10/6: Escape From Tomorrow (2013)
Escape From Tomorrow’s swooping opening, that of a roller coaster diving in and out of tunnels, immediately sells the expected whimsy — that is, until a decapitated head jars one awake. Was that real? Did that person just lose their dome to a low-hanging tunnel? It’s the stuff of sick, urban legends, and such an abrupt shift is par for the course in Randy Moore’s demented depiction of Disneyland. Or, to overreach with an obvious simile, this is Sleeping Beauty if Aurora awoke in the midst of the worst acid flashback ever.
Both inherently fascinating and eminently constricted by its surreptitious production history, Escape From Tomorrow sees to the veritable disintegration of Jim (Roy Abramsohn), a sad sack father struggling to enjoy a final family vacation day at Disneyland after losing his job. As filtered through Jim’s unfairly bitchy wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), his two children, and a litany of both real and imagined human cartoons, Moore goes for the jugular in attacking the impossible promise of every child’s dream vacation. The constant exchanges of child supervision between Jim and Emily feel too much like small vignettes, made all too obvious by the production’s clear limitations on keeping an average shot length over two seconds while avoiding park security. Escape only allows itself space between conversations when characters are positioned in front of green screen backgrounds, post-production adjustments that while never fully immersive, aid the more hallucinatory elements of Jim’s day-long trip, with the devious grins of animatronic critters and mysterious spells of middle-aged temptresses.
There’s a whole lot of weirdness going on, most notably in Jim’s pervy fascination with two underage French girls, an appropriately inappropriate recreation of Disney’s sexualization of its “nymph-ier” icons: its army of Disney princesses, Pinnochio’s Blue Fairy, and as it’s bitch-slapped across the audience’s face in the end, Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell. At one point, a character even wonders aloud at what age it becomes weird to hug women dressed as animated characters while the appropriate age for imagining lustier fantasies is left unsaid but clearly on Moore’s mind. Jim’s scattershot pursuit of the girls and the resulting subtext remains muddled, and that exact cut-off — between childhood fantasy and adult perversion — is never specified, but there’s a safe bet it’s well under 45.
There’s a case to be made that the psychotropic trappings eliminate a need for any overarching coherence in Jim’s “day at the park,” but Escape From Tomorrow grasps for humor so much that it weakens the indictment when its auteur is two doses deep. The French girls also handcuff the male gaze as filtered through Disneyland’s surfeit of endless commercialism, but for all his drinking and ogling, Jim remains a creepy slob and a pretty negligent father — only an occasionally pitiable one. Moore seems lost inside his own indictment, and as an IndieWire production story suggests, at least one pivotal scene was corrected on an apparent whim. The shadow of Randy Moore’s Walt Disney may be one of a broken, male enterprise, but it’s a silhouette the director only bothers to pause on in between gettin’ freaky.
10/7: Carrie (1976)
Carrie is a cruel, cruel story, but Brian DePalma may in fact be more of a bastard than even Stephen King was in his original novel. Following the girl’s locker room’s collective shaming of Sissy Spacek’s title character and her first period, the well-meaning Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) punishes the girls for their abhorrent behavior. But the cruelty isn’t just in its narrative’s meanness; DePalma propels along a bitter classmate’s (Nancy Allen) elaborate prom prank through Carrie’s oblivious interiority. A volatile score careens through heartfelt sitdowns with Miss Collins, awkward but genuine “firsts” at the senior prom, and inevitably, Hermann-esque bursts of Carrie White’s telekinetic fury. The sick joke is that the soundscapes are falsely comforting in their foreignness — it’s DePalma’s insistence that this story may have a happy ending when there was never any chance.
Taking its cues from Piper Laurie’s deranged Margaret White, Carrie also packs in the twisted Christian imagery: Mrs. White frozen in a Christ-like pose; a statue’s wild, glowing eyes; prom decorations soaked in bright pinks and yellows, a cruel harbinger of the fires that await Bates High School’s student body; blood galore, etc. The not-so-subtle aesthetic however occasionally proves a bit much when paired with some of the larger performances. As Carrie’s abusive mother, Piper Laurie towers over her daughter with “fire and brimstone” angry speak that’s borderline camp, but she’s a far more terrifying presence in her quiet, restrained moments. Nancy Allen and her blockheaded boyfriend (John Travolta) share a cheesy exchange at a drive-in, with the scene’s unintentional humor undermining the nastiness to come. Even Spacek herself plays the infamous shower sequence too “big,” incorrectly coming off as a legitimately mentally disabled young woman rather than a mentally disturbed one. To her credit, she grabs hold of Carrie’s slow decline into apparent normalcy with aplomb thereafter, making Carrie’s thread of vengeance all the more spiteful.
Yet despite DePalma occasionally losing his grasp of style and the bigger effects shots not holding up (a fireballing car wreck, the collapse of the White’s dilapidated home) Carrie is a deliciously mean piece of horror cinema, one that uses characters’ incessant “tug of war” on its main character and a wicked aesthetic to incite cold-blooded vengeance. Of course, the true terror lies in how much catharsis one can find in the entire immolation of a high school prom.
10/11: Gravity (2013)
Above all of its critical hullabaloo, I feel confident saying this much: Gravity is an intense filmgoing experience, especially in three dimensions. The disagreement seeps in when assessing Alfonso Cuarón’s artificial inflation of stakes.
Gravity’s neorealistic elements are (more or less) hugely successful in their immersion. Cuarón’s “camera” — for all intents and purposes here, consider this an acknowledgment of the digital effects’ influence — floats in and then out of Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) helmet before continuously panning a circle around the NASA scientist. As the opening titles clumsily relate, crashes and explosions are rendered mute because there is no sound in space. It’s a starkly different depiction of space in pop culture, and despite Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s protestations of its scientific validity, remains a refreshing and far more accurate vision, especially by comparison.
Gravity’s fatal sin is that it fails to blend its impressively engineered mechanisms with a fairly wrote narrative; for all of Cuarón’s visual innovation, the director isn’t slick enough to organically propel this story, one he co-wrote with his own son. Judging from his incessant mic chatter, George Clooney’s astronaut Matt Kowalski is a seasoned vet of space exploration, and though both Dr. Stone and mission control are quick to deride Kowalski’s garrulous qualities when under pressure, but Cuarón too frequently piggybacks on Clooney’s gravely vocal chords for exposition. “Where are you from?” hardly seems like a natural question to ask a rookie astronaut, especially one in the midst of a panic attack. Kowalski’s coolness is pure Clooney, but the character, like a number of Gravity’s plot contrivances, seems better suited for Apollo 13.
In spite of Mr. DeGrasse Tyson’s factual objections, he found himself a fan of Gravity in the end, presumably setting aside any scientific quibbles. The bumper sticker optimism slapped onto Stone’s grieving mother is satisfying enough, but calculated story elements fly in the face of nature’s terrifying improbability and the cold vastness of space.