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11166394_detThe historical drama is definitely not an uncommon sight, especially given some rich and great movies surrounding some of these spectacular true events.  One of the interesting debates that come with a movie format though is how to approach the historical figure.  Will the director/writer/crew take on the entire lifespan or a good chunk of timeline or narrow down to a few events?  Lincoln takes on the issue by going the latter route, focusing squarely on the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency.  The decision turns out to be for (mostly) the best as Spielberg and his fairly strong team of actors and crew members really churn out a very historically vivid picture that focuses much on the politics of the situation although the film suffers from the slow pace that emotionally isn’t always consistent.

Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just been re-elected and he has made a choice to try and pass the the constitutional amendment to ban slavery before the Civil War is over, since the Southern States would never accept such a key component of their original plan of secession.  However, the key people in his life are having doubts such as his wife, Mary (Sally Field), Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) and his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt).  Also not helping matters is a fired up opposition both in the South and the House and even in his own party such as with one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans, Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and his own cabinet.  Lincoln has to make several crucial decisions before time is too late.

Lincoln’s best strengths come forward within it’s acting troupe and the atmosphere and approach to the subject matter.  As stated previously, Spielberg’s choice of narrowing down the film’s focus to Lincoln’s last few months proves to be to the benefit of the plot.  The plot really can focus on Lincoln’s character and poignant character interactions within this smaller time frame while still elaborating on other important life points in passing conversation.  The film is at it’s best when it allows Lincoln to simply speak to his intended listener and juxtapose the situation with another emotionally charged scene of a different nature.  From a personal storytelling session to his cabinet to a fiery argument with his wife, the film really feels like a play in it’s presentation because of how focused on conversation and expressions the film looks towards.  Additionally, the beautiful lighting and the great look of the set pieces and costumes help sell the setting and place.  Lincoln playing with his younger son with the light shining from the morning light is simply gorgeous and does not feel overly forced.  Finally, there is, of course, the actors themselves.  There are some terrific performances here that are so important because of the focus on the dialogue and emotional output.  The best two come out to be Day-Lewis and surprisingly, Jones.  Jones is a surprise because his character at first appears to be fairly meek and nominal for Jones’ types of characters.  However, it grows to not only be somewhat sarcastic and strong but flawed and moving.  His monologues on the House floor are a highlight.  Day-Lewis, of course, is the star of the show and really embodies Lincoln as not only the president but also as a well-liked but political strategist that plays with his power.  He brings a moral question into his actions and shows the struggles he faces on all sides.  It’s a fascinating performance that is striking and memorable in not only the look and mannerisms but the range of emotions that evokes a much more complicated president that many may be surprised to see.

That is not to say, unfortunately, that the film is not without it’s flaws from it’s pacing to it’s trappings.  Sure, the film is two hours and thirty minutes long.  However, many films are of comparable lengths and do not suffer from the pacing problems found here.  Although ‘Lincoln’ really focuses on these few months of Lincoln’s life, there are scenes that feel both unnecessary or simply too dragged out.  For instance, many scenes with Robert and the President feel strangely out of place as emotionally, Robert’s place feels unnatural and unnecessary for much of the film’s themes and purposes.  Another part that makes the film feel strange is it’s strange emotional changes such as in it’s use of comedy.  Several comedic characters are played to make the scenes regarding lobbying the Democrats more lax and change up the emotional draw of the film.  Unfortunately, these scenes jar heavily with the heavier emotional scenes and it’s heavy usage by the climax feels very unrealistic with the film’s goals.  Other elements as well do not help the film such as, surprisingly, the usually strong Williams’ soundtrack which lacks a memorable melody or strong overtones.

Lincoln is filled to the brim with powerhouse performances and a very focused theme, diluted somewhat by it’s overly methodical pacing and overly lingering plot.  Yes, the film’s pacing is definitely not impeccable as it really slowly scans over the intricacies of Lincoln’s plot in this two month window and some of the side stories feel unnecessary or over-glamorized.  That being said however, there has been lots of care taken with the film’s quality with a beautiful look and an appropriate Spielberg touch to the proceedings that make the film’s time period and actions work to the film’s benefit – all of this bolstered by a very strong actors, especially from Jones and Day-Lewis who both are given ample time to give rousing and well-rounded performances.  More or less, although Lincoln doesn’t perfectly give audiences all of the trials and tribulations of Lincoln’s presidency, the film is a well thought-out piece on the struggle of presidential power and political choice in even the darkest of times.  

Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 150 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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How should I approach Men in Black 3…a film in which it’s last film came out nearly a decade ago?  We could discuss some of the supposed motivations according to it’s film creators/creative team about how the time travel idea was discussed since the end of the last film or the focus could be on the fact that the film had to be rewritten midway through the shoot and halting production for nearly six weeks.  But in my opinion, the big issue that ran through my mind while watching the film was – did it prove itself to be necessary in the franchise?  The end answer is that it unfortunately doesn’t completely make its case well with a fairly lackluster build-up that hinges too much on the familiar and doesn’t have a great selling point, but the second half and some nice touches make it at least worthwhile watch for fans of the series or anyone in the mood for a random sci-fi comedy.

Men in Black 3 comes back to Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith) who are still working for the Men in Black and keeping Earth safe from evil alien forces.  However, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) recently escaped from his prison on the moon and is out to kill Agent K for blowing off his arm decades earlier.  To do this, Boris travels back in time.  When J wakes up one day and finds that K has disappeared and is stated as deceased, he must go back in time, meet a much younger K (Josh Brolin) and try to set time right.

Men in Black 3 starts off as a film that plays it a bit too safe by feeling reeled back both in terms of it’s visuals, it’s plot structure and even it’s humor.  Director Sonnenfeld and his crew do their best to really create this feeling of continuity between the first two films and this one in terms of the atmosphere and setting, which at first, may seem like a pretty simple and expected task.  However, along with these set pieces that were supposed to be nostalgic, little has changed other than a new villain, a small shake-up in the concept and a few new characters and scenarios.  The formula of the film feels predictable with the plot beats being too familiar and easy-to-follow.  Even the newer elements that are constantly touted in the film as being shocking end up feeling more innocuous than it really does and bleeds into the best part of the film, it’s ending, which after much musing, feels forced and robotic (both the emotional and action endings).  This lack of effort comes over into the visuals and humor as well – the CG feels like a weak point, with the exception of a scene in Cape Canaveral, and the humor, especially in it’s first half, feels rough and stuck back in time (no pun intended).

So even after all these complaints, is there much left about the film?  Luckily enough, there are some redeeming moments that play enough and especially for the fans.  One strong element is that the actors are still endearing enough from both the older to the newer entry of characters.  (Mostly) Gone are the gimmicky, slapstick or one-note characters and instead, effort is put int building up some of the central characters.  Smith’s endearing and gung-ho attitude is still fun to watch and plays well off of the pretty pitch-perfect Brolin who doesn’t bat much of an eye as he plays a great interpretation of Agent K/Lee Jones’ character.  It’s a gag that may not stay funny throughout the film but emotionally, the connection is there.  Personally, I found a character introduced midway through (with has some obvious deux ex machina mechanics at his disposal) to be one of the most endearing characters of all.  For fans, there are tons of nods and winks to the older entries that should keep them pleased throughout the film along with some fun cameos along the way to try to keep audiences guessing at who else is included.  And even the weaker humor in the first half is supplanted with some better gags and past observations that are played fairly well.   Finally, perhaps most importantly, there is at least an attempt at creating some emotional context with the audience and the characters.  Even though the end implementation may feel artificial, the attempt and the proceeding will at least, superficially, feel wholesome and is at least appreciated in a summer film that could have simply tried to be completely cool.

Men in Black 3 is a strange sight to see – being taken out of retirement (and by the looks of things, most likely being put right back) for an entry that doesn’t completely sell itself as being necessary but still should be enough for fans to enjoy.  The film does have it’s moments such as a great performance from Brolin, some good nods back to the other films, and a relatively strong ending.  However, time has not been so kind to the series and much of it’s humor is relatively ho-hum and a standard narrative that feels too familiar than nostalgic along with relative problems with it’s CG and editing.  Even the ending feels a bit shoehorned.  All-in-all, series fans should enjoy it and as an enjoyable rental, Men in Black 3 is innocuous, but was it all that necessary to bring back and explore? At least in this film’s case, even jumping back in time proved for naught.  

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 103 Minutes

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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