"Lincoln" (PG-13, 149 minutes, DreamWorks/ Disney): A peculiar, powerful alchemy takes hold in Steven Spielberg's masterful portrait of the 16th U.S. president. Through that strange mix of realism, artifice, intimacy and scope that cinema uniquely possesses, viewers find themselves transported to 19th-century Washington, where Abraham Lincoln - portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis - has just been re-elected to a second term. But instead of a grand tableau vivant that lays out the great man and his great deeds, Spielberg brings the leader and viewers down to ground level. Thus "Lincoln" gratifyingly dodges the kind of safe, starchy hagiography that some Spielberg skeptics feared. Working from a dense, lively screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner (who last collaborated with Spielberg on "Munich"), Spielberg infuses "Lincoln" with energy, acumen, surprising humor and the unabashed affection for his subject that most Americans will wholly understand and probably share.
"Killing Them Softly" (R, 97 minutes, The Weinstein Co./Anchor Bay): This alternately bitterly funny and labored gangland parable possesses a modicum of swagger and style. Though anchored by a terrific lead performance from Brad Pitt, it perpetuates some of the crime genre's more tedious clichés, from slow-motion savagery to facile cynicism. Director Andrew Dominik tries to ratchet up the relevance by larding "Killing Them Softly" with references to the 2008 election, the financial meltdown and the similarities between Darwinian capitalism and street crime at its most thuggish and unforgiving. But rather than bitingly of-the-moment, the allegorical efforts feel strained, completely at odds with the air of seedy spontaneity that graces the film's most indelible moments.
"Parental Guidance" (PG, 105 minutes, Fox): With a script that relies heavily on gags about vomiting, urinating and defecating, this generation-gap comedy about grandparents taking care of bratty grandchildren seems like it's not just made for children, but written by one. On the other hand, stale jokes about sciatica and the cluelessness of the elderly when it comes to modern technology seem like they popped out of the VCR in the old folks' home.
The film is badly overacted, syrupy, phony looking, implausibly scripted, formulaic and about 15 minutes too long. When yuppie parents go out of town for a few days, they decide to leave their brood of three spoiled crumb-snatchers with the grandparents (Billy Crystal and Bette Midler).
What ensues is exactly what you would expect: disaster involving cake frosting on the face and apoplectic mugging, followed by scenes of saccharine reconciliation so insincere they make Crystal's dye job and Midler's face-lift look natural.
Also released Tuesday
"The Carol Burnett Show: This Time Together" (six-disc set with 17 complete episodes and multiple special features)