Heaven Is For Real has an earnestness and an inertness that make it something of a bulletproof fish in a barrel. It's easy to take shots at because it's utterly artless and corny, but it's immune to criticism because it's not intended to be otherwise. It's simply intended to be affirming to people who go to church a lot, encouraging to people who go to church a little, and inoffensively irrelevant to people who don't go to church at all.
There's no question that Hollywood does a woefully poor job representing people of faith in any sort of nuanced way in mainstream films. Watching the opening scenes of Heaven Is For Real, there's actually a certain charm in its inclusion of scenes of American life that are hugely underrepresented in movies relative to their importance to the potential audience.
Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and his four-year-old son, Colton, horse around listening to the ladies from church singing hymns in the living room with Todd's wife, Sonja. Todd goes in his sweatpants and T-shirt to the bedside of a dying man and quietly and compassionately prays with him. Todd and Sonja curl up on the couch and talk about how broke they are and the limitations of the house that came with Todd's job. It feels sort of ... fair, to put it simply, to people for whom prayer and church are important. It feels reasonably organic for those first moments.
But then, of course, we come to the central plot, in which Colton's appendix bursts and he nearly dies, and when he recovers, he tells his parents he went to heaven. He doesn't say he saw a light or anything similarly vague; he says he sat on the lap of actual Jesus (whom he later clarifies is a blue-green-eyed Jesus, juuuuuust in case you were wondering), he saw angels singing, he saw clouds, and he met some of his deceased relatives.
In fact, the perfection with which Colton describes not just the religious heaven but the cultural - perhaps the pop-cultural - heaven is part of what makes it a little bit less persuasive. Even Sonja points out that this is precisely the version of heaven Colton got from every story and song they ever sang to him. But Colton confidently begins going up to, for instance, kids who are hospitalized with cancer and, unbidden, grabbing their hands to tell them everything will be fine, which is received as comforting and welcome for whatever reason, and not as perhaps off-putting from a strange four-year-old.
Todd is presented with a crisis, which is just how literally he should take Colton's story of heaven. He consults an academic who tells him that there are plenty of non-heaven explanations for what Colton described, not that she means to take any "magic" away from him. (The way she sneers the word "magic" is one of a few places when the film has a keen ear for the way that religious people are indeed sometimes spoken to that they are perfectly capable of picking up as belittling.) He grills Colton on the experience. He - seriously - Googles "near-death experience." At first, that last move seemed absurd, but I came to think it was charming. I mean, what would you do in such circumstances?
Unfortunately, whatever charm the movie has built to this point is overmatched by the gooey sap that's been slathered all over it, not to mention the endless reminders that this is a Sony product. (Never have you seen so many people using Vaio laptops in one movie.) What starts out as a sneaky warmth quickly is swamped by Jesus Is Hiding In That Lens Flare and other far less thoughtful, far more leaden notions.
As is often the case with movies that aren't very good, there are flashes of something interesting here. When a member of the congregation (Margo Martindale) calls friends to pray for Colton during his surgery, there's ... power in those scenes. It comes to light later that Sonja isn't sure she literally believes Colton visited heaven, so you have to wonder whether she literally believes prayer repairs the body, but she seeks the prayers of her friends anyway, and they mean a great deal to her. Those passages are nice, and they really do happen in lots of communities, and there's a lot that could be said about what they mean to people and why. (My family used to be acquainted with a particular nun whose prayers for us I always found enormously comforting, despite the fact that I'm not Catholic.)
What's more, Kinnear and Martindale have an almost jarringly good moment in which she admits that she's very angry about the fact that Colton lived when her son, who was a Marine, died. It's suddenly a very real scene between these two solid actors, and he builds to the question, "Do you think God loves my son more than he loves yours?" There's something in that scene wanting to poke its head out and be alive, but it disappears back into the mush.
If the script had been willing to take a position on its own central conflict - so, does Todd believe Colton traveled in a Biblically meaningful way to a separately existing heaven or not? — it would have been on more solid footing. But in the end, its desire not to be too provocative, along with perhaps the vagaries of the true story on which the film is based, leaves Todd somewhere in the middle. He gives a climactic sermon that says ... well, yes, it's real, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a literal place, because we've all seen heaven in the support of a loving friend, right? This was Colton's heaven. Maybe you have a different one. In other words, the title of the movie should perhaps have an asterisk after it. Or not! Depending!
So it's okay either way. It's enough for people who absolutely believe that heaven literally is a location and contains clouds and angels and a physical green-eyed Jesus, and not too much for people who believe that Colton's story, at least, is not enough to persuade them one way or the other. (You can both be religious and believe in heaven and still believe what happened to this child was not necessarily heaven, of course, particularly in light of the fact that they're clear that he never died on the operating table even briefly.)
I kind of liked this family. I liked Kinnear, I liked his flock (Thomas Haden Church shows up, along with Martindale), I liked the movie's soft-focus sense of humor in the opening scenes. But it's both too enamored of Colton's heaven and too uncommitted to it, in a way, to really have much to say about faith. Which is a shame, because faith really does remain an underexplored idea.
Four new insect species found in Brazil have rather strange sex lives — to say the least. Their sex organs are reversed: Females have penises and males have vaginas, scientists reported Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
"There's nothing that [this] can be compared to," the study's co-author, Rodrigo Ferreira of the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil, told National Geographic. "This elaborate female penis is completely unique."
The shape and size of the sexual organs are different for each of the four species, which belong to the Neotrogla genus.
But in general, the female's penis inflates and penetrates the male's simple chamber during sex.
Spiny structures on the penis anchor the female to the male. This tight grip allows copulation to occur for quite some time, like 40 to 70 hours (yes, that's about two days).
Other insects, such as some mites and beetles, also have females with long, tubelike protrusions that are used during sex, Ferreira and his colleagues write. But none of them lock in and anchor, as these Brazilian ones do.
Female seahorses have an appendage to deposit eggs in the male's pouch. "But this is not a penis," Ferreira and his team write.
Ferreira and his colleagues scoured caves in Brazil to find these unique critters, and then observed their mating habits in the lab.
Apparently, the flea-sized insects have maintained one traditional feature of copulation: The female collects sperm released by the male.
In other Neotrogla species, this "nuptial gift" is packed with nutrients as well as sperm. That feature may explain why the insects have evolved the rare role reversal.
The species live in dry caves where food and nutrients are limited. "If Neotrogla males need to spend valuable resources producing their sperm packets," Scientific American explains, "it's likely they would be choosy about their mates ... which would help explain why the females have evolved a penis well designed to hold down reluctant mates long enough to wring out all their gifts."
In the wilds of Africa, chimpanzees consistently choose to make their sleeping nests in a particular tree that offers the "just right" kind of comfort that Goldilocks famously preferred.
That's according to a new study in the journal PLOS ONE that could also bolster a theory that solid shut-eye may have been a key to human evolution.
In the latest study, scientists measured the "stiffness and bending strength" of seven trees most commonly used by chimps to make their sleeping nests in Uganda's Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve. The scientists then looked at hundreds of nests.
National Geographic writes: "Of the 1,844 chimpanzee nests studied, 73.6 percent were made from a sturdy tree called Ugandan ironwood — even though that species made up only 9.6 percent of trees in a survey of the region.
"Despite the fact it's relatively rare, they're saying 7 out of 10 times, 'I want to sleep in this species,' " study leader David Samson was quoted by NatGeo as saying.
In the PLOS ONE abstract, the authors said it appears the chimps preferred "a compliant yet constraining structure [reducing] stress on tissues."
"[The] functional concavity of the nests obviates the need to adjust posture during sleep to prevent falls," the authors added.
A sleep quality hypothesis that holds "that apes construct sleeping platforms to allow uninterrupted sleep and to promote longer individual sleep stages" seems to be supported by the findings, scientists say.
So, what do snoozing chimpanzees have to do with our own evolution?
National Geographic says:
"Sometime in the Miocene period, 23 to 5 million years ago, ancient apes changed their sleeping locations from branches to platforms. That, in turn, led to a better night's sleep.
"Studies in both humans and orangutans show that better quality sleep, with longer periods of rapid eye movement, improves cognition and memory. Ancient apes' improved slumber, then, may have led to the development of bigger brains.
"But it's also possible that apes' big brains may have led to the need for more sleep, not the other way around, noted [biological anthropologist Aaron] Sandel (who is not involved in the chimp bed study).
"In any case, Samson said, an added boost in cognition certainly gave apes and humans an evolutionary edge.
" 'Big brains,' he said, 'need big pillows.' "
This Easter, you can drown your sorrows in a glass of Jellybean milk — or with a pile of beer-flavored jelly beans.
The new twists are a sign that jelly beans are continuing their march to candyland domination. Americans buy 16 billion beans in the Easter season alone (mid-February until the actual holiday), according to the National Confectioners Association. The candy even has its own holiday on April 22.
That's quite an accomplishment for a seemingly simple candy. But in fact, there's nothing simple about the bean. It is a riddle wrapped in a sugar shell.
The treat is definitely an American invention, says Samira Kawash, the blogging Candy Professor and author of "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure." But its exact origins are "lost in the mists of time."
Several websites refer to an 1861 ad from a Boston candy-maker, urging families to send jelly beans to family members in the Union Army fighting in the Civil War. Kawash has her doubts. The jelly bean is "two kinds of candy combined," she notes: soft innards and sugar shell. A machine called a starch mogul is used to mold the insides.
The next stage is "panning," where a machine shakes the beans in a pan with hot sugar syrup for three to 10 coatings, depending on how thick a coat is desired. (That's also how candy-coated Jordan almonds get their shell.) And finally, the beans must dry out.
The mogul and panning machines weren't widely available in the U.S. until after the Civil War.
Even if you're making beans with this technology, a jelly bean takes about seven days to be born. But that didn't deter candy-makers in those early days of the American candy business. "The name of the game was novelty," says Kamash. "It was worth it to do something a little more challenging to catch people's eyes."
Kawash found the first reference to "jelly beans" in an 1880 book. The term entered Webster's in 1905. In the 1910s, advertisements began promoting the product for Easter, because of the egg shape. For decades after, jelly beans were pretty much an Easter phenomenon.
Then came the bean revolution of 1976.
Candy and nut distributor David Klein had a dream of unconventional flavors — root beer, green apple, watermelon. Inspired by blues guitarist Leadbelly, he cooked up the name Jelly Belly and partnered with a West Coast candy-maker.
At first, Jelly Bellys flopped. "I couldn't give them away," Klein remembers. He persuaded an Associated Press reporter to do a story and met the reporter at a shop where he'd invited friends to line up for Jelly Bellys. The reporter was impressed. After the story ran in the Chicago Tribune, Marshall Field's department store ordered $20,000 worth of beans. The rest is jellistory.
"We sell as many at Christmas as at Easter," says Tomi Holt, spokeswoman for Jelly Belly. The top three flavors: Very Cherry, Buttered Popcorn and the polarizing black licorice (which seems to have as many haters as it does lovers).
New varieties are always appearing. In 2013, an eye-watering Tabasco bean arrived. And 2014 marks the debut of beer, a flavor the public has long requested, says Holt.
It took three years for Jelly Belly scientists to concoct the right balance of sweet and bitter for the beer bean. The company will not share its "trade secret" formula except to say that no alcohol is involved. The sparkly, champagne-colored beans do indeed conjure up a brewski — but not necessarily in a good way. "Tastes like flat Bud Light," said one of our tasters. Others were reminded of the scent of a dive bar at dawn.
As for the Jellybean milk, available for a limited time from Prairie Farms, an Illinois dairy, there are no actual jelly beans in it — just milk, sugar, monk fruit juice, citric acid, artificial and natural flavors, guar gum, and red and yellow dyes. Our samplers were divided. "Like a melted rainbow," said one of the radiant pink beverage. "Like fruit-flavored amoxicillin," said another.
Even as jelly beans break flavor and format barriers, some gourmands prefer an old-fashioned version: the unenticingly named "pectin jelly bean." Pectin, derived from fruit, was the go-to thickening agent for years but has been supplanted by cornstarch, which melds better with nonfruit flavors and is also less expensive.
But pectin leads to a more tender interior and brings brightness to tart fruit flavors. "I'm not a jelly bean person," one taster said of pectin beans purchased at Whole Foods. "But I could eat these — wow, they're grown-up jelly beans!"
Residents of Prince George's County, Md., might just get sick of hearing "Hail to the Chief." President Obama has visited this county to deliver policy addresses more than any other in his second term.
"Hello Maryland. It's good to see you," the president said enthusiastically in January at a Costco in Lanham, Md. "I love to get outside of the Beltway, even if it is just a few hundred feet away."
For many years, presidents have traveled to Prince George's County because it is the location of Joint Base Andrews, the home base of Air Force One. It also has a mighty nice golf course and is about 10 miles from the White House.
But these speeches are something else. Since taking office, Obama has spoken at 17 public events in Prince George's County, bringing new notice to a place that has struggled with public corruption, home foreclosures and crime.
To County Executive Rushern Baker, these visits are a sign things have begun to turn around.
"You know for the longest time we would say, 'The president spends more time in Prince George's County than any other place than the White House.' And that was usually him driving here to fly somewhere else," said Baker. "Now he's actually visiting, and the first lady."
From 2010 to 2013, crime overall dropped 27 percent with murders down 38 percent. When Baker took office in late 2010, his predecessor had just been taken away in handcuffs, later pleading guilty to extortion and witness tampering as part of a sweeping FBI investigation into corruption in the county. Now, Baker is pitching his county for the new FBI headquarters, and he hopes the president is listening.
"And we're hoping that the next visit he comes, he cuts the ribbon on the FBI," said Baker. "What better place to build it than here."
If Prince George's gets the project it would be a major milestone for a place that is now the nation's most affluent African-American majority county.
"It is the only place in America ... where the population went from majority white to majority African-American and education and income of the population went up," said Baker. "It's never happened in America before."
A Sense Of Belonging
That affluence was on display on a recent Friday evening in a strip mall in the town of Bowie. A group of men, mostly business owners, sat outside a fancy Chinese restaurant wearing golf shirts and smoking cigars.
"This county, the president can identify with," said Mack Jenkins, who owns a construction firm.
He has his own theory about why the president visits so often. It sends a message, he says, that there are people of color doing well, even if it doesn't always get a lot of attention.
"He can come and show the masses that, looky here, they don't talk about them much but guess what they're here, and they're doing OK," said Jenkins.
Like many in Prince George's County, Jenkins moved here decades ago because he saw it as a safe place to raise his growing family. His friend Steve Johnson grew up in neighboring Washington, D.C., but in the early 1990s moved out to the suburbs.
"That's what I can say about this county — I have a sense of belonging," said Johnson. "I belong here."
It could be the president feels much the same way. He did win the county in 2012, with 90 percent of the vote.