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

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, brief Strong Language and some Suggestive Images

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the X-MEN comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy & Lana Condor

After seeing the stinger at the end of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, X-MEN fans were greatly anticipating the big screen appearance of the X-Men’s greatest foe: Apocalypse! With Bryan Singer returning to direct, it seemed like nothing would potentially go wrong with this ninth(!) installment in the X-MEN franchise. While APOCALYPSE definitely has its moments and glimmers of great potential, I couldn’t help but be reminded of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND during multiple points. APOCALYPSE isn’t quite as bad as that film, because it still manages to maintain a big dumb fun sense of entertainment. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed.

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The year is 1983 and the events of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST have changed the world. Mutants and humans find themselves in danger when En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) awakens from a centuries-long slumber in his Egyptian tomb. This intimidating villain was history’s first mutant and has acquired a vast variety of powers throughout the years, making him pretty much invincible. Apocalypse is looking to break down our world and build a better one on top of it, recruiting four horseman along the way: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a newly enraged Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Pitted against Apocalypse and his four horsemen are Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havok (Lucas Till) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), alongside newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Phoenix (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s mutants vs. god-like mutants in a showdown that will determine the fate of the world as we know it.

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The X-MEN films often stick out in the crowded superhero genre, because they usually tackle subplots of self-discovery, prejudice, and civil rights as addressed through mutants. While APOCALYPSE has some of these elements, they are mostly overshadowed by a sloppy script covering familiar ground that’s already been seen many times before. This is basically a clichéd, by-the-numbers “good vs. evil” tale that happens to feature the X-MEN. To make matters worse, the screenplay is downright messy and unfocused. It seems like attention was being paid to the wrong details and important scenes were missing (opening up plot holes along the way). This ultimately leads to pacing issues that immediately spring up with four (count ’em, four!) prologue sequences before the main plot can even begin.

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Though he’s a clichéd and one-dimensional baddie, Apocalypse remains cool nonetheless. Played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac under layers of make-up and a forty-pound costume, this evil mutant has various abilities that make him seemingly unstoppable. There were multiple points in this story where I wondered how the X-Men could possibly hope to defeat him. Though his preachy monologues can get repetitive, Apocalypse is genuinely scary in his ability to manipulate matter (making for lots of cool kills), teleport, being super strong and having psychic powers to boot. Though he may look a bit ridiculous, this cinematic version of Apocalypse more than resembles his comic book counterpart.

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Other fresh faces come from a new class of young mutants and three of Apocalypse’s “horsemen.” It occasionally feels like APOCALYPSE is trying to cram too many mutants into one film and spends a lot time reintroducing each of them, which slows down the movie’s already mixed momentum. While I love the character of Psylocke and Olivia Munn is positively breathtaking in the role, she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than fight. Storm and Angel both receives a strong introductions and then don’t do much afterwards. The horsemen (save for Magneto) mainly stand around, make Apocalypse look cool, and then engage in a quick fight or two.

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I was really excited to see Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Sophie Turner as Phoenix…but they both seem to be hit or miss in their roles. It’s almost as if they want to emulate James Marsden and Famke Janssen’s versions of the characters, but are also trying to do their own thing. This results in two uneven characters from performers who seem slightly uncomfortable in their roles. Kodi Smit-McPhee more than makes up for their shortcomings as Nightcrawler. McPhee has been hit-or-miss in his past roles, but Nightcrawler is easily one of his best performances. He nails the awkwardness of this teleporting, blue-tailed mutant. It doesn’t really bear mentioning how Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, and Michael Fassbender are in their roles, because they all have their parts down and have done so for two movies.

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APOCALYPSE’s script suffers from a by-the-numbers plot, missing beats, and lots of filler (included for fan service and setting up future installments). The villainous William Stryker (Josh Helman) appears yet again and pads the film by an extra twenty minutes, but the pay-off to this comes in purposely erasing the worst X-MEN movie (no, I’m not talking about THE LAST STAND). The Blob and Jubilee make blink-and-you-missed-it appearances, which seemed like a waste of time for fans altogether. If you’re going to include these characters, show them doing something other than being dragged unconscious out of a fighting ring or walking down a hallway. Also, the Quicksilver scene from DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is replicated here to an eye-rollingly excessive degree.

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On the positive side of things, APOCALYPSE excels in Magneto’s storyline. This tragic metal-bending villain is easily one of X-MEN’s most complex characters and a few powerful scenes expand upon his tragic past. The film looks good and is packed with convincing special effects. Though it becomes too over-the-top in places, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE remains entertaining enough. I am happy that I watched it, but probably won’t subject myself to it again, unless I’m doing an X-MEN marathon. APOCALYPSE is the third-worst X-MEN film (better than THE LAST STAND and ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) and is far from terrible, especially given the high quality from the rest of the series. If you’re an X-MEN fan, you’ll probably find things to like in this mixed bag installment. Still, prepare to walk away underwhelmed.

Grade: C+

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Violence and Action, some Suggestive Material, Nudity and Language

FP poster

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the comic books DAYS OF FUTURE PAST by Chris Claremont & John Byrne)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Booboo Stewart, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman & Lucas Till

How far comic book movies have come. If you traveled back to 2000 and told any X-Men fan that there would be seven films in the series with the Days Of Future Past storyline being covered in a 2014 installment, they probably would have either groaned (in fear of Hollywood screwing it all up) or laughed in your face (taking the whole thing as wishful thinking). Through the great entries (X-MEN 2 and FIRST CLASS) to the just plain bad (ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and X-MEN 3), the X-MEN series has seen good times and rough spots. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (the seventh movie!) is the most accomplished film in the series. This is a superhero fan’s wet-dream come true and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t wind up being the best (and biggest) movie of Summer 2014. So many things could have gone wrong in the ambitious scope of this project. Tons of characters are sprawling over two different time periods and the plot might have easily wound up in confusing convoluted areas. With original X-MEN 1 & 2 director Bryan Singer directing, FUTURE PAST easily winds up being one of the best superhero movies of all-time and takes bold new directions for the franchise.

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The future is a bleak wasteland. Mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels have run rampant and civilization is in ashes as mutants are being reduced to an endangered species. As well-known mutants are dying left and right from these killing machines, one last hope emerges. Kitty Pryde (a.k.a. Shadowcat seen in X-MEN 3) has developed a mutation that allows the consciousness of a person to be taken back in time. In order to avert the event that caused the 50-year downward spiral of the creation of the Sentinels, Wolverine’s consciousness travel back to his 1973 self in order to change the future. This means finding a disheveled Professor X, a locked-up Magneto, and a vengeance-seeking Mystique before history repeats itself or the future winds up on a potentially darker course. To give too many details away would spoil some of the fun to be had in this superhero extravaganza. Comic book nerds and those who have a vague recollection of the “Future Past” storyline will find that creative liberties have been taken, but it all works out in favor for an infinitely satisfying summer blockbuster that delivers on every level imaginable.

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Immediately taking a darker tone than any of the previous installments, FUTURE PAST makes it clear that everything hinges on the journey that Wolverine and the younger mutants are taking in order to save the world. Employing the use of every single big mutant imaginable and some really cool nods to the previous films, this is most definitely a movie made for fans. I can’t imagine anyone walking into this seventh X-MEN movie without having seen the original movies, but it’s pretty much required to have watched them all or you’re going to be severely lost. It’s not as if the movie is so convoluted and intricate that it requires you having finished a marathon of the series mere hours before walking in, but it helps if you’re an X-MEN movie junkie.

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The time-traveling aspect of the movie could have easily been a B-movie level gimmick, but the way it pertains to the plot and how it’s being used makes all the difference. Everything being played so straight-faced in this would-be ridiculous scenario works as movie magic on the audience to treat it seriously and invest their emotions into watching everything play out in front of your eyes. FUTURE PAST is a movie so gripping, exciting, and well-paced from frame one that I felt as if I was in the film. That’s the primary purpose of this visual art-form to begin with. Movies are meant to suck you into a completely other world and kept you in that universe for the running time. For a movie running at over two hours, everything is extremely well-paced. Nothing is left to drag and my anxiety levels were going up for the characters as story got drastically more complicated.

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The brilliance of FIRST CLASS (which is easily the second highest entry in the series) combines with the balls-to-the-wall creative nature of X-MEN 2 (the third highest entry in the series) in DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. It’s a game-changer in the series that has left me excited for the many more sequels there are to come (it’s been reported that some of the newcomers have signed on for four more films). Things have changed. An impact has been made. The wrongs of the two lesser entries have been corrected in the writing of this latest installment. This is a superhero movie that absolutely shines out of, not only the X-MEN series, but the entire comic book film genre as a whole. Christopher Nolan brought us the DARK KNIGHT trilogy and it seems like Singer’s X-MEN is more than willing to be a substitute for that series!

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What else can I really say that you don’t already assume? Every cast member (despite how small some of their roles are) does a fantastic job in their parts. Some reprising characters for the sixth time now and others are fresh faces, but they all play on the same level of competent talent. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is awesome! It’s absolutely awesome and plays on an epic scale. Those two words (awesome, epic) are overused in this internet age, but they truly apply to this latest sequel. One of the most complex storylines in the comics has made its way to the big screen in brilliant fashion. FUTURE PAST is probably going to wind up being the biggest movie of the summer. It’s one of the best films 2014 has to offer (thus far). This makes me so excited to see all the things that are coming next, beginning with APOCALYPSE in 2016.

Grade: A+

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