I don’t get “Worst of the Year” film lists from fans. I can understand them coming from film critics who make their livings by having to sit through every damn piece of cinema that comes their way. Film critics don’t make the decision to see movies they wouldn’t like – they have these movies foisted upon them.
But paid film critics are a scarce breed these days – some theorize that they’re as rare as Solid Gold dancers or Byron Allen fans. Most of the people who write about movies online are like us Daily Grindhouse folks – just fans, trying to get their ideas and voices out there. Run-of-the-mill film writers don’t have to see everything. They choose the movies they see. They base their decisions on word of mouth and knowledge as to who worked behind the scenes, and interest in the film’s plot or themes. In other words, they go into a theater or click “play” on their remote with a world of knowledge at their disposal that has led them to make the conscious decision to watch this particular film.
One assumes they’d be predisposed to like the movies they choose. If you hate onions, you don’t go to a restaurant and order an onion platter or whatever (I have no idea if that’s a thing. I hate onions.) and then complain about how you hated the food. So let’s work with the assumption that if you elect to see a movie, you go in with the mindset that you’re going to like it.
Let’s say that a casual movie fan puts together a list of ten movies that they say over the past year that they just thought were THE WORST! “Worst” is not a term you can use lightly. It implies seriously unfavorable comparisons to everything around it. THE WORST are not just things that are bad, but things that are TERRIBLE and AWFUL and SHOULDN’T EVEN EXIST IN A CULTURED SOCIETY LIKE OURS.
Why, then, would you want to trust the opinions of someone who’s so awful at picking out movies that they like themselves that they have ten (TEN!) movies that they think are so terrible that they have to point them out at the end of the year?
Those with lists of THE WORST may be very nice people. They may be charming at parties and kind to animals and, yes, even have good taste. But they are not to be trusted with decisions involving what movies to watch. These are the people went out of their way to see MOVIE 43 or THE LONE RANGER or THE HOST instead of JOHN DIES AT THE END or 20 FEET FROM STARDOM or EUROPA REPORT knowing full well what they were getting into, even if it was just so they could complain about them later. Good people, probably. But their film-going palette is way, way off.
Don’t go to movies ironically, people. It’s not good for you.
However, even moviegoers who take the effort to know the movies they’re going to see and value their time and money enough to try to only see films that they’re predisposed to liking can make the wrong call. There will always be disappointing moviegoing experiences, movies that were built up so much and seemed like such a solid concept that you were left with a sense of vague disappointment as the closing credits began. A movie can get solid reviews and have a great trailer and still leave you with the sense that it just wasn’t what you’d hoped it would be.
These aren’t THE WORST films. These are the disappointments. And they hurt more than any MADEA sequel could.
The most disappointing film I saw in 2013 was doubtlessly Randy Moore’s ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year, it sounded like a new classic wrapped in the garb of the most amazing feat of culture jamming the world of film had ever seen. First-time feature director Moore had covertly shot much of the film at the Disney World theme park, and used the locale as a way to show the slow mental and emotional deterioration of a middle-aged family man who had just lost has job and not yet told his family.
On paper, ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW sounded like a sure-fire concept. Using “The Happiest Place on Earth” as the background for a mid-life crisis is a brilliant idea, and the fact that ESCAPE was actually shot there instead of some other local theme park with a clearly-Disneyfied name was the icing on the cake. Visions of the climax of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION played out to feature length and re-imagined as a surrealist nightmare played in my head, as I’m sure they did with most who read about the film during its festival run.
It was a vision that was confirmed by the festival reviews. Much of the noteworthiness of the film was attributed to its covert creation, with warnings that it would be unlikely to be screened nationally, giving it a “forbidden” quality that made it all that much more appealing. IndieWire was convinced it was “a Surreal Indictment of Disneyfied Society That Disney Will Never Let You See.” SlashFilm felt it “might never be released.”
Most of the reviews of the film itself were positive, even if their focus was on the production rather than the results. Of the five chronological reviews that came from the Sundance screening listed on Rotten Tomatoes, only one, from Paste’s Jeremy Mathews, was negative, claiming “it’s the kind of film that makes you wish it were better than it is.”
Oh, Mr. Mathews. How we should have heeded your warning.
The reviews that came from the geek media contingent after the film’s Fantastic Fest screening in September were just was favorable, looking past the film’s flaws and celebrating the fact that it somehow was sticking it to the Mouse. Badass Digest’s Scott Wampler talked about the film’s “one-of-a-kind” nature and praised the film’s lack of definitive answers, referring to it as a “puzzle.” Film School Rejects’ Michael Treveloni gave the film an A- and called it “an ambitious effort from start to finish,” celebrating lead actor Roy Abramsohn’s performance.
ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW became one of the must-see cult films of the year. Not only was it notorious in its creation, but it also had a stunning trailer that made it look like a visually fascinating flick destined for midnight movie status. It was the rare beast that was subversive, visually stunning and thematically sound.
On the second weekend of October, ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW opened in 30 theaters nationwide, despite the warnings from those that claimed it as the film that couldn’t be shown. Disney, it seemed, didn’t care. They didn’t care that Moore had covertly shot in their theme part and was using it as a symbol of middle-aged American breakdowns. They didn’t even care that the movie’s poster art used the creeping outstretched hand of their signature character with blood dripping from his white-gloved hand.
The newer critics’ reviews, written months after the dust had settled on the film’s background and far from the festival scene, made it clear why Disney was so disinterested in any legal pursuits. ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, as it turned out, was kind of a dud.
When I finally saw the film in the theater that weekend, I was still hoping for the best. And ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW certainly opens with a lot of promise – the black and white cinematography is stunning, and the set-up for the situation, in which father-of-two Jim White (Abramsohn) finds his family trip to Disney World complicated by being informed that he’s lost his job, is well-done. When Jim begins having bizarre visions during one of the rides, ESCAPE seemed to be headed on the path to legendary status.
Unfortunately, things quickly swerve into what Badass Digest called a “puzzle,” but I thought was more of an “incoherent mess of ideas that don’t work together at all, but the director thought they looked cool, so what the hell.” Jim quickly descends into being less of a character and more like a CBS family sitcom archetype, ogling a pair of young French girls and acting like a general boor – whether or not his behavior has anything at all to do with him losing his job a question that never really gets answered.
I’m all for a film that features plenty of unique imagery and refuses to answer questions with regards to what exactly is going on – UPSTREAM COLOR was one of my favorite films of the year. But when it comes to actual character motivation in a story about one character’s breakdown, you need something to grab on to just to make the characters human. Jim should be human, but he’s more of a dottering, horny buffoon than an empathetic family man, and that portrayal costs ESCAPE quite a bit.
ESCAPE does soon spiral into an occasionally entertaining bit of surrealism and Jim’s journey takes several bizarre turns, but it never seems like the twists are part of a larger design. Instead, it seems more like Moore had a number of ideas as to what would look neat on film in terms of strange adventures at Disney World and just went for it, and while they do, indeed, look nice and could easily amuse a stoned college student, there’s really nothing more than a good concept at play. There are some nice funny and awkward moments, but the humor rarely eclipses that of a sub-par “Curb Your Enthusiasm” gag, and Jim isn’t a compelling enough character to allow you to really care.
It’s seriously a shame, as the concept for ESCAPE is so sound (one could imagine what someone like Darren Aronofsky or Lodge Kerrigan could do with it) and the process by which it was made is so fascinating that I was pulling so hard for the film to succeed. Instead, I left the theater disappointed, especially since the likelihood of such a project ever being addressed again in the near future is next to nil.
It’s certainly not the worst film of the year – it’s well-shot, and has some amazing imagery and solid supporting performances, and I’ll certainly be watching for what Moore does next. In the end, however, ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW is the equivalent of a comedy writer finding a way to cheat death and contact Groucho Marx from the grave, only to come back with a bunch of fart jokes suitable for a Rob Schneider vehicle.
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