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Apt Pupil

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Apt Pupil

Starring: Ian Mckellen, Brad Renfro
Director: Bryan Singer
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: October 1998
Genres: Suspense, Thriller

Review by Walter Frith
1½ stars out of 4

It took me a little while to figure out why I didn't like 'Apt Pupil'. At first, I was intrigued by its thoroughly original premise. A high school student (Brad Renfro) digs up some information about one of his elderly neighbors (Ian McKellen). He comes up with information that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the old man is a Nazi war criminal who escaped punishment after World War II and now lives in America. Renfro uses the information in his possession to essentially blackmail his latest study. Study, you ask? Yes. Renfro's plan is to have the old man tell him stories about the Holocaust, perhaps things that aren't in any of the history books that the Nazi himself remembers.

The tables are turned on Renfro in a way that will land him in a lot of trouble if the authorities find out he knew about the old Nazi and didn't report it. There are some other plot twists that occur in the film that are clever but they're only executed with about half the strength they're capable of.

The film is directed by Bryan Singer ('The Usual Suspects') and Singer has made a reasonably well crafted film that could have used a little more thought in its writing (the screenplay is by Brandon Boyce based on the novella by Stephen King) that it unfortunately relies too much in some spots on the "schlock" value which is contained in many of Stephen King's stories that are turned into films. These elements of the film undermine and undercut the value of the film's principal psychological subject matter which are memories of the Holocaust. The film, unintentionally I'm sure but nevertheless cheapens the memory of this historic injustice One scene has McKellen cradling a cat from his backyard and bringing in to the house and trying to throw it into his gas powered oven and another scene involves McKellen's torture and murder of a derelict male prostitute (Elias Koteas) to an extent where he involves Renfro in the crime. I still couldn't figure out what the point of these two things were, significant to the film except to illustrate that McKellen is shown to be an unrepentant Nazi, past redemption and not seeming to care about it.

What's also upsetting is the way the adult characters are portrayed in this film. Renfro's father (Bruce Davison) is made to look like an uninformed stooge, unaware of his son's activities which I suppose no one can really blame him for but the situation is still annoying to watch at times and Renfro's high school guidance counselor (David Schwimmer) is portrayed basically as a jack ass whose job it is to socially guide the students under him and he has the table turned on him by a high school kid to the extent where he will be in serious hot water legally.

I saw so many directions this film could have gone in and while I don't usually judge films for what they COULD have been rather than what they are, the paths of choice about the way the subject matter is handled in every aspect from start to finish are so obviously the wrong ones that in some respects, a first year film student could have diagnosed a better treatment.

The film's saving grace from getting a thoroughly negative review is the totally convincing and chilling performance by Ian McKellen. His performance as a former Nazi living with a soul that is no doubt damned for eternity is so chilling because his character is one who would live his life over again exactly the same way if given the chance without any remorse for what he's done. McKellen could get an Oscar nomination for this role but it may be a long shot.

'Apt Pupil' is not a disappointing film to a large extent but it is a disappointing after thought when you consider what might have been. Another missed opportunity on celluloid to push a film's subject matter to memorable proportions.

Copyright 2000 Walter Frith

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