HEAVEN IS FOR REAL. So it's right out there in the clumsily worded title. Although the premise of the movie — that a 4-year-old visited heaven, sat on the lap of the Christ and met the sister he never knew he had because she died in utero — includes a crisis of faith, ultimately it preaches to the choir. For those of us who reserve judgment — call us skeptics, cynics, agnostics or what have you — it's a lot to take in, even as the film pulls back from outright proselytizing.
In recession-addled Imperial, Neb., Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) cobbles together a living as minister, garage door repairman and high school wrestling coach. Times are tough, but it's a good life. Good enough, apparently, that he can refuse to let his wife (Kelly Reilly) get a job despite their inability to pay bills. Todd's a good-natured, salt of the earth kinda guy: His sermons increase attendance at the church, he's a pillar of the community and he'll let customers slide on paying, accepting barter despite his own mounting financial crisis.
Both the Burpo kids — 4-year-old Colton (Connor Corum) and his older sister Cassie (Lane Styles) — come down with stomach flu. Colton doesn't recover as quickly as his sister, and a trip to the hospital reveals a ruptured appendix. Following emergency surgery, the lad returns to the flower of health, only to tell his parents he visited heaven while unconscious on the operating table.
This is where the movie should get into interesting territory. Todd is troubled over Colton's casual revelation. His sermons meander as he tries to talk out his spiritual conflict. Is his son parroting back the language and imagery he's been taught? Or did he really have an out-of-body experience explained only by faith? There's a whole movie in this section alone, and Kinnear does some real acting here, but the movie cuts around his crisis, focusing instead on the reaction of his church board and friends. Perhaps trying to reach a broader audience, or to avoid arch Christianity, Heaven pulls back into the stance of a conventional family drama. It's disingenuous, it pulls what few teeth the story actually has and it feels pandering, dull and safe.
Some credit is due to director/co-adaptor (from Todd Burpo's nonfiction account) Randall Wallace, whose Secretariat I quite enjoyed, for not hammering the Message too hard. He leaves a little room for ambiguity, although I could have stood more. And Todd's closing sermon, about finding heaven for ourselves here on planet Earth, has something in it for both the devout and the not-so-much. PG. 99m.
TRANSCENDENCE. From what I've gleaned from not reading Wired and mostly being a Luddite, humanity is headed toward the Singularity, the moment when our consciousness is inextricably wedded to the machines upon which we are increasingly reliant. It's not a bad concept for movie, and people have been using it for years. And now cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister has taken a crack at it, with dubious box-office commodity Johnny Depp as his star.
Dr. Will Caster (Depp), a scruffy cyber-genius — you know the type — has been hard at work creating a functional artificial intelligence. It's an exciting time, but he's a target for anti-technology terrorists. They shoot Caster with a radioactive bullet while simultaneously destroying most of the country's foremost A.I. research facilities. As Caster dies, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), motivated by grief and other factors never made clear by the writing or acting, uploads his consciousness into a database. Soon she's jacked him straight into the Internet and he's off to the races. They build a crazy research facility in the middle of the desert, where apparently neither the government nor the dumbfoundingly effective terrorists can reach them, and develop technology to alter the essential fabric of existence. After several years (?!), Evelyn starts to question the wisdom of the plan and her ephemeral megalomaniac husband's consciousness.
Pfister is director Christopher Nolan's go-to director of photography, and he seems to have picked up his boss's penchant for slow-building drama. Unfortunately, he didn't inherit Nolan's ability to tie together big stories with tension and psychological realism. And so Transcendence rambles all over the place without ever really getting anywhere. It is occasionally pretty (as one would hope) and founded on a promising idea, but totally lacking in any real sense of risk, danger or loss. PG13. 119m.
BEARS. Nature documentaries are movie comfort food: Even when they aren't great, they satisfy. This one has bears, narration by John C. Reilly and great-looking cinematography of the Alaskan peninsula. So what if it doesn't break new ground? As good looking as
Rio 2, but without the extra backstory and overpaid voice actors, Bears has real-world beauty and drama that kids and parents will appreciate. It's still more enjoyable (and way more concise) than the other movies I saw this weekend. G. 78m.
BRICK MANSIONS. The late Paul Walker is a cop who buddies up with an ex-con (Parkour star/spider monkey David Belle) to battle gangsters in the no man's land of Detroit. PG13. 90m.
THE OTHER WOMAN. A trio of women scorned (Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton) take their revenge on a cheating husband. PG13. 109m.
THE QUIET ONES. A professor (Jared Harris) and his students decide the best place to experiment with curing a haunted young woman is a creepy country estate. PG13. 98m.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. The Avenger next door goes BAMF, this time battling the robo-armed Winter Soldier in a sequel that tops the first installment. PG13. 136m.
DRAFT DAY. Compelling and entertaining sports biz drama about a manager (Kevin Costner) wheeling and dealing on the big day. PG13. 109m.
DIVERGENT. Veronica Roth's Myers-Briggs dystopia — in which extraordinary teens are targets of state oppression — gets the Hunger Games franchise marketing treatment. PG13. 139m.
GOD'S NOT DEAD. A devout college student debates his philosophy classmates and professor to prove God exists. It's harder to convince us that Kevin Sorbo is a professor. PG. 113m.
GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Wes Anderson's Instagram-toned tale of hotel intrigue with concierge-Romeo Ralph Fiennes is his funniest and best written yet. PG13. 138m.
A HAUNTED HOUSE 2. Another Wayans horror spoof with Jaime Pressly and Gabriel Iglesias. R. 86m.
OCULUS. Karen Gillian tries to prove her parents were killed by a haunted antique mirror and clear her brother's name. Should ruin rummage sales for everyone. R. 105m.
RIO 2. Endangered macaws Blu and Jewel are back for franchise cash — ahem — and to find long-lost family in the Amazon. It's a mess, but a colorful one the kids seem to like. G. 101m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill