The Critics: You'll feel a goose-step over your grave ...
Apt Pupil (15) Bryan Singer; 111 mins A Simple Plan (15) Sam Raimi; 121 mins She's All That (12) Robert Iscove; 95 mins The Corruptor (18) James Foley; 110 mins The Impostors (15) Stanley Tucci; 100 mins
Sunday 23 May 1999
In Stephen King's novella Apt Pupil, he describes Todd's fixation as a kind of falling in love, and Todd's desire like "the difference between being told about germs and actually seeing them in a microscope". One day, on the bus, Todd gets to see the germ up close. He recognises an old man as Himmler's "efficiency expert" Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), last seen, according to the Israeli government, in Cuba in the 1960s. Todd follows him home, and then spends a month compiling a dossier on this man - Unterkommandant at Auschwitz, not only witness to but instigator of the "gooshy stuff" Todd now lives to hear about. Todd descends on Dussander and promises his silence only if Dussander will speak of the atrocities of the camps. He becomes Dussander's pupil, the pair stuck indoors round a plastic kitchen table, indulging in a kind of nostalgia, both losing weight, both sleeping badly ("The subconscious digging obsessively at some object that won't be dislodged") and utterly misanthropic.
Bryan Singer, who also directed the moody The Usual Suspects, handles King unusually well, particularly his skill with specific horrors. In any King novel, there's likely to be something in a shroud, something slumped and hungry, some nightmare creature under the bed with twigs for fingers. Here we have Dussander, all liver spots and ash down his shirt, forced by Todd to climb into an SS uniform and goose-step up the hall, suddenly very alive, suddenly full of purpose. These are images that stick.
But it's Singer's handling of King's power-shifts that's so extraordinary. Almost imperceptibly, Todd becomes a prisoner. Not only practically - eight months knowing about a war criminal and never telling the authorities, what would Monica-baby have to say about that? - but in his soul. The removal of his teenage frivolities has been ruinous, nothing less than an amputation. At first, Singer has the kitchen dark but the light outside bright and confident, always trying to get in through the oily windows. Then half-way through the film this light starts looking blood-raw, awkward, like someone over-dressed, until eventually it's always night, or certainly feels that way.
Singer's casting illuminates this emotional evaporation, this daily discard. Renfro is bland-handsome. His is a face that you simply can't piece together in retrospect, a face capable of anything. It is Todd's manipulations that fuel King's story, Todd's complicity that engenders the horror here. Dussander only emerges at moments as really fiendish. He is already toppled, unrepentant, and so full of a kind of vomit. But Dussander is nothing compared to this teenager. Todd commits a violation in ignoring his better self. He cycles the optimistic routes of a young man, but his humdrum face and baseball-star shoulders hide an increasingly horrible internal lacework. As a study in how we can decompose as individuals, this is one of the best films I've seen.
A Simple Plan, based on the successful novel by Scott B Smith, is set in a rural American town, of precisely the type J D Salinger succeeds in hiding in. Hank (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and brutish friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) find $4m at the remote site of a wrecked small airplane. Their plan is to keep the money and their heads down, until they know it is safe to leave town. The big problem with this plan is that none of the three can keep a secret, and are soon busy telling their spouses. Hank's wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda), pregnant, ostensibly uncomplicated and full of probity, turns out to have a touch of the Lady Macbeths as she goads Hank to more and more bizarre methods of covering his tracks. I half expected her to yell "But screw your courage to the sticking-place and we'll not fail!"
As each character displays an ability to assent, assert, deny, and rage we feel a kind of panic, but Sam Raimi's film is very considered. He is constantly taking our nails from our mouth. Thrifty with symbolism - a fox streaking across the snow; crows battling for supremacy - Raimi continues to choose the human, moral war over the dramatic machinations of what turns out to be a very chaotic plan indeed. This placidity is admirable.
She's All That is a rare thing - an American teen-flick in which nobody dies. This is no slim boast since all the I Know What You Did Last Summers and Screams have shoved youth-oriented films into a worrying arena. Rachael Leigh Cook plays Laney Boggs, an introverted, artistic loner who is romanced by the High School God, Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr), gets a make-over care of his sister, and goes to the Prom. While this might sound like a patronising Cinderella story, it is actually a very funny, well-played film. Laney (vegetarian, politically aware, stable) kicks ass, and the Prom Queen and her evil cronies are all pneumatic snobs, very much spelled out as physically thrusting and absurdly "adult". OK, so Laney loses her specs and lo, a peach with sculpted eyebrows is revealed, which does wildly undermine the point of the film, namely, it's what's inside the dork that counts.
Another irritant is Zack, who, in the tradition of all American teen films is boring (with the exception of the Action Man scar on his chin, which is definitely cool) but still gets the girl. Remember Andrew McCarthy in John Hughes's Pretty In Pink? The kind of boy who practises golf in the study and had never even heard of the Smiths (this was 1986 after all). I was shocked when he bagged the fantastically lean and original Molly Ringwald (he doesn't in the book. Ha!). Hard, then, to say why I liked She's All That. Possibly simply because nobody lunges at the heroine with an axe whilst she changes her knickers.
In The Corruptor, Mark Wahlberg plays an Internal Affairs operative, undercover in New York's Chinatown. He is affiliated to the Asian Gang Unit, and he finds he likes his partner Chow Yun-Fat, and the pair blaze about in a sometimes shockingly trigger-happy way. The first 40 minutes are muddled, but the film still affects a tetchy atmosphere, mindful, at times, of the 1973 film Serpico, and Wahlberg is quite brilliant.
Stanley Tucci's The Impostors, his first film after his charming Big Night (1995), has Tucci and Oliver Platt playing impoverished actors stowing away as stewards on a 1930s luxury liner. This supposed homage to the Keystone Kops has the cast rushing about with soft grins on their faces, then shrieking and hatching all sorts of confusing plots. A mess of the worst kind - The Impostors is plump with delusions of adequacy.
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