Saturday, September 28, 2013

Apt Pupil (1998)

Apt PupilThis movie quickly disappeared from the theaters, which is really too bad, because it's an excellent film. Those reviewers who disliked it because it didn't have enough "Stephen King" have missed the point. Good horror doesn't always depend on lots of supernatural gore. Sometimes the most frightening things are the terrible possibilities we find within ourselves -if we dare to look. Much of this film consists of psychological games, but that doesn't make it any less terrifying. If you have ever wondered how ordinary good citizens (like yourself???) could have ended up serving the Nazi genocide machine, then this movie is a chillingly real answer. An excellent study in how seemingly moral people can be manipulated by fear and seduced by power.

What starts out as an honor student's curiousity about a dark chapter in history soon degenerates into cruelty and manipulation on both sides. The student begins by blackmailing an old Nazi war criminal into telling him all about the concentration camps -and that means EVERYTHING -or else he will turn him over to the authorities. The old Nazi, fearing arrest, complies. But the boy soon goes beyond curiousity, as he begins to enjoy having absolute power over another human being. At this point, the student is the sadist, and I actually found myself feeling sorry for the old man. But wait -the Nazi still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and the tables are soon turned... To tell you more would be a spoiler. Just remember: when you dine with the devil, the spoon is never long enough.

Once upon a time many years ago, a fictional French baroness smirked as her paramour pronounced his undying devotion to his Lady Fair: his dedication to her, his wonderment in the face of her not inconsiderable charms. His---Love.

To which she replied, tartly: "Love---I don't like the word 'Love'. I prefer the word 'Cruelty'.

So do I. And so does the world, if the genocide raging through Africa is any kind of case in point. We live in a world where terrorists ram planes into skyscrapers because of grievances, and the question raised by our 'elites' is not "how do we destroy these barbarians", but rather a whining, sniveling "why do hey hate us?"?

Is not Cruelty, then, our due?

The real question is not why the Holocaust happened, but, in the words of Max von Sydow's artist in "Hannah and her Sisters", why it doesn't happen more often. "Apt Pupil" is one of the most harrowing, horrifying, repulsive films I have ever watched.

The blood doesn't flow like claret and the gore doesn't cake the walls, but a warning: "Apt Pupil" is not for the faint of heart.

That said, Singer has an exceedingly subtle touch with distills one of Stephen King's best short stories into an engaging and particularly nasty piece of cinema that bores deep into the fundamental cruelty that feeds and nourishes human evil.

Tod Bowden (played with understatement and sublime nastiness by Brad Renfro) is a high school student who discovers that an elderly German man---who might just be an infamous Nazi war criminal---is living in his quiet Southern California neighborhood. Bowden confronts his reclusive neighbor, presents evidence of his past as the notorious Gestapo officer Kurt Dussander (impeccably played by Sir Ian McKellen, in a kind of decrepit stepladder of Evil), and by degrees blackmails, coerces, and ultimately flatters the old man into telling him about his atrocities during the war.

The movie that follows is a superbly paced and increasingly psycho-sexual ballet between the boy and the old Nazi, who is at once Bowden's mentor, idol, victim, and catalyst. Both Renfro and McKellen are so perfectly cast and so competent in their roles that the viewer is made uneasy by the way the two seem to feed off each other, glutting themselves with stories of past horrors---and growing stronger with the telling.

Particularly awful is the scene where Bowden buys Dussander an SS costume as a 'present', and then cajoles him into dressing in it and marching. What initially begins as an embarrassed reluctance to even don the uniform turns into a manic peformance, and as Bowden demands that Dussander stop, the old man whispers "be careful boy---you're playing with fire." Indeed.

Isn't it amazing how the grey terrible ringlets of age, the coils of venerability, fall off, boiled down to the core of a psychotic creature willing, able, and gleeful---to maim, torture, and destroy?

The brilliance of "Apt Pupil" is in the way the film distills the essence of cruelty, particularly in two scenes. While I will not spoil the film by talking about either scene, both involve McKellen and Renfro in acts of shocking, amoral, sociopathic savagery to a wounded bird and a cat.

When I watched the scenes, I had an epiphany---the source of depravities like the Holocaust, or the Stalinist purges, or the genocide in Rwanda has never been about race, or religion, or politics, or tribe---all of it stems from a dark desire by some men to inflict brutality on the weak, for no better reason than they derive pleasure from doing it.

Because they can get away with it. Because they take all they can grab.

This philosophy underscores "Apt Pupil", and is, in my opinion, the reason the film succeeds so well at painting a realistic picture of human horror. Renfro's Tod Bowden is not a young Nazi; like the killers at Columbine High School, he is a bored coward with too much time on his hands and a decidedly cruel streak.

The acting is excellent throughout, with David Schwimmer (of Friends) perfectly cast as hapless Jewish high school guidance counselor, and Elias Koteas taking on yet another repulsive role as one of McKellen's vagrant victims. Like "American Psycho", "Apt Pupil" is not an exit, and the film offers no easy answers, leaving the uneasy viewer with a disturbing coda which prompts a question: is cruelty a force that can be harnessed for power?

And ultimately, in an empty universe, where the voice of God is silent, why not?


Buy Apt Pupil (1998) Now

Based on a Stephen King novel, `Apt pupil' directed by Brian Singer tells the story of a hunted Nazi who is identified by a sixteen year old student. The student rather than reporting to authorities his discovery, attempts to blackmail the old man: he won't tell anyone if he tells him stories from the dead camp he was in charge of.

This incredible thriller takes some surprising twists as the story unfolds. The acting is superb, Ian McKellen as Dussander (the Nazi fugitive) and Brad Renfro deliver some of the most disturbing sequences of the film, from the stories being told by McKellen (excellent flashback scenes) to the sequence in which he wears the Nazi uniform again, the performance delivered by these two actors is one of the highlights of the film.

A story of how evil may present in the less expected ways and how a teenager falls under the clutches of the Nazi killer he thought he had under control. The directorial style of Singer is all over the film, the score composed by John Ottman is the perfect complement in some of the key scenes. Some of Singer `regulars' are here on brief cameos and there is the special appearance of David Schwimmer (even though he tries to portray a serious character, the stigma of Ross Geller won't leave him) Bottom-line, an excellent thriller filled with surprising twists, excellent sequences from the Nazi's dead camps and a shocking ending.

The DVD comes in both Widescreen and Full screen versions. Special features in the DVD are a `making of' documentary, cast and bios and the theatrical trailer. English 5.1 and Dolby surround available with subtitles in English only.

Read Best Reviews of Apt Pupil (1998) Here

There are a few Stephen King adaptations that are good, though most missed the mark. I thought Bryan Singer's vision of "Apt Pupil" left in (and left out) everything that was approprate. I admire Ian McKellan no end, and he did not disappoint. I always thought that Brad Renfro's auspicious debut in "The Client" would lead to great things. Here, he succeeds. It's a layered performance of unsettling discovery, conflict & resolution...and a few surprises. Elias Koteas, in a small role, was best of all. His role as street person/hustler was complete, and I must admit that his final scene lef me a bit unsettled, very sad. I will not blab anyhing away, but I thought this to be a fine and very upsetting film. I'm somewhat amused at the controversy involving Singer's shower room scene, where he asked a number of young males to appear nude (they signed affidavits of approval). No one really cared, except one guy sued him for misreprentation or whatever. (How humiliating was that for him?) This was a 1998 film. Brian de Palma's "Carrie" with Oscar-nominee Sissy Spacek (1976) had a brutal shower scene, full-frontal, the whole 9 yards, and nobody made issue. Nudity doesn't bother me, if it makes sense. I don't understand the fuss.

Want Apt Pupil (1998) Discount?

Presently working on "History in Stephen King's books", I am studying, in great details, The Dead Zone and Apt Pupil. Insofar as the books and the films are concerned, The Dead Zone is marvellous, because the film does not in any way distort the book. Cronenberg has done a beautiful job. The film gives a visual dimension to the book and hence enriches it in a way. But with Apt Pupil, there are so many twists and changes that the book is difficult to recognize in the film. We do not find the progressive and absolutely total degradation of both Mr Denker and Todd. Todd does not kill vagrant people in the film. Mr Denker only kills one wino. He even fails with the cat. The boy, Todd, is not cornered as he is in the book, cornered by his conscience and by the police and his guidance councelor, as he is in the book. He becomes vicious but his degradation is far from being finished and he can survive and even prosper in our society with his new agressive domineering attitude. He might even be seen as a winner. In the book he is a loser. We lose the essential lesson: to get involved with those crimes, at a certain age, if it is not done with care and distanciation, in a discursive way, with aware adults, it leads to degradation because evil is catching and there is no remedy, no medicine to cure it. I guess that we can maybe enjoy the film, if we do not know the book, even if the swiftness of the film erases most details and most dark corners in the tale. I definitely prefered the book. Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, Paris Universities IX and II

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