This year, movie screens are rife with references to The Wizard of Oz. We've already seen a tin man (Star Wars, Episode III), and in the months to come, we'll see stories of a meddling and reclusive wonderland genius (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, July 15) and a not-so-cowardly lion (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, December 9).

But this week belongs to the scarecrows.

The first scarecrow is a fearsome villain wielding dangerous hallucinogens in Christopher Nolan's brilliant new Batman Begins, in which Nolan wrests the decrepit Batman franchise from the influence of lousy storytellers and establishes his reign as the finest Batman director of all.

The second is a pogo-jumping broomstick with a turnip head and top hat in Hayao Miyazaki's fantastic animated feature Howl's Moving Castle.

First … to the Bat Cave.

Batman Begins blows away its predecessors

When Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns brought the Dark Knight to the big screen, he'd transformed the comic book hero and his various enemies into an entertaining freakshow. Burton didn't seem terribly interested in plot; he was preoccupied with creating excuses for the Bat, the Cat, the Joker, and the Penguin to flaunt outrageous costumes and even more outrageous egos. But that wasn't so bad compared to the embarrassing and kitschy Joel Schumaker-helmed editions, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

All the while, comic book fans dreamed of a more serious Batman film, one along the lines of the favorite comic book narrative by Frank Miller known as Batman: Year One.

In Christopher Nolan's hard-hitting, all-business, fast-paced Batman Begins, bat-fans get their wish. It's a terrific movie featuring excellent performances from first-rate cast—Liam Neeson (better than he's been in years), Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson (so greasy, he'd scare Morgan Spurlock), and Gary Oldman. And Christian Bale, a fine actor below Hollywood's big-name radar, is more convincing, interesting, and compelling as Bruce Wayne and Batman than Clooney, Kilmer, or Keaton ever were. And Katie Holmes does just what's required of her as our hero's childhood sweetheart.

Nolan's film is also the most rigorously plotted, psychologically complex, and intellectually challenging of the lot. Like the recent Star Wars episode, its mythic conventions lend themselves to political interpretation. And it concludes with a bold move that tells us Nolan and his co-writer, David Goyer of the Blade movies, are disregarding the previous Batman films, fully intending to recreate Gotham's famous fiends according to their own specifications. Most fans will be thrilled and satisfied, and the movie is likely to be one of the summer's most successful blockbusters.

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Best of all, Nolan seems intensely interested in the ethical dilemmas that would face a man like Bruce Wayne, tempted to carry out personal vendettas, desiring to defend a city from terrorists and psychopaths, unable to heal the deep wounds of his childhood, eager to indulge his anger. In fact, the story of Batman's rise is in many ways similar to the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

In his 4-star review, Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) says Nolan and company have "rescued Batman for movie fans by truly profiling and defining Batman—as a man torn by revenge, fear, compassion and anger who uses his emotions and gifts to try doing good so that others may have an example to follow."

He also notes, "Because of the weight of the story, there are some provoking questions raised in Batman Begins: What is the difference between revenge and justice? When does compassion become a weakness if your enemies don't show it? What inspires people to rise above the standard? Why must all men fall? When is fear a good thing?"

Peter T. Chattaway, who also writes reviews for Christianity Today Movies, writes in his personal blog, "Batman Begins allows us to start anew. And what a promising start it is. This movie really is all about Bruce Wayne … The villains may loom large, as any suitably menacing or threatening villain does, but ultimately they are only accessories to his story. And because the film deals with them in series, rather than in parallel, we never get the feeling that the villains are bunching up and crowding Batman out of the picture."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) raves, "It's tempting to call Batman Begins the Citizen Kane of super-hero movies. … Oh yes, it's one of the very best … the most sophisticated, nuanced, mature super-hero movie to date, and the most masterful, in-depth origin story ever filmed. Above all, Batman Begins succeeds where the earlier run of Batman films … failed: It creates a compelling, complex personality behind the cowl, a hero who is more than a figurehead in his own film, overshadowed by colorful adversaries. At last, the Dark Knight has a soul."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says the film is "clever and fun, and the special effects throughout the movie just might win an Oscar. The star-studded cast is amazing, and the talents of the new Batman, Christian Bale, are commendable. There is only one profanity in the movie, and no sex, but the violence and scariness are over the top in some places … The tone is quite dark, so hopefully parents will exercise discernment about the cognitive development levels of their own children as it relates to their ability to deal with bats, monsters, insane bad guys, and the crime in a dark and gritty city."

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Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says the movie "does a masterful job of making Bruce Wayne a more sympathetic hero without violating the legend. He still lingers in shadow. He still growls hoarsely, 'I'm Batman.' However, we no longer see him as just an unfortunate boy who witnessed the senseless murder of his wealthy parents. With the gaps filled in, we now understand the fear and guilt that haunted him, and how even his thirst for revenge became frustrated before he got his moral bearings … [Bale] has the presence, dry wit and smoldering intensity to make Bruce Wayne believable."

Mainstream movie critics are mostly positive about it, the majority preferring Nolan's caped crusader to Tim Burton's costumed freak.

Miyazaki's latest spirits moviegoers away to another dazzling wonderland

"Hayao who?"

That's what a lot of moviegoers exclaimed when Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away won the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated Feature. But for animation buffs and Miyazaki fans worldwide, it was a moment to exclaim, "It's about time!"

Now, Miyazaki has another feather to put in the cap of his legendary career: Howl's Moving Castle, distributed in the U.S. by Disney after becoming a box office record-breaker in Japan. The movie is sure to surprise, delight, and challenge audiences who are accustomed to oversimplified family entertainment.

While the plot is too complex for me to summarize here, the unforgettable characters are worth mentioning: a curious young girl suffering a curse that advances her age about sixty years; a talkative open flame who needs to be fed regularly; a powerful, winged wizard caught in the midst of a war fraught with air raids; an apprentice wizard who hides behind an extravagant beard; a meddling, frowning, scurrying hound; the most interesting scarecrow since The Wizard of Oz; and the castle itself … which deserves an Oscar for Best Performance By a Building.

And the critics are happy too, even if this film finds the master recycling some of his favorite ideas.

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Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) notes a myriad of elements that make this adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones's story similar to Spirited Away. He calls Howl's "a delightfully fanciful movie with engaging storytelling, visual wonders, and such worthwhile themes as contrasting wisdom and perspective with age, or the responsibility that comes with having a human heart (and soul). There's a place for silly CGI cartoons laced with sophomoric humor and pop culture references, but Howl's Moving Castle also makes a strong case for mature, complex tales told through beautiful hand-drawn animation."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) raves, "Miyazaki's utterly absorbing film— which tops his last masterwork, Spirited Away—works so well on many levels that it can be equally appreciated by children and adults. It imparts clear and admirable messages about abhorring a senseless war, taking a moral stand when you must, having tolerance and respect for the aged, forgiving your adversaries and appreciating life's beauty." He calls the animation "a joy to behold," and praises the film's "avoidance of formula."

Miyazaki's mainstream critics are once again overjoyed, except a few who find that the meandering plot spoils the surprises along the way.

Honey, will you pass the automatic weapons?

You're probably sick of mainstream media gossip about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. So let's get right down to business: Is the action movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith, directed by The Bourne Identity's Doug Liman, worth seeing? Or is it just a bunch of gratuitous violence and inappropriate humor?

Christian press critics have differing responses, but they're not as critical of the film as you might expect.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Liman never takes the violence so seriously that it gets in the way of the humor; he is pretty obviously just using an exaggerated form of an already exaggerated genre to make light of humdrum marital difficulties, and seen in that light, it's not that bad." He finds the film's humor reminiscent of The Incredibles, and concludes, "The film hits more often than it misses. Christian moviegoers might also get a kick out of the way Christian pop culture is used to signify the dull, middle-class life."

Josh Hurst (Reveal) is surprised at how much he liked it. "Defying all logic, this big, glossy, effect-laden blockbuster—which could have easily conquered the box office with its sheer star power alone—may very well be one of the year's most entertaining films, filled with hearty laughs, exhilarating action, characters that we care about, and even surprising moments of pathos. … The actors are working from a first-class script, one that sparkles with wit, irony, and real emotion."

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Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) felt differently: "For the last 45 minutes or so, I found myself wondering when it would finally end."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says the film is not a "throwback to the sophisticated screwball comedies of an earlier era. … This is a loud, excessively violent exercise in mindless mayhem. On top of that, it's a plodding and uninvolving, not to mention woefully unfunny, vehicle."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "The movie's message about telling the truth and keeping your commitments is a positive one. But it's riddled with bullets, bodies and bodices. The makers of Mr. & Mrs. Smith seemed most interested in giving Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie a chance to blow lots of stuff up, kiss and make up—and look very good doing it."

Mainstream critics have mixed reactions to the Mr. and Mrs.

Honeymooners a disappointment

Those who remember the original television series "The Honeymooners" will prefer it to the new remake starring Mike Epps and Cedric the Entertainer—director John Schultz's The Honeymooners. Those who aren't familiar with the 1950s sitcom, well, they'll probably be disappointed too.

"The strange thing is, while humor like this would have been beyond the pale for a 1950s sitcom, it is actually quite tame by today's standards," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "The Honeymooners is an acceptable diversion, but fans of the original series probably won't care for it, and the rest of us could probably get the same kind of entertainment in our living rooms, for free."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) writes, "Schultz's not terribly objectionable but ultimately bland film is nowhere near the much-loved series in either tone or laugh quotient. Stick with the TV reruns instead."

"It's refreshing that there's no hint of physical abuse in Ralph and Alice's marriage this time around," says Tom Neven (Plugged In). "But that's the only uplifting thing about the film." He criticizes the comedy for not being funny, and dislikes its "wink-wink approach to lying and cheating as well as some sexual innuendo and profanity."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) asks, "How can any filmmaker or actor hope to measure up to what many consider to be the perfect example of comedic casting? Bottom line—they can't and they don't. Perhaps if the original cast members weren't still so vividly etched in our memories, the new experience would be more enjoyable. But, as it is, these new Honeymooners have been eclipsed by the stellar work done by their predecessors more than 50 years ago."

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For mainstream critics, the film's more like a punishment than a honeymoon.

Sharkboy & Lavagirl not so super

Hard to believe that the guy responsible for hyper-violent films like El Mariachi, Desperado, and From Dusk Till Dawn would go on to invent the delightful family-friendly franchise called Spy Kids. It was even more disorienting when he directed Sin City, which was so dark, bloody, and violent that even diehard action movie fans found it hard to stomach. Now, Robert Rodriguez is bewildering audiences again with another adventure designed with kids in mind: The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D.

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) concludes that it's "a fun summer film for grade school kids. It avoids the subtle meanness and double entendres that filmmakers sometimes insert into films geared to children. The characters are wholesome and the plot is about good overcoming evil without resorting to violence. It's not a great movie, but it's an enjoyable little adventure."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "imparts a positive message about the importance of fostering creativity." And he notes that "kids will be delighted by the whimsical visuals and wild gadgets. … There are even enough clever sight-gags to keep adults amused." But he also observes that the 3-D spectacles "grow tedious and distract from the genial tale."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) isn't impressed with the 3-D feature. "Even the kids may be underwhelmed by the 3-D effects on display. … I was ready to get those glasses off long before the screen told me to." On the other hand, Lyon notes, "The values on display wind up in a mostly positive place."

After sitting through this, mainstream critics wish Rodriguez would go make another Sin City.

High Tension, maximum gore

You might think that the horror film High Tension would be a surprising alternative to the gratuitously gory, formulaic horror flicks pumped out by Hollywood every year. But according to the film's critics, you'd be wrong. Director Alexandre Aja's film about two young women who head off to study in a secluded house devolves into an implausible, ridiculous bloodbath, as an intruder ties up and kidnaps one of them, provoking the other into a risky pursuit.

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says High Tension is "chock-full of stomach-churning gore, including a gruesome sequence during which one girl's entire family is butchered (in increasingly grisly fashion). As if that weren't reason enough not to see it, the final plot twist is so illogical as to be laughable."

Mainstream critics express high disappointment.

Other recent reviews:

5x2: Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "[François] Ozon's measuredly paced 'scenes from a marriage' is quite fascinating, as it reveals layer by layer the over-the-years affection, betrayals, foibles and idiosyncrasies, making the final parting ultimately clear." He cautions readers, "The sexual content … is raw, but the style is more scientific than exploitative."

Heights: Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) watched this adaptation of a stage play and calls the result "rather artificial. The situations are more unreal than the dialogue which, surprisingly, plays fairly well. It's a pity that most of the younger characters casually pepper their conversation with expletives."

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: Andrew Coffin (World) writes that the film "employs an abundance of cliché s and traffics in some frustrating Hollywood conventions (notably, quick-fix syndrome). But the film also reaches for depths of emotion and circumstance that will almost certainly resonate with many in its intended audience–and even some outside that limited sphere."