Friday, April 18, 2014

Film Review: Heaven Is For Real

"Heaven Is For Real"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Just in time for Easter Sunday TriStar pictures has released "Heaven Is For Real" (2014) a movie adaptation of the New York Times bestselling book of the same title written in 2010 by Pastor Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent based on Burpo's four year old son's near death experience as he claims he went to Heaven and came back.

Since the movie's release this past Wednesday it has opened to mixed critical reviews and public reaction. Unfortunately, though perhaps obviously, the dividing lines don't necessarily have to do with cinematic taste but rather your level of faith. If you are a believer, you will probably like the movie as it will confirm your beliefs. If you are not a religious person you may not be comfortable or enjoy the movie's religious themes as it supports the young boy, Colton Burpo's claim that he did in fact go to Heaven and return.

Ever since the book's release it has been a hot topic of conversation, which the movie will only reignite as a larger audience may find it. Did young Colton actually go to Heaven? Not only Colton, but, is anyone's claim that they died, went to Heaven and returned true? Non-believers say it is all hallucination and there are logical reasons why a person may believe such claims. The funny thing though is, so many people, from all parts of the world, all tell the same story, share the same vision. How can all these people have the same hallucination?

The film follows the Burpo family headed by Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly, seen most recently in "Flight" (2012) with Denzel Washington) their daughter Cassie (Lane Styles) and their son Colton (Connor Corum). They are your average Nebraskan family. Besides being a Pastor, Todd also volunteers with the fire department and is a very active member of the community.

The first 30 minutes of the movie goes through great lengths to show us the Burpo's are just like any other family. The children are just like yours. They deal with the same problems all families deal with; worrying if they have enough money to pay the bills, making sure their kids don't fight with each other and where to go on vacation.

It is when they return from a vacation that both children get sick. As the days pass Cassie is fine but Colton is running a 104 temperature for four days, vomits and has no energy. After they rush him to the hospital they discover the boy has a ruptured appendix and surgery is required. Fearing the worst Sonja calls friends to pray for Colton. Todd goes to the hospital's chapel and has an angry conversation with God, asking how can He take away his son?

The surgery turns out to be a success and has time passes by Colton slowing reveals his near death experience with his parents though mostly with his father. Colton tells his father during the surgery he left his body and saw his mother calling friends asking them to pray and he saw his father in the chapel yelling at God. Colton also reveals he went to Heaven and saw Jesus. He saw Todd's grandfather, who died before Colton was born. And young Colton even saw his unborn sister, who died before he was born. A story his parents never told him.

Colton can describe his experience with such vivid details that it throws Todd into a state of confusion. Even though he is a pastor and believes in God and Heaven, is his son telling the truth? Did his son really go to Heaven and see Jesus? It all test Todd and this small community's faith. Which creates an interesting question and an interesting dilemma. Why is it, all throughout history, whenever anyone from Joan of Arc to Bernadette ever claimed to see God or have a vision, it is always the church which is first to deny the claim? As believers we are now taught to trust in these things. God speaks to us. His sends messengers to us. The Archangel spoke to Mary and told her she would give birth to God's son for example. Yet, when confronted by people who share stories of vision no one believes them.

When I was a young boy there was a cemetery, just outside of Chicago, where I grew up, where there were reported vision of the Virgin Mary showing herself inside the trunk of a tree. My parents took me to the cemetery. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were there all taking photos of the tree and this was in the old days of Polaroid cameras when the film would instantly came out of the camera and on the film you would see a vision of Mary. The church questioned the vision. My parents still have the photo though. The vision would only show up on the film. If you merely looked at the tree you wouldn't see anything.

I tell you that story because if your immediate reaction is, well, it was trick photography. Or, it had something to do with the way the sun hit the tree. Or any other explanation you can think of, you aren't the right audience for this movie. If your mind tells your heart you mustn't believe, the charms of the movie will not work on you.

"Heaven Is For Real" is a very emotional story. Watching this family trying to accept their son's stories, defending him against the skeptics, is able to touch your heart. Hearing him describe his visions will put a smile on your face and give you a warm feeling inside. But, only if you are a believer.

The movie is finely acted with Kinnear leading the pack. I have always liked Greg Kinnear ever since I saw him in his breakout role in the James L. Brooks Oscar winning romantic comedy "As Good As It Gets" (1997). Kinnear has an old-fashion sensibility which I respond to. I can picture him in a 1930s or 1940s screwball comedy. Watch him in "Ghost Town" (2008), which some have compared to "Topper" (1937) that Cary Grant, Roland Young comedy about a man who sees ghost. It was a favorite of mine when I was a child.

The movie was directed by Randall Wallace, best known for "Secretariat" (2010), another "feel good" movie and the war themed movies; "Pearl Harbor" (2001) and "We Were Soldiers" (2002), also with Kinnear and Mel Gibson, which on placed on my "top ten" list that year. He finds all the right spots to pull at our heartstrings and creates a tone nice tone throughout the movie.

This Easter weekend "Heaven Is For Real" is a nice choice for families to go and see. And after Easter, it will still be a good movie for people to see. This is a very emotional, life affirming movie with a wonderful message.