Z

By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Sundance Review: Computer Chess, Escape From Tomorrow

With Sundance half past, the crowd-sourced task of finding excellent titles has paid off at least twice: Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow, two subversive films shot in black-and-white, will leave Park City with critical favor and audience intrigue speeding them on their way.

Computer Chess, the latest surprise from indie darling Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha), is a tiny, subtle comedy about a weekend computer chess tournament, an event where programming geeks pit their programs against one another to see which machine is best at chess.

In Bujalski’s film, the year is 1980–a period in programming where artificial intelligence was on the cusp of ultimately becoming “smarter” than human potential–at least, in terms of playing chess. The idea that an inanimate object could work faster and think deeper than an organic, creative brain is also a prevalent theme here, fleshing out the distinct anxiety of a world where machines are self-aware (one chess program, we learn later, refuses to compete properly against other machines, making intelligent moves only when it knows a human is playing.)

Shot on vintage Portapak tape in 4:3 aspect ratio, the film excels at recreating the atmosphere and feel of the early 1980s, nailing everything from the clunky computer hardware to the stifling décor of the convention’s tacky venue (the time-capsule effect is enough to induce some serious nostalgia).

During the weekend-long tournament, the days are filled with matches while the nights get a little freaky, with pot smoke, open-arms sexuality, and red-eyed coding sessions adding some brilliant color to the monochromatic satire. Providing the most vibrancy, however, is the wackiness of competitor Michael Papageorge, who shines as both the Han Solo and Cosmo Kramer of computer chess: his contrarian attitude, cynical remarks, and lone-gun persona make for comedy gold at the nerd Olympics.

For the most part, though, Computer Chess remains reserved, opting for understated irony and deliberate pacing instead of explicit punchlines. In a memorable scene before the tournament has formally started, for example, we hear a speaker drone to a crowd about the latest advances in computer chess, but a quick cut to the audience reveals a man slipping in and out of consciousness, put to sleep from sheer boredom. The awkward trials of geekdom are examined here, where socializing is stressful and life is lived as a series of math problems; each issue solved rationally one after another. Much of the film unfolds this way: slowly, yet layered with moments of sarcastic dryness to keep things engaging.

When Escape from Tomorrow’s credits finished rolling, a friend proudly exclaimed: “If I was high and in college, this movie would have flipped my shit.” I may be paraphrasing a tad, but the general sentiment is there: the film hits you upside the head like a throbbing caffeine headache, with or without the aid of external substances.


Randy Moore’s debut feature is the most notorious debut in Park City for its unique provenance: a majority of his narrative was filmed on location at Orlando’s Disney World and Epcot, where filming for commercial purposes is strictly taboo. Because of this, I’m not sure if many readers will even have the opportunity to experience Escape from Tomorrow. Despite all the nice things reviewers can say about the film, the fact remains that this was done without the animation giant’s explicit permission, meaning Tomorrow could potentially share a fate similar to Todd Haynes’ Superstar: officially banned but beloved behind closed doors (and maybe a firewall or two). To be honest, though, this (likely) scenario wouldn’t be so bad. Sometimes it’s fun to break the rules, as Moore undoubtedly knows.

Had this film been a light-hearted romantic comedy where two consenting, beautiful humans find love in a magical theme park, it’s possible the Disney Company would waive the legal matters and allow the film to see the light of day. Of course, Escape from Tomorrow is not that film: it is a subversive, nightmarishly bizarre trek following Jim (Roy Abramsohn), his two kids, and a nagging wife on a family vacation to Lake Buena Vista’s fabled resort. It’s hard to say much more without ruining the phenomenon of Moore’s project, but let’s just say Jim is fated for a roller-coaster ride (literally) of grotesque images, a sinister temptress, and something crazy called “cat flu.” In more ways than one, it’s a decapitating head trip.

Those familiar with Walt Disney and his legacy will know that Mickey and Co. are a litigious bunch, but realistically, it’s not hard to see why the Mouse House would want to squelch the film. Moore’s script alludes to a variety of horrors hiding latent at Disney World, including children being snatched from their parents and established characters turning “evil” in a flash. Further complicating things is the uncomfortable theme of pedophilia running rampant throughout the narrative, manifested through Jim’s fascination (and fetishization) of two petite Parisians and the fucked-up intentions of a mysterious woman. It’s disturbing. I know that’s kind of the point, but some scenes are a tough sit.

For better or for worse, these shocking provocations (like the tints of pedophilia) oversaturate the film to the point of absurdity. The initial moments that both thrill and happily beguile soon become tiresome, and it’s clear the project as a whole is ultimately more interesting than it is ingenious; more fascinating for its potential illegality and unknown future than its actual sum. Also disappointing is Moore’s use of green screen, an aesthetic crutch that feels out of place and looks downright amateur. Go big or go home, right? It’s obvious certain VFX scenes require a static environment to properly execute, but the visible seams ruin the immersion and make the “filmed entirely at Disney World” hype an oversell (and complete falsehood, as the film was shot at Disney Land, Disney World, and Occidental Studios in Los Angeles). Regardless of these issues, you won’t see another film shot candidly at an amusement park—and if Disney World is where you think human decency goes to die, Escape from Tomorrow is calling your name.

Leave a Reply

Quote Unquotesee all »

Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

Z Weekend Report