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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, THE SUMMIT and A.C.O.D.!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

It's taken me three films to realize this, but writer-director Jim Mickle (STAKE LAND) has a true gift for casting actors with the best faces for their roles. That may seem obvious, but in a world of making movies where most filmmakers would go with the most recognizable names or faces, Mickle wonders, "Who looks like this character?" The faces of his actors become etched in your mind. For example, I've seen Bill Sage in a dozens of film and television roles, usually clean cut, angular, but it's his portrayal of Frank Parker, the devoutly religious husband and father of three that has been burned in my brain since seeing WE ARE WHAT WE ARE a few weeks ago.

A beard all but obscures Sages most recognizable features, and his raspy voice does the rest. It's the performance of a lifetime for this veteran of '90s-era Hal Hartley films, and because of this performance, I'll always be just a little more nervous watching him from this point forward. WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is about the Parker family, reeling in the aftermath of the sudden, mysterious death of its matriarch. On the eve of what is clearly a big-deal religious event in the family's history, the Parkers are forced to carry out a strange and shocking ritual, which must now be supervised by the eldest daughter Iris (Ambyr Childers from THE MASTER), with the assistance of the reluctant younger sister Rose (Julia Garner of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE).

I know some reviews are going to come right out and say what the big "surprise" of this film is, but the truth is, it's not that much of a surprise, and it's certainly not treated like one in this film. What Mickle and his constant writing partner Nick Damici (who also acts in the film) have done is taken a shocking concept and made it somewhat understandable (but not quite acceptable) in the context of religious practices. But let's make this clear, at its core, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is a horror film about religion, about the controlling, manipulative ways that organized religion often works and how people use religion to justify the most horrific acts imaginable. There's even an interesting flashback element to the film that shows the first time these practices were put into place, and those sequences are among the most graphic in the film.

But strangely enough, Mickle does not rely on blood and gore to make his film shocking; the most graphic element in the movie is actually a brief autopsy scene. Instead the director and Damici use terrific actors and a slow, creeping sense of dread that permeates every frame of this movie. Strong supporting work from the likes of Kelly McGillis, Wyatt Russell and especially the great Michael Parks only serve to underscore a terrific story. The film is technically a remake of a 2010 Mexican work of the same name, but other than the basic structure, the two films are striking (thankfully) different. I actually think this newer version is far better. There are only a couple of actual scares in the film, but as I said, this is about nerve-shattering tension and some of the best character building I've seen in a horror film in quite some time. One of the best years in horror continues with WE ARE WHAT WE ARE.

This remarkable documentary feels more like a thriller, except a feature film version of this story probably wouldn't be nearly as exciting. As the now notorious story goes, a group of 18 mountain climbers attempted to reach the top of K2—the second-highest mountain on earth after Mt. Everest—in August 2008. Two days later, only seven of them were accounted for due to a series of bad decisions, faulty or lacking equipment, and bad luck. What director Nick Ryan's film THE SUMMIT attempts to do is re-create almost moment by moment the journey and the losses in a way that has never been attempted.

THE SUMMIT does fruitlessly ask the question about why these men and women do what they do, but I think this falls into that category of if you have to ask, you'll never really understand. They climb this and other mountains because they were placed on this earth to climb, in their estimation. But the most impressive parts of this film involve the exhausting detective work of examining photos, film and interviewing the few survivors; a few re-enactments are used to fill in the gaps, but Ryan seems keen on sticking to the facts rather than speculating.

The footage of the mountain—both from the bottom and from the summit—are beyond words and might be the best reason not to wait and see this film at home. On a big screen, these images will blow your mind and eyes. But Ryan builds the story of these tragic deaths slowly, and you can tell that it bothers him and the survivors that they simply don't know what happened to a few of the climbers; they just never returned, possibly the victims of an avalanche or just the cold. Either way, dying that way is almost unimaginable.

It's clear from the film that those who survived this ordeal do not feel like heroes or brave people; they simply were lucky enough to make it when others didn't, and that reality has clearly taken its toll on some of them. THE SUMMIT is one of those films that is almost physically exhausting to watch due to all of the discussions of the lack of oxygen and the exertion that these climbers go through to make this journey. In that sense, watching the film is almost an immersive experience, which seems almost necessary to get its point across about just how death-defying a climb like this is. Go in expecting to be a whole lot of freaked out by this story and the unknown factors that are still being dealt with and contemplated regarding these deaths. And if you're afraid of heights, stay clear of this one. Otherwise, it's essential viewing.

So often when you crowd a comedy with too many funny people, the individual voices tend to drown each other out. The latest work from director and co-writer Stu Zicherman suffers from that curse ever so slightly, but still manages to pull of quite a few humorous sequences as well as a few astute observations about divorce in the last 30-some years and the now-adult children of divorce who have been left in the wake of them.

Adam Scott ("Parks & Recreation") stars as Carter, who feels fairly confident that he's got his act together; he runs a successful restaurant and has a long-time girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who isn't pressuring him to get married. Carter's biggest day-to-day headaches come from his long-divorced parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O'Hara) who haven't spoken in years, are remarried (to Amy Poehler and Ken Howard, respectively) and are constantly attempting to poison Carter against each other, as they have since he was a kid. But when his younger brother (Clark Duke) gets engaged after only dating a woman for a few months, Carter suddenly feels the pressure to get married as well, and he begins to wonder why he hasn't made it legal with his phenomenal lady.

Carter seeks the aide of his therapist (Jane Lynch), who it turns out isn't actually a therapist, but someone who, back when he was a kid, studied the behaviors and thoughts of children of divorce, all of whom are grown up now, and she's looked to update her studies on adult children of divorce (A.C.O.D.). While he manages to fire off a few one-liners here and there, Scott's biggest accomplishment is merging the insanity around him into a coherent story, and he's a strong enough actor to pull it off. He's such a natural everyman, that it's tough to believe that he's never really been the lead in anything to this extent before.

Fairing strongest in A.C.O.D. are Jenkins, who plays the perfect asshole, self-centered dad; and Lynch, who actually goes for a kind and nurturing take on this character, but she too is after something from Carter—namely an updated look at his life to find commonalities among her subjects. In fact, at various points in this movie, every character turns into a selfish prick, and that makes it tough to like these characters for long stretches of time. Then there's the weirdly brief appearance of Jessica Alba and another one of Lynch's grown-up child subjects. She appears to Carter, they have a flirtation, and she essentially vanishes. Cutting her out of this might have been the best and easiest decision the editor could have made, but I guess her name on a poster means something.

A.C.O.D. takes a few risks by making divorce the primary subject of the humor—and the vitriolic way Jenkins and O'Hara go at each other is beyond enjoyable—but I think if you're going to take on a touchy subject like this, why wrap everything up in a nice bow and force everyone into concluding scenes that feel fake, almost like a make-good for all of the agony we've seen on screen so far? It doesn't ring true and it undercuts whatever edge this movie might have achieved. Still, Scott and company keeps things moving, funny and often smart and poignant. It's a closer call than it should have been, but I'd still say it's worth a look.

-- Steve Prokopy
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