It was a Christmas release to theaters but “Love the Coopers” (2015 / CBS Films, Liongate / 107m / 29.95 / PG-13) is only now making it to home video. Just judging from the DVD case, I remarked to my viewing companion that it appeared to be the kind of feel-good holiday flick that would have the four generations of the Cooper clan gather together, putting problems and recriminations aside, to sing Christmas carols, possibly around the dinner table. Danged if I wasn’t right (though they do it in the living room). I suppose that – and the fact that they all miraculously manage to solve decades of problems with each other in a single night and discover family bonding – is supposed to make me subscribe to the injunction of the title. (At least I presume the title is an instruction to do likewise – I can’t imagine what else it can mean. Well, like most men, I rarely follow instructions.) The film boasts a terrific cast and a refreshing dose of snark – offhand I can’t think of another Yuletide film where the principle characters are far left and agnostics – but mostly this is the same old fluff with paper-thin characters and predictable outcomes.
Mom and Dad (Diane Keaton and John Goodman) had long ago planned a trip to Africa but children intervened and now she’s resisting the idea. Mom’s sister (Marisa Tomei, almost two decades younger than Keaton), who is determined to live down to the low expectations she thinks everyone has of her, gets arrested for shoplifting. Daughter (Olivia Wilde) picks up a cute soldier (Jake Lacy) at the airport to pose as her fiance so the family will think she is finally successful at relationships. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) brings home a much, much younger waitress (Amanda Seyfried) on whom he apparently has a crush. All this resolves in improbable ways; the arresting officer lets the sister go (even though he would only have been called in because the store made a complaint, making this highly unlikely); daughter and soldier fall in love even though he’s a right wing fundamentalist type) and so forth. Well, what do you expect from a film set in some kind of fantasyland that has handbell choirs performing on the streets and department stores so vast they have fabulously huge food departments and carolers dressed in Victorian attire roaming the aisles? And said emporium is located in some city where it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to rural living where the houses are miles from each other. Did I mention that this mush is narrated by the family dog (Steve Martin) and that the sheer amount of adorable canines seems cynically calculated to prompt your “Aw” response in ways that would make Pavlov envious? I am resisting the urge to describe this treacle in canine terms.
It was refreshing therefore to turn to something darker and if “Crimson Peak” (2015 / Legendary, Universal / 119m / $34.98 / R) isn’t quite up there with the best Guillermo del Toro has done (it’s not easy to surpass, or even match, “Pan’s Labyrinth”) it’s at least a return to form after the fun but forgettable “Pacific Rim.” As with so much of the director’s work, this is not a traditional horror film – but then what makes this director’s work so exciting is the freshness he’s brought to the genre – though it’s tough to describe it as anything else. The heroine, an aspiring writer, describes a novel she’s working on as not being a ghost story but one with ghosts in it and that’s a fairly apt description of the film – and only one of a number of echoes of echoes within this intricately scripted work that evokes the Bronte sisters, Poe and others who plumbed the Gothic. Naïve and sheltered Edith (Mia Wasikowska) falls hard for Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet and inventor who has come to Buffalo seeking funding for a clay mining machine he’s worked up. After her father’s brutal murder, she marries him and, along with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) heads back to the family estate. At first glance it appears to be quite the place but, much like the pair who live there, it’s not as splendid as it seems. That’s not much of a surprise because dad, before his untimely passing, has dug up some dirt on the Sharpes and forbade the baronet to continue courting Edith. The cavernous, decaying house is teeming with ghosts, which Edith has been able to see since she was a little girl. Just what the intentions are of these specters is not clear (in Del Toro’s world ghosts are often as threatening to those who might help them as to those who murdered them) but they’re certainly ghastly apparitions that apparently resemble their decaying corpses.
Dyed in the wool horror fans won’t find any real scares here (though others might) but they will find a good old-fashioned Gothic thriller with gobs of moody and unsettling atmosphere. The house is both beautiful and threatening thanks to some odd architectural details, such as spikes on the archways (whose shape echoes the bonnet and cape outline of the ghost of Edith’s mother, seen early in the film). Lending a sense of claustrophobia to the immense structure are long rooms, as narrow as corridors and hallways that are even tighter spaces with barely enough room to traverse them. Significantly, once Edith arrives at the house she is attired in clothing that she seems engulfed by rather than wearing. Making all this even more disconcerting is the way del Toro’s camera glides elegantly through the space and filmed in color that is ravishingly sensual. The costume design us similarly lush and visually the film calls to mind the Hammer studio Gothic horrors of the late 1950s and early 60s (the choice ofcolors in the lighting alone suggests this must have been deliberate).The set-up is classic Ann Radcliffe with an innocent heroine unwittingly married into a noble but degenerate family that has unpleasant plans for her and of course her true love (Charlie Hunnam) charging to her rescue. Del Toro has elicited excellent performances from his cast – and I don’t think the director receives nearly enough credit for his work with actors – but Hiddleston deserves special recognition for imbuing the baronet with enough charm and vulnerability that you constantly question if he’s truly up to dastardly doings.
Some of your suspicions about the medical profession may be confirmed by the documentary “Making Rounds” (2015 / First Run Features / 88m / $24.95 / NR). It follows two cardiac specialists for a month as they and their students at Mt. Sinai make rounds the old-fashioned way – by actually going into the rooms, talking to the patients and physically examining them. Our populace (or more precisely their insurers) spend over $20 billion in tests every year and yet most patients are misdiagnosed doctors who read the lab reports but never actually see the patients. Drs. Valentin Fuster and Herschel Sklaroff don’t just roam the halls and read charts they ask the patients questions about their lives, personally examining them and listening to them. Repeatedly, this film shows them discovering the real medical problems that went undetected through a reliance on technology and – I suspect – doctors most interested in sailing through hospitals quickly so they could bill for a consulting fee. Sklaroff notes at one point that something like a hundred diseases can be diagnosed just by looking at a patient’s hands. (He doesn’t note that a doctor holding a hand while talking to a patient can be very soothing.) This back-to-the-basics approach has much disappeared but thanks to these two passing it on to their students perhaps it will return. We can only hope.
Things go pretty well downhill on the horror front from there. A Vin Diesel vehicle “The Last Witch Hunter” (2015 / Lionsgate / 106m / $39.99 BR+DVD combo / PG-13) presents him as an immortal witch hunter who, back in the days of the Vikings temporarily put paid to an evil witch – there are, as surely you know, good witches and bad witches – by removing her heart. She won’t truly die, we are told, until her heart stops beating. Now this seems to me a fairly obvious observation but it, and the curious decision to preserve that heart, is a clue as to what is wrong with this movie. The writing is positively atrocious (and as usual it took multiple writers to muck things up so badly). That Michael Caine – pretty much repeating his Alfred the butler schtick – allegedly decided to forego retirement to do this turkey because he was so impressed by the script just plain baffles science (he has confessed to appearing in crap before for the money and I suspect that’s the case here). Elijah Wood also shows up because he needs to put credits on his resume that don’t involve Hobbits and because, along with Caine, he supplies some acting talent badly needed by any film starring the wooden Diesel. There’s some great production design and cool CGI (and the sight of Diesel as a kind of Z Z Top Viking) but little that makes a lick of sense. The ending suggests a sequel (or Cthulhu help us, a series) that I suspect we may be spared.
Far worse – to the point of being completely hopeless in fact – is the Italian zombie entry “E.N.D.” (2015 / One 7 Movies / 84m / $19.95 / NR). Just for starters it can’t decide if it’s a zombie flick or one dealing with infection. Some characters turn into whatever it is they are from snorting contaminated cocaine whilst others rise from the dead; at least one character just turns having neither sniffed nor snuffed it. Things move along only because then characters do incredibly stupid things. Hearing that the dead are shambling back to life where does one seek safety? Why in a funeral parlor of course. On day No. 1446 (do the math) of the plague of the zombies one doofus goes hiking in the woods with his dogs. This ill-advised act results in just what you expect. Also leading to the expected outcome is when a carload of people surrounded by zombies exits their car. And if you can’t guess what will transpire in the case of the pregnant woman therein you need a refresher course in Obvious Plotting 101. The few clever touches – such as sub-titling the zombies’ grunting to each other – don’t arrive until nearly the end. But it’s a long slog to get there and there aren’t enough to make it worth your time.
Another Italian film, “Red Krokodil” (2012 / One 7 Movies / 88m / $19.95 / NR) is nigh impossible to classify. Krokodil is a drug, mostly found in Russia, and considered the deadliest in the world. It’s easy to cook up from readily available ingredients (some of which are more controlled elsewhere); it eats away at the body from inside at the injection points and is spectacularly addictive. Domiziano Cristopharo’s film deals with one unnamed user (Brock Madson) who wanders about his apartment in filthy, torn briefs –and sometimes less (be warned this film features abundant frontal male nudity). He dreams of wandering naked through fields, hallucinates being menaced by monsters and stared at by someone (or something) that rips holes in his wall and imagines that his mirror reflection is of his younger, healthier self. He withdraws, he gets high, he despairs (he tries to drown himself in the bidet at one point) and he seeks comfort in a childhood toy, a plush crocodile. There’s no plot, really, and not much in the way of incident for that matter. Cristophero seems to have taken the films of Andrei Tarkovsky as a model in crafting a production in which very little is happening on the surface or possibly very little is happening at all. This is frankly not a film for everyone (that it put me in mind of Tarkovsky will tip off some of you); it is quite unpleasant – particularly when it graphically depicts what ktokodil does to the user’s body – but I found it compelling.
Also shy of plot is “A Violent Life” (Ostia– 1970 / One 7 Movies / 100m / $19.95 / NR); for that matter there’s precious little that justifies the English language title – which happens also to be the English translation of the title of an earlier film also written but not directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini and also starring Franco Citti. If that’s not confusing enough try figuring out want the dickens is going on here. Two brothers (Citti and Laurent Terzieff) are petty criminals who find a young woman (Anita Sanders) lying in a field. They take her home but remain downstairs getting drunk while their pals rape her upstairs. She has been fleeing an amorous father so she lives with the brothers; at one point she puts makeup and women’s wigs on them and the two man dance together while she plays “Hernando’s Hideaway” on an accordion they’ve stolen. She tells of how her father saved her from being raped by a soldier and they relate how they killed their loutish father while they were still wee nippers. Abruptly the brothers are in jail; the woman visits them and they go to confession and nothing very interesting transpires. Per every synopsis I’ve read the two guys are each in love with the woman and vying for her affection but they show more repressed interest in each other. Finally there is a violent act and the film concludes. Who cares? I never thought I’d encounter a film in which Pasolini was involved that was both indecipherable and boring but here it is.