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Todd Bowden is learning about the Holocaust in high school, and recognises an old photograph of a concentration camp officer as an old man in his neighborhood. He confronts the man, Kurt Dussander, with his knowledge. Obsessed with the atrocities Dussander committed during the war, Todd begins to blackmail the old man: in exchange for the teenager's silence, Dussander must reveal his evil past. As Todd probes the old man's buried memories, indications of his evil begin to re-emerge. A game of psychological warfare begins that spirals out of control.
For more about Apt Pupil and the Apt Pupil Blu-ray release, see Apt Pupil Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 2, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro, Bruce Davison, Elias Koteas, Joe Morton, David Schwimmer
Director: Bryan Singer
» See full cast & crew
Apt Pupil Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 2, 2011
There's a great sketch by U.K. comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb, where the two play Nazi soldiers standing watch somewhere on the German front. One of them, troubled, turns to the other with a question: "Hans, I've just noticed something. Have you looked at our caps recently? The badges on our caps, have you looked at them? They've got skulls on them. Have you noticed, that the badges on our caps actually have little pictures of human skulls on them? Hans," he pauses here, "are we the baddies?" It's funny, yes, but it begs the question: How could the Nazis seem so obviously evil? There are historical answers, naturally—relating to propaganda, Hitler's cult-of-personality, and the very essence of fascism—but it's still baffling in retrospect that an entire country could buy into a movement that was so clearly malevolent.
Now, of course, The Third Reich is seen as the personification of evil in the 20th century—for good reason—and a trivial side effect of this is that Nazis have found a new home in literature and film as the ultimate villains: callous, cruel, and unchangingly remorseless. We're all used to seeing SS soldiers in war films, French occupation stories, and even in adventure movies, like the Indiana Jones series, but what's less common—and perhaps more interesting—is the "Nazi next door" sub-genre, about those who fled Germany to avoid war crimes tribunals and live abroad under an assumed identity. There's a lot of potential here for drama and psychological insight. How would we feel, for example, about an octogenarian ex-Nazi who is genuinely sorry about—and haunted by—the atrocities he committed, and who only wants to put the past behind him and die in peace? Most of these films, however, take a "once evil, always evil" approach that's strictly one-dimensional. Such is the case with Apt Pupil. While it works in some ways as a thriller about deception and mutual blackmail, the film is hampered by the unambiguous monstrousness of its main characters. Amongst other things.
Based on a Stephen King novella of the same name—and taken from the Different Seasons collection, which also yielded "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand By Me"—Apt Pupil opens with an interesting, if somewhat unbelievable, narrative hook. After a history class unit on the Holocaust peaks his curiosity in all things Nazi, sixteen-year-old high school senior Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) notices an old man (Ian McKellen) on the bus who looks conspicuously like a war crimes fugitive he came across in his extracurricular studies of the subject. What are the odds, right? (This isn't the last time in the film you'll ask yourself that particular question.) A month later, Todd shows up on the man's doorstep and reveals that he knows everything about him, that he's not Arthur Denker, mild-mannered German émigré, but is in fact Kurt Dussander, a former Nazi Obersturmbannführer who fled his country to escape the Nuremberg Trials. See, Todd has been doing some discrete gumshoe work: fingerprints, photographs, internet sleuthing—the whole shebang. What does he want in exchange for keeping Dussander's nasty past a secret? Just to hear the old man's death camp exploits firsthand, to learn about "everything they're afraid to show us in school." Dussander, a doddering but whip-smart alcoholic, complies, dishing out one disturbing story after another about gas chamber malfunctions and awful experiments.
At first, we think that mere curiosity is driving Todd's blackmail plan, but as his after-school relationship with Dussander develops over the course of the semester, it becomes clear that Todd has sociopathic tendencies of his own. For Christmas, he buys Dussander a convincing reproduction of a Nazi uniform and demands that the old man put it on and goose step around the kitchen. As he barks out about-face orders like a commandant, we see a chilling mix of power-lust and fear in Todd's eyes. Who's the Nazi now? the sequence seems to ask. Of course, Dussander—who's been successfully hiding from the Israelis for 40-odd years—is no fool, and he's got a reverse blackmail scheme of his own, designed to keep Todd in check.
There are plenty of mind games between the aging Nazi and his obsessive, eager-to-learn apprentice, and this part of the plot is satisfying, evoking an uncomfortable master/student bond with homoerotic, sadomasochistic overtones—even if nothing explicitly physical happens between the two. Where the story begins to falter is when it forgoes the psychological maneuvering of its first half in favor of a more exploitive, over-the-top rush to a violent conclusion. Putting on the Nazi uniform seems to reawaken the "monster" within Dussander, who first tries to exterminate a neighbor's cat in his gas oven—a ridiculous scene—and then sets his sights on an easier (read: clawless) target, a homeless drifter played twitchily by Elias Koteas. Todd's cruelty escalates too; he is the apt pupil of the title, after all.
Director Bryan Singer, hot off his success with The Usual Suspects, finds himself in something of a sophomore slump here. Apt Pupil seems both over and under-thought. It has moments of well-executed suspense but then gets bogged down in unnecessary montage; it establishes a clever, almost cold war relationship between the two main characters—that is, based on mutually assured destruction—and then flails about with a climax that relies too heavily on exaggerated monster-movie violence. (Quick! Hit him with a shovel!) And then there's the ending, which presents a coincidence even more unlikely than Todd spotting Dussander on the bus. As far as Stephen King adaptations go, this one falls somewhere in the middle; it's no The Shining—that's for sure—but it's miles better than, say, Sleepwalkers or Maximum Overdrive. (Although those two have their share of cheesy, so-bad-it's-good charm.) The acting is middling too. McKellen is compulsively watchable as the erstwhile Nazi—you can practically see the mental clockwork ticking behind his cold eyes—but Brad Renfro is a bit too vacant, his transformation into an evil-addled protégé less convincing. For a hit of 1990s nostalgia, look out for a Friends-era David Schwimmer as a guidance counselor with a NASCAR mustache.
Apt Pupil Blu-ray, Video Quality
Image Entertainment has been on a roll with their re-releases of catalog titles from the 1980s and '90s, and Apt Pupil continues that streak, with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that makes for a solid upgrade from the DVD edition. The print used here is in great condition, with no scratches or even white specks, and it looks to have been transferred faithfully, with no attempts to artificially bolster clarity with edge enhancement or smooth out grain with DNR. The film's palette has always been a bit drab—appropriately so—but color is as consistent and dense as it needs to be, showing no sudden fluctuations or wishy-washy-ness. Black levels could stand to be a little deeper, with more sculpted contrast—the image looks somewhat flat—but this is hardly a concern. Although the film isn't extremely sharp, thanks to a slightly chunky grain structure, the jump to high definition is immediately visible in Ian McKellen's wrinkles and the threading of his knit sweaters. Finally, while darker scenes tend to get noisy, you shouldn't notice any other compression-related distractions. This is probably as good as a release as fans could hope for.
Apt Pupil Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Apt Pupil also makes good use of its lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, with thoughtful, if occasionally overzealous sound design. Todd's nightmare sequences are especially interactive, with gas seeping ominously in through the rear speakers and all-manner of impressionistic swooshes and jolts. The surround channels get ample usage throughout, mostly in the form of ambience, like pouring rain, tweeting birds, blowing wind, and tolling school bells. There also seems to be an attempt at acoustic accuracy. During one scene in the school gym, for example, the sound of Todd's basketball slamming into the backboard reverberates convincingly from all sides. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the track, though, is composer/editor John Ottman's score, full of bright, rich strings and deep pounding kettledrums. The music does venture into "jump scare" territory a few times, but this is forgivable. Everything has clarity and a decent amount of dynamic breadth, and dialogue sits comfortably on top of the mix, always easy to understand. The disc includes optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Apt Pupil Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Apt Pupil Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Stephen King's canon has produced some transcendent films and also some utter trash; Apt Pupil sits squarely in the middle. It's suspenseful only in fits and starts, it trades psychological insight for straight-up bludgeoning, and it's bookended by two hard-to-swallow contrivances—basically, everything about the film screams yeah, it's okay I guess. Props to Image Entertainment, though, for realizing that the film has an audience, snagging the rights, and giving Apt Pupil a decent Blu-ray release. If you're a Bryan Singer fan, you might want to snag this one for a low price, otherwise, this is strictly rental material.
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