MOVIE MAN

There’s no place like Heaven for film-going believers

By Movie Man | Published Wednesday, April 23, 2014

We moviegoers are in the midst of a pair of film trends right now, aside from the superhero glut.

One is the Young Adult craze. The Twilight movies kicked off YA in theaters, and the Hunger Games series has catapulted it into the stratosphere.

Still, a slew of YA hopefuls crashed and burned in auditoriums, like “Ender’s Game” (2013, Movie Man No. 1,060, a 6).

The other trend making hay right now is the religious movie.

ABOUT THE FILM

With “Heaven Is for Real” taking the No. 2 position on the box office charts in its opening week – in far fewer theaters than No. 1 “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (MM No. 1,082, 7) – a rarity occurred. Three religious movies were parked in the Top 10 in the same week.

At No. 10 was “God’s Not Dead,” which wasn’t slowed at all by poor reviews, and the much-maligned “Noah” (MM No. 1081, 4) was No. 9 last week.

In recent years, the general rule of thumb for religious movies is they have a pretty strong opening weekend – with churchgoers and fired-up youth groups selling out auditoriums – then a dramatic decline. That’s what happened to “Fireproof” (2008) and “Courageous” (2011), which made $33.4 million and $34.5 million, respectively, about the going rate for a religious movie. (They went on to become colossal moneymakers when DVD and lesson plans were produced for the films.) Another example is “The Nativity Story,” a 2006 movie that took in $37.6 million.

There is one anomaly out there: The Chronicles of Narnia series. They were teen religious-themed movies, a YA/God mash-up, and made hundreds of millions of dollars.

No examination of religious movies would be complete without mentioning “The Passion of the Christ” (2004, MM No. 549, 8). It remains not only the modern age’s most profitable religious movie – over $600 million worldwide and more than $370 million in America – but also the best. By a mile.

This 2014 spurt of films about religion – “Exodus” with Christian Bale arrives in December – is making more cash than its predecessors.

“Son of God” opened big at $25 million and reached $59-plus million. “Noah,” a big-time Hollywood production, will achieve the $100 million mark but not much more. Domestically it’s at $93.3 million, but internationally, it’s doing better at $300 million. Still, there will be no huge profit.

“God’s Not Dead” is showing staying power. It, too, has surpassed the usual $30 to $40 million average of the genre. It’s already over $48.3 million and has a shot at $60 million; that’s high cotton for a religious movie.

Now there’s “Heaven Is for Real.” For a movie aimed squarely at the religious audience like “Courageous” and “Fireproof,” Heaven will not only out-perform them – thanks to a $28.5 million opening (it debuted on a Wednesday) – but it’s also receiving substantially higher critical approval.

So what does this recent string of successes in the genre mean? More movies just like them, of course. Some could hit, but look for a series of religious Ender’s Games in 2015.

THE PLOT

Good guy preacher Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is a man of God who can fill a pew. He’s a classic Midwesterner whose life is not exactly extravagant but happy.

Then his son almost dies from an internal illness. When the boy recovers, 4-year-old Colton says he’s been to heaven.

When the boy begins to describe what he’s seen – light encased angels and his being put on Jesus’ lap as well as deceased relatives – Kinnear is put into a bit of a conundrum. He wants to believe his boy and preach that heaven is indeed a real place. After all, here’s a tot who says he’s been there. But asking the town’s No. 1 preacher to believe and preach such controversy it is a tough call.

Kinnear is on the ropes, and soon he’s being challenged by his church council that sees a change in the once crowd-pleasing pastor.

Research shows that near-death experiences are just the brain reacting to the body’s hormone release or oxygen deprivation, Kinnear reads. But his boy is so certain – and is right about such unusual things as knowing what Kinnear’s grandfather Pop looks like as a young man and that his mother lost a baby girl that is now in heaven.

A real toughie for Kinnear is that Colton says Jesus has light-colored eyes. That’s not anything like the Christ of traditional illustrations or what people of the area where Jesus walked would’ve looked like.

With a pressure deadline of just one more, make-or-break sermon, Kinnear decides to speak from his heart and says he believes his son.

WHAT WORKS

“Heaven Is for Real would be just another forgettable religious, “preaching to the choir,” lower rung release if not for Kinnear. He’s terrific and brings believability to his difficult role.

The boy, Connor Corum, is all doe-eyed and delivers his lines with maximum impact. That’s likely due to the professionals behind the production.

The movie was directed by the guy who wrote “Braveheart” (1995, MM No. 79, a ‘+’ in non-numbering days – a 9 today and Best of Year), Randall Wallace. He’s a pro who also helmed “Secretariat” (2010, MM No. 898, 7) and “We Were Soldiers” (2004, MM No. 445, 7).

His steady hand saves the day when “Heaven Is for Real” meanders into syrupy territory. Wallace also frames the Nebraska landscapes into eye-popping vistas. ‘If heaven is prettier than this, it’s gonna be great’ is the message successfully delivered.

BEST SCENE

Kinnear is with his boy and asks if he saw Jesus. He did, the boy says. So Kinnear fetches some books and asks if any of the illustrations – all the usual ones seen in Bibles and paintings everywhere – are right.

The boys says no. Then Kinnear finds a painting by a European girl who also had a near-death experience and is painting Jesus as a pale-eyed Savior. “Is this him?” Kinnear asks. Yep, says his son.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK

“Heaven Is for Real” makes a big mistake by showing what heaven looks like. As with really good old-school monster movies, it’s what you don’t see that can entice. By explicitly showing angels hovering and a good-huggie Jesus, the mystery is thwarted.

Even with Wallace’s efforts, some scenes are really wince-inducing. The church council dressing down the preacher is clich and so is the climax, which really hurts; the town literally rallies around the brave Kinnear in his pulpit.

“Heaven Is for Real” also commits the major sin of revealing its best bits in the trailer. All of the substantial plot points are in the coming attraction.

THE RATING

There’s some minor gore from a leg injury and an operation (tastefully done) on a boy. But the PG is just fine.

SUMMING UP

“Heaven Is for Real” is a tick above recent releases of its ilk. It’s not anything stupendous, but for its genre, it’s better than most.

NEXT UP

It’s the last week before summer gets here (movie-wise) with “Spider-Man 2″ May 2. So this week will either be the raunchy girls-revenge movie “The Other Woman” or the “true” horror movie “The Quiet Ones,” which is from Hammer Studios, at least.

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