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.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas