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Monday, August 24, 2015

Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

Written and directed by Randy Moore

Roy Abramsohn:  Jim
Elena Schumer:  Emily
Katelynn Rodriguez:  Sara
Jack Dalton:  Elliot

I'm starting with a clip from a completely different movie, but there's a reason for it (other than that watching a song and dance number filmed on top of a moving train is awesome). Think about all the preparation and logistics that had to go into filming that song and dance. Every time you see the train from a distance, that's a camera crew that set up and waited for the train to go by (with everyone going through the routine in synch each time). Every time you see the closer shots that's everybody in the scene dancing on a moving train with a camera crew jammed into the same space with them. I'm sure they just dubbed the song in later and assembled the sequence out of whatever footage was successfully shot (I'm especially impressed with the actor dancing while the train goes through a canyon so narrow that he could reach out and slap both walls with his hands if he wanted to). That might have been a few weeks' worth of prep and shooting time, especially if the weather was uncooperative, and the whole thing could have been stalled or shut down if anyone important got a cinder in the eye while dancing behind the smokestack.

I'm asking you, dear reader, to think about all those complications because all that happened when the filmmakers had permission from a railroad and a train company to shoot that production number. Today's film was even more mind-bogglingly difficult to pull off, because it's a horror movie shot at the Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks. Without permission. I mean, Larry Cohen shooting some footage of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City without bothering to get permits is one thing, but this is an entire narrative film written and performed in a huge public place. Under the noses of the paranoiacally thorough Disney security staff, no less. Reportedly, the editing and effects work was done in Korea in order for the footage to literally be on the other side of the planet from Disney rather than risk someone in California hearing about the movie in an editing studio, and word getting back to Disney's lawyers before the movie was completed.

The only reason the filmmakers weren't sued into a rudimentary paste is that the House of Mouse apparently realizes that the movie got made and there's nothing they can do about it now. Letting it go into theaters for an extremely limited engagement and thence to DVD and Netflix, it was and is an obscurity notable almost entirely for the story behind its production rather than for its own merits. If the filmmakers got sued, the press coverage would guarantee that a billion people worldwide would know about the movie--and probably a large slice of that crowd would want to see it, which is the exact opposite of what Disney's lawyers and board members would like to happen.

The film currently enjoys a one-star rating on Netflix; it's really not as bad as all that but I did find it to be a disjointed mess, probably because there was only a single take available for any given scene and because anything that didn't get filmed or wasn't usable (it must be hard to screen dailies and make adjustments when you're shooting a guerilla production in the Magic Kingdom) would just not be there to plug any holes in the narrative. My guess is that several storylines were written and enough usable footage from some of each one was combined to make the finished movie.

The finished movie starts with an unbelievable thorough disclaimer stating that nobody working in any capacity for Walt Disney Entertainment had anything at all to do with the production of the film. Then we gets a point-of-view shot of riders on the Thunder Mountain Railroad (a roller coaster) and various snippets of performers doing their thing in the theme park. The geodesic dome of Spaceship Earth towers above people walking through the park. The various actors and filmmakers' names go by while syrupy stringed music plays on the soundtrack.

And then--and I have no idea how this got done during the actual shooting of the film--one of the roller-coaster riders gets his head knocked off by an obstacle. Which is probably how family man and vacationer Jim feels, getting notice via cell phone that he's being fired on the morning of his last day at Disney World. Luckily for everyone else in the family, they didn't hear any of this because Jim was out on his hotel-room balcony. The guy letting him know he doesn't have a job any more wishes him the best of luck and also recommends one of the rides at EPCOT before hanging up and Jim takes a look down to the parking lot, probably contemplating chucking it all at the happiest place on Earth. To cap it all off, Jim's son Elliot locks the balcony door from the inside and goes back to bed.

In the hotel corridor, Jim and his wife Emily have a conversation about how neither one disciplines their kids particularly well (Jim's too soft on his daughter Sara and his wife tries to get Elliot to apologize for locking his old man out of the hotel room; he refuses, point-blank). Jim's wife also wants to know why he was out on the balcony taking a phone call in his boxer shorts, but he dodges the question and instead says he just wants to have one nice day since it's the end of the vacation. There's plenty of people sneezing and coughing at the monorail station, which probably means a dreary ride back home with sick kids and / or parents. On the train, a pair of giggly young French teenagers on vacation catch Jim's eye (and the camera leers over them in a positively unseemly manner).

It occurs to me that every single shot in the film needed the camera crew standing in place to watch Jim and his family walk by; when it's something as simple as just getting off of one monorail and waiting for the next one, that's not too complicated, but anything done at a distance had to be horrifically difficult. According to Randy Moore, every shot had to be planned out weeks in advance if not months, so that the sun would be at a particular spot in the sky for lighting and for the logistics of making sure the cast and crew were in the right places at the right time without attracting attention from the park security. The film was shot in black and white so that differences in light levels and background colors wouldn't be as noticeable. Also, black and white can be creepier than color, so there's that (check out Carnival of Souls for some more footage of a theme park rendered creepy through monochrome).

The family goes on a couple of rides, with Jim reassuring Sara that witches aren't real; the animatronic one on the Snow White ride is just pretend. On the Winnie the Pooh ride, Jim moves in for a kiss and Emily isn't having any of it; she's embarrassed to be smooching by their children while neither Sara not Elliot seem to notice the argument going on behind them at all. Jim moves into Sullen Mode, and then it's time for the "It's a Small World After All" ride. Interestingly enough, the rides are shown in considerable detail during the film, but the iconic song is stripped out here and the audio replaced with a children's chorus singing "La la la la la la la" over and over and over and over. Which is probably already enough to make someone twitchy, but Jim starts seeing the faces on the dolls and scenery in the ride turn evil while he's looking at them (courtesy of some digital effects trickery). Then the music goes slow, out-of-tune and TOTALLY FIENDISH and Jim hallucinates Emily saying she hates him and that he's not really Elliot's father.

Then things get weird.

Jim takes his son to the line for the Buzz Lightyear ride (the ride name survives the legal thrashing the movie must have gotten before release) while Emily takes Sara on the spinning teacups (those two French teenagers happen to also be on the teacups, for what that's worth). Emily and Sara get to go on several rides while the two males in the family get stuck near a screaming baby and are still in line waiting for a single three-minute ride. Jim is visibly thinking about that wish for one last good day on his vacation. The Buzz Lightyear ride gets shut down just as Jim and Elliot are about to board their space ranger ride car thingy and Jim's snapping point gets just a little bit closer.

Then he spots the French girls and decides to follow them to whatever ride they're going on--which turns out to be the mainstay of theme parks the whole world 'round, the Gas Powered Cars That Go Really Slow. Jim does a horrifying creepy-uncle stare at the girls as they share a banana and then it's time for the ride. His feverish daydream of riding in the car with either or both of the French girls gets interrupted when Elliot bonks into their stopped car. Jim winds up with a stunned-buffalo look on his face when he and Elliot follow the two French girls to the Tiki Room show (including a column of water shot to look incredibly phallic; Jim needs to cut his caffeine dose considerably). This is another sequence where the song that the various props were singing gets redubbed into nonsense syllables. I'm going to guess that you can't get sued for copying someone else's intellectual property if you replace it with sounds that aren't from any language.

Jim steers his son onto the People Mover tram ride ("Dad, why are we following those girls?" "What girls?" "Bonjour!" "Those girls!"). Jim tries to dodge the questions of why the girls are always in front of them and whether they're pretty, and then reveals his dissatisfaction with his marriage when Elliot asks if his mother is also pretty. Once they're done with the People Mover Jim continues to stalk the girls, who are (via some rather unconvincing green-screen) going to Space Mountain. Elliot says that's a big-kid ride and doesn't want to go on it. He also ignores a phone call from his wife to pursue two barely pubescent girls from another country and winds up physically carrying Elliot to a trash can when it turns out that the roller coaster was, in fact, too intense for his son. Then he's got to act apologetic when Emily asks where the heck he's been for the last hour, since she and Sara have been waiting for them--and when Emily notices the puke on her son's shirt she reads her husband the public-places-approved riot act. Notice I said "act" apologetic. Jim ain't sorry about anything other than not being able to perv on the two kids he's been following.

Emily takes Elliot back to the hotel to lie down and rest after his whoopsie, repeating "Fine" to her husband enough that people who never learned English can tell that it's not actually fine. Jim wanders around to take in the sights with Sara, and worryingly enough mimes killing himself at a light-gun shooting gallery in the Old West section of the park. He seems to relax a little bit while goofing around with his daughter, but as soon as he sees those French girls again he's after them like a dog after a squirrel. Jim winds up looking for the girls to the extent that he almost loses sight of Sara, following her into a cave on an island full of disorienting closeups and spooky echoes. A passing jerk kid runs into Sara and knocks her down when she runs around outside and Jim can't find her at first--he snarls at the other kid's father (who turns out to be wearing a neck brace and confined to a mobility scooter--and they take off for a first aid station.

The first-aid nurse offers plenty of encouragement for Sara, congratulating her on being brave at the park while Jim tries to sneak a peak down her uniform shirt. The nurse also asks if either Jim or Sara have been coughing or experiencing any other "cat flu" symptoms, since the park is crawling with children and they're the most vulnerable. Jim isn't the only one with a barely functioning veneer of normalcy--the nurse sounds like she's going to break down sobbing as she mentions the cat flu, and actually does a second or so after Jim and Sara leave. Jim takes a load off and eats an eight buck turkey leg while Sara goofs around (via more greenscreen) with some other kids. The random woman next to Jim on the park bench tells him his "turkey" leg is actuall emu meat. Jim says he wouldn't have bought it if he knew it was emu (but keeps eating, cause he's already paid for it).

The random woman stretches and poses next to Jim and he inhales a bit of his turkey leg when he gets a good look at her chest. She then goes into a weird monologue about how the actresses playing the various Disney princesses are paid to go around hugging perfect strangers and the medallion on her necklace keeps glittering in a way that movies have taught me to interpret as "this thing is hypnotizing the person looking at it" (though probably her chest is doing most of the work with Jim). During this sequence the woman starts speaking directly into Jim's mind (or he's progressing further along his path to the land of Completely Bananacakes). There's a sudden jump cut to the woman on top of Jim in the bedroom of the "Presidential Suite"; he's tied to the bed and she's telling him not to make so much noise or they'll wake the kids.

Jim makes his exit while the woman tells him that the various theme-park princesses are also call girls for rich Asian businessmen. Apparently it's the authentic costumes that make it worth every penny. Jim stumbles out, numb and full of self-loathing, as he collects Sara and goes back to the hotel (he has a key card to his room and to the mysterious woman's one as well, and I bet that's going to haunt him later). Emily and Elliot are at the pool, relaxing, and Sara joins them right before Jim hops into the water as well. Jim got a hand-blown glass Dumbo bell for his wife, but it turns out she wanted Minnie Mouse (and she's obviously dealing with some stress of her own from the way she tears into him for it before dropping a "never mind" and moving on). Then Emily gripes at her husband for not knowing to reapply sunscreen before your kid goes swimming (and I start to wonder if the whole movie is being shown from Jim's point of view so he's interpreting Emily's words more angrily than she's actually saying them--he's lied enough to his family that he might be a completely unreliable narrator as a POV character).

You know who was another unreliable narrator? Humbert Humbert. And I mention him because the French tourist girls are at the pool now, taking off their street clothes and hopping in the pool (they are wearing swimsuits, of course). Jim abandons Elliot to go swim towards them, the bastard. At least one of them is visibly creeped out by the middle-aged American guy approaching them. Emily hassles him for not watching Elliot (and seems to notice that he's weeping in the pool; Jim denies that he's crying rather than blame the chlorine).

Before going to EPCOT, Jim enjoys a tasty Heineken on the hotel balcony before dropping the bottle by accident and missing a piece of glass when tidying up (he's also barefoot; this ends poorly). Later, in the hotel gift shop he flips though a French phrase-book; his wife notices that he was doing that rather than buying antibiotics for Sara's scraped knee. It's one more stress on the family before going to the next theme park and checking out the laser light show and fireworks. Jim doesn't help anything when he notices the guy on the mobility scooter whose son pushed Sara down earlier in the day. Emily notices that he's acting weird and paranoid ("What's he doing here?" is not a rational question to ask at a theme park--the guy's here to do theme park things). Emily takes some pictures of the kids while Jim enjoys the fact that EPCOT sells alcoholic drinks in the park.

Jim winds up enjoying the boozohol just a little too much, drinking from a stein about half the size of his head at the park's German restaurant--on top of the drinks he already had while walking around. He probably thinks he's being charming at this point and the princesses are good enough actresses to get him out of the shot when he tries to crowd in without letting him know what they really think. Then, inevitably, a trio of Asian businessmen show up to get their photos with three princesses, to Jim's stunned horror. He hits the lime margarita booth in Simulated Mexico; I have the feeling that Emily is going to have quite a talk with him later re:  his behavior and appetite for alcohol. He throws up repeatedly on the Mexico City canal ride (sharp-eyed viewers will notice that Jim's mouth is out of frame each time so the filmmakers just had to dub in the sounds of him hurling into the ride's waterway rather than show it).

After a brief interlude where Jim puts antiseptic goop on his bloody toe in the men's room (and Emily sees one of the French girls turn into a leering ghoul for a few seconds, which suggests that Jim isn't completely losing his mind), the guy on the scooter exits a bathroom stall and wonders what the heck happened to Jim's toe and whether or not Sara's doing okay. Jim manages to slip and fall in the bathroom while avoiding the scooter-riding man. Emily tries to tell Jim that she noticed some of the weirdness that he's been seeing all day, but also calls him out for cruising after the two French girls as well. This is another scene done via greenscreen (probably because people getting in a fight in public could get a Disney park security response); during it, Emily asks Jim who was on the phone that morning when he was out on the balcony. Since he doesn't have any other choice, Jim tells her the truth--that he got downsized over the phone while he was on vacation. That's the cherry on top of the shit sundae for Emily's day and she declares everyone's going back to the hotel. Everyone's frustrations come to a head when Sara wants to get a stuffed toy and Emily slaps her. Emily and Elliot go back to the hotel; Jim and Sara stick around to go on a ride and then catch the fireworks.

While on the ride (the same one that the H.R. guy recommended at the start of the film), Jim starts to see topless women on the filmed scenery, telepathically promising him that he'll be their slave very soon. When he leaves the ride, the two French girls, inevitably, are there. Although this time they'd have to be following him in order to get there at the same time. Jim hallucinates one of them giving Sara a kiss on each cheek, and then walking off with him. He then has a vision of Spaceship Earth breaking free of its supports and rolling down the EPCOT plaza and shakes it off. Then the same girl from his hallucination walks up to Jim and asks him (in English) to come with them. She says something bad will happen if Jim won't go with them and spits in his face when he refuses. She then walks off to rejoin her friends (the other French girl and two guys that have been accompanying them without any dialogue). Looking around after getting gobbed on, Jim realizes that he can't see Sara any more and looks for her in a panic. Two EPCOT staffers find him, confirm that he's Jim White, and then taser him with a stun gun that looks like a marital aid (in keeping with Jim's focus on his id for most of the film, they nail him in the groin with it).

There then follows a five-second intermission, after which Jim wakes up handcuffed to a rotating chair in a circular chamber in the sub-basement of Spaceship Earth. A scientist in a white lab coat tells Jim that he's the first outsider to be allowed into this chamber, then tells him that the Disney corporation (the name gets bleeped the one time it's mentioned in the film, which is interesting) doesn't know he's there either. As shards of glass fall down on Jim's head to enclose it in a miniature replica of the Spaceship Earth design the scientist says that Jim's father took him to the park when he was a child and does some kind of brain scan on him. The scientist tells Jim that his boss--during the phone call where Jim found out he had been fired--was supposed to tell him to take Elliot to the "Land Pavillion" after going on a ride. This didn't happen, of course, and the scientist leaves since Jim's still shackled to the chair and can't get out.

But Jim still has the tube of antiseptic in his pocket and squirts it onto the control panel for the brain scan chamber in a sequence that makes a visual pun referencing the Siemens corporation, sponsor of the Spaceship Earth attraction. Jim zaps the scientist with a conveniently located stun gun; when an automatic door shuts on the scientist's neck he is revealed to be a robot. Jim escapes back into the park (empty now, with everyone still there watching fireworks) and searches for his daughter while the air strobes with light and sparks. He trips over the scooter owned by that one guy who has been around the park as well and goes for the dude's throat before regaining a sense of clarity and not being a twitchy jerk. Well, not about that. He has visions of the woman he had sex with earlier giving Sara a glass of champagne and goes to her hotel suite (he's still got the key card) and finds the woman dressed like an evil queen and her son in a dress and wig as well. Sara's in the suite's bedroom dressed like Sleeping Beauty in sneakers and Jim wakes her with a fairy-tale approved kiss. The evil queen says she always brings kids back after taking them to the suite, and that some parents don't even notice their absence.

Using her hypno-medallion, she tries to get Jim to remember whether or not he saw someone get their head taken off on the Thunder Mountain roller coaster. She also says she used to be a princess at the park, spending her days being lovely and hugging strangers. Which she apparently did too well, breaking a child's neck during a hug. Turns out permanently smiling and being happy forever isn't good for anyone. Jim flees after his daughter breaks the medallion (and the evil queen makes sure to give her a balloon to commemorate her trip to the park). Back at the hotel, Emily and Elliot are sleeping and Jim gets Sara ready for her own bedtime.

Jim's peace of mind lasts a short time before he wakes up with his bowels in a total uproar and then coughs up several hairballs into the toilet--turns out the nurse was worried about "cat flu" for a reason. Jim eats a handful of Vitamin C tablets and his son sees him drooling blood in the bathroom, then closes the door on him.

The next morning the park stands ready to open again and Emily finds her husband dead, grinning and staring at nothing in the bathroom, his pupils catlike. A Disney sanitation team (each member wearing a jumpsuit and white Mickey Mouse gloves) seals his corpse in a biohazard-level body bag and telepathically overrides Elliot's memories (or something) before leaving. The hotel room gets completely sanitized before the next family arrives and the workers make time for a tasty cigarette, and the whole weird system gets cranked up for the next day. And another Jim (or another guy played by the same actor) arrives at the hotel for another vacation.


The film held together better than I remember from the previous time I saw it, but there's really not a heck of a lot of there there. Once the viewer gets past the admittedly impressive guerrilla filmmaking and the transgressive value of a horror movie made in the Magic Kingdom the movie spins its wheels until it ends; there's lots of different fairy-tale and Disney things that show up but I'm not certain, the second time watching it, whether or not it was all in Jim's mind somehow or if it really happened (Emily hallucinating would seem to suggest that at least some of the narrative really took place). And I can't say I'm interested enough to watch it a third time and piece things together.

I can certainly admire the skill and craft that went into making the movie under the rodent nose of the Disney corporation, but there's just not enough to the narrative itself to make the movie completely worthwhile.

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