REVIEW: Country Strong

8 01 2011

Unintentionally hilarious, “Country Strong” is a wannabe rehash of “Crazy Heart,” “Walk the Line,” and “Dreamgirls.”  It’s ridiculously melodramatic and populated with four stock characters who go through alarmingly little growth throughout the movie.  With no reason to care, it’s easy to kick back and enjoy some surprisingly classy country music.  That means there’s none of that soulless pop-country blend that Taylor Swift has pushed into the mainstream; it’s the country music you’ll hear in the saloons and bars in the heart of America.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Kelly Canter plays a shamed superstar country singer pulled out of rehab early by her demanding husband and manager James, played by Tim McGraw.  Neither are in love with each other anymore, as Kelly has her eye on small-time singer Beau (Garrett Hedlund) and James goes after the much younger Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty queen turned country-pop star who seems to be a Taylor Swift parody in herself.  As you can imagine, the two upstart country singers Beau and Chiles, whose relationship begins rocky, ultimately find each other in love.

I’m not going to give the movie the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the humor; I assume it was really poorly made and acted.  Denim-clad Paltrow is pretty dreadful when it comes to playing the rehabbing drunk apparently based on Britney Spears, tripping over cliches just like the movie itself.  She could have taken a few notes from Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married,” who totally nailed the confusion and disillusionment of the not-quite-rehabbed woman.  McGraw is fine playing a tough guy, and Hedlund feels natural on stage and behind the mic.  Leighton Meester, on the other hand, is comedic dynamite – which is probably attributable to her sub-par acting skills.  Funny, I thought she would have really picked up some great technique on “Gossip Girl.”

As long as you aren’t looking for a story or acting, you’ll enjoy the first hour and a half of “Country Strong.”  It’s corny, campy fun in country style.  But beware of the world’s worst ending, so bungled and poorly written that it derails the entire experience and leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth at the end.  It’s almost like in an effort to avoid predictability, they chose the most bizarre ending even though it didn’t fit with the movie’s tone or events.  So, in order to get the optimal experience out of a crummy movie, stop watching “Country Strong” after Kelly’s big concert in Dallas.  Make your own ending to the movie and just be satisfied with the dumb melodrama.  C

Oscar Moment: “Country Strong”

26 11 2010

“Country Strong” is Middle America bait, combining country music and rehabbed alcoholic singers a la “Crazy Heart” with a spunky heroine with a down-home charm a la “The Blind Side.”  Coincidentally, both of those movies featured leading performances that won Oscars in 2009.  So are we looking at a similar trajectory for Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie’s leading lady?

Paltrow has already hit the promotional trail in somewhat unconventional but definitely effective ways.  She guest-starred on “Glee,” singing a cover of Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You.”  Then, directly aimed at the people who will see “Country Strong,” she performed the movie’s titular track at the Country Music Awards (CMAs) in Nashville.  Here’s a clip of her singing:

Let’s not forget that Paltrow has already won Best Actress for a completely different flavor of acting (for “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998).  Her star power could power her into the race even though her only Academy friendly movie that has gotten any recognition was “The Royal Tenenbaums” back in 2001.  However, her foray into the dramatic with “Proof” landed her a Golden Globe nomination, so perhaps “Country Strong” will have that extra push to get her into the Best Actress field.  Yet even taking her competition out of the picture, I think it would be difficult for the Academy to vote her to a second win.  They realize now what a great honor their trophies are, and when someone like Hilary Swank has the same amount of wins as Meryl Streep, something’s up.

Paltrow and the movie have lost one big building block to an Oscar campaign in the Golden Globes.  The HFPA decided to place “Country Strong” in the drama category, which is much tougher to receive nominations (not to mention wins) because of the more respected field.  If the movie were placed in musical/comedy (since it features a lot of song), Paltrow would compete against Annette Bening and Sally Hawkins.  In drama, she will face Natalie Portman, Nicole Kidman, and several other talented actresses.  And for the lightweight movie, talk about a huge long shot to score a Best Picture nomination.  The only way I could see it sneaking in would be for there to magically be more than 5 nominated films.

And since this is a movie about country music, it will be a strong contender in the Best Original Song category.  There are two featured tracks in contention for the win, “Me and Tennessee” and “Coming Home.”  The rules have changed in the Best Original Song category to try to prohibit one movie from hogging all the nominations and thus vote splitting; this is why Alan Menken only chose to submit one song from “Tangled” for consideration.  If “Country Strong” wants to win this category, Screen Gems needs to pick one song to put all their horses behind.

There are 18 days between the wide release of “Country Strong” and the announcement of the 83rd Oscar nominations.  If it manages to rake in some nice box office dollars, I suspect we could be looking at a financially successful movie popular with Middle America that this year’s Academy Awards really don’t have.  It could be an enticing proposition … but it would have to make big money FAST.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress, Best Original Song


REVIEW: The Blind Side

6 12 2009

The Blind Side” might as well be a Lifetime or Hallmark movie.  It trades the sports movie cliches (coach’s speech, dramatic championship game) for the inspirational movie cliches (the moment that changes a life, small choice that signifies acceptance).  It is able to excel beyond a made-for-TV movie because it has its heart in the right place, yet it still feels like one because the focus doesn’t hit similarly.  The story should be about Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) and how he rose from poverty to play in the NFL.  However, the filmmakers felt it necessary to shift the paramount concern of the movie to Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock), the wealthy woman who made it all possible.  It takes the achievement out of the inspiration, and a movie that aims to be heartwarming winds up radiating nothing but lukewarm feelings.

Call it post-“Precious” syndrome, but the scenes that attempted to show Michael’s roots in poverty had remarkably little effect.  I think the failure comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about films about triumph: in order for us to truly feel something when the hero comes out on top, we have to comprehend how terrible his situation really was.  The film puts itself at an immediate disadvantage by giving us only fleeting glimpses of the neighborhood where Michael grew up, and even in those few scenes, it glosses over how truly dreadful it is to live there.  The poverty is almost candy-coated; no real grit is assigned to it.  Worst of all was the handling of Michael’s mother, a freewheeling drug addict who is deprived of her children by the government.  Her brief appearance is so dazed that it hits with no impact, especially for those who have seen Mo’Nique’s character dish out abuse her daughter Precious.

Sandra Bullock’s spirited and spunky performance (which was good enough to overcome her dreadful accent) atones for some of the errors the film makes with her story.  The reason that Michael is able to succeed is because of a random act of kindness Leigh Anne makes after observing him walking the lonely streets with a plastic bag of laundry.  But for some reason, the filmmakers don’t buy that as a viable reason for her to make all the sacrifices that she does, so they turn into an episode of white guilt.  That emotion doesn’t really work well with inspiration, and the film nearly turns Michael’s biggest struggle that overcoming his race, not his past.  The story should have been how one woman selflessly sacrificed her own resources to empower an underprivileged boy who then used that encouragement to succeed in ways he could not imagine.  But by shining the spotlight on Leigh Anne, it is seemingly demeaning to the accomplishments of Michael.  No doubt she was responsible for the opportunities, but it was him who seized them.

“The Blind Side” wants to hit on a gut level, but comes rushing at you like a middle school football player instead of an NFL linebacker.  Aside from Bullock and her plucky younger son S.J. (Jae Head), the performances really aren’t there, especially not from Quinton Aaron, who makes Michael reticent to a point where it becomes frustratingly difficult to sympathize with him.  The movie falls a rung below inspirational, but still manages to provide a nice boost of happiness and an overall pleasant, if not wholly satisfying, experience.  B /