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At the Movies

Dangerous lives


The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (adapted from Chris Fuhrman’s popular novel) has been praised as a thoughtful, growing-up-in-the-’70s story incorporating humorous elements, but it fails to transcend its Catholic school clichés. Its most imaginative element is the action animation, whose developments roughly parallel the boys’ lives, giving their adventures the flavor of comic book heroes. In these sequences the arch-villain is the school’s repressed math teacher, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), whose grim asceticism was mistaken by some reviewers for true piety.

The high jinks of the two boys (Kieran Culkin and Emile Hirsch) include the stealing of a huge statue of St. Agatha, though the school is called Immaculate Conception. Jena Malone is affecting as a girl with a dark secret, whom they both have a crush on, and Culkin writes the poem with which Hirsch impresses her, a good touch.

The boys’ adventures turn dangerous, leading to an emotionally sobering ending, but the movie leaves too many loose ends. What I found especially disappointing is that it makes no significant use, positive or negative, of its supposed Catholic framework.

The big action hit of the season is Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, set in the year 2054. A lot of fascinating hardware and software has been designed for this future world, in which crime in Washington, D.C., has been virtually eliminated through the department of pre-crime, an operation directed by John Anderton (Tom Cruise). Pre-crime relies on Pre-Cogs, beings who float in a tank and can predict when and by whom a crime will be committed. I didn’t understand the process but was impressed when Cruise stood in front of a blank video screen and gracefully moved evidence around with his hands. Once he has the information he needs, the excitement becomes more conventional as Anderton races to get to the murder location just seconds before the event occurs.

Spielberg presents such haunting images that you may find yourself more involved than you want. Anderton is passionately convinced of the rightness of pre-crime because he believes pre-crime could have saved his young son, a loss that occurred just months before it went into operation. But when the system produces a billiard ball with his own name on it as a future murderer, he runs for his life.

In his desperation, Anderton kidnaps Agatha, one of the Pre-Cogs (Samantha Morton), who leads him to investigate a long-closed murder case and tries to get him to understand that the system he has served is not perfect. Agatha sees images of a drowned woman and a man in a black ski mask, clues to a mystery that concerns Anderton as well as herself. Above all, she insists that he does not need to commit the murder that has been predicted; he still has a choice.

“Minority Report” is based on a short story of Philip K. Dick, whose bleak fiction was also the source of “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall.” Spielberg shares some of Dick’s paranoia, but turns it largely into entertainment. Nevertheless, Spielberg’s movie is a timely reminder of the primacy of free will during these days of powerfully invasive government.

Easily the best of the recent films is John Sayles’ Sunshine State. An independent moviemaker who manages to get his work fairly well distributed, Sayles always takes an in-depth look at a particular environment, draws characters who are credibly complex, and reveals a deeply humanist strain in the way the sociopolitical implications of his narrative are unraveled.

Here his subject is Delrona Beach (south of Jacksonville), a de facto segregated, seacoast town that has attracted the attention of greedy developers, understood principally through an in-depth look at the history of two families, the Temples, who are white, and the Stokes, who are black. Sayles’ civics lesson is laced with humor; “Sunshine State” even has a hilarious Greek chorus as Murray Silver (Alan King), a millionaire developer, pontificates to his golfing partners about what a paradise they have created.

Although Sayles gets uniformly fine performances from his large cast, Edie Falco makes the most vivid impression as Marly Temple, the wryly witty manager of her father’s rundown motel-restaurant. Her present boyfriend is leaving her to pursue his dream of being a professional golfer, and she is attracted to Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton), a landscape architect working for a developer who wants to buy the motel in order to demolish it. The movie’s most emotional scenes, however, are between the widowed Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice), an unyieldingly respectable figure in Lincoln Beach, the middle-class black community, and her beautiful daughter Desiree (Angela Bassett), who is making her first visit home in 25 years. Desiree, who went north at 16 after becoming pregnant, is an actress in infomercials, and has brought her anesthesiologist husband, Reggie Perry (James McDaniel), with her.

Meanwhile a local pageant, Buccaneer Days, is being launched by Francine Pickney (Mary Steenburgen), in a marvelous turn as Southern woman at her worst. She solemnly announces the pageant’s bogus attractions at the same time her husband Earl (Gordon Clapp) -- whom she refers to as “my rock”-- is trying unsuccessfully to commit suicide.

Sayles’ sympathy is obviously with Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), a longtime activist who wants to get Lincoln Beach to organize against the developers. But he is never didactic, weaving these and other intriguing characters in and out of the ongoing action. With its incisive and entertaining dialogue, wide range of well-acted characters, and avoidance of both suspect melodrama and pat conclusions, “Sunshine State” may be Sayles’ best picture yet.

Road to Perdition, which drew huge opening day audiences, is already being talked about as a potential Oscar winner. Tom Hanks is cast against type as Michael Sullivan, a Depression-era enforcer for elderly mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), but its emotional center is the relationship between Sullivan and his son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), who is also the narrator. Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) begins with a pretentious prologue in which the 12-year-old boy stands in front of a large lake and asks, how can one decide if one’s father was a good man?

After a brief scene at home in which Sullivan is established as a family man who says grace before meals, there is the first set piece, a boisterous wake at Rooney’s home. We see the strong ties between Rooney and Sullivan, an orphan whom he had brought up, and Newman’s rasping voice and effortless charm are on exhibit as the old man shoots craps with Sullivan’s two boys. Young Michael precipitates the action because he saw his father with a gun and wants to know what his job is. By hiding in his father’s car he becomes an eyewitness to a scene in which Rooney’s trigger-happy son Connor (Daniel Craig) impulsively murders one of his father’s lieutenants.

Afraid that the boy might talk, Connor tries to set Sullivan up to be killed, and rushes to finish off the son himself. He arrives at the Sullivan home ahead of Michael Jr., shoots the mother -- and in his confusion, the younger brother Peter. When Sullivan returns and discovers the bodies, there is a cry of horror, and soon the two Michaels are on the road. Hanks looks grimly bent on revenge, while torn apart by the fear that the boy will follow his father’s path. Young Michael learns to drive, providing some comic moments in an otherwise gloomy movie, and continues to read his “Lone Ranger” comic book.

“Road to Perdition” is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins (who worked for years on “Dick Tracy”), and Mendes has deliberately aestheticized all its elements, including most of the killings. His interest in them seems like that of Harlen Maguire (Jude Law), a sinister character added by screenwriter David Self. A journalist-assassin whose real love is photographing the dead, Maguire stalks Sullivan and his son all through the second half of the film. In similar fashion, the director gives more attention to Thomas Newman’s symphonic score than to the natural sounds in the background of the action.

There is immense talent at work here, but it remains a movie in which Perdition is just a town in Illinois. Conrad L. Hall’s burnished interiors and weather-dominated outdoor scenes exist too much for their own sake. The constant presence of water -- lapping at the lakeside, dripping under the coffin at the wake, pouring from the skies during a Chicago shootout -- is simply another component of the film’s stylization.

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s regular movie reviewer, can be reached by e-mail at SCUNN24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002