Monday, 5 January 2015

Review: Escape From Tomorrow

Year: 2013 (U.K Release 2014)
Director: Randy Moore
Screenplay: Randy Moore
Starring: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Annet Mahendru, Danielle Safady, Alison Lees-Taylor

Synopsis is here:

Despite suddenly appearing on Netflix awkwardly, like a Vine comedian whose has been deemed sexist, Escape from Tomorrow caused quite a stir within cinephiles due to its conception. Its director; Randy Moore uses a combination of iPhones for scripting and consumer grade DSLR cameras to create an entire feature film within Disneyland, Florida, without permission from the owners. Moore's film holds more footage of Mickey's merchandise, rides and scenery than a regular Hollywood feature would be able to legitimately pay for. When viewing the film in its entirety, you can see it's not just a gutsy move, but a logistical nightmare. The film was clearly planned in a way to conceal what Moore and his crew was actually doing. Moore himself was so worried that someone might catch what he was up to, he edited the film in South Korea.

While one could deem the shoot problematic, you can't say that all the work wasn't worth it. Moore is able to show the "happiest place on earth" in a negative view, while avoiding Disney's notorious lawyers. Fair play to the man. Yet despite this, I found Escape from Tomorrow's origins to be more interesting than the film itself. Moore's film; a deeply personal film that delves into a newly unemployed man; Jim White, descending into madness during his family's last day at Disney, is often hampered by the guerrilla tactics that allow the film to even be. The film's blurry, out of focus monochrome visuals were considered by the director not only to ease the pressure of editing, but to shape the bizarre imagery itself. This brings mixed results, as the film is a blend of artsy home video and rushed student production. Unlike the early fixtures of the mumblecore movement, the film never feels at ease visually. Yet in a ludicrous catch-22, the film could not be produced in any other way. At one point, a family argument ends with the camera fumbling gracelessly at the infamous castle merely to establish that once again, Disney is the backdrop.

Escape from Tomorrow also suffers from a flaky narrative which nods towards the surreal but lacks true cohesion. We witness Disney Princesses shown to be high class hookers to Asian businessmen, how does this connect with hypnotising evil queens, cat flu outbreaks and a regressive sci-fi experiment? The connective tissue is irritatingly loose. There's clearly a way of making all this ambition gel, but possibly not by having the protagonist father ogling underage teens. Making this one of the driving factors of the plot does little to drive compassion. Then again, the White family is difficult to draw any empathy from in the first place. 

I found myself comparing EFT to Clare Denis' Bastards (2013), a film which starts out as equally as oblique as this one, albeit not as surreal. Bastards also follows an unsympathetic family, and yet the film's tone, the performances and mosaic editing had me absorbed in its puzzle. Escape from Tomorrow struggles under the weight of what it is, and so never truly comes together emotionally or conceptually.

Escape from Tomorrow never really gains a sense of self, although it does well to push the "sinster Disney" angle. This only ever feels like part of the puzzle. Moore; whose childhood clearly has ties to both Disney and his own father (their relationship deteriorated as Moore grew), clearly wishes to excavate some demons with his piece. Some elements work conceptually while the underlying themes could speak volumes if Moore had more time to work on the film's flaws. At a time in which critic A.O Scott laments at mainstream America's arrested development, Escape from Tomorrow's setting and ideas set a troubling reminder of how childhood fantasy, adult mortality and capitalist ideals can converge and warp the sense of family intimacy. Watching the film after the Sony Hack also help illustrate how one can take a pot shot at corporations by using creative methods or destructive ones. One does hope that more can distil some of his ambition and implement his talents into something that won't have him looking over his shoulder constantly.


Review: The Guest

Year: 2014
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick

Synopsis is here

The Guest tackles a plot element in a similar way to Looper in which, when a character actually tries to boil down the barmy reasoning behind his being. They go against informing us the tricky, sticky details because it's "complicated". I was already beaming like a Cheshire cat at this point. I enjoy when films hit that right balance of self-awareness. It doesn't take you out of the film, but playfully jabs you about what you're watching. The Guest is full of moments like that. The film's final line, delightfully alludes to a certain 80's movie its makers clearly loved, yet still manages to sum up the WTF of the film. It works on two separate levels for two different viewers, and it's nice to see. Even when gussied up in an irrelevant retro thriller.

We first spot David (Dan Stevens) jogging down a deserted highway, army bag in tow, regulated breathing. He looks to be in training, or possibly running from something. The Guest lets us know soon enough, as David appears at the front door of the Petersons. David informs the family that he was an army buddy their deceased son Celeb, and he is welcomed in to stay a while has he sets some things straight. The thing is, while his blue eyes pop and he grins his warm smile, something always seems off with David.

Dan Stevens who plays the titular Guest of the film has one of those wonderful middle distance glares that he mixes with his handsome features, which makes everything about his performance in the early stages appear even more off kilter. Originally of Downton Abbey fame, this is the type of display that allows an actor to let loose and Stevens has a lot of fun here. From the aw shucks, southern accent, to the chance to show off his physique through sexually objectifying himself and hilariously gratuitous violence, Stevens not only gets into the trashy tone of the feature, but grabs at it with wide open arms.

It says a lot about a director like Adam Wingard to find the right actor to play this absurd, yet entertaining role. Taking Stevens away from what many know him for (stuffy, middle class period drama) and plunging him fully into the lead of a film that runs fast and loose with subverting politically correctness and joyously uses the likes of The Stepfather (1987) as a point of reference. Then again, as the writer/director of the highly enjoyable You're Next (2011), I should have expected as such.

Once again, Wingard delivers an inverted home invasion, in which the things you fear, are a lot closer to home than you would first expect. The film's wacky military sub-plot is outrageous in any serious consideration, but still manages to place the idea that the current military conflicts have sent back distant and dangerous young men who have been irrecoverably changed. Furthermore, the thing that they're most likely to disrupt first, is of course the good ol' American family. A unit who seems all too happy to welcome and believe unknown authority figures over their own members.

The snyth score and bold colour schemes are quick to notify you of just how much Wingard loved a certain type of 80's horror/thriller. Yet The Guest never loses itself in its homage and self-awareness. It's more of a straight up thriller in comparison to the similarly set Cold in July (2014), but never gets bogged down in its influences, unlike Ti West's The Sacrament (2013). The Guest shows Wingard growing in confidence as a genre director, the films brilliantly staged Halloween dance finale was perhaps one of the scenes I found the most enjoyable of 2014. Once again showing a director like Wingard letting everything hang out and have fun without things becoming sloppy. But that's the great thing about Wingard and a film like The Guest, everything is so tightly controlled, even when it gets messy.