ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language

Directed by: Liza Johnson

Written by: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal & Cary Elwes

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan & Sky Ferreira

A meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon seems like a bit of an odd historical event to stage a movie around. Comedy Central’s DRUNK HISTORY hilariously summed this story up in about five minutes, so to make a feature out of it seems like it might be a tad excessive. Still, with a cast of A-list talent, ELVIS & NIXON is an okay movie. Amusing is a good way to describe this entire film. It’s not great or bad. It’s fun in spots and drags in others. It’s just amusing and nothing more.

December 21, 1970: Rockstar Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) becomes frustrated with the state of the country and decides that he needs to meet with the President of the United States, Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Talking to the country’s leader is no easy feat, but Elvis doesn’t see any problem in walking up to the White House gates and requesting an urgent sit-down with the POTUSA. As you might expect from the film’s premise, humorous circumstances arise and the meeting concludes in one of the most bizarre photographs to ever be taken within the White House walls. Also, there are a couple of subplots featuring Nixon’s advisors (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) and Elvis’s childhood friend (Alex Pettyfer).

Credit to ELVIS & NIXON, because this film occasionally goes deeper than it would seem a story about Elvis meeting Nixon would go. The movie’s first half is devoted to the meeting’s set-up, with White House officials desperately trying to make Nixon see the benefits of meeting with the country’s most famous celebrity and Elvis’s friends trying to control his erratic behavior. The king of rock-and-roll attempts to bring guns on an airplane within the first ten minutes. There’s also a subplot involving Alex Pettyfer’s Jerry Schilling attempting to make it back home to meet his girlfriend’s parents, all while Elvis demands that he remain by his side.

The performances are solid enough to raise the material above its meager script. Kevin Spacey’s Nixon make-up didn’t quite sell on him being one of the most notorious presidents in history, but his acting abilities triumphed over the so-so make-up job. Spacey also gets lots of laughs as his potty-mouth and stern demeanor conflicts with Elvis’s cool cat demeanor. Colin Hanks and Evan Peters are somewhat funny as two of his advisors, both of their characters also had a hand in the eventual Watergate scandal.

Although Michael Shannon is a fantastic performer, I wasn’t too sure about him as Elvis and he barely (if at all) resembles the celebrity he’s playing. However, Shannon sells his role with charisma, over-the-top swagger and a laid-back attitude. The best pre-meeting scenes see him going into a donut shop (among jazz-loving African-Americans who call him out for not being original) and reflecting on how people only see him as an icon (not a human being). The latter scene is easily the best moment of the film as it brings to light something that celebrities might struggle with on a daily basis. Johnny Knoxville is disappointingly underused as one of the King’s best friends, but Alex Pettyfer is competent as Schilling.

ELVIS & NIXON occasionally gets too over-the-top for its own good. This is mainly showcased in a scene that involves Shannon’s Elvis and Knoxville’s Sonny West giving a karate demonstration to Nixon. Shannon initially protested the scene saying that it was too silly and I agree with that point. That whole moment is cringe-worthy and doesn’t fit the semi-realistic feeling of the rest of the film at all. There are still very funny bits in people’s star-struck reactions to Elvis, especially when a crappy Elvis impersonator believes Shannon’s King to be a fellow imitator.

In the short span of 86 minutes, ELVIS & NIXON comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome. The film is seemingly desperate to fill the feature-length running time by adding unnecessary subplots. Though the Schilling storyline marginally works, it does feel cheesy and like a last-minute addition to the proceedings. The same can be said about Colin Hanks and Evan Peters, who are both regulated to a few lines after the titular meeting begins. Good acting and amusing moments considered, ELVIS & NIXON’s story is funnier and more entertaining as a brief segment on DRUNK HISTORY. This film is an okay time-killer if you cannot find anything better to watch.

Grade: B-

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman

Written by: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec & Evan Daugherty

(based on the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES comics by Peter Laird & Kevin Eastman)

Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Johnny Knoxville, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Tohoru Masamune & Whoopi Goldberg

When a trailer for this TMNT reboot arrived, shit hit the fan from everybody who grew up with the original giant talking turtle cartoon. I was never a fan of the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES and as a result, I don’t have the nostalgic factor for them that most do. I still didn’t think that this glossy reboot looked good enough to see on the big-screen back in August and most people (fans and non-fans) were anticipating TMNT to tank at the box office. In a surprising turn of events, the film wound up grossing almost half a billion worldwide and is currently spawning a sequel (due in August 2016). Seeing as I’m indifferent to the franchise and going into this as my first full TURTLES movie, I was hoping for something fun at the very least. The new TMNT may have been a box office success, but is far from a success in quality.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, Leonardo (voice: Johnny Knoxville), 2014. ph: ILM/©Paramount

The place is New York. Crime is at an all-time high due to the sinister Foot Clan wreaking havoc on innocent citizens. April O’Neal is a reporter investigating Foot Clan activities in order to score a bigger story than the fluff that she’s usually saddled with. After a damsel in distress encounter, April stumbles across four unlikely vigilantes. They’re turtles, who also happen to also be mutants, ninjas and teenagers. However, knowledge of the turtles’ existence has caused the leader of the Foot Clan, Shredder, to enact a deadly plan that could mean the destruction of the entire city. It’s up to April, her cameraman sidekick, four ninja turtles, and Master Splinter, a karate-trained sewer rat and the turtles’ father, to save the day!

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: William Fichtner, Megan Fox, 2014. ph: David

Michael Bay has a producer credit on TMNT, but didn’t direct it. He may as well have. The frantically edited action, by-the-numbers storyline, and bombastic overuse of certain techniques suggests that Bay had more than just a producer’s role in the making of this movie. The action is almost dizzying at times because it can’t focus on one single shot for more than 10 seconds. You’ve likely seen this plot play out many times before and not necessarily in films that feature giant talking turtles. What’s more laughable is the use of clichés and plot revelations that aren’t given enough time to sink in before the movie rushes on with its formulaic story. No character development is given, so there’s no reason to feel anything for anyone (though some performers are better than others). Then there’s the trademark lens flares, explosions and pointless slow-motion that seems as if either Michael Bay was backseat directing on the set or that Jonathan Liebesman was trying to emulate Bay.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello, on set, 2014.

Clearly, a wrong choice was made in casting Megan Fox as a leading lady. She’s already notorious for her lack of believable emotions, but she’s just plain bland as April. We’re thrown into April with no knowledge of who she is other than that she wants to be a successful reporter and we don’t receive any discernable character traits for the rest of the film either. Whoopi Goldberg also shows up for some strange reason and gets about 5 minutes of screen time as April’s boss. Will Arnett is actually the only decent comic relief in the film. Arnett isn’t as funny as he usually is, but there’s a likability to him. William Fichtner usually delivers in every role he takes on, the same can be said for his part as a shady businessman in this film. The villain of Shredder felt like he was a blend of two very different movies, which adds to the jumbled tone of this entire film. Though Shredder’s battle suit resembles a smaller Transformer, he’s plays up his brief non-armor moments as a serious terrorist.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Splinter, Shredder, 2014. ph: ILM/©Paramount

I can say that the movie is vibrant and colorful in spite of overused style choices and bad scripting/acting. The designs on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves look like complete crap though. These monstrosities look more like Shrek than giant turtles. Out of the title characters themselves, I preferred Raphael (the hot-tempered fighter) and Donatello (the bland leader) to Michelangelo (an annoying pop-culture spewing CGI abomination that’s close to Jar-Jar Binks level awful) and Donatello (a nerd stereotype stuck in a turtle’s body). Master Splinter is also equally as hideous and annoying. It certainly doesn’t help matters that the turtles feel like side characters throughout most of their own film as the main focus is misguidedly centered on Megan Fox’s April.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Raphael, Leonardo, 2014. Ph: Industrial Light &

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES accomplishes what it set out to do by selling toys to kids and entertaining them. That was its ultimate purpose, but good family entertainment should be enjoyed by both children and adults on a different (though, sometimes the same) level. I was never expecting TMNT to be particularly good, but I was hoping it might be halfway decent. I don’t have the nostalgia for the franchise that most do, so I can’t rightfully say if it rapes a childhood favorite. I can suggest that it’s a complete waste of time for anyone above the age of 10. This is a TRANSFORMERS movie that happens to have turtles instead of robots.

Grade: C-

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Content, Crude and Drug-related Humor, Language and Comic Action Violence

Hazzard poster

Directed by: Jay Chandrasekhar

Written by: John O’Brien

Starring: Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, Jessica Simpson, Burt Reynolds, Willie Nelson, David Koechner, M.C. Gainey, Michael Weston

Adapting a TV series into a movie is not a new trend. It’s been going on as far back as the 80’s (I’m sure long before that too). I have never sat through a single episode of DUKES OF HAZZARD, so I can’t rightly say if this is a proper modern interpretation of the already campy-looking material. I can say that the movie is a letdown in many areas and does well enough in others as far as a filmmaking standpoint goes. DUKES OF HAZZARD isn’t a horrible way to pass the time, but it’s still technically bad in a lot of ways. This feels like an elongated episode of a modern incarnation of the series and less like a movie.

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Bo and Luke are cousins in the moonshine business. They transport their Uncle Jesse’s illegal product around town and are constantly in all sorts of trouble (as told to us by the narrating voiceover that sounds like it’s right out of ME, MYSELF & IRENE). When the meanest man in Hazzard county, Boss Hogg, plans to take over town, it’s up to the Duke family to take him down and sexy cousin Daisy Duke to help uncover a deeper conspiracy at work.

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On the plus side, there’s some ideal casting. While Seann William Scott is out-of-place as Bo, Johnny Knoxville and Burt Reynolds seem like they were born to be in a backwoods comedy like this one. Knoxville already comes off as a bit of a redneck and plays white-trash roles very well in any movie. The same can be said about his portrayal of Luke. Burt Reynolds hams it up as Boss Hogg. He seems to be having a blast in the role and is all-around scummy. The character does make for a good villain and one of the more entertaining people in the film. Jessica Simpson does all that’s really required as Daisy Duke. She’s sex appeal and eye candy. It sounds totally sexist of me to say that, but that’s the only truthful reason she was even recruited for this cast. Then there’s Willie Nelson. It sounds ideal on paper, but he isn’t given much to do as Uncle Jesse. Of the few scenes he’s allowed any dialogue, he mainly spouts off slightly dirtier versions of stale Laffy Taffy jokes.

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The sheer predictability of the script takes all the good qualities down a notch. It’s a feature-length episode where you can call what happens about an hour before it actually happens. Supposedly unexpected revelations come off as standard stuff. John O’Brien was one of the three writers behind 2004’s underrated TV-show-turned-movie STARSKY & HUTCH. DUKES OF HAZZARD isn’t up to the par of that aforementioned comedy. There are legitimately enjoyable car chases loosely strung together in the shabby story, but they are some of the highlights. I had a few good laughs, but the tired redneck cracks don’t break any new ground. Many of the road kill gags just become annoying as things move along.

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For the most part, DUKES is bland and well-worn in many respects. It should speak volumes that none of the primary cast from the original series made cameos or had anything to do with this movie reboot. STARSKY & HUTCH, THE A-TEAM, and 21 JUMP STREET (among many others) all had distinct production ties to their original series. That’s a sign that some sort of approval was given from those involved with the source material. None of that is seen in DUKES OF HAZZARD. There are two cast members from the original series and they only popped up for a couple of episodes at most. M.C. Gainey (playing the intimidating corrupt Sheriff) was only featured in a single episode and that’s it. There’s also a really odd SUPER TROOPERS cameo that references that film for no apparent reason other than to include a pointless moment that might get a few chuckles out of those who have seen that cult flick.

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THE DUKES OF HAZZARD isn’t terrible in the slightest, but it’s still bad. The bland script is its biggest downfall, but enjoyable car chases take up a significant amount of the screen time. Seann William Scott doesn’t seem to fit in with his fellow performers and Willie Nelson’s role is wasted, but Burt Reynolds and Johnny Knoxville are fun to watch. It’s not a total failure and I won’t condemn the entire thing. The bad far outweighs the good though, which is enough to warrant this grade.

Grade: D+

BAD GRANDPA (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Crude and Sexual Content throughout, Language, some Graphic Nudity and brief Drug Use

Bad Grandpa poster

Directed by: Jeff Tremaine

Written by: Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville & Jeff Tremaine

Starring: Johnny Knoxville & Jackson Nicoll

BAD GRANDPA really comes down to Johnny Knoxville doing a Sacha Baron Cohen routine. By that description alone, you pretty much know if this is in your taste or not. Taken as a whole, the movie isn’t nearly as hilarious and downright nasty as BORAT or BRUNO. It’s not supposed to be though. This was brought about from a hit TV series on MTV after all. In this sense, you can tell the difference. BAD GRANDPA is juvenile in its sense of humor and aims for the low-brow crowd.

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The loose excuse for a plot follows Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville in prosthetic make-up as a 86-year-old man) as he treks across the country to deliver his grandson, Billy, to his deadbeat dad. This narrative is nearly non-existent and real footage of pranks perpetrated by Irving and Billy are inserted throughout (including as flashbacks and memories in the plot). In a movie like this though, one doesn’t expect to receive a real plot or even smart set ups. This is a compilation of potty humor and sex jokes that accomplishes what it set out to do. It makes you laugh and that’s about it.

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For a movie that was primarily filmed through hidden cameras, BAD GRANDPA looks surprisingly professional. The real captured reactions are priceless, especially in the more obscene moments. My personal favorites involved an argument at a funeral home, Irving visiting a strip club, and a bit at a beauty pageant that comes in the climax. Some of the scenarios also seem like the prank being executed was meant to be with those exact people and at that precise moment. I’m sure some exquisite planning went into one scene set in a bar full of bikers. The real reactions amplify the laughs to be had in every prank or stunt performed.

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While there are more hits than misses, some of the jokes aren’t funny. One moment in particular seemed out-of-place and like Knoxville & co. thought it was far more hilarious than it actually was. The real downfall of BAD GRANDPA is when the film tries to be sappy and heartfelt. I understand that it was driving forward some of the skits, but these bits felt like they were aiming for an emotion that was unearned. Knoxville gleefully executes some pretty damn funny things as the “old asshole” (as he describes himself in the credits). One usually worries about child actors, but Jackson Nicoll is phenomenal as Billy. He does a great job and gets some huge laughs from his dedication to the pranks being had.

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There’s not a whole lot else that one can really say about BAD GRANDPA. It’s funny and enjoyable while it lasts. Don’t expect any real staying power or a strong narrative, because that’s not the kind of movie that it is to begin with. This is a bunch of guys just screwing around, having fun, and recording the hysterical reactions from average people who have no idea what’s going on. If that sounds like it’s up your alley, by all means, give BAD GRANDPA a look. Be sure to stay through the credits too as there are some more goodies.

Grade: B-

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