Dispatch: Fantastic Fest Continues with Four Films that Highlight the Program’s Daring Choices
Our Fantastic Fest coverage continues with these highlights from the genre film festival in Austin, Texas.
The Toxic Avenger
Fantastic Fest opened with a bang and a banger: this remake of arguably the most famous of all of Troma Entertainment’s offerings, The Toxic Avenger, this time financed by Legendary Pictures and written/directed by Austin’s own Macon Blair. Blair is a talented actor (most recently seen in Oppenheimer, but also the star of Blue Ruin and Green Room) who turned to directing with 2017’s I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore. He’s shifted The Toxic Avenger from a story about a younger guy trying to find a girlfriend to an older guy, Winston Gooze (Peter Dinklage) trying to bond with his teen stepson (Jacob Tremblay). Winston is a lovable loser who works as a janitor for a chemical company run by the criminally awful Bob Garbinger (Kevin Bacon) and his enforcer brother Fritz (an almost recognizable Elijah Wood), whose factory pumps out toxic waste like it's going out of style. After a horrible accident in which Winston is submerged in a vat of ooze, he comes out looking part mutated/part melted but also strong and wielding a super-powered, green-glowing mop.
By switching the core relationship to a man trying to find common ground with his stepson (and eventually trying to save his son from Harbinger, who wants to manufacture and harness Winston’s toxic superpowers), The Toxic Avenger has more heart than I was anticipating. The entire cast, but especially Dinklage, are beyond game to look foolish and gross in order to sell this story, based on the original film by Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman and co-writer Joe Ritter. But more importantly, the film is beyond grotesque, limbs and faces being dismembered and dismantled with an alarming regularity. So be prepared to gag a little through your heartfelt tears. I also loved the addition of Taylour Paige as disgruntled Garbinger employee J.J. Doherty, who is interested in a little corporate sabotage and ends up pairing up with “Toxie” to take down this polluted empire. The film can get very silly, but mostly it’s a high-energy, other worldly (the time and place this story takes place is elusive, by design), and highly gooey endeavor. As broad as Blair allows things to get at times, he keeps his film grounded through familiar relationships and a worthy hero at its center. For those of you with so-called superhero fatigue, consider yourself alerted to the alternative.
Scheduling a subtitled film called Sleep in a fetival's late-night program is a risky proposition, but thankfully, first-time writer/director Jason Yu’s ghostly story disguised as a relationship drama finds a way to elevate its story of a husband with a sleep disorder into something far more sinister. Married couple Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun, Parasite) and Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi, Train to Busan) have their relationship tested when Hyun-su sits up in the middle of the night and says “Someone is inside.” A pregnant Soo-jin thinks he means someone has broken into their some, but the evening is followed by extreme examples of sleepwalking, night-snacking (raw meat and eggs only), and even a sleep-suicide attempt. The couple go to doctors, try medication, and even zip the husband up in a sleeping bag at night. But when Soo-jin’s mother brings in a psychic, she says the ghost of someone recently dead is the real culprit. And with a baby on the way, Soo-jin isn’t going to take any chances that her husband might attempt to harm their child as well.
Sleep is a wonderful study of paranoia, taking place almost entirely in the couple’s spacious apartment, which ends up feeling quite cramped by the end of the film. For much of the running time, we’re never quite sure if the husband’s demons are supernatural or simply in his head, and it takes some convincing before either he or his wife is willing to even entertain the idea that ghosts are now a part of their lives. Director Yu’s technical prowess is quite impressive, unafraid to inject amounts of humor into the mix while also terrorizing us with a psychological assault on the senses. Some have compared the movie to Rosemary’s Baby, but I think Repulsion is the better Polanski comparison. By the final act, the couple’s relationship is a wreck and extreme measures are set into motion to rid them of this other worldly annoyance.
The Last Stop in Yuma County
Following in the long tradition of hostage dramas set in diners, the debut feature from writer-director Francis Galluppi follows a traveling knife salesman (filmmaker Jim Cummings) as he pulls into a gas station (the last one before 100 miles of desert) only to find out that morning’s fuel truck hasn’t arrived. He decides to wait in the diner next door, run only by waitress Charlotte (Jocelin Donahue, Doctor Sleep, Insidious: Chapter 2), who just happens to be married to the local sheriff (Michael Abbott Jr.). There’s word on the local radio about a nearby bank robbery, and wouldn't you know it—all of these elements and a few more collide into each other violently when the robbers (Richard Brake and Nicholas Logan) show up at the diner. Over the course of the 90-minute affair, others drift in and out of the diner while waiting for the mysteriously missing fuel truck, with some knowing the robbers are there while others are blissfully ignorant that anything is amiss.
The Last Stop in Yuma County is an edgy and impressive effort from Galluppi, who allows the details of the diner and surrounding buildings to create an atmosphere and tension that is undeniable. You can smell the desert heat permeating the un-air-conditioned building. And it all becomes a waiting game for the wrong person to walk in. The outcome is almost impossible to predict; in one magnificent scene, it’s revealed that almost everyone in the diner has a gun except the knife salesman, who feels horribly left out. With great character actors (Barbara Crampton, Faizon Love, Gene Jones, Robin Bartlett) working their magic in scene after scene, I was pulled into this story from the first frame, and occasionally found myself holding my breath waiting for a scene to end. A couple straight out of Badlands shows up at one point, a kindly local Native rancher comes in for some biscuits and gravy, and other completely innocent couple arrives just as we think things are winding down only to add another horrifying wrinkle to everything. The film is a cold-hearted, blood-soaked, grimy B-movie of the highest order, just like the Coen brothers used to make.
Your Lucky Day
Writer/director Dan Brown’s Your Lucky Day begins as essentially a fantasy sequence when a recently ripped-off drug dealer named Sterling (the late Angus Cloud, Euphoria) walks into a convenience store on Christmas Eve, around the same time the only guy in the place who doesn’t have money issues wins a $156 million lottery jackpot and feels the need to brag about it to everyone in the store. Sterling decides to relieve the man of his ticket right as a police officer in the bathroom in back comes out, and all hell breaks loose, with casualties, wounded, and no exit strategy. Also in the store is the owner, Amir (Mousa Kraish), and a young couple (Jessica Garza and Elliot Knight), all of whom just want out of this situation alive, which seems possible until two things happen: Sterling offers them a cut of his winnings if they help him escape, and corrupt cops (led by Jason O’Mara) show up, partly to rescue their own but more to take the ticket for themselves. It’s a complicated, sometime unbelievable tale, but the strength of the actors carries it across the finish line.
Truth be told, I’ve never seen Euphoria, so I had no idea who Cloud was while I was watching Your Lucky Day, or that he passed away in July of this year. But I was immediately struck by his combination of intensity and desperation. At first we fear Sterling, and then, over the course of the film, we begin to see how much he could use a single break in his miserable life. I’m not sure you’ll exactly be rooting for him by the end, but you at least hope he’s still alive when the credits start to roll. The absolute breakthrough performer for me was Garza, as the very pregnant waitress, who could also use a break in this world. Her partner is a piano player, so neither one of them is making much money, and even a small part of this lottery money could alter their lives. The film’s strengths lie in its examination of the fluid morality of all of the characters as they get increasingly desperate, and the complications that turn each settled-on plan into dust. But Garza’s Ana Marlene is restless, resourceful, fearless and ultimately inspiring. Without giving away too many details, the ending is simply too outrageous, but by the time director Brown gets us there, I was mostly on board for this pressure-cooker of a thriller.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.