Who is Amos Otis?


The revolution is already underway.

(2021) Courtroom Drama (Gravitas) Josh Katawick, Rico Reid, Derek Snow, A.J. Ford, Christine Brunner, Mike Dennis, Peggy S. Allen, Donald John Volpenhein, Denise Del Vera, Christine Jones, Moulay Essakalli, Rajiim A. Gross, Paul Morris, Carol Brammer. Directed by Greg Newberry

 

In a world as polarized as ours is, it is perhaps understandable that people might wonder – to themselves, or even out loud – if the world might not be a better place if this public figure or that public figure got whacked. I imagine that’s fairly common fantasy fodder on both sides of the political aisle.

But a man has gone and made it a reality. Using a sniper rifle, he has assassinated a highly divisive President (who isn’t named but is meant to resemble Trump). Captured afterwards, he identifies himself as Amos Otis (Katawick) but it soon becomes apparent that he isn’t him; Amos Otis, the owner of the truck that this man was driving, was most assuredly an elderly African-American man whereas this man using his identity is a 30-something white male (and baseball fans, the movie nor either character has anything to do with Hall of Fame ballplayer Amos Otis of the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals).

Jake Johnson (Reid), a court-appointed attorney doesn’t particularly want the job. Amos is a man who doesn’t exist and he doesn’t seem particularly disposed to informing his attorney too much on what his motivations are, or even who he really is. Jake is like a blind man in a room full of pitfalls, trying to navigate his way through without any input whatsoever.

The odds against him are overwhelming. The prosecutor (Snow) has videotape of Otis taking the two shots – one that injured a secret service agent, the second blowing the head clear off of the President’s neck. Johnson knows that it is almost impossible to keep his client out of death row, so he wants to plead insanity, which his client is very much against, so he reluctantly argues a self-defense case that will not hold water, until the story takes an unexpected hard turn into the Twilight Zone.

For being based on a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, there are an awful lot of factual errors about courtroom procedures and even about the laws governing them. The bulk of the film is the trial of Amos Otis, prefaced by jailhouse interviews by his lawyer. This gives the movie a bit of a stage-y feel, which the director – who wrote the original play – doesn’t do much to dispel. But the trial looks like it came out of a bad 80s courtroom drama – actual trials tend to be far less interesting and dramatic than they are portrayed here, and lawyers are more scholarly sorts who get their clients off (or convict them) based on examination of the evidence and knowledge of the law. There is little bombast in a court of law and if there were, no judge would let it continue.

But for all that, the movie is appealing as it gives us an opportunity to examine our own prejudices. The thought that using violence to achieve a political goal is one that is getting increasing scrutiny on both sides of the political divide, and talk of civil war in this country has taken the chilling overtones that it is actually becoming not only possible, but possibly likely that such a thing could come to pass.

I do think that it was a mistake to make the assassinated President so obviously based on Trump. Most obviously, that is going to alienate basically anyone who leans even a little bit to the right, but also a few lefties as well – I found it abhorrent that the movie seems to take the viewpoint that the end justifies the means in order to save the country. In all likelihood, if some nut case with a gun and an idea actually pulled off an assassination of the former President (and it would be so difficult as to be nearly impossible to do so given the type of protection Presidents and former Presidents enjoy these days) it would do more harm than good to the liberal cause for more reasons than I’m willing to go into here, but the one that I will bring up is that it would do something terrible to our nation’s soul.

It would have been more effective to make the fictional President’s politics more anonymous here, only giving the assassin the motivation that his policies will destroy our Democracy without saying how in much detail. Not only does that make the movie more palatable to larger audiences, but it remains timely so long as you show the nation being further polarized by the assassination.

The premise here is an interesting one and while it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to go with the big twist, and to accept the movies factual as well as logical shortcomings, one is left with some food for thought that might require a little bit of time to digest.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating subject. Flawed for the most part, but succeeds where it isn’t.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a little stiff and the politics may offend some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newberry originally wrote this as a stage play, for which it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/15/22: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Stoker Hills

Jackie (2016)


A White House isn't necessarily a home.

A White House isn’t necessarily a home.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Héléne Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Ralph Brown, David Caves, Penny Downie, Georgie Glen, Julie Judd. Directed by Pablo Larrain

 

One of the most iconic women of the 20th century was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. She epitomized elegance, grace, charm, culture and beauty in her era. To many, she epitomized the ideal of what a First Lady should be. Fiercely private, she rarely discussed her innermost feelings with anyone, even her most intimate confidantes. Riding in a motorcade in Dallas at her husband’s side, she would be the closest witness to one of the most singularly dramatic events of American history and yet she spoke very little about it after the fact.

This biopic mainly covers three separate events in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Portman); her 1961 televised taping of a personalized tour of the White House, for which she led an important restoration work; the assassination of her husband (Phillipson) and the events of the following week leading up to the funeral procession and an interview a week later with an unnamed journalist (Crudup) but who is mainly based on Theodore White of Life Magazine.

Portman nails her unique voice, a combination of New England patrician and breathy Marilyn Monroe sultriness. She portrays the First Lady as a woman knocked completely off-balance by the murder of her husband, and somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. During the taping of her show, she is urged by her assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) to smile which she does, somewhat shyly but she seems unsure of herself, as if she hasn’t quite memorized the lines she’s supposed to say. In the week following the assassination, she shows a hidden core of steel to Jack Valenti (Casella) who is LBJ’s (Lynch) chief of staff, as well as to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard).

She realizes her husband’s legacy will be incomplete and that if he is to have one, she will have to orchestrate it. It is she who comes up with the Camelot analogy, based on the hit musical of the time which she claimed her husband was quite fond of (and he may well have been – he never commented on it during his lifetime). While most believe that she made the reference off-handedly, the film (and writer Noel Oppenheim) suggest it was a deliberate attempt to give his presidency a mythic quality. If true, it certainly worked.

Portman is brilliant here; she is quite rightly considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar and a nomination is certainly a lock. She has to tackle a great number of emotions; grief, frustration, anger, fear, self-consciousness – and hold it all under that veneer of charm and civility that Jackie was known for. The First Lady we see here is vastly different than the one that history remembers. In all honesty, who’s to say this version is wrong?

Larrain gets the period right from the fashions to the attitude of the people living in it. The Presidency at the time is not something that is bartered to the highest bidder; it is a position of respect that is won by the will of the people. The Kennedy clan understood that quite well and Larrain also understands it. The Presidency was held in a higher regard back then.

We get a Jackie Kennedy here who is much more politically savvy than history gives her credit for; she knows exactly what the right thing to say is and she holds herself in a way that reflects positively on her husband more than on herself. It is forgotten now but while her husband was President Jackie was considered to be a bit of a spendthrift. Much of her standing was achieved after she was no longer First Lady, but then an assassination of one’s husband will do that.

I do have a bone to pick with the film and that is its score. While the music of Camelot is used liberally and well, the score penned by Mica Levi is often discordant and sounds like it belongs on a European suspense thriller rather than a biography of the widow of President Kennedy. When the music becomes intrusive, it takes the viewer out of the film and that’s exactly what this score does; it gets the viewer thinking about the music rather than the film as a whole. Larrain also jumps around quite a bit in the timeline, showing the movie mainly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It isn’t confusing so much as distracting and once again, the viewer is often taken out of the movie by being made aware that they are watching a movie. Good movies immerse their viewer and make them part of the experience and at times, this movie does. Then again, at times it does the opposite.

While this is essentially a biography, it is also very much conjecture. Most movies about the Kennedy assassination see it from the eyes of the President or from the witnesses; none to my knowledge have even attempted to view it through the First Lady’s perspective. I would imagine that largely is because we don’t know what the First Lady’s perspective was; she kept that well-hidden and knowing what I know about her, that isn’t surprising. I don’t know what she would have thought about this film but I suspect she would have been appalled by the rather graphic scene of her husband’s assassination and perhaps amused by what people thought she was thinking. I don’t know that Larrain and Oppenheim got it right; I suspect they got some of it right but we’ll never know. And perhaps that’s just as well; we need our myths to be inviolate. When Jackie, portrayed as a chain smoker here, icily tells the journalist “I don’t smoke,” when he wonders aloud what the public would think of her smoking, she’s making clear that she understands the need for mythological figures to be pure and that she has accepted her role as such.

Just as Lincoln, whose name is often bandied about in the film, belongs to the ages, so does John Kennedy – and Jackie as well. This is a strong film that your enjoyment of is going to depend a great deal on your opinion of the Kennedys to begin with. Some will be irritated that her carefully manicured persona is skewered here; others will be irritated that she is given a certain amount of sympathetic portrayal. In any case, anyone who loves great performances should make sure they see Portman’s work – it is truly worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: Portman gives a tour-de-force performance that is justifiably the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. The era and attitudes are captured nicely.
REASONS TO MISS: The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity and a scene of graphic violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Producer Darren Aronofsky (who at one time was set to direct this with Rachel Weisz in the title role) also directed Portman to her Oscar win for Black Swan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Manchester by the Sea

Get Smart


Get Smart

Anne Hathaway takes aim at better roles than this one.

(2008) Spy Spoof (Warner Brothers) Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, Terry Crews, David Koechner, James Caan, Masi Oka, Patrick Warburton, Nate Torrence, Kenneth Davitian, David S. Lee. Directed by Peter Segal

Some TV shows translate better to the big screen than others; why that is I’m not sure, but it seems to be the case. Some of those that fail both commercially and critically belong to adaptations that on the surface would seem to be sure-fire winners.

I admit to being an ardent fan of the TV show “Get Smart” as a boy. I loved James Bond and as boys do, I loved to see things made fun of that I was fond of. I thought Don Adams was the funniest guy around, and that Barbara Feldon was a hot tamale. The show was on all the time in repeats, but as time went by its anachronistic humor that creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were known for had fallen out of favor.

The new version is set in the modern day post-Cold War environment. CONTROL is a spy agency maintaining the status quo essentially and keeping the world safe. Maxwell Smart (Carrell) is an analyst for the agency, writing incredibly long and detailed reports that nobody ever reads.

Agent 23 (Johnson) is the superstar of CONTROL. He is always given the tough missions, the impossible missions that make James Bond look like Borat. But that’s all over now – CONTROL’s sworn enemies, KAOS, have infiltrated CONTROL and all of the agents identities have been revealed. It will be up to Smart, a novice in the field, and Agent 99 (Hathaway) who has recently had extensive plastic surgery to change her appearance, to discover what KAOS is up to.

That won’t be easy. Siegfried (Stamp), the head of KAOS has a nasty plan that will end up with the assassination of the President (Caan) of the U.S., and the Chief of CONTROL (Arkin) has absolutely no confidence in Max. The trail takes Max from Washington to Moscow and at last to Los Angeles, but time is running out and Max, as confident as he is in his abilities, is no Agent 23. Who is the mole in CONTROL? And can Max and 99 save the President?

The movie gets points for the effects, gadgets and stunts, some of which wouldn’t bring shame to the Bond series. It also gets points for casting the film impeccably. Carrell is the only actor who can really pull off the bumbling Smart (although Jim Carrey was once considered for the role several years ago when the movie version of the show was first proposed). He’s nothing like Adams, mind you, but he has the good looks and charming nature to pull it off. Max is a bit of a dense know-it-all but deep down he has the heart of a superspy and Carrell makes that work.

Hathaway is a very different 99 than Feldon. Whereas Feldon was cool, sophisticated and confident, Hathaway is a bit more mercurial. She’s got more of an air of mystery to her, a little more seductive and a little less sophisticated. She makes a great foil for the modern-day Max. Johnson shows that all those horrible kid flicks he’s made lately have given him a deft touch for comedy, plus he has the action star cred to begin with. He is riveting when he’s on-screen and that natural charisma he has blows nearly everyone out of the water. One almost wishes that the Rock would get a spy movie like this – oh there’s that long-in-development Spymaster thing but that appears to be dead in the water anyway.

The problem here is that the movie is schizophrenic. There’s a part of it that wants to be a laugh-a-minute comedy. There’s another part of it that wants to be a straight-up spy thriller (particularly the second half). The comedy doesn’t always work really well (and admittedly a lot of it relies on viewers being familiar with the original show). I really wish they had stuck more with the spoof part rather than the action even though they were less successful with the comedy – it would have been more in the spirit of the original that way.

“Get Smart” has made it to the big screen before with The Nude Bomb which is best left unsaid. This is at least better than that but still doesn’t quite capture the spirit and wit of the original. It is at least decent entertainment which makes it a lukewarm recommendation. The public seems to have agreed; Get Smart did lukewarm box office and while this was envisioned to be the beginning of a franchise, Carrell and Hathaway would likely command astronomical salaries by now so continuing the series wouldn’t be cost-effective. Perhaps that’s just as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson is magnificent and Carrell and Hathaway not too shabby either.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the gags fall flat and you get the sense that the producers weren’t sure whether they wanted a straight-out spoof or a more serious spy flick.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor is a bit on the rude side (for those who are sensitive about such things) and there’s plenty of action and violence, not to mention a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a number of nods to the original series, from some of Max’s catchphrases (“Sorry about that, Chief”) to the original portable cone of silence showing up in the CONTROL trophy case, Max and 99 flying to Russia aboard Yarmy International Airlines (Original Maxwell Smart Don Adams was born Donald Yarmy), and a picture of actress Jane Dulo, who played 99’s mother in the original series, behind the Chief’s desk.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a fairly lengthy gag reel and an on-location report from Moscow where some of the movie was filmed, as well as a Carrell riff on languages which you can take or leave. Both the special two-disc DVD edition and Blu-Ray give viewers the ability to add deleted and extended scenes into the mix; the Blu-Ray also has an interactive game and a somewhat too-detailed look at a vomit gag used in the jet sequence in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $230.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie was just short of a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Chicken Run