Sunday, October 13, 2013

Man, this newest John Carpenter movie is disappointing


At about the 60 minute mark, Escape From Tomorrow proceeds to end.  It does so approximately 4.5 times, and it's only the half of an ending that is remotely satisfying.

Written and directed by Randy Moore
With Roy Abramsohn (Jim), Elena Schuber (Emily), Katelynn Rodriguez (Sara), Jack Dalton (Eliot), Danielle Safady (Sophie), Annet Mahendru (Isabella), Alison Lees Taylor (Other Woman), Stass Klassen (Scientist)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Safety Last.  Steamboat Bill, JrThe Thing From Another WorldRoad WarriorRaiders of the Lost ArkDeath Proof.  And so on.

So you can see my point, when I ask exactly how many accolades sneaking around with tiny cameras and "guerilla filmmaking" really merits.  Escape From Tomorrow was shot without permission at Disney properties, which I suppose entails some risk, but...

...Unless you're under house arrest in Iran for making movies in the first place, and just making your little vlog movie is itself a potentially death-defying act of resistance, I think the answer to my question about credit probably should never be much more than an equivocal "some."  This is especially true when the movie that results is just as much a mess as its sketchy production would cynically lead you to expect.

That said, is it an effective technique?  Yes.  For the most part, Escape From Tomorrow is prime location shooting, and it looks very cool.  Granted, it looks cool because Disneyworld and Disneyland look cool, and because black and white photography looks cool.

And, contrary to yesterday's review of Captain Phillips and the associated excoriation of Paul Greengrass and Barry Ackroyd, Escape From Tomorrow is about as good as fully handheld video shooting is likely to get.  When cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham's camera shakes, he's not doing it on purpose and on the director's orders.  Most shots are framed and blocked as well or even better than you could reasonably hope.  If handheld shooting makes Greengrass the rough moral equivalent of a Barbary Coast slaver, Moore can rest easier as a kind of Francis Drake.

Let's celebrate with some black and white fireworks, which is something I've rarely if ever seen, especially with this much attention given to the subject, and I'm glad I got to.

Even when Moore resorts to cinema's most hilariously inept greenscreen, I found myself wondering if this was really the very best he could do (as it really is enormously awful, and below the capabilities displayed by many Youtube and Blip contributors), or if it was a charming stylistic choice that just happened to help his budgetbecause in combination with the B+W, it reminded me immediately of 1950s SF films with their terrible process shots, and considering Disneyland's vintage, as well as some of the material to come in this film, that's no mean aesthetic decision.

Ultimately, given it's constraints, Escape From Tomorrow is a technically well-made movie.

And then it has, after a fashion, its script, and more's the pity.

Escape From Tomorrow begins very well, even extraordinarily well, with themes that resonate strongly for straight white cisgendered American male dudes such as myself.  Escape recapitulates American Beauty, and to a huge degree (it must be said) National Lampoon's Vacation, but here the breakdown of the family is set entirely within the bounds of our most iconic theme park, and the events of its dissolution take place over only one day.  It pursues its themes with at least as much zaniness as those films, while at the same time significantly more verifiable mental illness.  Like them, the principal focus is the father (he's named Jim here).  He's the kind of guy we wish we weren't, and on many levels; but he's a man we might easily becomeor be already.

By "we" I mean "you."  I can't even afford to go to Carowinds these days.

Our tottered patriarch is informed, over the phone, on the last day of his family's Disney vacation, that he's been fired.  Instead of commiserating with his wife, Emilyand we soon learn why he wouldn't botherhe gets locked out on the balcony by his creepy son.  The kid is probably like most eight-to-ten year olds in terms of behaviorwith maybe slightly more unresolved Oedipal impulses than the baselinebut Eliot really comes off as a shitbag throughout.  The only person in Jim's family he even seems to like (and also seems to like him) is his daughter, Sara.  Despite all these crosses to bear, he resolves to try to enjoy, or at least ensure that his spawn can enjoy, one last day of lousy middle class fun.

Where nothing could possibly go wrong... go wrong... go wrong...

And, naturally, it goes wrong.  Upon arrival at Disneyworld's Magic Kingdom, the full-blown midlife crisis and the increasingly serious mental breakdown each begin in earnest, roughly simultaneously.  The former is triggered by the appearance of a pair of sirenlike, ambiguously legal French tourists guaranteed to stimulate the ephebophile centers of the brain.  Sophie, the one he's particularly into, wears braces, which the BangBros, in a rare misstep, have yet to succeed in repackaging as a mainstream fetish.  Jim does not mind.

It's not very long before he's nigh/full-on stalking them.  But despite the highly subjective filmmaking going on here, it's never, not once, entirely clear if they are not also following him.

Can't speak for Danielle Safady (Sophie, right), but for what it's worth, Annet Mahendru, portraying Isabelle (left) is a college graduate.  Whew?

It's also not very long before Jim starts having weird, terrorizing, self-flagellating hallucinations, arising whenever he gets dragooned by the fam into the sit-down-and-get-carted-through-a-house rides that are Disney's stock in trade, e.g. It's a Small World After All (seen here without the copyrighted song, and also with more evil CG faces).

The metaphor is obvious but works.  Jim is full of real emotions: frustration and hopelessness with his station in life; antipathy toward an irredeemably shrewish wife (whose presentation would border on a misogynist stereotype if Jim's own conception weren't practically misandrist itself); and exhaustion over his obligations to his ingrate children.  Yet he remains trapped within an artificial world where his dreams, it is said, can all come true, but when they don't, nothing is more forbidden than actually being fucking sad about it.  Even more inescapably, he is caged in a prison of time, surrounded and tormented by visions of the youth that he wasted on this mostly crappy family and his vanished career.

It doesn't really have anything much to do with Disney specifically at all, and Jim could have just as easily found himself in Walley World, or Happy World Land, or Jurassic Park for all it really matters.  But what Disney does provide (in addition to, well, sets) is a wealth of ready, recognizable, and potent iconographymuch of it tailormade for, and now finally given, the real Jacob's Ladder treatment.

For the 31 minutes that this first, establishing act lasts, Escape From Tomorrow is a really cool film.  That's exactly when Moore begins to undermine himself, and, eventually, he succeeds in his task.

It begins with a chance encounter that, at first, seems like it must be another hallucination, albeit the most sophisticated one yet.  But it goes on so long and so clearly takes place in real time and space that it can't possibly be any more imaginary, at least, than the rest of this increasingly ridiculous film.

Bear in mind that the animating motivation for Jim now is his desire to fuck Sophie, or maybe have a full-on threesome with Sophie and Isabelle alike (in France, they call this an "FFM").  Lester Burnham and Clark Griswold could surely sympathize, and they would no doubt masturbate while laying next to their ignored wives at the prospect.

So imagine how well those characters' sexual frustrations in American Beauty or Vacation would have played if, halfway through their respective films, Lester and Clark forgot about their wife and their lust object, and, without any effort at all, just happened to have sex with some entirely random woman.  A woman with nice bazooms.

Oh, did I hear you say, "Not well at all"?  Then you are correct.

Let's consider Lester, who is clearly Jim's immediate predecessor.  Lester was deeply crushed upon a specific person, and like his own ancestor Humbert (but far less outrageously evil and significantly less gross), he had a long-term seduction plan directed toward his goal.  Jim, however, is just horny over some young girls on the day.  Thus, this really should more or less take care of it.  It's a messy win; but he'll take it.

But for whatever reason he picks up his game of stalk-or-be-stalked with Sophie and Isabelle just as soon as he can unload and get out.  I thought refractory periods were supposed to be longer the older you got.

Also, while it is mentioned, in bad forced exposition, that he suffers blackouts, and was inconveniently having one during most of the sex, this isn't any kind of good defenseespecially since I find the whole thing a quite unnecessary and terribly annoying addition to the script.  Hell, this makes it odder, because (not legally or morally, but from his perspective) he was practically rapedand not for nothing, while his kid was sleeping in the next room.  I think that alone would put me off sex, for at least an hour or two.

But rest assured, the misadventures of Jim just get sillier, sexier, and less obviously about anything concrete as the movie goes on, to the point where many scenes become almost disconnected from each other (and in a few cases entirely disconnected from anything, especially logic and sense, even dream logic and sense).

Ha ha.  Siemens.  I get it.

No, I really do get it.  I said "ha ha."

It would be alright if everything were a hallucination.  In fact, there's a moment calling back to the vision (?) that opened the film, before we even met Jim.  It threatens to go full-bore Vanilla Sky on us, and hence make everything okay.  Regrettably, Moore does not follow through on the somewhat plagiaristic but frankly awesome prospect.

At least some of this is really happening, and Moore communicates this by too often, and unaccountably, taking us outside of Jim's subjective experience.  The first two times are innocuous enough, but it's jarring when Moore decides to have a whole sequence with Emily, where she experiences her own waking nightmare.  Abruptly, it ends the immersive journey we had heretofore been enjoying, or whatever, as we went deep into Jim's fractured id.

The last act is a poorly tied-together collection of quasi-real events, and all of which seem to serve as an ending of sorts.  Some of them hint at twists that never quite materialize, most feature story ideas that remain undeveloped, and at least one, the one involving the Siemens conspiracy and squirty goo, is like the climax from a draft of the script that was otherwise (and probably rightly) pulped.  Some of these endings are entirely botchedthe first and last true tete-a-tete with the girls is an especially messy miscarriage of editing and script.  And I don't know why it happened, or if it happened, or exactly what it was.  There is a point to it, and I liked my idea of its idea of it, but little of the execution actually going into it.

It is only the last few shots of the film, which I referred to as the "half of an ending," which signal a return to maturity.

The final result is a dramedy about a straight white cisgendered American male dude that radically departs from the standard of quality set by its direct influences, and a thriller set in a theme park that doesn't achieve the clarity and intensity of spiritual predecessors like Westworld.  Or, for that matter, Jaws 3D.  Or that part in Tiny Toons: How I Spent My Summer Vacation where the guy in the hockey mask tries to kill Plucky Duck.  What a great cartoon.

All that said, I never found Escape From Tomorrow boring, and on occasion it was extremely funny, especially early on, but even later, when it pulls a straight-up Monty Python gag on us, doing something a 90 minute film should never have need to do.

Perhaps there's a decoder ring somewhere that will let you in on all the goofy symbolism and narrative fuckery of Escape From Tomorrow, and thus, for you, this film could be edifying.  I wish you luck.  It's not recommended, but I can give it this: it is something different.  Heck, I liked it better than Pirates of the Caribbean.

Score: 4/10

P.S. But Tomorrowland is gonna be rad.  [Editor's note: it wasn't]


  1. I got to watch this film at an event in LA where there was a filmmaker Q&A afterword, and I don't think a single audience member liked the movie in any way. The most supremely uncomfortable experience of my life. Although perhaps fitting for such a bizarrely disorienting film.

    1. Heh, I read your review, and saw it featured as your worst film of 2013. I wasn't quite that horrified by it...

      Did anyone "get" it? I want to meet the person who "got" it. Mainly out of morbid curiosity, but still.

    2. Some people in the front must have "gotten" it - they were the only ones asking questions. To this day I'm not entirely convinced they weren't plants. And I don't know, I was sticking with the film for the first half or so but once the cat flu subplot came in (and, as you mentioned, the nonsensical third sex partner), I was out.