Several heavily-hyped studio films are competing for your Christmas vacation dollars this week. But are any of them worthwhile? Will they give you something to discuss with your friends and family? Are they merely entertainment, or do they offer something inspired, challenging, and true?

Religious press critics watched them all, took notes, thought them over, and now they're giving you their reports.

Contestant #1: Martin Scorsese's high-flying Aviator

Leonardo DiCaprio hasn't dazzled critics or audiences since his astonishing breakthrough performances in This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape more than a decade ago. He's seemed content to play bland leading men in romantic adventures (Titanic, The Beach) and mixed-up punks in a few darker departures (The Basketball Diaries, Celebrity). In Catch Me If You Can, he showed that he still has some spark. But now he's impressing critics with a performance that reminds us of his formidable talents. He's playing the legendary Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's acclaimed new biopic The Aviator.

The film co-stars Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn, and a long list of other talents, like Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Jude Law, Kate Beckinsale, and more. The soundtrack, by Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore, lends appropriate sweep, drama, and trouble to the proceedings. And cinematographer Robert Richardson blends myriad styles with some dazzling special effects to create one of the year's most impressive films.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "DiCaprio delivers the performance of his career—certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination and a strong follow-up to his good work in Gangs of New York and Catch Me if You Can. He's got the charm, arrogance, and mania down for the part, and he successfully carries the picture. Yet just as strong, and perhaps even more memorable, is Blanchett, who delightfully captures Hepburn's bossy mannerisms while convincingly lending the role some much-needed heart. [This is] … probably Scorsese's most accessible movie yet, a true Hollywood biography of impressive scale, combining old-time filmmaking with the director's usually brisk and clipped style. Expect the Academy to give Scorsese some overdue honor this year."

"DiCaprio … is utterly convincing," says Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). "After nearly three hours, it's remarkable that you can still be left wanting more. The film maintains a terrific momentum, and the Scorsese stamp is unmistakable, several of the scenes leaving an indelible impression."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "As good as [DiCaprio] is he is overshadowed whenever Cate Blanchett graces the screen. She is phenomenal as a young Kate Hepburn and will surely receive an Oscar nod for her performance. Scorsese rarely lets the action lag and succeeds in depicting the look and feel of America in the 30s and 40s which is when much of the film takes place."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "It's not the most accurate representation of Howard Hughes' life, and it certainly misses many defining facts, but it gets at the essence of who he was. The biggest problem with the film is its lack of faithfulness to the actual story of Hughes' life. And it isn't that Logan and Scorsese misrepresent the facts; they just leave many of them out. The film and its cast and crew will garner numerous awards. Some will definitely be merited. Others will simply be consolation prizes, awarded because of the dearth of quality movies released in 2004. It's been a very bad year, indeed. Still, The Aviator is worth seeing."

Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) vehemently disagrees. "The Aviator showcases the director's fabulous cinematic eye, but also his pathological inability to flesh out a satisfying narrative. The audience leaves feeling like it must have missed something — 'How can so many fabulous frames amount to so very little in the end? The Aviator is just tedious. The film suffers from the fact there is too much material in the movie for a movie.'"

Mainstream critics are arguing whether this is a great Scorsese film, or merely a good one. Most of them say it's well worth a ticket.

Contestant #2: The Life Aquatic boasts the driest humor on the high seas

In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bill Murray goes to work once again with Wes Anderson, director of such eccentric favorites as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. This time, Murray has the lead role, playing the part of an oddball ship captain, a sort of comical cousin to Jacques Cousteau. Steve Zissou and his crew—Team Zissou—make documentaries of their voyages as they explore all manner of exotic sea life. But their cameras don't pick up the deeper current of drama running through Zissou's life: the disintegration of his marriage, the jealousy his nemesis provokes, and the regret and dismay he experiences when a volunteer on his crew announces that he may be Zissou's son.

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Anderson's film once again balances heavy human drama with a world of frivolous and meticulous details. The result is amusing, melancholy, profound, and—unfortunately—unbalanced. Our storyteller becomes so obsessed with his large cast of characters and their various idiosyncrasies that he doesn't allow us to become emotionally invested in the film. Thus, some of the film's more tragic turns don't carry the weight they should.

Still, the delightful performances of his stellar cast—which includes Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Angelica Houston, Jeff Goldblum, Bud Cort, Michael Gambon, and others—make this a worthwhile excursion for discerning adults.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the script is "as unwieldy as its title" and the film is "clever, but ultimately flat. This Melvillian revenge tale doesn't have much wind in its sails. The film manages to stay afloat for the most part, thanks to the good performances from its talented cast."

Brett McCracken (Relevant) says, "The Life Aquatic is the most ambitious film yet from director Wes Anderson—more visually rich, talent-full, expensive (there are explosions and pirate attacks!) than any of his previous films. But for all the craziness and 'vintage Wes' idiosyncrasy, Aquatic never quite reaches the heights it should. There are brilliant moments, especially in the third act, when the bittersweet tragedy of Bottle Rocket or Rushmore shines through grandly. But something—and I'm not quite sure what—is lacking here. It feels like Anderson has fallen in love with style (not a bad thing) and forsaken substance—at least the substantive kind of his earlier films."

Some mainstream reviews are swept away on Anderson's strange sense of comedy, but others can't get past the frivolity to appreciate the deeper drama.

Contestant #3: Unfortunate Events a fortunate holiday surprise

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events condenses the first few volumes of a popular children's book series into an outrageous, comical fantasy that gives Jim Carrey all the room he needs to create several bizarre, hilarious characters, including the ominous Count Olaf. The children who come into Olaf's care are sure to suffer some "unfortunate events." But audiences and critics seem to think that it all adds up to one rather fortunate event … even if the original plots of the storybooks were altered along the way.

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Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Somewhere along the way … something gets lost. Part of the problem lies with the film's structure; it is based on the first three books … and it zips through them so quickly that we never get a chance to savor the stories properly. Fans may also object to the way the film tries to tie things up a little too neatly, and in ways that might make it difficult for the filmmakers to adapt the later books. But then, who knows—it may be that the film also reveals secrets that have not been spelled out in the books, yet. Either way, we can be grateful that the series has given Carrey one of his better vehicles in recent years, and that Carrey has risen to the occasion so well."

Styling his review in the language of the novels, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "The film manages to be a reasonably entertaining take on a series of unfortunate events that I must acknowledge I now want to follow with the Baudelaires to the end. There is, however, no getting around the fact that fans of the books are bound to feel shortchanged by the filmmakers' decision to mix and match scattered events from the first three volumes, rather than trying to follow the stories in order."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Unlike Harry Potter, witchcraft isn't the issue here. It's pure imagination that powers Lemony Snicket's world. That's a huge relief. But while Snicket's pre-movie warning about how dreary his story is may be a literary bauble, it's true. Parents should be prepared for questions about the possibility of their own deaths and how such an unfortunate event would affect their youngsters. I can't imagine that children wouldn't have that apprehension on the tips of their tongues after watching. They might not actually bring it up, but they'll certainly be thinking about it."

"There is nothing spiritual about it, not one bit," writes Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). "It is also a very dark tale indeed that, despite a strong history of this kind of writing in literature (most notably Victorian), may alarm certain parents because it teaches children that the world is an evil place and that few adults can be trusted (although the narrative, by Jude Law, attempts to overcome this message at the end). Also disturbing to some may be the use of a few profanities … and some questionable subtitles. Such a shame. So proceed with caution. On the other hand, the film presents very clearly the battle that we all face, between good and evil. It emphasizes the values of knowledge, reading and problem-solving for children. And, as all stories must, it does end on a positive note, despite the author's claims."

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Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it a "delightfully macabre" film "that adults can enjoy every bit as much as the tykes. Silberling's widescreen adaptation gives Jim Carrey a field day embodying various characters with his customary aplomb. The film has an excellent moral ending which wraps things up on a high note."

A series of positive reviews from mainstream critics offer differing views on whether Carrey improves or weakens the film.

Contestant #4: Hotel Rwanda tells a story audiences need to hear.

Terry George's new film Hotel Rwanda may not be a pinnacle of cinematic art—it spells out the details of the Rwandan conflict like a Cliff's Notes version for those viewers who didn't read the papers in 1994, who don't know the difference between the Hutu tribe and the Tutsi tribe. Nevertheless, it's one of the year's most powerful and important films.

Moviegoers and filmmakers have been mulling over the Holocaust for decades, as if the Nazis were the only nightmare in human history, as if such a thing will never happen again if we just see enough movies about it. But genocide continues, with an immediacy that prompts far too many people to just turn the pages of the newspaper and ignore the ugly reality. George is bringing our attention to more recent horrors, and his film is effective enough to increase awareness and inspire action.

Don Cheadle gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel owner who had the courage to shelter an endangered crowd of Tutsi people from the violent, rampaging Hutu barbarians bent on killing them. Like Oskar Schindler, he wasn't a perfect man, but his conscience is this year's best example of Christ-like sacrifice (outside of The Passion of The Christ, of course).

Mark Perry (Christianity Today Movies) says Cheadle is "outstanding" in his role, playing "a man whose courage and compassion directly saves the lives of his family and over 1,200 others." Perry also writes that the film "would be easy to categorize as an African version of Schindler's List, but trying to force this film into a specific category would actually diminish its importance. The fact that something this tragic could have occurred within the past 10 years indicates that our world still has a lot to learn, even from its recent history."

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"Cheadle is absolutely magnificent in the role. I could point to a number of scenes that illustrate how passionate, humorous, and deeply felt his performance is," raves Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity). "Terry George's script occasionally pushes our buttons a little too hard, but his film—the release of which coincides with more recent atrocities in Sudan and elsewhere—is a timely reminder that genocide is not merely something that we can look back on decades after the fact, as with so many Holocaust movies, but rather, it is something that confronts us to this day."

"Hotel Rwanda is, at times, hard to watch," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "but it is even harder to forget. Well-written, directed and acted, the emotionally riveting, profoundly moral movie deals with an extremely dark chapter of history but is a powerful testament to hope, courage and the nobility of the human spirit."

Raving about Cheadle's work and the filmmaker's courage, mainstream critics are praising this powerful film.

Contestant #5: Flight of the Phoenix strands audiences in miserable company

Dennis Quaid is a busy man. The star of The Rookie is back in a comedy about business ethics and fatherhood called In Good Company, which Christianity Today Movies will review in a few weeks. But this week, he's starring in a remake of an action film called Flight of the Phoenix, in which he and the other survivors of a plane crash in the Mongolian desert must put the plane back together again while trying to cope with sandstorms, attackers, and relationship turmoil.

Speaking of turmoil, religious press critics who survived the movie are just trying to cope with how bad it is.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Phoenix is one of those movies in which the plot mechanics are a lot rustier than the machine everybody's working on. [It's] riddled with moments that seem like set-ups for later scenes, but never get any kind of satisfactory payoff. The film is fascinated by death when it looks 'cool,' but has little interest in the morality of it. [It] does offer some pleasures, not least of which are the seductively framed images of the desert itself. But the squabbling between the characters grows tiresome, and the script, when it isn't dropping the ball, is tinged throughout with … self-satisfied banality."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "It's basically the same story [as the original]—so similar, in fact, that in places dialogue is repeated verbatim. What's different is the presence of crude, sometimes obscene language, a few sexual remarks and unnecessarily graphic violence. This new version does provide positive lessons on the value of hope, courage, selflessness and teamwork. But it toys with serious ethical issues pertaining to the value of human life without truly understanding what it's doing."

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Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) observes that this remake "mirrors the plot of the original point for point, sometimes line for line. All that's missing is little things like subtlety, nuance, characterization, and human interest. Those who have watched [the original] have no reason to watch this one; those who haven't ought not to watch this one, which would only spoil their later enjoyment of a good film with a bad one."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) exclaims, "Wow. It's been a long time since I've seen a film this bad. The dialogue is some of the worst I've ever heard. The CGI sandstorm isn't believable, we never see anyone getting sick from the heat or constant diet of canned peaches, and no one ever gets sunburned!"

Mainstream critics are echoing these complaints.

Contestant #6: Spanglish dares to suggest that adultery is a bad idea

While mainstream critics are calling Spanglish a serious stumble from Oscar-regular James Brooks, religious press critics seem surprised and delighted to find a film in which adultery is portrayed as the wrong decision.

Flor (Paz Vega) and her daughter Cristina (Victoria Luna) moved from Mexico to L.A. to try and better themselves. But Flor's new job as a housekeeper for the messed-up, neurotic Deborah (Tia Leoni) becomes doubly complicated when she falls in love with Deborah's husband John (Adam Sandler). Struggling with more than the bilingual brouhahas, Flor must deal with her daughter's adolescence and with a serious clash of cultural lifestyles.

Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) calls the film "emotionally draining" and says, "While the content isn't always pretty, the lessons are important. And, Brooks, thankfully, isn't afraid to face these themes, ugliness and all. Brooks' characters have great depth and awareness. Unfortunately, many of them are looking for fulfillment in empty places—lovers' arms, food, property, or other material possessions."

"Tenderness and compassion, and an admiration for basic virtues, are rare in film," writes Andrew Coffin (World). "Spanglish has all three—and this imperfect but funny and touching film deserves more credit than it's likely to get."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The characters are very well defined and the relationships formed between them are strong and interesting but for some reason Brooks doesn't explore them very deeply. The differing relationships between the two mothers and their daughters should rightly be the focal point of the film but is too often abandoned for the 'love triangle' that begins to develop among the adults."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says it's "a long, odd mix that ultimately fails to satisfy. [Brooks'] work offers moments of laughter and real insight, but not enough of either. Those messages about the power of and need for selflessness in families aren't enough … to transform a family drama into a family film—or to overcome the mostly tedious journey required to receive them."

But Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Despite its flaws, Spanglish … sends an important message about marriage. What the film tells us is that despite seemingly insurmountable hurdles, we do not have to give in to adultery. It's almost as if Brooks is trying to say that, even though Flor and John fall 'in love,' their relationship would never work. For that to happen, they would have to destroy an entire family. And while that is done every day, all over America, there are few who would say that it works, or that anyone lives happily ever after."

Elisabeth Leitch (Hollywood Jesus) says, "It shows the many ways the dominant culture in which we live can determine our sense of value. It reveals that those values need not be our only choices. And it points out the reality that, in the end, we all have the ability to choose what we let define us and decide what really matters."

More reviews of recent releases

Primer: Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Heavy stuff, to be sure. And all that from a first-time filmmaker with a pocket full of change. I'm not sure which is more inspiring, the fact that Primer asks so many important questions or the fact that, despite its low budget, it's such a well-done film."

The Machinist: Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "In the end, we get a glimpse into some important questions about life. We think about how one deals with guilt. We think about the power of confession to set us free. We think about the way we try to hide from our problems, but know that the more we hide, the more powerful those problems become."

House of Flying Daggers: Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "House of Flying Daggers, while certainly a commendable film, may be a minor disappointment to fans of Hero. Although just as beautiful, the story doesn't carry the same vast sweep that is found in Hero. The film also fails to follow all of the story lines to conclusion. But … it still manages to speak to us of the power of love that leads us to great sacrifice."

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Ocean's Twelve: Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) judge that the film is "a shallowly entertaining, lesser version of the first film. But where it truly fails is in its ability to help us understand our greed and propensity to harm others because of it. Until we master this, we have only the potential to be "master thieves" and not master the art of living moral, healthy lives."

In two weeks: Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, Beyond the Sea, and Meet the Fockers.