Holy Ghost World


Not the topical exposé its title suggests, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys waxes nostalgic for the far more innocent church scandal of teenage heresy. The movie ruminates on desecration, mischievous and otherwise, but remains essentially true to its source. The gentle comic treatment of adolescent sturm und drang should please fans of Chris Fuhrman’s posthumously published cult novel—perhaps even as much as the current SpiderMan seems to have delighted Marvel devotees.

The comparison is not inapt. As directed by the British music video veteran Peter Care, Altar Boys is even more steeped in comic books than it is obsessed with the effects of a parochial school education. Both color the overheated fantasies of the eponymous altar boys, good-looking Francis (Emile Hirsch) and his more cranky pal Tim (Kieran Culkin), as expressed in their collectively produced underground comic The Atomic Trinity and equally grandiose, nearly insane, plans to wreak vengeance upon the authorities of St. Agatha.

In its tale of disaffected, artistic adolescents, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys has marked affinities to Ghost World and Donnie Darko. It’s more amorphous and less sharply drawn than either but has an acute sense of guilty secrets and secret places. The drama begins in the shadow of a power pole crucifix and is punctuated throughout by great crackling bursts of boldy drawn superhero action animation featuring the Atomic Trinity, Captain Asskicker, and their cohorts—it’s the stuff of teenage attitude, albeit more benign than the scatological cartoon mythology of Kevin Smith’s Dogma.

Animated by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane—another music video director, as well as an erstwhile member of the Marvel bullpen, working on SpiderMan no less—these sequences give Altar Boys a necessary dialectic. Francis and Tim imagine the dangerously prissy Sister Assumpta (producer Jodie Foster) as the monstrous villainess Nunzilla—as though her wooden leg, and corresponding performance, didn’t already identify her as a creature out of Luis Buñuel. (This enemy of free expression spends her evenings laboriously erasing doodles from textbooks and confiscates Tim’s precious copy of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with the flattering warning that “Blake is a very dangerous thinker.”)

Less specific than Fuhrman’s novel, Care’s movie is set in a small Southern city in the mid ’70s. The ambience is summery and unnecessarily generic. (It’s a shame that the kids are not aware of Justin Green’s underground comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a relative bestseller of the era.) Parents are rarely evident, as are teachers. Talk about your budgetary shortfalls: Sister Assumpta’s only colleague seems to be the chain-smoking, less devout Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio). Where the book’s protagonists are mainly eighth graders, the kids here seem to be several years older. The disconnect renders their foolish risk-taking somewhat less credible, although it does give a more mature feel to Francis’s poignantly tormented romance with his shy classmate Margie (Jena Malone), a lip-biting loner whom Francis courts with a poem Tim adapts from Blake (“Margie, Margie, Burning bright . . . “).

Margie professes, not without reason, to believe in ghosts, and she has her own spooky glamour for having once slit her wrists. (The thin, wistful Malone plays almost the same role in Donnie Darko—although Altar Boys, which was delayed for a year by its elaborate animation, was evidently shot first.) In the cartoon adventures that Francis imagines, Margie appears as the bewitchingly endangered Sorcerella; more disturbingly, she also provides The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys with its Southern Gothic element. Placing her character under a convincing spell is a difficult bit of acting that Malone executes with impressive diffidence.

Characterized by naturalistic banter and an honest kid’s-eye view, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is sweet but not saccharine. The deliberate absence of flash accounts for a sometimes sluggish pace, but it’s a strategic decision that lends credibility to the increasingly fantastic plot. Ultimately, Altar Boys‘ workaday world merges with the parallel universe of animated hyperbole—or rather, the chaos of Francis’s experience is given a comic book’s heroic, comforting form.

With combat replacing global catastrophe as the mega action spectacle’s premise du jour, John Woo’s World War II-set Windtalkers is at least perfectly timed. Indeed, originally scheduled for release last fall, the movie was a bit ahead of the curve—albeit fashionably retro in its reverential bugle fanfares and nonstop flag-flapping.

The promising story concerns the several hundred Navajo radio operators who were assigned to Pacific theater reconnaissance units and transmitted battlefield messages using a never broken code that was based on their notoriously difficult (for non-Navajo) native language. Windtalkers is scarcely so tricky to decipher. Brooding survivor of an earlier massacre in the Solomon Islands, tough marine Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) is assigned to baby-sit cheerful “code talker” Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Or rather, Enders’s mission is to protect the code from falling into Japanese hands—at any cost.

In other words, they were expendable. Ranging from the mists of Monument Valley to the shores of Saipan, Windtalkers is at once chintzy and grandiose, awash in battlefield sentimentality and platoon clichés. The linguist Benjamin Whorf used Navajo to demonstrate his thesis that human perception is structured by language, but Windtalkers is conventional stuff. Like many Woo projects, it’s an unrequited buddy film, but seemingly written by rote, it has little of the nuttiness that infused his best Hollywood movies, Broken Arrow and Face/Off. A sour curmudgeon who doggedly ignores the plaintive love letters that a little nurse back in Hawaii keeps sending him, Enders is determined to hold off his annoyingly trusting and gung ho charge—who comes complete with a son named for George Washington. The most suggestive plot twist, nearly buried in the long-delayed and reasonably bang-up Woovian face-off, reveals that white man and Indian are both (lapsed) Catholics.

Perhaps that universal church is Woo’s metaphor for Hollywood. Less state-of-the-art than Black Hawk Down in its combat sequences and far more banal in its dramatic conception than The Thin Red Line, Windtalkers lends itself mainly to personal allegory. Linguistic skills aside, the Navajo—who are often mistaken for Japanese by their bigoted comrades—function in the white man’s war with a number of quasi-Hong Kong rituals (martial arts, mystic knife-throwing, meditation, and sacramental flute-playing). “What a magical pile of Navajo horseshit!” Enders exclaims at one point. Woo, the most successful Asian filmmaker in Hollywood history, knows that horseshit works.

Adapted from Simon Leys’s philosophical novel, The Emperor’s New Clothes is an old-fashioned, tidily designed Prince and the Pauper story in which an elaborate scheme allows the exiled Napoleon to escape St. Helena as a humble double takes his place. Dull, if not devoid of wit, this shaggy dog longs to frisk through the back alleys of history, but scarcely manages more than a modest, snoozy charm.

The plan goes awry, and the penniless, unrecognized emperor (Ian Holm), stranded in Antwerp, makes his way across Belgium and through Waterloo to Paris, where he takes up with a lively grocer’s widow known as Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle). The actor seems a bit elderly for his role, not to mention for his absurdly named mistress—more fittingly called “Ostrich” in the novel. Holmes does, however, conjure an appropriately mulish insistence once the time comes for his character to reveal his secret identity. (He’s already proved himself a brilliant tactician and inspirational leader in reorganizing Pumpkin’s business along military lines.)

Of course, no one really wants the superhero back, and the movie finally finds its single joke—you have to be delusional to imagine yourself as Napoleon. A trip to an insane asylum filled with similarly costumed “Napoleons” is less fruitful than it might have been had Alan Taylor, director of the estimable low-life farce Palookaville, opted for his earlier film’s deadpan understatement rather than aspire to the warm and cuddly.