My Movie Weekend: “Heaven is for Real,” “Transcendence,” “Dom Hemingway” and “Under the Skin.”

This weekend it was all about Saturday:

Greg Kinnear;Kelly Reilly

9:15am – At AMC Webster watching Heaven is for Real. I’m not a religious person, and so I often come to faith-based movies with a bias: If I feel like I’m being lectured to, I tend to tune out. (The same goes for non-faith-based movies, for that matter.) But Heaven is for Real, directed by Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace from the non-fiction bestseller by Todd Burpo, wears its spirituality in a comfortable, un-self-conscious manner. Greg Kinnear plays Burpo, a Nebraska pastor who’s the proverbial pillar of the community and who leads the sermon every Sunday in a button-down shirt and khakis. Life is hard but not too hard, until his young son (Connor Corum) nearly dies from a ruptured appendix and has a near-death experience that shakes the entire town to its core.

Kinnear is terrific in showing us a complex test of Burpo’s faith – it’s not that he doesn’t believe his four-year-old saw Jesus, but more that he never thought of meeting Jesus as something that might actually happen. His sincere spirituality has never been pushed to think beyond the abstract, and the sudden demand for that reconciliation is almost more than he (or his unnerved neighbors) can bear. It’s a nuanced performance in a pragmatic, thoughtful film. Ruined a bit by a pat ending, but ain’t that just the way? Nobody, it seems, knows how to end a movie any more. – We walk down the hall to sit through Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, previously best known for his work as cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s films. Turns out, as a director Pfister makes a darn good cinematographer.

Transcendence is big-budget sci-fi hokum, with so-so special effects trying to dazzle us into thinking the Big Ideas being thrown around are bigger than they are. Johnny Depp is a metaphysicist who, in his last days of life, transfers his brainwaves into a massive computer to turbo-charge his and his girlfriend’s (Rebecca Hall) research into artificial intelligence. (That, and to save his life, of course.) Cut to a few years later, and the Depp-charged computer has essentially used the Internet to take over the world. Can the wee puny humans stop it before it goes all the way?

Movies like to paint A.I. with sinister shades – there’s just something about big scary computers that turns screenwriters into quasi-futurist doomsayers, as if the banalities of contemporary techno-life (say, our dwindling attention spans and our complete inability to remember phone numbers any more) aren’t terrifying enough. But the film’s biggest problem is Depp, who is no longer credible playing ordinary humans – casting him here is like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, in that we don’t fundamentally accept him in the role until his second-act transformation. I wondered after seeing the film if Transcendence wouldn’t have been much more enjoyable had Hall and Depp switched parts; she comes off as so warm and human, that watching her morph into a cybergod might have actually meant something.

dom hemingway (fox searchlight)

2:00pm – After Transcendence we leave behind the comfy chairs of Webster and drive into the city for a screening of Dom Hemingway at the Little. This was a film I would have seen last September, had a trip to the hospital not curtailed my annual trek to the Toronto Film Festival. I was looking forward to this film, as I like Jude Law and have waited patiently to see him grow out of his cartoonishly good looks and into the kind of roles that await leading men with some miles on them.

But after casting Law, the powers that be didn’t put much thought into giving him an actual movie in which to act. His Dom is an outsize thug, a boorish ex-con who explodes out of prison after 12 years eager to make up for lost time – beating up the guy who stole his now-departed wife, re-connecting with the crimelord (Damien Belchir) who owes him for not snitching while in prison, and most of all trying to bond with a daughter (Elimia Clarke) who quite sensibly wants nothing to do with him. These story snatches are told in a depressingly linear fashion, enough to make me wonder if someone hadn’t created the Hemingway character for a BBC series and then stitched those episodes together to make a feature film. The result is blunt and unrewarding, a weak exploration of a character who turns out to be pretty much the shallow, hedonistic cretin he appears to be from the outset. But at least director Richard Shepherd (whose The Matador did a much better job of piercing macho archetypes) gave Richard E. Grant some screen time as Dom’s buddy. Grant is an unsung hero of British cinema. He deserves a bigger career, and better films than Dom Hemingway.

under the skin

3:50pm – Still at the Little, now to watch Under the Skin, which has been picking up decent notices since debuting at the Venice Film Fest last summer. This is Jonathan Glazer’s third film, after the marvelous UK crime comedy Sexy Beast and the ambitious but confounding Birth, and I’m sorry to say it has more in common with the latter. (Come to think of it, I was probably hoping Dom Hemingway would be more like Sexy Beast too.)

If you ever saw Species, the ’90s soft-core sci-fi that had Natasha Henstridge take off her clothes a lot in the name of playing a sexy alien, you have most of this film’s plot. Fully an hour of this remarkably quiet film shows Scarlett Johansson, as an alien wearing a dead woman’s clothes, driving around Scotland trying to pick up men. She succeeds a lot, because she still looks like Scarlett Johansson, but her conquests are dull stuff: Over and over again, she brings guys back to a run-down flat where … something … happens to them. Then she gets back on the road. Lather, Seduce, Repeat. Yawn.

Glazer deserves credit for resisting the urge to capitalize too much on Johansson’s physical assets, and for resolutely showing rather than telling. He’s determined to let this little story go its own way, and not be obligated to reveal too much just for the sake of keeping the audience in the loop. But it’s ultimately too little story – there’s just not enough here to hold our attention. The third-act conversion that the unsexy beast seems to experience is thin paste to be expected to hold all the prior bricks together. Under the Skin feels like a short film wearing the padded flesh of a full-length feature. There’s not enough there there.

(IMAGES: Heaven is for Real courtesy of Tristar/Sony Pictures; Transcendence courtesy of Warner Bros./Alcon; Dom Hemingway courtesy of Fox Searchlight; Under the Skin courtesy of A24 Films.)