Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman

Featured attraction

It is the phrase every child dreads hearing: "I am your mother and I know what is best for you because I am your mother." When the mother (Sarandon) in this slickly satisfying coming-of-age story uses it on her 14-year-old daughter (Portman), she is trying to convince herself of the truism as much as her offspring. As well she might; Sarandon has just ditched her nice-guy second husband (Portman's father split years ago) in Wisconsin, packed herself and her daughter into a used Mercedes-Benz and is motoring cross-country to Los Angeles, where she hopes to land a job as a high school teacher. "I have an interview and a great outfit," she says, as if a killer ensemble is enough to solve all of life's problems.

And it is, for Sarandon's loving but flaky and self-involved character. Her daughter knows better. Anywhere but Here, based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Mona Simpson, is about a relationship in which Mom is the needy one and the daughter is too often the caregiver. If either is to make it, each will have to learn how to let the other one go. Although Here, directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), is often funny and touching, it keeps pulling its punches. Sarandon's mother is irresponsible enough that she fails to pay the electric bill but never so reckless that there are truly dangerous consequences for her actions.

Portman, who was buried beneath far too many layers of costumes and makeup last summer in Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, is a revelation in Here. Boasting the kind of ravishing beauty not seen in an adolescent actress since Elizabeth Taylor galloped through National Velvet, she also shows an unerring instinct for finding the core of truth in every scene and then playing it simple and unadorned, as when she quietly weeps after a long-distance telephone conversation with her grandmother. Sarandon has more fun, sashaying about in embroidered sweaters and toreador pants, but there's too strong a whiff of slumming it in her performance. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Here is where the heart is

Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway

The story of the French maiden who, at the behest of heavenly voices only she could hear, led the French to military victory over the English in the 15th century has attracted filmmakers almost since movie cameras started cranking. The latest director to try to make Joan his own is French-born Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), who cast Jovovich (his now estranged wife) in the title role. (Earlier Joans included Ingrid Bergman in 1948's Joan of Arc and Jean Seberg in 1957's Saint Joan.)

Besson and Jovovich do not get the best of Joan. The Messenger is an interminable (2 hours and 21 minutes), pretentious and blood-drenched retelling of the story of the teenage warrior's exploits and eventual martyrdom at the stake. Jovovich's inept, caterwauling performance never goes deeper in interpreting her character than hacking her hair ever shorter and letting it go from blond to brown. Minor comic relief is to be found in campy, scenery-chomping turns by Malkovich as Charles VII and Dunaway, who plays his ambitious mother-in-law. (R)

Bottom Line: No way to treat a lady, much less a saint

Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock

Being a Catholic isn't a love-it-or-leave-it kind of deal for director-writer-actor Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy). Although a practicing Catholic, he is not awed by church traditions nor willing to accept its teachings without probing for weak spots. Dogma is the gleeful—though self-indulgent and sometimes scatological—result of Smith's putting his faith to the test.

Smith's satire starts with two fallen angels (Damon and Affleck) discovering a doctrinal loophole through which they can sneak back into heaven. The catch, though, is that the world will end. God picks Bethany (Fiorentino), a church-going Catholic who works at an abortion clinic, to stop the evil duo and save the planet. During the course of her mission, Bethany encounters two pothead prophets (Jason Mewes and Smith, reappearing as wacky Jay and Silent Bob, whom they've played in three earlier Smith films); Rufus, a 13th apostle (Rock); an angelic muse working as a stripper (Salma Hayek); and God herself (singer Alanis Morissette).

The point would seem to be that religion is to be celebrated, not suffered. "I've got issues with anyone who treats God like a burden instead of a blessing," says Hayek. While much of Dogma is funny, several scenes play like late-night dorm-room debates on theology. Fiorentino and Affleck bring fiery conviction to their roles, while Damon seems to be coasting on his punch lines. (R)

Bottom Line: Worth seeing, just maybe not on Sunday

Usher Raymond, Judd Nelson

No one needs movies like this. Light It Up features a group of frustrated teenagers who take over their high school at gunpoint and hold an injured cop (Forest Whitaker) hostage. Their demands? They want a broken window fixed so that icy winds don't blow into their classroom and more textbooks so that they don't have to share. For this they needed a gun?

This film is The Breakfast Club armed and dangerous. Light huffs and puffs to prove that each student is really a good kid at heart, just misunderstood or abused by parents or the system. That may be true, but in a post-Columbine world, when a student pulls a gun on-camera so a Hollywood studio can cash in, the movie better be a whole lot more convincing and less moronically melodramatic than this one. (R)

Bottom Line: Turn off this Light

Animated

Never grumble over having to sit through a Disney animated movie again. Even lesser Mouse House films such as Pocahontas are masterpieces alongside the plebeian Pokémon, based on the wildly popular Japanese children's TV series about animal-like creatures called Pokémon (short for "pocket monsters"). What we have come to expect of Disney and find sorely lacking here are lush animation, throwaway puns and verbal asides, and actual characterization. What's left is the message: Fighting is bad. Inspiring message, uninspired movie. (G)

Bottom Line: Strictly for small fry

Chris O'Donnell, Renée Zellweger

This wan romantic comedy based on Buster Keaton's Seven Chances 1925) is about a single guy (O'Donnell) who has 24 hours to wed if he wants to inherit $100 million. The movie is slow to get started and clumsy in its fundamentals (failing early on to establish its San Francisco locale or O'Donnell's role as heir to a billiards factory), but it picks up later thanks to the stunt casting of Brooke Shields, Mariah Carey and especially Spin City's Jennifer Esposito as potential brides for Mr. Eligible. O'Donnell himself is as bland as talcum powder. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: No dream date