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Films I Neglected To Review: Kids Do The Darndest Things
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Diary of a Teenage Girl," "The Look of Silence" and "Phoenix."

Set in mid-Seventies San Francisco, "Diary of a Teenage Girl" starts off with 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) announcing to her tape-recorded diary "I had sex for the first time today. Holy shit!" If that alone doesn't raise more than a few discomfited eyebrows, consider that the man who claimed her virginity, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), is not only two decades her senior but is also the boyfriend of her hard-drinking and deeply narcissistic mother (Kristen Wiig). Now consider the fact that not only does the film make clear that Minnie was the one who more or less initiated the relationship with Monroe, this adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel refuses to look at her as a victim in any way. Confused, certainly, and caught in a turmoil of emotions that she is not quite mature enough to fully deal with and which, due to the particular circumstances, she is unable to discuss with anyone other than her best friend and even that ultimately ends up in a threesome involving the two of them and Monroe. If you were to custom-design a film specifically to make conservative minds explode, one would be hard-pressed to come up with anything more incendiary than what is on display in this film's 102 minutes. (And at this point, it should probably be noted that while the British-born Powley could theoretically pass for a teenager, she is 23 in real life.)

Under normal circumstances, a film with a premise like this would ordinarily wind up s either a smutty sex comedy or a turgidly melodrama of the kind that the Lifetime network serves up on a punishingly regular basis. In the case of "Diary of a Teenage Girl," writer-director Marielle Heller has charter a more honest and truthful path for the story that is relatively unheard of in American coming-of-age movies, especially the rare ones centered on female adolescence (though viewers with a taste for controversial French films will note a whiff of the works of Catherine Breillat throughout). There are a lot of borderline skeevy moments to be had but at no time does Heller impose any moral judgements on any of her characters--even the ones that might deserve some. Instead, she just presents them as real people and allows the audience to decide for themselves where they stand in regards to them, an approach that becomes especially important when navigating the potentially tricky final scenes. This is the kind of material that might stymie most experienced filmmakers, let alone a newcomer like Heller, but she pulls it off quite well--her only stumble is the decision to include bits of animation that are presumably meant to suggest Minnie's deepest thoughts, fears and fantasies but only serve to add an unnecessarily twee edge to the proceedings. Luckily, that mistake is more than made up for in the form of the fairly spectacular performance from the relatively unknown Powley--playing a character who shifts between being vulnerable, brash, scared, confused, amused, heartbreaking and deeply annoying, she gives a wonderfully nuanced performance that hits every one of those beats perfectly and which should make her a new hero among teenage girls for giving voice to their own thoughts and concerns about the turmoil of adolescence.

In 1965, there was a military coup in Indonesia and in its aftermath, huge numbers of communists and suspected communists were slaughtered by those in the new regime, many of whom still hold positions of great power today. In his highly controversial 2013 documentary "The Act of Killing," filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer looked up a number of those killers and not only interviewed them as they recounted their crimes with glee, he gave them the chance to make films based on their experiences that took their inspiration from any number of classic screen genres--film noir, westerns and yes, even a musical number or two. For his latest film, "The Look of Silence," Oppenheimer returns to the scene of the crime for a project that is even darker and more troubling than its predecessor. This time around, he follows Adi Rukun, an exceedingly mild-mannered optometrist who performs eye examinations on those killers and quietly leads them into discussions about what they did back in 1965--one gleefully describes slicing off the breast of one victim and of drinking the blood of others, supposedly to stave off insanity. What they don't realize is that Adi's parents had an older son who was murdered by these people two years before he was born and he hopes to get them to admit to and perhaps apologize for their crimes while making sure that their descendants know of the dark secrets they have been keeping for over a half-century.

Although I admired "The Act of Killing," I was not quite as overwhelmed by it as others were because I felt that Oppenheimer's outsider status brought a certain distance to the material that threatened to become off-putting at times. By shifting the focus to the victims--represented by Adi and his still-living parents, a 103-year-old father blessed with dementia and a 100-year-old mother cursed with her fully intact memory--and moving to a virtually invisible position in the background, Oppenheimer closes that distance considerably and the result is a film that is almost overwhelmingly powerful at times, both in the horror that it conveys through the deceptively gentle-sounding perpetrators of savageries that are almost too much to comprehend and in the elegant formal beauty through which he presents this information. For those who saw "The Act of Killing," this is a must-see companion piece but it stands well enough on its own so that newcomers will be able to follow it without any trouble. "The Look of Silence" may not exactly be the ideal selection for a relaxing night at the movies but I promise that those who are willing to take a chance on it will never forget it, no matter how hard they might want to when all is said and done.

"Phoenix," the latest work from acclaimed German director Christian Petzold, is a film that has been garnering hosannas from around the world ever since it made its debut at last year's Toronto Film Festival and it is easy to see why--it is stylish, well-made and contains a fairly extraordinary central performance from actress Nina Hoss. In fact, I can only think of one thing that is really wrong with it and that is the fact that the story that it tells is so patently ridiculous that it fairly well boggles the mind, and this is coming from someone who regularly venerates the films of Brian De Palma and Luc Besson. Set in Germany just after the end of WW II, the film tells the story of Nelly (Hoss), a Jewish singer who has survived a stint in a concentration camp, albeit with a face disfigured by a gunshot wound along the way, who has returned to Berlin to undergo plastic surgery to more or less restore her looks and then to find the husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) that she suspects may have betrayed her to the Nazis in order to save himself. At the nightclub where she once sang and he served as her piano player, she discovers him working as a busboy but since he believes her to be dead, he does not recognize her for whom she is. However, because of what he thinks to be her coincidental resemblance to the real Nelly, he contrives to use her as part of a plot to score her family's not inconsiderable estate for himself.

Based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, "Phoenix" will no doubt remind many viewers of any number of tales involving people whose eerie resemblances to supposedly dead people end up tormenting those who were left behind--"Laura," "Vertigo" and "Femme Fatale" immediately leap to mind. All of those films told stories that were essentially preposterous but did so with so much grand cinematic style that you were too swept up in the moviemaking magic to realize how silly the narrative was at its core. With "Phoenix," I was never quite able to make that leap, at least not to the degree that I did with those aforementioned titles and certainly not to the degree that its proponents, who have been hailing it as one of the year's great fils, have gone with it. This is not to say that Petzold has mucked things up here in the slightest--the film is very well-crafted and manages to convey its overly melodramatic storyline in a surprisingly lean and economical 96 minutes. He has also managed to get a number of stellar performances out of his cast--Hoss, who has worked with Petzold several times in the past, does some great work here and goes a long way towards making the increasingly batty proceedings seem as plausible as possible, Zehrfeld approaches his rotter of a character in a manner that actually inspires a certain degree of sympathy for his weak-willed ways and Nina Kunzendorf all but steals her scenes as a loyal friend of Nelly just wants to go with her to Palestine and start a new life. "Phoenix" may not be quite the masterpiece that some have deemed it but it is worth looking up regardless and who knows, maybe you will see something in it that I simply didn't.

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originally posted: 08/15/15 00:25:34
last updated: 08/15/15 00:34:06
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