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Starz / Anchor Bay // R // April 5, 2016
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted May 1, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

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.

Video and Audio:

Tumbledown rides through town on Blu-ray in a strong digital transfer from Anchor Bay, encapsulating the strengths of the photography's focus on rustic details and intimate conversational close-ups. Framed at 2.35:1 through a robust 1080p AVC transfer, the shots of the wilderness (actually shot predominately in Massachusetts) are the big visual draw to the film: from dense woods on hikes to the expanse of a frozen lake and the full mountainous vista from a lookout point, they capture the depth of field and colors of nature while also keeping the shades -- icy blues and sunset oranges and pinks -- under control within the largely earthy-colored palette. Skin tones are suitably warm both outdoors and indoors, and black levels remain evenly balanced in the fluctuating lighting of Hannah's home. Strong clarity emerges in temperate clothing, facial features and beards throughout, while faint details in Hunter Miles' many tchotchkes -- guitar strings and picks, scribbled notes, records and photos -- are quite strong.

The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track discovers its strengths through the film's folksy music and some of the subtleties of the woodsy landscape, heightening the otherwise fairly standard and unremarkable dram-com sound design. The strumming of guitars and the slightly high-pitched, soulful vocals fill the surround channels at many points throughout, amplified by fine clarity and perfect balance with what's going on during the scenes. The crackle and moan of frozen ice taps into lower-end response and unique mid-range tones, while the rumble and revving of the classic pickup truck in the film traverses between channels -- from left to right and from back to front -- with suitable channel response. Aside from that, the sound effects and dialogue are all about responding to the indoor ambience, staying appropriately natural, clear, and buoyant no matter the location.

Special Features:

The pair of extras available with Tumbledown starts out with a Making of Tumbledown (22:41, 16x9 HD) featurette, which mixes low-key but still fairly standard press-kit interview material sandwiched between generous clips from the film. Writer Desi Van Til leads the charge in the discussion topics, ranging from the personal roots and wit embedded in her writing, Rebecca Hall's work ethic and the relatable nature of her character, and how there were some deeper elements of Jason Sudeikis' character that unfortunately didn't make it past earlier drafts of the film. The interviews follow a pattern discussing each of the actors and director Sean Mewshaw later on, warm and congratulating but earnest in tempo.

Anchor Bay have also included a brief snippet called The Music of Tumbledown (2:48, 16x9 HD), which touches on the "wounded emotionality" of singer Damien Jurado's voice as Hunter Miles, from how he fell in love with the character of Hannah to the particular songs that they really appreciate in step with the film.

Final Thoughts:

Distinctive performances from a strong cast and a soulful premise boast a lot of potential for Tumbledown, hinged on the widow of a musician, Hannah, whose process of overcoming her husband's death centers on the book she's writing about his life ... and the stranger, Andrew, an author and college professor, who becomes both her competition and her collaborator. Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudeikis channel their innate strengths into these characters, but with twists that make each of them different than what they've brought to the screen before, from Hannah's sardonic wit to Andrew's adaptable and prying intellect. Unfortunately, neither character is able to encapsulate enough likability or profoundness to make their unique personalities worth getting invested in, which undercuts both the rustic small-town drama and the solemn underlying tones within Sean Mewshaw and Desi Van Til's well-built and good-intended piece of work. Certainly worth a Rental, especially Anchor Bay's olid audiovisual presentation of the secluded woodland landscape, but this could've been more.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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