THE BOURNE IDENTITY With real-life best buddy Ben Affleck off trying to save the world in the current The Sum of All Fears, it's only fitting that Matt Damon would be involved in his own spy game in The Bourne Identity. In an attempt to make the dog-eared espionage genre more palatable to younger audiences, Universal Pictures elected to go with a young director (Doug Liman of Swingers fame) and a youthful star (Damon's Jason Bourne is at least a decade younger than the book's Bourne, who was previously played at a more appropriate age by Richard Chamberlain in a 1988 TV-movie adaptation). Damon's a better actor than Affleck, yet it was easier to accept Affleck as a greenhorn CIA analyst learning the ropes than it is to believe Damon as a seasoned CIA assassin. Nevertheless, Damon brings the proper conviction to his role as an amnesiac who slowly uncovers clues to his identity even as he's being pursued across Europe by various killers working for a slippery government suit (Chris Cooper). With so-so action sequences that often elicit as many giggles as gasps and an impressive supporting cast that largely goes to waste (Clive Owen, the exciting new talent from Croupier and Gosford Park, is criminally underused as one of Bourne's pursuers), The Bourne Identity stands no chance of ranking with the classic espionage epics of yesteryear. At the same time, Damon enjoys a strong rapport with co-star Franka Potente (the Run Lola Run actress plays an innocent passerby who ends up aiding Bourne in his quest), and the constant locale switches (a prerequisite in all thrillers of this nature) help ensure that the movie's breathless pace never flags. 1/2
THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS Can this be? Director Peter Care has previously spent his career helming TV commercials and music videos, but rather than taking the usual route and making his feature film debut with, say, Armageddon 2, he has elected to oversee this soft-spoken adaptation of the late Chris Fuhrman's coming-of-age novel. Rough in spots and overreaching at times (especially during its finale), Altar Boys nevertheless does an exquisite job at capturing that period during adolescence when important issues no longer fit into black or white compartments but instead spill over onto murky, even hazardous, terrain. Kieran Culkin and newcomer Emile Hirsch (making a strong debut) portray Tim and Francis, two Catholic high school boys who spend most of their time alternating between drawing superhero comic strips and tormenting their teacher, the strict Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). But matters take a sharp turn once Francis falls for a classmate (Jena Malone) harboring a dark secret and Tim begins orchestrating a series of increasingly risky pranks. The film's gamble to occasionally break up the live-action scenes with animated sequences featuring the kids' superhero creations pays off (Spawn creator Todd McFarlane handles toon duties), as does its sensitive handling of some delicate subject matter.
DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD Because it largely takes place in Louisiana (though filming was done in Wilmington), it's appropriate to tag this adaptation of two novels by Rebecca Wells as a big pot of gumbo, with varied ingredients all swimming together in a sea of saucy girl power. Yet while many of these ingredients may stick to the heart, they don't necessarily stick to the head: Divine Secrets is sloppy in a number of fundamental ways, with the chronology making little sense (the story whiplashes between at least three different time periods), entire themes getting discarded within a matter of seconds, and important characters given too little screen time. And yet, for all its random chaos, this works because of the power of its convictions -- and its cast. Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan and Shirley Knight play the title lifelong friends in their advanced years, with three of them coming to the rescue to prevent the fourth (Burstyn) from severing all ties with her angry young daughter (Sandra Bullock), who doesn't know the dark secrets that have haunted her mother over the years (Ashley Judd plays the young Burstyn in the flashback sequences). The tough-love approach taken by writer-director Callie Khouri (still best known for her Oscar-winning script for Thelma & Louise) makes this a curious yet ultimately satisfying melodrama.
LILO & STITCH Give the Disney studio credit for fashioning an animated feature that steps outside the boundaries of their traditional fare, then take it away for coming up with a maddening work as lumpy and unwieldy as this one. Lilo and Stitch certainly aren't your everyday Disney heroes like Aladdin or Simba; instead, Lilo is a troubled Hawaiian girl who at the outset looks like she could use a good child psychiatrist, while Stitch is an outer space visitor whose only instinct is to destroy everything around him. Naturally, these two bond, but their mutual journey of self-discovery is disrupted by various elements, including other aliens hell-bent on taking Stitch back to his home planet. The old-fashioned animation is fine, but the screenplay is remarkably rough, with little regard for smooth transitions or believable character arcs. Stitch's antics eventually grow tiresome -- it's more fun to watch the old Warner Bros. toon gang get wild and crazy than this Gremlins toss-off -- and the film's message about family unity (the oft-repeated motto is "No one gets left behind," which kept flashing me back to Black Hawk Down's tagline) is clumsily presented. On the plus side, the soundtrack at least provides us with Elvis Presley classics rather than dreadful new Oscar-bait tunes by Phil Collins or Sting.