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Escape From Tomorrow (Blu-ray / DVD)

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Escape From Tomorrow (Blu-ray / DVD)Starring Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Jack Dalton, Katelynn Rodriguez

Directed by Randy Moore

Distributed by Cinedigm


A rather fantastic controversy erupted online sometime around the fourth quarter of 2012, when it was reported that a low-budget film had employed some seriously stealthy – and ballsy – tactics to shoot a feature at Walt Disney resorts in California and Florida. Internet stories began popping up ruminating not only on the content of the film, but what the response from Disney was going to be. Rumors of canceled screenings and secret screenings and distributors & exhibitors in fear began to clutter message boards. Virtually nobody outside of the production knew a thing about it. Writer/director Randy Moore was so paranoid that someone in the U.S. would find out what he’d done and bring it to Disney’s attention that he edited the film in South Korea, where a special FX house handled the visuals, too. Potential viewers seemed less interested in what the plot could be than just having the opportunity to witness something so bold and creative. Finally, around the beginning of 2013, film festivals began to show Moore’s film – Escape From Tomorrow (2013) – and filmgoers waited with baited breath for the Mouse House to slam it down from up on high with a mighty fistful of lawyers prepared to put everyone involved into a financial hell for all eternity. Just how swift and severe would their retribution be??

The answer was silence. Disney responded with little more than a cursory acknowledgement that they were aware of the film’s existence and nothing more came of it. This was, of course, a distributor’s nightmare. Escape From Tomorrow had enjoyed a healthy dose of online buzz thanks to the fandom community’s eagerness to see a film almost wholly shot covertly at Disney World/EPCOT in Florida and Disneyland in California. The film was only going to be opening on 30 screens, which is nothing in cinema. But if Disney were to take the bait and hit the public airwaves frothing at the mouth and ceasing-and-desisting all over the place, that kind of publicity had the potential to turn this low-budgeted feature (it was reportedly made for $650,000) into a sleeper hit that certainly would have pulled in more than the meager $169,000 and change it managed. There is a massive audience for all things Disney and if social media began buzzing about Escape From Tomorrow it would have only taken a fraction of the Disney crowd to give this picture some legs. But they ignored it, and the film quietly opened and quickly went away with little fanfare.

It also didn’t help that it’s not very good.

Family man Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) is vacationing with his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and their kids, Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) & Elliott (Jack Dalton), at the Walt Disney World resort when he gets a call from his boss that he’s been fired. Jim decides not to let this ruin their trip, so he pushes it to the back of his mind and the four of them set off for another day at the park. On the tram over, Jim finds himself enamored by two young (read: too young) Parisian girls who are strolling around together. When the family goes on It’s a Small World, Jim begins to experience hallucinations that cause strange behavior. After, he and Emily decide to split off, with Jim ostensibly taking Elliott to go on rides with just the two of them. But, no, Jim is actually being a creepy pedo stalker and following the two Parisian girls all over the park and eventually on to Space Mountain, where Elliott gets sick. When they meet back up with Emily and Sara, she & Jim fight over his decision to take their son on a stomach-churning ride. So, Emily and Elliott go back to the hotel and Jim & Sara are off to continue his leering ways. Their fun is cut short, though, when a kid pushes Sara down and she scrapes her knee, leading to a visit with the park nurse. The nurse warns Jim of something called “cat flu” before sending them on their way. As Sara plays nearby, Jim chats it up with a woman eating an ice cream and wearing an enchanting amulet he can’t take his eyes off. Suddenly the film flashes forward and Jim is having sex with this wild woman, who explains there is a secret prostitution ring operating within the Magic Kingdom and the tricks are the park’s princesses. Jim makes a quick exit to meet back up with Emily and Elliott so they can enjoy a nice, relaxing time sitting quietly by the pool.

Just kidding, Jim floats in the water near his ubiquitous Parisian pre-pubescent tweens, overtly gawking and acting like he’s begging for sex offender status. Later on, when the family returns to EPCOT, Jim & Emily finally have the fight that’s been building all day when she blasts him for getting drunk on a ride and then really scolds him when the two underage Parisians girl walk by them once again. Emily is dejected, so she and Elliott head back to the hotel while Jim takes Sara on another ride. When it’s over, he loses her and is winds up getting tasered by park staff during his search. Upon awakening, he discovers he’s trapped in a secret lab hidden inside the EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth. A standard mad scientist type explains his diabolical plan, which involved Jim’s mental manipulation from the day’s onset, and this is where the film takes a near-180 and becomes a rushed, sloppy mess before reaching a truly bizarre climax.

Here’s the real deal with Escape From Tomorrow – the first 20-30 minutes are full of this incredible sense of wonder as you find yourself watching a subversive slice of cinema tiptoeing around inside a cauldron of animated fire, but once the novelty wears off and the film’s plot becomes clearer the rest is just a slog, really. Moore’s script is, frankly, terrible and it’s this lack of strong writing preventing it from becoming anything more than a curiosity. Some reviews have stated the film has a David Lynch quality to it – likely because it’s done in black-and-white and has an unorthodox narrative – but this isn’t even in Lynch’s ballpark. Not even close. I don’t know how much Moore changed his script as the shooting progressed, but portions feel like they were written on the fly, in the park, in moments of desperation. At the onset it seems like this has the ability to be a smart psychological horror film set amidst familiar icons in the “happiest place on earth”, but once things veer into the territory of “cat flu” and “princess prostitute rings” viewers might get the sense this is all being made up as the filmmakers go along.

Escape From Tomorrow is a landmark film solely based on where it was shot and how the filmmakers pulled it off. You’ve got to remember that there was ZERO participation from Disney in making this film, so a shot as simple as two people passing on a tram could take hours to get timed just right because those trams run on Disney time, not the filmmakers’ time. There’s an appreciation for Moore’s creativity and resolve viewers cannot deny. His ingenuity allowed for something that for all intents and purposes should not exist to be a real thing. It is astonishing to watch a film that falls so far out from under Disney’s typical rubric having been shot in their parks, yet once the wonder wears off you’re stuck with an hour and change wading through an anemic script about a pederast who becomes an unwitting participant in some mischievous doctor’s grand scheme. It does not make for thrilling material. Ultimately, the film is nothing more than a sideshow attraction people will be interested in seeing for its notoriety, not the content of its story.

Cinedigm’s recent Blu-ray release of Escape From Tomorrow features a 1.85:1 1080p image that is quite proficient considering the conditions under which it was shot. The film’s cinematographer deserves some kind of award or recognition for setting up some shots months in advance based on the location of the sun. Remember, there was no way any shot could be professionally lit so every scene required pinpoint accuracy in regard to timing. The logistics behind not only making sure a shot would have the right natural lighting, but also that they could pull the shots off. To many takes or a problem in the park and suddenly all that precise work is down the drain. The decision to film in black-and-white was a smart one because in addition to catering to a low-budget aesthetic that is perfectly fitting, there would also be less concern over exact lighting between scenes; those issues, filmed in b&w, can easily be corrected in post. The filmmakers also explained that by stripping the Disney parks of their signature bright, saturated colors it preventing people from spending more time watching the background elements than paying attention to the film proper. It’s hard to knock the image for any deficiencies due to the inherent limitations in shooting something without authorization, or even the ability to set up minimal lighting. Still, if there’s any complaint it’s that shadows completely consume the image whenever the action moves to the interior of an attraction. There simply isn’t enough available light on the rides to make things stand out. Thankfully, those scenes are used sparingly. The worst aspect to this entire production is the obvious green screen work. There are a handful of scenes when shooting on location in the park simply either wasn’t working or couldn’t be done, so a background plate was shot and the actors were digitally imposed on the screen. And it looks so bad. So very, very bad. You can even see the perspective and scale are off a few times. This was another reason why the film starts to fall apart – once we exit the trappings of the parks, the illusion is lost and we realize it’s a bad film we’re watching.

An English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track does the job here, though it mostly comes across like a glorified stereo track. Rears are sporadically employed to deepen the crowd at the parks, though nothing gets close to providing a truly immersive experience. Composer Abel Korzeniowski’s score is full of classic compositions that are the kindred spirit to Disney’s classic scores of their earlier pictures. Two or three bigger moments in the film produce some deep, bassy rumbles. Subtitles are included in English SDH.

Those hoping to get all the juicy insider info out of the film’s bonus features might be a tad disappointed, though what’s included here does cover most of the bases. The audio commentary you want to listen to is with writer/director Randy Moore and cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham. After exploring how he came up with the film’s concept and made the decision to shoot it in the park, Moore discusses most of the rigors that came with such a secret production. Graham recalls the lengths he went to in order to maximize the sun’s lighting each day, which is an impressive feat that shows a true dedication to his craft. The second audio commentary is the one you should skip, as it features actors Ray Abramsohn and Elena Schuber in character as Jim and Emily. Gimmicky tracks like this rarely work and this is no exception.

“The Making of Escape From Tomorrow” is a fairly standard behind-the-scenes dissection that covers all the expected bases. Something more comprehensive would have been welcomed, given the film’s notoriety and an interest in knowing the fine details, but this does a good job of relaying most of what you’ll want to know. “Theatrical Poster Gallery” contains eight images. The Escape From Tomorrow trailer rounds out the supplements.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with writer/director Randy Moore and cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham
  • Audio commentary with actors Ray Abramsohn and Elena Schuber (in character)
  • The Making of Escape From Tomorrow
  • Theatrical poster gallery
  • Trailer

    The Film:

    2 1/2 out of 5

    Special Features:

    2 1/2 out of 5

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    Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review – A Timid Step Towards a Frightening Possibility

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    Starring Mamoru Miyano, Takahiro Sakurai, Kana Hanazawa, Yuki Kaji, Tomokazu Sugita

    Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita


    The Godzilla series is the longest-running franchise in cinema history. With over 30 films over a 60+ year career, the famous kaiju has appeared in video games, comic books, TV shows, and more, cementing its place as one of the most recognizable cultural icons in the past 100 years. With Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the titular beast makes its foray into the world of anime in this first film in a proposed trilogy. While there are moments that are genuinely thrilling, the film unfortunately fails to capture the imagination and wonder that is at its fingertips.

    The story is quite simple: Earth is under attack by swarms of various kaiju who are wreaking havoc across the planet. Entire cities are being destroyed when Godzilla appears to vanquish humanity’s foes. Unfortunately, the King of the Monsters isn’t really there to help humans and its rampage continues until a race of alien beings arrive at Earth asking for a place to stay in exchange for defeating Godzilla. When they are unable to do that, the remaining humans board a giant spaceship to venture off into space in search of a new home only to come back some 20 years later, nearly 20,000 years later by Earth time (think Interstellar logic), to search for resources and, possibly, a planet that will welcome them once again. However, Godzilla is still around and isn’t keen on sharing.

    The main character of the film is Haruo Sakaki, a young man who begins the film by nearly following through on a suicide bomber terrorist act that is meant to call attention to humanity’s loss of vision and failure to fulfill their mission of finding a suitable home for the remaining survivors. Even though he is accosted and jailed for this act, he is eventually freed when people realize that his lifelong passion of killing Godzilla is the foundation for research he’s done in finding a way to take down the creature…a plan that just might work. The other characters are so forgettable that I forgot their names during the film.

    From there, the film essentially pivots into following a massive team of volunteers who land on Earth’s surface to lay a trap for Godzilla in order to destroy it. Since this is Earth 20,000 years after they left, the flora and fauna have evolved and changed so radically that the team have no idea what to expect or how to react, so caution is a must.

    The problem with this is that while the characters have to be cautious, the film doesn’t nor should it. The movie has the chance to explore the wealth of imaginative opportunities at its fingertips and yet does almost everything it can to avoid doing just that. The color scheme is flat and uninteresting. The character movements lack smoothness and the action sequences fall victim to shaky cam syndrome. There are a few mentions of some of the changes that have taken place on the planet, such as razor sharp plants, but they’re so incidental or offhand that it feels like no one making the film has any interest in seeing anything other than man against beast.

    Speaking of this dynamic, the action sequences are quite entertaining but also feel somewhat reserved. Godzilla barely moves and much of the destruction levied against the humans is seen from a distance, apart from an attack on a military outpost by dragon-like creatures. For nearly the entire film, I found myself thinking, “I’m okay with this but that’s about it.

    The brightest moment in the film are the last few minutes and I won’t spoil what happens. Suffice it to say that it definitely has me interested in the second and third films but I really hope that this new world will be explored further in those entries. Otherwise, we’ve got a fascinating foundation that will be squandered.

    • Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
    2.0

    Summary

    Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a bland entry in a trilogy that has great potential. For a first course, there’s a distinct lack of flavor or complexity. The final minutes are the only saving grace and I hope that the second and third films make use of that grand wonder.

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    Satan’s Cheerleaders Blu-ray Review – Sacrifice This Snoozer At The Altar!

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    Starring Jack Kruschen, John Ireland, Yvonne De Carlo, Jacqueline Cole

    Directed by Greydon Clark

    Distributed by VCI


    The ‘70s. Satanism. Sultry cheerleaders. Sex appeal. With these tools nearly any low-budget filmmaker should be able to turn out something that is, at the very least, entertaining. The last thing a viewer expects when tuning in to a film called Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977) is to be bored to tears. But that is exactly the reaction I had while watching director Greydon Clark’s wannabe cult comedy. Even on a visual level this film can’t be saved, and it was shot by Dean Cundey! No, unfortunately there isn’t a cinematic element in the world that can overcome a roster of bad actors and a storyline so poorly constructed it plays like it was written on the day. The only saving grace, minor as it may be, is the casting of John Ireland as Sheriff B.L. Bubb (cute), a hard-nosed shitkicker who adds all the gravitas he can muster. But a watchable feature cannot be built upon the back of a single co-star, as every grueling minute of Satan’s Cheerleaders proves.

    The cheerleaders and jocks of Benedict High School rule the campus, doing what they want, when they want, with little else on their minds except for The Big Game. Their belittling attitudes rub school janitor (and stuttering dimwit) Billy (Jack Kruschen) the wrong way. What they don’t know is Billy is (somehow) the head of a local Satanic cult, and he plans to place a curse on the clothes (really) of the cheerleaders so they… suck at cheerleading? Maybe they’ll somehow cause the jocks to lose the big game? When Billy isn’t busy plotting his cursed plans, he spies on the girls in the locker room via a hidden grate in the wall. I guess he doesn’t think being a sexual “prevert” is fair trade enough; might as well damn them all, too. Billy has his own plans to kidnap the girls, for his Lord and Master Satan, and he succeeds with ease when the girls’ van breaks down on the highway; he simply offers them a ride and they all pile in. But when Ms. Johnson (Jacqueline Cole) gets hip to his plan the two tussle in the front seat and Billy winds up having a heart attack.

    The squad runs off in search of help, coming across the office of Sheriff B.L. Bubb (John Ireland), who, as the name implies, may be a legit Satanist. Bubb invites the girls inside, where they meet his wife, Emmy (Yvonne De Carlo), High Priestess of their quaint little satanic chapter. While the girls get acquainted with Emmy, Bubb runs off to find Billy, who isn’t actually dead. Wait, scratch that, Bubb just killed him for… some reason. The girls figure out things aren’t so rosy here at the Bubb estate, so they hatch an escape plan and most make it to the forest. The few that are left behind just kinda hang out for the rest of the film. Very little of substance happens, and the pacing moves from “glacial” to “permafrost”, before a semi-psychedelic ending arrives way too late.

    “Haphazard” is one of many damning terms I can think of when trying to make sense of this film. The poster says the film is “Funnier Than The Omen… Scarier Than Silent Movie” which, objectively, is a true statement, though this film couldn’t hope to be in the same league as any of the sequels to The Omen (1976) let alone the original. It is a terminal bore. Every attempt at humor is aimed at the lowest common denominator – and even those jokes miss by a wide berth. True horror doesn’t even exist in this universe. The best I can say is some of the sequences where Satan is supposedly present utilize a trippy color-filled psychedelic shooting style, but it isn’t anything novel enough to warrant a recommendation. Hell, it only happens, like, twice anyway. The rest of the film is spent listening to these simple-minded sideline sirens chirp away, dulling the enthusiasm of viewers with every word.

    A twist ending that isn’t much of a twist at all is the final groan for this lukewarm love letter to Lucifer. None of the actors seem like they know what the hell to be doing, and who can blame them with material like this? I had hoped for some sort of fun romp with pompoms and pentagram, like Jack Hill’s Swinging Cheerleaders (1974) for the Satanic set, but Clark provides little more than workmanlike direction; even Cundey’s cinematography is nothing to want on a resume.

    Viewers have the option of watching either a “Restored” or “Original Transfer” version of the 1.78:1 1080p picture. Honestly, I didn’t find a ton of difference between the two, though the edge likely goes to the restored version since the title implies work has been done to make it look better. Colors are accurate but a little bland, and definition just never rises above slightly average. Film grain starts off heavy but manages to smooth out later on. Very little about the picture is emblematic of HD but given the roots this is probably the best it could ever hope to look.

    Audio comes in the form of an English LPCM 2.0 track. The soundtrack sounds like it was lifted from a porno, while other tracks are clearly library music. Dialogue never has any obvious issues and sounds clear throughout. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

    There are two audio commentary tracks; one, with director Greydon Clark; two, with David De Cocteau and David Del Valle.

    A photo gallery, with images in HD, is also included.

    Special Features:

    • Audio commentary with director Greydon Clark
    • Audio commentary with filmmakers David De Cocteau & David Del Valle
    • Photo gallery
    • Satan's Cheerleaders
    • Special Features
    1.3

    Summary

    Although the title is enough to reel in curious viewers, the reality is “Satan’s Cheerleaders” are a defunct bunch with little spirit and no excitement. The ’70s produced plenty of classic satanic cinema and this definitely ain’t it.

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    A Demon Within Review – Familiar Possession Beats To A Dreary Tune

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    Starring Charlene Amoia, Clint Hummel, Patricia Ashley, Michael Ehlers

    Directed by Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau


    Possession flicks don’t often hold a long shelf life in the horror community, with Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau’s A Demon Within suggesting why. Hands emerging from the darkness, exorcisms, anxious priests – you’ll see it all again as you’ve seen it before. Early scenes glimmer a polish unlike equal indie products, but that’s just the devil playing tricks on you. Once the film’s main satanic takeover begins, cursing teens and stony glares become the been-here-before norm. Low-budget filmmaking isn’t an immediate detractor like some high-society snobs may believe, yet it’s surely no excuse either. Today’s review being an example of both mindsets.

    Charlene Amoia stars as Julia Larsen, a divorcee who moves into Crestwick, Illinois looking for a clean start with daughter Charlotte (Patricia Ashley). Their dusty toucher-upper is a quaint, aged farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, complete with electrical issues and weird noises at night. Nothing to worry about, right? Julia’s focus is better directed towards town doctor Jeremy Miller (Clint Hummel), who she immediately hits it off with (after almost hitting *him* with a car). She’s eating stir-fry at his place one night, all things going well, and that’s when it happens – Charlotte is possessed by an evil force who enacts its sinister plan. Charlotte may physically be present, but only as a vessel for “Nefas.”

    Without hesitation, A Demon Within lays predictable groundwork as small-town haunters have for decades. Charlotte’s new home is already infested with a spiritual squatter, Jeremy bottles (and drinks down) a blemished past that’s exposed too late, there’s plenty of characters sneakin’ up on one another – never with much “oomph.” Charlotte’s teeny-bopper voice drops to truck-driver deep at the height of possession, but it’s a distracting sound design that alone strikes little fear. Serious scares are attempted, be it a pitch-black basement slashing or Charlotte’s hide-and-seek pounce, just never delivered. An inconsequential failure to unite tone and atmosphere.

    Performances are…well…rigid, to say the least. Amoia and Ashley strike a surprisingly likable chemistry as living humans, but once Ashley goes demonic, chemistry bottoms out. The way A Demon Within positions Charlotte when possessed is utterly dull and undefined; Ashley playing an unenthusiastic harbinger of death. It’s bad enough that Hummel’s tortured doctor masters the emotional range of Mona Lisa and the town’s pastor is hardly a scene stealer – but to have a demon be so vanilla (without a side of nuts, no less)? Getting past the limited lighting and Charlotte’s manly demon voice is hard enough, let alone her mostly relenting threats.

    Making matters worse, the film’s third act is hardly a religious salvation that flows with ease. I had more fun watching Julia stammer over pizza and beers with Jeremy than their final fight against ghastly hellspawns. The truths of Jeremy’s past leak out in flashback form, only to reveal his stubborn inability to comprehend one’s own possession encounter in the very house Julia bought (useful information, eh?). The local priest shows up in the nick of time, a few cutaway jolts attempt cheap thrills, and some holy water mucks up an old painting – but again, minimal notability. Er…not even minimal? Shaky last-minute framing makes it hard to even notice the touch-ups to Charlotte’s face that signify her unholy imprisonment, even worse than blackened CGI mists.

    A Demon Within tries, fumbles, and tries some more, but it’s best treated as a reminder of better exorcism stories that exist elsewhere. Even something like The Vatican Tapes is an improvement over this possessive redundancy, hokier than the honky-tonk love song that plays atop a pizza-chain flirt scene. There’s something to be said about getting out and creating original horror, but herein lies the problem – this ain’t *that* original. With harsher scares and tension, such a fate could be ignored. As-is? It’s hard to see past anything more than a January release placeholder.

    • A Demon Within
    2.0

    Summary

    A Demon Within is a seen-it-before possession thriller that brings nothing new to the conversation. Not the worst, but also not a “hidden secret.”

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