Sunday, July 22, 2012

History As Written By Those Who Follow The Rules: The Other Side Of Heaven Fizzles.

The Good: Moments of realism
The Bad: Killer slow pacing, Awkwardly stiff acting, Thematic browbeating, Character development is obvious
The Basics: Disney courts the Christians with The Other Side Of Heaven, a dull film that captures the missionary experience and presents an awkward mix of corrupt realism and ridiculous idealism.

As one who has many different interests, there are many experiences I go into without any real expectation or bias. That does not mean, however, that my attempt to open myself up to new experiences is a universally positive one. In the case of Disney’s film The Other Side Of Heaven, all I knew about the movie before watching it was that it was the second film Anne Hathaway starred in (actually, it was her first film, but The Princess Diaries was released first) and, frankly, that was enough to “get me through the door.” Her peripheral role was not, however, enough to sustain my interest in the film.

The Other Side Of Heaven is similar to Left Behind: The Movie (reviewed here!) and Letters To God (reviewed here!) in that it presents an overt, unabashedly evangelical Christian view of the world. It is a perspective that I can respect when it is one derived from faith and belief, not when it is used as an instrument of power and control primarily utilizing fear. The Other Side Of Heaven treads more in the direction of faith, but it is still too-often presents a problematically simplistic view of much of the world and faith in it.

In the 1950s, John Groberg is a young man who is going to school in Utah and is sent to Tonga as a missionary. Eager to do the lord’s work, John goes to Tonga where he discovers that an alternate church on the island has told people not to listen to John. Guided by Feki, John is given the mandate to learn the language and build the congregation. John is astonished to discover how very different Tonga is from the United States. He goes off to learn the language by reading the Tongan bible next to the English one. Feki and Kelepi help John when he encounters difficulties like disease, parasites and corruption.

Over the course of three years, John remains steadfast in his love for Jean, whom he left behind in the United States. Resisting the advances of Lavania, John works to survive a hurricane, trips to the other islands without wind and in monsoons, and corruption where young Tongan women are traded for rum to offlanders. John is earnest and works to overcome his trials and bring god to the Tongans.

The Other Side Of Heaven is a weird contradiction. On the one hand, it is an earnest, somewhat obvious Christian-themed film where faith wins the day. Jean is a doting 1950’s stereotype of a woman who waits for years for John to return. Threaded throughout the film are the letters between John and Jean and it sets the film up to go one of two ways: either Jean will wait and John and Jean will be reunited to fall in love or Jean will marry Edward and John will stay on the island to marry a Tongan woman. Given how the trials John goes through are very predictably progressed, the direction The Other Side Of Heaven goes in is more of a safe direction, as opposed to an audacious one (which also happens to be the truth given that the film is based upon a real story).

But the candy-coated Christian view is somewhat simplistic, just as the view of America in the 1950s frequently seems. John is earnest and monolithically good, easily resisting the advances of Lavania when she tries for him, Jean is faithful amid all the temptations home offers her. When John preaches to a copper miner, he almost instantly stops trading his daughter for favors and none of the women who are used by the offlanders are presented as emotionally scarred as one might expect of women who are raped repeatedly on boats (or, I suppose, anywhere else).

Arguably, the redeeming element of The Other Side Of Heaven is the acting. Christopher Gorham is funny and earnest as John Groberg. Miriama Smith is fearless as Lavania and Joe Folau, Nathaniel Lees, and Alvin Fitisemanu are articulate, emotive and interesting in their roles as Feki, Kelepi, and Tomasi. The acting is universally good, though fans of Anne Hathaway’s works will find her part is little more than a recurring cameo after the first five minutes. She is incredible window dressing for the film, but it is Gorham that does the heavy lifting and creates the humor, emotion and spiritualism of the film and he pulls that off.

On DVD, The Other Side Of Heaven includes a commentary track with director Mitch Davis where the phrase “fish out of water” must be used about a hundred times, deleted scenes and a featurette that is somewhat redundant after the commentary track. They are good, but do not improve sufficiently upon the often-sappy primary programming.

For those who do not want to be bombarded with a strong Christian message (despite what the director claims of the film in the commentary track), The Other Side Of Heaven features the carefree joy of Anne Hathaway dancing energetically in a poodle skirt for a few minutes before descending into faith-based programming that is not so safe as to not include scenes that might be difficult to explain to children. Either way, The Other Side Of Heaven seems initially ambitious, but is largely predictable and dull.

For works featuring Anne Hathaway, please check out my reviews of:
Anne Hathaway For Wonder Woman!
The Dark Knight Rises
One Day
Love And Other Drugs
Family Guy Presents: It's A Trap!
Alice In Wonderland
Valentine's Day
Twelfth Night Soundtrack
Bride Wars
Rachel Getting Married
Get Smart
Becoming Jane
The Devil Wears Prada
Brokeback Mountain
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
Ella Enchanted
Nicholas Nickleby
The Princess Diaries


For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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