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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Written. Jeff Stockwell, Michael Petroni, Chris Fuhrman (novel)
Directed. Peter Care
Starring. Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsh, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jodie Foster
Animation Sequences: Todd McFarlane

The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys is really nothing more than a cleverly disguised, two-hour advertisement for Botox. Don't believe me? Consider the following.

· Jena Malone makes an effortless switch from playing a nubile girl of seventeen (in Donnie Darko) to a nubile girl of thirteen… I guess the slogan is true: 'You're Never Too Young For BOTOX!'

· Additionally, Jodie Foster, who has always provided some of the most emotionally charged performances, plays Sister Assumpta as simple, quiet and determined. She seems to have developed some strange speech impediment that makes her almost sound Irish, she hardly moves a single muscle in her face and, on top of all that, she looks younger than she did in Little Man Tate. All signs point to BOTOX!

· Not to mention that those Hollywood fat cats want us to believe that Macaulay Culkin's younger brother Kieran stars as Tim Sullivan. But it doesn't take a genius to realize that all we're looking at is Macaulay, himself, coke addled and drunk, dressed up like a catholic boy and BOTOXED enough to make him look ten years younger, and slightly less of a crack-head. Very clever, BOTOX, but this film critic is onto your schemes.

· And who is there to deny that Vincent D'Onofrio didn't grow that beard because of a terrible BOTOX accident, I hear it can cause some pretty nasty bruises if it doesn't take to your face too well. I rest my case.

However, in spite of the product placement and blatant advertising, Botox has managed to produce a gosh darn fine flick.

The Pros:

The two things that shine brightest in this movie are the writing and the acting. Emile Hirsh as Francis Doyle makes an astounding film debut with a complex, difficult role that he plays deftly. Culkin puts his older brother to shame, finally proving that there is some talent in the family after all, and Jena Malone is superb in what might be the most difficult roles she'll play in a very long time. The fact that these are all relatively young actors working with a cast almost entirely comprised of children is what really blows me away. The adult presence in the movie is entirely background noise, as it should be in a movie told from the point of view of adolescents, but this would not have worked if it weren't for these three performances.

The writing, for the most part, is equally amazing. Almost every scene is completely true to life. It is all very believable, nothing feels forced or over the top. The nature of teaching junior high school, for example, is presented with such honesty. Sister Assumpta (Foster), as the teacher who cares about these children and truly worries about them, is completely ineffectual and villianized by her students. Whereas Father Casey (D'Onofrio) doesn't really give two rats' asses about these kids, and he's the one whom they trust and try to confide in. This dilemma is never really spoken of, but it is very apparent. And it is something that I, and probably us all, can relate to with our own junior high experiences.

The nature of a best friendship is also very honest. The level of trust and loyalty that exists in such a pact is vibrant and clear throughout this movie. How quickly it can be shattered, but also how easily mended. Everything is simple, straightforward, and true. Yet you still know that the story is told from the point of view of an adolescent with a very wild and vivid imagination. It is very seldom that an adult can write a child's mind without sounding surreal and condescending. Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni achieved this in spades, thanks in great part to the terrific vision of novelist Chris Fuhrman.

Todd McFarlane provides some very cool animation sequences that are supposed to reflect the imaginings of Francis. These sequences pepper the tenser moments and manage to lighten the mood of some dark moments while deepening the overall feel of the scene. The humor, which is very original, is likewise paced throughout the movie with obvious intention. Without these two elements, the movie would be a stagnant coming of age story, but with them the movie actually becomes entertaining.

There is a relatively large cast of incidental characters and, as a further credit to the writing, the first few lines that any of these characters speak are so telling of their personality, that they lose their two dimensionality almost immediately. And while you never really get to know any of them deeply, you get a very real feeling of the lives and the atmosphere that surrounds the two boys.

The opening sequence to The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys is fabulous. It does just about everything right. The audience is immediately pulled into the world of these boys, we understand the bond of trust between the two, and we realize exactly how reckless adolescent boys are. The title and credit sequence is also superb. This may be the best opening five minutes of any movie this year. The only problem is that once they are over, the movie has to struggle to maintain that level of perfection.
And while the effort is undeniable, it is also very obvious.

The Cons:

While the writing is one of the aspects of this movie that stands out and carries it along, some of the dialogue comes across as terribly forced.
"Jesus H. Christ" Father Casey says when hit with a soccer ball.
"What does the H stand for, Father?" Tim rebuffs
Ba-Dum Ching! Thank you folks… we're here all week!

But it really gets schlocky during the scenes between Francis and Margie
And while nothing can ever compare to the turgid wave of bile filled nausea that the Attack Of the Clones' "I hate Sand" speech gave me, you can see poor Emile Hirsch almost crack up as he tries to deliver: "When I look at you I can hardly breathe."

In fact, the whole love affair between the two teenagers seems completely unnecessary for any of the rest of the plot. Most of the romance is well delivered, but it falls short as a side story of its own, and does nothing to bolster the central story, the friendship between Tim and Francis.

While the incidental characters are terrific, the supporting characters are somewhat vague and never climb out of their two dimensional shells. Francis and Tim's two cohorts hardly have any role in the movie at all, and yet they are supposed to be the other half of a tight quartet of friends. The two adults of any significance in the movie, Sister Assumpta and Father Casey, have one or two very nice scenes, but they never become as real to us as Francis and Tim. Better to leave the rest of the cast as incidentals, and let the leads pull the movie themselves. The rest of the cast seems to only get in the way.

Gore: Two ex-vice-presidents
Much like in real life, there is very little gore or violence or tension in the movie, but when it comes, it is amazingly powerful, and all the more disturbing.

Acting: three Tatum O'Neal's
It's so hard to find kids who can act. So few can act well, which is why I'm terrified of Project Greenlight. But Culkin and Hirsch, as well as the rest of the uniformly young cast did a splendid job. No one's getting nominated for anything in this thing, but Haley Joel Osment hasn't got a candle to hold to these alter boys.

Homoeroticism: One guffawing Truman Capote
One would expect a movie called something something something ALTAR BOYS to be filled with tons of outdated jokes and leering priests. Or worse even, a subtle nudge and quite diatribe on certain current affairs. Luckily there is neither. Aside from a thrown away "Are you checking out my ass." Between altar boys, and some pointedly funny comments about the superhero Major Screw, there's nothing. You do get to see two hot young teens mud-wrestle though, so it's not a total wash.

Overall Feeling of Goodness: Three Catholic Highschool Girls… In trouble!
When it comes down to it, the pros out weigh the cons by a long shot. This is a clever well-written well-acted well-directed movie that is definitely worth your time. It manages to cover the entire gambit of emotions without being trite or cheesy about it.

Finally, I know I already said it's probably the best opening to a movie all year, but I have to give The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys one more award. This movie has the best use of a ransom note ever; the audience was cracking up for a full ten minutes over this one ridiculous prop.

Since I'm giving awards out (the Oscars are only eight months away, after all) I figure I should come up with a name for them. I'm thinking the WE-BERGIE's (that's What Edward Believes is Excellent, Righteous, Grand and Ingenious in Entertainment). But that's a tad ego-centric I suppose, so, if anyone wants to try and come up with a name for the official Free Williamsburg Movie Awards, e-mail me some suggestions.

For the time being, though. I'd like to officially present two Golden Hipsters to The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys for Best Opening and Credit Sequence, and Coolest Use of a Ransom Note in Cinema


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