Heaven is for Real Starring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly and Thomas Hayden Church Directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat) Rated PG for thematic material including some medical situations
This is not going to be your normal film review. I think it is expected for most film critics to slam a Christian film, regardless of being an independent or studio pic. But most are doing it from an atheistic or agnostic point of view. What you are about to read is from a Christian point of view. Before I start, I have to admit that I loved the book this movie is based on. Todd Burpo’s account of his son’s apparent journey to Heaven is a wonderful, awe-inspiring tale that had me excited and thrilled through every page. Unfortunately this movie did the book a great disservice.
Opening up with a little girl from Eastern Europe painting what will eventually be a very controversial and chilling portrait of Jesus, the film starts out the right way. While this version of Burpo’s story isn’t exactly true to the book, the differences are at first acceptable. After the first sermon Burpo preaches in his church, however, I thought it unusual that he didn’t really discuss God or Jesus or anything very Christian. But then I thought “hey - it’s coming.” After all, it’s a book about Jesus. How can he not get there?
I do not mean for this to be a spoiler, but I think everyone knows that the book is about Burpo’s son Colton and what happened after he almost died and came back from the operating room telling stories of his time spent in Heaven. But here the almost-tragedy of the novel was not close to being apparent. In the book, Colton was mis-diagnosed and it wasn’t until his father illegally took his son from a poorly-run hospital to a children’s hospital in a nearby large city that you find out his life really was in danger and that he almost died. Here, though, Colton gets a fever and he is quickly diagnosed with appendicitis and operated on. This is too common and you really don’t get the sense of danger aside from the father getting angry at God and the town praying. If I hadn’t read the book I would have thought that these people are really overreacting. What a bad choice the filmmakers made here as this was some riveting drama grossly overlooked or ignored.
I will say that Colton’s stories are visually told well and do send some nice shivers, but then the damage comes. While there is a lot of talk of God, the Christian message is completely brushed over. A big example of this is when Todd is talking to a lady in the church and explaining that her son, who died overseas in the military, is in Heaven. The rationale that he proposes is that “if God loves my son, don’t you think he loves your son too?” Paraphrased of course. This is extremely contrary to Christian teachings, no matter what denomination you belong to. The message I got from this film is that God loves us all and that we will all will go to Heaven, regardless of anything. At least they got the first part right. I believe this to be a dangerous viewpoint and completely contrary to any teachings Christ or of any Christian church out there. And to make matters worse, none of the preceding sermons discuss how to get to Heaven or who Jesus is, just that we will all get to meet him someday. It just amazes me that a Christian film would try so hard not be Christian. In a film like this I would think that most people would expect a strong message and a little preaching.
So you might say that this is not really a critical review in the sense of is the reviewer discussing if this is a well-made film or not. To sum up the basics, the acting is phoned in by all of the talented cast and you get the sense that no one involved really took the time to get to know their characters or the world they live in. While the production values are fine, the directing and screenwriting feel like folks who needed a job rather than individuals with a vision. I would also counter that for a film to be good it must have integrity and be brave enough to stand by its convictions and be true to the actual story. If it were a Muslim film or a Jewish film or a Buddhist film I would hold it to those same standards. While watching, I couldn’t help but think of the studio execs in the background whispering in the filmmakers ears “does it have to be so religious? Can you make it any less… Christian?” Had they done what they should have and ignored these voices, the film might have been a head-turning powerhouse that could have made a difference. Instead we get this rather cowardly adaptation of a story that has changed people’s lives throughout the world. F
The Nut Job Rated PG for mild action and rude humor Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D The last several months have been filled with some very quality animated features such as Frozen, The Lego Movie and Mr. Peabody and Sherman but there have also been a lot of really terrible movies like this stinker from Universal about a group of city park animals who attempt to rob a nut store in order to feed themselves. They got together some big names like Will Arnett, Brendan Frasier, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl, but the story is weak and the animation is embarrassingly bad given today’s accepted level of artistry. This is the work of a group of studio hacks who are trying to capitalize on a lack of family entertainment and hoping that their pic can sneak in and sneak out of theaters in time to make a little money. D
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones Rated R for pervasive language, some violence, graphic nudity and some drug use Available on DVD and Blu-ray This 5th chapter in the Pararnormal Activity franchise follows the “found footage” concept like the previous ones but this time a new set of characters in a Latino neighborhood in Southern California communicate with the demon from the other films and a new set of scary troubles ensue. I’ll admit that I was scared senseless by the first two films in the franchise. Even to this day the hair stands up on the back of my neck just thinking about them. But with the last few additions my neck hair has remained dormant. This newest pic has some good ideas and is a nice new direction, but the scares are few and it fails to deliver a good punch to the gut. C+ The 400 Blows: The Criterion Edition Available on Blu-ray/DVD Combo French with English Subtitles It’s hard to describe what makes Francois Truffaut’s first full-length feature film such a classic but simply put it is an exhilarating ride that is hard to take your eyes off of. An early example of the French New Wave, The 400 Blows is a semi-biographical look at the director’s young life, telling the tale of a young pre-teen who just can’t seem to make home-life or school-life work for him but all the while has wonderful adventures playing hooky through the streets of Paris. After watching this marvelous 1959 classic, you must take in the fantastic audio commentary featuring cinema professor Brian Stonehill as he discusses the real life events that formed this fictional work. A
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D Part two of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit saga follows Bilbo Baggins and his cohort of dwarves as they journey to the Lonely Mountain where they must face the dragon Smaug. As with the first film, this is a solid piece of fantasy film-making, but so overly long. Artistically it is an amazing achievement with beautiful cinematography, amazing special effects, good acting, and another terrific score by Howard Shore. But at 161 minutes in length, by the end of this second movie you are five and a half hours in and there is still one more part to go. To label as excessive is an understatement. With The Lord of the Rings, time was respectable as there was a lot of story to tell. But to give the same amount of time to what is essentially one short novel is fun in moments, but very boring at others. I know he’s including additional story not found in the book The Hobbit in order to create a closer tie to The Lord of the Rings, but this is too much. And that’s coming from a huge fan. Still, I will line up to see number three, just like the rest of the world, and sit down and take my medicine. And like it. B
August: Osage County Rated R for language including sexual references and for drug material Available on DVD and Blu-ray It is hard for a play to translate well to the screen, even when you pop out the best actors in America like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and many, many others. The proof of this is this Tony award winning play by Tracy Letts about a highly dysfunctional family that have all come back home to rural Oklahoma after a crisis. On stage the story is a somewhat sad, but hysterical look at a family that you are more than thankful isn’t yours. But on screen you get a bunch of legendary actors fighting it out with great performances that fall flat. Perhaps if we didn’t recognize everyone so well the film could have been just as enjoyable as the stage production, but that connection I wanted to feel again just wasn’t there. My advice is to skip the movie and catch the play as it is sure to make its rounds over and over again in both big and small play houses for years to come. C+
King Kong vs. Godzilla Available on Blu-ray Making its blu-ray debut is this classic monster movie from 1962 which has the great King Kong facing the horrible Godzilla in a legendary brawl. Okay, its not legendary, but it is fun to watch two dudes in really bad creature suits going at it over a cheaply built set. Honestly, the movie works like a comedy better than it does a monster movie. My family and I had a blast watching the silly battle and the irregular and awkward story. This definitely falls into the “so bad its almost good” category. B-
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues 3 Versions: PG-13, R and Unrated Available on DVD and Blu-ray The iconic Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is back as he and his cohorts (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner) try to take over the brand new 24 cable news phenomenon by reporting fluff rather than real news in order to get ratings. While the jokes aren’t as fresh or funny in this new installment, there is an excellent social commentary to be found here. Until three weeks ago, I actually defended CNN but with the recent plane coverage, CNN scarily resembles what we see in this movie trying to make fun of it. My biggest problem with the film is how many old jokes it clings to such as the anchor gang fight and the sequence where Burgundy goes blind which too closely resembles a similar sequence in Talladega Nights. Its safe to say that I did laugh and I did think, but I didn’t do too much of either. While I didn’t care for the movie as much as I wanted to, I must admit that the Ron Burgundy-themed Ben & Jerry’s Scotchy Scotch Scotch ice cream was a joy to eat while taking in the mindless entertainment. C+
Delivery Man Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, some drug material, brief violence and language Available on DVD and Blu-ray This remake of the French-Canadian comedy Starbuck about a man whose sperm bank efforts fathered 533 children is basically the same movie, written and directed by the same writer/director. While the foreign import did pretty well in the U.S., we all know that when it comes to movies, most Americans don’t read, so I guess its inevitable that a remake should come along. In this case Vince Vaughn is the aloof meat delivery man whose hundreds of children all are suing to discover the identity of their father, and he does an admirable job with the material given him. Unfortunately, just as in its predecessor, the movie is all heart and no brain. Like a Hallmark commercial, the movie is meant to make you ahhhh and shed a few tears, but when you start to think about it, there’s not much about the movie that isn’t just plain stupid and disingenuous. C-
The Pirate Fairy Available on DVD and Blu-ray From the world of Tinkerbell and Peter Pan comes this new straight-to-DVD Disney adventure about an outcast fairy who becomes a swashbuckling pirate. While not nearly the quality of its recent films such as Frozen, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, it is a far better picture than some of the other recent trash being slung at kids of late such as Planes, Turbo and Free Bird. At least the story is polished and the animation is gorgeous. And there even happens to be a very singable pirate song included in the mix. B
The Wolf of Wall Street Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence Available on DVD and Blu-ray Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio team up once again for this movie based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker whose firm did some of the most atrocious things to make money and even worse things while spending it. Some have seen this is a ode to the bad behavior of the super rich while others see it as a disgusting overuse of gratuitous behavior on screen. In reality it is both. While it might seem like it glorifies the way this American subset acts, it is really a condemnation, meant to make its audience angry, not turn them off or excite them. Sure the comedy is really outstanding and the performances by DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and others are to be commended, but its really Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter that should get the most attention for shedding a light on what can happen when people get too rich from stealing from others. It’s an atrocity that has gone unpunished for so long that we just kind of accept it. A
The Great Beauty: The Criterion Collection Unrated but if rated would be a strong R Available on DVD and Blu-ray Italian with English Subtitles This year’s Oscar winner for best foreign language film is La Grande Bellezza (or The Great Beauty in English), the latest from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. The first time I watched this film I was absolutely glued but could not for the life of me figure it out. After much reading and watching of interviews (of which there are some great ones in this new Criterion set), I’m still not certain but several more viewings have not gone in vain. From the outside the film is about an aged Roman journalist who in the twilight of his life is trying to rediscover himself. But there is obviously a great deal of hidden meaning, with the man’s life apparently being an allegory for Rome itself. Regardless of what lies in the head of the filmmakers, the movie is a simply beautiful and mesmerizing piece of art that demands several looks before minds should be made up. Overall, I am not giving up on it. I can easily see myself enjoying and meditating on it for decades to come. A Veep Rated TV-MA Available on DVD and Blu-ray Quite the opposite of Kevin Spacey’s Vice President character from House of Cards, Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrays the VP in this HBO comedy as a bumbling yet somehow still fairly competent female second-in-command who finds herself in one ridiculous situation after another while still showing aspirations for the White House. Just like practically everything else she has done, this is laugh-out-loud funny that hits pretty close to home. A-
The Grand Budapest Hotel Starring Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham and Adrien Brody Written and Directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) Rated R for language, some sexual content and violence
I have always had a huge love for Wes Anderson’s films. From Bottle Rocket to Rushmore (filmed in Houston by the way) to The Royal Tenenbaums and the rest that follow, I connect with his style, his color palette and his wonderful usage of actors. And while it’s hard to rank my favorites, his new outing is up at the top.
The crux of the story revolves around a concierge (brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes) at a pre WWII Eastern Block hotel who finds himself on the hit list of a local family when an elderly woman he had been courting at his hotel dies and leaves him a valuable piece of art. Filled with incredible and memorable little stories with unique characters throughout, the film twists and turns in unexpected and joyous little adventures.
So why do I love Anderson’s films so much? Probably because they are so quirky yet so absolutely adorable. There is not a predictable moment in any of his films, and like Hannibal Lecter, you find yourself enjoying his delicious little brain and all of the nuances found within (sorry for any overtly cannibalistic references). Even in the darkest and most violent of moments in the film, there is joy to be discovered. It’s like a scary Disney ride where even though you might be a little concerned for your safety, you always know that there is a big happy mouse waiting for a hug on other side.
Like all of his other films, there is a huge A-list actor around every turn. Like roaches on a filet mignon, I’m fairly certain that pretty much every actor in Hollywood is dying to have any role they can get in Anderson’s movies and they all do their very best with not even an extra “phoning it in.” Fiennes, Law, Abraham, Brody as well as Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldbloom, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Defoe, Harvey Keitel, Owen Wilson and newcomer and co-star Tony Revolori all turn in these amazing performances that are a simply pleasure to sit back and watch.
In addition, this is one of the best productions Anderson has ever presented with interesting and gorgeous cinematography by long-time collaborator Robert Yeoman, a perfect score by Alexandre Desplat and 12 Years a Slave production designer Adam Stockhausen.
If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of the film. I’ve seen it twice already and I’m sure many more viewings are to come. It is a sincere pleasure that I recommend it and hope that you have as much fun watching it as I have. A
Frozen Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D I would have never thought that Disney’s latest princess flick would be the avalanche that it has become, but it has turned out to be the mouse house’s biggest animated hit in years. Now it enters homes hot off its two Oscar wins (best song and best animated feature) and will most likely fly off of the shelves to become a record-breaking dvd/blu-ray release. The music is extremely catchy and the story, about a princess with the power to freeze her surroundings and her sister who longs to have a relationship with her, is as touching as it is entertaining. It is highly aware of itself as it tries to debunk the old-fashioned notion of love at first sight and the power of true love’s kiss, but this does not distract from the enjoyment in the least. A- Saving Mr. Banks Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images. Available on DVD and Blu-ray While I was surprised that Frozen has become such a hit, I was even more surprised that Saving Mr. Banks was such a miss. After all, it has Tom Hanks as Walt Disney trying to woo Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers into allowing him to make one of his all-time classics, Mary Poppins. It’s a fantastic story with amazing performances by a very talented cast including Hanks, Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Collin Farrell and others. I hope that on DVD this one gets the crowd it should have gotten in theaters. A
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, brief strong language, intense sequences of violence and sexual content Based on Nelson Mandela’s very thick autobiography, Long Walk tells the story of the man who has been given the credit for ending apartheid in South Africa. The performance by Idris Elba as Mandela is really fantastic, but as with many biopics, the movie suffers under its own weight. I finished watching feeling educated about some of the major events of his time, but the story and script were less than impressive. C+
Monsters: The Complete Series Available on DVD From 1988-91, the Sci-Fi channel brought us 72 half-hour episodes of this cult classic show which revolved around all sorts of monsters starring all sorts of stars like Steve Buscemi, David Spade and Lili Taylor. While it could be extremely cheesy at times, it has surprisingly good creature effects for its time. While I didn’t get to see all of the 26 hours contained within, what I did see proved to be a gloriously campy way to spend a night eating pizza and popcorn. B
Out of the Furnace Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content Available on DVD and Blu-ray Christian Bale plays a struggling blue-collar worker who is forced to take the law into his own hands when his brother (Casey Affleck) turns up missing and the law won’t do anything about it. This indie is quite ambitious for a quiet little rust bowl picture. The story isn’t that unique but the performances stand out, especially from Woody Harrelson who plays one heck of a mean villain. All of the characters are more complex than they let on, though, making for an interesting watch. But while the film is a decent enough drama, it is ultimately pretty forgettable and really only worth a rent and not a buy. B- The Book Thief Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material Available on DVD and Blu-ray Based on the book by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief tells the story of a young girl who is adopted by a German family during WWII who is hiding a Jewish refugee. After she learns to read, she begins stealing books from a local home in order to entertain herself and keep her illegal guest company. While the film has good intentions, it just isn’t interesting enough to hold your attention. Sophie Nelisse, who plays the young girl, isn’t a particularly great actress, and the script by Michael Petroni even makes the performances of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson look stale. The one saving grace the film has is a magnificent score by the infamous John Williams, who hasn’t done a non-Spielberg film since 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha. While the music doesn’t make the film worth watching, it certainly is a soundtrack worth owning. C
12 Years a Slave Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality Available on DVD and Blu-ray 12 years follows the life of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from the north who is kidnapped and sold to an oppressive slave owner (Michael Fassbender) in Louisiana. This newly discovered true story is remarkable and possibly the most accurate portrayal of slavery in the United States. While incredibly harsh and at times difficult to watch, the film ends being overwhelmingly rewarding. You start to cheer on Solomon and his companions, hoping that things might turn out okay, even though the odds are horribly against them. And talk about great performances. The cast here is tremendously talented, stirring up the kinds of emotions that bring its audience past such notions as white guilt or black pride and into the world of empathy and love for fellow humans. Worthy of every award it has won, including this year’s Oscar for best picture and Lupita Nyong’o for best supporting actress, 12 Years a Slave is an modern classic that will be impactful for decades to come. A+
The Grandmaster Rated PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language Available on DVD and Blu-ray Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s legendary martial arts instructor, has been a major subject of asian cinema over the last few years. Once again his story is being told, only this time with iconic director Wong Kar-wei (In the Mood for Love), big stars like Tony Leung (Lust, Caution) and Ziyi Zhang (Memoirs of a Geisha), and action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (Kill Bill). The production is very good and deserving of the two Oscar noms for cinematography and costume design, but the story is difficult to follow and frankly quite annoying. I really wanted to like the movie but I was just too distracted by the lousy writing and narcissistic excess. I’m sure there is something lost in translation here, but I love martial arts films and I couldn’t enjoy this one at all. C
Gravity Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D Just in time for the Oscars is what I will now predict to be the biggest Oscar-winning film for 2013. While it might not win the big prize (my ballot will be predicting 12 Years a Slave for that trophy), it is safe to say that it will win for director and many of the other technical awards. For roughly an hour and a half you are alongside Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as they try to stay alive in space after their shuttle is destroyed by an exploded Russian satellite. Thrilling doesn’t begin to describe it. I was literally on the edge of my seat for the entire picture, chewing my nails to the nub. The biggest critique you will probably hear about this film is that it plays better on a big screen, especially a big screen with 3D. While this might be true, its still great on a small screen, and there is a 3D version for those of you with the right sets. Unlike most movies released today, I will say this is definitely one to splurge for the 3D copy if you have the right theater setup. A+ Thor: The Dark World Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D Being that the first outing for the Norse god was quite bad, my hopes weren’t too high for this sequel, but thankfully the film turned out to be a vast improvement. Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor took over the reigns from Kenneth Branagh and the result is a good enough super hero movie that will keep fans happy until the upcoming Captain America sequel. Just don’t ask me to describe the plot. It is absolutely nuts and secondary to the action, special effects and interesting character interactions. It would have been nice to have a serviceable story, but at least most will be kept distracted enough to be entertained. B-
Nebraska Rated R for some language Available on DVD and Blu-ray I hardly ever love Alexander Payne movies much the first time I see them, but knowing this I always sit through them a couple of more viewings to see if they will grow on me and they always have. After watching this black and white comedy about a delusional older man (Bruce Dern) who is accompanied by his son (Will Forte) on a road trip to Nebraska when he thinks he has won a million dollars from a Publishers Clearinghouse-like operation I felt thoroughly entertained but not overly impressed. Then I watched it again, and again. Just like with Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants, I found myself really taken by the film. It is a wonderful comedy with amazing performances and a heart-warming story of familial love. I don’t really understand why it needed to be in black and white, but its not distracting in the least. A-
Narco Cultura Rated R for grisly graphic images of disturbing violent content, drug material , language and brief nudity Available on DVD and Blu-ray Very similar to the violent rap that penetrated the mainstream culture in the 90s, there is a subculture of Mexican music that has found a new popularity amongst Mexicans and Latinos both south and north of the border. Glamorizing the lives of violent cartel members, the music sounds like positive tunes to those who don’t speak Spanish, but those who do understand are told stories of drugs, bazookas and beheadings to a friendly rhythm. This documentary chronicles this music and its relationship to the horrible violence seen in Mexico and has you scratching your head at why it has had such little effect on American violence. It follows both a singer in the musical movement who worships the cartel leaders as well as a member of the CSI unit in Juarez who struggles to rid his country of the senseless violence. In 2012, Juarez saw over 2000 homicides while across the border in El Paso the number was 14. While these rates seem to be going down, the music heralds the very criminals at the source of the epidemic and has found its way into pop culture. While there were many scary movies in 2013, this was by far the most horrifying to me. A