone a whole new perspective on life. The concept of Heaven being a concrete fact could frighten some people. I find that hard to understand because it’s an idea that gives me great comfort. They could be afraid to know if their loved ones are or are not in Heaven. Some people believe they see Heaven in the little things on Earth. Some of these ideas are portrayed through Margo Martindale’s character. One aspect of the film isn’t handled with the most realism. I could understand why non-religious people might be maddened by the controversy, but why do the religious folks of this town seem to be so disturbed by it? It’s not like he had a near-death experience and visited Hell instead, and spoke of Hitler being flogged.

I understand where Colton’s parents are coming from, because no one wants to see their kid be ridiculed or seen as vastly different. Colton goes from being an ordinary kid to a sorta ordinary kid with an incredible story. Conveniently, Colton isn’t in pre-school yet, so it’s his parents and older sister who receive the tame backlash of the people who bother to say something. Kinnear’s good in a few scenes and just adequate in others. He’s believable as a father figure and a pastor. I think Reilly is particularly great in two scenes and good the rest of the time. I felt their pain when they thought their son was going to die – it seems like a horrifying experience. Parents will really feel their pain.

Connor CorumConnor Corum is convincing in the way that we could believe he sees Heaven. Another notable aspect is his facial expressions during a rendition of “We Will Rock You,” which border on funny and downright creepy. Otherwise, his performance as Colton is quite distracting. After he halfheartedly delivers his line, he just vacantly looks at his scene partner. When he’s watching his father on stage at Church, he’s vacant with a “I want to be somewhere else” look on his face – the way I looked when I was a kid going to Church. He’s realistic in the way that he’s a kid and he just wants to play– but it’s going to take people out of the movie. Can’t Pierce Gagnon (Looper) portray every kid under the age of 10? Corum is surely cast for his cuteness and resemblance to the real-life Colton Burpo. By the way, you can tell Burpo isn’t a fictional last name because no one can make that shit up. No one’s that cruel! If that was a fictional last name, that would be more humour to accompany the flairs of lite comedy found throughout.

Your enjoyment of the film might depend on your personal faith and tolerance for films with no antagonists. The conflicts are largely man vs. self; people wrestling with their beliefs of this situation. There’s not one antagonist. The sometimes slack narrative could have benefited from one or two. I’m surprised this film is able to milk 99 minutes out of this material. The first twenty minutes is practically all filler. The father is a pastor who works a lot of jobs to make a living and improve his small church in any way he can. The film actually gets into the plot when Colton is rushed to the emergency room after a ruptured appendix that started on the way home from a trip in Denver. 

Without this filler the film would be quite short. Even at its length now, it feels slow, with only self-conflicts to keep the film going. Two sub-plots arise that don’t get consistent focus or a conclusion. They might have helped advance the story a bit. You cannot fault the film for staying focused on the story at-hand. One of the sub-plots is money troubles, where solutions are offered but then the sub-plot is dropped completely. 

Heaven is for Real does prove that films can still be mildly successful with no major antagonists. If screenwriters Randall Wallace and Chris Parker offered an adaptation with a few fictional antagonists, perhaps the narrative would be more compelling. We see so many films that take minor detours from true stories, so what would have been the harm in one more? God forbid the Burpo vision becomes tainted! 

All in all, this is a lovely little drama with a lot of meaning. It could have a more engaging story with some more substance, other than strictly thematic substance. Hey, at least the Nebraska settings make the film look nice. Granted, some people still are not going to believe the story at hand. Since so many sub-plots go unsolved, this still might have the same effect if some opinionated person just stood up and said before the end credits, “I still call bullshit on all of this.” Now, putting that in a Hollywood film would be brave and courageous.

Score65/100

 

August: Osage County (2013)

August Osage CountyReleased: January 10, 2014 (wide release). Directed by: John Wells. Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor. Runtime: 121 min.

When a film starts out with the line “Life is very long,” that’s the first hint that the drama you’re about to watch isn’t going to be the feel-good film of the year. “August: Osage County” is a bleak feature with a prominent theme of the hollow emptiness of modern mid-western life. And hollow it is! The film follows the strong-willed women of the Weston family, who return to their family home in Oklahoma because of a family crisis. This means they have to face the devil woman that raised them.

The synopsis states that there’s a family crisis, and usually, one knows that it’s likely that it’ll either be a funeral or a life-threatening disease; and since Violet (Meryl Streep) already has mouth cancer, it looks like people are going to be dressing in black and are going to pretty upset throughout. The film’s trailer isn’t so subtle about who dies, either. In case you haven’t seen the trailer, I’ll try not to spoil it. This is a film about how family tests you and how it lifts you up but can kick you down, as well. And if you have a mother like Meryl Streep’s character, it’s going to kick you down a lot.

I like films with a focus on characters, and most of these are pretty good – but since there are so many, there’s a limited amount of layers for all of them. But the performances are pretty spectacular, and one of my favourite aspects of the film. Meryl Streep is great as a devil woman named Violet with emotional issues because of all the pills she takes. She’s one of those people who criticizes everything and blames people for things that happen, and make your insecurities known which makes one feel crappy. Because she’s so domineering, and since Streep is such a powerhouse dramatic actress, I think that’s why some people consider her a Leading Actress here, even though I’m nearly convinced she has about the same screen time as Roberts. I’m thankful she’s absent for about 25 minutes of the film because the character’s personality is very irritating. Since her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) is a similar personality, one can tell their mother screwed them up pretty harshly. 

Though, while Violet is critical of everyone, Fae is mostly critical of her son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Violet has three daughters, the main one Barbara is portrayed by Julia Roberts. She’s just great as a character who’s more likeable than her mother, but a bit similar – showing the influence of parental figures. Barbara is trying hard to keep the relationship with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) intact. Violet’s other daughter is Karen (Juliette Lewis) who is a bit of a ditz, but not much smarter than her fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Violet’s most likeable daughter is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who was the only daughter to stay close to home, which creates tension between the three daughters. Ivy is criticized greatly by her mother because she hasn’t found a man yet. The only characters who actually rarely have rude things to say to each other are Ivy, Little Charles and Mattie Fae’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper).

Everybody’s just fighting constantly and it doesn’t make the experience enjoyable. There are bursts of comedy here and there that keeps the film from being completely boring, so that’s a good aspect. It seems to me that when one thinks family drama, it’s reasonable to expect people smiling and being nice to each other, isn’t it? But that so rarely happens in this slowly-moving picture. The only scenes some might find theirselves enjoying the film is when Julia Roberts launches herself at Meryl Streep because it’s freaking awesome, and there’s a sweet song that Cumberbatch sings at one point. Along with the little bursts of comedy, that’s the only time I really liked this. Its ending is unrewarding and the film is generally depressing. It’s one of those films where you walk out of the theatre and say, “Hey, could you say something kind to me? I’ve hardly heard a nice thing for two hours.” To have that depressed feeling for these two hours is an emotionally exhausting experience.

Score50/100

Orphan – A film review by Daniel Prinn – An effective and chilling psychological thriller

Orphan

Release Date: July 24, 2009

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman

Runtime: 123 min

Tagline: There’s something wrong with Esther.

 

This is definitely the best film I’ve seen from director Jaume Collet-Serra (the other two being Unknown and the House of Wax remake).

When a married couple with multiple problems lose a child in the womb, they set out for something to fill the missing part of their relationship at a local orphanage. They find Esther, and she seems like a really sweet little Russian girl. They bring her home and, eventually, bizarre and vicious occurances start happening, where Esther seems to always be there. Kate is the only one who seems to see Esther for sinister colours, and must expose her before it’s too late.

This movie is a rather orignal horror/thriller that has great twists and turns, and is a real treat for horror and mystery lovers, as it brings something fresh to the genre. It has wicked suspense and is very creepy, and I liked it a lot. It’s rarely ever boring, and can really keep your attention throughout (for a lot of it), and some scenes you can see some things coming (but rarely). It has some pretty great pacing, though. It really is carried along well enough by some solid performances.

It can be really original, but some of its themes and even scenes were very reminiscent of The Good Son.

*SPOILER, the following explains some scenes in the film*

In this one there’s a scene in the woods where a bird gets shot and in The Good Son; there was a scene in the woods where a dog got shot. There was a person who is believed to be the Person Who Cried Wolf in both: Kate in this one, and no one would believe her because of her expected alcoholism, and in The Good Son; where no one will believe Mark because of the loss of his mother, and everyone thinks it’s a cry for attention.  And the similar psychopathic issues: disturbed, psychopathic, manipulative, cunning and charming.

 *END OF SPOILERS*

 Though, even though how similar they seem to be, this film has more twists and turns and

can be more complex, while Good Son had a simpler plot compared to this. It was better in many ways, and more entertaining. Esther (Orphan) was much creepier than Henry (T.G.S.).

 I don’t see why though that this family would need another daughter, I guess to fill the hole, but they already have enough problems on their hands, why add in a psychopathic child? Though, I love the film’s ability to show the fear that the characters are feeling and other emotions, as well as some of the character’s general ignorance.

This film stars Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman as the show-stealing eerie and troubled Esther, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale and Aryana Engineer.

If you expect a film that’s thoroughly scary, you may not get it because there’s only a few big scares, but it is an effective and chilling psychological thriller.

Orphan is just all thoroughly entertaining and it would be high up there on my list of favourite psychological horror/thrillers. Fans of horror films, creepy stories, mind games of a film,  and good film twists, should really give this one a watch.

80/100