Director Oliver Stone is a sometimes-brilliant troublemaker. Underline "sometimes."

He's riled up critics, politicians, and even Christians to both protest and praise his work. He's made films about controversial wars (Platoon), controversial leaders (JFK, Nixon), and reckless visionaries (The Doors). In Alexander, he has all three interests wrapped up in one movie, starring Colin Farrell as the famous conqueror, Angelina Jolie as his mother, Val Kilmer as his father, and Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy.

Nevertheless, mainstream critics are almost unanimously sending Stone the same message—in spite of Farrell's drastic new hairdo, Alexander has failed to conquer the big screen. Religious press critics are similarly disappointed.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Stone's film is probably better than Troy, which suffered from pedestrian direction, stilted performances, and a hack musical score that sounded like it was written in a weekend; in place of those things, Stone gives us some truly stirring visuals, music that soars and charges more often than not, and, um, performances that … Well, um, okay, about those performances … " He goes on to talk about how the film is flawed, about its dismaying depictions of women, the historical chapters it overlooks, and a surprisingly timely political subtext.

Gene Edward Veith (World) begins his review by posing "leftist filmmaker" Oliver Stone a question: "If it's OK for Alexander the Great to conquer Iraq, why is it wrong for George W. Bush?" He goes on to explain: "In his movie Alexander … Mr. Stone praises the conqueror of the known world for his multiculturalism and for promoting a one-world government!"

Veith goes on to say that Stone's Alexander "displays no charisma or any reason why soldiers would follow him halfway around the world. The movie skips the most interesting parts of his story, jumping from his adolescence to his final victory over the Persians, leaving out everything in between. This is not Alexander the Great. This is Alexander the Awful."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "bold. Stone has crafted an audacious film, dazzling viewers with epic battle scenes and eye-filling re-creations of splendiferous antiquity, while making sure that the movie's sweeping scope and din of charging chariots don't drown out the human drama at its heart. Though Christian viewers may find the film's brutalities and hedonism (not to mention Alexander's omnivorous sexual appetites) repelling, they must take into account the pre-Christian historical context of the world in which the events takes place."

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DiCerto also mentions some "epic flaws," including "interminable pacing, a disjointed script, one-dimensional characters, scene-chewing performances, risibly campy dialogue delivered in an odd assortment of accents … and an overly florid score."

"Alexander could have been a fascinating historical and social study for both adults and teens," writes Tom Neven (Plugged In). "But the relative restraint Stone showed in dealing with Alexander's bisexuality is nowhere in evidence in his handling of rape and battle scenes."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) reports that Stone's version of Alexander "isn't nearly as good, or remotely as interesting, as the real one.A disappointment, to be sure."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "It was surprisingly difficult to find much entertaining here. The fact that it was extremely difficult to sympathize with the characters made it all the more disengaging."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the movie "may do more to destroy the conqueror's legend than all the armies he once opposed. There isn't much that I can find to recommend about this nearly three-hour debacle."

Critics criticize Christmas with the Kranks

Best-selling author John Grisham scored a hit when he published a Christmas story called Skipping Christmas. But his story has apparently suffered serious revisions in its journey to the screen, and the result—Christmas with the Kranks—has viewers taking this gift right back to the shop for a full refund.

Not even the king of contemporary Christmas movies—Tim Allen of The Santa Clause—can save it from the scathing reviews of mainstream film critics, who rank it even lower than Surviving Christmas, this year's other holiday stinker. The Boston Globe's Ty Burr says, "Kranks is a feel-good movie in which every character is hateful … and a Christmas movie too chickenhearted to mention Jesus." The Washington Post calls it "a glorification of … the assaultive, bullying nature of contemporary Christmas celebration in this country."

Religious press critics, looking for "whatever is excellent, whatever is worthy of praise," aren't decking the halls for this mediocre release either.

"Kranks is a black hole where a movie is supposed to be," says Andrew Coffin (World). "That statement may sound Scrooge-worthy, especially considering that this adaptation of the short John Grisham novel Skipping Christmas has aspirations for meaning and poignancy. Yet it's not a stretch to guess that most moviegoers will sit stone-faced through 80 percent of this disaster."

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Ed Cox (Christian Spotlight) says, "The movie just does not work. Leave the young kids at home, the money will only be wasted. As for your teenagers and adults, this movie is not going to clear the fence; it will be on store shelves next Christmas in the $5.99 bargain bin."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "There are two 'Christmases' that are celebrated in this world. One is the religious and spiritual acknowledgement of the birth of Jesus Christ—an event so important that it is the demarcation of time itself. The other is a secular, commercialized event that celebrates family and brotherly love without much spiritual significance. Christmas with the Kranks is all about the latter. [It's] an inoffensive family comedy that is large on slapstick and situational humor."

"Many passages refer to that mysterious 'Spirit of Christmas,' which is never defined but always alluded to whenever the story requires a sentimental lift," says Nathaniel Bell (CBN). "Nutty as a fruitcake, but not nearly as tasty, Christmas with the Kranks will probably not be your first choice in holiday movie fare."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) liked the film: "Though the movie lacks the timeless magic of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life or even the Rockwellian nostalgia of A Christmas Story, it does share one essential ingredient with those two perennial favorites: heart. Unlike several recent yuletide films which serve up sour eggnog, the picture's overall tone is unabashedly uncynical."

Joan Brasher (Christianity Today Movies) also liked it: "There are moments that border on the absurd, but the plot moves forward with purpose and resolves gracefully. And above all, it's funny and suitable for the whole family. Christmas with the Kranks may be filled with silly slapstick and outrageous moments, but it's also delightful and heartwarming, and celebrates what's really important about Christmas."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "Christmas with the Kranks hilariously showcases the fanfare created by an average family's desire to follow seasonal tradition. It doesn't direct audiences to the Creator who makes Christmas possible, but its point is still a poignant one: Is every decoration, every party and every 12-course meal necessary?"

But Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) demands more from a Christmas film than just a good moral: "It's a pity, to be sure, that our society can't observe the number one Elf rule to treat every day like Christmas. It's a smaller pity that Kranks serves up little else of holiday cheer or humor on the way to its valuable, if Santa's-shop-worn, conclusion."

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It's A Very Long Engagement, but a worthwhile movie

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement, based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, aspires to be a meaningful war film about holding on to hope against all odds. It doesn't entirely succeed at that, but it does succeed in being one of the year's most beautifully filmed epics.

In the wake of World War I, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), a beautiful young woman crippled by polio, longs to know the fate of Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her fiancé who went off to fight for France. Manech, convicted of self-mutilation on the front lines, was punished alongside four other condemned soldiers. He was ordered to make himself an easy target for the enemy, and he never returned. Conflicting reports about his fate have thrown fuel on the feeble fire of Mathilde's hopes. She will stop at nothing to find out if Manech survived.

If you're feeling any dé jà vu, that's because the premise is similar to another epic that arrived at this time last year—Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain. But it would be better to describe A Very Long Engagement as a collision of Minghella's melodrama, Jeunet's 2001 French blockbuster Amelie, and Saving Private Ryan. Watching it feels like going to an amusement park in the middle of a war zone while a battle is underway. It assaults our senses with imagery so intense, violence so graphic, subplots so disposable, and tones so different that we're bewildered instead of moved, overly entertained instead of enlightened.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

More religious press reviews will be featured in Film Forum as they become available.

More reviews of recent releases

The Polar Express: Peter T. Chattaway (CanadianChristianity, scroll down to the bottom) says, "The film pulls a bait-and-switch on its intended young audience, by tapping quite realistically into their growing doubts about the existence of Santa Claus, and then selling them a fable in which Santa really exists. Worse, the film concludes with a man telling a boy that it doesn't matter where the train is going, only whether he gets on board. This, of course, is typical relativistic, anything-goes nonsense. Considering how many near-accidents this train has skidding over a frozen lake and other moments of peril that probably work best on an IMAX screen, you just might think it would matter very much where the train goes!"

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National Treasure:Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says, "National Treasure wants to be like an Indiana Jones movie. There are thrills and spills, lots of action, and an undercurrent of religion. But instead of focusing on a traditional religion like Judaism or Christianity, we get a focus on civil religion and its relics of American history. National Treasure raises America's historical documents to the level of religious significance. But what makes National Treasure such a marginal movie is its cookie-cutter approach to characterization. There is no nuance—just a villain with a foreign accent who underscores the movie's belief that America is sacred."

Finding Neverland: Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Stories this inspiring and well-told don't come along too often, and, thankfully, this one is aided by its excellent ensemble cast. All of them can have Oscars as far as I'm concerned." Referring to the film's emphasis on the importance of stories, he adds, "Indeed, stories are important. They can provide us with encouragement and healing, and then send us back into the real world with fresh wisdom and strength to face whatever challenges this world may present us. Finding Neverland does this and much more. It's a world of magic and joy, and one that I hope to visit again very, very soon."

Elliott Ryan (CBN) writes, "Overall, this is a well-acted movie that may go on to become almost as beloved as Barrie's play."

Sideways: Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) compares Alexander Payne's latest film to his previous works, Election and About Schmidt. He concludes that "this may be the most accessible and least polarizing" of the three. "Sideways does contain some witty lines and poignant observations about life and relationships but once again Payne utilizes flawed and weak characters that are difficult to embrace."

Next week: I Am David, House of Flying Daggers, Closer, and more.