Total Pageviews

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Release Date: 12-14-2012)

        The subtitle attached to the opening salvo of Director Peter Jackson's new J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy can be understood in a variety of ways. On the surface, it pertains to the epic trek of a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), but the tag also fits the film's lengthy voyage into existence quite nicely. As many Rings devotees already know, it wasn't always supposed to be Jackson returning to the reigns; when the dust settled over a financial throw-down between the world-class film-maker and New Line Studios, it was Guillermo del Toro sitting in the director's chair, with Jackson on board as producer. Years of legal finagling and creative differences led del Toro to eventually drop out altogether, opening the door for the Master of Middle Earth to have his way once more, and did he ever! The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey somehow stays on screen for a gargantuan 169 minutes, despite only representing the initial passages of a relatively modest book, 300 pages or so in most publications. Many (this writer included) have wondered as to the motives behind such an expansion. Simple box office? Legitimate story concerns? Nerds who just can't help themselves? Turns out, it's a little bit of everything.

        In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, a surly fellow previously played by Ian Holm, who sets the events of this film in motion with a welcome cameo. After elder Bilbo details the fall of Erebor, the former home of the Dwarves, since conquered by Smaug the Dragon, his younger, more reluctant incarnation takes over protagonist duties, but not before an old friend gives him a solid nudge in the adventuring direction. Gandalf the Grey, played with even more relish than before by Sir Ian McKellen, invites a troop of those aforementioned bearded cave dwellers to Bilbo's home with a dangerous enticement: come with us to slay the dragon, and riches will be yours. After initial trepidations, the Baggins of Bag End joins the team, setting out on an odyssey beyond his wildest imaginings.

        Before any further examination is leveled, let us quickly get this out of the way: An Unexpected Journey is both far from a failure, and equally removed from reclaiming the glory of its forbearers. This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's read the books; The Hobbit is essentially a kids' novel, and here we only have a portion of it, as opposed to witnessing (on three separate occasions, no less) the entirety of a narrative primarily aimed at adults. Jackson, however, neglects to view the material this way; his Hobbit is primarily subsistent of the same epic, straight-faced vibe as his original trilogy, only occasionally undermined by the tone that the source novel actually carries. On one hand, this approach is ill-fitting, and ignorant of the nostalgic bliss that it's parent novel offered in spades. On the other, it's a welcome reintroduction to a beloved universe, now retrofitted with superior technology, and featuring a fair share of crackling set-pieces (the escape from the goblins near the end of the film is one of the most kinetic action sequences in recent memory).

        The allusions to prior glories don't stop there. The Hobbit revisits a surprising number of places, people, and events from the Lord of the Rings saga, especially Fellowship of the Ring, recycling previous triumphs, and behaving as though we've never seen them before. It's all in the name of much-ness, of course: the elongated runtime, the panoramic shots, the state-of-the-art special effects. But why must we have such much-ness? I'm as shocked as anyone at how close An Unexpected Journey comes to validating it's runtime, even taking into account it's two impending sequels, but wouldn't a two-hour frame-work (or six-hour, if you want to look at it upon expansion) give this thing a whole hell of a lot more zip? Jackson's latest feels like Thanksgiving dinner without a refrigerator: Everything on the table is delicious, but you have to take it all down at once, even if you're feeling full. But Jackson does have a fridge (340 more minutes worth of fridge-space to be exact), and one wonders why he wouldn't wrap up some of his more savory concoctions for later, instead of force-feeding his audience into a sort of cinematic food coma. Nearly everything is winsome; Freeman is a terrific centerpiece, Gollum's return is an absolute blast, and the rolling hills of New Zealand are still too lush and beautiful to be believed. It's a good flick, to be sure, but it's a whole lot of less-is-more away from greatness.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Oscar Predictions 2012: Round 3

Best Picture:
1. Les Miserables (Previous Ranking: 2)
         Early word has finally arrived, and it's been rapturous. Breakthrough technique, epic scale and scope, a horde of much-loved actors, and a genre that hasn't played with the big kids since Chicago. Toss in director Tom Hooper's BFF status with the Academy, as well as a perfectly-timed Christmas Day release, and you've got the movie to beat.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (Previous Ranking: 6)
         Precursor season began this last Monday with the New York Critics Circle Awards, and continued yesterday with the National Board of Review. What did the two have in common? They both loved Zero Dark Thirty, each naming it their movie of the year among other accolades. Director Kathryn Bigelow's recent win for similar subject matter makes me question its actual chances at the win. Everything else does not.
3. Lincoln (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Given its even-more bombastic, more enthusiastically received competition, Lincoln isn't really looking like the movie to beat anymore, but its nomination is just as assured as the day Day-Lewis signed on to the project. Tough to know just where to slot a movie with little chance of winning, but even less chance of missing the nomination. Number 3 will do.
4. Argo (Previous Ranking: 3)
         Almost everything said about Lincoln applies here, the lesser pedigree costing it exactly one spot in the rankings. Critics and audiences agree; Argo is one of the best movies of the year, which will be more than enough for the nod, but can it really win?
5. Silver-Linings Playbook (Previous Ranking: 4)
        The last seemingly-assured Best Picture nominee, SLP may have peaked too early, racking up film festival acknowledgements through-out the last several months only to open in tepid fashion the weekend before last. Still, the actors and the heart-warming subject matter are esteemed enough to pencil this one in for the big race.
6. Life of Pi (Previous Ranking: 7)
         The, 'Avatar,' slot, so to speak. The expansion of the Best Picture field over the last several years has seen a far greater number of films recognized in the big category on the strength of technical accomplishment. While Pi's emotional resonance varies depending on who you ask, its visuals and effects are entirely irrefutable.
7. Django Unchained (Previous Ranking: 13)
        Fresh off turning a historically irreverent crowd-pleaser into a major awards player, Quentin Tarantino returns with another film that looks counter-intuitive by Oscar standards. Are you willing to bet against one of the world's greatest living film-makers, especially after the NBR gave the movie some major ups?
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Previous Ranking: 8)
        Despite feeling fairly confident in this ranking, I go back-and-forth over whether I think Beasts actually has what it takes to secure a nomination (Keep in mind, current Academy rules dictate that anywhere from 5-10 nominees get invited every year). It's summer release date already feels ages ago, and its lack of star-power makes it easy to forget, but Oscar does tend to love a little-movie-that-could.  

As of now, I am predicting that these will be the Eight that get nominated (I don't have some crazy math problem that helped me determine the number, these just seem like the ones). The following is where I rank the next movies in line.

9. The Master (Previous Ranking: 5)
        A major player up to this point, The Master still has both the pedigree and the performances to crash the big dance, but its early release date, and unregulated eccentricity stand as clear obstacles.
10. The Impossible (Previous Ranking: 9)
        It's already a big hit overseas, it's got a pair of respected actors at its center (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts), and it fits the bill as both a spectacle and a heart-wrencher. Now let's see how it's received state-side...
11. Promised Land (Previous Ranking: 11)
        I've said it once, and I'll say it again; Promised Land has every reason to be a major player in this year's race, from creative talent, to thespians, to subject matter. So why is the NBR (who loved it) still the only body of voters who've seen it?
12. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Previous Ranking: 12)
        There's every reason to bet against this one, but the fact that director Peter Jackson has yet to visit Middle Earth and not come back with a Best Picture nomination (or less than 6 nominations, for that matter) should be worth something.
13. Flight (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        A famed director, one of the most celebrated actors in modern history, and solid box office numbers; it's a top-heavy year in many of the major categories, and even if I don't really think that Denzel's latest stands a chance against heavier competition, it certainly deserves a spot on this list.
14. Amour (Previous Ranking: 18)
         I don't care how good you are; being a film in the foreign language category almost assures that you won't be in the big race come Oscar night. That being said, this is an extremely thin year, and Amour is doubtlessly one of the best reviewed films of 2012.
15. Moonrise Kingdom (Previous Ranking: 17)
         Will Anderson ever be invited to the dance? This seems to be the perfect year, given that he offered one of his best efforts to date in a particularly weak season, but that comedy/hipster stigma will be tough to shake.
16. Hitchcock (Previous Ranking: 15)
         Theoretically, Hitchcock has every reason to ascend to the top of this year's Oscar race, but that very fact is why I have it ranked this low: A plethora of people have seen this Oscar-baitty flick, and it's still not near the top of the race. If it was going to make the jump, me thinks it would have already.
17. The Sessions (Previous Ranking: 16)
         An actors' showcase of the highest accord, The Sessions has a clear path to at least 2 acting nominations, if not 3. That ensures a lot of viewership, which will keep this indie in the hunt, but will that be enough?
18. This is 40 (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
         Obviously I'm grasping for straws at this point, but doesn't it stand to reason that Judd Apatow might make an Oscar impact after all of these years? 40 is receiving some best-of-career citations, and this would be a perfect year to capitalize.
19. Looper (Previous Ranking: 20)
         Mind-bending sci-fi isn't usually Oscar's cup of tea, but Looper already has a sterling reputation in some circles, and if the golden man wanted to prove that he's still hip and preceptive, this would be a solid choice.
20. Cloud Atlas (Previous Ranking: 10)
        Tremendously flawed, blush-inducingly earnest, and awe-inspiringly ambitious: There are many reasons to count Cloud Atlas out, but aren't they the very same reasons why The Tree of Life managed to make the final cut? Passion matters.

Best Actor:
1. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln requires no explanation. At this point, it's up to someone to take the Oscar from him. Entirely possible, but somewhat unlikely.
2. Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) (Previous Ranking: 2)
         Most serious film fans agree that this is the male performance of the year, but the thorniness of both the actor and the film keep The Master's stand-out in second place.
3. John Hawkes (The Sessions) (Previous Ranking: 3)
         A performance that's had buzz behind it for the majority of 2012, Hawkes is just about assured a nomination at this point, but the size of his film will make taking the golden man home a difficult task.
4. Bradley Cooper (Silver-Lingings Playbook) (Previous Ranking: 4)
         A breakthrough performance from a well-loved, previously-unrecognized actor, Cooper seemed nothing more than a likely aspirant before claiming Best Actor honors at the NBR yesterday. As of today, all bets are off.
5. Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) (Previous Ranking: 6)
         The avalanche of praise that has followed Les Mis of late has been notably slim on Jackman citations. Still, being the primary screen occupant of the year's biggest movie is likely to have its benefits.
6. Denzel Washington (Flight) (Previous Ranking: 8)
         As a former winner, and multi-nominee, Washington needs no introduction to the Academy's voters, but is his Flight performance worth yet another statue.
7. Brad Pitt (Killing Them Softly) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        Even a decent Brad Pitt performance is usually worth a nomination, but as juicy as the mega-star's Softly turn is, the film's abysmal opening weekend performance will make any and all trophy hunting rather difficult.
8. Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) (Previous Ranking: 7)
         Copy/Paste everything listed in the Hitchcock Best Picture section: If this is truly a performance to be reckoned with, it would have made its impact on the race by now. Still, counting out any thespian playing Alfred Hitchcock is just plain goofy.
9. Matt Damon (Promised Land) (Previous Ranking: 9)
        A previous nominee, starring in one of the major upset specials of the season (check immediately below for the other), Damon has the cache to serve as a spoiler, but how will his film be received?
10. Tom Holland (The Impossible) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        The other big sleeper of 2012, Holland is said to be tremendously effective in The Impossible, but in a year full of known commodities, it'll be particularly difficult for an unknown to breakthrough.

Best Actress:
1. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Despite my previous citation of Chastain in the Supporting Actress race, her NBR win sets the record straight: Jessica is gunning for that lead Actress Oscar, and the size of her movie, paired with her light competition and leftover goodwill from 2011, make her the frontrunner.
2. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver-Linings Playbook) (Previous Ranking: 1)
         As of now, Lawrence is in a dead-heat with Chastain, each head-lining probable Best Picture nominees after year-plus long winning streaks. Truth be told, it's a toss-up at this point, I just like Chastain's track record a tiny bit more.
3. Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild(Previous Ranking: 2)
         The line for the last 3 slots starts here. Wallis' status as both a youngster, and an exciting unknown make her an interesting prospect here. Oh yeah, and she actually deserves it...
4. Marion Cotillard (Rust & Bone) (Previous Ranking: 6)
         An Oscar-baitty role, performed by a semi-recent Academy Award winner; English or not, this feels fairly likely.
5. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) (Previous Ranking: 8)
         Oscar will likely be looking for a way to congratulate Amour, widely considered to be one of 2012's best. Voters prefer English-language films to win the top-most awards, but a nomination here would show respect for a much-praised flick.
6. Naomi Watts (The Impossible(Previous Ranking: 4)
         Who knows? As with all things The Impossible, no one knows what to expect from this inspirational disaster flick, but Watts' known status keeps her firmly in the hunt.
7. Keira Knightly (Anna Karenina) (Previous Ranking: 3)
         A period piece, and a previously nominated actress, working for the very director who led her to that first nod. Her campaign should have kicked in by now, but that doesn't mean she's out of it.
8. Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
         Another whom I'd considered in the supporting category, Mirren is a world-class actress, performing in a movie with, 'awards season,' written all over it.
9. Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) (Previous Ranking: 7)
          I honestly feel next to no need to explain this one: Streep has received nominations in 4 of the last 6 years, and though HS seems like an unlikely pick, you'd be an idiot to count it out.
10. Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz) (Previous Ranking: 10)
         Similar to Streep, only on a much, much lesser level, Williams' film doesn't really feel like a major Oscar player, but her rare status as a to-be-reckoned-with actress ought to be observed.

Best Supporting Actor:
1. Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) (Previous Ranking: 2)
          On the strength of the NBR and absolutely nothing else, I'm bumping this guy to the top. Literally everyone in sight is either a previous winner, or an up-and-comer. DiCaprio's status as an, 'overdue,' actor makes him the one to beat.
2. Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) (Previous Ranking: 3)
         A role practically tailor-made for Oscar recognition, Jones' Thaddeus Stevens is both the humor and the heart of Lincoln. Had he not won in the past, he'd be a shoe-in; as is, he's the next in line.
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Everything said about Jones applies again here, only that Hoffman's respective movie lacks the support that Lincoln has. Still, this is the most up-for-grabs acting nomination of all, and PSH is still all kinds of in this.
4. Robert DeNiro (Silver-Linings Playbook(Previous Ranking: 4)
         A nod here would represent DeNiro's first such citation in two decades. He's tough, he cries, he's an American icon; introducing your 4th BSA nominee with an actual shot at it.
5. Alan Arkin (Argo) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        The hammiest, funniest, Hollywood-iest performance in a movie full of them, Arkin stands as yet another solid candidate for the win in 2012.
6. Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables(Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        The biggest beneficiary of the recent wave of Les Mis love, Redmayne is just as likely as any of the 5 I've listed above, only much less recognizable.
7. Ewan McGregor (The Impossible(Previous Ranking: 8)
         As with all things The Impossible, it's a game of wait-and-see at this point. If the movie makes a big splash, McGregor becomes yet another challenger for the prize.
8. John Goodman (Argo(Previous Ranking: 5)
        There's a big drop off in probability between spots 6 and 7, and vote split has a lot to do with it. Love Goodman's 2012 body of work as much as you like, but are you really going to nominate him over Arkin for the same movie.
9. William H. Macy (The Sessions) (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Poor guy. Any other year, and Macy would be right in the thick of things. In 2012's assisting male race, he's just another in a long line of strong performances.
10. Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike(Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Notices from some lofty sources have him ranked higher than I do. A punch-line actor in a male stripper movie in an absurdly crowded year? Worth keeping on the radar, but that's about it.
Best Supporting Actress:
1. Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Perhaps the biggest favorite in any category as of now (major or otherwise). Hathaway makes this a Anne-and-four-other-women category.
2. Sally Field (Lincoln) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        A previous winner in one of the night's biggest heavyweights, not to mention the supportive wife role Oscar loves so much.
3. Helen Hunt (The Sessions) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        Much respected actress, in a highly-touted flick. Never mind that she's great (and often nude, which Oscar respects).
4. Amy Adams (The Master) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        A perennial nominee of late, Adams does rock-solid work in a film that will be viewed by nearly every voter.
5. Kerry Washington (Django Unchained) (Previous Ranking: 9)
        A total shot-in-the-dark at this point, but Django's plot seems to revolve around her character, and this category is wide open.
6. Samantha Barks (Les Miserables) (Previous Ranking: 10)
        2012 is a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of year in the Supporting Actress category. Barks has been buzzing lightly of late, and being in Les Mis is a great way to get attention.
7. Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
         Rinse and repeat everything listed above, only with an actress who was in Jennifer's Body. Need I say more.
8. Jacki Weaver (Silver-Linings Playbook) (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Silver-Linings is a shoe-in for the SAG Best Ensemble award, and Weaver is a major player in the cast. In this year, why not?
9. Francis McDormand (Promised Land) (Previous Ranking: 8)
        List of things Oscar loves: McDormand, Van Sant, and timely subject matter. Who knows?
10. Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        A veteran in a movie that might resonate with older voters. Sure, why not?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Killing Them Softly (Release Date: 11-30-2012)

        Brad Pitt doesn't really do 'em just for fun anymore. The world's biggest movie star used to be a mainstay of summer blockbusters and the like, but after a mid-2000's streak of tent-poles (Troy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Ocean's Thirteen), the thespian must have gotten tired of them. As a matter of fact, since 2007, Pitt has starred in only one live-action film that didn't go on to receive major Oscar consideration (Burn After Reading, which was the Coen Brothers' follow-up to their Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, so I think Brad gets a pass). Those who expect Killing Them Softly to turn out as yet another run-of-the-mill gangster flick should know better; you don't get Brad Pitt to headline your movie unless you've got a little something special up your sleeve.

        Nothing gets a narrative rolling like the miscalculated and self-aggrandizing actions of fools. Amid the financial crisis and presidential election of 2008, mid-level mobster Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) believes he's found a way into some easy money, knocking over a local card game, and assigning the blame to tailor-made fall-guy Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta). He brings in a couple of young gunslingers (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) to do the deed, but just when it appears they've gotten away scott-free, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) rolls into town. Tasked with locating and executing the culprits, Cogan's efforts are subsequently entangled in a myriad of corporate-style rules and regulations, and associates made desperate and sloppy by the troubled times.

         Writer/Director Andrew Dominik, Pitt's previous associate on the woefully underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has a knack for locating small, contemplative moments within seemingly rudimentary story-structures. Where James addressed fame, legend, and idolatry over a languid two-and-a-half hours, Softly squirms and shivers through a brisk hour and a half, awash with modern-times anxiety and dread. Cinematographer Greig Fraser's images prove stunningly evocative, leading eyes and attentions to dark places and notions, writing novels without saying a word.

        It's all a pip; gritty, itchy, funny, and relevant... and then it's over. Dominik's decision to pull the plug where he does is no accident: he's way too intelligent and detail-oriented to let something like that escape his watch, and the sense of deflation that accompanies the end credits feels poignant. And while some of the ideas being conveyed by this sharp drop-off are worth addressing, doing so renders the entire enterprise a bit off-balance, like a Thanksgiving dinner with load and loads of side dishes, but precious little turkey. Don't get me wrong, it's still delicious. Extremely delicious, as a matter of fact. Delicious enough to leave you wanting more, which is both this film's highest honor, and its most jarring demerit. Ignoring Killing Them Softly's accomplishments would be disingenuous; wanting just a tiny, tiny bit more would be human.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Sessions (Limited Release Date: 11-16-2012)

        One doesn't exactly have to be an anthropologist to tell you that Americans are more than a little squeamish when it comes to sex. This phobia of sorts manifests itself in many facets of society, film being one of several pronounced examples. Somebody being shot to death in front of loved ones (with no blood shown)? Slap a PG on that flick! (Maybe PG-13... maybe). So much as talk about an act that the average human will take part in on countless occasions, and only the very most mature may view your product. Addressing the wrong-headedness of this ideology is far less interesting than observing its effect: American films, year after year after year, are far more adapt at observing and dissecting both the event and the meaning of violence, but are hopelessly outmatched when it comes to elaborating on that most basic of human experiences. Perhaps this fundamental tenant is what takes The Sessions from good to the cusp of greatness. Not only is the film in question populated with great craft from top-to-bottom; it discusses a dicey subject with enough warmth and charm to show why it shouldn't be quite so risque in the first place.

        Writer/Director Ben Lewins' first feature film in nearly 20 years tells the story of poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes). A 36-year-old often confined to an iron lung, the O'Brien of the film describes his state of pseudo-paralysis by simply claiming, 'my muscles don't work too good.' This self-affacing wit is one of many reasons why people are drawn to the writer, though his bodily ailments have denied him admittance to mankind's most intimate physical expression. After receiving a go-ahead of sorts from his priest-and-confidant Father Brendan (William H. Macy), Mark contacts Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate tasked with both deflowering and teaching the incapacitated charmer the ways of love-making.

         There's an easy-going appeal to nearly every moment of The Sessions, an accomplishment that owes thanks to many contributors. Lewin, brushing off the cobwebs to return to the director's chair, displays a breezy grace in how he chooses to unfurl his film. Without his acute awareness of when to go for the gut, and when to pull back a bit, this could have easily been a Hallmark Channel original. The project's class is bolstered by Geoffrey Simpson's subtle and lovely work behind the camera, as well as Marco Beltrami's marvelous score, minute in size, but resplendent in emotional impact. Then there are Hawkes and Hunt, both so brave, inviting, and human at every turn, each registering the numerous emotions that complicated real-life situations often present, and directors often lack the confidence to capture and display. The Sessions is not a perfect movie: it's use of religion feels forced, and there are occasional moments when the sensationalism of the story begins to overwhelm. But The Sessions is still a treasured rarity: a American movie willing and able to delve into human sexuality with courage, humor, and empathy. It may be a bit raw for some, and perhaps a touch slow-moving for others. I think it's just about perfect.

Grade: A- 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lincoln (Limited Release Date: 11-9-2012)

        A fierce war rages, as men lay down their lives into mud-bath graves for the sake of country. Their commander, a Mr. Abraham Lincoln, sits alone on a stage-like structure, canopy protecting him from relentless rain, as backlit as an angel. Several approach him, seeking words of wisdom and guidance, and are enthralled by his soft-spoken parables. They walk away, inspired, as Lincoln remains seated and still, his face a mixture of warmth and rippling inner-conflict. If you think you know the rap on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln before even seeing it... well, you're exactly right. Many things can, have, and will be said about Spielberg's Academy Award aspirant, but no one in their right mind would call the film unpredictable. Those who want the rousing story of the 16th president, complete with courage under fire, swelling music, and a veritable parade of lauded thespians gunning for their Oscar clips: come right it, the water's fine! Those who need to taste the food before they call the meal delicious will have a much wider array of reactions.

        The North might be right at the cusp of winning the Civil War, but President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) isn't done yet. Observing the unfavorable position of the South at the end of the scuffle, honest Abe deems this the perfect moment to get their begrudged blessing, and abolish slavery once and for all. This stance arrives much to the chagrin of many surrounding political minds, including advisor William Seward (David Strathairn), who would prefer to make stopping the violence the main priority. Needing all the help he can get, Abraham enlists the help of salty-but-determined Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), as well as a couple of con artists (James Spader among them) to help pass one of the most heavily-contested amendments ever conceived.

        The name Spielberg brings many thoughts and images to mind, from futuristic chase scenes, to roaming dinosaurs, to grand-scale spectacle. What doesn't come to mind, however, are intimate scenes of actors delivering dialogue, of which Lincoln is almost entirely comprised. The autuer's patented sense of spectacle has no where to go within Tony Kushner's screenplay, which seems content to sit six or more bearded chatter-boxes in a darkened room for the majority of its existence. There are moments when vocal sparks actually do fly, but for the most part, Lincoln stands as proof that having lots of dialogue is no substitute for being dialogue driven. The characters in the film mostly maintain their positions from the start to finish, and as we are of course intended to side with the Commander-in-Chief's view point, this head-butting bears desperately little weight. The good guys will remain good and right, and the bad guys will remain bad and wrong, and, in the end, the good guys will win. There is precious-little grey in Lincoln, and tidal waves of black and white.

        Making a movie with pedigree like this is bound to put a target on your back, and if we're being fair, I'm probably not this movie's target audience in the first place. But shouldn't the winners on Oscar night be decided when we actually see the finished product, not when all of the players sign on in the first place? Shouldn't great movies strive to accomplish and surprise, rather than simply deftly avoid the pot-holes that derail their more ambitious competition? Yeah, Day-Lewis is saintly and magnetic, Jones is funny and rips through the humorous moments of Kushner's screenplay, and the good guys win, and they all throw their hats into the air in celebration. No, Lincoln is not a bad movie, taking great care to never trip over its own coat-tails, the tremendous weight of expectations clearly digging into its eager-to-please shoulders. I'd essentially already seen the film when I saw the director's name, the cast, and the premise, and could have done well by my wallet to just stay home, and recreate the very same flick in my mind, scene for scene. Flavorless but filling: the recipe for Oscars, circa 2012.

Grade: C+