Country Strong

Posted on April 12, 2011 at 8:00 am

The husband manager of the beloved country singer just out of rehab says to her, “Do I tell you how to sing, darlin’? Hmm? Have I ever told you how to sing a song?” “That ain’t the point,” she weakly responds, and he keeps going. “Don’t tell me how to run your life. I been doin’ pretty good with it.”

That brief exchange 36 years ago in the classic Robert Altman film, “Nashville,” summarizes the new Gwyneth Paltrow film, “Country Strong.” She plays Kelly Canter, always introduced as a six-time Grammy winner, whose husband-manager James (played by real-life country superstar Tim McGraw) takes her out of rehab a month early for a series of concerts, on the theory that her brand needs more rehabilitation than her substance abuse problem.

But the incomplete rehab is not the only unfinished business. In a performance in Dallas, Kelly, then five months pregnant, was so drunk she fell off the stage. She has to regain the trust of her fans, concert promoters, her husband, and — toughest of all — herself.

To make things even more complicated and difficult, the opening acts for her new tour are Beau (“Tron: Legacy’s” Garrett Hedlund) and Chiles (“Gossip Girl’s” Leighton Meester). Kelly likes Beau. James likes Chiles. Beau and Chiles like each other. Not even a country song, much less a movie, can manage all that drama.

The music is the best part. Hedlund has a surprisingly rich singing voice, the mahogany tones giving depth and stature to an under-written character, and Meester handles her songs like the beauty pageant contestant with Taylor Swift ambitions she is asked to play. But all of Paltrow’s considerable acting chops are not up to the challenge of playing either a country singer or a substance abuser. Her toned, willowy body and elegant, urban posture are out of place and her singing voice, while pleasant and tuneful is far better suited to the saucy songs she performed on “Glee.”

As in her first film, The Greatest, writer-director Shana Feste shows a great deal of promise, but like many excited beginners, she still has not figured out how to remove the clutter from her story. Individual scenes work well enough and the songs are very good but she juggles too many relationships with too many ups and downs and the conclusion feels unearned and tacked on. Part of the power of a country song is its simplicity in telling its story, a lesson Feste still needs to learn.

(more…)

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The Blind Side

Posted on March 22, 2010 at 8:00 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses drugs, social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Gun violence and some peril, car accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 20, 2009
Date Released to DVD: March 23, 2010
Amazon.com ASIN: B002VECM6S

“The Blind Side” is a movie about football that had its own broken field running challenge. It is the true story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher, a homeless black kid adopted by a wealthy white family. So, it could so easily have been syrupy, or condescending, or downright offensive. At worst, it could have been a cross between the Hallmark channel and “Diff’rent Strokes.”

There have been too many “magical Negro” characters in movies, the non-white character whose role in the story is to give some white people a spiritual or ennobling experience. And there have been too many of what my friend Tim Gordon calls “mighty whitey” movies, where some needy non-white person is helped by some saintly white person. And there have been way too many movies where someone says, with a catch in his or her throat, that “he helped me more than I could ever have helped him.” This movie risks failing in all three of these categories and somehow it manages to deftly come together to make the story genuinely touching. You may find yourself with a catch in your throat, not to mention a tear in your eye.

It helps that the story is true. The wealthy Touhey family did take in and then adopt a homeless black teenager whose life had been so chaotic that there was almost no record of his existence. He happened to go along with a friend who was applying to a private school on an athletic scholarship and was seen by the coach who recognized his ability. He is enormous and he is fast, both valuable in an offensive lineman. And this happened at just the time that the role of the offensive lineman was becoming one of the most critical positions on the team. Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock, in her Oscar-winning performance) explains at the beginning of the film, based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, that New York Giants lineman Lawrence Taylor changed the game. He went after quarterbacks like the Washington Redskins’ Joe Theismann, who received a career-ending injury because Taylor came after him in his blind spot. Hence the increased focus on protecting the quarterback, and that is the job for which Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) seems to have been designed.

It isn’t just that his is very big and very fast. It is another quality, the one that was identified when he was given a battery of tests as the only stand-out ability in a long list of failures. Tests showed that he had an extraordinary level of protective instinct and experience showed that he had an extraordinary ability as well.

She was never tested, but Leigh Anne is probably off the charts for protective instinct as well. It is this quality they share that makes us believe in their connection.

And it is another of Leigh Anne’s qualities that keeps the story from getting too sugary. She is kind of obnoxious. Girl-next-door Sandra Bullock shows us Leigh Anne’s determination and passionate dedication to her family and her ideals and makes us understand that she has a bit of a sense of humor about herself. When she has to admit her husband was right about something, she also concedes that the words taste like vinegar. She has no problem telling pretty much everyone from her condescending friends to the high school coach what they should do. But it is her vinegary spirit that makes the situation and the movie work. She does not cry over Oher’s trials and she does not act like he is her St. Bernhard puppy. She is just someone who has a strong sense of justice fueled by her faith, a quality too rarely portrayed in the media. And she has that protective instinct. Oher is not the usual gentle giant, which helps as well. He has a sense of humor and self-respect that makes clear that he is a full partner in becoming a member of the family, giving as much as he gets.

So this movie is smarter than it had to be, which gives its emotional core even more of punch. You’ve seen the highlights in the trailer. But the quiet moments in between and lovely performances by Bullock, Aaron, and Tim McGraw as Leigh Anne’s husband make this one of the best family films of the year.

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Based on a book Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Sports

Trailer: The Blind Side

Posted on August 9, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I know, I know, it has the inevitable “I got more from him than he ever got from me” scene and I am always cautious about “mighty whitey” (white person transforms the life of a person of color) and “magical Negro” (person of color transforms the life of a white person) movies. But there is something unmistakeably touching about this trailer and I am looking forward to the movie.

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