April 15, 2014

Movie reviews: 'Heaven is for Real' and 'Joe'

By Carl Kozlowski *

Easter is a time of rebirth and redemption, and so it is perfect that this Easter weekend is the time that Sony Pictures picked to release the new film “Heaven Is For Real” into theatres. Based on the purportedly true story of a young boy who claimed to visit Heaven and came back to write a mega-bestselling book about it with his pastor father, the film is the latest in a string of Christian-themed movies that have been scoring impressive runs at the nation’s box offices this year.

At the same time, theaters this weekend also feature another attempt at resurrection and redemption, as Nicolas Cage watches his comeback attempt “Joe” hit release nationwide. Marking his first truly great performance in the nearly two decades since he won the Best Actor Oscar for “Leaving Las Vegas” for portraying a washed-up writer who wanted to drink himself to death, “Joe” follows the story of a struggling but decent man fighting to survive amid a world that’s constantly turning against him. 

Are either or both of these cinematic efforts divine? Or will you be praying for a way out of the theatre?

I’ll start with “Heaven,” which has a better chance to succeed on an artistic level than such low-budget independently produced faith films as the current surprise hit “God’s Not Dead.” While “Dead” and other such low-budget faith films resonate strongly with die-hard evangelical audiences, they are often heavy-handed and don’t reach anyone beyond the proverbial choir because they can’t afford name-brand actors and filmmakers.

I’m a practicing Catholic who has visited plenty of Protestant churches in my time, so I’m not trying to denigrate faith-based films across the board. “Heaven” stars Oscar nominees Greg Kinnear and Thomas Haden Church and Emmy winner Margo Martindale, and is co-written and directed by the Oscar-nominated writer of “Braveheart,” Randall Wallace. Add in the fact that its source book has sold over 10 million copies and was number one on the New York Times best-seller list, and it’s easy to believe that this could cross over to non-believers who are curious about the afterlife.

The story of “Heaven” follows the family of a small-town Nebraska pastor named Todd Burpo, whose son Colton needed an emergency appendectomy when he was four years old. Colton claims his spirit left his body temporarily during the surgery and that he visited heaven.  Despite the fact that Todd is a preacher, he doesn’t know what to think about Colton’s story and tries to discern if his kid is making it up or having psychological issues. But with each further explanation of what he saw in the afterlife, Colton manages to convince his father and other skeptics around them to believe he actually has an incredible experience to share.

That’s the entire plot in a nutshell, with no big cliffhangers. “Heaven” has a simple storyline, almost too much so at times, as the first half hour takes forever to get going, and there’s rarely much tension in the rest of it either. But, like the book it is adapted from, its purpose is to assure viewers that there is a beautiful afterlife that awaits those who believe.
“Heaven” scores points on an artistic level through the fact that its cast is filled with talented actors who invest themselves fully in its tale, and that it doesn’t use a didactic approach in the manner of “God’s Not Dead.” It takes a quiet approach to its message, and for those inclined to believe or at least be open to the possibility of an afterlife, that slow build could have a quiet and lasting impact.  And of course, it’s perfectly fine family fare.

“Joe” is also quietly powerful, though it has a lot more complexity in its plot and portrait of desperate small-town lives straight out of the Southern Gothic world of Flannery O’Connor stories. “Joe” follows the story of Joe (Nicolas Cage), a man who heads up a work crew that clears backwoods areas of dead trees. He treats his men – all African-Americans in an area that is still caught up in de facto segregation – with respect and fair pay. He meets a teenage loner named Gary (Tye Sheridan) one day as the boy asks for a job on the tree crew, and hires him.

Joe comes to learn that Gary is horribly impoverished and abused by his worthless alcoholic father, and teaches him lessons in self-esteem and self-respect. He also defends Gary against his father and helps the boy move in with him to be in a safe environment.

But Joe has enemies from elsewhere in town and his past, and constantly has to control a temper that once got him thrown in prison for 29 months for assaulting a policeman. As Joe faces pressures from saving the boy as well as his own economic strains and the danger of others seeking to hurt him, he gets caught between trying to be a truly good man and the sometimes inevitable fact that good guys sometimes have bad things happen no matter how hard they try.

“Joe” marks a huge artistic comeback for its star Nicolas Cage, who has been lazily making poor action movies for well over a decade yet delivers what might be his career-best performance here. Young Tye Sheridan builds on his impressive debut in “Mud”  and offers a beautiful portrait  of a kid trying to do the right thing when everyone around him does wrong to him.

While Joe is the story of a decent man trying to help the lives of those around him and is artistically satisfying for mature discerning viewers, it should be noted that it is filled with an abundance of foul language. Yet rather than seeming like an empty exploitative choice, the language does fit the hardscrabble and emotionally illiterate lives of the characters around Joe and Gary, as well as their frustration with a world that can’t be better. “Joe” also has a few bursts of shocking violence, although it is more implied with clever editing than graphically shown.

Director David Gordon Green brings “Joe” to life in a sad and dusty world of poverty and broken dreams, but keeps his real focus on the decent hearts of Joe and Gary. They’re two fellows who might be all too easy to ignore in real life, but they’re heartbreakingly compelling onscreen.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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