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Country Strong, Casino Jack
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Jeff Bridges won an Academy Award this past year for playing a boozy country singer in Crazy Heart, but don't expect Gwyneth Paltrow to win even so much as a People's Choice Award for playing a similar part in Country Strong. It's not that Paltrow is terrible -- she does a valiant job trying to overcome the role's predictable arcs through sheer force of tears and slurred words -- but it's unlikely many folks will remember a movie that for all I know might indeed be "country strong" but is most assuredly cinematically weak.

Paltrow stars as country superstar Kelly Canter, who when the picture opens is being sprung from rehab a tad too early by her husband-manager James (Tim McGraw). Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), an orderly at the clinic, thinks this is a mistake; luckily for all concerned, he also turns out to be an aspiring singer-songwriter, so at James' insistence, he joins Kelly's upcoming three-city tour to keep an eye on her as well as serve as her opening act.

Also along for the ride is Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), another wannabe country star who's tasked with splitting the opening bill with Beau. From here, the movie turns into a soap-opera version of musical chairs. Beau is interested in Kelly and Chiles and songwriting. Kelly is interested in James and Beau and the bottle. Chiles is interested in Beau and James and superstardom. James is interested in Kelly and Chiles and Beau (wait, scratch that last one -- this ain't Brokeback Mountain).

Consistency is hardly the strong suit of writer-director Shana Feste. Beau is constantly applauded by the other characters for being one of the "few good ones," yet the way he ping-pongs between Kelly and Chiles makes him seem like merely a randy good ole boy. Chiles begins the picture as All About Eve's Eve Harrington before transforming into The Sound of Music's Maria.

And even for a boozehound, Kelly's actions rarely make sense from one scene to the next (this leads to a ridiculous WTF ending that left me cold). At least the unlikely character transitions allow the actors to provide some shadings to their portrayals. Hedlund is utilized far better here than in TRON: Legacy, while McGraw's minimalist efforts work just fine for the part of James. And in the unlikely chance this proves to be a hit, it might provide Meester (TV's Gossip Girl) with her breakout role, considering she makes the best impression of the four leads.

At almost a full two hours, the film is criminally overlong and appears to have as many false endings as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The soundtrack includes many country tunes both old and new, but the only one that kept racing through my increasingly bored mind was Willie Nelson's "Wake Me When It's Over."



2010 saw the release of an informative and entertaining movie about Jack Abramoff, the powerful right-wing lobbyist who ended up behind bars for bribing public officials and swindling Native American tribes. Unfortunately for the makers of the feature film Casino Jack, that would be Alex Gibney's documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

This new Casino Jack -- like Country Strong, opening wider after a year-end Oscar-qualifying run -- finds Kevin Spacey essaying the role of Abramoff, although the lack of surprises in the actor's performance always reminds us that it's Kevin Spacey, not Jack Abramoff, up there on the screen. Abramoff is a hideous human being in real life, but writer Norman Snider and the late director George Hickenlooper make the mistake of attempting to humanize this Washington weasel by adding self-righteous monologues, unconvincing moments of introspection and an it's-all-the-system's-fault! approach. Admittedly, flawed or conflicted protagonists are generally more interesting than out-and-out heroes or villains, but that's not a requirement, as such pictures as Raging Bull and Scarface have proven.

The film's biggest fault is that it tackles the whole sordid saga like a comedy. A surreal satire that accentuates the absurd might have worked (think Robert Altman or even Blake Edwards), but Hickenlooper adopts a loud, jokey approach that often relies on buffoonish performances (the cast includes Jon Lovitz), a slapstick pace, and too much attention paid to Abramoff's fondness for mimicry.