Last weekend, more than 3,200 churches presented Left Behind: World at War, the third film in the series based on the bestselling books. But it was harder to find detailed reviews of the film in the press, though newspapers noticed the film's unusual distribution plan—opening weekend in churches, followed by a DVD release on Tuesday.

Some Christian film critics got to see the film in advance of its release.

Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) gives it two stars, saying it has "several touches of both cleverness and cheese … The mere existence of cheese in a Left Behind film comes as no surprise to some movie fans. However, excluding a few goofy moments, Left Behind: World at War plays out as an average TV drama. Many times, I caught myself thinking of it as 24—with less action and more prayer time. There's impressive acting, some intrigue, mostly decent special effects, and good themes for Christian discussion."

Hertz lauds "the plotline involving the governmental conspiracy (comparable to Senator Palpatine's manipulations in the Star Wars prequels) makes for the most compelling component of the film." But he says that "following the band of Christians is, well, downright boring most of the time. … Secondly, the movie just doesn't handle faith life all that well. … Scenes of a very godly wedding, prayer meetings and an intolerably long communion need an editor's attention. It's pretty weird that the best moments of a Christian film are those involving the non-Christians."

Elsewhere, Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) calls this Left Behind movie "the best of the lot, and the unfolding story line involving now-familiar characters should meet devotees' expectations." He also notes that the filmmakers "have designed this film very intentionally as a means to proclaim the gospel message. And indeed, it's impossible to miss Buck's clear and in-your-face gospel presentation to President Fitzhugh. Kudos, then, to the filmmakers for knowing exactly what they wanted to accomplish."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) praises the production value, and writes, "I think that most Christians will enjoy the effort." But he concludes, "I am not sure that the film will be effective on its own as an evangelistic tool. I'm afraid that it might create more questions or confusion."

Dreamer: Cliché d, but well made

America's biggest little superstar, 11-year-old Dakota Fanning, has had quite a year. She's been in Hide and Seek, War of the Worlds, Nine Lives, and she'll star in the upcoming adaptation of Charlotte's Web.

And now she's starring in a film about a girl who works out some tough issues with her father, even as she helps an underdog (underhorse?) come back to compete on the racetrack again. Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story co-stars Kurt Russell, and is directed by Coach Carter's John Gatins.

The film is full of familiar material, but Christian critics don't mind too much. They're just happy to have a well made, clean, appealing family film on the big screens.

Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Cliché s are usually cliché s because they're true, and formulas are generally formulas because they work. Dreamer … is loaded with enough cliché s and formulas to choke a horse. But truly, it works. Kids who haven't seen many other horse movies will find the story thrilling; adults will likely find it engaging in a nostalgic sort of way."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "one of the better family films of the year. … Familiar plot notwithstanding, with its wholesome charm, unapologetic sentimentality and themes of family love and holding on to your dreams, Dreamer is a sure bet to win your heart."

"It's refreshing to watch a family movie that doesn't pander," says Steven Isaac (Plugged In). "All too often well-intentioned films inject characters who flail about with unnatural wackiness in an effort to create diversions for young viewers. Thus, stories are sometimes driven into the ground with senseless subplots and silly shenanigans. Dreamer, rather, aims to draw in young minds by empowering them. … So, despite its macro-plot similarities to the likes of Seabiscuit, Dreamer ends up, to its benefit, charting its own path, and it does so with grace and style."

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Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says it will "strike a deep chord with anyone who has been broken by shattered dreams and is desperate for restoration. … When common themes are splashed throughout so much of television and the movies, it's worth it to sit up and take note. Perhaps this is the day of God's restoration, and perhaps even the secular media is tuning in and portraying His heart through the arts."

Keith Howland (Christian Spotlight) says, "The outcome of this film will not surprise anyone. But that does not matter. What matters is that it ends the way you want it to. It is told with such unblushing conviction (and with such gorgeous horses and scenery), that its intended audience should be satisfied. This is not a film for the cynical; it is a film for all who believe in long shots and second chances … and who doesn't?" He concludes, "This film is refreshingly inoffensive."

Many mainstream critics groan about the sentimentality and the cliché s—but recommend it anyway.

Theron shines in North Country

Amazing audiences yet again with her ability to transform her glamorous good looks into something bruised and grimy, Charlize Theron turns in a rave-winning performance in North Country.

Theron, who won an Oscar for Monster, plays Josey Aimes, a woman taking on a Minnesota mining company in a landmark sex-discrimination case. Loosely based on true events, the film was written by Michael Seitzman and directed by Niki Caro, who also directed Whale Rider.

While critics cheer the film's message, they're not entirely satisfied with the storytelling.

Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Along with the tensions and issues, the movie does a great job of capturing a small working-class town. The mineworkers are believably gritty, the hair and clothing styles painfully 1980s. … Theron shines again in a role where she's not afraid to look ugly. … And it doesn't hurt that she's surrounded by an immensely talented cast. Though tough and heavy-handed at times, for the most part North Country is engaging—not one of those films about an important subject matter that you feel you should watch."

There is, however, a small problem. Courtney explains that "things break down toward the end of the film when all the action is in the courtroom. … In the final 20 minutes, the film switches gears from Norma Rae to Perry Mason. But the end, despite being a tad schmaltzy, is satisfying."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a film with a compelling story and forceful performances. … Registering a calibrated blend of vulnerability and pugnacity, Theron's affecting performance—complete with convincing Minnesota cadence—is even more impressive than her physique-transforming work in Monster and could well earn her a second Oscar, putting to bed any lingering doubts about her acting chops. … [It's] a thoughtful and deeply moving film that explores themes of justice, family and community."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "To make her points stick … [Caro] populates parts of this story with two-dimensional caricatures and lays on a fair amount of emotional manipulation. But in so doing, she makes it impossible to miss her message: Women deserve respect in the workplace—any workplace—and no human being has the right to humiliate and sexually intimidate another. … My only wish is that she could have found a way to convince us that life is precious and that respect is essential without simultaneously forcing us to witness such graphic scenes of rape, assault, obscene abuse and grotesque harassment."

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"The interaction between father and daughter provides North Country with its best moments," writes Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk). "His slow transformation into her ally better illustrates Josey's personal shame, quiet dignity and difficult life choices than does the main storyline about workplace equality. Nevertheless, it's not enough to redeem the film, which builds to an orchestrated courtroom finale that strains credulity."

Kenneth R. Morefield (Christian Spotlight) says, "To be about what it is about, North Country has to show us a lot to make us understand what Josey and the other female miners went through." He goes on to list some of the harsh content viewers will encounter in this film. "None of this is depicted gratuitously or for erotic effect," he adds, "so I did not find the depictions of it to be morally objectionable—I simply recognize that some viewers … would prefer not to watch or listen to depictions of some subjects. For audiences that are willing to think about the subject matter, I thought North Country was a good film, but not a great one."

Though they're similarly dissatisfied with the film's more schmaltzy elements, mainstream critics give North Country credit because its message points us in the right direction.

The Rock plays Doom…and loses.

Doom is the latest attempt to make a memorable film out of a popular video game. And, like most products of this kind, it's taking a beating from the critics.

The movie follows a brother and sister who meet on Mars, where she's an archaeologist and he's a soldier. As they argue about their differing worldviews, they're drawn into a fight for their lives against some ugly monsters.

Slapping the film with a zero-star rating, Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Doom is a dud because it falls short in every way. Dialogue, action, scares—you name it, the movie botches it. … Because it pretends to be a superior entry in the genre, it disappoints all the more from inflated expectations. It's irritating enough to make you blow off some steam by spending a couple hours gunning down demons."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "Doom is pretty much exactly what you would expect: cliché d characters marching through an extraordinarily violent story. [The movie] has nothing to recommend it. It will no doubt draw in some of the franchise's die-hard aficionados, but Doom's paint-by-the-numbers story line has already been rehashed so many times that it's simply pointless to revisit it. And when you add in a planet's worth of blood, gore and profanity, Doom is, well … doomed."

Mainstream critics would rather just play the game.

Some critics who Stay regret it

Ewan McGregor plays a psychiatrist and Ryan Gosling plays a suicidal patient who stumble into some time/space confusion in Stay, the new mind-bending thriller from Marc Forster, director of Finding Neverland. While the film impressed a few critics, most say it's not worth trying to untangle this complicated, convoluted web.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says Forster's last two films "were rooted in compelling and believable characters. They were also remarkably assured and well-crafted. Stay, on the other hand, feels like the work of a newbie who wants to prove how stylish and clever he can be; and it doesn't help that the film recycles every cliché we've seen over the past decade about the thin line between reality and illusion, or the thin line that separates individual identities, or whatever. You can sometimes be too clever for your own good, and ultimately the film delivers such a weak payoff that it makes nearly everything that came before it seem rather pointless."

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Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) praises the film on many levels, saying, "The film's events are intentionally perplexing, so you may often need to sift mentally through the implications of what you've just seen. … Forster maintains a taut, creepy fever-dream atmosphere throughout, though the suspense level drops somewhat when the film reveals itself as more of a stylish exploration of truth and reality, and one involving fantastical elements at that, than a traditional mystery." He praises the performances as "excellent."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "Stay is a trippy, sad, disorienting film that uses its unexpectedly moving and satisfying ending to snap the whole thing into focus, leaving moviegoers replaying scene after scene in their heads to fit it all together." But he concludes, "Although Stay raises worthwhile questions about life and death and beauty and art, the conclusion lessens the impact of those questions."

Reviews from mainstream critics are similarly mixed.

More reviews of recent releases

Elizabethtown: Andrew Coffin (World) writes that the film is "kind of a mess. The plot veers wildly from quiet, understated moments to over-the-top scenes that verge on parody. But Mr. Crowe still manages to tell an idiosyncratic story that deals affectionately with characters often marginalized by Hollywood."

Good Night, and Good Luck: Bruce Edward Walker (World) says, "Clooney has taken the microphone and used it as a bully pulpit to invigorate today's journalists to 'fight the good fight'—or at least to challenge the authority of a contemporary government Clooney obviously distrusts. If Murrow can bring down the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the 1950s hubbub over communism, Clooney seems to imply, certainly someone from today's Fourth Estate can bring down neoconservatives bent on expending American blood for Iraqi oil. Journalistic objectivity and integrity be damned."

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Warren Kelly (World) says, "There's plenty of excitement and action for the kids, and there are some nods at the parents who bring their kids to see the movie. … If there's a message in this film, it's that violence doesn't always solve problems. Self sacrifice is appreciated. And all good people like fuzzy bunnies. At least, that's what my daughter got out of it."

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