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IN SHORT: OK arthouse type film. [Rated R for language, sexual content and youth substance use. 110 minutes]
As always, no comparison is made to the Source Material.
As we've written before, what you bring into the theater always affects your moviegoing experience. We get e-mail from, say, pilots saying that the action in a certain movie is not correct and so on. Our long history as a collector of comics affected this one, though we let this review sit for a couple of days before writing it and aren't so bothered anymore.
More important, those heading into the theaters thinking that name brand stars Jodie Foster and Vincent D'Onofrio are the focus of the film will be surprised to see newbie teenstars on parade. Their presence doesn't distract from the quality of director Peter Care's film and shouldn't keep you away, now that we've spilled the focus.
We know all about the ways and habits of teenaged boys in a 70s setting because we were one, once upon a time. In the days before Pong and pitchers of beer, somewhere around age fifteen we'd guess, there were girls and comics, not necessarily in that order. For the male students of St. Agatha's High School, set in a lovely unspecified setting (filmed in the Carolinas), the woman most on their minds is Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), the iron fisted ruler of the classroom. Though the good sister carries no ruler with which to beat the wayward boy senseless, with her stern manner, Irish toughness and prosthetic leg, the apparently-not-so-kind Sister is not someone mess with. Of the half dozen boys the film introduces, we'll stick with the main two, simply because we couldn't tell any one of the remaining four from another: reckless tyke Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) is the son of a pair of boozers. His best pal, Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) comes from a stable, strict home.
Like all the kidlets in the story, the clique hangs out together and makes the weekly tramp down to the newsstand for their comic book fix. While the nun isn't looking, the group has put together their own rude and crude book featuring a quartet called "The Atomic Trinity." In it, Sister Assumpta and Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio) become sexually active bad guys and the kidlets become down and dirty superheroes with names like Ass Kicker and Major Screw who battle and defeat the Forces of Evil. Creative thumbs up go to this production, which hired Spawn creator Todd McFarlane to animate the comic strip adventures of the Trio, though the animated adventures better fit the barbarian/fantasy genre akin to the writings of Robert E Howard (Conan), popular during that time, than the SF/superhero book the teens are composing.
Francis is the first to get the eye for the female of the species, Margie (Jena Malone), who is sitting on top of all sorts of sexual secrets of her own, though it doesn't stop her from following love's true path. While Francis comes from a family with strict parental supervision, Margie doesn't appear to have parents at all, with older brother Donnie visually supervising the nest. While our unhappy loving couple figure out life's mysteries, Tim leads his friends in a harebrained scheme to kidnap a mountain lion from a local zoo and unleash it on the nun. That's all you need to know.
The positive aspects of Altar Boys' love story is that it is fairly close to how "real" life goes. No one jumps into bed after the first date, indeed a running gag amongst the boys' conversations is about how many dates it is taking for Francis to get past second base. The ride gets bumpy when Margie starts laying out certain quirks about her household -- either there's a ghost in her bedroom ("or I'm crazy") which get in the way of all the other subplots that have been running seamlessly. Only at these moments did we get the feeling that Altar Boys was grabbing bits willy nilly from a book, and adapting them badly at that. Once out ability to immerse ourselves in the story was broken, we saw the conclusion coming a mile away. Female critics that we respect were wowed start to finish, so take that into account.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, he would have paid . . .
dateflick for grownups and not a bad sit for either sex, even if we did observe that our women friends enjoyed it more. Our problem, being of that demographic seen in the film, is that we know it would have cost all of twelve bucks to purchase the right kind of comic books for use as props the film. One book seen on the newsstand wasn't even published until 1990. It's the old "what you bring in" thing we mentioned up top. The strength of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is that it almost managed to totally overcome everything it inadvertently did wrong.
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