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#625 December 25, 2010
M O V I E S
Country Strong (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
| Soundtrack (1)!
| Soundtrack (2)! Tron: Legacy (PG) BUY THE:Poster!
| Blu-ray Set!
| Movie Book! True Grit (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
Most of the media buzz about Country Strong has been of the "wow, Gwyneth Paltrow can sing!" variety--in so doing showing what a remarkably short memory the media has, as that same exclamation was bandied about some ten years ago when she first crooned impressively on celluloid in the (otherwise best forgotten) karaoke road movie Duets. Luckily Shana Feste's ensemble music drama gives Paltrow a much sturdier vehicle in which to showcase her pipes, whose Faith Hill-esque country-pop qualities lends great credibility to her role as a troubled superstar attempting a comeback post-rehab. While Paltrow's character's past is drawn a bit on the vague side, Feste paints a rawer, realer, and far more believable and compelling portrait of a self-destructive country artist's attempt at recovery than that of last year's horribly overrated Crazy Heart; she recognizes that certain problems and issues are far too complex to simply be cured with a facile, straight-out-of-a-TV-movie romance. While Paltrow does solid work as an actress and a singer, the big story here are her co-stars. Tim McGraw gets the one major non-singing role as Paltrow's all-business husband/manager, and he handily leaves his own real-life music star baggage aside; as two younger artists on the come-up, Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund show far more range (and such great vocal ability!) than they have so far in their careers--best exemplified by their central duet, "Give in to Me," which is both beautifully, movingly sung and a smoldering character moment. Perhaps this film will ultimately be best remembered as the one breakthrough dramatic vehicle for those two.
Of course, Hedlund already has his breakthrough commercial vehicle in Tron: Legacy, the much-hyped, mega-budgeted follow-up to the 1982 cult item. Considering that original film is still very much a geeky niche item (not to mention very dated), it comes as no surprise that for this belated sequel, the effects have been slicked-up and the action completely amped-up, with the familiar disc duels taking on a more martial arts influence and the iconic light cycle races more chaotic, visceral, and exciting. But what is surprising is how strongly rooted this is to the original mythology, with not only Jeff Bridges's original programmer character Flynn returning, but also his fleetingly seen virtual world doppelgänger Clu, who takes on a much more substantial role this time; and smaller callbacks to characters and events in the first film. But one doesn't need to be familiar with the first or even much of a fan (I'm certainly not one) to enjoy Joseph Kosinski's film as a simple sci-fi thrill ride, and in terms of action, visuals, and unpretentious fun, it works. Hedlund (and, for that matter, leading lady Olivia Wilde) isn't called on to do more than competently hold their own against the effects, for ample personality is provided by Michael Sheen, camping it up like his Twilight Saga villain as a club owner computer program; and most especially Bridges, who clearly has a ball reinventing his dual role: Clu as a colder, harsher figure and Flynn as some demented cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Dude.
Bridges has even more fun in another "reimagining" of an established property, True Grit--but then that shouldn't be a shock, given the brains behind this unlikely redo are Joel and Ethan Coen, who have made a fascinating study in how two films can follow the same source material fairly closely in terms of story beats but come up with interpretations so tonally, spiritually different--but equally valid. Like the 1969 John Wayne starrer, this follows Charles Portis's novel where a young girl (here, the remarkable Hailee Steinfeld) hires aging U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to avenge her father's death. But if that earlier film was more clearly a straight-arrow star vehicle, the Coen Brothers are going after something more complex: both quirkier (especially in Cogburn's interactions with Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, here played by Matt Damon; not to mention that rapid-fire Coens dialogue) and moodier, particularly in how it more distinctly focuses on the girl's point of view. The result is a western both entertaining and also with substantial staying power, thanks to the indelible personalities painted by the performances.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG) BUY THE:Poster!
| Novel Set!
| Audiobook Set!
Remember when the first Chronicles of Narnia film was such a zeitgeist pop culture event, as immortalized by Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell's ridiculously catchy "Lazy Sunday" rap ditty on Saturday Night Live? If the disappointing grosses of the series' blah second installment, Prince Caspian, were the C.S. Lewis franchise's dying breaths, than this even less interesting third adventure, rotely directed by Michael Apted, is the proverbial final nail. The two youngest Provensie siblings (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes) are transported back to the magical world of Narnia, where they must again aid magical lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) in a battle against an evil force... which takes the form of a green mist. That right there again points up what's been missing from the series since the first film (which I wasn't much of a fan of either but is looking much better in retrospect with each new installment): a strong, memorable adversary, and Tilda Swinton's continuing cameo appearances as the White Witch of the first film just further underscore the glaring void--something that most definitely is not hidden by shoddy 3-D post-conversion, of which this is the absolutely worst example to date.