Saturday, September 28, 2013

We Are What We Are (USA)

Fun fact: All three times I have seen one of director Jim Mickle's films, he's been there for a Q&A with the audience: I saw Mulberry Street at Fantasia in 2007, Stake Land at IFFBoston in 2011, and now this one at an IFFBoston preview screening.

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Evidence!

So, he'd better bring Cold in July to a festival I'm attending or one of these previews. My streak is important.

He was a pretty good sport during the Q&A session, dealing with the "please tell us what happened after the bit you deliberately left ambiguous" question and a guy who asked if his next one was going to be "another pretentious Hollywood movie" with a smile on his face and correcting folks who got the wrong idea about something without being mean about it. He's a genuine horror fan, but it doesn't manifest itself in being an encyclopedia; rather, he breaks down what makes these movies work and puts that into good ones.

I think that's a big part of what makes We Are What We Are work - it's about something outrageous that is grounded in very familiar pressures and feelings. Even before Mickle mentioned that part of the reason he inverted the sexes of all the characters was because he wanted to explore the idea of how religion (and, to be fair, tradition in general) often places certain demands on women, it was pretty clear in the film. It's also what makes it a very good translation; while it's been a while since I saw the first We Are What We Are (and it had trouble gaining traction with me at Fantasia in 2010), but its themes are probably more accessible to Americans than the life-cheapening poverty and pervasive Roman Catholicism of the Mexican version.

Another fun thing was how he talked about sequels. If you've ever been to a Q&A for a horror film, questions about those come up naturally; audiences just expect franchising from that genre in a way that they don't for others, even though the filmmakers often make these movies with the idea of them being inexpensive stepping stones to something bigger. So when Mickle answers a bunch of questions with "that's a sequel", it's pretty amusing, even if he is telling tall tales or hypotheticals. For instance, he claimed that original-film director Jorge Michel Grau was working on a movie which would combine the surviving casts of both versions of the movie, which would sound goofy except that convergence seems to be a thing nowadays (consider the ending and vaguely discussed plans to follow up the new Evil Dead, or The Avengers). Another one he mentioned actually has an IMDB entry - What We Were would be a prequel that explains how the parents met up and how outsiders get brought into this society. I'm not sure it's really the greatest idea, but the team attached is interesting - Mickle's co-writer Nick Damici on script and Antti-Jussi Annila directing. Annila is particularly curious because he two previous features, Jade Warrior and Sauna, have been very specifically Finnish, even if much of the former is set in China. This would have to be very specifically American.

Of course, there's a good chance of that never happening, so let's just focus on this one for now. It's opened in some parts of the country already, and is scheduled to hit Boston on 11 October. Definitely worth a look this Halloween season.

We Are What We Are

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2013 at Regal Fenway #2 (IFFBoston Preview, digital)

We Are What We Are makes a heck of a case for the much-maligned idea of remaking a foreign film in English. Though the original Mexican version was much-beloved by many (I thought it had a great opening and a slick finale without grabbing me in between), rising star Jim Mickle has built something even better, something that evolves into one of the most engrossing horror movies of the year.

There's a storm hitting upstate New York as the movie starts, and Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva) heads into town to get some supplies. She's nervous, twitchy, and ill, falling down dead in the convenience store parking lot. That's never a good event for a mother of three, but given that her family - father Frank (Bill Sage), daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) & Rose (Julia Garner), and young son Rory (Jack Gore) - are at the start of a traditional fasting period, with Frank showing many of the same symptoms she is, things get even more tense as Frank declares that Iris, as the woman of the house, will take Emma's place in the ritual that ends the fast. She wants no part of it, but tradition is tradition.

Director Jim Mickle and regular co-writer Nick Damici (who also plays the local sheriff) are making their third feature here, and it's very impressive how they continue to improve even after having started strong with Mulberry Street. This is certainly the most polished-looking film they and regular director of photography Ryan Samul have made, but that's just the start. This group has always had a knack for filling their movies with characters who are just as interesting as their frightening circumstances, and they give themselves quite the challenge by centering the film not on regular people in a horrific situation but the ones who would lurk around the edges of conventional horror films. The brilliance of this one is in how Mickle and company manage to present its main characters as both at once.

Full review at EFC.

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