Kieran Culkin is picking up where his older brother left off, only he's playing it smart and avoiding the kiddie fare (granted, he is much older than his brother was when he was doing movies) and going for the grittier, more serious independent films. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, one of two films Culkin has done this year (the other being Igby Goes Down), does a decent job of establishing Culkin's rising career, although his future is uncertain.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys tells the story of a group of frustrated boys that attend Catholic school, even though their minds are on anything but religion. They have created alter egos for themselves in the form of comic book heroes, and no one is more separated from reality than Tim Sullivan (Culkin), who likes to pull off big, obnoxious and potentially dangerous pranks whenever he can. Their rebellious nature is probably due in part to the strict harshness of Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), who does not really understand how the real world works, only how it should work. But despite outside influences, all of the boys seem to be growing up pretty normally, except for Tim, who is still holding onto a world that isn't the real one.
Emile Hirsch actually stars as Francis, Tim's closest friend. They get along fine until he starts seeing a girl (Jena Malone, who is another young star that chooses her roles very, very wisely), which causes conflict. Hirsch does a good job, but it is Culkin that steals the show. Culkin actually doesn't do that great of job, but his character is so powerful compared to the rest that he still stands out. Culkin needs some time to refine his acting skills (which I think he will be able to do), but given his choice of roles in 2002, I don't think there should be a problem. I see a lot of potential in him, to say the least.
The movie itself is okay at best. Its real-life segments (about two-thirds of the film) is excellent, presenting many interesting characters and lots of entertaining situations. The subjects range from hilarious (cutting over a telephone pole, stealing a statue from a bell tower) to very serious (incestuous sex, death), allowing the young actors to explore several different elements of their acting ability. Jodie Foster is absolutely excellent as the wicked nun, as is Jena Malone as the troubled girlfriend.
However, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys has a major pitfall, and that is its animated segments. Drawn by Tom McFarlane ("Spawn"), the movie is interlaced with scenes of the boys' super hero alter egos fighting evil nuns and so forth, paralleling the boys' emotions. While I did come to respect the scenes a little more towards the end, I just found them obnoxious and relatively pointless; they take away from the pace of the film, as well as some of its credibility.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys has a great story and a great script that allows the many young actors to show off their potential, but the animated sequences are utterly destructive to the flow of the movie.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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