Harold Crick has a voice in his head, narrating everything he does. That's reason for concern.

But when the voice starts declaring that Howard is about to suffer a sudden demise, well, that's reason for panic.

Stranger Than Fiction stars Will Ferrell, but it is not a typical Will Ferrell movie. It's a thoughtful, amusing, poignant comedy about the meaning of life. As Harold hunts down the novelist who is crafting his story, he is developing a desire to live.

And while the movie might have settled for a "seize the day, savor the moment" conclusion, the movie is earning raves from Christian film critics for its willingness to go even farther and become a story about selflessness.

What is more, it features memorable supporting performances by Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal; a romance that has moments of real class (well, for a few minutes, at least); and surprising, inventive special effects, the most remarkable of which is a restrained performance from Ferrell that will give his naysayers second thoughts.

In other words, Marc Forster, the versatile, imaginative director who brought us Finding Neverland, has crafted another winner.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, Ferrell is playing a character who resembles some of his other roles, but he reins in any urge he might have had to ham things up; instead, he puts his skills to the service of an ambitious story told by a filmmaker who truly knows his craft."

Regarding the film as a whole, Chattaway points out a few faults. "Movies about fictional artists often falter when they portray the work produced by those artists, especially when the films go out of their way to try to persuade us that the artists in question are really brilliant; once we see or hear the work of art for ourselves, we may not be so convinced. To some degree, Stranger Than Fiction falls into this trap, because we hear enough of Kay's narration to get the impression that it isn't particularly special."

He concludes, "Stranger Than Fiction is not the most satisfying of films, and it may not be as profound as it wants to be, but there are moments here that make it well worth a look."

Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "Zach Helm's script is pure delight. Not only does it capture the nuances of the creative process as well as Adaptation or Barton Fink (and delight in wry in-jokes about the history of theoretical mathematics), it is a serious and entertaining examination of the question, 'What would you do if you knew for sure that you were going to die?'"

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the screenplay "has a very Charlie Kaufmanesque feel. … By turns sentimental, funny and, in the end, modestly profound … Marc Forster's existential farce touches on issues of fate and free will (you could even call it a Calvinistic comedy) and imparts a wonderful message that the little moments—the smiles, hugs and small acts of kindness—we often relegate to footnote status in the narrative of our daily living are what give life its meaning."

Christopher Lyon and Steven Isaac (Plugged In) say it's "generally pleasant to watch. … [The film] leaves viewers with one amazingly straightforward homily beyond that of wake up and live well. It is that while a good deed done unwittingly is still a good deed, one done with full knowledge of the sacrifice required is the rarest of spiritual services."

Christa Banister (Crosswalk) says, "Stranger Than Fiction is an unconventional but well-crafted fable that will keep you intrigued (and in suspense) until the very end."

Most mainstream critics find it a fun bit of fiction.

Good Year, Bad Movie

When you hear the names Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, what words spring to mind? Soft? Charming? Comical? Romantic?

No, I didn't think so. And perhaps that's why Scott's new film, A Good Year, isn't working too well.

The film stars Crowe as a man who needs to rethink his life, and gets a lot of help from unexpected encounters with French food, French wine, and a French woman in Provence. But unlike Stranger Than Fiction, in which the hero learns quite a bit about the true meaning of life, this guy apparently only learns how to relax and enjoy himself.

Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) says, "I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it's surprising to hear that the men behind Gladiator would choose to collaborate on a romantic comedy. But unfortunately, it is an overstatement to say [Scott and Crowe] succeeded in either the romantic or the comedy. The romance is a rushed afterthought that's really only in a fourth of the movie. And the comedy is forced and groan-worthy. In fact, there's little passion or joy at all in A Good Year."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Though undeniably picturesque, this is a leisurely paced comedy. … [T]hough this old-fashioned romantic comedy … is all too rare, the often lame humor and workaday script make for indifferent viewing."

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Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says it's "as predictable as a commuter flight on a clear night; you can see that landing strip coming for miles and miles. … It wants us to see the good life as the one spent soaking up pleasure and community and beauty. Better, maybe, but in the end just a different brand of hedonism apart from selfless service of others."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) calls it "a fair film that has an unmistakable lesson about stopping to smell the roses … yet it lumps along rather slowly and unremarkably at times. Unlike … Gladiator, this movie is more of a gentle, thoughtful, European-feeling drama that's sweet but not overly inspirational."

Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "It just doesn't add up to anything memorable for me. … What most disappointed me, though, wasn't that the film simply wasn't my cup of tea. … What bothered me most was the distinct feeling that huge chunks of the film's story had been left scattered on the cutting-room floor."

Mainstream critics, who usually admire both Scott and Crowe, aren't persuaded by the scenery or the sensuality.

A Return to forgettable horror

Another week, another forgettable horror movie.

In The Return, Sarah Michelle Gellar plays plays Joanna Mills, a young woman with the delightful privilege of being stalked, haunted by terrifying visions, and possessed by a compulsion to hurt herself.

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "[T]he sinister story told here surprisingly holds its own in terms of genuine scares. … Still, at the core of this intriguing back-road tale is ultimately a darkness not worth descending into."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a bland supernatural thriller … . Director Asif Kapadia neatly ties up all the loose ends, but the payoff isn't worth the slog through the dragging and muddled plot that lacks much suspense."

Mainstream critics are sorry they bothered, and quite unlikely to return.

Harsh Times, harsh language

Christian Bale, like his Prestige co-star Hugh Jackman, is having quite a year.

He co-starred in Terrence Malick's The New World, played Jackman's rival in Christopher Nolan's thriller about magicians, and now is winning raves for his performance as a mentally unstable war veteran in Harsh Times.

Unfortunately the rest of the film, written by the screenwriter of Training Day, is not as good as Bale's performance.

Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says that if you eliminated all instances of "the f-word," you would save "about 20 minutes of screen time." Plus, "Harsh Times speaks of consequences for our actions and depicts a character agonizing about killing a friend. But in the end, the movie says little more than: 'It's sad this had to happen, but if the situation is hopeless enough, this is the right thing to do.'"

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Bale's explosive and scarily credible performance notwithstanding, the action is bleak and brutish, compounded by the script's nihilism and morally problematic ending, the latter of which, in addition to presenting a misguided idea of compassion, undermines whatever Ayer may be trying to say about the culture of violence, including its desensitizing effect, especially on those in combat."

Some mainstream critics recommend the film for Bale's riveting performance, while others are dispirited by its grim narrative.

Introducing … Movie Gourmet!

Have you met the Movie Gourmet?

Christianity Today Movies recently introduced a new column by film critic, stage director, and playwright Ron Reed. Reed started Vancouver's Pacific Theatre in 1984 and has spent his career contemplating the finer points of storytelling. His most recent work, A Bright Particular Star, inspired audiences earlier this year, telling the story of George MacDonald's daughter Lilia and her dream of being a Shakespearean actress.

Reed also has a voracious appetite for good movies. And he's generous with his insight and discoveries. He's just itching to take us on an international tour of good, great, and transcendent films that don't get a lot of attention in the mainstream and religious press.

So check out the first edition of his column, and learn about films like, Hawaii, Oslo; Metropolitan; My Night At Maud's; The Devil and Daniel Johnston; Requiem; Deliver Us From Evil; Only Human; Copying Beethoven; and more.

More reviews of recent releases

Babel: Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) calls it "a masterpiece of raw cinematic emotion hung on a framework of muddled messages and extreme content. … Babel undoubtedly captures the truth that we're all united in our sorrows." But he concludes that the movie "offers no real hope of salvation from the source of our sufferings."

49 Up: J. Robert Parks (Framing Device) says, "The amazing thing about 49 Up is that you don't need to have seen the other parts to understand these people. [Director Michael] Apted and his able editor Kim Horton weave the new footage seamlessly with clips from earlier films, highlighting how people have grown older and how their earlier choices have laid the groundwork for who they are now. … Its 135 minutes fly by … and you're left wishing you could stay even longer with these fascinating, vulnerable folk."

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The Queen: J. Robert Parks (Framing Device) says, "In [Helen] Mirren's hands, Queen Elizabeth becomes not exactly a sympathetic figure but at least one who's more fleshed out than the tabloids and talk shows made her out to be. And Mirren does this with perfect subtlety: an arched eyebrow here, pursed lips there, a simple pause as she speaks or picks up the phone. If this performance doesn't have Academy Award written all over it, I'm not a good prognosticator."

The Last King of Scotland: "I've written many times before about how irritating it is that movies about Africa usually tell their stories through the eyes of white people," says J. Robert Parks (Framing Device). "As if American audiences won't bother with a movie that's actually about African people. The Last King of Scotland adds to that cliché by emphasizing the strangeness of the continent. With only one exception, Africans are either monsters or saints."