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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. Incidentally, this was filmed in Wilmington and Charleston; look for Charlotte actress Chandler McIntyre in a brief (but very funny) appearance as a zonked-out zoo employee.

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.

MR. DEEDS The latest Adam Sandler vehicle is a remake of 1936's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but watching it, I was less reminded of that Frank Capra heartwarmer than I was of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap." After all, here's a studio quickie so threadbare in every department, one can only assume the entire budget went toward its star's exorbitant salary. And here's a comedy so low-brow, it removes much of the wit and pointed social commentary of the original and replaces it with gags involving wayward tennis balls and pizzas made out of Oreo cookies. And yet, while Mr. Deeds rates merely as a mediocrity, that's certainly a step up from Sandler's past two pictures, the I-wouldn't-wish-them-upon-my-worst-enemy pair of Big Daddy and Little Nicky. Sandler's in easy-going Wedding Singer mode here, playing a scruffy doofus who inherits $40 billion yet retains his small-town appeal as he goes up against unfeeling New York sharks. Winona Ryder is far too talented to be slumming in the slender role of the hard-hearted journalist who falls for Deeds (given her current off-screen travails and her recent choice of parts, can this career be saved?), and the movie features a plethora of pointless cameos by the likes of John McEnroe and Al Sharpton. Yet if this disposable tissue has one wild card, it's John Turturro, who's simply fab as a Spanish butler with a foot fetish; you may find yourself wishing for a sequel if only to watch him reprise his role. CURRENT RELEASESBAD COMPANY Taking an explosive comic actor like Chris Rock and corralling his talents by sticking him in a dull action film would be like buying a ridiculously expensive sports car and solely using it to drive to the grocery store down the block. Yet that's the story that unfolds with this blob of studio-generated claptrap that's so generic, nobody could even bother to come up with a more original title (there have been approximately a dozen movies over the years with this same moniker). Anthony Hopkins, whose appearances in subpar films are so frequent that one suspects he's planning to purchase a small nation with his blood money, plays veteran CIA agent Gaylord Oakes, whose partner (Chris Rock) gets killed while they're both on a mission involving the appropriation of (what else?) a nuclear weapon. Needing a stand-in or the whole caper goes bust, Oakes recruits his late partner's twin brother, a street-smart small-timer (also Rock), to pose as his slain sibling. What could have been a savvy mix of laughs and thrills (think Beverly Hills Cop) is instead transformed by director Joel Schumacher and a quartet of writers into a strained comedy that quickly jettisons all opportunities for Rock to make his mark by serving up the usual chaotic nonsense. Needlessly overlong at 112 minutes (there are at least two points where you think the movie's wrapping up, but nooo), this is also the sort of sloppy cinema in which a character gets shot point-blank in the back yet reappears a few scenes later with only his arm in a sling. 1/2

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