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Comic relief: (l-r) Malone, Hirsch and Culkin in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.

Catholic Schoolboy Fantasies
By Ann Morrow

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Directed by Peter Care

Movies about male buddies (usually cops), are a dime a dozen, and so are flicks about misfit teenagers. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is about two rowdy teens who are best friends, but there is nothing cut-rate or formulaic about these characters: Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) are as achingly real as 14-year-olds on screen can possibly be. Together with a couple of other pranksters at their Catholic school, they create a kinky comic book based on superhero imaginings of themselves. Their arch villain is Nunzilla, a motorcycle- riding monster inspired by the school’s strict and intrusive headmistress, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). What the boys don’t realize is that the Irish-born disciplinarian, who has a prosthetic leg, is acting out of compassion: She fears for their safety as well as their souls.

As the film makes lyrically clear, life can be a treacherous proposition, even for youngsters in 1970s suburbia. Tim, whose parents are divorcing, acts out; artistic Francis keeps things in. They glorify the events of their lives in the comic book—actually a battered notebook that bursts onscreen with blazing panache (the animation is by Spawn’s Todd McFarlane). After a trip to the local zoo, Tim devises their boldest prank yet: to hijack a cougar and release it in the school office, giving him the opportunity to reclaim an illustrated William Blake book confiscated by Assumpta. Tim implements this ludicrous scheme with energy and resourcefulness, but Francis loses interest after falling head-over-heels for a demure classmate, Margie Flynn (Jena Malone).

Margie, however, has a terrible secret, one that throws a deeply troubling monkey wrench into Francis’ sexual awakening. It also causes dissension between him and Tim, and the resulting rift is portrayed with acute naturalism. Throughout, the adolescent banter and horseplay between the boys is so exuberantly authentic, it’s as if the script (by Jeff Stockwell) had been divinely channeled, rather than adapted, from the novel by the late Chris McFarlane. Culkin, who is perfectly cast even though he’s 20 (and who proved in 1998’s The Mighty that he’s a far greater talent than his older brother Macaulay) is emerging as the most versatile actor of his generation. Tim may be an incorrigible wiseass, but Culkin uses his wildly expressive face to convey the pain behind his bravado. Smoldering TV actor Hirsch is equally good as Francis; when he shyly tells Margie “I think about you all the time,” his unself-consciousness is piercing.

Although his finesse with young actors is commendable, director Peter Care, an acclaimed music-video auteur, falls short with the film’s escalating drama. His fluency with translating the boys’ turbulence to animation becomes tongue-tied and evasive when it comes to grappling with the script’s disturbing romance. Nor does he make enough of its intriguing nuances: When Francis sees a ghost in Margie’s bedroom, could it be the school’s patron saint, Agatha, whose statue he helped to kidnap? By the end, Francis’—and the film’s—reliance on animated superheroics becomes an emotional cop out. The film is most moving when it lets its altered boys be boys.

Royal Pain

The Lady and the Duke
Directed by Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer, whose films are usually filled with talk and sexual tension, but little in the way of action, is not a director one would normally look to for technological innovation. The octogenarian film veteran adopts the latest in digital technology, however, to imagine the 18th-century Paris of the French Revolution. Rohmer tells the true story of the relationship between an unabashedly royalist Englishwoman and a prominent French Duke who supports political reform, reveling in the irony of their respective beliefs.

Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell) may be English, but she is wholeheartedly devoted to France and its monarchy. While most members of the French nobility presented find some fault with Louis XVI, she dotes on both the king and his queen, the roundly disliked Marie Antoinette. Her former lover, the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), is the king’s cousin, but realizing that the old order is doomed, he adopts a position favorable to revolution.

In keeping with director Rohmer’s storytelling style, much of the film is talk. Since the sexual affair between the lady and the duke is long over, the best talk is about politics. In these verbal clashes, the strident, unbending Grace defends the nobles against the mob, while the charming, wily Duke is more pragmatic in his views and more diplomatic in his language.

With respect to the film’s innovations, Rohmer commissioned a series of paintings, fashioned after engravings of the period, to use as the backdrops for outdoor scenes. Actors and architecture are digitally placed against these paintings, to startling effect.

This works well when the scene features only a few actors, making the picture seem like an engraving come to life. It is less convincing in the few, but significant, large crowd scenes. In both cases, however, the current limitations of digital-video technology are as distracting as ever. Transferred to 35mm film, the image quality is soft, and abrupt camera movements are visually jarring. Natural light looks false, and fire looks dreadful. With the movie clocking in at two hours and 10 minutes, the digital wizardry grows tiresome.

As does the lead character. While Grace’s refusal to bend her principles is admirable, and her personal courage inspiring, her lack of any cogent royalist rationale makes her arguments repetitious and dull. The story is based on the memoirs of the real Grace Elliott, and has the rambling structure of a filmed diary. While the characters have some interest, and the visual experiments some merit, it might have been better for moviegoers if the lady and the duke had never met.

—Shawn Stone

Made for TV

Hey Arnold!
Directed by Tuck Tucker

The alternative press and new urbanists should love Hey Arnold! The story’s conflict centers around the efforts of a multiethnic and motley assortment of neighbors, lead by young Arnold (Spencer Klein) and his buddy Gerald (Jamil Walker Smith), and their attempts to thwart a developer’s plan to raze their rundown community to make way for a gentrified supermall. This neighborhood isn’t anything we’re used to seeing in kids’ flicks, which are usually populated by palatial, well-furnished homes situated on densely verdant avenues: Arnold and friends live in something more akin to the setting of the old Bowery Boys movies, complete with that series’ intense sense of camaraderie among society’s less fortunate. But that’s not all: In the climactic scene, when Arnold, Gerald and tart-tongued Helga (Francesca Marie Smith) hurry to stop the developer’s wrecking ball, they do so via public transportation.

Politics aside, Hey Arnold! plays as an extended edition of the popular Nickelodeon series on which it is based. Arnold, he of the football-shaped head, is an incurable optimist, whereas Gerald is more of a cynic. Helga, typical of young girls, hides her infatuation with Arnold by taunting him at every opportunity. In the movie, these dynamics are merely played out against a more topical backdrop, thereby making it more suitable for Arnold neophytes. However, this device also deprives Arnold fans of some of the series’ more endearing features, namely, its quirky characters. It’s a shame that moviegoers don’t get more of aspiring butcher Harold and his family and rabbi, bad-luck-prone Eugene, Stinky, or even Helga’s somnolent mother, Miriam. What little we do get could be confusing for newbies, like when Helga’s dad Big Bob (Maurice LaMarche) calls her Olga. Some reviewers have referred to this as sloppy writing/editing, but Arnold aficionados know that Olga is Helga’s “perfect older” sister, the apple of Big Bob’s eye.

The movie provides cute takes on All the President’s Men and Godzilla, but it lacks a certain freshness. Even cameo appearances by Christopher Lloyd as a creepy undertaker and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a voluptuous arms dealer don’t do much to breath more pizzazz into the proceedings. Recently, another Nick series, Rocket Power, debuted The Rocket Power Movie, but on a kid- oriented channel as sort of a special movie of the week. Writers Craig Bartlett (the show’s creator) and Steve Viksten should have considered this option for Hey Arnold!, since it’s doubtful that it will win new viewers; and even regulars who no doubt will support Arnold at the local Cineplex would certainly prefer the flavor of the original.

—Laura Leon


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