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Entries in Country music (2)

Friday
Jan072011

Country Strong

Last year at this time, a little film called Crazy Heart was released, much to the praise of critics and moviegoers alike. It followed a country singer battling the throes of addiction and depression. He had hit a new low in his life and we watched him as he struggled to revive his career. If you’ve seen that film, prepare for a strong sense of déjà vu as you watch Country Strong, a picture so similar it can’t help but feel like Crazy Heart-lite with the gender roles reversed. It hits the exact same beats on its journey to the credits, even going so far as to duplicate a key scene, but one pulls them off well and the other does not. Country Strong, despite a likable cast and a handful of decent songs, destroys itself due to a lackluster screenplay and melodrama that would feel out of place in a daytime soap.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays the country singer this time. Her name is Kelly Canter and after a drunken onstage performance, she finds herself stuck in a rehabilitation clinic. When we meet her, she is on her way out the door a month early after her husband and manager, James, played by Tim McGraw, pulls some strings for her release. He is pushing her to straighten up and correct her image, though she is clearly still wrestling some demons. Her extramarital lover, Beau, played by Garrett Hedlund, is a musician himself and agrees to open for her on her comeback tour, but the trip is not going to be an easy one.

I was into Country Strong for its first twenty minutes or so. The songs came like rapid fire and though it sometimes felt more like an extended compilation of country songs than a movie, they were catchy and well written. None were mind-blowing, but they kept my feet tapping and my interest intact. When it did pause for dialogue, it worked. The characters were introduced and their personalities established. The sweetness that oozed in an early scene between Kelly and Beau kept me hoping for something great.

But the longer it went on, the dumber it became. The dialogue got progressively worse and the situations more histrionic. It was as if the screenwriter got bored halfway through and decided to crap anything onto the page just to be done with it. Once it resorts to a song that details everything that has happened thus far in the story, it becomes clear that the film’s ambition has evaporated.

If movies could be diagnosed with diseases, Country Strong would have bipolar disorder. It changes moods so often, it’s sometimes hard to know what you’re supposed to feel. It’s humorous, but solemn; sincere, but manipulative; heartwarming, but cheesy. If it were a person, it would be jumping for joy one minute and jumping off a bridge the next.

What disappoints the most is that it tries to make a statement on the nature of celebrity, but only does so in the barest sense. It barely explores the nitty-gritty of it all, going only so far as to show what those in the spotlight will do to maintain an image without truly delving into the implications behind it. It also, in an admittedly humorous moment, touches on the overt patriotism of country musicians and fans, but again, brushes it to the side in favor of its nonsense script.

Country Strong had its parts aligned. It had a talented cast (with this and The Blind Side, Tim McGraw is proving himself to be quite an actor) some fun songs and a tried-and-true story that proved meaningful when told well, but it just stinks. It’s capped off with an ending that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t wholly make sense up to that point, but if you decide that Country Strong is worth your time, you’ll be fed up with it long before then.

Country Strong receives 1.5/5

Friday
Jan082010

Crazy Heart

There are few actors working today who can captivate an audience like Jeff Briges can. No matter whether he's playing a quirky Army soldier (The Men Who Stare at Goats), an evil weapons manufacturer (Iron Man), a carefree bowling enthusiast (The Big Lebowski), or voicing a long thought dead surfer penguin (Surf's Up), he can come across in a big way, hitting a multitude of emotions and endearing himself to the viewers. He is a top notch talent and always hits a home run in his roles, even in movies that are fairly terrible (How to Lose Friends & Alienate People). This time, he tackles a film that is already worthy of consideration for an end of the year "best of" list and finds himself in a role guaranteed to include a few "Best Actor" nominations, including the already announced Golden Globes nod. Yes my friends, Crazy Heart is a special movie.

Though I love all genres of film, I'm a person who finds himself stubbornly staving off any type of music other than good old rock n' roll. Put some country music on around me and my ears start to bleed, so imagine my skepticism when it came to this film about a washed up country music performer. What Crazy Heart proves, even to this jaded head banger, is that music can be beautiful regardless of what genre it's in. I was tapping my toes to the music and reveling in the discovery of how each song came to be, all of which came from the singer's own life experiences. Jeff Bridges plays the singer in question who for years has gone by the moniker of Bad Blake and as he tells a seductive journalist named Jean, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, nobody will know his true name until the day he dies, where it will be written on his tombstone. She remarks, "That's a long time to wait," and he replies with what can essentially be paraphrased as, "Maybe not."

His response comes with a few caveats. Despite the humorous nature of it, we later find out that Bad is in trouble. He is in danger of having a stroke due to an unhealthy lifestyle, which includes excessive smoking and drinking. He used to be the biggest star around, but now he is a nobody and his former band mate, Tommy, played by Colin Farrell, has gone off on his own and wrangled his own fans. Naturally, Bad is depressed and bitter, finding himself playing small shows in worn down bars and bowling alleys just to make a buck.

After the aforementioned interview, Bad begins to fall in love with Jean and this is where the story really starts to take off. Bad has been miserable since his falling out an unspecified number of years ago and we assume it's all for legitimate reasons. Who wouldn't be miserable playing in small bars after your former band mate left you? Well, later we find out that Tommy didn't leave in hate and still respects Bad tremendously. He remarks to him how he'll never forget that it was him who gave him his start. Throughout the movie, Bad is heard spewing verbal hatred at Tommy and we simply take it as his way to deal with Tommy's crippling betrayal, but it simply isn't the case. He has no real reason to be mad at Tommy. He is merely confusing his jealousy for anger. After he reluctantly opens for him at a big gig, we finally discover this and realize there's something more brewing underneath Bad's seemingly hardened veneer.

The reason he takes the gig in the first place is because of Jean, not because she urges him to, but because he starts to find happiness in her and starts to dismiss those feelings of hate. However, when everything finally seems to be turning around for the better and he finds himself getting his love for Jean returned to him, he ruins it with bad decision making. His alcoholism controls him and although he is asked by Jean to not drink in front of her young son, he stops inside of a bar one day while out with the little tyke and loses him due to his drunkenness.

To continue on discussing this terrific story would be taking the pleasure of seeing it unfolding yourself away. However, it's the underlying message that really hits home and makes this movie something more than the sum of its parts. It shows a man emotionally and physically crippled from a number of problems, some external and some self inflicted, but finds hope in his cloud of depression. It says that it's never too late to turn your life around. No matter your age, your nasty habits or the turmoil you're going through, you can change yourself and become someone better, somebody who looks at life through a fresh perspective.

Much more is revealed about Bad in this nearly two hour movie, but my adulation for Crazy Heart has already kept me rambling for far too long. Bad is a multi-layered person, simple on the surface, but hiding secrets within him and he summarizes his entire character arc with one lyrical line from one of his country songs where he sings, "I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else."

Although there isn't much going on behind the camera, largely due to first-time director Scott Cooper, and the story is overly familiar—it's basically The Wrestler with more heart (as my friend Kevin "BDK" McCarthy put it)—it's done with such splendor and dedication that one can't help but be impressed with the finished product. It's a shame Crazy Heart wasn't released in DC a couple of weeks back so I could rightfully place it on my 2009 best of the year list. Oh well. I guess 2010 will have to do.

Crazy Heart receives 5/5