The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

January 28, 2012 8 Min Read

Review by: Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and his best friend Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) attend a Catholic school, which means they’re under strict rules. But that doesn’t work well for these two, as they love to cause trouble and raise a ruckus, much to the dismay of their superiors. The boys engage in all sorts of tomfoolery, from mild pranks to large scale hijinks, always looking for ways to top themselves and become school legends. The seconds often seem to tick by ever so slowly, as the boys battle boredom all the time, with a blend of hormone overdose and youthful will to experiment, all of which often ends with trouble for them. In order to escape the confines of the school’s pressures, the friends create superhero personas for themselves, which are acted out via Francis’ artistic skills in the realm of comic books. In the comics drummed up by Francis, the two friends have conflicts with Nunzilla, who is based on Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). While she cares for the boys and wants them to do well, she adheres to the rules to the letter and with these two, that often means lectures and punishment. But when she takes away the comic books, she finds herself the target of the boys’ plan for ultimate revenge…

I was first drawn to this film by Jena Malone’s presence, not to mention the unusual title, which could be taken a couple different ways, to say the least. In addition to Malone, we have a solid cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Jodie Foster, and Kieran Culkin, working within a good premise with tons of potential. A lot has been altered from the move from novel to feature film, but even so, many of the elements remain true to their roots. I really wanted to like this movie and while it is an enjoyable experience, I think it falls short of how good it could have been. This is because the screenplay reaches too much too often with its characters, giving them actions we don’t think they’d make, which lessens the connection. Of course, blatant character changes work in some films, but not in this kind of movie, not even close. A few darker moments seem too dark for the material to hold up, which also takes away from the film’s success. Even so, there’s plenty of positives to soak in with The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, such as the good performances from all the major cast members, though Malone steals this one from her first appearance. Although it is a flawed picture, it is still well worth a look, especially since Columbia has issued this nice Special Edition.

The more I see of Jena Malone, the more I enjoy her work and see what a bright future she has ahead of her. She has some great skills, but also has a kind of darkness about her presence, which limits her somewhat in terms of roles. Even so, when she gets involved in the right project, she can shine and command the screen. In this case, she performs above the level of the material and even when matched up with better known, more experienced workers, she is able to not only hold her own, but steal scene after scene. Of course, I have to mention her good looks and she has them in spades, without question. In addition to her beauty, she has a sense of knowingness about her and that makes her all the more attractive, I think. Other films with Malone include Donnie Darko, Cheaters, Stepmom, The Book of Stars, and Life as a House. The cast also includes Jodie Foster (Contact, The Silence of the Lambs), Vincent D’Onofrio (Men in Black, Full Metal Jacket), and Kieran Culkin (The Cider House Rules, She’s All That).

Video: How does it look?

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. I found this to be a good overall effort, but some unexpected flaws cause the score to settle out, though not too much. As this was a lower budget movie, I knew the visuals might not be as polished, but this looks a little shakier than anticipated. The print has more debris and nicks than a film this recent should have, while some scenes come off as soft, though most have a good level of sharpness. The animated sequences look excellent, with vivid colors and a polished, impressive visual presence, but the live action scenes aren’t quite as memorable. Still, this natural and solid visual presentation is more than acceptable on the whole.

Audio: How does it sound?

A Dolby Digital 5.1 surround option is found here, but as the material isn’t too dynamic, the experience remains a basic, but effective one. So no, you won’t be knocked out of your seat by this mix, but it handles the needs of the material and as always, that is what matters. The music sounds terrific here and while the surrounds are used mostly for lower impact audio, the animated scenes open up the soundscape more than a little. So those scenes deliver the kind of audio you’ll remember, as the rest of the movie is driven by dialogue. Speaking of which, the vocals come through in clean and clear form, not much else you could want here. This disc also includes a 2.0 surround option, as well as subtitles in English and Spanish.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This Special Edition kicks off with an audio commentary from director Peter Care and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell, who supply a solid, worthwhile session. The novel is talked about, how it was brought to the screen, plus thoughts on the cast, the animated sequences, and the messages found within the picture. In a second audio commentary track, animation director Todd McFarlane provides his insight, as to how the look was attained, the style approach, and all that sort of behind the scenes artistic information. The animated sequences have all been collected in a special segment too, so you can check them all out in one place, which is nice. A Sundance Channel “Anatomy of a Scene” is provided and shouldn’t be missed, while a more general behind the scenes featurette has also been tacked on here. This disc also includes some cast & crew interviews, deleted scenes, talent files, tv spots, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

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