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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 15, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


HEAVEN, K-PAX, Western Fantasies

When we saw the trailer for HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, my wife and I were ambivalent. On the one hand, we like Greg Kinnear as an actor, and the writers had legitimate film credentials.

Admittedly, Chris Parker's writing credits included a Disney princess sequel and VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN; vampiric films don't actually count as credentials to me. But Parker's co-writer (and director of the film), Randall Wallace, wrote BRAVEHEART, and he wrote and directed WE WERE SOLDIERS.

So we could expect this openly religious movie to measure up to professional standards, not just in the filming, but in the writing and directing as well.

On the other hand, I have a very low tolerance for "faith-promoting stories." Especially when they're "based on a true story." While I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of any of those involved in telling the tale, I also know what confirmation bias can do to historical and biographical writing.

When there's a faith-based message it is almost impossible for most writers to keep from bending the story toward Making The Point. Such stories usually become more and more pious -- and less and less rooted in reality. Eventually, most of them turn into "preaching to the choir" -- confirming the faith of those who are determined to believe, while excluding anyone who hasn't already bought into the story.

This is a case where the artistry of the professionals -- and, I suspect, the integrity of the storytellers -- won out over any tendency toward INSISTING that the audience believe in order to receive the story at all.

In fact, when the film ended, my wife and I turned to each other and agreed at once that this film avoided all the pitfalls that usually make such projects collapse in on themselves.

The story is a simple one. Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is a part-time pastor in the Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska. He augments his church income by installing and repairing automatic garage door openers. But the economy is not good, and more and more of his customers are unable to pay, or can only pay in kind -- for instance, new carpet for the church instead of cash.

Unfortunately, Burpo can't pay HIS bills with carpet. And misfortunes seem to multiply. He breaks his leg sliding into base in a church softball game (and, to add insult to injury, he was declared out, so the slide was wasted). Then, in the middle of a sermon, he suffers agonizing spasms from kidney stones.

On top of everything, his daughter and son, Cassie and four-year-old Colton, get sick. There's flu going around, and Cassie quickly recovers; but Colton's fever gets worse. The Burpos suspect appendicitis, and by the time they get him to medical treatment, his ruptured appendix has spread the infection throughout his abdomen.

This is a condition that people die from, and the prognosis is not good. While Colton's mother, Sonja Burpo (Kelly Reilly) phones friends and relatives to ask them to pray for the boy, Colton goes into the hospital chapel and his prayer quickly turns into rage at God.

Colton survives the operation. Within a day or two, he's talking about the vision of heaven that he had while he was being operated on.

Todd Burpo refuses to allow anyone to call his vision a "near-death experience" -- at no point in the operation did Colton's heart stop beating; there was no break in his brain activity. In fact, Todd resists taking Colton's experience at face value.

The trouble is that Colton seems to have seen things that he could not otherwise have known about. Colton's vision began by seeing the doctors operating on him; then he saw his mother talking on the telephone, and his father at the other end of the hospital "yelling at God." How could he have known this?

There are other confirmations: Colton meets his great-grandfather, called Pop, who raised Todd after his father died. And he meets an older sister that he never knew about -- the pregnancy ended in a late-term miscarriage. His parents, aware that he had no way of knowing these things, have little choice but to accept that his experience was not a mere hallucination.

However, this does not stop both Todd and Sonja from looking for any way to dodge the implications of Colton's vision. For one thing, he didn't just see family members -- he sat on Jesus' lap.

And who knew that Jesus had a horse? Colton later explains that it wasn't a matter of seeing Jesus on horseback: There are animals in heaven, and since everything there belongs to God, it's Jesus' horse.

The trouble is that instead of keeping the story within the family, Todd's ministerial impulse is to share Colton's story -- and his own doubts -- with the congregation. But some of the leaders of the church worry that controversy and untoward enthusiasms may engulf the community of faith.

It doesn't help that Todd allows the media to interview Colton. On the one hand, the interviewer can see that Colton is a perfectly normal little boy, and it is obvious his story was not coached in any way. On the other hand, the media by their nature must sensationalize the story -- even though, deep in the Bible belt, the story is not treated cynically.

There are scoffers, who are provocative enough that Cassie ends up punching a couple of boys who make fun of Colton's vision. (To my surprise, Todd approves of her violent response; I wouldn't have reacted that way if a child of mine had struck the first blow, and I'm not even a minister.)

There are also ardent over-believers, people who want to make this into more than it was. But somehow the family threads their way through the challenges.

My favorite sub-storyline is that of church leader Nancy Rawling, played beautifully by familiar character actress Margo Martindale. I was prepared for the bossy, interfering church leader to be presented as the mean "bad guy" in the story.

Instead, she has a story of her own. First, we've already seen her being a true friend, helping people in need and supporting the Burpos in hard times. No hypocrite here.

Second, we learn of personal grief that made it very hard to her to accept the reality of Colton's vision -- and, more to the point, to accept the fact that Colton was saved from death when someone dear to her was not.

And when she has her confrontation with Todd, it comes at a moment when she discovers that Todd is the one who has been performing a small but meaningful service to her for a long time. Their connection in the community of Christ is real, and neither of them is willing to forget their bonds of kindness.

There are no villains -- only good people trying to be good, while still having to deal with the fears and griefs and, yes, anger that arise in real life.

Not only did the movie avoid creating cardboard villains, it also avoided turning the heroes into tinplate saints. Todd and Sonja are all too human, and while they have a strong, loving, and not-for-a-second-sappy marriage, they are also perfectly capable of arguing and getting angry at each other.

Their faith is not of the "God will provide" sort -- they know they must do all that they can to solve their own problems, and then they'll see whether divine intervention will spare them some of the things that might go wrong.

Through it all, the movie NEVER requires us to decide for ourselves whether we accept every aspect of Colton's experience as a literal roadmap to heaven. On the contrary, Todd very wisely says, near the end, "Colton saw the heaven that God showed to him," leaving us the ability to accept that the child saw something, but he understood it only as well as his youth and inexperience would allow.

The only real attempt at forcing us to believe is a very slight frame: A girl in one of the Baltic states had a similar vision of heaven, and devoted herself to learning how to paint well enough to create a portrait of Christ. When Colton sees the picture, he confirms it as looking like the Jesus that he met in heaven.

But this attempt to "prove" the vision takes little screen time and is not heavy-handed. It can be received in a Twilight-Zonish way rather than as proof.

The movie THINKS it is about Colton's vision. But it is not. Rather, it is about people who are trying their best to live a Christlike life within a community of believers.

In an era when the national media regularly portray religious people as dangerous fanatics, smarmy hypocrites, or ludicrous rubes, HEAVEN IS FOR REAL shows church-goers the way I know them to be: imperfect people trying to live up to a very high ideal, and helping bear each other's burdens along the way.

Todd's sermons -- which, by the way, are never boring -- finally come to this point: Colton saw a vision of a faraway heaven that most will see only after they die. But meanwhile, there is a vision of heaven that anyone can see all around them -- the heaven created by people who serve as angels in each other's lives.

We see heaven in Todd's and Sonja's loving marriage, their closeness to their children, their service to other people, their patience under loss and duress. We see heaven in characters like Nancy Rawling, and banker Jay Wilkins, Todd's closest friend, played by Thomas Haden Church in what I think is his best performance ever.

This movie is filled with good performances. Greg Kinnear is movingly real, and Kelly Reilly as Sonja is luminous. (We've seen her as Mary Watson in the recent Sherlock Holmes movies.)

Even little Connor Corum as Colton is adequate -- which is AMAZING praise for an actor so young. Children that age are almost never good actors, and the "better" they are, the more annoying they're likely to be, with that bratty-precocious air that "talented" youngsters are often selected for.

So no, Connor Corum is not good at basic acting tasks like pretending to be asleep. Plenty of adults do no better. Yet Corum delivers his lines with some naturalness -- and the writers were wise enough not to require him to produce any difficult emotions, ever. Corum does whatever he needs to do, and well enough that the movie can go forward undamaged.

That suggests that Randall Wallace is that rarest kind of director: one who can get good performances from children. So many minutes of screentime are spent with child actors in this movie that if Wallace had NOT had that skill, this movie would have died a miserable death. Instead, it's a living thing.

Scoffers and people who hate religion in general or protestant Christianity in particular will find plenty to dislike about HEAVEN IS FOR REAL -- starting with the assertive, in-your-face title.

But those people are free to stay away from this movie.

For me, as a believer in God but NOT a member of a mainline Protestant church, and as a skeptic about most miracle stories, HEAVEN IS FOR REAL worked splendidly.

Above all, it worked in its treatment of church life, of family life, and of the fear and grief surrounding the loss or near-loss of a child. I know what it means to have friends lay flowers on the graves of my children -- to come there and see that someone else has remembered our little ones.

I know the bond that forms between people who have lost children. It is rarely spoken of, but fully understood. When Todd Burpo tells his congregation -- who saw him collapse from the pain of kidney stones -- that no other pain he suffered compared with the agony and fear of facing the death of his child, I well knew that it was true.

HEAVEN IS FOR REAL is the best movie about how religious faith and church membership combine to help people deal with Worst Things. Obviously, people without such faith or membership also deal with those things. But loving communities of faith can make the burden lighter.

Is this the best movie of the year? Oh, please. It doesn't aspire to be. The artists who created HEAVEN IS FOR REAL used their skills to make it the best movie they knew how to make -- and they succeeded.

But their deeper purpose was to touch the hearts of the audience with comfort and hope. The movie functions as the best kind of sermon -- filled with stories about good people doing good, filled with humor as well as suffering, with despair that is replaced by hope.

I have no idea about the private lives or beliefs of the people involved in this film -- especially the actors. After many years of watching and working with actors at every level of skill, I dare to assert this: Anybody can play anger or grief, but to portray compassion and generosity and love convincingly, those virtues must have a living presence in the actor's own heart.

Not for a moment do I think that if I sat down with Greg Kinnear or Kelly Reilly or anybody else from this movie, I would find some deep immediate connection with them. In fact, I'm quite sure that I would feel just as awkward as I always do when meeting strangers.

But that does not negate the connection that was created by their convincing performance of a well-written, truthful script. They had in themselves something valuable and good that the script gave them an opportunity to express, and many in the audience have gladly received it.

That is one of the good things that art can do -- and it's far more important than "pushing the envelope" or "reinventing the art" or "defying convention" or any of the other nonsensical phrases of praise that ignorant critics employ.

HEAVEN IS FOR REAL is artistically important in one way, at least: it proves that Christian art, or religious art, or feel-good movies, or whatever categories you wish to put it in, can also be artistically successful.

Indeed, this movie accomplishes its purpose BETTER because of its fine artistry. It sets a standard for other religious filmmakers to aspire to. Few will be able to measure up -- but the bar has been set, and the audience will see when other films also clear that bar.

*

In an odd sort of juxtaposition, only a night or two before seeing HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, I saw on a cable channel a strangely similar story told in a sci-fi movie I never heard of when it came out in 2001.

The premise of K-PAX is that a psychiatric patient, who calls himself Prot (rhymes with "goat"), claims that he is an alien from a world called K-PAX. This world has standard utopia-from-hell features -- no wars, no hunger, but also no families, no close personal relationships. Just a sort of general good will.

K-PAX stars Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, two of our finest living actors, and both do an excellent job. Spacey plays Prot; Bridges plays Dr. Mark Powell, the shrink who is trying to "treat" Prot's delusion.

It is impossible to talk with Prot unless you at least pretend to accept that he is an alien. He's so calm and convincing that the other mental patients begin to believe in him -- but they are, after all, certifiably nuts.

Mark also begins to believe in him, but the picture that emerges is actually reminiscent of my own short story "Sepulchre of Songs": someone with an unbearable life situation is "possessed" by a new personality who is not part of this world.

Much of the movie consists of Mark trying to find out who Prot really is. He does get the answer he's looking for. But it does NOT resolve the question of whether the Prot persona is merely a multiple personality, or a genuine being from another world who has helped his human host get through the hardest time of his life.

In essence, then, we have a character who tells a tale of "heaven" and promises to take someone there with him when he returns. The movie never requires us to decide whether we believe Prot is really an alien -- but it certainly leans in that direction, just as HEAVEN IS FOR REAL pushes us to accept the child's vision of heaven.

K-PAX deals with community creation and healing; with the loss of beloved children; with the influence of supernatural beings who are not of this world. Like HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, K-PAX is based on a book (a novel by Gene Brewer); and K-PAX, too, was scripted for film by an experienced writer, Charles Leavitt (BLOOD DIAMOND, THE EXPRESS, and the still-filming WARCRAFT), though this script preceded his best-known work.

But K-PAX does not tap into existing faith and faith-based communities -- not even believers in the Force. So it does not have ready-made resonance. It has to create its community from scratch. It does a surprisingly good job.

Here's the moment I loved best: At a time when Prot seems to have left his human host behind, and the human seems catatonic, unable (or unwilling) to speak, Mark says something to his patient that lays everything on the line.

The camera is extremely close to Kevin Spacey's face, and such is the artistry of this brilliant actor that even though he does not twitch, does not visibly change expression in any way, we are left with the clear impression that he has just smiled.

That, folks, is acting. If for nothing else, K-PAX is worth watching because it sets up and earns that moment.

But it's worth watching for the story itself, and for the other performances. We have an array of mental patients as varied as the ones in CUCKOO'S NEST and 50 FIRST DATES -- as formulaic a writing job as assembling a squad of soldiers in World War II movies.

But the actors do it so well, and the director, Iain Softley (INKHEART, BACKBEAT) films them so delicately, that they transcend the formula and become individuals we can care about, at least a little.

*

I'm happy to tell you that an anthology of fantasy stories set in the American West has just been released. Edited by John Joseph Adams, DEAD MAN'S HAND: AN ANTHOLOGY OF THE WEIRD WEST includes brand new stories by some of my favorite writers, including David Farland, Mike Resnick, Walter Jon Williams, and ...

Oh, yes. Me. For this anthology I wrote a story I'd been planning for a long time -- an Alvin Maker story, in which Alvin Miller and Arthur Stuart, during their journeyman years, run into John Chapman, alias Johnny Appleseed. There's a lot more going on than just planting apples.

So for the six of you who are awaiting the last Alvin Maker novel, this is as close as I'm going to get for some time to come. And for the rest of you, the anthology is a wonderful melding of two traditions: Fantasy and Western. It's available as a paperback, an ebook, an audio download, or on CD.


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