Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) -- In “Country Strong,” Gwyneth Paltrow plays an alcoholic country-music legend whose career is in the dumps. She’s self-destructive, mired in a messy affair and shadowed by a rising protege.
It should, because Jeff Bridges won an Oscar last year for his portrayal of an almost identical character in “Crazy Heart.” “Country Strong” also has award aspirations, but the story and performances pale by comparison.
Instead of the gritty realism of “Crazy Heart,” we get a superficial, soap-opera story with a tragic ending. The material is better suited to one of those corny cable TV shows that chart the rise and fall of music superstars.
While in rehab recovering from her latest bout with booze and pills, Paltrow’s Kelly Canter meets scruffy young clinic worker Beau Hutton (a smoldering Garrett Hedlund), who also happens to be a talented singer/songwriter.
A romance ensues and continues, even after Kelly leaves rehab to embark on a comeback tour in Texas arranged by her controlling husband James (effectively played by country singer Tim McGraw). But Beau then falls for Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, looking like a Barbie doll), a former beauty queen and aspiring singer who has joined Beau as Kelly’s opening act.
Writer/director Shana Feste peppers the film with backstage scenes of Kelly swigging from the bottle, crying, smooching with Beau and arguing with her husband. The tour turns into a disaster until the final stop in Dallas, where a pregnant Kelly once fell off the stage in a drunken stupor.
The climactic concert -- and its tear-jerking aftermath -- are as predictable as the mention of a broken heart in a sad country song.
Lithe blond Paltrow looks somewhat like a modern country star and her voice (she, Hedlund and Meester do all their own singing) is pleasant enough. But she’s too elegant for a part that calls for the down-home simplicity of Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn.
“Country Strong,” from Screen Gems, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **
Bob Dylan once denigrated Phil Ochs by saying, ‘You’re not a folk singer. You’re a journalist.”
Ochs’s topical songs about war (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”), civil rights (“Here’s to the State of Mississippi) and striking miners (“No Christmas in Kentucky”) struck a chord with his generation in the 1960s. Alcoholism and mental illness eventually took their toll, however, and he committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 35.
Now largely forgotten, the singer gets a postmortem boost from a clear-eyed documentary titled “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune.” Written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, it restores Ochs’s rightful place in the social history of one of the most tumultuous decades in U.S. history.
While Ochs never had the impact of Dylan, he was admired by other activist performers like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. His political activities, including co-founding the Youth International Party (followers were known as Yippies), resulted in a lengthy FBI dossier.
The film includes vintage clips, many of Ochs’s songs and interviews with friends and fans such as Baez, Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Tom Hayden and Sean Penn. (Dylan is conspicuously absent.) Michael Ochs, who once managed his brother, and the singer’s widow, Alice, also contribute their memories of a man worth remembering.
“Phils Ochs: There But For Fortune,” from First Run Features, is playing in New York. Rating: ***
‘Season of Witch’
About three-quarters of the way through “Season of the Witch,” one of the characters says, “The end is in sight.”
That’s heartening news for anyone watching director Dominic Sena’s goofy supernatural adventure. It’s only 95 minutes long, but it seems like an eternity.
Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman play 14th-century knights who, after returning from the Crusades, are ordered to transport a suspected witch (Claire Foy) to a faraway monastery to stand trial for causing a plague.
Accompanied by a con man, a priest, an aspiring knight and a grieving man whose family died from the plague, the battle-weary pair are attacked by vicious wolves and almost perish crossing a rotting bridge.
Viewers would be better off if no one made it to the abbey, where dead monks, a winged demon and an impromptu exorcism turn what’s supposed to be a frightening scene into a campy finale.
“Season of the Witch,” from Relativity Media, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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