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Movie Reviews: Reel around the festival

First weekend of film fest goes to France, Cuba and the Hell House

Friday, November 08, 2002

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

'DADDY COOL'

More imaginative than it is lucid, Brady Lewis' film "Daddy Cool" takes its cue from the kind of enjoyably cheesy science-fiction/horror films you might have seen on "Chiller Theater," perhaps on the kind of '50s-vintage television set used by characters in the movie.

The film begins with snowy TV images, fading in and out, of what looks like a mad scientist who becomes an on-air evangelist railing on about science. This is Dr. Alter (John Amplas), once a Mr. Wizard-type celebrity whose rapport with children somehow got twisted when it comes to his own spawn.

His son, Roger, has somehow turned into a grown woman, Roxanne (Streeter Nelson), who hates her father with a passion. Twin sister Kristine vanished, but Dr. Alter knows what happened to her -- a trip into his Count Weirdly basement laboratory reveals all.

Roxanne seeks counseling from Dr. Talbot (Larry John Meyers), who has his own lonely secret -- when the moon is full, he becomes a werewolf.

The theme of dual identities is obvious, as is the film's '50s-influenced visual design and its loopy plot. It is often difficult to follow exactly how and why some of the characters are transformed -- these things tend to be spoken of, often elliptically, more than they are shown to us. That might be a factor of the film's low budget, although Lewis manages to include a generous portion of optical effects, many of which he did himself.

"Daddy Cool" also seems hampered by a certain reserve. The movie tries and succeeds at being strange, but it seems to be unwilling to let its Bride of Frankenstein hair down and have as much fun as seems appropriate.

Still, "Daddy Cool" has lots of local actors to spot, and you can't help but chuckle at such sights as Pittsburgh Filmmakers' film booker Gary Kaboly playing a variation of Lansberry and Richard Rauh portraying a man having a silly fit at a cemetery. Now that's funny, and even cool, daddy.

-- Ron Weiskind

• • •

'MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT'

As we learned by looking into the smiling faces of the (suspected) Beltway snipers, evil isn't always readily recognizable. That proves to be the case in this Claude Chabrol film slyly examining perversity -- defined here as "a tendency to desire evil, often with a certain pleasure."

You wouldn't know by looking at Marie-Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a wealthy, classically attired woman who runs her family's chocolate factory, that she harbors a very dark, empty soul. As the French film opens, Marie-Claire is remarrying her first husband, a virtuoso pianist named Andre (Jacques Dutronc), who had another wife and son in between.

Serendipity brings a stranger into their midst: a young pianist, daughter of a physician, who has a coincidental connection to the family. Her arrival sets off a chain reaction of secrets revealed, motives unmasked and murderous intents laid bare.

The brunette Huppert, with her pearl choker and designer sheaths, is Chabrol's answer to Hitchcock's icy blondes. He even poses her against a knitted black throw in a telling spider web pattern.

Chabrol calls this a dramatic comedy but acknowledges that his affinity for thrillers and their elements -- deadly suspicions, destruction of evidence, even mood-setting music that factors into the story -- creeps in. "Merci pour le Chocolat" stints a bit in the reaction to some climactic truth-telling but the film, led by an excellent Huppert, is like an exquisite morsel of chocolate: spare and yet oh so delicious.

-- Barbara Vancheri

• • •

'INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSASSIN'

Unemployed TV cameraman Ron Kobeleski gets a message from his San Bernadino neighbor, Walter Ohlinger, who says he wants to confess to something -- that he was the second gunman in the Kennedy assassination, the one who shot the president in the head from behind a fence on the grassy knoll in Dallas.

Can you prove it, Kobeleski asks? Yes, Ohlinger replies.

If Ohlinger's telling the truth, Kobeleski knows he's got the story of the century. In search of proof, they go to Dallas and Virginia and Maryland and finally to the nation's capital. But Kobeleski makes inquiries on his own that hint at why he shouldn't believe the flinty old man.

Kobeleski's documentary footage of their quest -- including violent outbursts by Ohlinger that cause his paranoia to spread to the filmmaker -- puts the viewer right in the middle of things. The most convincing thing about the movie is that you want to buy what it is selling -- just as Kobeleski wants Ohlinger's story to be true.

How much are we willing to believe? That may be the question you ask at the end of writer-director Neil Burger's intriguing film, which stars Raymond J. Barry as Ohlinger and Dylan Haggerty as Kobeleski. No wonder so many people believe conspiracy theories when real locations, real conjecture, real history can make them seem so convincing.

-- Ron Weiskind

• • •

'CHILDREN OF THE CENTURY'

The closest thing to historical context in the period romantic drama "Children of the Century" comes at the very beginning, in a written description of how the ruin following the Napoleonic years left the young generation in France feeling cynical and despairing.

Maybe that explains the selfish passion and immature rages of the writer Alfred de Musset (Benoit Magimel) in the course of his combustible love affair with George Sand (Juliette Binoche), the celebrated author who took a male pen name, wore men's clothing, smoked cigars and scandalized Paris with her views on marriage.

She was six years the elder, but each fell hard for the other. There is evidence of de Musset's instability -- he stabs a fork deep into his brother's hand at one point -- but the real trouble started when the lovers shared a trip to Venice. Sand was taken ill and was attended to by a Dr. Pagello (Stafano Dionisi), making de Musset insanely jealous until he himself is laid low by imbibing alcohol and opium.

And so the cycle goes -- violent blowup, separation, longing, rekindling of the passion, rekindling of the jealousy and on and on.

And on. As the movie drags on, one may ask who indulges in the most masochism: Sand and de Musset for torturing themselves with each other, or the audience for sitting through this seemingly endless series of battles.

More of the historical context suggested at the outset might have helped, as well as some insight into the work produced by the two writers. Binoche and Magimel are very good indeed, but director Diane Kurys -- straying from autobiographical material for the first time -- finds the emotion but, ultimately, not the characters.

-- Ron Weiskind

• • •

'HELL HOUSE'

The story is that when Silent Cal Coolidge returned home from church, his wife asked him what the sermon was about.

"Sin," he answered.

"What did the minister say?" his wife pressed him.

"He was against it," said Cal.

The folks at Trinity Assembly of God, a fundamentalist Christian soul factory in suburban Dallas, are all for it, though. They revel in it, roll in it, exult in it.

They're obsessed with sex, drugs, suicide, murder, rape, incest -- the whole seven deadly and plenty more, like homosexuality.

Every Halloween for more than 10 years, the church stages "Hell House," a sin-drenched re-enactment of souls in torment for the community to visit.

Inspired by the far tamer haunted houses that have become popular fund-raisers, Hell House's staged scenes full of fake blood, screams, gunshots and condemned sinners writhing in a reddish, smoky Hades has gotten nationwide attention.

Documentary filmmaker George Ratliff followed the Hell House gang, from the tough-minded, tongue-speaking minister to the tech crew in mounting their Holy Roller show which has attracted 75,000 in 10 years at $7 a pop.

The result is very scary -- and fun, too. He gives us the Broadway of the Bible Belt with little overt commentary. The folks speak for themselves, proudly defending their own peculiar brand of Christianity with a mindlessness that seems more pervasive than their religion.

The last stop on the Hell House tour is the prayer room where those sufficiently frightened out their wits can redeem themselves in group prayer and by filling out a pledge card.

-- Bob Hoover

• • •

'AMEN'

For 60 years, there have been persistent "rumors" that Pope Pius XII was personally informed -- and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy knew in general -- about the Nazis' murder of six million Jews during World War II.

Costa-Gavras, in this story of the conscience-stricken SS officer (Kurt Gerstein) and young Jesuit priest (Mathieu Kassovitz) who do the informing, asserts there is no "controversy" or doubt about it.

Gerstein, as the soldier-chemist who supplies the Zyclon gas and witnesses the killings for good German technical reasons, delivers a gripping performance. Marcel Iures is chilling as the wartime pope. The script is based on Rolf Hochhuth's play, "The Deputy."

It is a terribly upsetting and important film.

Hard -- and wonderful -- to believe that this man Costa-Gavras, maker of the epochal political expose "Z" in 1968, retains his peak creative powers in 2002.

"Amen" to that.

-- Barry Paris

• • •

'CUBA FELIZ'
'

In this charming entertainment that translates as "Happy Cuba," Miguel del Morales plays a wandering street minstrel akin to the one in "Fantasticks."

Hitchhiking across the island country, with only a guitar on his back, he has a series of splendid folk musicians who warmly embrace and welcome him into their homes, jamming at the drop of a sombrero.

Directed with casual, candid-camera grace by Karim Dridi, "Cuba Feliz" is comparable and complementary -- in a quite favorable way -- to "Buena Vista Social Club." Reality rears its ugly head like a rusty cargo boat in Havana harbor at the end. But its rich diet of salsa, slum rappers, boisterous old boleros, jazz and village styles makes it a joyous celebration of the rootless lifestyle as well as the music.

-- Barry Paris


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