Monster Trucks (2017)

fourstar

campstamp

Wanted: Creature Seeking Male Companion – Me: Loves dogs & horses, comforts friends when sad, never says “no” to a spontaneous adventure, always says “yes” to night swimming in moonlight, has tentacles & drinks gasoline. You: A late-20s high school student with a shitty attitude, crippling daddy issues, and a receding hairline. Only selfish, low-energy badboy bores need apply. Serious offers only, please.

God, I love January so much. In what’s often referred to as the cinematic “dumping season,” it’s these first few weeks of the year when studios roll out their wounded animals, a parade of misfit misfires they have no idea how to market. It’s also in these first few weeks when high profile prestige films from the last year’s awards season slowly roll out from their New York & Los Angeles hidey-holes to finally reach The South, which is how I wound up watching both Silence & Monster Trucks at the theater on the same day. It was a glorious day. Not only was I treated to one of the most haunting technical achievements of Marin Scorsese’s career, I also got to see one of Hollywood’s most visually bizarre blunders since the likes of Howard the Duck, Jack Frost, Garbage Pail Kids, and Mac & Me. Monster Trucks is the rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context (recalling last year’s similarly out of place, but more reasonably priced talking cat comedy Nine Lives). It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; Monster Trucks is a gift to be cherished, a precious early January diamond for those digging for treasure in the trash. There’s no scenario where this film would catch on enough to earn back its ludicrous budget, but we’re not the ones losing money on it, so I say kick back and enjoy the show.

The lore behind Monster Trucks‘s creation & eventual financial blunder is just as fascinating as the movie itself. In 2013, then-president of Paramount Pictures, the since-fired Adam Goodman, conceived the pun-centric elevator pitch for this children’s film (“What if monster trucks were literal monster-operated trucks?”) while watching his toddler play with toy vehicles by smashing them together. The story goes that, after two years of development, a 2015 test screening of the film sent children screaming in fear due to the creature design of its main monster, known simply as Creech. I would kill to see that original “director’s cut” with the initial Creech design. Unfortunately, it’s lost to history, as the studio completely overhauled the monster’s CG-animated form and recut the film to soften the terror of its visage. That’s largely how we arrived at our obnoxious $125 million price tag, but that doesn’t explain exactly why Monster Trucks is such an entertaining mess of a final product. I’m sure somewhere among the film’s legitimately talented actors (Rob Lowe, Thomas Lennon, Danny Glover, Amy Ryan) there’s someone who’s super embarrassed to be involved with this dud of an intended franchise-starter/merchandise-generator. Surely, all of Paramount would love to have the whole fiasco wiped from the record completely. I think the embarrassment is entirely unwarranted, though. Monster Trucks might be an epic financial disaster on the production end, but as an audience member I find its delirious stupidity & grotesque creature design an endless delight. I just can’t honestly say it was worth every penny.

In true 90s relic fashion, Monster Trucks begins with evil oil drilling business men disrupting the order of things with their horrific money-grubbing ways. While fracking for more! more! more! oil in nowhere North Dakota, the Evil Corporation (helmed by a diabolical Rob Lowe) accidentally unearths an ancient population of subterranean, tentacled sea monsters who drink oil for sustenance in their own underground Ferngully utopia. Two of the creatures are detained, but one escapes by hiding in the frame of an out-of-commission truck, eventually winding up in the safe haven of a junkyard, just like in Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Without the structural support of a metal truck frame, this poor beast, known simply as Creech, is a useless slob, a pile of soft, melty flesh. Truck frames work as a sort of wheelchair for the unadapted sea creature and it at first operates them like a Flintstones car before getting the hang of properly working the gears. Also like in The Iron Giant, this monster is adopted as a pet by a curious, emotionally stunted little boy struggling with the absence of a father figure. In Monster Trucks, however, the little boy in question is a high school student played by a hilariously miscast Lucas Till, who is well into his 20s and looks it. In an interesting reversal of the lonely outcast trope, everyone who knows our protagonist desperately wants to hang out with him, but he’s too much of a selfish, self-absorbed jerk to give them the time of day. It’s not that he’s too cool for them either, unless you think a near-30 high school student who lives at home, rides the bus, plays racecar when no one’s looking, and whose mom is boinking the sheriff sounds cool. Creech doesn’t teach this bozo a life lesson or improve his shitty attitude in any way. When they have to part ways at the film’s teary-eyed conclusion, all he can muster is, “I’m going to miss you, Creech. You were a good truck.” Selfish prick. He’s almost awful enough to make me root for the oil company’s hired killer goon to succeed in snapping his overgrown-kid neck, but the loss would make Creech too unbearably sad and that’s the last thing I’d want.

Luckily, Monster Trucks isn’t about ugly high school students stuck in an eternal rut learning valuable life lessons or about how greedy oil companies were the true monster (truck) all along. It’s about two much simpler, more universally lovable concepts: monsters & trucks. In the film’s purest, most deliriously idiotic moments Creech drives his truck-shaped mech suit up walls, over lesser vehicles, down mountainsides, and (in my personal favorite bit) through open fields in unison with galloping horses to a country pop soundtrack. This is truck porn about goin’ muddin’ lazily disguised as a kid-friendly creature feature. None of that gear head idiocy would mean a thing without Creech, though, who is paradoxically the cutest & most grotesque CG creation since last year’s realization of Krang in TMNT: Out of the Shadows. Creech is initially played to be scary and is nearly crushed in a hydraulic press before its not made-for-this-world adorability saves its tentacled ass. Your affection for Creech’s design (along with similarly ugly/cute creations in titles like Howard the Duck, Gooby, and Mac & Me) will largely determine how much fun you have with Monster Trucks. It’ll make or break the cuteness of scenes where Creech gargles oil or poses for selfies. It’ll dictate whether you empathize with the Black Fish levels of cruelty in early scenes where its separated from its scrotum-esque parents as well as their inevitable reunion, a endearing Kodak moment that recalls the shunting scene from Society. No matter how much you love trucks on their own (you sick freak), you really have to love Creech’s ugly-cute visage to appreciate Monster Trucks in all of its ill-considered glory.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to capture Creech’s very specific brand of aquatic monstrosity in words. It’s a horror you have to see to believe. Monster Trucks makes several efforts to construct a memorable plot around its visually striking (to put it kindly) truck-creature, but not much sticks. A genuinely creepy villain who legitimately attempts to murder “children”, a few possible goons’ lives lost in the two bigger action set pieces, a Disney Channel love interest (Don’t Breathe‘s Jane Levy, oddly enough) who calls out the selfish prick protagonist for assuming Creech’s gender as male by default, my beloved horse-galloping/truck-muddin’ scene: there are plenty of amusing details that help pad out the film’s unwieldy 105 minute runtime. None of this can surpass the basic joys of gazing at Creech, though. Every minute of Creech content is a blessing, a gift from the trash cinema gods. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can. And I guess the life lesson learned for the next Monster Trucks-type misfire to come down the line would be to try to pull off its low-key chams for $100 million less on the production end. Who knows? They might even accidentally make a profit.

monster-trucks monstertrucks_main screen-shot-2016-06-07-at-4-37-48-pm

-Brandon Ledet

Don’t Breathe (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Don’t Breathe is quite the experience. It’s being touted as a return to form for the horror genre, and while it’s certainly memorable, tense, and well-acted, there’s a fine line between well-earned praise and overhype, and the promotion of this film may have already crossed that event horizon.

The film follows Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto, of the strangely similar It Follows, but more on that in a moment), three Detroit teenagers whose varying levels of desperation to get out of their dying city lead them to theft. Using Alex’s father’s private security company connections to get in and out of homes without setting off any alarms, the trio land on the idea of robbing the home of a blind military veteran (Stephen Lang) who was given a large civil settlement when the daughter of a rich family was found not guilty of vehicular manslaughter of his only child. Once they make their way inside, they find that the Blind Man is more than they bargained for, and is hiding secrets that they could not have imagined.

I went into the film mostly blind, for lack of a better term. I knew very little about the plot from the outset other than that the film was supposed to be the best horror flick of the year, and I was expecting something along the lines of an inverted Wait Until Dark. I was also excited in the very first scene, as it reminded me of Hans Weingartner’s 2004 flick The Edukators, of which I am a big fan. The film quickly shifted tone, however, and although there are elements of Wait Until Dark at play here (most notably in a scene in which a blind individual turns off all of the lights to put themselves on equal footing with the people invading their home), this is a very different film.

We recently discussed in the roundtable for our September MotM outing The Box that it was hard to sympathize with the protagonist family and their need for more income because of their relative place of privilege, and Don’t Breathe is certainly more identifiable on that front, but the characters never quite reach a point where we can fully sympathize with them. The only main character of color, Money (Zovatto is Costa Rican), is the least fleshed out and has the least characterization; his character is the least likable of the three mains, and Zovatto seems to be playing an exaggerated version of the same sleazeball he played in It Follows. Further, Don’t Breathe seems to take place in the same alternate universe Detroit as It Follows, by which I mean both films are nearly devoid of black people. It’s understandable that director Fede Alvarez chose not to cast actors of color for these roles; having black actors play Detroit thieves would have unfortunate implications of their own, but since I only counted two extras of color (one in the overhead flyby at the start of the film and one getting coffee at the station at the end), there’s a lot of missed opportunity here. The film effectively portrays Detroit as a dying city with homes full of broken windows and empty streets, but focusing on the economic problems of (mostly) white teenagers creates an incorrect perception both of the city’s real problems and of the people who are usually victims of economic inequality.

The scene we see of Rocky’s family (including the deadbeat mother’s unsubtly swastika-tattooed boyfriend) attempts to communicate in a very short time frame the reasons why Rocky so dearly desires to leave Detroit behind, but it’s a little clumsy in its overtones and fails in comparison to a later scene where Alex talks about her childhood in a much more effective demonstration. And we learn the least about Alex, except that he seems to have a fairly decent home life, and his investment in the thefts is largely because of his romantic interest in Rocky, which the film never states is either problematic or loving. It’s also not the only problematic thing in the film other than the whitewashed Detroit, as there is a scene near the end that uses the ol’ rape-as- drama cliche, although not in the way you would expect. It’s effectively unsettling, but I’m not sure if the “I’m no rapist” line is meant to show off the blind (sorry) self-deception of the character saying it or an attempt to head off any attempted interpretation of the line (which it obviously has not, based on some of the think pieces emerging in the wake of the film’s release). I’m hesitant to say more than that for the sake of retaining the film’s surprises. It’s enough to sour the experience somewhat but not enough for me to say the film should be skipped, although I definitely recommend a big trigger warning for those viewers sensitive to sexual assault.

Even with all of its flaws, Don’t Breathe is a delightfully wicked and taut horror thriller with great influences from other films in the same genre and outside of it. Beyond the “blind person fends off home invaders” similarities to Wait Until Dark and the superficial similarities to The Edukators, there’s a lot of The People Under the Stairs in Don’t Breathe’s DNA (minus that film’s exploration of the race-related nature of economic disadvantage, which, as noted, is lacking here). There are also minor elements that are reminiscent of this year’s earlier horror film 10 Cloverfield Lane, particularly in one of the fake-out endings and the scene of a woman climbing through an air vent in a desperate escape attempt (this scene is also evocative of my favorite horror film, Alien, from which 10 Cloverfield borrowed some of its imagery). Alvarez’s beautiful cinematography and lingering camera work elevate what could otherwise have been a fairly run-of- the-mill horror movie. There’s an attention to detail that bespeaks a greater knowledge of the language of film, and Alvarez is obviously well on his way to being a master linguist. I can’t remember the last time, other than The VVitch, where I felt so much tension in my spine  while taking in a fright flick, and I was haunted by the movie for hours after walking out of the theatre. If you have a strong stomach and can handle the anxiety, Don’t Breathe gets a“recommended” from me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond