Out of Darkness is surprising, while Upgraded and Argylle are too predictable

Darkness examines the horror within

A stunner from beginning to end, Andrew Cumming's Out of Darkness is a visually stunning, consistently surprising movie that slowly reveals its true intent, its big reveal transcending its genre conventions. While it is being promoted as a horror film, and certainly contains elements from works of that sort, Cumming and his co-writers, Ruth Greenberg and Oliver Kassman, have an agenda that extends beyond effective jump scares or creating moments that get under the viewer's skin. With an intricate sound design and cinematography that often accents shadows over light, this is a film that screams out to be seen in a theater.

Set 45,000 years ago, a small group of primitive beings have broken away from their tribe to strike out to lands unknown. Their leader, Adem (Chuku Modu), after promising these outcasts to take them to a land of plenty, does all he can to keep their faith and keep them together, yet he's taken to lashing out in frustration. His pregnant wife, Ave (Iola Evans), can no longer reach him, while it becomes impossible for his son, Heron (Luna Mwezi), to please him. Odal (Arno Luning), the eldest of the group, is breeding division with his constant complaining, while Geirr (Kit Young) is hardly the co-leader he's expected to be. As for the stray they've allowed to travel with them, Beyah's (Safia Oakley-Green) outsider status is starting to become a detriment while food and water remain scarce.

The sense of tension reaches a breaking point and is exacerbated when they realize something is following them. And when Heron is snatched by something in the dark, the dynamic among them crumbles, every member turning on the other as fear and desperation sets in, each wondering who will be the next plucked away by the bellowing, unseen thing in the dark. Yet, as the film progresses, Darkness proves not to be a monster movie as much of an examination of how people behave under stress. As their numbers dwindle and the threat becomes more foreboding, the true behavior of those who are left emerges. While some are willing to work in concert to survive, others look out solely for themselves, prepared to compromise anyone who might stand in their way.

Much like the criminally overlooked 2017 feature It Comes at Night, the focus shifts from the outside threat to the monsters that live within the group. A third-act twist powerfully drives this home as previous assumptions, both on our and the characters' parts, are proven horribly wrong, with tragic results. Appearances, coupled with preconceived notions, prove dangerous and we let them obscure the truth about those we perceive as enemies as well as those we trust as allies. In the end, Darkness reminds us that our fear not only breeds misdirected hate and unnecessary violence but leads to our own destruction as well. In theaters.

Upgraded provides plenty of comfort

Ah yes, it's time for another edition of Comfort Food Cinema. This is a term that I will be using from here on out to refer to films that give you exactly what you expect – no more, no less – and that despite their predictable nature, offer comfort in these unpredictable times. Like a dinner consisting of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas, these movies are nothing spectacular – unless you're eating my wife's meatloaf – but are just good enough to satisfy your needs and maybe offer a bit of solace after a crappy day.

These sorts of movies were the bread-and-butter of the studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the period throughout the 1930s to the end of World War II, in which the dream factories churned out a steady stream of escapist entertainment of the widest variety. These movies have never left us, and it could be argued that the rom-com genre is where product of this sort pops up with the most frequency.

A pretty good example of this is Carlson Young's Upgraded, a light-as-a-feather, by-the-numbers bit of fluff that delivers exactly what you expect – a charming young couple attempt to navigate the ways of love, a series of mix-ups complicate things and a collection of characters pop up just when the movie needs a bit of a boost.

Our heroine is Ana (Camila Mendes), a plucky art history major who longs to own her own auction house. Seems like a modest enough dream, yet it does come with its complications. Apparently, this industry is a cut-throat one and breaking in as tough as opening a tin can with a plastic fork. Her harridan of a boss, Claire (Marisa Tomei, employing an awful accent), treats all her employees like trash, but after Ana saves her from embarrassment at a very important auction, she finds herself on a plane to London to help her with a career-making deal.

After being relegated to coach on the transatlantic flight by Claire's wicked stepsister-like assistants, a fairy godmother-ish ticket agent upgrades her to first class where, you guessed it, she meets her prince charming in the form of William (Archie Renaux). (Sorry for all the fairy tale allusions, but it is what it is...) Actually, they ran into each other earlier during the requisite "meet cute" moment when she spilled a Bloody Mary all over him. You know what happens next. Though not as good as last year's similarly plotted Netflix feature, Love at First Sight, Upgraded meets expectation, as low as they might be. The only suggestion I have is to have a big piece of cake or hefty slab of pie nearby to eat while watching it. That way, once it's done, you'll have had a full meal. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Argylle: Loud! Dumb! Repetitious!

I think there is a good idea at the center of the bloated mess that is Andrew Vaughn's Argylle. I say I think, because my mind and memory are a bit scrambled after sitting through yet another movie that confuses multiple, elaborately staged action sequences with entertainment. Sporting a talented cast and a budget north of $200 million, it's yet another tiring example of what happens when a director is given free reign and allowed to wallow in excess to gratify his ego.

The film begins with a pseudo-James Bond introduction. Argylle (Henry Cavill) is a properly wooden, debonair spy whose mission goes sideways when the alluring(?) LaGrange (Dua Lipa) double-crosses him. A ridiculous chase, massive property destruction and the appearance of Argylle's Man Friday, Wyatt (John Cena), ensues. This turns out to be a recreation of a sequence from the latest novel in the Argylle series written by Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is treating her adoring fans to a public reading. Turns out, Conway's novels are somehow prescient in their depiction of geopolitical affairs, and she suddenly finds herself on the run from a mysterious outfit called The Division. Led by Ritter (Bryan Cranston), he wants her brought in to see just what she knows and how she knows it. Good thing Aiden (Sam Rockwell), a rogue agent, has taken it upon himself to keep Conway out of harm's way. I bet you'd never guess that a chase across multiple continents takes place that finds the pair on the run, barely escaping capture again and again.

As I say, there's a couple of good ideas rattling around here. Cavill is the perfect actor to spearhead a James Bond spoof and had Vaughn, with the money at his disposal, gone all-in with that concept, this could have been a hoot. Or had he delved further into the idea that Conway's writing did in fact shape the future, similar to Marc Forster's criminally overlooked Stranger Than Fiction, a smart, meta entertainment might have been the result. However, those sorts of films require a degree of imagination and intelligence that seem beyond Vaughn and writer Jason Fuchs' grasp.

Couple this with endless action sequences, of which there are five, and tedium soon sets in. That Howard and Rockwell have little in the way of chemistry hardly helps. These two pros do a fine job with their roles as they are written, but there's a deadened quality to their interactions, a lack of spark that becomes painful to witness. The film reveals itself to be yet another example of what's wrong with today's big-budget Hollywood fare. That audiences are tiring of this sort of thing is encouraging – this film's box office prognosis is not good – yet I have a feeling it will still be a while before we see more entertaining, streamlined entertainments. In the end, Argylle is just another piece of cookie-cutter cinema. No surprise there. In theaters.

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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