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Country Strong (review) proves Hedlund a rising star January 8, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Movies, Musicals.
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Nobody is going to be nominating COUNTRY STRONG for any awards anytime soon (with the possible exception of Score); but this critically lambasted movie is nowhere near as bad as you might think from the mainstream reviews.

Garrett Hedlund in Country Strong

The critics are going to go to town on this movie…but I really liked it. In fact, I liked it so much that it was a shame that many of the songs were cut in half, or dissolve into the background during scenes, because the country music score in this movie is excellent.

That being said, the story is standard old-fashioned melodrama….and not even that, it’s soap opera…It’s the kind of thing that might have been fresh in the 50’s or 60’s, but was already passe by the time television evening soaps rolled around (think Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon Crest).

Garrett Hedlund is the standout here — as moody and emotional as you would expect from this type of character, and  lightyears (sorry about the pun) better than his Tron:Legacy cardboard cutout part. He does his own singing, and he sounds and looks great. Apparently he spent 6 months learning to perform country music with some of the industries top guitarists and singers, and that effort shows here. He is a true rising star and is quite simply the best reason to see this movie. You can say you were there when you discovered Garrett Hedlund as a true movie actor (even though he’s already amassed a good deal of work), even though they do manage to get him out of his shirt as often as possible, knowing a good thing when they see one. Ironically, while he carries the bulk of the singing in the movie (and he is very good) only one of his songs made the cut on the soundtrack album, the other songs being studio recordings by Trace Adkins and Faith Hill (!)…

Tim McGraw turns in a very good performance, one that separates him from a wanna-be actor and a bonafide one. He has grown in each role that he has played (from  drunkard in Saturday Night Lights to Sandra Bullock’s aftertought-of-a-husband role in The Blind Side), but here he truly comes into his own. Being the only true country singer, he of course does not sing at all in Country Strong (although he and Gwyneth duet on the end-credits song).

Leighton Meester (as singing and love rival) also has an energy and maturity level onscreen that goes far beyond what her television history would indicate. She radiates warmth and could easily be mistaken for a true country singer.

Gwyneth Paltrow is the victim here in what turns out to be a thankless role. Recovering addict, most of the melodrama falls to her (leaving others to react to her crying, unpredictable behavior). She does a fine job with an underdeveloped and limited character, especially when the audience pretty much stops caring about her about halfway through the movie and turn their attention to the budding Hedlud-Meester romance. Still, the final concert sequences are superb, and there are flashes of movie delight when her already fragile character is forced to visit a make-a-wish patient and the movie finally spurts to life. This scene, and one in which she “tutors” her younger rival are the films highlights. She also gets the films lowlights — including an ending worthy of eye-rolling.

The direction by Shana Feste is sure-handed. Somewhere along the line, I think she realized that the movie is little more than a modern-day update of all those old weepies you’ve seen before at the movies, and decided to just let it ride. The camera lingers on people just long enough to allow you to think about them. If only they had better material to work with.

But overall, the film has a spirit and a heart that a lot of recent biopics have not. Sure, the story is made up, but it could be based on half a dozen real performers (think Brittany Spears, Lindsey Lohan, etc)… Does it have problems? Yes. Not the least of which is a scenic design that looks like they paid too much for the music soundtrack and didn’t have enough budget left to hire enough extras for other scenes. In a bus-loading scene it literally looks like the small-town bystanders watching the filming were asked to just fill in the background for a few minutes. In bar sequences, there are a dozen or so in the “Crowd”.  But overall, the movie lingers quite pleasantly afterwards. Add extra points if you are a country music fan (I am).

Forget that you have seen this movie done better half a dozen times already: go enjoy Hedlund’s superb performance, and enjoy this the way you would an episode of Dallas or Dynasty.

“Up in the Air”; “Sherlock Holmes”; “It’s Complicated”; “The Blind Side” (Review) December 30, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Movies.
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I’ve previously reviewed “Nine”, “The Princess and the Frog”, “Avatar”, and “2010” from this holiday season. Here are four more.

First — the far-and-away best movie of the holiday season is UP IN THE AIR. Directed by Jason Reitman, it’s a timely and highly entertaining look at the life of a social-tie disconnected man whose job it is to travel across the country as serve as a job termination consultant. But more than that, it’s about the love of motion, the freedom from emotional connection, and the sense of complete egotistical freedom to do what you want, when, where, and with whom one chooses — until choices need to be made that may (or may not) change that lifestyle forever. It’s brilliant film-making. For local interest, much of it was filmed here in Detroit.

To be sure, this is not a film for under 20’s — and I’m not sure it’s a film for under 40’s…it takes a certain amount of life experience, skepticism, and humor to fully appreciate the amazing script and performances at play here. Have no doubt, keep your under-16’s at home – it’s an adult film with adult themes, sexual situations, and language. Kids will also be bored stiff, since they won’t be able to relate to the story nor the central dilemma. This is a film that takes at its core that it is OK not to be in a relationship, something that is foreign to most kids. It’s a film that will stay with you long after you see it. This is my personal choice for this year’s Best Picture.

Much more enjoyable than it should be, SHERLOCK HOLMES is Guy Ritchie’s take on the tried and true Watson/Holmes formula — but throw what you know about this out the window — here, the duo is re-imagined as an action/adventure duo, and it generally works well. The CGI work and the recreation of London is terrific cinematography, and the film is quirky enough to keep you on your toes. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and the ending points to a sequel. Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. are both terrific, and I completely found myself entertained by this quirky take on the genre. It’s a popcorn movie that is fun. It’s not for tiny tots, but it is generally family friendly. There is some Guy-Ritchie type violence here, but it’s done with a great sense of humor and relatively tastefully compared to his previous movies. Holmes purists will hate the film, it’s not meant for them — it’s a popcorn adventure movie with a bit of Die Hard, Van Helsing, and Indiana Jones thrown into the mix.

Finally, I have to admit that I laughed more at IT’S COMPLICATED than I have at any movie this year. It’s formulaic, and very funny. Don’t get me wrong, this is not nuanced subtle humor — this is more in the vein of recent crude comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. It has great performances, and its plain old funny. This is another picture that is inappropriate for your kids (not that they wouldn’t find it funny). It’s adult fun, and it has more laughs per scene than any other out there right now. Streep and Baldwin are terrific together, and there are also great performances from Steve Martin and John Krasinski.

The Blind Side is the surprise box-office hit film about Michael Oher’s rags to riches rise from the slums of Memphis to pro football. Sandra Bullock turns in a nicely performed role as his no-nonsense adaptive mother (and she’s channeling Kathy Lee Gifford all the way), and Tim McGraw is eye-candy as her husband. He gets lines like “I know that look” and “I think I know who is going to win this argument”.  The film is a tear-jerker that is appropriate for the entire family, and I really liked it. It’s Lifetime Movie Channel fare done one better with a big budget and a big star. But you care about these people, and this year, there haven’t been that many movies where you do. I even liked the Tim McGraw song over the final credits. This makes for a great date movie or a family evening out. Go see it, you’ll feel good about what nice people can still do in the world.

Sadly, my most anticipated movie of the year, A SINGLE MAN, has yet to open in Michigan, and it looks like it’s not on the books anywhere locally for the time being, Will report back on that once it is released here.

All in all, I would have to rank the current crop of pictures in the following order as far as my favorite of 2009:

1. Up in the Air

2. Avatar

3. The Hurt Locker

4. Precious

5. Up

6. District 9

7. Star Trek

8. Invictus

9. The Blind Side

10. (500) Days of Summer