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Two lives, two very different approaches

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Today's column deals with two weekend offerings that would fit nicely into a category called "sort-of documentaries" -- one because it's more of a promotional video than an in-depth examination, and the other because it deliberately straddles the line between documentary and drama.

First up is the HBO feature Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream, which airs tonight on HBO Canada (check listings for times). A quick look at the credits of this 90-minute film tells you pretty much all you need to know: Beyoncé is the producer; Beyoncé is co-writer; Beyoncé is co-director.

In other words, what you're going to learn about Beyoncé is nothing more or less than exactly what Beyoncé wants you to know.

And while the carefully assembled collection of interviews, webcam confessional moments and performance clips tries its best to create the feeling of intimacy and candour, the end result is a filmic exercise whose message seems meticulously managed.

Even the timing of its release -- on the heels of her Super Bowl halftime performance, and just in time to give a promotional push to her new CD and about-to-launch world tour -- is deliberate.

There's no question that Life Is But a Dream will accomplish exactly what it's intended to do (thrilling die-hard fans while driving commerce), but viewers expecting a thorough and/or balanced profile will be left wanting.

The film draws heavily on Beyoncé's personal archives, offering volumes of home-movie footage from her childhood and teen years, and also reveals the artist's affection for committing her thoughts to webcam-diary entries. These up-close, grainy sequences featuring a mostly makeup-free Knowles do feature a few revelations, such as her thoughts about parting ways with her father as manager and her reflection, upon becoming pregnant, on having lost an earlier child to miscarriage.

Beyond that, however, Life Is But a Dream adheres closely to its career-boosting message, portraying Beyoncé as a woman who is emphatically in charge of her life and business and dreamily in love with her husband.

The documentary also features backstage footage and some stunning performance clips, which, for her fans, will make the whole exercise more than worthwhile.

All told, there's a lot to like in Life Is But a Dream; it's what isn't in it that's a bit disappointing.

-- -- --

Hanks, a lot: Tom Hanks is the most prominent performer in the National Geographic Channel feature Killing Lincoln, but he isn't playing the doomed president and he isn't portraying the actor who shot him.

In fact, Hanks isn't anywhere in the acting credits for this uniquely constructed study of the presidential assassination. Instead, he serves as the film's narrator, providing (often on-camera) historical details and scene-connecting timeline information as the events leading up to and following the shooting are dramatized.

It's an odd but effective way of telling the story. Killing Lincoln, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on National Geographic, falls somewhere between documentary and drama, with Hanks's casually professorial contributions playing a crucial role in connecting and driving forward the film's numerous scripted scenes.

Billy Campbell (The Killing, Once and Again) is adequate as a rather deadpan Lincoln (and really, he stood no chance of being lauded for his work with Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar-worthy alternative still gracing big screens). Newcomer Jesse Johnson, however, gives an attention-grabbing performance as actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth.

In most shorthand historical recollections, Booth has been dismissed as a failed actor who committed an act of madness. In this version, based on the like-titled book by Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly, Booth is shown as a talented actor and thoughtful (though tragically misguided) political activist who was convinced that his action would free the South from the destructive grip of a tyrant.

Of course, Booth was wrong; even the leaders of the defeated Confederate army declared Booth's deadly attack to be one of the worst things that could have happened to the South.

It's an interesting and thoughtful interpretation of a complex story. And Hanks plays a big part in making it palatable. Twitter: @BradOswald


Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream

Produced, co-written and co-directed by Beyoncé Knowles

Tonight, check listings for times

HBO Canada

3 stars out of 5

Killing Lincoln

Narrated by Tom Hanks; starring Billy Campbell and Jesse Johnson

Sunday at 9 p.m.

National Geographic Channel

31/2 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 G3

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