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A Porn Empire, a ’90s Flashback, and a Genius Disney World Invasion: Sundance in Short

'The Look of Love'

The Look of Love: If there is a father to the swinging ’70s, it was Paul Raymond, the poor Liverpool lad turned “King of Soho” who made a fortune selling soft-core sex via England’s first strip club and, in time, a pornographic publishing empire. Tapped to bring his storied life to the silver screen are director Michael Winterbottom and actor Steve Coogan, who turned a similar trick with Factory Records founder Tony Wilson 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, and they treat their latest subject with a more sober sort of tragicomic touch.

When we first meet Coogan-as-Raymond, he appears as Austin Powers’ archetype: an innuendo-spouting playboy with a goofy hairdo and expensive tastes. But we very quickly learn to love the man, not only for his wit but also for his moxie (standing up to the “joyless puritanical bastards” of his day) and for his unconventionally sweet devotion to his wife Jean (Anna Friel), who accepts his nearly nightly flings as part of the job so long as he finds his way back home by morning. His public life is equally fraught with warning signs (awful reviews for his erotic plays, run-ins with the law), but Raymond can spin shit into gold and cannily uses all press, bad or good, as an opportunity to quip his way to gilded media darling status. Nothing sticks to him, but it’s not the same for the women that he truly loves, and his proclivity for Midas-like feats comes with a familiar cost.

When Raymond meets his match in a whip-smart dancer named Amber (Tamsin Egerton), he not only begins to genuinely court her, but winds up hiring her as Men Only’s famous sex columnist “Fiona Richmond.” Along the way, his wife suffers a near breakdown and sues for divorce. Meanwhile, their daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) is in need of an outlet, so Raymond brings her into his world, offering her a clothed role in Follies-style show — the most expensive British stage production ever, he brags — which very quickly flops. This begins a brutal cocaine-fueled downward spiral for her, and it’s only a matter of time before Fiona too realizes Raymond’s impotence when it comes to making others happy.

Coogan and Winterbottom excel in the subtleties, at the end painting a portrait of a wealthy but broken man whose inability to buy love contrasted markedly with his aptitude for selling it.

Milkshake: A drier, less goofy Napolean Dynamite for ’90s nostalgists, Milkshake aims to be the definitive document on wiggerdom in the O.J. Simpson era. Jolie Jolson is a white boy who has it all — supportive family, suburban comfort, smarts that landed him in the local magnate school — except for one thing: he’s not black.

Like plenty of kids in his shoes at that time, Jolie deeply fetishizes the on-album “reality” of Tupac Shakur and admires all of the wrong things about the Beautiful Struggle. He wants a Thug Life, is dating a black girl pregnant with another high-schooler’s baby (“I think that’s why I like her so much,” he narrates) and desires nothing more than to make varsity basketball so he can blend in with the guys from the Maple Avenue projects. But filmmakers David Andalman and Mariko Munro add a biographical twist that’s never overstated, but which speaks volumes about their lead’s troublesome values: Jolie is the great-great-grandson of Al Jolson, the most famous blackface vaudevillian that ever was.

Played by Tyler Ross (The Wise Kids, Nate & Margaret), Jolie is a very one-dimensional character if only due to his own attempts to rewrite his identity in such cliché ways. But his preggers girlfriend Henrietta (Shareeka Epps) is a complex foil — forced to figure out who she actually is rather than what she might like to be — and once Jolie makes the team, the Maple Avenue crew defy his expectations in ways that should be enlightening. (Meanwhile, film first-timer Eshan Bay steals scene after scene as Jolie’s nerdy best friend Haroon.)

But this is ultimately what makes Milkshake frustrating: Jolie learns very little from his escapades by the end. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t really have to (his success in life being somewhat predetermined), but his zero-sum feels a bit like ours as well. Also, while the Free Willy disses and pager code shoutouts were welcome gags, the prop-proud stuffing of nearly every scene with ’90s signposts — pogs, Walkmans, boxy computers, Nerf products — distracted from the time’s more poignant, racially relevant qualities.

Escape From Tomorrow: By the time you read this, forces beyond our control will already be aligning to ensure that this film is never screened again. That’s because first-time filmmaker Randy Moore did something absolutely insane in crafting his surreal, somewhat sci-fi mindfuck of a movie, Escape From Tomorrow: he filmed nearly every scene on the highly hallowed, legally protected soil of Disney World.

It’s a brilliant feat that involved immense amounts of planning (down to charting the sun’s path weeks in advance since his incognito crew wouldn’t have the luxury of lighting equipment) and astounding scene blocking considering his actors had to move in and out of the park’s legitimate patrons without raising suspicion. As for the story itself, consider a combination of Louie’s darkly illuminating qualities and Twin Peaks’ beloved kitsch, but taking place on the best suited set that neither television series could ever hope to touch.

Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) discovers that he’s lost his job on the morning of the last day of his family’s Florida adventure. He keeps the news to himself so as not to ruin the trip, but his sanity slowly unravels as they dig into the park’s attractions. During the “Small World” ride, he begins to see demonic scowls on the faces of every puppet and once out, his passing interest in a pair of sapphically suggestive Parisian teenagers becomes an unhealthy obsession. But it turns out that Jim’s quickly warping world isn’t a result of a personal break from reality.

As he explores the park with his exasperated wife and adorable children, Jim begins to uncover a larger plot that involves a mysterious virus (cat flu, hilariously), a former park princess (who reveals that Disney’s leading ladies are, in fact, “high-priced courtesans”), and a team of rogue Imagineers intent on using Jim’s addled mind to implement a new immersive form of family entertainment. Hilariously subversive and poignantly strange, Escape From Tomorrow is an across-the-board victory for Moore. Coming soon to a torrent near you.