MONSTER TRUCKS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action, Peril, brief Scary Images, and some Rude Humor

Directed by: Chris Wedge

Written by: Derek Connolly

Starring: Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Amy Ryan, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, Barry Pepper, Holt McCallany, Frank Whaley & Thomas Lennon

To be completely honest, I walked into MONSTER TRUCKS with low expectations. The trailer made this film look like the 2017 equivalent of NINE LIVES. This film had been juggling release dates since 2015, before finally landing in January (a dumping ground for movies). To boot, Paramount took a 115-million tax writedown on this film because they knew it was doomed to fail at the box office and the former studio president was fired for letting his 4-year-old son come up with the idea for this movie. This film also boasts an astonishingly high budget of 125 million dollars. With all of these warning signs, I was surprised that MONSTER TRUCKS wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. It’s certainly not a good film, but it’s not necessarily bad either.

Tripp (Lucas Till) is a high school student working at a junkyard. His latest project is a beat-up truck and his everyday life is quite dull, but this changes when a monster escapes from a nearby fracking operation. This monster is the tentacled, butt-ugly Creech (short for Creature) and feeds on gasoline as a food source. Tripp and his nerdy love-interest Meredith (Jane Levy) take a liking to Creech and discover that the monster can actually hide/function as the inside of Lucas’s in-progress truck. With Creech serving as his vehicle, Tripp tries to save this friendly monster from the evil oil company that wants to kill its entire species.

MONSTER TRUCKS has a simple stupid idea at its core. What if monsters lived inside of trucks? Hence, the title of the film. It’s very evident that this idea came from the studio president’s 4-year-old child. Surprisingly though, the film gets a few solid points for having unexpectedly redeemable qualities. To me, the biggest standout of the cast is easily Frank Whaley as Tripp’s deadbeat dad. In most family films, there would likely be a heartwarming resolution as the neglectful father comes back into his son’s life. In MONSTER TRUCKS, Whaley’s deadbeat dad character remains a deadbeat dad and the son is heartbroken about that. There’s no fixing certain terrible parents and I feel that this is a valuable lesson for kids to learn. I certainly didn’t expect that message to come from MONSTER TRUCKS (of all movies), but I’ll take it.

This film also has some rather good effects during its scenes of vehicular destruction. There are a couple of legitimately good chase scenes as Tripp, Meredith and Creech have to “drive” fast and furiously away from the evil oil company employees on their tail. The final race against the clock is very fun to watch and sticks out as the film’s best sequence. Surprisingly, some of the script’s humor that earns a few legitimate laughs too. A punchline to a joke that is laid down far in advance is easily the most unexpectedly clever chuckle in the movie, while the wholesale destruction of a scummy car dealership is quite entertaining.

MONSTER TRUCKS’s momentum sputters in being a by-the-numbers E.T. knock-off. This is definitely better than other E.T. rip-offs (e.g. MAC AND ME), but it’s still not very good in deviating from that formula. There’s nary an unpredictable scene in this film, save for the refreshing deadbeat dad story arc and a heavy-handed environmental message. Another problem comes in Lucas Till and Jane Levy both being easily identifiable 20-somethings at a high school. I get that 20-something actors play teenagers all the time, but these two stick out more than you’d want in a kids movie. It’s especially noticeable when a dorky admirer of Till’s character is in the same scene and looks like he could almost be Till’s son.

While I didn’t have a major problem with the butt-ugly monsters in the trucks, it’s worth noting that these monsters aren’t cute in any way, shape or form. I know that Nickelodeon was likely planning on selling toys of these creatures, but they simply do not look visually pleasing. Creech and the two other main tentacled creatures appear to be dumb, gas-guzzling versions of Lovecraft monsters.

The evil oil company trying to capture/kill these monsters aren’t very established. Rob Lowe is supposedly the main big wig villain, but only appears on-screen for about five minutes of screen time. Lowe likely wanted quick cash and agreed to do one day of shooting. The proper antagonist is Holt McCallany as Lowe’s main henchman, who almost seems too menacing for a children’s film (e.g. threatening torture with a cattle prod and then later trying to straight-up murder a teenager). Also, Danny Glover and Thomas Lennon are in this movie…just because they felt like it?

MONSTER TRUCKS is far better than I ever imagined it would be. After seeing the laughably bad trailers and every conceivable red flag being raised, I went into this film with expectations of tearing it apart and walked out with a fairly middle-of-the-road experience. This film has surprisingly good qualities alongside the expectedly bad ones. There’s a refreshing message about sometimes not being able to fix the problem of a crappy parent, which I never expected to see from the likes of this film. The chase scenes are fun and some of the humor works. However, the film is a formulaic rip-off of E.T. (with trucks and tentacles) and most of the performances aren’t good. Overall, MONSTER TRUCKS is an okay film to stick on in front of young children to shut them up for almost two hours of quiet time. Nothing more, nothing less.

Grade: C

DON’T BREATHE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror, Violence, Disturbing Content, and Language including Sexual References

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Directed by: Fede Alvarez

Written by: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues

Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto & Stephen Lang

2016’s summer movie season comes to a close with Fede Alvarez’s DON’T BREATHE. Though he’s only directed one other feature film (2013’s entertaining remake of EVIL DEAD), Alvarez is quickly proving himself to be an exciting new voice in horror. DON’T BREATHE follows an ingeniously simple premise. This unconventional home-invasion chiller is further boosted by genuine frights and suffocating tension that never lets up for a single second. There are a couple of minor stumbles in believability, but DON’T BREATHE is easily one of the best horror films to grace the big screen in 2016!

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Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three teenage hooligans who make their living through frequent burglaries. Each job is carefully planned and executed, though Rocky eventually hopes to raise enough money to move to California with her younger sister. Opportunity knocks in the form of a seemingly too-good-to-be-true break-in that promises 300 thousand in cash and an easy target, a lonely blind man (Stephen Lang). The trio of thieves break into the house without a hitch, but find themselves stuck in a living nightmare when it turns out that the blind guy is much more adept and capable of defending his home than they expected. Their break-in soon becomes a desperate survival mission to break-out.

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DON’T BREATHE milks a simple premise for everything that it’s worth. Ingenious set pieces and unexpected plot twists are laden throughout. There were many points in this film where I had no idea what was going to happen next, all I knew was that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. This horror flick doesn’t only rely on violence and jump scares, but also becomes a masterful exercise in suspense and intense build-up. Many quiet sequences had myself (and the theater audience) so on edge that you could hear a pin drop. Certain moments, with characters being mere feet or inches away from the blind man, are hair-raising beyond belief.

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Besides being scary and delivering relentless tension, DON’T BREATHE is also impressively well-made. The cinematography is slick and the camera does a lot of tricks early on where it pans through the man’s house, giving us brief clues at what items or areas may come into play later on. DON’T BREATHE never gets particularly gory, but does have its violent moments. There’s a believable vibe to the bloody scenes and it never feels like the movie goes too far out of the realm of reality. That being said, there are a couple of scenes where you do have to suspend your disbelief a little bit. The blind guy is occasionally too on-point and one sequence in a vent threatened to become far-fetched.

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As you might guess from the plot description, there aren’t any “good” protagonists in this film. It’s a story of three bad people running into a guy trying to defend his home. Your wavering loyalties may shift as certain scenes play out. Jane Levy is proving herself to be a modern scream-queen with her performance as Rocky (alongside her memorable role in EVIL DEAD). Rocky’s backstory is understandable enough, even if her actions are inexcusable. Dylan Minnette goes from starring in kid-friendly horror (HAUNTING HOUR episodes, GOOSEBUMPS) to intense R-rated material and does well enough as Alex. Daniel Zovatto makes the most of Money, a one-dimensional thug.

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The film’s big stand-out is Stephen Lang as the blind man. A little backstory is given about Lang’s nameless character before the trio break into his home. I felt like I’d be rooting for the blind guy the entire time, but other disturbing details come to light (one of which has been revealed in the trailer, but doesn’t spoil the entire film). Lang is equal parts terrifying and sympathetic. He’s a fearsome beast to be reckoned with and one of the scariest characters to grace a horror film in a long time!

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DON’T BREATHE is a cinematic nightmare that had me squirming in my seat and then sitting on the edge of it, only to shift back and start squirming again. The tension never lets up and not a single frame is wasted. The visuals are beautifully shot and the scares are brilliantly executed. The writing is smart and cleverly milks the maximum amount of chills out of hair-raising scenarios, even if a couple of moments border on becoming too far-fetched. I loved this movie and can safely say that it lives up to its title for 88 thrilling minutes.

Grade: A-

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