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‘Coming Home in the Dark’: Brutal Exercise in Violence [Sundance Review]

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Coming Home in the Dark

Coming Home in the Dark held its audience in an iron-fisted grip last night during its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival with one of the most shocking first acts this reviewer has seen in years.

Set against the gorgeous backdrop of New Zealand, the film opens with a family stopping for a picnic after a hike. When two men emerge from the woods, the family is immediately on their guard, but after an act of sudden and jaw-dropping violence, a strange and twisting series of events is set in place that will force at least one member of the family to face the ghost of their past.

The film is based on a short story by Owen Marshall with a script by Eli Kent and James Ashcroft. Ashcroft also directs the feature.

Coming Home in the Dark is a film that demands time to digest and consider after watching it. Viewers will almost have to put some distance between themselves and the material to process what they have seen.

Immediate reactions are visceral, and it would be easy to dismiss the film’s brutality as something merely intended to shock its audience without offering any underlying meaning. There is a place for that kind of film, and certainly they can be entertaining, but this is not the case here.

What Ashcroft and Kent have crafted is a story about violence that begets more violence. It is a comment, in part, about the treatment of institutionalized children and the kind of adults those children become. It is also a rather stark look at the repercussions of sitting back and watching violence happen without speaking up to stop it. There is guilt in silence, and that guilt plays out masterfully in Coming Home in the Dark.

What I am saying is that this film takes place in shades of gray. Certainly there are the “bad guys” and the “good guys,” but the lines that separate them are fuzzy at best. Those characters without inherent guilt in this morality play are dispatched quickly and with extreme prejudice throughout the film.

All of this is played out incredibly by a central cast that embody their roles well.

Miriama McDowell and Erik Thomson seem to dance on a razor-thin line as parents Jill and Hoaggie. From the moment they realize their family is in jeopardy, they become raw nerves, constantly scrambling to save those they love. You can actually see McDowell transform when she senses her children are in danger in the hardening of her eyes and the rigidity of her body.

Daniel Gillies on the other hand, takes on Mandrake, a role that could easily have become a cartoonish over-exaggeration of personified violence and turns it into a subtle, measured villain. With a single look, a slightly altered expression, he can make your blood run cold.

Rounding out the central cast is Matthias Luafutu as the quiet Tubs. The actor’s performance in the almost completely silent role is the very definition of the old adage that “still waters run deep.” He is undeniably the most mysterious of the cast. We are never sure what he is thinking or what binds him to Mandrake. He is decidedly the more passive of the two, carrying out orders with seeming detachment, but of all the characters portrayed in the film, his was the one I wanted to know more about.

As we finished our viewing last night, my colleague and I were discussing what it all meant. Was there a “meaning” to what we had witnessed? Did Ashcroft really just lock us in a car for an hour and a half with terrifying killers and see how claustrophobic he could make us?

Last night, I had no answer, and this morning, I am not entirely sure that I do either.

I will say this. I do not now, nor have I ever, believed that “meaningless violence” is a real thing. Some violence is more easily understood than others, but there is always a reason, even if the person committing that act of violence cannot clearly define that meaning themselves.

Brutality does not exist in a vacuum. Killers can seldom be placed in a singular category. Mandrake and Tubs certainly have violence and brutality in them, but so do Jill and Hoaggie. It is in meditating on these ideas that you can begin to see what Kent and Ashcroft were creating in the film, and honestly, you just have to see it for yourselves.

With its shocking scenes and ambiguous ending, Coming Home in the Dark is definitely a film that will have people talking in 2021.

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Movie Reviews

‘Knock at the Cabin’ Is A Cinematic Mind Game – Movie Review

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Over the course of his career, M. Night Shyamalan has been known for one thing: plot twists. While watching his films, you scour every inch of the frame in hopes of sussing out the next Big Reveal. The twist has been the director’s calling card since The Sixth Sense, but Shyamalan (who writes and casts all his films) is capable of much more than just shocks. When he’s at his best, and not making crap like The Last Airbender, he’s capable of creating a tense, spooky atmosphere to go along with his twisty narratives.

Knock at the Cabin is the director’s most visceral work since Signs, taking a premise we’ve seen a thousand times and twisting the formula. Cabin sees a family rent out a cabin in the woods–why are people still doing this?—and quickly discovering why the rest of us are looking at their cabin like, “hell no.”

Eight-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) is catching grasshoppers in the forest when a man (Dave Bautista) comes up to her and asks her questions about her dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), only to turn around and wave. He has three friends with him.

Bautista is known for his campy roles, but he’s incredible when he’s let off the leash and allowed to show off his serious side. His performance here could have easily been Dwayne Johnson With a Knife, but he’s far too skilled an actor for that. Each of his scenes have an added layer of tension and gumption, and it’s hard to think of another actor who could have pulled off this level of physicality.

Leonard (Bautista) has gathered his friends to stop the apocalypse, which apparently will happen if one of the family members doesn’t kill themselves. It’s up to our trio to decide whether these guys are right or wrong, whether or not their visions are legit or just a way of messing with the couple. The three have to make a decision by nightfall or fight back, otherwise bodies will start piling up like pieces of firewood.

Though Leonard’s story adds a layer of depth, it’s still your basic cabin-in-the-woods set-up: a bunch of people are trapped in a cabin, and it’s up to the victims to find their way out.

Still, Shyamalan demonstrates a mastery over the horror genre, aided in no small part by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. The camera swaps character point-of-view subtly, inhabiting both victim and villain, watcher and watched. As the tension builds, the camera makes you question just who is telling the truth here.

Shyamalan blurs the line between real and fake to create a powerful (if a bit facile) cinematic mind game. That concept has been the focal point of his career, and he tops it off with a twist that makes you question everything that came before it. It’s Shyamalan 101, and we couldn’t ask for anything more. 4/5

4 eyes out of 5
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[Sundance Review] ‘The Night Logan Woke Up’ Bares Dark, Familial Teeth in Gripping Thriller

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Sundance Film Festival 2023 is underway and as always, is offering the best of the best in and out of the horror genre for its audiences including The Night Logan Woke Up, a new episodic thriller from multi-hyphenate talent, Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother).

Set in Quebec and presented in Canadian French, Sundance presented the first two hour-long episodes of the new series as part of its Indie Episodic program. Dolan and a brilliant cast tell the story of a family who gathers together as its matriarch dies.

Of course, all is not well in the family. If it were, there wouldn’t be much to talk about, right?

Over the course of two intense episodes, we play voyeur to eldest brother Julien’s infidelity, younger brother Denis’s strained relationship with his ex-wife and daughters, and youngest brother Elliot’s iffy recovery from drugs and alcohol.

And then there’s Mireille, the only sister in the family, estranged from them for years after the events that took place thirty years before when she snuck into her crush’s room in the middle of the night. Something horrific happened that night, something that changed the family forever, and we’re given the first initial inklings of that as the series begins.

Dolan, who also plays youngest brother Elliot, wrote and directed the series based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard, and he’s assembled a dynamic cast, many of whom starred in the original theatrical production, to bring the story to life.

The Night Logan Woke Up
A family gathers as their matriarch dies in The Night Logan Woke Up

Patrick Hivon bristles as Julien, who holds onto the past almost suffocating under the weight of it. Eric Bruneau brings heart and emotional availability as the middle son, always trying to please, always trying to do the right thing. As Elliott, Dolan treats us to a hyper-charged performance. You can feel him teetering, threatening to fall into old habits. His world is made of cracked glass that could shatter beneath him at any moment.

As for Mireille, Julie LeBreton brings a beautifully layered performance to the series. She is the darkened heart of this family mystery, and her every move and turn of phrase seems calculated to the tiniest decimal point. She decimates and heals with alacrity heightened by LeBreton’s ability to deliver rage at a whisper.

By the end of the second episode, I was on the edge of my seat.

I don’t just want to know what happens next; I need to know. Dolan has done a fine job teasing out the backstory of The Night Logan Woke Up. He seems to have an innate understanding of how much detail is just enough to keep his audience interested without giving too much away.

It’s a talent that far too few writers in genre entertainment seem to possess anymore, and it’s a treat to see it play out so beautifully.

The Night Logan Woke Up is brought to the screen by StudioCanal. The series premiered in 2022 on Club Illico in Canada and is set for a wider relase after its Sundance screenings.

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[Sundance Review] Brutal ‘Talk to Me’ Might Be Festival’s Best Midnight Title

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Australian horror movies are some of the best of the genre. They aren’t afraid to push the limits of both stories or gore. It’s apparent from the beginning that Talk to Me is moving across — way across — those same lines. 

In this film, zoomers are caught in the supernatural crossfire after performing a trendy seance challenge by using a preserved hand and forearm of a psychic. This is their gateway to the other world where demons plot to manipulate human lives. All it takes is to shake the outreaching hand like a “test your strength” carnival game to make contact. It’s also a great Tik Tok ready experiment where views are likely to climb.

With all their teenage pomp, when these friends get together, it feels a bit like HBO’s Euphoria with a Conjuring twist. I’d even go so far as to compare it to The Evil Dead, the monsters here are just as intense and ugly. There is also a heavy James Wan influence from back in his Insidious days. Couple all of these things with a Creepypasta-type story and you can imagine what kind of hell is going to cross over.

At first, the teens have fun getting possessed one by one, filming each scenario. That is until one of them is overtaken by a forceful spirit that violently injures its host by forcing him to bash his head against hard surfaces. But not before manipulating him to pluck out his own eye and then squeamishly performing in a tongues-and-all-make-out session with a pet bulldog. You read that right.

The brutality is unhinged. 

The adults are certain the teens are doing hard drugs in the aftermath of the injuries. If only real drugs were the case. The kids get a “high” on these possessions, but in doing so, have unknowingly ripped a hole between the real world and the hereafter where evil spirits come through and manipulate the game’s participants. 

Our troubled protagonist, Mia (Sophie Wilde) is convinced she has made contact with her dead mother through one of the sessions. It’s a heartwarming moment, the only one, in this relentless barrage of disturbing images you can’t unsee.

The film is directed by YouTuber twins Danny and Michael Philippou. Despite their small screen medium, these guys have a future on larger venues. Talk to Me is an amalgam of mined ideas but this duo makes them better. Even as far as sticking an almost perfect landing which you know in this genre is a rarity. 

It’s also refreshing to see them allow our main character, Mia, to slowly slip into madness without pulling cheap stunts just to appease the intended audience. Each scare is purposeful, each monster is developed and what they have to say is important.

Wilde never lets the genre get the better of her. She plays Mia with a subdued sense of weakness. You can see, had it not been for the passing of her mother, this young lady would not fall under the traps of silly peer pressure. To pull that many layers out of an actress is not the result of an expensive acting workshop, but the sign of a future star honing her craft.

It appears the directors saw the talent in Wilde and focused on that instead of some of the other actors. Alexandra Jensen as Jade plays the supportive best friend, but not to the levels of a final girl we are used to. And Joe Bird as Riley, the possessed one, is terrifying as the harbinger of hell.

The Philippou’s probably screamed out loud when veteran actress Miranda Otto (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Annabelle: Creation) said okay to the script. She is amazing in everything she does. She brings polish to an already shining movie.

There isn’t much fault to be pointed out in Talk to Me. The cinematography deserves a slight upgrade, and the collective ideas of past works are undeniably present, but the film never tries to improve upon those ideas by being extra. It’s fully aware that it is borrowing, but what the filmmakers pay back is worth far more than what was taken.

Talk to Me is a part of the Midnight section of Sundance Film Festival 2023.

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