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Divine entertainment

‘Heaven is for Real’ and ‘Joe’ tell of different paths toward salvation

By Carl Kozlowski 04/16/2014

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Easter is a time of redemption for Christians, so it seems only natural that Sony Pictures studio heads would pick this weekend to release “Heaven Is For Real.” Based on the purportedly true story of a young boy who claimed to visit heaven and came back to write a mega-bestselling book about it with his pastor father, the film is the latest in a string of Christian-themed movies that have been scoring impressive runs at the nation’s box offices this year.  
At the same time, theaters will also be featuring another more secular attempt at rebirth, with Nicolas Cage’s comeback attempt in “Joe.” Marking his first truly great performance in the nearly two decades since he won the Best Actor Oscar for “Leaving Las Vegas” for portraying a washed-up writer who wanted to drink himself to death, “Joe” follows the story of a struggling but decent man fighting to survive in a world that’s constantly turning against him.
Let’s start with “Heaven,” which has a better chance to succeed on an artistic level than such low-budget independently produced faith films as the current surprise hit “God’s Not Dead.” While “Dead” and other such low-budget faith films resonate strongly with die-hard evangelical audiences, they are often heavy-handed and fail to reach anyone beyond the literal choir, mainly because they can’t afford name-brand actors and filmmakers.
“Heaven” stars Oscar nominees Greg Kinnear and Thomas Haden Church and Emmy winner Margo Martindale. It’s also co-written and directed by Randall Wallace, the Oscar-nominated writer of “Braveheart.” Add the fact that its source book has sold more than 10 million copies and was No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list, and it’s easy to see how this could appeal to nonbelievers curious about the afterlife. 

The story follows the family of a small-town Nebraska pastor named Todd Burpo, whose son Colton needed an emergency appendectomy when he was 4. Colton claims his spirit left his body temporarily during the surgery and that he visited heaven. Despite the fact that Todd is a preacher, he doesn’t know what to think about Colton’s story. He tries to discern whether his kid is making it up or having psychological issues. But with each  explanation of what he saw in the afterlife, Colton manages to convince his dad and other skeptics to believe he actually has an incredible experience to share. 

That’s the entire plot in a nutshell. “Heaven” has a simple storyline, almost too much so at times, with very little tension and the first half hour taking forever to get going. But, like the book it is adapted from, its purpose is to assure viewers that there is a beautiful afterlife that awaits those who believe. 
It takes a quiet approach to its message, and for those inclined to believe or at least be open to the possibility of an afterlife, that slow build could have a quiet and lasting impact. 

“Joe” is also quietly powerful, though it has a lot more complexity in its plot and portrait of desperate small-town lives straight out of the Southern Gothic world of author Flannery O’Connor. “Joe” follows the story of Joe (Nicolas Cage), a man who heads up a work crew that clears backwoods areas of dead trees. He treats his men — all African Americans in an area still ruled by segregation — with respect and fair pay. One day he meets a teenage loner named Gary (Tye Sheridan) who asks for a job, and Joe hires him. 

Joe comes to learn that Gary is impoverished and being abused by his worthless alcoholic father, so he teaches the youngster lessons in self-esteem and self-respect. He also defends Gary against his father and helps the boy move in with him to be in a safe environment. 

But Joe has enemies from his past and constantly has to control a temper that once got him thrown in prison for 29 months for assaulting a policeman. As Joe faces pressures from saving the boy as well as his own problems, he gets caught between trying to be a truly good man and the fact that good guys sometimes have bad things happen to them, no matter how hard they try. 

“Joe” marks a huge artistic comeback for Cage, who has been lazily making action movies for well over a decade, yet delivers what might be his career-best performance here. Sheridan builds on his impressive debut in “Mud” and offers a beautiful portrait of a kid trying to do the right thing when everyone around him does wrong things to him. 

Director David Gordon Green brings “Joe” to life in a sad and dusty world of poverty and broken dreams but keeps his real focus on the decent hearts of Joe and Gary — two fellows who are easy to ignore in real life but heartbreakingly compelling onscreen. 

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