Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Trippiest Place on Earth

Cannes. Sundance. Toronto. South by Southwest. Telluride. Venice. Every year, people flock to annual film festivals. There, they are offered a glimpse of the newest and (hopefully) best efforts by artists from around the globe. It's a cinematic breeding ground, a United Nations for filmmakers, and for many a chance to truly break out and be discovered by major studios and appreciative audiences.

Sometimes a title will come along, however, that you KNOW you'll likely never see on the big screen. Indies movies especially tend to skew away from the mainstream, often resulting in the kind of controversy and attention that makes for great headlines, but not substantive box office grosses. For Escape from Tomorrow, that came at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival from the revelation that the psychedelic horror/comedy had been shot guerrilla-style (basically sneaking around and filming when nobody was looking) at he Happiest Place on Earth. Disney has always been protective of its intellectual property, and the idea of making an a somewhat anti-Disney movie on its own front lawn was bound to make some waves. Despite my interest in seeing this, I however judged that pressure from the Magic Kingdom Walt built would keep theaters from showing this much-talked-about little movie, and that I'd likely have to wait for a DVD release.
Unlike the fez, sombreros are cool now.
Well, good luck prevailed here, and while I did have to go a bit out of my way to see Escape, I'm glad I did. The movie follows middle-aged husband and father Jim (Roy Abramsohn), who starts the last day of his family's vacation to Disney World discovering that he has lost his job. Slowly, his last day at Disney is distorted by freaky visions, cute French girls (any sane man's kryptonite), his own creepy children, and other mysterious characters as Jim just tries to make it through one more day with his life and sanity intact.
And THAT'S how he sneaked the script through the front gates!
If there's one word I can use to describe Escape from Tomorrow it's... surreal. Director Randy Moore has his faults (as all first time directors do), but he was quite sure of the story he wanted to tell here and the visuals he wanted to incorporate. The film is the ultimate argument against mass entertainment, taking one of the most revered institutions in the world and subverting it completely into something dark and maniacal. Through Moore's eyes, where many might see magic, he paints chaos in all shapes and forms. While the monochromatic imagery was more due to necessity than choice (natural lighting issues coupled with the use of non-standard handheld cameras forced the decision to shoot in black and white), it does a wonderful job of establishing the pessimistic mood of the film. But that doesn't mean that the entire movie is dark; early on especially, Moore manages to capture what makes Disney so enrapturing in the first place, even while depicting a decapitation on Thunder Mountain or adultery in the resort hotel.
If this were my kid I'd drop him off at Buzz Lightyear and run.
Despite the impressive camerawork and gleefully dark humor, there are a few issues that keep this from becoming a true indie classic. Most troublesome are the green screen effects, in which Moore couldn't capture the scenes he wanted at the park and edited them in post-production. It's glaringly noticeable when this takes place and really takes the viewer out of the story. Slightly better are the limited CGI effects, such as the ones that change the faces on the "It's a Small World" ride from cheery smiles to evil snarls during one of Jim's fever dreams. Still, with a film on such a small budget, poor effects are the best you can reasonably expect. The acting is also sadly mixed. While Abramsohn and Elena Schuber (playing his wife) are fine, most of the rest of the cast are a mixed bag, from kids Jack Dalton (who is creepy but little else) and Katelynn Rodriguez (with no personality whatsoever) to bland side characters that receive barely any development time between scant appearances. Finally, while Moore might have known what kind of story he wanted to tell, he doesn't have a clue how to end it; the last twenty minutes are full of expected plot wrap-ups but free of anything resembling an actual, understandable conclusion.
Best movie of the year!!
There's a lot to like in Escape from Tomorrow, a wacky, satirical, subversive and at times disturbing look at what's hidden behind the perfectly-placed curtain of seemingly innocent entertainment. Moore brings plenty to the table, and proves to be a talented - if flawed through inexperience - director, and might actually go places if Disney doesn't succeed in blacklisting him in Hollywood. But his feature debut does suffer from a bit too much rawness, and in fact is a far better on paper than it is a finished product. That doesn't mean it's not worth a look on concept alone, but perhaps avoid the few theatrical releases still out there (it probably won't last long anyway) and rent or VOD it instead. It's obvious however why this was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival; at the very least it's a unique idea - one I never thought would rationally exist - and is at least worth your attention, if not quite your admiration.

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