I understand that many people feel as though they already know the story of Abraham Lincoln . We grow up learning about him in grade school and are taught all about his wonderful achievements as a president. So why would Steven Spielberg want to research and fine tune for over a decade to make this movie? Probably the same reason any artist takes a long time on their work—he wanted to make a masterpiece.

The story focuses around the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency and life. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is forced to balance two of the most important decisions of his presidency in ending the Civil War and passing the 13th amendment that would forever abolish slavery in the United States . In order to accomplish these tasks, Lincoln employs the help of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to secure the votes needed for the amendment while he attempts to secure surrender from the southern states. In addition, he must also deal with his personal demons relating to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Much of the action is concentrated on the debates over the amendment vote in the House of Representatives. Led by the strong supporting role of Tommy Lee Jones who plays Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, the back-and-forth between Jones and his opponents offers many of the humorous and memorable moments from the film. However, the most powerful and memorable scenes come from Day-Lewis’s portrayal of President Lincoln.

The film may start out a little slow for some viewers, but the political drama and humor throughout the film are definitely enough to keep the attention of the audience. Never has the portrayal of the United States legislative process been so enthralling. Besides, the overall goal of the movie is not to thrill people with action sequences, but to offer a new perspective on the one of the greatest presidential stories of all time. Spielberg does a fantastic job of mixing dialogue-driven exchanges and brooding shots of Lincoln that reveal the inner turmoil felt at the end of his life. The movie allows Lincoln’s character to shine without sinking too far into the rhetoric that slogs many political dramas down.

Ultimately, this film is driven by the outstanding performances turned in by Day-Lewis and his supporting cast. This is not necessarily the flashiest of roles for Day-Lewis, but one that should cement his status among the greatest and most respected actors of his generation. The nuance and subtlety that he brings to the part of Lincoln will leave most moviegoers wondering if he really is the beloved 16th president. The sheer gravitas that Day-Lewis lends to the role is unparalleled.  Sally Field is excellent in the role of  the eccentric Mary Todd Lincoln. The wide range of emotions she conveys allows the character to be tragic, yet accessible to the audience. Tommy Lee Jones also turns in one of the greatest performances of his career that is sure to garner some praise and accolades come award season. The brilliant directing by Spielberg only helps to make this film one of the best of the year and a certain best picture contender come January, even if it may not be considered his greatest masterpiece of all time.






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Rating: 4.0/5 (2 votes cast)

War Horse

Steven Spielberg has always been a fan of history and science-fiction.  Often the master director will release a big-budget science-fiction blockbuster and a profound historical drama within the same year.  We’ve seen this in 1993 when Jurassic Park dominated the box office and Schindler’s List lifted a Best Picture Oscar.  In 1997 he returned with the Jurassic Park sequel and the overlooked slave drama Amistad.  In 2005 he unleashed Tom Cruise’s greatest worldwide hit War of the Worlds and followed it up with the Oscar-nominated Munich come awards season.

Within a matter of days Spielberg has managed to deliver his first animated film The Adventures of Tintin, an action-adventure closely mirroring Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he now aspires to melt icy hearts with the overtly sentimental War Horse, a World War I drama seen through the eyes of a horse sent off to fight for both the English and Germany.

Set on the eve of WWI, War Horse tells the tale of Joey, a young horse purchased at an auction by Ted Narracott.  Ted is a drunken war veteran and owner of a farm on the verge of financial collapse.  The survival of the farm depends on Joey learning to plow.  Ted’s teenage son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), develops an instant bond with Joey, and he becomes determined to train the young steed to plow for harvest season.  That determination unsurprisingly pays off until a rainstorm floods the entire field of crops and leaves the Narracott family unable to make ends meet.

Ted sells off Joey to an English regiment officer (Tom Hiddleston) about to leave for war.  Albert flips out, chasing Joey down and pleading for his companion back.  Unable to sway the genuine soldier, Albert promises Joey they will be reunited.  The horse heads off to war and survives a massacre after an intercepting German fleet overruns the ill-advised English troupe.

Joey becomes German property and ultimately finds his way into the hearts of every man overseeing him.  The story has Joey entering and exiting the lives of several different individuals, each drawn to the animal’s power, understanding, and gumption.  From young boy soldiers, to French civilians, to artillery gunmen, Joey persists in survival.

The story eventually returns to Albert having finally entered the war years after we first met him.  We know at some point the story will in fact reunite Joey and Albert, but the journey in getting there is simultaneously beautiful and obtuse.  Spielberg has over-fattened the calf with a 2 and 1/2 hour epic that wastes too much time on thinly drawn characters.  Despite well-intentioned performances from an extended cast, War Horse strays too far from Albert before sticking him back in the thick of the plot.  Joey dominates the proceedings while the humans fade into the background.  The horse being constantly intercepted by a new set of characters only hinders the film because those small side stories never amount to anything substantial.

Since the film is built entirely on coincidence, such as the fact that Joey never encounters a ruthless overseer in his WWI experience, the film falls victim to too much sappiness.   The characters, the writing, the dialogue – all of it bathed in soapy sentimental hogwash where scenes exist and speeches are made to simply extract tears from the viewer.  There’s no authenticity behind it.  Spielberg has walked this territory before, such as Hook and Always, but never masking it as earnest sincerity.

Even though War Horse stalls, it is more a dramatic miscalculation than a complete mess.  When a movie attempts to manufacture emotion rather than draw it out naturally through well-written characters, I tend to immediately disconnect from the narrative.  However, Spielberg’s film still creates lasting imagery that imprints on your mind and sticks with you despite all of the faults.

The film boasts an involving musical score and amazing cinematography.  The combat sequences aren’t shortchanged for all the heart-melting.  A particularly memorable sequence has Joey leaping through an open battlefield, fleeing over trenches of men and nearly escaping before slamming into a heaping of barbed wire.  If prestigious award ceremonies gave out nominations for memorable scenes, War Horse would bring in a few nods.

And what about the horse Joey?  After all he’s the main character of the story.  Really, this isn’t Albert’s story.  This is Joey’s. I’ve heard reports indicating that 8 or so horses were used to portray the character.  It’s a marvelous effort.  Joey comes to life and really delivers as the hero of War Horse, portraying just as much emotion as his human counterparts.  That in and of itself makes War Horse a small miracle worth checking out.

I think many people will overlook the flaws here and end up loving this movie.  I also think many people, like me, will be turned off by how schmaltzy it is.  This isn’t just a tip of the hat to old school filmmaking.  I can appreciate that as much as the next film lover.  The problem is that War Horse boasts a level of schmaltz that detracts from the story.  Spielberg keeps it from being a colossal failure.  His attempts are genuine, but the story is convoluted.  Upon understanding that the source material for the film is a children’s story, I can understand why.  For a gorgeous film that’s minor-Spielberg, a man from which we are burdened with great expectations for, War Horse is both a major and minor disappointment.


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Rating: 2.0/5 (1 vote cast)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Director Steven Spielberg and Producer Peter Jackson collaborate for their marvelous adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin.  As a welcome Christmas gift to fans of the classic long-lived European comics as well as the uninitiated, this is the first motion-capture animated film I can fully praise with an abundance of exclamation points.  Spielberg has directed a sprawling action-adventure film for families that springs with life and leaps with wit.

In the 1940s, young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchases a model collector’s ship, the Unicorn, that immediately thrusts him into danger.  The model contains a riddle and secret code, but what does it mean and where does it lead?  Accompanied by his trustworthy pup, Snowy, Tintin must elude several dangerous characters seeking to steal his rare artifact.  This leads the young adventurer to Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a notorious drunk who may be the key to solving the secret of the Unicorn.

With Tintin, the infamous Steven Spielberg finally returns to light up cinemas following a 3-year absence.  Ironically, this film may have more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark than his last disappointing outing with the famed archeologist. Tintin is full of exciting mystery and grandiose action sequences, brilliant animation, shades of inviting humor, and a gorgeous 3D presentation.  This is easily the best animated film I’ve seen all year, and contains one of the year’s most entertaining action sequences, live-action or animation.

As for the motion-capture technique, Spielberg and Jackson know what they’re doing here.  I’ve found the work done by Robert Zemeckis (who’s recently been obsessed with the technology) over the last seven years to be a total snooze.  The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Christmas Carol never got it quite right despite painstaking efforts to be sure.  Tintin, however, is a visual marvel.  The animation is spot-on, and the performances behind the characters onscreen, chief among them Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, and Andy Serkis, are uniformly excellent.

The film ends with the setup for another adventure, and I hope American audiences seek out The Adventures of Tintin, as it is not a well-known property here.  Forget about needing to know anything.  Walk in blind and let the film dazzle you from beginning to end.


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Super 8

Call it an ode to the Spielberg days of past.  Label it an homage to 70s and 80s blockbusters.  Compare it to E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the the Third Kind.  Whatever you do, remember Super 8 as more than just a nod to great movies—Super 8 is a great movie.  Oh, and if you haven’t seen it—do see it—get up and go now!  Is that ‘critical’ enough?

Yes, I flat out loved this undeniably fresh tribute to the glory days of cinema.  Producer Steven Spielberg and Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) have ditched mayhem-induced F/X filmmaking and have instead decided to tread sacred waters: “storytelling” that utilizes F/X-filled mayhem at no expense to character development.  This is a pure bred science-fiction spectacle, and it’s impossible not to at least sink your teeth into the wonderful nostalgia.

Luckily Super 8 is more than just a plate of nostalgic reflection on old school sci-fi.  Abrams has unleashed a pet project of his centering on a group of elementary youngsters in 1979 Lillian, Ohio.  Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is trying to make a movie with his pals—a zombie outbreak short film they would like to enter into a local competition.  The boys find their sole actress and illegal chauffeur in Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning).  Joel is instantly taken with her.  Shooting the picture at a train station in the evening, the kids become engulfed in something far more terrifying than a phony zombie apocalypse.  They are caught in the middle of a disastrous train crash instigated by a mad truck driver who turns out to be the students’ science teacher.

The kids are shocked, scared, and chased off the scene by military troops.  Joel has seen more than he fully realizes.  Something escaped the rubble… something that perhaps should not have escaped.  Joel and his cohorts know a great mystery and conspiracy is taking over their small town, but how will they find out what it is, and more importantly, who will believe them?

A handful of people begin to disappear.  Pets are fleeing to the next county.  The military start to dig about the town.  Several pieces of machinery seem to get snatched away.  Electricity fades in and out.  Joel’s father Deputy Jackson Lamb takes on the burden of watching over Lillian as the sheriff has gone missing.  Little time passes before Jackson becomes as cautious and curious as his son about the sinister activity and conspiracy overtaking his home.

Abrams fills each frame with such a fond love and affection for the wonder of movies.  Super 8 overflows with memorable scenes and lovable characters that make the mystery and suspense of the plot all the more interesting.  Never once did I feel the film’s urgency to cut to action and special effects in case things became too plodding.  The reality is that Super 8 is edited to near-perfection.  The scenes have been constructed tightly and crisply.  The tension abounds and the scares thrill.  The dialogue never seeks to simply advance the plot, but instead works to penetrate and reveal the characters.  A ready supply of humor and authenticity shines through every frame as each of the young actors carry the movie.

And what about these young actors?  They would give most A-list stars a run for their money, particularly Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney.  These two happen to be dynamite actors—convincing, convicting, believable, and consistently on their game.  The film offered me a sweet little reminder that children can be just as brilliant of actors when they are the right actors under the proper direction rather than just cute faces.

As a science-fiction mystery, the film couldn’t be more entertaining.  If one is quick to dismiss this as a high-profile director’s attempt to simply replicate an idol’s bread-and-butter style of filmmaking, then so what?  Everyone sits around and complains: “They just don’t make them like they used to.”  Abrams has stepped up where other directors have shied away and delivered a movie that audiences can get wrapped up in and fall in love with.  Sure, Super 8 has obvious similarities to E.T. and several other films, but I can’t fault Abrams for wanting to rekindle a dying flame.  With this feature he has brought a heavy dose of spirit and magic back to cinema without beating audiences over the head with repetitive bass-booming action and special effects.  He kindly reminds us that is never what it’s been about.  Cinema has always been about telling good stories and utilizing the best possible resources at hand to do so.  Abrams effectively demonstrates that the soul is not lost from a megawatt blockbuster, at least not while he’s making movies.  Rather than a monster showcase giving up all details (a monster that is slowly but surely revealed), Spielberg and Abrams have us consider looking up at the sky in wonder as they do the same.  If you are going to see one movie this season, make it Super 8.




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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third KindAs we head into another summer movie season full of action, dudes built like mack trucks, and explosions galore, I thought it would be fitting to take a step back to an earlier time before films were all about spectacle and marketing tie-ins.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind is, in many ways, the best kind of science fiction even though there are virtually no explosions and we only get glimpses of aliens or spaceships until the very end.  Directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the masters of the genre, it follows the story of average dude Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss, fresh on the heels of another little movie he did with Spielberg) who gets a tad too close to an alien spaceship one strange night while out in his pickup truck investigating a widespread power outage.  Over the next few days he starts having visions of an object that he feels compelled to re-create in paintings, clay, and mashed potatoes at the dinner table.  Meanwhile, other people around the country are having similar visions and experiencing otherworldly phenomena, most notably Barry Guiler, a kid with a curious bent who wanders a bit too far from his mom one night only to get picked up by the invaders. Throughout all this we never actually see the aliens–only the effect they are having on the people who claim to have experienced these encounters.

While North America is being sent into a tizzy trying to deal with the strange phenomenae, entire squadrons of missing World War II aircraft are discovered in the desert in mint condition.  It’s these strange events that cause French scientist Claude Lancombe to investigate the matter further, leading to the eventual discovery of a probably location for an alien landing site along with five distinct musical tones that might possibly lead to a method of communicating with the extra terrestrials.  Keep in mind there’s no gunfights, and no national monuments are singled out for destruction.  In many ways, Close Encounters of the Third Kind more accurately resembles a cerebral thriller or mystery like Inception or Vertigo rather than a traditional science fiction movie, but it’s these qualities that make it anything but traditional.  And yet, Spielberg keeps things engaging and interesting throughout, while building up to a climax that is as massive in scope as anything we might see in a multiplex today.

Close Encounters: Roy Neary

Roy Neary, searching for meaning in a pile of clay.

Just as E.T. was first and foremost a story about divorce that also happened to involve aliens from another planet, Close Encounters is a story about family that is struggling to stay together despite the father’s descent into madness.  Roy Neary is a good guy who is overcome with strange visions, and pushes his family away while they struggle to deal with changes they cannot hope to understand.  The focus is kept squarely on Neary’s quest for understanding, Jillian Guiler’s search for her son, and their refusal to accept anything other than concrete answers.  Strangely, there is little to be found in the way of redemption, as Neary makes some very unexpected choices near the end–choices that Spielberg himself has since admitted he would change if he were to make the movie today.  But these unconventional choices made by Neary lend an authentic quality to the movie that is fairly unique in modern cinema, and coupled with the stunningly realistic special effects that can easily hold their own against anything Hollywood has to offer today, catapult Close Encounters to the upper echelon of cinematic science fiction. This one is not to be missed by anyone who is a fan of the genre, or anyone who just likes good movies.


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