When Peter Jackson made The Lord of the Rings films, those battle scenes set a new standard for epic filmmaking. It was as though he threw down the gauntlet, challenging other great filmmakers to "top that." And it seems Ridley Scott, director of this week's box office champion, Kingdom of Heaven, took the challenge personally. In his latest, masterful period re-creation, Scott brings the late 12th century to life, and plunges us into the Muslim siege of Jerusalem during the early days of the Crusades.

Scott has succeeded in crafting a better film than Gladiator, his last major period piece. Kingdom of Heaven offers a much richer and more complex web of stories, and it glorifies a search for virtue and peace that involves something more admirable than a mere revenge quest. We follow the journeys of Balian (Orlando Bloom)—a blacksmith, a widower, and a murderer—in his search for redemption, led by his long-lost father Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who teaches him about the virtuous character of a knight. Together, they struggle against a violent, power-hungry Christian soldier (Martin Csokas) to keep the leprous King (Edward Norton, performing brilliantly behind a mask) on the right path as the Muslim warlord Saladin moves against Jerusalem. Purpose-driven, Balian finds himself rising to become a leader.

Kingdom of Heaven is a movie of and for our times, truly. Screenwriter William Monahan tries very hard to talk about a historical clash of Christians and Muslims without offending Christians or Muslims. He does this by portraying a wide variety of religious individuals on both sides of the conflict, and by focusing on sins of arrogance and brutality instead of errors in dogma. Nevertheless, he does seem to favor the path of the compassionate agnostic, making it seem as if the world would be better if men merely followed their hearts and abandoned any sense of allegiance to a higher power.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

In his review at Christianity Today Movies, Peter T. Chattaway writes, "Kingdom of Heaven does for history what Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films did for Tolkien's novels—it turns its source material into an exciting, action-oriented spectacle, yet manages to capture something of the spirit of the original events. More importantly, the film raises provocative questions that, given their setting and theme, are reminiscent of more thoughtful epics like Lawrence of Arabia. Key among them is the relationship between God's will and human agency—and whether the former can ever be discerned in the latter."

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(In his personal blog, Chattaway also wonders if Christian critics bothered by the film's portrayal of Christians were also bothered by films that caricatured other ethnic groups and cultures.)

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "The story could largely be described as the failure of moderate Christians to restrain fanatical Christians from oppressing innocent Muslims, thereby provoking justifiable Muslim retaliation against the Christians, both fanatics and otherwise. Yet Saladin himself is not an uncomplicated noble figure. As he prepares to lay siege to Jerusalem, he explicitly rejects the possibility of showing mercy, relenting only when Balian fights him to a standstill. The film cross-examines the Christians in a way it doesn't the Muslims."

He concludes that it "leans toward the agnostic conclusion that the world might be better off if there were no temple wall, no mosque, no sepulchre for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to fight over. Alas, the sad history of religious strife in, over and around the Holy Land makes it difficult to fault the filmmakers for finding this a tempting point of view."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says that as far as history goes, the film is "mostly accurate." But he agrees with Greydanus about its portrayal of Christianity. "[The film] subscribes to the skewed view that the Crusades were fueled purely by fanaticism and greed, and fails to convey that—initially—they were, rightly or wrongly 'defensive wars … an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.' This is not to deny that Christians' actions often fell grievously short of Gospel ideals. But it is distressing when, in the movie, the Christian camp is comprised of mostly caricaturized clerics … and war-mongering brutes drunk with ambition, bloodlust and religious fervor."

Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Kingdom of Heaven is not merely a period action picture; nor is it just a docudrama, nor a tract on Muslim-Christian relations. It's all those things, but at its heart it transcends them, too; for what the film really portrays is the universal crisis of faith. Who among us, after all, has not at some point doubted either the existence of God or our right standing before Him? Whose conscience has never been troubled?"

Steve Beard, a Christian journalist writing for The National Review, writes, "The balance of the story portrays power-grubbing imperialists and religious nutcases on both sides of the battlefield, as well as honorable and virtuous Muslims and Christians. Whether you believe the Crusades were justified or not, the movie seems to promote the need for interfaith tolerance and respect, especially in a place like Jerusalem — namely that we should be able to agree that it is not God's will for us to kill one another over 'God's will.' Kingdom of Heaven is a majestic triumph in portraying the passionate fanaticism, religious zealotry, and uncommon chivalry that marked the dark and fascinating era of the Crusades."

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Tom Neven (Plugged In) prefaces his criticism, saying, "The Crusades are a blot on Christian history. The idea that God would will that military force be used to retake the city of Jerusalem for Christendom, as Pope Urban II claimed in launching the First Crusade in 1095, is contrary to Jesus' teaching in Matthew 26:52."

And while Neven finds fault with the film's misrepresentation of Christianity and Islam, he concludes, "Scott deserves credit for carefully avoiding the wholesale vilification of either Christians or Muslims. People of faith may object to individual moments, statements or characters, but Kingdom of Heaven is neither spiritually extreme nor malicious. As for violence—that's another matter altogether."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Orlando Bloom doesn't have the full gravitas needed to properly anchor the film and without a strong center it tends to drift instead of drive to its inevitable conclusion. It doesn't help that … Monahan hasn't provided enough of a compelling narrative to fill in the many gaps that exist. On the plus side, it is a gorgeously mounted production and Monahan's screenplay does provide a fairly balanced depiction of both Christian and Muslim figures. We should note that he isn't as generous in his depiction of Christianity as an organized religion."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "Historians … will debate the accuracy of such portrayals, hypothesizing about Scott's gently revisionist layer of tolerance and conciliation. In this case, however, historical accuracy may be less important than historical relevancy, and there's no doubt about the latter. Tiberias says at one point he first thought they were fighting for God, but 'then I learned we were fighting for wealth and land.' The relevance of that statement is certainly good for a discussion or two."

In his review at Christian Spotlight, Michael Karounos talks about the upcoming 285-minute director's cut DVD, and what kinds of extra footage we can expect to see.

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Mainstream critics aren't terribly enthused with this Kingdom.

L.A. is a city of racists and fools in Crash

Paul Haggis's directorial debut, Crash, is about stressed-out L.A.-dwellers suffering various manifestations of the same disease—racial prejudice. Haggis, who adapted the similarly bleak Million Dollar Baby from the stories of F.X. Toole, has a flair for dark tales of human weakness. The screenplay he wrote for Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winner was powerful because it focused on three characters intently, drawing us deeply into their relationships.

Crash, by contrast, has enough characters to fill a phone book. As in Grand Canyon, Short Cuts, Magnolia, and Thirteen Stories About One Thing, myriad wheels of narrative are turning all at once, interlocking in surprising ways. We're as dazzled by Haggis's plot-juggling act as we are by the intensity. As he focuses on his theme, he makes it seem as if discrimination has conquered the city in an epidemic, the way the "Rage" virus turned Londoners into zombies in 28 Days Later. While each of the characters' hate-filled confrontations is plausible, a two-hour barrage of them leaves us weary and groping for something more meaningful and hopeful than this film has to offer.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it's "a powerful, expertly crafted film with a strong moral center and a fascinating subtext about race relations and fear. Haggis takes a story and milieu that at first seems sordid and ugly and turns it into something redemptive and beautiful. He's helped immeasurably by a terrific cast. Everyone is in top form."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) calls it "a riveting, provocative and well-executed movie." But he draws mixed conclusions. "If everyone in the real L.A. thought and acted like its onscreen denizens do, the City of Angels would've been blown sky-high a long time ago. So clearly, Haggis is sensationalizing racism for the sake of making a point. I [came away] aware of the ultra-thick layer of grimy material I had just waded through to be reminded of this simple notion: We're all different; we're all the same; and we all need each other. At the risk of sounding trite, I could've watched Sesame Street to tell me that."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "Haggis is clearly of the school that says we need to get things out in the open—we've let the topic of race fester behind closed doors too long. Fortunately, he not only examines these racial dynamics but also how variations in power affect those dynamics."

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Mainstream critics are giving it good reviews.

Critic taxed by House of Wax

Most Christian press critics decided to ignore House of Wax, the cheap horror flick starring Paris Hilton.

But Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) endured the movie and turned in a review, calling it "a repulsive slasher film destined to be defined by Paris Hilton's lousy acting and a thoroughly illogical climax. [Director] Collet-Serra, like countless slasher directors before him, displays sadistic behavior and gory payoffs like a proud Madame Tussaud crossed with the Marquis de Sade."

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) concurs, calling it "trashy and sensationalistic."

More reviews of recent releases

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "The documentary combines interviews with journalists, former employees and Wall Street insiders, archival news footage and re-enactments to craft a sobering portrait of arrogance and greed."

But Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) doesn't buy it. "That many of my esteemed film-critic colleagues are raving about this film, thus assuming that everything they see onscreen is truth, is definitely troubling, but not surprising. However, my lawyer background has me asking far too many questions. When it comes to Enron, there was a lot of wrongdoing going on, and I'd definitely love to know the facts. Somehow, however, I just can't believe these are they."

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The movie captures some of the book's easy-going goofiness, but relies too much on action to move the plot forward, which is not Adams' strong suit, nor is it the point of the novel. As a result, there are some painfully slow sections that drag the film down, intermixed with a few delightful realizations of Adams's fertile imagination. The film sparkles, however, when narrator Stephen Fry reads directly from Adams's entries in the Guide, accompanied by agreeably silly animated illustrations."