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The second film from the semiposthumous one-man team that could be termed Stanley Spielberg, Minority Report is sprightlier than the first, which counts for a lot. Of course, Spielberg’s internalizing of Kubrick’s cold, satirical vision of a dystopian future clashes with the E.T. lover’s insistence on warm, familial healing. But Minority Report is fundamentally a thriller, so it’s more shapely than the ponderous, queasily sentimental A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The film also supplies a lot of little shocks, some of them playfully gruesome, even if it’s easy to stay several steps ahead of Scott Frank and Jon Cohen’s script. To paraphrase another movie set in a shadowy, ominous Washington: Follow the kids; the intrigue will be revealed.
Derived from a Philip K. Dick short story, the action transpires in 2054 in the only city in the blood-soaked U.S.A. that has managed to eliminate murder. The mechanism for ending homicide is the Department of Pre-Crime, which acts on the premonitions of three vaguely human “Pre-Cogs”; they float in an amniotic soup in a futuristic Federal Triangle structure that from the outside looks a lot like the Ronald Reagan Building. After the names of future victims and their murderers, engraved on wooden balls, pop from a goofy machine somehow connected to the Pre-Cogs’ consciousness, crack Pre-Crime cop John Anderton (Tom Cruise) uses a sort of flat-screen crystal ball to locate the imminent slaying and prevent it. Thanks to the success of his squad, few Washingtonians even think about committing murder; most predicted killings are now “red-ball” crimes of passion that will occur within minutes.
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John, naturally, has a tragic backstory and fatherhood issues. He joined Pre-Crime after his young son Sean was abducted from a Baltimore pool and murdered by a never-apprehended criminal. That event shattered his marriage to Lara (Kathryn Morris), a typically bland Spielbergian notion of nurturing womanhood, but introduced him to a stately surrogate father: Pre-Crime pioneer Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow, no less). Now that his anti-murder operation has been deemed a success in D.C., Lamar wants to expand it nationwide. The Justice Department is considering this proposal and has sent cocky agent Danny Witwer (cocky Colin Farrell) to scout the Pre-Crime unit. He and John instantly dislike each other, so when the Pre-Cogs spit out John’s name as a prospective murderer, John assumes that Danny is part of a conspiracy to frame him—and Danny seeks eagerly to arrest John, who he believes is a drug-addled killer-to-be.
Of course there’s a conspiracy. After all, this is Washington. Or is it? Minority Report’s least successful aspect is its attempt to tie together its various locations into a cohesive sense of place. A few of the scenes were shot in D.C. and depict a city that looks pretty much like the 2002 version, but most of the scenes set in the slummy district called “The Sprawl,” as well as a subway ride and a factory assembly line, were obviously filmed in L.A. Then there are computer-generated sequences that don’t look like either location, notably an utterly unconvincing chase on a high-rise mag-lev highway that you might think would be a prominent local landmark but is not visible at any other moment in the movie.
Wisely, Spielberg relies less on such digital-graphics environments than on tried-and-true creature animation—the robotic “spiders” who scout a tenement for the runaway John—and horror-movie techniques. Eyes are an overt motif in the film, which depicts a world in which people are routinely identified by retinal scans. Anonymity requires an eyeball switch, so John visits a filthy, moderately deranged underground surgeon (Peter Stormare) for an Oedipal operation. (This broadly played sequence, which includes some gross-out humor worthy of a contemporary teen comedy, is one of the most Kubrickian.) The movie’s spookiest effect, however, may be Samantha Morton, who adds to her impressive repertoire of weirdos by playing Agatha, the most psychically potent of the Pre-Cogs.
John kidnaps Agatha hoping to learn who set him up and why, an undertaking that leads to one of Pre-Crime’s founders, who reveals the existence of “minority reports.” (The Pre-Cogs are never wrong, it’s explained, but sometimes they disagree.) The outcome is no surprise, of course, but at least—unlike most films based on Philip K. Dick stories—Minority Report doesn’t collapse in the final reel. In the land of Scooby-Doo, the movie could even pass for a smarter-than-average summer action flick—although it’s not half as smart as Spielberg supposes.
As it gathers speed, John’s quest begins to look like a bunch of other Tom Cruise movies, including Mission: Impossible (John must break into the heart of the operation that’s turned against him) and Vanilla Sky (John must transform his pretty-boy face into bruised meat to learn an inner truth). And though the chilly, color-draining light, hi-tech-advertising parodies, and ironic use of jaunty music could be vintage Kubrick, the threatened-child scenario and domestic denouement are pure Spielberg. Washington in 2054 may be almost as corrupt as it was in 1972, but things will be fine if the future will just make room for Daddy.
Surely the movie with the year’s worst-timed title, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys takes its name from Chris Fuhrman’s semiautobiographical novel, which is not about priestly pedophilia. The filmmakers’ unwillingness to change the title apparently stems from excessive respect for the 1994 book, which the press kit calls “original and audacious.” Perhaps Fuhrman, who died of cancer before the novel was published, really was the James Joyce of ’70s Savannah, Ga., but little originality or audacity has survived scripters Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni’s translation to celluloid. The only scenes that rise above the generic are the ones that are strikingly misconceived.
Set in an indistinct locale but an identifiable period—the early to mid-’70s—Altar Boys follows a crew of boundary-testing 14-year-old Catholic-school students, with particular emphasis on pretty, sensitive Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and his troublemaking pal Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin), whose idea of a good prank tends toward the flamboyantly risky. Fervent Marvel Comics fans, the boys have invented superhero alter egos, whose adventures come to life in (intentionally?) clumsy animated inserts by Todd McFarlane, a comic-book veteran whose Spawn engendered a half-successful 1997 flick. The superheroes’ principal antagonist is Nunzilla, the fictional counterpart of the boys’ moped-riding, prosthetic-legged nemesis, Sister Assumpta (co-producer Jodie Foster, who makes an even less convincing nun than did Rosie O’Donnell in M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly themed Wide Awake).
Francis loves Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), first from a distance and then—thanks to a love poem that Tim paraphrases from William Blake and attributes to Francis—on increasingly intimate terms. There’s no apparent impediment to Francis and Margie’s being together at any hour of day or night; Altar Boys is as adult-free as a Peanuts holiday special. (Perhaps that’s why Sister Assumpta and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Father Casey are so embattled—they’re virtually the only grown-ups in the curiously underpopulated movie.) In their homemade comic books, the boys endow Margie with a powerful superidentity, Sorcerella, but in real life she’s vulnerable and damaged. Margie’s secret dilemma is characteristic of the film: It would be touching if only it didn’t seem so phony. (Malone looks even younger here than in her comparable plucky-but-haunted roles in last year’s Donnie Darko and Life as a House, perhaps because she is: Altar Boys reportedly spent more than a year in post-production.)
The first feature from British-born rock-video and TV-commercial veteran Peter Care, Altar Boys is workmanlike and unpersuasive. Most bewildering are its attempts to turn farce into tragedy, as when Tim masterminds a plan to abduct a cougar from a nearby zoo and leave it in the office of the Blake-hating Sister Assumpta. Tim, Francis, and Margie lack not only a reasonable understanding of the difficulties of first drugging and then transporting a cougar, but also any comprehension of what might happen when nun meets cat. (Do these cute kids really not know the difference between a practical joke and murder?) Some indulgent elders have opined that the movie’s depiction of its protagonists captures adolescence’s fearless folly. But The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys both exaggerates and glamorizes teenage heedlessness. CP