Few Scares, Even Less Originality Looming in 'The Darkness'

Directed by: Greg McLean; Runtime: 92 minutes
Grade: D-

While the "based on true events" Wolf Creek might be the first film that comes to mind involving Australian director Greg McLean, it's his crocodile creature feature, Rogue, that speaks volumes about his style, which took the mechanics of something akin to Jaws and delivered a ferocious horror flick. With The Darkness, McLean once again dives into familiar territory, this time adopting the template of another Spielberg-driven production while dabbling in the haunted-house genre, fusing together dimly-lit spookiness with brewing family dysfunction. Unlike McLean's crafty twist on the monster movie, however, this supernatural horror film creaks and splinters with every hint of familiarity, unabashedly displaying its cribbed plot with every jolt and every response around the corner, not helped by the shallow family discord scattered within.

The Darkness opens with a standard two-family vacation at the Grand Canyon, where parents Peter and Bronny Taylor (Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell) catch some alone time while the kids -- teenager Stephanie (Lucy Fry) and young autistic boy Michael (David Mazouz) -- explore the landscape. Michael, who sees and reacts differently to things, mistakenly escapes from his sister's observation, landing him face-to-face with an ancient tribal religious site. Eventually, they all meet up again for the trip back, though the family's unaware of what they're bringing with them. After being home for awhile, strange things start to happen around the house, from appliances turning on and doors opening to strange odors permeating the house. While juggling the petulance of their high-school daughter, busy architect Peter and recovering alcoholic Bronny find themselves at wit's end while dealing with Michael, whose antics have turned darker, distant, and violent since the vacation.

There's something commendable about how The Darkness attempts to balance its emerging supernatural threats with the tensions between the family members, hoping to add a legitimate dramatic angle to the atmosphere with their individual issues. From coping with an autistic child to controlling past demons involving alcoholism and promiscuity, McLean and his writers try really hard to give something of substance to the standard horror mechanics with this involving look at a disintegrating family dynamic. Both Kevin Bacon's escalating strain as a workaholic dad -- he drawn in shades of his performance from Stir of Echoes -- and Radha Mitchell's wide-eyed frustrations as the burdened mother work tirelessly to make the personal issues seem fraught and genuine, too. The cast can only accomplish so much when working with this kind of good-intended but ultimately rote scripting, though, which never gets beyond functioning like an obligatory, overly dour setup for the things about the go bump in their house.

In fact, the interwoven family conflicts in The Darkness have the opposite of their intended effect: the lackluster drama actually waters down McLean's horror intentions, elongating the predictable and wishy-washy PG-13 paranormal spookiness. A lack of originality becomes the film's overbearing villain, doing little to spruce up the tired but generally reliable concept of innocent people bringing something back -- a relic, a curse, some kind of monster -- from an ancient or foreign site, allowing monotony to set in with each recognizable howl, bump, and screech along the way. As the story travels from the orange-hued scenery of the Grand Canyon to the pristine domestic airiness of the Taylor's household, it's hard to escape the foreseeable evolution of how this eerie presence manifests in its new home, where mildly intriguing aspects involving black hand-prints and hallucinations of desert beasts are muted underneath clunky jump scares and even clunkier paternal anguish.

While The Darkness does constantly seem like it's an overturned chair or demented clown away from being a remake of Poltergeist (and we've already had one of those), its ancient tribal essence and Michael's significance as an autistic child hold onto some novelty, just to see the emergence of its evil forces. McLean's culmination isn't worth the patience, though: despite swirling indoor thunderstorms and odd little copper wands working as PKE meters, there's far too much of the Spielbergian concept duplicated in the Taylor household, and not enough actual fright to justify it. McLean was able to get away with inevitable comparisons drawn between Rogue and Jaws because of the resulting thrills swimming around in his Australian creature feature, along with the raw amusement in seeing a croc unleashing its fury. The subtler eeriness of The Darkness doesn't have that, instead relying on an ominous mystery that'll lull one into a disinterested stupor while awaiting to see whether another house will get cleaned.

'Civil War' Brews in Explosive, Multifaceted Outing From Marvel

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo; Runtime: 147 minutes
Grade: B+

Surprise is no longer a factor. Not only do audiences know by now that Marvel Studios are capable of polished, exhilarating superhero films that appreciate their interconnected universe, but it's also clear that Anthony and Joe Russo are no longer just "the comedy directors" of episodes from Arrested Development and Community. Their intro into Marvel's universe, Captain America: Winter Soldier, took a sharply-written script driven by political intrigue in the vein of Three Days of the Condor and shaped it into a finely-paced thriller, one that smartly tempered comic-book bluster with authentic dramatic maneuverings. It's because of this genre balancing act that expectations have been naturally elevated for Captain America: Civil War, another politically-driven storyline driven by personal values and government meddling that pits superheroes against one another. The Russo Brothers once again deliver bold action and deep conflicts, even though Civil War lacks some of the substance and tautness of their previous entry, interrupted by numerous energized introductions to new characters in the universe.

While Civil War draws a lot of direct plot threads and inspiration from the Mark Millar-written comic storyline of the same name, a bunch of factors -- the established universe and rights issues with central characters -- keep it from being a direct adaptation. The general frameworks is there, though: after a violent explosion during an Avengers-led mission incurs collateral damage, the US government puts the wheels in motion for increased oversight and accountability of superheroes through the form of a registration act. Anchored by guilt over previous missions, Tony "Iron Man" Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) stands in approval of this registration; Captain America (Chris Evans), the bastion of freedom and unbridled heroism, opposes it. Matters are further complicated following another terrorist attack amid the discussions, one that implicates the involvement of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Soldier. Amid the clash between the heroes over their principles, Cap and his partner, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), seek out his old friend before the authorities can get to him first, putting them in violation of this new registration act.

Obviously, different superheroes in the Marvel universe are going to respond differently to being regulated, and seeing where the land on that spectrum becomes an engaging aspect of the opening act of Civil War, one that's front-loaded with dialogue and deliberate exposition as it shapes the conflict. There aren't really a lot of shocks in terms of who falls on what side of the debate, but that's a testament to the general consistency of the characters in how they've appeared and evolved in the previous films, as well as the strength of their allegiances throughout. It does make for predictable verbal grandstanding, even from Captain America's perspective as he takes the side of the "criminals", but the amicable sparks flying between them -- between Cap and Iron Man, between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) caught in the middle -- still draws one into the dramatic comfort zone of their stances. The Russo Brothers handle these conversations with simmering emotion not unlike they did with Winter Soldier, gradually escalating the political hostility of the scenario up to its breaking point.

The marketing for Civil War touts this friction between heroes as the central point of the blockbuster, but the search for Bucky Barnes actually takes on the bulk of the film's forward motion, creating the divergence between the heroes that tests their new allegiances. Unfortunately, Cap's hunt for his old friend comes across as more of an obligatory device instead of the same kind of substantial driving force that propelled the Russo Brothers' Winter Soldier, relying on an opportunely concealed mystery through an enigmatic antagonist, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), that suffocates under the weight of the posturing superhero titans. That's not to say that this pursuit for the Winter Soldier isn't compelling: it culminates into a fine close to the dramatic arc involving Captain America and Bucky Barnes, driven by emotional conversations about their embattled past that regularly branch into vigorous action sequences -- arguably too vigorous considering the shaky camerawork -- shortly thereafter. When entwined with this big, brassy conflict between members of the Avengers, the nuance gets lost.

Civil War also diverts its attention from a singular narrative to further world-building for the Marvel universe, dropping in a few new, awaited characters who already have a future of standalone movies mapped out for 'em. One, T'Challa, also known as Black Panther, runs effortlessly alongside the parallel plotting: he's a prince and warrior driven by vengeance, and his personal motivations collide with the pursuit for the Winter Soldier in some explosive ways. Chadwick Boseman brings an earthy, sympathetic energy to this new hero, and when coupled with the sharply-designed catsuit, this new face quickly becomes a force to be reckoned with. The other needs little introduction: Civil War takes time out to unveil Marvel's new Spider-Man -- and Tom Holland as Peter Parker -- and it's a lengthier stretch than expected. Under the Marvel banner, this teenage Spider-Man manages to be delightfully dorkier and equally aware of his senses in comparison to previous iterations. Both characters are some of the best things about Civil War, yet the diversions do force one to recall that, wait, yes, this is actually a Captain America movie.

Much of Civil War possesses some kind of underlying motivation and baggage of expectation, as if each character arrival and expression of their position serves another agenda for the film outside of cohesive storytelling. That purpose is, naturally, to create a fairly evenly-matched pair of "teams" within the Avengers who are ready to do battle with one another; a few heavy-hitters in the Marvel universe, godly and green alike, likely weren't included because of how they'd tip the scales. Their ideological disagreements collide in a huge brawl midway through the film, where all these familiar faces unleash the breadth of their powers ... to a degree. There's animosity here, enough to generate pulse-quickening energy within the witchcraft and spider webbing and energy explosions expelled in the lengthy sequence, but this is, after all, a war among heroic allies, and the restraint that comes from that can be seen in their pulled punches. It's quite entertaining, especially in how Spider-Man gets involved, but it also kinda feels like a futile hurdle to cross.

There's a lot going on here, much like there was in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the Russo Brothers avoid many of the stumbles Joss Whedon encountered with their "Avengers 2.5" spectacle. Instead of unleashing another horde of faceless enemies for the heroes both old and new to wipe out after banding together, Captain America: Civil War telegraphs a complex, potent conclusion -- both to the film itself and to elements of the overarching Captain America saga -- that furthers its central intentions of clashing ideology and the mystery surrounding Zemo's scheme, smartly confining the scale of the action after the airport brawl. Granted, in true superhero movie fashion, the conclusion relies on circumstances and stratagems that fit together a little too seamlessly, yet there's a thematic current at the center of it all that justifies the loose logic behind what's happening. Civil War might not be among the best Marvel has to offer, but that this meaningful story unfolds while juggling new characters and the rule-of-cool brawling between superheroes is a welcome surprise in its own right.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [LINK]

'Tumbledown' a Somber Hike Through Grief That Lacks Wit

Directed by: Sean Mewshaw; Runtime: 105 minutes

The loss of a mid-thirties, not-quite celebrity musician takes center stage in Tumbledown, tracking the impact of his early death upon both those closest to him and to those who simply appreciated the work he put out. Director Sean Mewshaw, who co-wrote the story with wife and screenwriter Desi Van Til, aims to explore the sorrow and appreciation for an artist, husband, and beloved family member whose notable talent wasn't fully realized, trekking through a woodsy landscape as the musician's spouse attempts to move on by writing about his life. There's tenderness and soul within the premise, especially when interrupted by an outside scholar who also wants to write about the nuances of the musician's life, but that's only the first step in realizing an authentic portrait about that kind of personal catharsis and reverence. Too-snappy dialogue and an inability to reach deeper into who these people really are, eventually propped up by stock romantic dram-com circumstances, keep Tumbledown from being more than just a somber elegy as it falls into a conventional tempo.

Secluded in the frosty wilderness of Maine with her two dogs, Hannah (Rebecca Hall) lives a simple and melancholy life after the death of her husband, folk musician Hunter Miles, passing the time by writing interviews for a local newspaper. She has also been working on a book about her husband's life, the nuances and ephemera of what distinguished him; yet, despite her capabilities as a writer, she has found it difficult to properly articulate who he is and what he meant to her and those around him. Hannah discovers that there's someone else interested in writing about the singer: a college professor, Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), an admirer of his work and a specialist in cultural studies. Reluctantly, after spending some time around the writer following an impromptu visit, Hannah decides that the two could be mutually beneficial for another, inviting Andrew to stay in Maine for research purposes. As Hannah struggles to move on, city-boy Andrew works his way into the rustic woodlands of her town, discovering truths about the singer's relationships, outlook, and death.

In the likes of The Prestige and The Awakening, Rebecca Hall brought subdued electricity to characters on the cusp of sanity, her piercing gazes and rigid poise conveying shifts from angst to psychosis with a delicate touch. She brings the same qualities to Hannah, yet they're filtered through the jaded and snappish attitude of a widow lost in her own creative pursuits. Jason Sudeikis works his charms as a sarcastic scholar, elevating the same type of presence he brought to the table in We're the Millers and Horrible Bosses with scholarly, perceptive mannerisms. Despite their robust performances, however, Tumbledown keeps those watching at a distance from the inner details of Hannah and Andrew, unaided by how the script over-focuses on highbrow, quick-witted dialogue, trying too hard to create acerbic banter between idiosyncratic intellectuals that are expected to thaw out with time. Hall and Sudeikis are better as conflicting personalities than those developing an affinity for one another, lacking chemistry once the film's predictable warmth starts to knit them closer together.

Neither of the pair in Tumbledown are particularly endearing or forthcoming on their own, either, with Hannah's harshness barely earning compassion for her hardships and Andrew's arrogance overshadowing his appreciation for Hunter Miles' soulful music early on. Throughout the frosty landscape, the story brings together the melancholy state of Hannah's grief with Andrew's mingling with the citizens and country lifestyle of their rural city, sort of like a fish-outta-water situation. With guitar strums and a bluesy twang in his voice, Hunter's music brings together the overall folksy temperament with their growing relationship, coming together into a steadily wistful recollection of the singer that's more interested in sleuthing out facts than truly understanding these potentially compelling entities involved. Paths toward humor either reach a dead end or turn into bittersweet anecdotes that rarely bring the right amount of levity to the film, aside from the comical back-and-forth between city boy Andrew and the rugged electrical worker and hunter, Curtis (Joe Manganiello), who's fueled by macho interest in Hannah.

Tumbledown gets weighed down by its downhearted subject instead of genuinely exploring the depths of the emotions going on, becoming more focused on the details of the musician's death and, somewhat intentionally, less about grasping him on a more profound level. The enigmas buried within Hunter Mills -- and the disputed circumstances of his death -- force a semi-realistic but intangible attitude upon the film once it settles into more traditional dram-com happenings, creating a disconnected portrait surrounding family gatherings, impromptu excursions into the Maine wilderness, and a few unnecessary developments among the town. Though it travels down these familiar emotional trails, Tumbledown does temporarily wander into interesting thematic grounds near the end involving musical interpretation and getting too wrapped up in existential thought, about perceiving death and one's inner demons. Unfortunately, underneath the blanket of Hannah and Andrew's construed relationship created by Sean Mewshaw and Desi Van Til, it's a moving idea that hasn't quite been earned at that crossroads.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]