Monster Trucks (3D) ***

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is where machine and beast meet, not the kind of engine-driven trucks seen at Santa Pod and the like. Once you get your head around WHY such a monster would want to bed down within a clapped-out old pick-up, the daftness that is Monster Trucks is replaced by a certain fondness for the squid-like animal within, which the kids really do grow to love – once they’ve finished jumping out of their seats at its initial introduction.

Like any teen, Tripp (Lucas Till) is desperate to escape his small-town life and builds a Monster Truck out of scrapped cars at his local garage where he works part-time (run by Danny Glover’s character). An accident at the town’s oil-drilling site causes a ‘monster displacement’ and results in one taking refuge inside Tripp’s truck.

This oil-guzzling creature becomes an unlikely asset and friend to Tripp who makes it his mission to get the creature home – helped by Tripp-infatuated school chum Meredith (Jane Levy), after the oil company ‘baddies’ led by arch villain Rob Lowe‘s character try to prevent the beast and others like it returning to the lucrative, oil-rich drilling site.

This action-filled family adventure plucks at the heartstrings in many ways, unashamedly so too. We do sympathise with Tripp’s difficult family situation and immediately understand the developing bond between him and the monster as both needs protecting in their own special ways.

There is a lot of fun to be had while the film-makers berate greedy oil barons and America’s obsession with mining the liquid gold stuff. In a way, it’s a family adventure for the avid/budding environmentalist, with the mantra of ‘look at the damage caused by fossil fuels’ running right the way through, while strangely, worshipping petrol-head heaven in action.

For smaller kids, it has all that is needed to entertain; monsters, speed, trucks and chases, and the story is more than clear to any under five (as in my son’s case), especially as ‘Crank’ – as the monster is named – returns in The Abyss-style glory at the end. It is simplistic to the point of tedium for adults at times, but watched with small folk, can be quite exhilarating to experience together.

Monster Trucks is nothing profound – in fact, as to alerting young minds to environmental issues go, all-time classic WALL.E beats hands down. However, it does things in an immensely fun and loud fashion and in a way that kids will instantly connect to, guided by a young, good-looking hero-of-the-hour in Tripp. In an unexpected twist, it may just prove to be a school holidays’ box-office hit.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Pacific Rim***

Guillermo del Toro gets the teen audience, totally, so much so, he’s gone and taken a bunch of Transformer Power Rangers and pitched them against alien sea monsters of centuries old-looking. This less than perfect film offers loads of thumping good 3D action, which on occasion can feel relentless to anyone older than thirteen or to those who’ve had past problems distinguishing thrashing 3D Transformer body part from whirling body part. That said if pure entertainment is predominantly seeing Godzilla-like creatures tearing chunks out of man and his metal war machines then Pacific Rim portrays this with full watery throttle, throwing in subtle Blade Runner tones on urban dry land.

It’s just a shame the rest is clunky, insincere and a little too clichéd, script-wise, that it prompts every next step for those ‘hard of thinking’, causing an occasional yawn in parts or inevitable disinterest in others. There is very little del Toro wonderment to this future apocalypse, unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, or characters we really care about like in Hellboy, merely hard and fast blockbuster robot-monster action with some token human strife.

Humankind is seeing an increase in attacks from giant sea creatures called Kaiju who rise from the oceans to wipe out cities and populations. Even man’s special weapons used to fight these aliens, face to face, a massive robot simultaneously controlled by two pilots called a Jaeger, seem to be loosing the battle as the Kaiju become wise to their every move. When the Jaegers are forced into retirement, leader of the fleet, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) refuses to retire too, bringing his robots and a former pilot (Raleigh Becket played Charlie Hunnam) and a trainee (Mako Mori played by Rinko Kikuchi) back into action to control a Jaeger along with other pilots to save the world from oblivion.

Without a doubt, del Toro is spot on in creating a vast cinematic scale to portray man’s imminent danger of extinction against a monster enemy. There is always a sense of being submerged and out of your depth when the Kaiju are around and that’s thrilling. These awesome beasts with fluorescent innards certainly feed the imagination. However, very little else is known about them and what makes them tick, short of a flash through the mind of one, and a brief The Abyss-style finale of their world. Another story glitch is the idea that the Kaiju are clones – though all are different looking? This theory also doesn’t add up when one is with child, raising an explosive but intriguing aspect of the story that lacks further insight that you might expect from del Toro’s past work.

The human characters are mainly cheesy, cardboard clones of past sci-fi battle films. Little known Hunnam seems to resemble his other co-star pilots to the point of confusion at times, but all are pumped, attractive fodder for controlling the machines, though little empathy is built up around them to care about their individual plights. There is a window into Kikuchi’s character Mako and her traumatic past, which is beautifully visualised, and del Toro tries to stimulate some mystique into the bond between Pentecost and her that is sadly is blatantly obvious to all. Even the screen presence that is Elba in his ‘finest hour’ giving booming rallying speeches fails to keep us more than interested in just the action alone, and the attempts to inject token emotion into his being fall short by the time the human story catches up.

Del Toro even tries for quirky eccentric types, too, to mix things up in his character list, with the kooky scientist stereotype in Charlie Day as Kaiju fan Dr. Newton Geiszler and Burn Gorman as eccentric Gottlieb. Both are comical to start off with then become increasingly irritating like excitable puppies and incoherent to care for their explanations. It all seems to rest on del Toro’s Hellboy big name Ron Perlman (stay around for the end credits) who stars as a dodgy second-hand Kaiju parts dealer to come up with the goods for the human element. However, Perlman either has too little screen-time or not enough character development to save the story from being rather shallow on the human emotion front. The end result is a flat character array, so thankfully the fighting makes up for that.

Nevertheless, even the CGI confrontations can grow weary, as at lot are underwater shots that move side to side, having little effect in 3D because they are also blurry and darkly lit. The story is called into question again as previous, supposedly less threatening Kaiju are harder to tackle than the alleged ‘super-sized’ one at the end. Again, consistency is key, even with some impressive battles on offer.

Del Toro delivers some monster epic fighting on surface level, along with his calling cards such as the use of symbols, paternal influences and a subterranean chase scene. However, with many continuity errors, borrowed visuals from past sci-fi, fantasy films and limited character development, the overall conclusion is a less than satisfactory for a del Toro film, where the director appears to have fallen victim to the blockbuster hype.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Sanctum 3D – 2*

This is one of those films that fill you with great expectations, especially with Avatar’s James Cameron at the producing helm, but leaves you thoroughly underwhelmed afterwards. Exciting visions of a watery ‘other-world’ wonder from Cameron, especially with The Abyss reference (Virgil), turn into a lengthy cave-exploring/father-son-hugging tedium. Still, it is based on a true story, so can’t be that far-fetched.

The characters, a bunch of super-fit thrill-seekers, seem potentially intriguing. Leading the expedition is megalomaniac explorer Frank, played by deadpan and hunky Richard Roxburgh (on poster), who is the no-nonsense father to frustrated and under-appreciated Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who is equally toned and provides the beef for the younger eye. Admittedly, the father-son relationship needs to work for the film to be credible, and it does. But there seems to be too many strops and pent-up hormones at the start for you to really care, or sympathise with Josh at his father’s apparent disregard for life and Frank’s ‘playing God’ with his crew. Schmaltz, bizarre poetry moments, and illuminating tooth aside, our interest does grow as the film proceeds and the group gets into deeper troubled water.

From a female perspective, both female characters are clichéd. Butch Judes’s (Allison Cratchley) lack of sleep and pigheadedness lead to tragic results, whilst Alice Parkinson adds the glam and the brains as Victoria, a scientist who has never dived. Queue underwater disaster. The trouble is, far from adding anything constructive to the group’s dynamic that includes an accent-confused Ioan Gruffudd as her corporate boyfriend, Carl, the latter takes on the token ‘burden female’ in tow, obsessed with her appearance, and made worse by a stiff performance. Only once do we empathise with Victoria, after she struggles to follow the team through a claustrophobic rock tunnel, but once she meets her grizzly demise, it’s a case of ‘good riddance’. Gruffudd provides the only recognisable big-name on the list, and takes on the baddie role quite satisfactorily, if a little under-used. This is probably deliberate by Cameron and director Alister Grierson to prevent distractions from the subterranean world they are trying to make us in awe of, or simply a matter of budget.

Indeed, this seems to be another carrot-led element: the lack of really breathtaking 3D scenery that should trigger the ‘wow’ factor. Although some of the cave scenes look amazing, the 3D doesn’t sit comfortably on the eye at times, especially with darker, gloomier areas, or light shining directly from a character’s helmet torch. Again, for someone who bangs the 3D drum loudly and is experienced in the format, Cameron often doesn’t use the technology to its full potential with the camera framing, resulting in a lot of wide shots, and the film actually not being tailored for a 3D experience at all. With 3D ticket prices costing a pretty penny at the box office, this is a big consideration.

Perhaps this critic has seen too many subterranean horrors and was misguided by Sanctum 3D, if perfectly honest, expecting a repeat of The Abyss’s alien life discoveries in the caves at the core of the earth? But the overall effect, including the 3D, was quite disappointing, considering the film gets off to an epic build-up of enthralling tension at the start as the storm sets in.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Monsters – 4*

For a film with such an emotive title that conjures up all kinds of stereotypical sci-fi imagery of Earth being taken over by extraterrestrial life forms, Monsters by documentary film-maker Gareth Edwards is quite the opposite. It’s actually a surprisingly tender relationship study between two humans that blossoms amongst nature of the Earth and alien kind, here on this fair planet. It also helps that little-known leads Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (All The Boys Love Mandy Lane) are a real-life couple, too, making their union on the screen seem all the more stronger and believable, complete with the inevitable highs and lows.

The sci-fi element that you would come to expect from the film gradually develops into a peripheral factor that intermittently thwarts the couple’s path to true love, like ‘a sci-fi obstacle course’ that strengthens their resolve. But fear not; this is not a ‘rom-com in an alien disguise’ either. It’s just a very personable journey with two intriguing characters that has alien dangers to it, but what the real danger is, is apparent in the end.

Edwards’ style of ad-libbing certainly pays off, and which also highlights his documentary roots. As his first feature film was always going to be a gamble at the box office, it’s interesting to speculate whether the strong relationship factor really was Edwards’ original intention, or whether this film is a taster for an intended saga, with Monsters establishing the characters, and a more revealing sequel about the alien life on Earth to follow? Certainly, those expecting a pitch battle between humans and aliens will be disappointed. The closest our couple get is a Jurassic Park-style encounter with some Triffid/Martian-like creatures that results in man being more brutal than the former.

That’s the beautiful ambiguity of the title: Who are the true Monsters – us or them? There are lots of parallels flagged between ‘aliens’ and US immigration issues on the Mexico/US border – much like the ‘illegal alien invasion’ parallels in District 9. Although this is a well-trodden film topic, Monsters does well not to dwell on the matter because the relationship is key, and how our leads learn to respect and live alongside another race.

The alien segments are undoubtedly homage to James Cameron, from pulsating, luminous wildlife in the trees, as in Avatar, to illuminated aliens straight out of The Abyss. This appears to be Edwards’ self-indulgent aspect of his film, allowing an insight into the creator’s mind of what might have been produced with a bigger budget to hand – although bigger is not necessarily better. Edwards’ credit here is just what he’s achieved in atmosphere and tension with very little finances.

The chosen pseudo-documentary style seems to be becoming the norm for this genre, as in District 9, as though any other cinematographic style would not be credible anymore. But the pace is a graceful, almost serene, especially in the jungle river scene, which is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, allowing us to get a feel for the territory that the couple invades and disturb.

Monsters has déjà vu elements for certain, but it also has a unique style that feels slightly alien in itself. It’s often very relaxing to watch, like an extraterrestrial wildlife expedition from remote jungle land. The couple’s chemistry is genuine, as are the events like the parades in the film that justify Monsters being described as ‘the most realistic monster movie ever made’. For fans of the genre, it’s definitely one to catch and respect for its low-budget film-making values. In fact its success may be to Edwards’ detriment, should he have planned another, as money may give birth to a Hollywood monster instead.

4/5 stars

By L G-K