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‘Dangerous’ in more ways than you’d think 

The Golden Age of Comic Books began back in the '30s and ended with the adoption of the Comics Code in 1954, but a comics renaissance is taking place right now. Spider-Man is the fifth-highest-grossing movie of all-time, and The Hulk’s trailer is leaving fans salivating for its release next summer, along with Daredevil and a slew of others. Last year, a novel about comic books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) won the Pulitzer, and a film based on a very thin graphic novel (Ghost World) was Oscar-nominated for its screenplay adaptation. Not to mention critically acclaimed blockbusters with protagonists who want to become comic-book artists: Freddy Got Fingered, Tomcats,Monkeybone. Okay, maybe I went too far with that one.

            The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (opening Friday, June 28, at the Little) isn't based on a comic book, but they do factor heavily into its script. Altar Boys is based on the popular novel by Chris Fuhrman, who died before his book was published, adapted here by Jeff Stockwell and The Queen of the Damned's Michael Petroni.

            Altar Boys is a lot like The Virgin Suicides, only with 20 minutes of superhero animation thrown into the dreamlike mix. Like that film, Boys is set in the mid '70s, and is about Catholic-school students in that dorky period between childhood and adulthood. It's told in similar fashion, as well --- like adults struggling to piece together the hazy details of what they did just before high school set in.

            These eighth-graders aren't much different from the kids in Suicides, either. The ringleader and brains of the outfit is Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin); the heart, and our protagonist, is Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch, who could easily pass for a younger version of Road Rules' Theo). In addition to smoking, drinking, and messing around, the four friends create their own comic book --- to pass the time, but also to release some of the aggression they feel toward their evil, moped-riding, one-legged teacher, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster, whose now-defunct Egg Pictures produced the film).

            Each of the boys has his own uniquely named and gifted character in the book (called “The Atomic Trinity,” even though there are four of them), which pits their altar-egos against the cartoon version of Sister Assumpta (or Nunzilla) and her fictional biker henchpeople. These animated segments, which fit surprisingly well into the film, were created by Thomas Fleming and Todd McFarlane; the latter cut his teeth as an artist for The Amazing Spider-Man in the late '80s, and later directed Spawn.

            There's more here than just comics. Francis has a crush on his formerly suicidal, potentially crazy classmate Margie Flynn (Jena Malone, who played the young Jodie Foster in Contact), and he wins her affections with the Cyrano-style help of both Tim and the poet William Blake (far more helpful than Robert Blake). Their relationship, which is incorporated into the nun-killing fantasy, is awkward and surreal; though it's sweet, it comes across just as un-sugar-coated as the rest of the film. We also witness the slow unraveling of Tim whose innocent pranks evolve into something scary and dangerous. (Picture the wide-eyed innocence of Tobey Maguire fused with the rebelliousness of Jackie Earle Haley.)

            In addition to the wonderful performances by the kids, the real star here is director Peter Care, who until now was best known for making music videos with R.E.M. and Depeche Mode. Boys is a thoughtful, deliberately paced film from a music-video director you might assume would glitz things up with visual bells and whistles (as in, say, Behind Enemy Lines).

            Altar Boys is finally being released after a couple of well-publicized film festival flaps. Jodie Foster pulled it out of Sundance '01 because the animation wasn't ready, then the film was bitch-slapped out of last year’s Cannes Festival; Foster reneged on accepting the jury’s presidency when she jumped at the chance to replace the injured Nicole Kidman in Panic Room. But as it happens, the movie’s post-Spider-Man timing really couldn't be better.

Only two films carry the distinction of winning three awards at the Cannes Film Festival. The first was the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, and the second, Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (also opening June 28 at the Little), should vex just as many people as Fink did 11 years ago. Cannes juries tend to choose films that are dark and disturbing (which might explain why the lighthearted Amélie wasn't even accepted to last year's event), and The Piano Teacher is probably the darkest, most disturbing yet. It’s probably the all-time worst First Date Film, but it is a thrilling tale of repression and self-destruction.

            Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a Schubert-loving professor of piano at a Vienna conservatory for gifted teenage musicians. Erika is in her late 30s, and still lives with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot), who presumably rides her daughter because she never lived up to the musical promise she exhibited as a youngster. The film opens with Erika being hollered at because she came home from work three hours late and had the audacity to spend her own money on some new clothes.

            Erika's messed-up maternal relationship translates into bad news for her students, who receive the brunt of their teacher's misguided rage. She's extremely tough on them, often labeling them as pathetic and suggesting they'll be lucky to find careers tickling the ivories at a strip club. We begin to see a slightly different side of Erika when the cocksure Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) clumsily tries to seduce her. He's a brash young engineering student who isn't at all serious about the piano, which irks Erika and sends her spiraling into a cycle of reckless behavior that includes self-mutilation, public urination, and recklessly endangering the career of her most promising student, as well as something involving the used wads of tissue found on the floor of a private booth in an adult bookstore. And that's all before she finally succumbs to Walter, providing cinema's creepiest sex scene since Dennis Hopper rode Isabella Rossellini into nitrous-fueled oblivion in Blue Velvet.

            The Piano Teacher’s leads won Best Actor and Actress Awards at Cannes. Magimel does a decent job as Walter, but Huppert, whose perpetual scowl is perfect for Erika's oddly unemotional role, brings the movie to life. The character is incredibly prim and proper, wrapped so tightly that no emotion would ever think of trying to escape...until she begins to unravel and reveal her true colors. Huppert conveys this flawlessly, and if Piano Teacher weren’t a controversial foreign film released early in the year, she'd be a shoo-in for next year's Oscar race.

            If Teacher were an American film, the audience would also be railroaded into feeling sympathy for Erika --- and if Ron Howard had made it, people would think it was the greatest film since Patch Adams. Haneke doesn't pull any punches, however, and as a result, earned his second straight Cannes Jury Prize (after the spectacularly unseen Code Unknown, with Juliette Binoche).

            Speaking of controversy, Teacher garnered just as much as the sex-crazed dramas Baise-moi, Intimacy, and Romance, but it managed to do so almost without nudity (save what you see on the monitor in the private booth scene). You have to salute writer-director Haneke, who adapted Elfriede Jelinek's novel, for making a film that isn't particularly graphic, but is powerful, brutally shocking, and difficult to watch. I felt like taking a shower after Baise-moi, but The Piano Teacher made me want to scrub down with a stiff wire brush and an industrial-strength detergent.

For more of Jon’s movie ramblings, visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER’s Friday Morning Show.

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