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It's certainly accurate to put "Heaven Is for Real" in the faith-based film category.But — and this is not to belittle recent films like "Son of God" or "God's Not Dead" — it also works outside the sanctuary, as it were. Although it has some serious flaws, it rises above genre fare, thanks to Greg Kinnear's intriguing performance and the work of a good cast.The film, based on the bestseller by Todd Burpo, is not as forthright about the statement its title provides.

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What makes it interesting is that, while by the end Burpo (Kinnear) thinks he has his answer, it's something he has to work out. This isn't a movie about blind faith. This is a movie about trying to figure out what faith is, what it means and how it affects us. The film, directed by Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers," "Secretariat"), fares less well when it wanders into more literal territory.The film opens with a day in the life of Burpo, who fixes a garage door and agrees to be paid in donated carpet, heads down to visit the fire station where he's a volunteer firefighter, then goes over to the school to coach the wrestling team and then stops by the cemetery to put fresh flowers beside a headstone.All this before going to his idyllic home to his wife and children. Sonja (Kelly Reilly) is leading a choir group, so when 4-year-old Colton (Connor Corum) runs out to see Burpo, they decide to have a boys' night out for pizza. But he's interrupted by a call — someone at the hospital needs a minister.

Aha. So in addition to being pretty much the best all-around guy in town. Burpo is also the pastor at a local church. Seeing him in action, in shirtsleeves as he delivers down-to-earth sermons, it's easy to understand why his flock is growing.Then Colton develops a ruptured appendix and almost — almost,(Download Heaven Is for Real) which is key — dies. But he doesn't, not even temporarily. Yet soon he is telling his father about people he saw in Heaven, people he couldn't have known about.Naturally Burpo takes this information to the pulpit. But he doesn't offer it as fire-and-brimstone proof of Heaven. Instead he is trying to work out what it really means. It's an interesting approach, but one his congregation isn't fond of. Not because they doubt there's a Heaven, but because they believe Colton's story, and his descriptions, are too easy, too pat.Where the film falters is when Wallace takes us to Heaven, too, where a handsome Jesus plops Colton on his lap and introduces him to other people there. Colton also sees angels and hears them sing, asking them to sing "We Will Rock You" instead. (They don't.)

Although this is meant to be a child's vision of Heaven, it looks too much the part, all warm glows and primary colors. As the congregation worries, it is too simplistic. But it's Colton who saw it, so how can we argue?The Burpos face financial troubles (Thomas Haden Church is reliably good as the local bank president), so he can't afford to lose his job. It all builds to a sermon in which Burpo will try to sort things out.Kinnear brings the right touch to Burpo.(Download Heaven Is for Real) He is not blinded by faith but is seeking it. Kinnear's good-natured charm works well here, and he's a good-enough actor to sell the doubt. Margo Martindale is always welcome; here she wants Burpo to get back to how he was before, but has her own reasons for her wishes."Heaven Is for Real" may not sway non-believers, but neither will it offend them. Despite its shortcomings, at its best it does what any movie should, faith-based or not: It makes us think.Heaven Is For Real is a corny cross-promotional cheapie designed to hawk assorted Sony products and properties (Spider-Man count: one action figure, one lamp, four posters) to megachurch audiences, though apparently nobody bothered to tell Dean Semler.

The perennially slumming cinematographer (Dances With Wolves) composes the film chiefly in horizontals dominated by swaths of blue, creating visual rhymes between expanses of American flatland and the tight interior of a small-town church. His frames are headroom-heavy; nobody gets cut off at the hairline here, and close-ups tend to be one-fifth subject and four-fifths space. What that means,(Download Heaven Is for Real) for the lay viewer, is that Heaven Is For Real looks classier than it has any business being and creepier than its producers probably intended.Take, for example, a pivotal early scene, in which evangelical everyman pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is told by his moppet son Colton (Connor Corum) that the latter had visions of the afterlife during his appendectomy. The heaven sequence is standard Sunday school watercolor material, with twinkling stars, translucent angels, and a silhouetted Jesus. The conversation that bookends it, though, is a different thing altogether. Father and son are at a playground, teetering up and down on a seesaw.The camera is mounted at the fulcrum, which means that Todd and Colton appear to stay in place while the background appears to move.

Additionally, both are framed dead-center. Take away the special effects that illustrate Colton’s tale of meeting Jesus and the praise-radio-ready music, and what you’re left with is a moment straight out of a psychological horror film.Occasionally, it seems like that’s the movie Kinnear is acting in. Buried within Heaven Is For Real is the germ of a great story, involving a small-town pastor who experiences a personal crisis after being confronted with seemingly incontrovertible proof of the afterlife. The paradox of faith is that it’s most meaningful when founded on unknowns and unknowables, and Colton’s visions cheapen Todd’s beliefs by confirming them.(Download Heaven Is for Real) To director/co-writer Randall Wallace’s credit, the movie fitfully engages with this theme, including a scene in which Burpo’s church board (which features Thomas Haden Church, who has a small and completely credible role as an evangelical businessman) excoriates those who’d turn to the Bible for facts instead of guidance.Unfortunately, Heaven Is For Real isn’t really a movie about religion so much as an attempt to appeal to the broadest possible audience of conservative evangelicals.

There are spectral fallen Marines smiling in dress uniform and paeans to paying for everything yourself and the power of small-town American can-do. (Note: The movie was shot in Manitoba to take advantage of Canadian tax credits.) T.D. Jakes gets a prominent producing credit, and Burpo’s church in Imperial, Nebraska is depicted as multi-racial and multi-cultural, though 2010 census records indicate otherwise.There’s also a lot of the overstuffed, patronizing storytelling which tends to mar movies made for the evangelical market. The first two scenes begin with explanatory titles,(Download Heaven Is for Real) both of which identify the setting as “the present day.” There is a smug atheist psychiatrist who operates out of a college alumni hall, allowing the movie to pack all of its awkward swipes at academia into a single scene. There are the obligatory flashes of white, used to indicate flashbacks in bad movies and bad TV shows alike. Yet, throughout, there are also moments—like the backwards dolly through an empty church or the shot of Colton standing in a darkened hallway, watching his father—that hint at the movie that could have been.

Conviction is the word that keeps coming to mind in watching "Heaven Is for Real," the latest faith-based film to debut this Passover-Easter season.It is there in Todd Burpo's story of his 4-year-old son's near-death experience, which the Nebraska pastor chronicled in his New York Times bestseller. It is present in the performances of stars Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church and an adorable 6-year-old named Connor Corum.There is conviction in director Randall Wallace's approach and the screenplay he wrote with Christopher Parker.(Download Heaven Is for Real) You see it in every frame, with cinematographer Dean Semler, an Oscar winner for "Dances With Wolves," making the springtime wheat fields around Winnipeg, Canada, look heavenly.And it is certainly there in young Colton Burpo's unwavering belief that when he was on an operating table, not expected to survive an emergency appendectomy, he spent time in heaven talking to Jesus, hearing angels sing and meeting members of the Burpo family who died years before he was born.It all serves to make "Heaven Is for Real" one of the better faith-based films to come along.

What the movie could use is a little more faith — in the power of its message and the art of filmmaking. Instead, "Heaven" is sincere to a fault, and the closer it gets to heaven, the more it wavers.The film is far better when it stays focused on the family and small-town life. That kind of rooted-in-the-real-world sensibility is what helped propel a book about a miracle into a modern-day phenomenon.As the title suggests, Burpo wrote about his son's glimpse of the afterlife,(Download Heaven Is for Real) but the story is as much about a family in crisis, with medical and economic troubles right up there with religious struggles. Indeed, the core journey at "Heaven's" heart is more about the road a man of faith traveled from doubt to belief than a tour of the spiritual realm."Heaven" does not begin with Burpo's story, but with a beauty shot of a young girl in a rustic barn, bathed in sunlight, a canvas in front of her as she holds a paintbrush. It's meant to evoke art prodigy Akiane Kramarik, whose portrait of Jesus young Colton would later single out as the only one that looked like the man he saw.

Most of the film, though, unfolds in Imperial, Neb., a farming community where Burpo (Kinnear) is a small-business owner, volunteer fireman, high-school wrestling coach, pastor, devoted husband and father. A self-deprecating saint in blue jeans and work boots, with the actor underplaying his hand very well. Wife Sonja (Reilly) is strong-willed, sensitive and sexy, in a modest way. Cassie (Lane Styles) and younger brother Colton are cute, smart kids. It's very much a traditional American family ideal sketched in here — not enough time or money, but plenty of love.(Download Heaven Is for Real) A string of medical emergencies threatens to pull them under, financially and emotionally, starting with Burpo fracturing his leg during a softball game and capped by Colton's appendectomy. For some reason the filmmakers are quite true to the father's various ailments — his kidney-stone passing gets ample time. But Colton's close call is dispensed with quickly. It's like downplaying the genesis moment.As Colton recovers, he begins to mention to his dad what he saw during the surgery. In Corum, making his film debut, director Wallace received a rare gift.

The youngster does a remarkable job telegraphing an innocence and an absolute certainty whether he's describing sitting on Jesus' lap or marveling at the rainbow-colored horse he spotted. In lesser hands, the lines could have sounded ludicrous.But it is the rapport between Kinnear and the boy that really holds the film together. They make the father-son relationship believable in a way that grounds "Heaven" and gives it some of its best moments.To believe or not is the film's burning question. It helps that Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for "Braveheart" and directed "Secretariat," begins with Burpo's uncertainty. The strains begin showing as the boy passes all the tests the father devises, fundamentally forcing Burpo to believe.(Download Heaven Is for Real) Close family friends and pillars of the community begin raising other questions. Nancy Rawling (Martindale) fears all the talk of heaven will taint the church's credibility, while the more pragmatic bank president Jay Wilkins (Haden Church) fears for his friend's sanity and the church's bottom line. There is a non-religious psychologist thrown in for good measure to be sure most of the doubters are addressed.Not surprisingly, the film spends a lot of time in church, too much of it sitting there like filler.

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It becomes more centered any time Burpo begins one of his conversational sermons about how to live according to Christian principles."Heaven" certainly doesn't shy away from frank religious talk. But at least when Kinnear is handling the narrative, it is delivered in a low-key way that plays to the actor's strength. That decent and slightly bemused appeal you find in nearly all his roles helped shape his gay artist in "As Good as It Gets," which earned Kinnear an Oscar nomination in 1998.(Download Heaven Is for Real) He won a great many hearts with the sensibility as the patriarch of another close-knit family in 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine." It makes his compromised attorney in the current Fox TV drama series "Rake" both likable and forgivable. And the earthy and earthbound believer he creates in Burpo goes a long way to anchoring "Heaven" too.More difficult is the filmmakers' depiction of what Colton saw. Jesus is there briefly, in basic biblical-era wear, face in shadows, feet in sandals. There are gauzy angels with feathery wings, but nothing too distinct. Fundamentally, the hereafter is very cloudy, like looking out a plane window at an expanse of billowy white.It all makes for a very ordinary-looking heaven, mirroring the kind of images artists have used for centuries. Not very awe-inspiring, which is somehow the hardest thing in this movie to believe.

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