Fantastic Fest 2023 – Getting ready for the best week ever!

Fantastic Fest 2023 – Getting ready for the best week ever!

Later this week Fantastic Fest returns to Austin, Texas once again, dishing out a king’s ransom of independent films in every flavor you can imagine. This is the festival that first brought us John Wick, The Night Comes for Us, and There Will Be Blood — all certified bangers that speak to not just the quality of what Fantastic Fest has to offer, but the variety. Needless to say, it’s all but confirmed that there will be at least one all-timer emerging from the 2023 festival, and over the next few days I will be doing my damnedest to make sure my eyes get to see the next John Wick, whatever it may be.

The festival runs from September 21st to the 28th, and I am extremely lucky to be attending the whole shebang. Stay tuned to this space for updates as the fest progresses as well as reviews and bonus episodes of I Like to Movie Movie recorded live at the festival itself (well, from my hotel). It is my goal to see as much as humanly possible and then some, but before diving into the degenerate life of a film critic on the road, let’s take a look at some of the most promising titles on the lineup! Will one of these be the next John Wick? Time will tell…

V/H/S/85 – (dir. David Bruckner, Scott Derrickson, Natasha Kermani, Mike P. Nelson, Gigi Saul Guerrero)

When I randomly stumbled into a screening of V/H/S nearly a decade ago, I didn’t expect it to instantly become an all-time favorite, nor did I expect it to spawn a franchise that is currently six entries deep. The preceding five have all been killer, showcasing a wide variety of filmmaking talent, so there’s no reason to doubt that the latest flick is going to kick serious ass.

There’s only one house rule for the filmmakers stepping into the V/H/S sandbox: their short must be in a found footage format. The combination of found footage and anthology is a stroke of genius — the two formats magically erase the limitations of the other. With found footage, the main issue is suspension of disbelief. Namely, why the fuck are they still filming?!? But reduced from feature length, this is no longer a stylistic liability. The standard issue with anthologies is that due to a variance in subgenre typically contained within, the product at large is only ever as good as its weakest link. By keeping things found footage, there’s less room for jarring tonal variance, but plenty of room to explore subgenre. The alchemy is off the charts.

Will it be the next John Wick?

No, but it WILL be the next V/H/S, which is just as good, and since the promise of the title is that each “tape” will be from 1985, there will be neon. Sweet, sexy neon.

The Toxic Avenger – (dir. Macon Blair)

The most enduring chunk of Troma’s strange legacy (outside of Lloyd Kaufman’s smiling face) is The Toxic Avenger, or as his fans and friends have come to call him, Toxie. It’s an unlikely success of branding: There are four films in the series proper, none of which are appropriate for children, as well as a cartoon series, which is designed explicitly for children (and a musical, video game, and comic series). The imagery is iconic enough that even if you’ve never heard of Toxie, you’ve almost definitely seen him.

Macon Blair’s remake will certainly skew toward the adult crowd, but will hopefully maintain some level of the crass, puerile humor of the source material. Given the tone of Blair’s previous writing/directing effort, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, we can be assured that this new take on Toxie will be goofy, gross, and in poor taste, but we can also expect that it will be touching and thematically rich.

Beyond Blair’s playfully twisted brain, perhaps the most exciting promise of The Toxic Avenger comes from its star, Peter Dinklage. A profoundly powerful performer, Dinklage is exactly the guy who can synthesize the broad dweebiness of the OG version of Toxie into something with a bit more gravitas. Dinklage’s performance in Cyrano shows that he’s more than capable of believably engaging in fisticuffs to boot.

Will it be the next John Wick?

Sounds silly, but it could be! It’s an action movie with splatter sensibilities and endless franchise potential, starring a deeply un-problematic crowd favorite. If Toxie punches a horse so that it kicks a baddie to death, then I’m comfortable declaring Wick’s torch officially passed.

Baby Assassins 2 – (dir. Yugo Sakamoto)

I’m gonna be honest. Until last week I had never heard of Baby Assassins, but once I saw that the sequel would be playing Fantastic Fest I gave it a go. Boy am I glad I did, as I’ve never seen a movie quite like it. It’s one part hyper-violent assassin movie and two parts quirky mumblecore comedy, and it kicks serious ass. The titular assassins, Chisato and Mahiro, make an uncommonly compelling duo as they shoot, stab, and brood their way through the end of their teenage years, lending to themes that range from your standard coming-of-age concerns to providing a clever takedown of the global push toward a gig economy.

A fun, thoughtful dynamic exists between our protagonists, and it will be interesting to see how it develops as they enter adulthood. Here’s hoping Baby Assassins 2 will maintain a similar blend of genres just as its predecessor did, avoiding a shift into or away from just explicit action. Sure, the impeccably crafted fight scenes of the first film will need to be outdone, but here’s hoping that the character elements remain in focus as well. THere’s a tall hurdle for this film to clear, however: it must be worth having the phrase “baby ass” entered into the search bars of multiple streaming services in my recent digital history. It’s not my fault that autocomplete takes it from there.

Will it be the next John Wick?

No, and I don’t want it to be, but I’ll take as many baby assassins entries as the universe can muster.

Caligula: The Ultimate Cut – (dir. Tinto Brass)

Now this is the kind of repertory screening I can get behind! Caligula is a film notorious for its subject matter as well as the fact that it was produced by the founder of Penthouse magazine. A historical epic complete with bold eroticism, it’s the type of movie that rarely gets made, let alone released, let alone re-released decades later with additional footage.

The Ultimate Cut restores the full performances of Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell, the latter of whom will be in attendance at the festival. I fear that if I’m in the same room as him I may explode into dust — a risk worth taking. Caligula is a movie that I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never seen (especially since I’m a proponent of explicit sex in non-pornographic movies) mostly on account of its length. As such, The Ultimate Cut has become a priority. Without a pause button, this is a rare opportunity to watch Caligula without accidentally making a day of it, and to do so in supremely high quality. If I’m gonna watch it, I’d like to watch all of it, and I’d like to do so on the biggest screen available.

Will it be the next John Wick?

No, but if there’s another John Wick flick coming down the pipeline, I wouldn’t be mad if the filmmakers said “this entry is inspired by Caligula.”

Secret Screenings – (dir. I DON’T KNOW)

Fantastic Fest has promised four secret screenings. Four!!! There’s nothing on the planet that gets my gears turning more than a secret screening. I don’t even care if the movie turns out to be shit. The mystery and excitement is enough to carry me through any film that follows, and really, do we actually expect any of these to be shit?!? I’m confident that all four will be something worth writing home (or on my blog) about, and I just may cry if my schedule doesn’t allow me to attend all of them. Scratch that — I WILL CRY if I don’t get to see them. You hear me, festival brass?!? You want that red carpet lined with the tears of a middle-aged man?!? Didn’t think so.

In the past, secret screenings at multiple festivals have put some seriously excellent cinema into my brain: Raw, Talk to Me, Everything Must Go, The People’s Joker, Mr. Holland’s Opus (okay that last one was a lie) were all fantastic surprises, and all at festivals that weren’t Fantastic Fest, so I can only imagine that these screenings will be that much more fantastic.

Will they be the next John Wick?

Well, one of them could literally be a new John Wick movie. I mean, it’s not even a little bit likely, but still, at this point it’s Schrödinger’s Wick. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

In addition to these screenings and about a million more, Fantastic Fest is going to have a killer lineup of events to boot, including their annual Family Feud riff The Fantastic Feud, (Survey says that this is going to be hilarious, although the absence of Steve Harvey will be felt), a performance by Boulet Brothers Dragula alum Louisianna Purchase, and the standard opening/closing night parties, the latter of which is going to absolutely ruin my flight home early the next morning. WORTH IT.

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