Interstellar

I haven’t seen plain old Interstellar yet. But I did attend Interstellar: The Imax Experience, which is likely a different animal than the non-Imax version. Seeing—and hearing—the film in this format was as close to sampling Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk as I may ever come. My Imax theater is one of only four in New York State (all the others being in New York City or close by) that display the film in 70mm film, a treat that I may not get to experience again in cinema’s ever-growing preference for digital. The theater also features deafening and seat-shaking sound that had its advantages and shortcomings.

Interstellar has been the most anticipated film of the year, and there is nothing out there that looks or sounds like it. We need films like this to remind us of what far-reaching filmmaking can be and can look like, even if its reach exceeds its grasp, which is the case here. Director Christopher Nolan can be thanked both for helping to keep actual film around as well as reminding us that the convenience of viewing a movie on an iPhone doesn’t come close to seeing them on the big screen.

Interstellar’s images are breathtaking, and the film takes us to worlds—indeed, immerses us in worlds—that only film can bring us to. On earth and “out there”—these places must be allowed to envelop, even overwhelm us, with their power. This may be the “biggest” film many of us will ever see, and that deserves a respect all its own.

It’s far from perfect, however, with some miscasting, script weaknesses, and for this viewer, a philosophical letdown. But first the high points: Matthew McConaughey, who has the lead role of Cooper, has become one of our most accomplished young actors, finally fulfilling the promises some of us saw in A Time to Kill. This performance doesn’t have the “throw me the Oscar now” pull of something like what he did in Dallas Buyers Club. But he is every bit as good here, playing a more relatable widow and father and reluctant hero. The film sinks or swims on his shoulders, and he carries it deftly from beginning to end. It’s a rich and sensitive performance.

Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph (Cooper’s daughter at a young age) bears a great deal of the film’s narrative and emotional weight, and is somewhere between very good and excellent. She is an exciting young talent that has a major career ahead of her. As her grandfather, John Lithgow, as always, is reliably solid.

Where the film loses focus is with the miscast Anne Hathaway, who apparently can’t quite do everything after all. She tries very hard, and she manages to keep the film on track at times when the script offers her no help. But she seems to belong to another film, or at least not in this film or this genre. It’s unfortunate that her part is so big, as while it’s not a film-killer, it’s something of a distraction and a drag throughout the film.

The other main actress who should perhaps have had Hathaway’s larger role is the inestimable Jessica Chastain, who seems that she perhaps can do anything—even to the point of making us believe the often ridiculous challenges thrown her way by the script. Chastain plays Cooper’s grown-up daughter, and hits her emotional notes with clarity and credibility. What the script would have us believe is that this brilliant and gifted woman, who is apparently capable of saving the human race, can’t manage to get over her daddy issues when daddy went out to save the human race. As someone who counsels people, I realize quite well that adults often carry emotional baggage from their youth that they haven’t yet jettisoned. But it was hard to believe that this accomplished woman hadn’t made more progress than the film asks us to accept. Yet Chastain takes even the script’s weaknesses, internalizes them, and presents us with as realistic a portrait of an emotionally constricted adult as could be possible. [Spoiler ahead.] It’s ironic that while the film is filled with Oscar winners like McConaughey, Hathaway, and, uh, others, the greatest actor in the film is Chastain, who simply hasn’t won hers yet.

A surprising strength of the film is its speed. With nearly a three-hour span, one might expect a film with slow or dry stretches. That was not my experience. The film moved along quickly, with quick cuts that moved many actions along with enviable precision and speed. Where the film falters is near the end, where Nolan goes all Inception on the plot, taking us out of his carefully constructed grounded realism and tries for a kind of head-banging finale. For some, this will work.

For me, this was the greatest letdown of the film. A not surprising one, but a letdown nonetheless. [Sorry—another spoiler ahead.] The film makes several references to a mysterious “they,” who contribute to the survival of our species, with various helps and provisions along the journey to survival. But the supposed big reveal is that this “they” is simply… us. We’re the ones who figured it out. We’re the ones who laid down the trail of bread crumbs for the future/past explorers to find. The film would have been smaller but tighter if “they” had been dropped, and if the big head-slammer at the end had simply been replaced by an action sequence without the philosophizing, especially this one that seemed to go for the wow, but came off rather limp instead.

The music of the film, scored by Hans Zimmer, has been criticized for overpowering the dialogue at times. Again, not being sure of the non-Imax viewing, it may well have competed with the words in that format, creating the occasional uncomfortable tension and distraction. In the Imax version, the sound often shook the theater and it certainly drowned out the dialogue here and there. But it lifted the film to a new experiential place of sound and image that only sporadically bordered on the pretentious. Yes, it could be overwhelming. But it created something new, enveloping and stimulating. As with Nolan, Zimmer might have reached too far, but we have to acknowledge and pay some homage to the reach attempted here.

Some feel that Interstellar is Nolan’s masterpiece. Time may prove that it might well be, in spite of its weaknesses. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious films one could ever see/experience. For that alone, it should be viewed, and only in the largest format available.

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Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is a lean, mean, indie-feeling film that purports to show the “sordid underbelly” of television news-footage gathering, and we assume, by extension, the sordid underbelly of, uh, something bigger. While it uses the topic of gathering video footage as its story, what it really gives us is a first-time film by a screenwriter- turned-director of great promise, and a couple of performances worthy of viewing and study.

Plot: Young and strange man is stumbling through life, looking for work and a purpose. He stumbles upon the morally questionable trade of gathering gory and violent video footage for local television stations. He gains a partner, a place in the dark world of “graphic footage,” and a semblance of distorted confidence. He finds a way to get rid of his competition, weasels his way into the personal life of his TV station connection (a fine Rene Russo, fighting against some incredible plot turns that her character is involved in), and faces one moral crisis after another, all of which he fails in spectacular fashion.

The film moves well, and is an impressive first effort by Dan Gilroy, writer of The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel, The Fall and next year’s Stan Lee’s Annihilator. It has the look of a Michael Mann film—all surfaces, colors and slickness. But it’s more than the look. It’s also paced well, with nerve-wracking chase scenes (including the chase after the big story), and suspenseful slower scenes that build into high-tension set pieces. This is a director to keep an eye on.

Ironically, it’s the script that occasionally falters. Russo’s character isn’t always believable in her actions, though this underrated actress does her best to bring life and credibility to every moment. There also seems to be a set-up for things that aren’t picked up later (spoiler alert: the rich man we first thought was dead but wasn’t).

What stands out the most are the performances of the two male leads, with Jake Gyllenhaal deservedly getting the most attention. This is the most intriguing, fascinating, attractively repulsive performance since that of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is an original, and a kind of acting experiment on JG’s part. Bloom is needy, scary, alternately simplistic and inscrutable, and ultimately unknowable—both because we are never quite given enough information to pin down this character, and also because we really don’t want to.

He calls himself “a fast learner,” and he is. But what he mostly learns is pap from the Internet, business and “life success” clichés that he has clearly taken in and made his own on some shallow level. It’s as if Bloom is working to create his own outward persona and his own personal interior life at the same time, but scouting the web for personal and business success training. And too often for our comfort, he accompanies his regurgitations with a smile that masks and reveals; it masks any depth, and it can reveal a joy in things a normal person wouldn’t find any joy in at all.

JG, who lost 30 pounds for the role, credits the coyote for inspiration, and he certainly moves likes one throughout the film. But wherever he finds his touchstone, this is a brave, inventive performance of a person few of us would ever want to know, but a person we can’t take our eyes off.

Balancing and highlighting the oddness is the utter realism and believability of Riz Ahmed, a British actor virtually unknown on this side of the pond. It doesn’t have the juice of Gyllenhaal’s performance—and it’s not supposed to—but it’s an Oscar-nomination-worthy performance nonetheless. As Rick, Bloom’s “employee,” Ahmed gives us a fully fleshed out portrait of a young man who is desperate for work at first, and then begins to grow in confidence over time. He has a certain internal strength and moral center, and it’s a joy to watch Ahmed react to outside circumstances—especially Bloom’s rapid-fire and almost convincing life platitudes—and eventually connect them to his own sense of right and wrong. Ahmed’s is the performance that grounds the film in realism and helps define Bloom’s character, and allows Gyllenhaal to create an almost otherworldly character that doesn’t float away into the realm of the absurd.

Bill Paxton is in it, and yes, he’s fine, as are all the secondary parts. But it’s JG who will get all the attention, deservedly so, for a unique and unsettling character. But it’s his character’s relationship with Ahmed that defines and reveals his character. Unlike Bloom’s relationship with Russo’s character, which is ultimately just too far-fetched for full credibility, Bloom’s connection with Ahmed is what makes Bloom come out and reveal himself for the grotesque and intriguing creature he seems at the start, and for the even more grotesque and intriguing creature he proves himself to be.

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Gone Girl

Director David Fincher has made his Vertigo—a multi-layered, beautifully (and carefully) directed with a gorgeous blonde at the center, with layers of twisty plot turns and double crosses, complete with manipulation, identity issues and obsession.

Gone Girl is probably the most artfully done drama of the year so far and could be the best film of the year were it not for a last twist that doesn’t quite earn its keep—or perhaps I was simply horrified at the thematic implications.

The plot seems simple: A young married woman disappears on the day of her fifth anniversary. Was she killed by her husband? Was she kidnapped? Or did she just fall off the face of the earth? To say more would be to rob you of the experience. But this film is so full of plot that it seems like a full season of a mystery television program. It’s two, or possibly three, films in one.

It looks and sounds like other recent Fincher films. Filmed with a dark and slightly yellow palette, as was The Social Network, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has fashioned a softly lovely film containing a story as cynical as it beautiful to look at.

Fincher’s direction is so assured and strong, it could easily be a point of study for today’s film students. This is a tale that could easily have careened out of control in the hands of a less, shall we say, controlled (and controlling) director. The problems that people are going to have with it may be placed at the feet of the director, but it’s really the screenplay and its implications that will be the points of much discussion. Fincher’s work is exquisite, even when what is happening in front of you is abhorrent.

The acting will rightly be the subject of much attention as well. Ben Affleck, an actor difficult to cast properly, has found what may be his best role, at least since Hollywoodland. Affleck comes across on screen as a tall slab of American male, slightly dense at times, and superficially charming, with the emphasis on the adjective. That might be unfair to him to assign those characteristics to him as a person, but that is how he registers on screen. Happily, those characteristics work for his character here.

Someone one has to ask, “Who could have done that role better?” For instance, one-time rom-com queen Sandra Bullock so completely nailed her character in The Blind Side that you had to wonder if even more talented actresses could have played that part as well. We have the same case here. Other young actors could have stepped into the role, but perhaps none bring a persona to the screen that integrates so well with the character he’s portraying. Yes, Matt Damon (to grab an obvious example) is a better actor, but he would have brought suggested depths to the part that would have worked against the part. Different colors and subtly burning fires are not what Affleck’s character calls for. His normal persona is just the right fit.

The star-making, career-making performance of the film, however, is Rosamund Pike’s as the missing wife. More than Kim Novak in Vertigo, or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, Pike (Pride and Prejudice, An Education) has to assume several different roles throughout the film, often being an inscrutable, enigmatic person falsely playing a clearly defined one. I’m sure it was an actress’ dream role. Pike, known well in her native England, and slightly known by those familiar with PBS, British cinema, or both, will no doubt become a star of the first rank for the role itself as well as for her execution of it. Unlike Affleck, there are several actresses who could have essayed this role with great success. But we have an assured, talented actress with no American persona to speak of; she’s the perfect blank slate for her role here.

Two secondary female performances are so good you almost ignore them, as they hold up their part of the film so strongly that you’re lost in how they enrich the film (Carrie Coon, playing Affleck’s character’s sister) or help move things along (Kim Dickens, playing a detective). Dickens’ character has thoughts and an ever-changing take on the case she’s working, and she does a beautiful dance with the views of the spectator, sometimes moving with us, sometimes, moving in counterpoint. Both Coon’s and Dickens’ roles are solid and fully realized. Perhaps Coon is the slightly stronger performance, but the difference is minimal.

Three strong supporting male performances are fascinating for different reasons. Patrick Fugit, who most of us remember as a slightly pudgy teen in Almost Famous, is here as a thin, grown-up playing an officer working with Dickens’ character. It’s not a big role, but it’s a part that reminds us that he’s here and is a solid actor. Tyler Perry, not known for this kind of film or for any deep acting talent, is completely believable as a high-powered lawyer. It’s a solid performance that he apparently didn’t want to do once he found out more about the part. (Another story for another time….)

If this critic had any number of readers, I might be hesitant to write about the Neil Patrick Harris character in Gone Girl, especially in the light of the brouhaha (much of it ridiculous) surrounding New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley writing about TV producer/writer Shonda Rimes. One’s true meaning (especially any statement with a smidgen of irony) can be lost when one goes to print, as anyone who misreads an email (or has had an email misinterpreted) is well away of. But here goes.

Harris is a talented actor, both comically and dramatically. He is a gay icon to some, something of a gay activist to others. He has proven that he can easily play a heterosexual with no problem, as all his years on “How I Met Your Mother” prove. Hear me know; hear me later. His acting talent is not an issue here. His role in Gone Girl is a difficult role and slightly underwritten, and I don’t think any actor could have made this plot-device-type of character completely believable. But NPH puts his considerable acting talents to work on it and makes it as good as nearly anyone can.

The question, and it’s just a question, one worthy of some kind of discussion on a planet less reactive and knee-jerky than ours, is how his persona works into the role. It’s an irony that he can bring his persona as a “gay performer” to his Tony-winning role on Broadway in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and it resonates with the role. Yet it’s considered politically/artistically incorrect to ask if it is not a little (just a little, now) incongruous to ask us to believe in the heterosexuality of this character when the actor playing him has worked so diligently, especially in the last few years, to let us all know that he is gay in all its current expressions artistically and personally. As a viewer, and something of a knowledgeable one, I respect his talent. As an American alive in 2014, I can say that the persona NPH has created so publicly is somewhat at odds with this character. It’s a simple casting/persona issue—nothing else.

This is an especially pertinent issue in a film that leans on personas for some of its characters. The teaming of Affleck and his persona has already been discussed. Pike’s lack of persona must be part of the reason she was cast. In terms of this film, it’s a legitimate issue to bring up. Someday this will be able to be discussed in a less heated environment. Happily, only a few people will read this, and most of them will understand that I have no other agenda than film criticism and analysis.

There are some rough, violent scenes, and some un-erotic (though sexual) carnal activity. This is not for kids. In fact, it’s something of a stretch for adults, and I’m not sure I am willing to be stretched that far, or if the film even succeeds in wooing me to its themes.

Where the film stretches to the point of incredulity is at the end (slight spoilers to follow), when one of the main characters does something as shocking (but less dramatic) as what anyone has done so far. The implications for marriage attached to this decision are so pessimistic, so dark, so repugnant, that many viewers may not even hear what’s being said (or strongly suggested). They may, in fact, have been distracted by either that last twist or the fact that the twist isn’t well supported, and that the film actually falters at this one crucial juncture. It’s the film’s biggest weakness, but one that ultimately doesn’t undo what’s come before.

This is not a film I can recommend to everyone I know. It’s too rough and violent for many. But the filmmaking is solid and confident, the acting is excellent throughout (without a single weakness), a star is born, and those who love mysteries and twists and turns will find what they are looking for here. For many good reasons, for its strengths as well as its one big weakness, Gone Girl is a film that will be discussed and scrutinized for years.

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Follow the Fleet

Follow the Fleet (1936) is considered one of the lesser Astaire-Rogers musicals. Seeing it again for research, it’s clearer than ever why. If ever there was a musical that should be fast-forwarded through to get to the musical numbers, this is it. And only the dance numbers are worth paying attention to.

The film’s plot has a sour taste throughout. Astaire and Rogers play characters that used to be an act, and they both used to be in love with one another. We see quickly that he still is in love, and learn later that she is too. But their relationship is strange, with Astaire uncharacteristically doing some terrible things that tend to backfire. Clearly the five screenwriters thought more about putting variation into the Astaire-Rogers repertoire than in what might fit Astaire’s persona. Astaire doing dumb, unkind things doesn’t work. He and Ginger must end up together, of course, but it’s more a article of faith that they do, not anything the film asks us to believe about them or their relationship, which seems off-filter from the start and never lets up.

Harriet Hilliard, the second female lead, often found her scenes and numbers cut out of television showings of the film. (We are grateful to TCM for restoring those scenes.) This OK actress and singer, who rose to fame with husband Ozzie Nelson on radio and television later in life, sings two numbers that are serviceable only. (Perhaps the only thing fascinating about “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” is that this is a New Testament quote from Irving Berlin, the great Jewish songwriter. But then, this is the man who gave us “White Christmas” and Easter Parade.”) Harriet does the ugly ducking turned swan thing in the early part of the film, and then just remains the second banana to Ginger’s character from then on.

Yet her relationship with movie beau Randolph Scott is as bizarre as Fred and Ginger’s characters. Scott plays Navy seaman Bilge Smith (seriously?) who is nothing but a cad and should be turned out on his ear when he returns to Hilliard’s pining character. Yet the film would have us believe that he can turn around and be a good guy (which our better nature wants to believe) and that she should receive him back, which is something she should know better than to do. No one comes out of this as a real good and real smart person.

But these films use plot as filler between the numbers. This one just happens to have a weak, confusing, slightly distasteful filler. What should get us going is the dance numbers. As in A-R films, all are worth watching.

The first is to the now classic “Let Yourself Go,” recently given its definitive treatment by vocal great Kristin Chenoweth. This one is by Ginger Rogers, and the comparison is painful. A great song, but not the best interpretation. The song’s rhythms seem to challenge a traditional Astaire approach to the dance. In this case, the dance is a contest between him and Rogers with other dance couples, leading from one wild dance display to another. It’s fun, and as the film so often attempts to do in so many ways, is a spin on the usual. It shows off the leads’ talent and humor, and that’s the purpose. Since it makes one hungry for more Astaire virtuosity and dance-duet perfection from the two, it’s successful in that regard as well.

Follow the Fleet contains Rogers’ only solo tap number in the film series, and the rarity of that kind of number combined with her skill makes this number—to again, “Let Yourself Go,” a must-see. Sometimes even those familiar with Rogers’ dancing in other films forget what a good hoofer she could be. Yet at the same time, the number reminds us of how unforgettable a combination Astaire and Rogers were together. She’s fine alone; when paired with Astaire, often transcendent.

Astaire of course gets his solo number, which as in some of his other films is combined with enough singularity to become the film’s novelty number as well. Here he breaks away from conducting a small Navy band to dance by himself, and then he is joined by a group of seamen in “I’d Rather Lead a Band.” Not Astaire’s greatest solo, but it’s Astaire, so it’s great.

“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” again tries to put a spin on the usual comic dance duet number. Here the two leads are trying to outdo one another in the building up of an act. So they are performing on a stage, for an audience, but they are also working through a number. It’s cute, and yes, it’s different. Fun, and ultimately not that memorable.

What is memorable and sublime is the classic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” which comes at the end of the film. It’s Fred and Ginger at their elegant best. In film history circles, this film is known as the one in which Ginger’s weighted sleeves hit Fred in the face on the first take, necessitating almost 20 more takes of the whole dance, which was filmed in a single take each time. In the end, the hit to the face is barely noticeable, and that is the take that ended up in the film. This is the one number worth watching more than the rest in the film, and is a reminder of the beauty of elegance and grace possible in dance.

So the next time you have a good half-hour, put in Follow the Fleet, keep the remote handy for fast-forward, and have a good time. If you do decide to watch the whole thing, at least you have Ginger being zingy and amusing, and you can catch Betty Grable and Lucille Ball early in their careers. That’s not worth sitting through the terrible plot for, but a reward for the more diligent and serious film person.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred-Foot Journey has won one major award so far—director Lasse Hallström the Audience Award at the Norwegian International Film Festival. That makes sense. It’s a mildly enjoyable paint-by numbers film, directed with a certain professional panache from the director of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Dear John, and the overrated Chocolat.

Its cinematography is serviceable, with a few compositional touches that add some flavor, and a soft yet colorful palette that makes the food and the people look equally good. It’s one of those 1940’s liberal-infused offerings that make us feel good about ourselves, as we are complimented by a story that doesn’t even begin to stretch or challenge our views of life and people. Its story is obvious and as predictable as the sunrise, which is both a little eye-rolling and comfortable at the same time.

The story is of a French woman (more on that later) running a one-Michelin-star restaurant in the middle of the French countryside whose life is wildly interrupted by an Indian family who decide to open a restaurant with loud music and louder cuisine. Or is it about the Indian family who settle down in the middle of France and decide to open a restaurant—their family business—and it just happens to be across the street from a respectable but staid French restaurant? The French woman is a widow, the Indian patriarch a widower. Need we say more?

But the actually driver of the plot is the Indian son, who has “the gift” of being a truly talented chef. He gets some help from the attractive sous-chef at the French restaurant, who just happens be about his age. Need we say more?

Deconstructing the casting is perhaps the greatest enjoyment of the film. The young French sous-chef is as lovely as a French pastry, but just shy of perfect due to that wayward tooth—so not too perfect. The Indian father (Om Puri) is rough-hewn and right out of central casting for the grouchy but tender-inside father figure.

It’s the two leads that are fun to look at. Helen Mirren, already a legend and Oscar-winner (The Queen), is actually miscast as the French restauranteuse. Instead of having her be English and settling in France, which would have helped everything, the film insists that we believe that Mirren is French. The film, in an attempt to be somewhat realistic, yet not, goes back and forth between French and English in ways that don’t quite add up. Mirren doesn’t have a believable French accent when speaking French, and the Brit speaking English with something of a French accent doesn’t work either. Mirren is an excellent actress and gives every scene her best, but the part doesn’t call for any kind of acting stretch, and she is given nothing of real interest to do. It’s simply a matter of getting a big star who is an excellent actress who just doesn’t fit the role.

The other intriguing bit of casting is that of Manish Dayal as the young man Hassan. He is perfect for this kind of film. He looks Indian enough (Dayal was born and raised in the US, and has parents from India) but his looks are close enough to the all-American look for him to be acceptable to Western eyes as a romantic lead. He can be boyish and nice-looking, and then can be fitted with a modern haircut and more facial hair for his “good-looking” scenes. Dayal (Law and Order: SVU, Switched at Birth and 90210) is a talented enough actor to make us believe in him and his love of cuisine. But it makes one wonder if this kind of film could have supported—and made us believe in—a young Indian man who looked a bit more like the father in the film. Of course it can be argued that since Dayal’s parents were Indian, he is Indian. True enough. But it is his good fortune that he looks Western enough to be cast as the lead and romantic lead in a film like this.

There are a few moments of something close to harsh reality. The early scenes in India set up the film’s plot, and have a generic sense of violence. The latter scenes of racism and xenophobia have a stronger edge to them, and begin to suggest a couple of deeper themes at work. But then the film turns around, slaps the bad guys on the wrist, sends them away, and uses the events to begin the great turnaround of emotion and activity that we can all feel good about.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is neither like the traditional French cuisine or the hot and spicy Indian food that are featured so strongly in the film. It’s more like all-American comfort food, with perhaps one slightly different spice that makes things a little different and interesting. What’s new and different is the combination of staid French and passionate Indian food, perspectives and lifestyles. Yet even that sounds more interesting than the film manages to be. What The Hundred-Foot Journey is is a professionally produced and directed film with one miscast lead and a happy, affirming story that could only challenge the most mean-spirited among us. It can be fun at times, and it makes a great date movie. But there is nothing new or special about it in any way. That is its strength and why it’s a fun ride for so many. If you go in with no expectations except having your perspectives confirmed, you’ll enjoy it.

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Heaven is for Real: A Matter of Resonance

Finally saw Heaven is for Real on DVD, and was quite pleasantly surprised. As a film person, I approach the viewing of most films with enthusiasm, looking to find something of worth in even the worst films. As a Christian, I usually approach the newest “Christian” film or film dealing with genuine, Bible-believing Christians with some hesitation, even doing a little pre-viewing cringing now and then.

The reason? Most films made by Jesus-loving Christians don’t have the production values we see in mainstream cinema, and sincerity doesn’t equate to art. And the films made by mainstream cinema dealing with genuine Christian believers tend to get most things wrong. and land somewhere between dissonantly off-kilter and downright infuriating.

Heaven is for Real is a happy exception. Its reach most definitely exceeds its grasp, but what it tries for, it gets right most of the time. The triumph of something quite different like The Avengers was in creating a world where all these people (with all their backgrounds and wildly divergent personalities and skills) could co-exist in our world, and we could accept everything we saw on screen. The triumph of Heaven is for Real is creating a world of real Christians struggling with an experience that’s just beyond the comfort zone.

This is more of an achievement than has been noted. If you’re familiar with the book, you might think the child who “went to heaven” while undergoing surgery is the lead. It’s actually the father, Todd Burpo, a pastor played by an excellent Greg Kinnear, who is the central figure and faces the main struggle in the film—processing what his son has been telling him about hearing angels, meeting Jesus, etc. He’s a pastor who has to incorporate what he’s hearing into his belief system and his sermons, all while the media is beginning to show its interest in a boy they might want to exploit and he is determined to protect.

Todd preaches like a real preacher, not a Hollywood version. He’s not boring, or hypocritical, or possessed of a particularly singular preaching style. (Full disclosure: I preach myself, but am not close to the father’s style here). He’s in love with his wife, and it’s more refreshing than one can imagine to see a genuine believer act normal, be in love with his wife, and have a vibrant (if discretely insinuated) sex life. He works hard, struggles financially, and has real friends who equally support him and bust his chops as friends do.

Connor Corum as Colton, the son who nearly dies on the operating table, is a find. He’s not TV-precocious, not smart-mouthed, and never attempts to be adorable (though he is). His stories about heaven are explained as straightforwardly as if he were describing what happened in class that day. The special effects sequences of his experiences go right to the line of believability, and almost cross over into corny. But how does one visualize the ineffable for today’s audience? Happily, the film presents the images as Colton describes and experienced them, and doesn’t ask us to take them all literally, or as what heavenly things really look or sound like.

In addition to creating a real world that embraces this life and the next at the same time, the screenplay handles the issue of what Colton saw rather brilliantly. It’s not Colton’s struggle at all—he knows what he saw, and believes in it. It’s Todd’s struggle of how to contextualize what he believes his son saw; was it real, did it really give insight into what heaven is like, and if so, what does one do with that? If it wasn’t real, how could Colton have known things he could never have known? The reality of heaven, in spite of the title, is not the issue here. The protagonists (and even those slightly stepping temporarily into the antagonist role) all believe in an afterlife. The question is what to do with Colton’s experience and how to interpret it.

Happily, we have some solid support in the acting category. Oscar-nominated Thomas Haden Church and Emmy-winning Margo Martindale bring depth and realism to their roles as friends of the family. Church brings the humor and Martindale the pathos, but both are fully fleshed-out characters that add immeasurably to creating and sustaining the film’s world. Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) has a rather thankless role as the wife who is supportive yet stretched to the brink by all that’s happening to her family. She is fine most of the time, yet a bit strident and edgy at other times.

While the creation of that world is by far the film’s greatest achievement, this is not a great film. The story is at turns jumpy and too slow, and the film’s focus seems to wander from father to son and back again. It’s 10 degrees from Hallmark pretty at times, and some of the camera angles are questionable at best.

But this is the first recent film with current high production values—especially the acting—that has created a world where the central characters are people of faith who are recognizable and real. These are not some saccharine, unreal people that don’t struggle with life, nor are they some mysterious, weird group of otherworldly hate-mongers just this side of American Horror Story. This is the world most Americans live in or at least recognize, and the film makes room for them, their real life, and their real faith. Belief in Jesus, the Bible and the afterlife are part and parcel of the world of the film, and are not held up to suspicion or ridicule.

This may well be part of the reason that this both “real” and “faith-based” film has made close to $100 million. The world of real people of real Christian faith has resonated with many people, who haven’t been able to relate to the Christians they’ve seen on the screen in the last, say, 50 years. Resonance is an underappreciated factor, both for critics and for audiences. If the subject of a film resonates for whatever reason with critics, it is likely to get better reviews than it might deserve. If they can’t connect with the world of the story—as is definitely the case with most film critics and film such as Heaven is for Real—then the film simply doesn’t seem as “good” as other films.

Dallas Buyers Club, for instance, resonated with many critics because of its subject matter and for its excellent performances. But many people couldn’t find the connection; hence the less-than-stellar box office ($27 million). Gravity resonated with techies (among many others); hence the many (deserved) awards. 12 Years a Slave resonated with those looking for that “great” film of the year, and the great direction, performances, and especially the subject matter, made that wonderful film resonate with those that give out the most important awards.

Resonance has little to do with quality, but when a certain level of cinematic quality has been attained, it makes the difference between a film that one connects with and could recommend and one that doesn’t make that connection and ends up being seen by fewer people. For people who believe in Jesus, or God, or heaven, or the afterlife, Heaven is for Real is resonant, and the missteps and weaknesses are not strong enough to distract that kind of person from what resonates, making the viewing a valuable experience. For the one who doesn’t believe, one can admire the performances and the look of the film, but it can seem foolish and something for the “guns and religion” crowd, using that most condescending and arrogant of recent political quotes.

What a great Rorschach test this film is! For the kind of believer described above, take a look and see a world that you can identify with—one that’s real, painful and faith-filled all at the same time. Consider it a visit to a land you’ll recognize. For the rest, take a look into the best recent filmic presentation of real people that happen to be serious Christians. Consider it an anthropological study.

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Boyhood

In film class in college, we learned the difference between narrative and spectacle. Narrative, of course, was the story. Spectacle was, well, the songs and dances, or the special effects that dazzled, or the great set pieces like fights or cattle drives. Or perhaps, Carmen Miranda just standing there. In any event, the spectacle was the “wow” of the film.

Boyhood, the recent Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) film chronicling the life of a boy from the age of 7 to 18, has one dazzlingly spectacular element: It follows the boy, his mom and dad, his sister, and other people in the story, over a period of 12 years, and was filmed over the same period. You won’t see the “preteen” version of the lead character, then the older teen version of him. You see the real young actor, Ellar Coltrane, grow right in front of your eyes from a young boy to a young man named Mason. You see his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, grow (gracefully, to be honest) into middle age. Linklater’s daughter Lorilei plays Mason’s sister, and rounds out the central cast.

The narrative territory isn’t unique to this film, Director Michael Apted’s Up documentary series chronicles a group of young folks at seven-year intervals, and therefore owns its own unique place. But that’s a documentary, and Boyhood is a drama.

Boyhood’s story is rather rudimentary, which works well as a structure for the astounding parade of advancing time. The film’s formal approach is straightforward and basic, though it seems to have moved in a little closer to the characters over time. Linklater may actually have bent over a little too far backwards in streamlining and simplifying the film’s style in the beginning. But there is no feeling of shifting styles over the years, which helps keep the story moving forward and our attention where it belongs.

The various milestones of age are there, but not the typical teen-movie progression of “first-time activities” such as drinking, drugs, sex, etc. This is the story of one young boy and his journey to adulthood. Larger statements can be inferred, but this isn’t a political or social commentary masquerading as a particular person’s story. The interlude with new Christian step-grandparents is a bit awkward and clichéd, with guns and Gospel preaching presented just this side of condescending. But even viewing this segment of the film as a preacher myself, Mason’s look of pain in the church service was genuinely funny and might well have been Coltrane’s finest acting moment in the film.

The two adult actors do fine work throughout, as expected. Their characters have opposite arcs, with Arquette’s mom a harried single mom who keeps making questionable choices in men, and Hawkes’ dad as a ne’er-do-well dragged kicking and screaming into a semblance of responsibility. Lorilei Linklater’s performance is not particularly strong, but not distracting. Some of her attitudinal teen responses, in fact, contribute greatly to the realism of the film.

Of course the big risk and big success is Coltrane as Mason. It’s impossible to tell what he’s capable of as an adult actor. But he and Linklater have created a completely believable and singular character with life and breath and thought and heart—plus the requisite teen attitude. Coltrane could have been a washout, or have dropped from the filming process sometime over the 12-year creation period. He could have been a male Shirley Temple, talented as a child and not particularly so as he grew. Part of the joy of watching the film is realizing all the many elements that had to fall into place for this film to reach completion (e.g., someone could have died, become caught in a franchise with no escape, or could have just decided they’d had enough).

One performance that should be noted (spoiler alert) is that of Marco Perella (Sin City, A Scanner Darkly), who plays the almost-major character of Professor Bill Welbrock, Arquette’s character’s second husband. Coming off as both genuinely nice and subtly but creepily sketchy at the same time, we see his outer shell begin to crack and finally disintegrate over time. (One wonders as the film goes on if Linklater is making some kind of statement about the ravages of alcohol with this character and one other.) In a film that generally eschews big moments, Perella creates one that makes you almost jump out of your seat, and the realism Linklater has built up during the film gets a big emotional payoff in the scene. His character almost threatens to break out of the world of the film, but instead expands and enriches it.

In stories such as this, beginnings are easy and endings more difficult. There is something of the typical romance structure to the end, but this film isn’t a romance of any kind. We are left with a young, slightly wounded, intelligent young man who we presume will grow up some more and will alternately conquer and struggle with the issues of his upbringing. Perhaps the strongest statement is a quiet one about survival and hope for the future, but the film ends so delicately that no particular statement is made.

Any serious film person should see Boyhood, and anyone else wanting to see a spectacle that doesn’t involve car crashes, aliens, superheroes or the supernatural. This is a spectacular film, where the spectacle is life and growth and time itself. There may not be another film like it in our lifetimes.

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