The safest bet on an unrepeatable experience at Sundance this year is Escape From Tomorrow (A-), a movie shot guerilla-style inside the Magic Kingdom. That’s a bet, however, I’d be delighted to lose, since Randy Moore’s first feature is a sui generis work of art that deserves an audience every bit as devoted, if substantially more select than, as The Little Mermaid. The movie begins with an ironic twist on the perfect family vacation, as dad Roy Abramsohn rises for his last day at the park to find out he’s been fired from his job. But the demons menacing him soon manifest themselves more literally: the “Small World” marionettes hiss at him with bared fangs, and “Space Mountain” threatens swift decapitation.
With a Disney lawsuit all but certain—an audience member informed Moore during the Q&A that one was already in progress, although I haven’t seen confirmation elsewhere—Escape has drawn a few comparisons to Todd Haynes’ samizdat Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. But the likeness goes deeper than mere provocation. Like Haynes, Moore is waging an all-out assault on a cultural icon, flipping the polarities so what normally attracts repulses, and vice-versa. Its extralegal production style, which required substantial rerecording of dialogue and the use of green screen, lends a sense of disassociation more akin to Haynes’ Poison, which like Escape is essentially a semiotics thesis masquerading as a loose narrative. It has plenty of rough edges, but its climax hits like a confetti-filled shotgun.
Only slightly less likely to be seen again is Interior. Leather Bar. (B-), James Franco and Travis Matthews’ “reimagining” of the explicit sex scenes cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising—or rather, their discussions of, planning for, and shooting of said reimagining. The opening scene, in which Franco lays out the semi-articulate philosophy behind the project, raises immediate hackles, but the movie is less indulgent than meta-indulgent, revealing many of its apparently off-the-cuff conversations as either staged or scripted. There’s also, not to put too fine a point on it, a whole lot of cocksucking, followed by tense discussions between Franco and actor Val Lauren, who plays a role Franco describes a “Pacino-esque,” about the appropriateness of filming said scenes. Although it’s not finally clear what’s true and what is not, Lauren is presented as a longtime friend of Franco’s who supports his “mission” but has grave doubts about this particular undertaking, and especially about being a part of what a man who sounds like his agent calls “the Franco faggot thing.” Fake or not, the struggle between his palpable discomfort and his artistic commitment is fascinating to watch: It’s a great performance, to the extent it is one.
The big-ticket entries I’ve seen so far remain an unending string of disappointments, with Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely and Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love the latest links in the sad chain. Built around a metaphor that can only be described as heavy-handed, Touchy Feely (C+) follows a Seattle masseuse (Rosemarie Dewitt) who develops a sudden aversion to physical contact, and her ill-at-ease brother (Josh Pais), a high-strung dentist who discovers a talent for psychic healing. Essentially functioning as its own Portlandia parody, the film has Scoot McNairy’s bike-shop owner explain that his tofu dish came out well because he used “like, a really special olive oil,” but Shelton can’t decide if she’s lampooning the culture or embodying it. The tense, sprawling conversations of Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister are replaced by a trite parallelism that pushes all of the movie’s characters to confront their fears of intimacy—clearly Shelton’s abiding theme—at the same time. The pleasures of watching Dewitt stroll down the street in a knit scarf and cowboy boots are not to be overlooked, but they’re not sufficient, either.
Warning the audience that the film is “not a comedy,” Winterbottom introduced The Look of Love (C-) as the brainchild of absent star Steve Coogan, who came up with the idea of playing British porn magnate Paul Raymond. That seemingly innocuous intro grew more baffling as Look droned on, hustling past historical events while utterly failing to develop Raymond beyond his generic silhouette: It’s a character study without a character. Perhaps in Britain, where Raymond, once the country’s wealthiest man, is well-known, it’s to simply riff on his public persona, but to foreign audiences, Coogan’s Raymond is a hollow shell. Winterbottom has certainly made worse movies—one, The Killer Inside Me, premiered in this same room three years ago—but perhaps none with so little reason to exist.