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FANTASIA 2013: Capone begins his festival coverage confronting a BIG ASS SPIDER! while trying not to BLACK OUT!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Montreal here for the Fantasia International Film Festival, a long-running and truly massive genre-centric event that lasts about three weeks (I'm here for about a week of that). This is my first time to this particular fest, and I honestly can't believe I've put it off for this long. I just wrapped up Day 1 for me, and got a solid feel for the range of material this festival brings, with so many more films to go before I take flight next week. I'll try to post these daily reports at the end of every day; we'll see how may stamina hold up. On my first day, I saw a uniquely American film and a film from the Netherlands that has a uniquely British feel. Enjoy…

A popular attraction at this year's SXSW Film Festival that I could make fit in my overstuffed schedule was director Mike (THE CONVENT, THE GRAVEDANCERS) Mendez's BIG ASS SPIDER!, which celebrates the monster movie sub-category of super sizing everyday critters into enormous, destructive and deadly creatures. As you might have guessed from the title, this one is about a huge fucking spider that escapes from a military lab, trashes an L.A. hospital, and eventually lands up bigger than King Kong crawling up the sides of tall buildings, threatening to lay eggs that will lead to spider domination.

The story is told through the eyes of exterminator extraordinaire Alex Mathis ("Heroes'" Greg Grunberg, whose comic timing saves a lot of the film's lamer jokes), who just happens to be at the hospital when the spider first attacks. He is assisted by the hospital's security guard, Jose (Lombardo Boyar), and the two take on the appropriate roles that would befit a buddy cop movie. I won't lie, Boyar's characterization of Jose as a (presumably) Mexican-American borders on uncomfortable stereotyping, but he get off so many ridiculous one-liners that he's clearly trying to rise above some of the more culturally insensitive moments in writer Gregory Gieras' screenplay.

Eventually the source of the problem, the military, steps in to take over the hunt for the ever-growing spider. Ray Wise's Major Braxton Tanner is leading the counter attack, and like all things Wise does, he's fantastic. His second in command is Lt. Karly Brant (Clare Kramer), who soon becomes a potential love interest for Mathis. There's also a weird military scientist (Patrick Bauchau) thrown into the mix just for the creep vibe, which he provides admirably.

The first thing that struck me about BIG ASS SPIDER! is that it's clear director Mendez has a deep love for these types of films (unlike the makers of most of the films of this ilk that end up on the SyFy channel). I'm not saying that Mendez misses many opportunities for campy behavior and corny jokes, but he also is clearly has no issues going full-on violent and nasty, especially when the spider gets large enough to start stabbing people through the chest with its legs, binding them up in its web, and eating them whole. Yum!

While it's clear the film was made for pennies, compared to something like PACIFIC RIM, I couldn't help being impressed with many of the effects shots in the film (some of which hadn't quite been completed at this particular screening). The filmmakers only show us bits and pieces of the spider (a black widow, if I'm not mistaken) in early scenes to build suspense, but once the full creatures is revealed, it's almost always kept in broad daylight so we can admire its intricate design. There's no hiding effects shots in darkness here.

I'm a huge admirer of 1990's silly and scary ARACHNOPHOBIA, and BIG ASS SPIDER is clearly the heir apparent to that work (with bits of EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS thrown in for good measure). Would the film work as well and amuse you as much if you were watching it home alone in the middle of the week when the sun was still up? Probably night. This is the kind of film whose enjoyment is fueled and heightened by laughter, applause, screams and the shared experience, whether it be at midnight viewings in rep houses or at home with a few friends. BIG ASS SPIDER is not a great movie, but it's a great time at the movies. The film is set for release in theaters and VOD in October.

Considering director Arne Toonen's first film was a sweet little family film, I'm guessing he's spent time in his native Netherlands since making that watching the early, energetic crime dramas of Guy Ritchie. I'm not the first to make the comparison, and I damn sure won't be the last, but the similarities between Toonen's BLACK OUT and Ritchie's LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH are unavoidable, and they are in no way a bad thing, since Ritchie has basically abandoned the genre. What strikes you right away are the colorful characters, each one more ruthless and colorful (bordering on exaggerated, but never quite crossing the line) than the one before.

At the center of the action is Jos Vreeswijk (Raymond Thiry), who wakes up the night after his bachelor party with no memory of the night's events, a dead man in his bed, and a gun between them. He's getting married the next day, so he has to figure out exactly what happened, dispose of the body, and return a whole lot of cocaine to a couple of drug dealers that claim he took some from them the night before without paying. Turns out years earlier, Jos used to be a bit of a criminal, along with his partners Bobbie (Bas Keijzer) and Coca Inez (Renee Fokker), whom he hasn't worked with in years. But he enlists their help to solve the mystery of the prior evening.

As much as I'm not a big fan of amnesia as a plot device in general (especially the way pieces always seem to come back just when the protagonist needs them to), but this is a mystery worth solving and way fragments are revealed is hugely amusing and clever. Thiry (who reminds me of a young John Noble) is a fascinating guy to watch. He's not your standard-issue action hero or criminal type on the surface, but he's smart and thinks fast on his feet when the situation changes, which it often does. And I enjoyed watching this poor guy who though the was done with the life get pulled in deeper, bit by bit, as the movie progresses.

It would be silly to try and name all of the great characters in BLACK OUT (a film I missed at last year's Fantastic Fest), but let me bounce a few of my favorites off of you. Reminding me slightly of Soska Twins in AMERICAN MARY, Katja and Birgit Schuurman are gorgeous and terrifying as a pair of sisterly enforcers for one of the drug kingpins in the film. Robert de Hoog's Gianni is probably the films most twisted piece of work as a young dealer who seems to enjoy killing more than making money or living life like a normal person. But my absolute favorite character is Simon Armstrong's Vlad, another dealer who runs a bowling alley and was a famous former Russian ballet star, who has found a way to incorporate his skills as a dancer into his fighting/killing style. I've never seen Armstrong; as far as I can tell, this is his only acting credit; but he's amazing and qualifies as a special kind of freak in my book.

BLACK OUT twists and turns and Jos and his crew attempt to steal from one dealer to payback another. Not a single plan concocted by anyone in this film works out the way it's supposed to, and the whole work crackles as if it were powered by lightning. Based loosely on a novel by Gerben Hellinga and adapted by Melle Runderkamp (assisted by the director), the movie is perfectly paced, is filled with a logic that all makes sense by the end, and just left me smiling at how entertaining the entire endeavor was. Great performances, perfect direction and a whip-smart script combine to make a violent-as-fuck, perverse, memorable experience.

-- Steve Prokopy
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