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Review: 'Apt Pupil' gets an 'A'

Web posted on: Wednesday, October 21, 1998 11:16:02 AM EDT

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- "Apt Pupil" gets pretty spooky, and more than a bit strange. But this should come as no surprise since it's adapted from a novella by Stephen King. Brad Renfro plays Todd Bowden, a 16-year-old high school student who is just a little too smart, and a little too curious for his own good. Ian McKellen plays Kurt Dussander, a Nazi war criminal in hiding.

Todd is fascinated with the Holocaust. After his history class briefly studies that period, he sets out on his own to find out more about that terrible time in history. He spends hours researching the atrocities. Then, one day on a bus, he sees a man who looks familiar, and he suddenly realizes he's looking at Dussander, a notorious Nazi wanted for crimes against humanity.

Paul's Pix: "Apt Pupil"
Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Theatrical preview for "Apt Pupil"
Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "He felt safe"
Video clip: 3Mb QuickTime

Rather than turn the old man in to the authorities, he strikes a deal with him. In a weird twist, Todd forces the old man to relive his days as an S.S. Officer, and tell him every detail about the death camps -- all the things they don't teach you school. They then set off on a dangerous relationship that reveals horrible emotions, painful memories, and awakens a terrible evil within them both.

McKellen Oscar-worthy

McKellen plays Dussander as a seemingly meek old man, minding his own business, and living out his lonely life in isolation. So when we discover his horrific deeds from the past our reaction is intensified upon learning that such an ordinary looking man could have done such extraordinarily evil things.

If Sir Ian McKellen (he was knighted in 1991) doesn't get an Oscar nomination next year I'm gonna ... I'm gonna -- Well there's not much I can do but I'm not going to be happy. His work in "Apt Pupil," and the upcoming movie "Gods And Monsters," is outstanding and his brilliant career should be recognized.

Renfro is also very believable in his role as the young boy. But I must admit that at times his acting style gets on my nerves. He appears to be a believer in the Ethan Hawkes' school of acting. Whenever he wants to convey deep feelings -- such as rage -- he tucks in his chin, lowers his head and turns his eyes upwards. Then he delivers his lines through clenched teeth. We get it, Brad. We get it.

The usual Singer

This is the third feature film by 31-year-old director Brian Singer. His second effort won two Academy Awards. In 1995 "The Usual Suspects" grabbed the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Kevin Spacey went home with the Best Supporting Actor award. In "Apt Pupil," Singer once again uses tension and mystery to great effect. The film isn't a mystery in the same way that "The Usual Suspects" was, but there are still many surprises, and you're never quite sure what's going to happen next.

This is a grim film with disturbing subject matter, but it's also a fascinating character study in psychological warfare between the old man and the young boy. This is a story about control. First the boy is in control. Then the old man. Finally they both become overwhelmned as events take on a life of their own and neither one of them are in control.

"Apt Pupil" addresses the question of evil and how absolute evil can corrupt absolutely. I doubt if this film will have the broad appeal that "The Usual Suspects" enjoyed, but this peek at the nasty side of human nature is compelling and worth seeing.

"Apt Pupil" opens nationwide on Friday, October 23rd and is rated "R" (due to subject matter and violence) with a running time of 100 minutes.

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