By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: Escape from Tomorrow

At once one of the more interesting and more over-hyped films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, first-time filmmaker Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow is stronger in concept than execution, but it’s still one of the films playing here this year that I’m most glad I didn’t miss. Is it a perfect film? No, it’s not. But one of the great things about this festival is that the programming often takes risks that other fests don’t, and you sometimes get to stumble upon something that, while flawed, still shows a brilliance and originality that’s lacking from so much of low-budget indie film. For that it’s absolutely deserving of some accolades.

The black-and-white, partially guerrilla-shot film takes us into the bowels of Disney theme parks through the story of one man, Jim White (Roy Abramsohn), who’s unceremoniously fired from his corporate job while on vacation there with his family. Determined to have one last day in the fantasy world with his wife and kids, unmarred by the grim reality of having to tell his wife he’s lost his job, Jim tries to make their final day at the theme park idyllic, but things quickly get surreal and more than a little disturbing.

A pair of flirtatious young French girls catches Jim’s eye, and soon he’s following them around the park, dragging his young son along with him for the ride, and getting increasingly shameless in revealing his lust as the film progresses. How much of the girls’ flirtation is real and how much is Jim’s delusion is left to you to judge, though given the rest of what’s happening here, I think it’s maybe a little of both; regardless, it’s a lot creepy, this middle-aged man trolling after a pair of young girls, but it also makes a statement of sorts about sexual fantasy and objectification that one doesn’t expect to overtly find in a film about Disney anything.

And yet, what are Disney princesses if not early gender role training for little girls? They are largely fantasy incarnate – the male fantasy of being needed and desired by a nicely busty, youthful and attractive young girl who flirtatiously giggles and bats eyelashes and radiates desire. Every now and again one may be a little feisty or independent, but at the end of the day what does a Disney princess want but to be rescued by her prince to live happily ever after, while sacrificing self-hood to be with her man?

Moore underscores this by contrasting Jim’s wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), a nagging wife and mother who’s always on his ass about something, with the giggling, attractive younger girls. Jim can’t seem to please his wife no matter what he does, but when he follows these young girls around, they stroke his male ego in a way that his wife does not, and whether that’s reality or fantasy matters little, given that we’re seeing it all from Jim’s perspective, warped through the lens of Disney-esque fantasy. All this fantasy exploration of screwed-up values is further underscored by an encounter Jim has with a seductive aging Disney princess who ties him up and beds him, a potentially fatal virus working its way through the happy, smiling tourists spending their dollars at the theme park, and a team of rogue scientists operating beneath Epcot Center, who have their own sinister plans for Jim.

Filmmaker Randy Moore says in his director’s statement for this film that it was inspired in part by his own trips to Disney theme parks as a child – something he loved when he was a kid, without realizing how he was being influenced by the surreal unreality of the temporary world of make believe and magic. The Disney theme parks create an illusion of fairy tales and princesses and happily ever after, and the influence of corporate branding and marketing sells children on a synthetic fantasy that doesn’t exist. While the execution of Escape from Tomorrow doesn’t always quite hit the fairly high ambition for which it’s aiming, it still manages to be an interestingly subversive exploration of the ideas and values peddled by a corporation that makes its billions off selling outdated ideas about gender roles and relationships. Moore plants the pretty princesses — both the young, fresh and dewy ones and the older, washed up and desperate ones — squarely in front of his protagonist, and reveals through Jim’s interactions with them just what’s so fucked up about the happily-ever-after Disney theme.

Among industry, there are films that are what we’ve come to think of as typical “Sundance films.” You know what I’m talking about here: low-key dramas exploring the rather mundane lives of lost and bored late-20-somethings who can’t seem to get their lives together; slow-burn relationship dramas, usually involving one or both partners cheating; small films that feel like extended visual blog posts in which the filmmaker is trying to sort through some aspect of their own lives. We get films like that at Sundance in spades. So when we get something that stands out as different in idea and execution, it’s a rarity, and there’s a tendency to immediately latch on and overhype the buzz. This is good in that it generates enough interest in a small, weird film like this to pack the press into the cattle chutes in the P&I tent, but not so good in that that same press come into the screening expecting to be blown away, and then are mildly (or even a lot) disappointed when they are not.

Is it absurdist and flawed in execution? Yes, it is, particularly in the green screen scenes, which are just not well-composed. But I’m not sure that matters as much as the idea of a filmmaker actually trying to do something different and new and darkly humorous, and at least it’s not another goddamn Mumblecore film. I’d far rather see a filmmaker doing what Moore is here, aiming for something completely original and darkly subversive, than yet another rehashing of the same story lines we’ve seen so many times we can predict the ending within the first five minutes. And a first-time filmmaker pulling off guerrilla filmmaking in the Disney theme parks, with a score that rather brilliantly both subverts and evokes Disney films, inventively using mics and smartphones in place of a sound mixer to capture the audio, all while exploring interesting ideas about gender roles, male sexual fantasy and the skewed view of reality the Magic Kingdom represents, is undeniably interesting. Escape from Tomorrow isn’t a perfect film, but it’s completely unlike anything I’ve seen at Sundance or any other fest, and for that reason alone I would highly recommend catching it if you get a chance.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin