Niagara Gazette

October 15, 2013

CALLERI: When an amusement park is no longer amusing

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Randy Moore, a native of the suburban Chicago village of Lake Bluff, graduated from a Florida college and set out to work in the motion picture business. Moore’s dream, which is the dream of many who head to Los Angeles, was to write and direct movies.

In L.A., Moore worked as a freelance story editor, often without credit, proofreading and offering insights into other people’s screenplays. Growing up on the cushy North Shore of Chicago meant his family had a little bit of money. Income from his wife’s nursing job helped bridge the gap between merely existing and actually living in the mythical realm of Hollywood.

As a child, Moore often went to Disney World, adventures he has said were occasionally unnerving. As an adult, he would make his own Disney movie, but not the kind the notoriously litigious company would embrace.

Moore had ideas for films of his own making. He thought about exploring the contrast between the public face of Disney’s theme parks and the realities of long lines, frustrated parents, and incorrigible and exhausted children. Over a brief period, he wrote three screenplays, one of which would become the raw and unnerving “Escape From Tomorrow,” a movie that shadows a father slowly losing his mind at Disney World.

Some people complain about the homogenization of American studio filmmaking and the comic book-themed takeover of the Hollywood mentality. They want to see something different. They want a jolt when they go to the movies. “Escape From Tomorrow” delivers that jolt. It’s playing in selected cities, including Buffalo, and is also available from video on-demand services.

On a budget of $650,000 (a small inheritance from Moore’s grandparents helped), the filmmaking team shot the psychological horror film without permission at Disney World and Disneyland using everyday Canon cameras. The result is something that looks like millions of dollars had been spent.

Lucas Lee Graham receives credit for the superb cinematography, and Soojin Chung is credited for the sharp editing. Equipment consisted of two Canon EOS 5D Mark II cameras and one Canon EOS 1D Mark IV camera. These are single-lens reflex cameras, primarily used for still photography, not video. As seen on-screen, the results of their video capability is outstanding. Cast and crew communicated with iPhones, and the cast was wired with recording devices.

The crisp black and white cinematography creates an expressionistic mood that gives the theme park a risk-filled look, thus keeping the audience off-balance. There are things in the movie you've never seen before.

The story is about the last day of one family's visit to Disney World. The father gets a phone call telling him he's fired from his job. He chooses not to tell his wife, who has been an annoying nag and will continue to be so. His little son and daughter whine a lot. They leave their messy hotel room and go back to the park.

Disney World is supposed to be the "Happiest Place On Earth," but it turns into a nightmare as the father slowly descends into a mental breakdown, first obsessing over two French teenage girls, who hold allure for him, and then hallucinating about animatronic creations seizing his mind. Soon his head might as well be the Epcot Center's symbolic globe and his body might as well be feline hell. Disney World has never seemed this dangerous.

Moore has gotten good performances from his cast, including some off-beat side characters. The core family is well-played by Roy Abramsohn (the dad), Elena Schuber (the mom), Katelynn Rodriguez (the daughter), and Jack Dalton (the son).

Moore’s film undermines the notion that Disney's perfect world is all sugar and smiles. Orlando, Fla., is hot and humid. Lines are long. And children become monumental brats.

Uncomfortable things will happen to previously comfortable people. Some occurrences in the film are creepy, some are unsettling, and some are bizarre. Too bizarre? Not to me. Moviegoers often complain that films don't challenge audiences. You might dislike the ending of Moore's work, but you will certainly talk about it. One question you might ask is this: What does the father and son's quest to see Buzz Lightyear have to do with the darkness that descends?

If I were going to compare the style and tone of "Escape From Tomorrow" to another film, it would be to David Lynch's "Eraserhead." My friend Gautier Coiffard, who is from France and holds a masters degree in cinema studies, wrote an essay about "Escape From Tomorrow" in which he draws parallels to the groundbreaking work of the French New Wave in the 1960s. He’s right.

Moore’s first feature is guerilla filmmaking at its best. It’s brave and daring and shatters preconceived notions about how to make a movie. Is this the future? It just might be.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.