1. Big Ass Spider! (Directed by Mike Mendez. Starring Greg Grunberg, Ray Wise, Lombardo Boyar)
For fans of: Roger Corman's monster movies, Snakes on a Plane, campy SyFy Channel movies
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99.
When you call your movie Big Ass Spider!, you're instantly and deliberately setting your audience up for a very particular cinematic experience. It's an experience that owes a considerable debt to the Roger Corman-produced creature features of the '70s, in which things like narrative cohesion, classy performances, and glossy production values were sacrificed in favor of camp — a trade-off that actually sort of worked, when the camp was enough fun to make up for it. Unfortunately, Big Ass Spider!, doesn't embrace the camp factor enough to make it a worthy tribute to the classic creature features of yore.
The film's official synopsis compares it to Ron Underwood's 1990 Tremors, but Big Ass Spider! lacks both the blue-collar charm and surprising ingenuity of Underwood's cult classic. Instead, Big Ass Spider! delivers the bare minimum of what its title promises: A large arachnid wreaking havoc in downtown Los Angeles. It's when director Mike Mendez — working off a script from Gregory Gieras — tries too hard to pump needless jokes and plot into the film that Big Ass Spider! starts walking on too many legs.
Greg Grunberg stars as Alex "The Ex" Mathis, a hapless but charming exterminator who finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time when the titular arachnid begins its reign of terror. A routine house call on his day off by one of his most trusted clients ends with Alex getting a nasty bite from a poisonous Brown Recluse spider, sending him to the hospital for the necessary shots. But "this isn't his first barbecue" with a nasty spider bite, as Alex puts it while trying to charm his attending nurse. Unfortunately, Alex happens to arrive at the same time the wrong corpse is mistakenly sent to the morgue — and the corpse happens to be housing a deadly mutant spider that breaks free and begins making meals out of patients. It isn't long before an elite military unit — headed by a slumming Ray Wise and a gorgeous lieutenant — shows up to put the beast down.
Big Ass Spider! is fun in moments, but never fully commits to its trashiness enough to place it in the canon of great, campy creature features. The predictable and uninspiring romance between Alex and Lieutenant Brant is a needless subplot, and, most frustratingly, the racial jokes directed at and around Jose quickly moves from eyebrow-raising half-chuckles to casual racism. If corny dialogue, scantily-clad women, and a big ass spider is all you want in a movie, you could do worse — but you could also do better.
2. Bastards (Directed by Claire Denis. Starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni)
For fans of: Classic film noir, New French Extremity movement
When you can watch it: Available October 25 on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99
Claire Denis is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Her ability to craft entire scenes that ooze emotion and convey narrative, while using virtually no dialogue, is a marvel. But her best quality as a filmmaker is her uncanny ability to stay totally unbound by genre. Her films range from 35 Shots of Rum, an intimate and deeply personal familial character study, to Trouble Every Day, a hyper-violent erotic existential horror film. With her latest feature, Bastards, Denis makes a triumphant return to genre filmmaking with an atmospheric, puzzling, and pitch-black noir.
Bastards is a pseudo-surreal, nightmarish revenge drama that twists all over the place, and Denis litters the film with nearly indecipherable dream sequences that make the narrative all the more confusing. The film opens with the unapologetically bleak image of a nude teenage girl wandering the streets of Paris late at night in nothing more than a pair of high heels. Dazed, dirty, and with clear evidence that she's been the victim of sexual abuse, the girl is eventually picked up by police. The girl is Justine (Lola Créton), whose family has been ripped apart by the sudden suicide of her father. Desperate and scared, her mother, Sandra (Julie Bataille), calls her brother Marco (Vincent Lindon) to help care for the family and find out what happened to his niece.
When Marco arrives, he uncovers a disturbing secret involving a sketchy, wealthy businessman, Edouard (Michel Subor), who caused his family to go bankrupt when he got his niece involved in a violent prostitution ring. As an act of revenge, Marco moves into the apartment below Edouard's lover, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), to try and seduce her and steal her away from Edouard. Unfortunately for Marco, he ends up falling in love with Raphaelle.
The plot may sound straightforward, but Denis deftly jumps back and forth in the narrative timeline, successfully confusing the viewer about what takes place when. In lesser hands, it would be a convoluted approach, but here it adds a great sense of tension and dread. Bastards is a challenging film, both narratively and thematically, but it's an undeniably successful one.
3. Zero Charisma (Directed by Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews. Starring Sam Eidson, Garrett Graham)
For fans of: Big Fan, The Foot Fist Way, Napoleon Dynamite
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99.
It should come as no surprise that the central protagonist of Zero Charisma has, well, no charisma whatsoever. But for Scott Weidemeyer — the main character of Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews darkly funny, wholly depressing character study — charisma is a mere afterthought. The "hero" of the film is so unlikable and childish that you can't help but root against him the whole time.
Sam Eidson plays Weidemeyer, a hapless twentysomething man-child who lives with his grandmother in a small Texas town, works a dead-end job as a delivery driver, and considers himself a nerd in the truest sense of the word. His one spot of happiness is his coveted position as the Game Master of a Dungeons and Dragons-esque role-playing game of his own creation. For three years, Scott and his buddies have met twice a week for the same game that's still ongoing. Scott is so wrapped up in the game — and has so little regard for his friends' actual well-being — that, when of them steps away from the game to try to fix his crumbling marriage, all Scott can say is, "We'll take our five minute break now."
When that friend quits the game for good, Scott is forced to find a replacement: Miles (Garrett Graham), a hipster-geek hybrid who runs a wildly popular website called GeekChic.com. Miles' genuine charisma quickly poses a serious threat to Scott's alpha male status among his group of friends. As the film progresses, Scott slowly becomes more of a despicable, depressing character: He boasts that the Wachowskis stole the idea for The Matrix from a story he wrote only a year before it came out; he's banned from the local gaming/comic book shop; and most of his buddies are only friends with him out of fear.
The subtext of Graham and Matthews' film is a dark and savvy critique of the newfound geek renaissance. Where the terms "geek" and "nerd" were once a social label of the lowest form, they've since been reclaimed by the hipster crowd; Scott and Miles embody the term "nerd" in both the classic and redefined sense of the word, and the conflict that arises between the two is an apt metaphor for our current climate of nerddom. At times, it's hard to tell if Graham and Matthews were seeking to make a black comedy or a taut, psychological character study — but whatever their intent, Zero Charisma is a fascinating film.
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