Judge Patrick Naugle knows first hand that Hell on Earth is for real.
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Heaven is for Real is based on the supposed true story of the Burpo family and little Colton's brief but wondrous experience with the afterlife. Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear, Flash of Genius) is the town pastor who lives on a farm with his loving wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), and their two children, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum). When Colton has a sudden and terrifying near-death experience, Colton's parents pray for a clean bill of health. Colton comes back from the brink of death in one piece, but to everyone's shock informs that he has been to heaven. Telling his father things that he couldn't possibly know, Colton begins to weave a tale that may just be true. Todd is forced to face the idea that his son may have indeed crossed over into the unknown and lived to tell about it.
"Based on a true story." I've gotten to the point where seeing those words makes me question everything I'm about to see. Filmmakers have a strong penchant for taking real life events and, well, let's say "fudging" with the details a bit. Just so we're clear, "a bit" often means "a boatload." I recently reviewed Ragamuffin, a biopic on the late Christian singer Rich Mullins. While I enjoyed the film, the writer and director took some artistic liberties with Rich's life, including making up a girlfriend that never actually existed (she was a composite of real women Rich went out with). I realize for the sake of the film sometimes details have to be condensed or switched around, but do that too much and too broadly and viewers will start to wonder just how truthful the film is being to the real life subject.
I'm not exactly sure how much of Heaven is for Real is fact and how much is…well, "fiction" maybe it's the right word. Maybe I'll go with "guesstimate." I have no doubt that the general facts of the story are true; little Colton got sick, almost died, woke up, and then told everyone he went to heaven. As for the rest of the story—that Colton actually went to heaven and saw things no mortal man has experienced before—seems to be up for debate. I'm not saying it did happened and I'm not saying it didn't happen. I'm just saying that it's hard to say either way. Heaven is for Real seems to be the kind of movie that you have to take on faith (pun intended). As I watched it I realized that it's a story that you'll either buy into or you'll reject outright. Myself, I sure wanted to believe but I couldn't get past the film's overly sentimental themes and sometimes mawkish performances.
There are good performances to be found in Heaven is for Real, even if the screenplay gives the characters some rather ridiculous dialogue to recite ("You should learn to turn the other cheek." "I did turn the other cheek…when I hit him."). Greg Kinnear is one of the most likable actors working in Hollywood and has proven himself to be adept at both comedy (Mystery Men) and drama (As Good As It Gets). In Heaven is for Real he gets to play a pastor who is compelling in the pulpit and a seemingly perfect father/husband/friend/garage door/serviceman/firefighter (seriously, how many hats does this guy wear?). Kinnear gives an earnest performance that is the highlight of the film. He's surrounded by a very good supporting cast, including Margo Martindale and Thomas Hayden Church as family friends (Church is especially amusing as Todd's friend who spends most of the movie offering up sarcastic one-liners). The main problem is that the characters are all mostly one-dimensional and not very compelling. Newcomer Connor Corum as Colton Burpo is good, but as one of the filmmakers note in the supplemental materials, is Connor really acting or just acting like a 4 year old?
"Compelling" may be the one descriptive word missing from the movie. One of the larger deficiencies of Heaven is for Real is that there;s no real antagonist or conflict. Colton almost dies, sees heaven, and that's about it. There's one scene where a character questions this, but it's a throwaway scene that hardly registers at all. The biggest struggle in the film is Todd's attempt to understand if his boy really did step into the afterlife or not. While that may be true to the real life story it doesn't really make for a compelling feature length film.
I truly admire what the filmmakers were attempting to accomplish Heaven is for Real. We need more feel good movies in theaters, but there's also a need for realistic feel good movies that don't wallow in syrupy sentimentality. While I've certainly seen a lot worse in the way of Christian filmmaking, I've also seen a lot better. What bogs down Heaven is for Real is not the message—which is noble—but some of the imagery that comes straight out of a "Heaven 101" textbook; flowing glowing angels. Blue skies filled with white clouds. Kids sitting on Jesus' lap (a Jesus, I might add, who looks a lot like Kenny Loggins). The filmmakers tried to do something different and just came up with more of the same.
Presented in 2.39:1/1080p HD widescreen, Sony's work this transfer is nothing short of excellent. Heaven is for Real (Blu-ray) is a colorful film that's bright, cheery, and crystal clear. There isn't a lot to report about this transfer except its near reference quality. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a fine audio mix that gets a nice boost from the inspirational music that often plays in the background (including treacle laden score by Nick Glennie-Smith). Although the film is often dialogue heavy, there still are some solid instances of directional effects and surround sounds to be found here.
Bonus features include a few deleted scenes, a short EPK promo piece on the making of the film ("The Making of Heaven is for Real"), a short interview with the real-life Burpo family ("Colton Goes to Heaven"), a short featurette on creating the effects work ("Creating Heaven"), some trailers, as well as DVD and digital copies.
Heaven is for Real is a solid family film void of any major profanity, sex, or violence. It's a fluffy film Christian audiences will flock to (and indeed they did upon its theatrical release), but it doesn't offer a lot that will challenge viewers.
Not as heaven sent as one might hope.
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