October 24, 2013

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW Is The Gutsiest Film Of The Year

"Don't let your imagination run wild."
The fact that Escape From Tomorrow exists at all, let alone that I was able to pay money and see it in a theater with other humans, is downright astounding.

The film is a middle-aged, middle-class nightmare about Jim, a man who finds out that he's been fired on the last day of his family vacation at Disney World.  He ventures out into the park with his wife and two kids but quickly finds himself losing his grip on reality while simultaneously lusting after MILFs and a pair of French teenagers.  He hallucinates and is overcome with paranoia, but it remains to be seen whether or not it's all in his head or if there's something far more disturbing afoot.  That's a very basic description that doesn't even begin to hint at the sheer insanity that's packed into this black and white horrorshow,

But here's the totally mind-boggling part: much of the film was secretly filmed guerrilla-style at Disney World with absolutely no permission from the Walt Disney Corporation.   Director Randy Moore and his intrepid cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham spent days in the park for what sounds like an exhaustive pre-production process, not only scouting exact locations but also charting the movement of the sun across the park in order to figure out exactly what time of day would provide the proper lighting for each scene.  The cast and crew paid admission to enter the park and they shot scenes using the Canon 5D Mark II Digital SLR camera, blending in as tourists and staging innocuous scenes while riding and waiting in line for attractions.  They interact with costumed characters and cover an impressive amount of ground while pulling one over on the Happiest Place On Earth.

And somehow it looks gorgeous.  Considering the circumstances I was half expecting most of the park footage to be pretty rough, but you can really see how all of Moore and Graham's preparation paid off.  You'd never know by looking at it that they basically shot half the movie on the down low while ducking Disney security.  The staging and the shot composition is pretty amazing, and the "production value" of the reality happening all around them is worth it's weight in gold.  There are a few scenes that clearly utilize green screens and background plates, and while it's certainly noticeable it's not so distracting that it detracts from the scenes themselves.  I wish I could say the same about the cast.  The performances by Roy Abramsohn and Elena Schuber are pretty inconsistent; when they're out in the park surrounded by unsuspecting park-goers they're pretty natural, but they're downright cringeworthy in some of the more extreme moments staged on closed sets.

More than anything else, I have to give Escape From Tomorrow credit for its incredible ambition.  On top of the ridiculous production process, the film itself is totally balls out WEIRD, but in a way that I totally loved.  You have to respect Randy Moore for taking on an incredible production challenge in service of a script that's hardly an easy sell in the first place.  This is in no way a film for everyone and you're almost certain to walk away with more questions than answers, but it's also not really a film that's interested in spelling everything out for you.  It wants to make you uncomfortable, subverting the whole notion of these plastic, prepackaged vacation experiences and imagining what kind of bizarre, twisted underbelly might lurk beneath the surface, whether that takes the form of turkey legs that are really made of emu, or Disney princesses as high-priced hookers.  The crazier side of the film is utterly fascinating to watch - is Jim just stressed from losing his job, or is there something far more sinister going on?  I honestly couldn't tell you.  But the weird truly works because Moore also perfectly captures the familiar surface level of Disney World, from waiting in line all day for the Buzz Lightyear ride to the constant wail of screaming babies, to spending ten minutes telling your kid that no, they CAN'T get that overpriced souvenir.  The careful balance between the two universes helps keep the audience grounded, although in this case that's a pretty relative term.

I watched Escape From Tomorrow with my buddy Warren and my wife Jamie.  When we all lived in Los Angeles, Jamie used to get a resident pass for Disneyland and head down there with friends a few times every year.  It is, quite simply, her favorite place in the world that isn't Paris.  She understandably didn't care for the movie, as she prefers her innocent, cheerful version of the theme park to Moore's cracked mirror of dementia.  When it comes to Disney-related films, she's much more excited about the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, in which Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney to Emma Thompson's P.L. Travers.  Hilariously we got a trailer for that directly before the movie began.  Well played.

But the thing I will never forget about this screening is the moment late in the film when Jim, clad a Hawaiian shit and cuffed khakis (a.k.a. the ultimate dad vacation wear) is walking barefoot around his hotel room and stubs his toe on a piece of furniture.  A close-up of his foot reveals a wound that's bleeding profusely.  Warren, unwilling to believe that Jim's injury would be manifest so severely, quickly let out a skeptical, "What the hell?"  Jamie immediately turned to him and responded, "Really?  Out of everything we've seen, that's where you draw the line?"  I immediately burst out laughing.  Patton Oswalt knows what I'm talking about.

Warren and I were talking about the movie again last night while watching the Cardinals botch routine plays in Game 1 of the World Series, and we were marveling that Disney, a company that's notoriously litigious, ever allowed the film to be released in the first place.  When it played at Sundance this year, the consensus was that Escape would almost certainly never see the light of day, but my understanding is that Disney merely asked for a few specific moments to be trimmed and otherwise put up no real fight when the Producer's Distribution Agency picked up the rights and gave the film a limited theatrical release simultaneously with VOD.*  But having now seen the movie I'm actually not all that surprised.  There's little about the film I would classify as conventional and it's simply not designed for mass appeal.  Sure, it doesn't paint the theme park in a particularly flattering light, but this version of Disney World also exists in a heightened state that no one could possibly confuse for reality.  If they had caught Moore in the act of filming that would be one thing, but once it started screening at festivals then the Pandorica was already open, so to speak.  I'm sure Disney realized that the film was never going to make millions of dollars and that going after Moore after the fact was only going to make them look like bullies and elevate the movie's profile - "It's the movie Disney doesn't want you to see!"  That would have been a hell of a selling point, whereas now it will exist merely as a cult curiosity that's praised by critics for being ballsy while going unseen by the majority of the public.

So props to Disney for taking the high road here.  Then again, I'm sure their park security guards are going to be far more vigilant from now on...

*It only played in Boston at the Somerville Theater and only for one week, but you can still buy or rent the film through iTunes or Amazon.

Title: Escape From Tomorrow
Director: Randy Moore
Starring: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Jack Dalton, Katelynn Rodriguez, Annet Mahendru
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Somerville Theater

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