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Heaven Is for Real

MANITOBA Film and Music, the government agency tasked with developing and encouraging film production in the province, could employ the 13-minute Blu-ray DVD doc The Making of Heaven Is for Real as a veritable infomercial for Manitoba film locations.

In telling the true story of a four-year-old boy who claimed to have visited heaven, writer-director Randall Wallace (Secretariat) suggests that aspects of heaven can be found in the natural beauty of the rural Nebraska setting. Hence Wallace and ace cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves) wring maximum visual beauty from the Manitoba locations -- sun-dappled fields, big blue skies, sunflowers dancing in the breeze. Given that out-of-towners tend to freely diss Winnipeg and Manitoba, it's refreshing to hear Wallace and star Greg Kinnear speak so well of it.

An adaptation of a bestselling Christian book by Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo, the film describes Burpo's crisis of faith arising from a series of misfortunes, ranging from kidney stones to his son Colton's near death after suffering a cataclysmic case of appendicitis.

While Colton (six-year-old Connor Corum) was never clinically dead, he emerged from the experience with memories that included seeing Todd raging at God in the hospital chapel. Oh yes, he also visited heaven, where he met Jesus, touched base with his long dead great-grandpa, and he even met another older sister he never knew he had, as she had been miscarried before Colton was born.

This throws Todd for a loop. He ultimately comes to believe there is substance to Colton's experience, even if that belief has the potential to alienate Todd's own parishioners.

You have to give it to Wallace: he's a skilled director of actors, especially juvenile actors, and his dramatic scenes have the power to move you emotionally, no matter how credible you may find the premise.

The movie should have a little fun with the irony of the situation: Colton emerged from his near-death experience believing in a heaven that even his pastor-father finds too good to be true.

But Wallace plays little Colton's visions as straight as though it was an undiscovered chapter of the Gospels.

In that, it's all a little suspect. The film's Christianity is very much filtered through a conservative middle-American lens, most obviously when Todd cheers daughter Cassie (Winnipeg actress Lane Styles) for punching out a couple of kids who mock her little brother's story on a school playground. More subtle: Colton's miscarried sister, growing up in heaven, seems to be making an unspoken case for life-begins-at-conception. 'Ö'Ö

Transcendence

EVEN the most lofty science-fiction movies hinge on character and relationship. That's where cinematographer Wally Pfister's directorial debut fails spectacularly.

Transcendence is the story of Will Caster (an atypically charmlesss Johnny Depp), a scientist on the verge of a big breakthrough in the realm of artificial intelligence. On the cusp of that breakthrough, Will is the victim of an assassination attempt by a tech-utilizing anti-tech underground cell headed by a be-wigged Kate Mara. Will's genius wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) decides to defy nature by uploading Will's dying brain into a super computer, with the result that the gentle Will transmogrifies into a digital being capable of taking over the world.

For all its provocative ideas, this is a lamely dull movie. One big problem being the relationship between Will and Evelyn, the driving force behind the narrative, is such an insubstantial romance, as thin as a page from a second-hand Harlequin romance. Nothing, not Morgan Freeman's gravitas, nor a healthy dollop of visual-effects magic, can make us care about how this turns out. 'Ö

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 C12

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