Monday, April 21, 2014

It's a Family Tradition

The Internet was not happy when it was announced that Jim Mickle, who made his name (along with co-writer/muse Nick Damici) on original low-budget genre films Mulberry Street and Stake Land, would take the perceived easy horror route in remaking a small foreign hit. 

The Internet is rarely happy.

Mulberry Street and Stake Land demonstrated true talent and innovation from Mickle. Both were made cheaply but managed to feel much bigger (in Stake Land's case, epic) and more importantly, both films showed that Mickle didn't just understand how to craft a good horror movie; he had a fresh outlook in re-envisioning age-old monsters with new eyes. The films were original in more ways than just not being based on preexisting material. From his penchant for using diverse actors of every age to his heavy endings, Mickle was bringing it.

Jorge Michel Grau's 2010 We Are What We Are made festival waves for its unique story and style. It seemed an odd choice for Mickle to remake it, but something in the material seemed to call him. Let’s see what it was.

Quick Plot: Meet the Parkers, a sad little family moping around rainy Delaware with some secret traditions placed firmly in their heritage. When mom dies suddenly, eldest daughter Iris is charged with continuing the Parker way for her quietly intimidating father, thoughtful 14-year-old sister Rose, and adorable little brother.

Revealing the family tradition is something of a spoiler, though unfortunately, it's the kind of spoiler that everyone who sees a trailer or reads a 10-word blurb about the film will know. So let's ask Gandalf for his official sanction:

And move onto what you probably know this movie is about anyway.

Little known fact about eating human flesh: it can lead to a Parkinson's-like condition detectable in autopsies. Doc Barrow (the fine Michael Parks) picks up on the fact when examining Emma Parker. That plus the discovery of a human bone leads the good doctor to do what the local cops are apparently incapable of: solving a whole lot of missing persons reports that all lead back to the Parkers.

Like their Spanish counterparts, the Parkers have an odd family tradition. Way back in 1781, their great great (and let's just guess one more great) grandparents were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive brutal colonial winters. Two hundred plus years later, the Parkers now host an annual 'Lambs Day,' wherein the matriarch carves up a homo sapien for a hearty stew dinner. Now that Iris is the eldest female, it's up to the next generation to follow or challenge the holiday requirements. 

We Are What We Are is a carefully paced film. To some, this probably means 'slow and boring,' and for me, it almost was until it wasn't. The big C doesn't come out until far into the film, something that's a bit of a trick when it's obvious to anyone who's read a single line about the movie. But We Are What We Are isn't ACTUALLY about people eating people, or the game that goes along with catching your two-legged dinner. 

The Parkers aren't happy, particularly young Iris and Rose. They've grown up knowing their family's secret isn't normal but lacking the will to fight it. It's a great little subject to examine in horror movie format: what does it take to challenge mindless tradition, particularly when it's inherited by family ties? We Are What We Are asks these questions, albeit in a quiet, suggested way. Coming from the same team that brought rat zombie vampire people to Little Italy, it’s quite impressive to see how the Mickle/Damici pair can handle such different styles of genre storytelling, even if it's done in a, you know, kind of slow way.

High Points
It's inevitable that I'll approve of the characters and performances in a Mickle/Damici script. Both Stake Land and Mulberry Street proved that this team cares about the people they put in their movies, and We Are What We Are is no different on that front. 

Low Points
It was already a bummer to see Mickle's cohort Damici only taking a supporting role, but when supporting role is further reduced to 'town sheriff who seems less capable than the mentally handicapped police officers in The Human Centipede,' it's even more grumble worthy

Lessons Learned
The night of her mom's funeral is generally not the best time to ask a girl out for a casual date

Nothing flows upstream

Everything might taste like chicken, but certain meat sure does look like unfortunate ladies with car trouble

My disappointment with We Are What We Are comes mostly from my expectations of the filmmaking team. I though Stake Land demonstrated such a monstrous level of skill and instinct that I just want so much for their films to continuously improve. We Are What We Are is a very good little genre film, one that takes its time and subtly examines what tradition means and how problematic it can be to blindly follow the religious or social requirements you were born into without questioning their place. It's just not the film I wanted from the guys who managed to give us NYC on the brink of collapse on a tiny budget or an apocalyptic wasteland with heart with a slightly less tiny budget. Now streaming on Instant Watch, this is a recommend, and a film that might sit better with me the next time around. In the meantime, I’ll just accept that I am what I am.

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