[box cover]

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Are DVDs going just a little overboard with the extras? No doubt others have thought and said this, but to be confronted with a modest film inundated with so many extras as to turn a 105-min. movie into an epical experience on the level of Shoah is to be forced to think that DVD manufacturers know the quantity of everything and the value of nothing, especially when some studios rush out their backlist stock sometimes with nary a trailer, little knowing that some of these films are cinematic gems actually warranting thoughtful supplements. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys comes with a provocative title, but the film has nothing to do with the resurgent pederasty scandals rocking the Catholic Church. Instead, it is a coming-of-age tale, set vaguely in the South and vaguely in the '70s, about a group of boys who use comic books as an escape from the oppression and frustration they feel. Based on a novel by the late Chris Fuhrman, this is the kind of material Kevin Smith might excel at, but it's directed by British music-video maestro Peter Care from a script credited to Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni, with animated interpolations by Spawn's Todd McFarlane. The film begins amusingly enough with sensitive Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch, playing the lead character but with third billing) and the smart-mouthed troublemaker Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) conspiring to saw down a telephone pole at night while standing just out of the reach of its tip when it finally falls. This Buster Keatonish moment is born of their knowledge about triangulation learned at school from their nemesis, the peg-legged and puritanical Sister Assumpta (co-producer Jodie Foster), setting up a theme about the kids exaggerating her evil. As in some of the many kids-in-school films from the '70s, Francis and Tim, along with two other friends (Jake Richardson, Tyler Long), spend a lot of their time pulling elaborate if life-threatening pranks on the school, run by a smoking, cursing priest (Vincent D'onofrio). Meanwhile, Francis (who looks like a young Jack Black) has a crush on a girl named Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), who has some dark (if predictable) secrets. When not trying to figure out how to seduce Margie, Francis orchestrates a superhero comic book with his three friends, whose villain is Nunzilla, based on Sister Assumpta.

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To the credit of Altar Boys, Sister Assumpta is a difficult person, but truly believes that she is saving souls (she spends her nights erasing graffiti from the school's textbooks). Except for the McFarlane material, which is good Saturday morning cartoon stuff, the film comes across as rather square, if well-meaning, and until it degenerates into faux tragedy (think a Culkin plus My Girl), the movie does manage to capture some of the quivering tenderness of young emotion. Columbia TriStar does a fine job with this minor film, an Afterschool Special with drugs and petting, and offers a clean, crisp anamorphic image (1.85:1). Audio comes in a more-than-adequate Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround. As mentioned, the disc is burdened with extras, starting off with an audio commentary by director Care and writer Jeff Stockwell, who do the traditional image-to-image, moment-to-moment dance. The rest of the extras kick off with a feature that gathers together all the animated portions of the film in a lengthy (11:50) segment with optional commentary by Todd McFarlane, who explains the motivation behind the sequences. This feature is buttressed with a gallery of stills (about 30) of the illustrations used in the film to fill the boy's notebooks. There is about six minutes of deleted or extended scenes, very fuzzy and video-looking, with the timer blurred out at the bottom of the screen. Most of the scenes have to do with a drug-use sequence, and their only insight is that in some of the footage you hear the director directing. There's also a five-minute "making-of " featurette, followed by 13 minutes' worth of interviews with cast and crew. The movie's press kit for reviewers is reprinted over 17 heavily illustrated screens. Production bios are provided over about 30 frames, consisting of thumbnail sketches of the cast and crew, slightly more extensive than is usual. DVD-ROM material includes the illustrated press kit and weblinks to any site that has anything to do with the film. Finally there is the story-summarizing theatrical trailer, two TV spots together lasting a minute, and trailers for The Panic Room, in widescreen, along with World Traveler, and The Mystic Masseur. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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