“Heaven is for Real” comes into the cineplex with a base of fans who have read and admire the best-selling book by Paster Todd Burpo. This Christian minister touched a nerve when he published the story of his four-year old son’s insistence that he visited heaven, met Jesus and people from the Burpo family during a potentially fatal operation. The movie casts the very believable Greg Kinnear as Paster Burpo. Kinnear does well in these middle class father roles — just think of the Dad in “Little Miss Sunshine” except this time as a man of faith, and also of humor and humanity. The little boy–played by child actor Connor Corum–has the right mix of belief and acceptance and doesn’t get too cute with it. “Heaven is for Real” deals out a surprise: Instead of acceptance, Kinnear and many in his congregation find this experience a challenge to their faith. They don’t want to believe it. Many who watch the movie may not want to believe or accept it either. Unlike most faith-based films, “Heaven is for Real” doesn’t mind leaving a mystery unsolved. Kinnear gets a boost from an excellent cast, including Kelly Reilly as his wife and Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale as members of his congregation. Occasionally they let the script get a little too cute, but “Heave is for Real” does portray church going and faith realistically and without prejudice. I think the filmmakers erred in actually visualizing some of the child’s story. They ought to know that mystery trumps all. Does it deliver what it promises? Story of faith and challenge. Is it entertaining? Good acting and strong cast. Is it worth the price of admission? Yes.
Johnny Depp lends his name and talent to this latest internet thriller. “Transcendence” refers to the uploading of Johnny’s human brain into our world-wide computer network with the kind of result that won’t surprise you. As the story begins we meet Johnny and his equally brilliant wife Rebecca Hall, an actress whom I really like and admire. Together with their good friends and colleagues Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman they have a vision for a world changed and improved by computer technology. But cyber terrorists don’t share this vision. A group led by Kate Mara blow up several labs simultaneously and send out a martyr to assassinate Johnny. Except the bullet only grazes him. Except they laced the bullet with radiation sentencing Johnny to a short but slow death. Just time enough for Rebecca and friends to figure out how to upload Johnny’s brain. When they do he turns into a combination of Hal from “2001″ and Scarlett Johansson from “Her.” In other words a really suave power mad threat. The rest of the story takes some nice twists as Johnny builds his domain. But several times during the screening, audience members laughed rather than buy this baloney. In spite of a good cast and the presence of the brilliant Mr. Depp, “Transcendence” never goes beyond the expected. It feels like a weak copy of several much better thrillers. Does it deliver what it promises? Only more of the same. Is it entertaining? No surprises. Is it worth the price of admission? Save your money.
Marvel Studios proves once again they know how to make blockbusters. Chris Evans reprises his role as Captain America—the 1940′s hero frozen during World War Two and thawed out to help the Avengers fight evil in the 21st century. Aided by Black Widow, played with zest by Scarlett Johansson, the superguy and supergal wise crack their way thorough this sinister adventure. The bad guys who started World War Two have laid the seeds for world domination in the internet age. Robert Redford has an interesting turn as the bad guy, a slick corporate suit out for himself. Samuel L. Jackson returns as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. (get the pun on Captain America’s power shield?) and Anthony Mackie gets a neat bit as Captain America’s new helper Sam Wilson a former paratrooper outfitted in a really neat flying suit complete with wings. Action and a pretty good plot help Captain America zip along, another Marvel from the folks at Marvel. Does it deliver waht it promises? Action hero based on a comic book with A list grown up stars. Is it entertaining? Moves along. Is it worth the price of admission? A keeper.
Darren Aronofsky has created some of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. I still shudder at the memory of “Requiem for a Dream” as well as “Black Swan” which won the Oscar for Natalie Portman. So maybe Aronofsky’s reputation touched off the controversy over “Noah.” Other than that, I don’t see what the big deal is. ”Noah” tells a bible story as an action adventure tale. Russell Crowe storms around resonding to his visions and following his instructions to build an ark to save civilization. The story starts slow and gets kinda weird, with Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah — an ancient seer with the power to see, advise, and heal. Jennifer Connelly speaks for love and mercy in a subplot involving their adopted daughter, played by Emma Watson, and their son. This becomes important as the pair will shoulder the responsibility of populating the future world. The building of the arc gets a little weird, with protections courtesy of angels made of rock who look a little too much like transformers for my taste. Once the flood starts, ”Noah” offers up some thrilling moments. As the ark moves Noah sits his family down and tells them and us the creation story in a highly appropriate manner. After the flood, questions of life and death hang over the story. As an epic, I think “Noah” works—a would be blockbuster that feels more like art than commerce. Does it deliver what it promises? Religious story turned action epic. Is it entertaining? Sometimes weird sometimes thrilling. Is it worth the price of admission? For something new and different.
Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a valiant effort to reboot his career in “Sabatoge” as head of a rogue D E A team. The movie opens with the invasion of a drug lord’s mansion where Arnold and company mow down everyone inside and steal ten million dollars in drug money. At first we’re not sure but it turns out the money is for them and when they go looking for it (they flush it down a sewer) somebody got there first. Mystery number one: who has the money? Next, members of the team start dropping dead, murdered in mysterious ways that seem to indicate cartel payback. Mystery number two: who’s doing the killing? Atlanta policewoman Olivia Williams gets on the case. She’s cop determined to get to the bottom of this as she pushes Arnold and company for details. Arnold is looking kinda puffy these days — squinting through the slits he has left for eyes while puffing giant cigars and snarling in his trademark German accent. Mireille Enos — you may remember her from “The Killing” — steals the movie as a wild child D E A undercover agent half out of her mind on various illegal substances and blowing away good and bad guys with the kind of gunplay that makes strong men shudder. Other great actors include Terrence Howard and Sam Worthington — neither used to good effect. As for the plot, the pay off doesn’t live up to the set up. Audiences started laughing when the director cut away from a love scene between Arnold and Olivia Williams. It looked creepy. A final show down with Arnold felt equally silly. Does it deliver what it promises? “R” rated mayhem. Is it entertaining? Doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Is it worth the price of admission? Save your money.
I really like the up and coming actress Shaylene Woodley—you might remember her as the daughter in “The Descendants.” The makers of “Divergent” hope to launch another “Twilight” or more specifically “Hunger Games” franchise with her. Shaylene has the acting ability but the source material doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. Based on the young adult books, we enter a world sometime in the future in which society is divided into five factions — basically separating farmers or hippies actually from smart people and smart people from judges and judges from the physical/army/police peacekeepers. Every young person attends a ceremony in which they choose their faction. And if this is already reminding you of the choosing ceremony from “Harry Potter” or those chosen for the “Hunger Games” you’re right on the money. Anyway, Shaylene doesn’t fit into any one group but chooses the jock fraternity aka “Dauntless” where she meets British hunk Theo James (you “Downton Abbey fans remember him as the visitor who hopped into Lady Mary’s bed). Ultimately the powers that be discover Shaylene’s abilities and work to stamp them out. “Divergent” really doesn’t offer anything new or exciting beyond a weak copy of “The Hunger Games.” Does it deliver what it promises? Feels generic. Is it entertaining? At times. Is it worth the price of admission? Like “Twilight” this one’s for fans of the book.
The Muppets live on — even as I sadly note the passing of the original Hensons — Jim and Jane — who created them. The Disney reboot captures the fun of the franchise and sticks to the winning formula: lots of jokes, funny musical numbers, and big name guest stars. Those big names in this episode include Ricky Gervais, and Tina Fey — both of whom have some wonderful moments. The plot involves a Russian Kermit look-alike — the most sinister criminal in the world — who takes the troop on a world tour for nefarious reasons — maybe you won’t mind if I reveal that he and Gervais want to steal the Crown Jewels. So we have good Kermit and bad Kermit and plenty of encounters with Miss Piggy and a zillion celebrity cameos including Christoph Waltz, Ray Liotta, Frank Langella, Tony Bennett, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Sean Combs, Salma Hayek and even Zach Galifianakis. The result is great fun. Does it deliver what it promises? The Muppets and a winning formula. Is it entertaining? Can’t miss. Is it worth the price of admission? Great for kids and their family.
Jason Bateman creates a hilarious dark “R” rated comedy about the national spelling bee. (Bateman stars and directs.) He plays an angry adult hoping to even a score. He competes with 8th graders — getting around the rules to enter multiple contests. The wonderful Allison Janney has some great moments as a spelling bee official flummoxed by Bateman. Especially funny and cringe inducing is Bateman’s relationship with Rohan Chand —an adorable tyke who learns all the adult vices he can think of from his new pal Jason. Kathryn Hahn also comes in for plenty of hostility as a journalist following Bateman’s progress and occasionally sharing rough sex with him. Speaking of “Bad Words” — this comedy has plenty of them as well as plenty of “R” rated situations. The pay off is a little weak but like a great vacation, getting there provides most of the fun. Does it deliver what it promises? Edgy comedy with an “R” rating and worth every “R” of it. Is it entertaining? Cringe worthy laughs. Is it worth the price of admission? You know who you are — go — the rest stand clear.
Wes Anderson got my attention early on in his career with his film “Rushmore” — the story of a middle class kid who gets a private school scholarship only to be expelled for putting on airs and falling in love with an adult teacher. Since then Anderson’s films including “The Royal Tanenbaums” and most recnetly ”Moonrise Kingdom” have come to stand for the kind of style and playfulness nobody sees anymore. ”The Grand Budapest Hotel” ups the ante. A story within a story within a story, it takes place somewhere in Europe before the second world war in a grand hotel much like the one from the 1932 classic. Ralph Fiennes takes young Tony Revolori under his wing teaching him the ways of the grand concierge. Their adventures include a murder, an inheritance, some jail time and a great escape. the story takes place in almost doll house looking settings leading to chase scenes worthy of the great comedies of the silent era. Sometimes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” gets a little too cute but most of the time its great fun and when it began to wrap things up, I actually wanted it to go on a little longer. The audience applause helped pushed me out the door. but I think I’ll go back and see it again. Does it deliver what it promises? Comedy adventure done with style. Is it entertaining? Great storytelling. Is it worth the price of admission? A resounding yes.
“Breaking Bad” co-star Aaron Paul breaks in his new high-profile career in “Need for Speed.” Don’t expect anything near as sharp as the “Fast and Furious” series. “Need for Speed” sticks to the basics—a best friend whose dialog telegraphs that he’s gonna die—a dead father, an ex girlfriend, a really bad villain driver, and only Aaron can win the day. Paul must share his stardom with a 50th anniversary hotter than hot new Ford Mustang which he drives across country at maniacal speeds. He brings Imogen Poots along for the ride which includes several show downs with bad guys who don’t want them to make the New York to San Francisco run. But they do and after a hiccup or two, Aaron enters an exclusive high stakes race where the winner will receive justice and a lot of money. The cars really steal the show as well as the stunts the filmmakers have the cars do. Aaron Paul has a certain charisma and I imagine he’ll enjoy a long career in major movies. I hope he starts getting scripts better than this one which made the audience I watched with laugh out loud far too many times. Does it deliver what it promises? Race car drama by the book. Is it entertaining? Nice cars. Is it worth the price of admission? For car guys.