Altared States

Okay, first thing's first: that title. You'd have to assume that a new movie titled The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boyswould have something to do with the recent headlines about Catholic priests doing all sorts of unspeakable things to the children who have been entrusted in their care. It almost sounds like one of those ghastly made-for-TV movies that crop up in the wake of any major scandal. But no, Dangerous Lives is something far more interesting and far more twisted than that.

Spun from the pages of the novel by Chris Fuhrman, Dangerous Lives is a quirked-out black comedy that occasionally lurches into heavy drama. It chronicles the misadventures of two Catholic school chums who are simply afire with adolescent angst. These are two hapless, would-be rebels with a dark cause; they live for the day when they can exact revenge on Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), a nun at their school who has a (literal) peg leg and a (metaphorical) iron fist.

Francis (Emile Hirsch), the less volatile of the two boys, fills his notebook with the comic book adventures of the Atomic Trinity, who are forever battling a familiar-looking, one-legged, Harley-riding beast called Nunzilla. For Francis' pal Tim (Kieran Culkin), comic book character assassination isn't enough; as Sister Assumpta thumps around the classroom, determined to fill her young charges' minds with the word of Our Father, Tim is dreaming up a plan to make the sister's life hell on Earth.

Two things about this movie are so wonderfully weird that they will stick in your mind long after everything else has been forgotten. First, there's Jodie Foster in a performance that the phrase playing against type doesn't quite do justice to. Then there are the cartoon interludes featuring the Atomic Trinity.

We'll get to Foster in a minute, but the film's animated sequences simply demand to be dealt with right up front. Created by Todd McFarlane (the man behind the Spawn empire and the zillionaire dim bulb who made headlines a few years ago when he spent way too much money on a baseball), these sequences crackle with the goofy Goth energy of all McFarlane products. McFarlane was an interesting choice; his style is so distinctively August 1993 that you'd think it would be out of place in a story set nearly three decades ago, but his animation here is timeless in its awkward, adolescent vitality. The man may have too little talent to justify his too many millions, but he comes through here, and he deserves full props.

And then there's Jodie. She has been acting virtually from the womb onward, portraying characters ranging from the child prostitute in Taxi Driver to the incestuous scamp in Hotel New Hampshire to the slatternly rape victim in The Accused to . . . Well, it's not as if all of her characters have been skanks, but those are the ones that float immediately to mind. And Clarice Starling.

Anyway, through Foster's long career, through parts skanky and not-so-skanky, Sister Assumpta has been lurking, waiting for the movie when she could at last emerge. She's so believable as a repressed, tyrannical shrew that on the way out of the theater, you'll drop down on your knees and thank God your Catholic school days are behind you.

(That is, unless you never went to Catholic school, in which case you'll give thanks for that. Or unless you're still in Catholic school, in which case you'll look forward to Monday morning with a new dread.)

Hirsch and Culkin are both fine, even if Culkin's striking resemblance to his famously troubled older brother can sometimes be a bit unsettling. But if their performances don't really register on the brain, it's hardly their fault; between McFarlane's superhero shenanigans and Foster's scarifying turn as the good sister, this is the kind of picture where a sensible young actor just stands back and lets the black magic happen.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys was directed by Peter Care; written by Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni; produced by Jodie Foster, Meg LeFauve and Jay Shapiro; and stars Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsch, Vincent D'Onofrio and Jodie Foster. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine, and Edwards Rancho Niguel 8, Laguna Niguel.


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