Escape From Tomorrow – Randy Moore (2013)


Since it first premiered at Sundance in February, Randy Moore’s subversive stab at Disney has been in the spotlight for its secretive, guerilla filmmaking style. Moore and his crew shot the film at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in California, posing as tourists, using Park Hopper passes as their only credentials. Though the early speculation was that Disney would throw a fit and have the film shelved, they’ve remained quiet on the subject. Shooting inside the theme parks was a clever way to build hype around the film, but now that the film hits VOD this weekend, can it live up to that hype?

It’s the classic American family vacation that brings us here. Emily and Jim (Elena Schuber and Roy Abramsohn) and their two young children, Elliot and Sara (Jack Dalton and Katelynn Rodriguez), are on the last day of their trip to Disney World when everything begins to go wrong. Informed over the phone that he doesn’t have a job to come home to, the Happiest Place on Earth becomes Jim’s personal hell through the course of the day as they hop between the MagicKingdom, Epcot and the Contemporary Resort. As they queue for rides, Jim is able to sweet talk the sensitive Sara out of being scared of the Evil Witch and the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, but he himself begins hallucinating the fears she held in his own head. People are beheaded on rides, characters come alive as evil puppets that only he can see, and even Emily and the kids seem out to get him at certain points, their eyes rolling over black, taunting him.

As his family starts to pull apart under the weight of the Epcot ball, the only salvation from the misery that the pasty, pudgy, mid-40s Jim can find is leering at, and eventually following, a pair of young, pretty — possibly underage? — French girls (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) who don’t seem to mind his attention. If the hallucinations weren’t enough to tell you we’re in Jim’s head the whole time, that should certainly do it.

While the pre-release buzz seemed to point towards a camp-horror descent into madness that any midnight movie palace would be proud to run, I found most of the film plays more as an well measured take on a bored father’s fever dreams rather than a trip down the psycho rabbit hole. The film tends to spend most of its time painting the entire Disney entity itself as the real psychosis, preying on the American mind, leading us around on a leash of desire pointed at unattainable fairy tale icons to get us to buy turkey legs and Mickey Mouse hats.

Though the film does finally run off of the rails in a third act where Moore seemed to run out of ideas — rolling out the kind of Mad Scientist/Evil Witch yarn that even Scooby Doo would have blushed over — the deconstruction of the family unit in its most awkward, isolated state, where there is an immediate juxtaposition of the other awkward, isolated family surrounding them, helps Escape from Tomorrow succeed by presenting a surprisingly interesting, occasionally funny take on the usually blunt idea that Disney is everything that ails us.

The hype around the film seems to be a furious reply to that idea more than anything the film does or doesn’t accomplish. The hype was about the victory of getting one over on the ubiquitous Disney Machine, shooting an entire film under their nose and getting away with it — and now, in the most Disney way possible, exploiting that hype to extract every dollar from the marketplace that they can.

Yellowbrickroad – Andy Mitton (2010)

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Seventy years ago, all of the people in the tiny New Hampshire town of Friar, all 572 of them, just up and left. No one knows why. They just started walking north one day and – with the exception of one survivor, who has no answers – no one ever saw them alive again. With the documents and police reports about the case newly unclassified, well, it’s time someone wrote a book about it.

Yellowbrickroad is the second in an ongoing series of midnight horror movies created by a team-up between AMC Theaters and horror-film website Bloody Disgusting. (Check for showtimes.) It’s a bold move, but this film does not hold up its end of the bargain.

There is an enjoyable sense of care that went into its making. The directors’ and actors’ love of craft doesn’t go unnoticed, and as you watch it you get the feeling that they would have gotten a group of friends together to shoot this on a digicam if they couldn’t get a budget for a proper shoot. But not only are the movie’s key questions left unanswered, they are left almost entirely unexplored once the cast begins their journey on the trail.

There is a sound foundation built around the backstory of the “walkers,” as they’re called, and the Wizard of Oz iconography serves the first half well enough that a good movie could have come of it. But that movie never materializes once the aura of mystery around the event starts to lift. The film unravels itself just when the group unravels, and just as painfully, slowly dying a little bit where it should have had a punch of excitement.

Yellowbrickroad does, however, succeed in being thoroughly creepy at times, and reasonably tense. It also manages to deliver a few much-needed shocks along the way. But Dorothy and Toto find their answers at the end of their yellow brick road. The same can’t be said of this film or its characters.

My Sucky Teen Romance – Emily Hagins (2012)

To be candid, after seeing the 2009 documentary Zombie Girl, the chronicle of a 12 year old Texas girl named Emily Hagins and her struggled to try and juggle life, middle school and directing her first feature zombie film, I never expected to hear about her again. Like the kids who made a frame-by-frame reenactment of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I thought it was  a cool story, but one that would go no further.

Three years later, though, and here I am talking about her, as her latest feature — the vampire comedy My Sucky Teen Romance – starts its run on VOD. Now nineteen years old and more sure of herself, the movie is a substantial jump up in quality, as you’d expect.

A one-last-hurrah high school movie, My Sucky Teen Romancetakes its starting point from a mutual dislike of teenage vampire culture that Kate (Elaine Hurt) and Allison (Lauren Lee) share as they prepare to head to a sci-fi convention to blow out Kate’s last weekend in town before heading off for college. They are cute and vibrant girls, nothing like the typical riff raff (such as myself) you’d expect to find at a sci-fi convention, and that’s a joke Hagins somewhat annoyingly goes out of her way to make at times, casting the sloppiest, saddest group of middle-aged dorks to fill out the background.

It all goes wrong, of course, when Kate’s long time crush, a grocery clerk named Paul (Patrick Delgado) shows up dressed as a vampire. The thing is, he really is a vampire. His motives hidden from view, he splits his time casing the convention goers, waiting for a specific panel about vampires to take place and mired in awkward sexual tension with Kate, whom he accidentally bites, turning her as well.

Part of me wants to be hyper critical and say this isn’t a professional film, to play the Royal Tenenbaum ruining Margot’s play by saying it’s just a bunch of kids in vampire costumes, but the rest of me is screaming at that part, “shut the fuck up, gramps”. It’s true that it’s not a strict professional film, but it has the hallmarks of being on the path to future professional films for the young director. In most professions, youth is an assett, but not filmmaking. As vital as youth makes you, experience and broadened horizons is a far bigger key to filmmaking. It’s how you learn how and when to apply comic relief, and how to dip into pop culture sparingly, so you avoid making a films with a cultural time limit on it. But so many films these days arrive on screen like a dead fish staring back at you, and that’s something, for all its shortcomings, Hagins avoids nimbly here. There is a surprising subtlety to Kate and Paul’s story, as it intertwines with Jason’s (Santiago Dietche) story that you don’t see coming. It’s a joyful film, like how Shoot the Piano Player is a joyful film. It’s not on par with Truffaut’s second film, but Truffaut was 11 years older and maybe that makes all the difference.

Jaws – Steven Spielberg (1975)

If there is a film that sums up the start of summer better thanJaws, I’ve never heard of it. Whatever it did or didn’t do to backside of the the film industry forever aside, it is one of the greatest films ever made.

Jaws gets a lot of shit from cinephiles for “ruining” movies, though it’s a bit of a falsehood, and it only “ruined” movies for a very small percentage of people. It wasn’t even the real model for huge high concept openings — Universal actually cut the amount of theaters running the film from 900 to 500 to generate a bigger buzz as people waited in line and were shut out, ensuring tons of free publicity as newscasts around the country rushed to cover the long lines.

There are many ways to take it: a pure a thriller; as a wild dramatic ride; as a horror film; allegory of class warfare, or political upheaval — whatever you want to apply to the film basically works. It’s a film about struggle against ever escalating odds, so everything under the sun adheres to it with a little massaging.

The thriller and horror aspects are fine, but the way I like to read it is as a simple essay of the shifting tenuousness of power, or manhood if you want to call it that. It’s the interpersonal connections and disconnections between Brody, the Mayor, Hooper, Quint and the shark, the rise and fall of their fortunes and glory, and balls, with every Bill Butler frame, Verna Feilds cut and John Williams orchestral swell that keep me coming back to the film year after year.

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Red State – Kevin Smith (2011)

It’s hard to recall a movie that’s more confrontational than Red State. Both the film itself – a damning portrait of a super-strict cultist religion based on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church – and its director began the journey to the screen in a highly combative spirit. Most of what Smith himself has done reeks of a wounded ego after his last film, Cop Out, faced a severe critical drubbing that he still has not recovered from. I suspect many of us would have the same lingering issues to deal with if we faced such harsh criticism, but Smith, like Elizabeth Wurtzel or Sarah Palin, brings much of it on himself through his outspoken Twitter feed and podcasts in a time when the people have a more powerful voice than the ones with the megaphone.

But to spend too much time on that is to miss the point, perhaps. There is a film on the line here, and a new distribution model is being tested. It’s a film and distribution model we’ve been hearing about for years through the hard road that Red State faced to get financed, both due to its religious content, and how much of a departure it is from its director’s previous work.

Different may be an understatement: There is very little in the way of an authorial stamp to Red State beyond the sex jokes that it kicks off with, and the religious trickery at its conclusion. But those jokes are generic, far removed from the gasping-for-breath hilarity of Clerks or Chasing Amy, and the trickery in comparison to Smith’s Dogma.

That Matt Damon-starring firestarter was the charming story of two morons, the black 13th apostle and a Catholic girl with a shortage of faith who try to stop two rogue angels from destroying the world by proving God wrong. It came with an authenticity, a confidence and a certain playfulness. But Smith grew up a good Catholic boy in New Jersey, so that was in his nature. Red State, about an extreme anti-gay protestant splinter group that loves guns (and, apparently, knitting), is a foreign concept to most rational people, Smith included. Where Dogma had wit and insight built on a lifetime of thought, Red State has an outsider’s kneejerk reaction to a sick cult, one that slowly devolves into caricature by film’s end, rendering it a wholly useless take on the subject.

The film is essentially more of a Waco or Ruby Ridge story than it is a Westboro Baptist Church commentary. After luring in several victims (led by Michael Angarano as Travis) with the promise of sex, the congregation proceeds to drug and cage them. They execute a gay man who is wrapped in plastic in order to, it seems, keep his gay blood from touching their altar. The escalation of violence is a somewhat abrupt turn from the light beginning of kids looking to get laid via computer, but it’s not wholly unexpected. From there, it’s something of a race against time for the three remaining victims to escape the heavily fortified compound before the ATF, led by a totally wasted John Goodman performance, lays siege to the building.

The churchy segment starts off strong, with Michael Parks (as homophobic madman mastermind Pastor Abin Cooper) stealing the film with a 20 minute-long sermon that outlines the ethos and venom of the church’s faith. Aside from that, however, very little about this thing works. It’s not insightful or funny. The story is betrayed right off the bat by a stunningly weak script, something that’s normally Smith’s strong suit, and weak direction that doesn’t know what to do with its stars, including Melissa Leo. Red State lacks focus and clarity, has no real point of view, and if you buy a second of the climax, I’ve got a bridge and some magical beans to sell you.

The distribution model – a road tour followed by VOD availability and a limited theatrical release – may work for Smith, but he’s spent almost 20 years now building up a fairly loyal fan base (including this writer). So, like Nine Inch Nails or Radiohead or Joe Swanberg’s big idea, this kind of self-distribution can work for him, but it won’t be the kind of “revolution for the little guy” that was promised. You have to have a name and the sellable personality to match to get away with this kind of thing, and if he has nothing else in life, Smith has exactly that.