19 April 2011

Kelly Canter and Jesus Christ

*** (3.5 stars)

For a movie I had no real intention of seeing, "Country Strong" really surprised me. I was anticipating something horrible I could laugh at while drinking a bottle of wine with a friend. Instead, what I got was a thoughtful though flawed film.

Gwenyth Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter, a Shania Twain/grown-up Carrie Underwood type with more demons than talent. Once again in rehab, she meets handsome orderly Beau, also an aspiring singer. When Kelly's husband-manager (never a good hyphenate) comes to get her a month early to start touring, she convinces him to take Beau with them on the road. Is obvious what will happen next, but it doesn't really matter. Unlike "CrazyHeart", our protagonist here is far more likable. She's someone you may know or have met- a woman married too young, suffering too much from and for her work, and lost inside her personal demons. The ending shocked me. I think I slapped my friend!

The stand out here is Garrett Hedlund ("Tron: Legacy") and actual country superstar Tim McGraw. McGraw has carved out a nice second career with acting. He's expressive and sincere in his acting, all the more impressive as his character is without a doubt the nemesis of the film. Hedlund left a budding impression in "Tron", and he's so much better here. He walks away with every scene he is in, and I would buy any record he put out.

A lot of people claim to hate country music. That's fair, we don't all have to like everything. But I guarantee those people like a country artist- Johnny Cash, early Elvis, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings. There's a song or two on their iPod for sure. Growing up in Texas you would think I would have a greater appreciation for country than say, someone from New York. That isn't the case. I was raised by Yankees and as such, country music was never really played in the house. However, I couldn't escape the above artists and others growing up. It's the new wave of country that annoys me. I don't like it's pop sound, as if it's trying to convince us it's something it isn't. Be country! I love bluegrass and the new alt-folk scene that's cropped up across the country. I like the music in this film because it's the perfect blend of both worlds- a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. (I think I totally lose some point for quoting a Donny & Marie song though). Beau's songs are the most honest and classic. Young ingenue Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) is the current Carrie Underwood type. She's got a surprisingly good voice, but she doesn't really blossom until she meets Beau. My biggest complaint with her was that I didn't believe the growth of the character in so short a time span. Worse, I can't tell if it's the writing or her acting that caused this reaction.

The biggest problem with this movie is the story. I appreciate when a film drops us into the middle of the story, but you still have to flesh out the characters. If all roads lead to Dallas, as they do in this movie, then that scene must pop, must resonate, must be recognized as the pinnacle of the film. That a sold out show at the American Airlines Center can feel flat is a real feat. Hedlund rescues the movie time and again with his Honest Beau routine. I'm excited for his career and hope he continues to make interesting choices.

Writer/Director Shana Fest has made a solid sophomore movie (her first, the family tragedy/drama "The Greatest" is available on DVD) and if she can sharpen her storytelling skills, her career may continue. Unfortunately, that's a tall order in the film industry. You've got to make money when given the chance or at the very least create something a core audience and critics will like.

I'm glad I saw this movie, it was a lot better than expected. However, it made me long for better crafted (country) music movies like "The Thing Called Love" or "Nashville". If you have or had any interest, rent it. If you never cared, you may be surprised but you're more likely going to like something else.


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