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Country Strong: Rich Country Drama
Country Strong follows Kelly (Paltrow), a fallen country singer struggling with addiction who embarks on a comeback tour with her husband and manager (McGraw) after her release from rehab. The storyline also follows the starting careers of two rising country stars, both of whom are opening acts on Kelly’s tour; Beau (Hedlund) and Chiles (Meester). The film focuses on Paltrow’s complex character as the struggling star and the supporting characters revolve around her in a web that has them all caught up between romances and fame.
Like the lyrics of a country song, the film has subtle nuances and bears a lot more than what appears on the surface. The actors give all that they have in terms of sincere performances and flawless singing. Paltrow presents a more realistic post-rehab image than what is usually portrayed in dramas; she craftily combines self-pity with hopelessness without a hint of exaggeration or pretentiousness.
However, the story itself drags on too long, to the point that you just want to get to the end of the film to see how it ends. The final thirty minutes is where the film really reaches its peak, with previous events making more sense and a couple of welcome twists before the end. However, the film could have done with more exciting scenes to compensate for the excessive focus on the characters’ very slow development.
The music in Country Song is pretty decent and features the real vocals of the whole cast; who would have known that Hudland – previously seen in the blockbuster Tron – had such a strong singing voice? Paltrow sings well enough to give weight to her characters’ singing capabilities. Fortunately, the songs don’t drag on too long to bore the audience; but long enough to give authenticity to the film.
Country fans are more likely to appreciate Country Strong both for the music and the story’s hidden depth and it will definitely be sending country/pop fans searching for the heartfelt soundtrack. It is also worth watching if you really want to make sure that Gwyneth Paltrow can sing, and she definitely can.
Harrelson has a starry supporting cast backing him up made up of the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Ben Foster and Robin Wright Penn. Brie Larson plays Dave’s daughter Helen, and after him, she’s the best thing about the film. The relationship between the two runs on hate and scorn mixed with a twisted kind of love. It brings to mind the saying about how blood is thicker than water. How you can hate a family member so much and see them for the worthless scum that they are, yet still allow their opinions and words to affect you. It’s a toxic relationship, one of many in the film, yet it packs a punch that the others don’t.
The story is occasionally difficult to keep track of as it jumps abruptly from one topic to another, but Dave’s internal conflict is more compelling than anything the story throws at you. Dave and Helen’s scenes together are far more powerful and infinitely more interesting than any of the scenes in which he brandishes a gun or kicks a guy to a bloody pulp. The film has some fine camera work; it forgoes flashiness just for the sake of it and instead focuses on bringing the viewer in closer to the actors. It works with the actors to set the scenes’ mood instead of just framing them.
Titled from a popular term which describes the early transfer of a young offender from a juvenile detention facility to an adult penitentiary, Starred Up is by no means an easy watch. However, as much as it is difficult to digest at times, there is a certain poetic beauty behind its seemingly violent and destructive quality that makes it difficult to look away from.
Shot within the walls of an abandoned Belfast prison, the film opens with troubled nineteen-year-old Eric Love (O’Connell) undergoing an embarrassing admittance process, involving a complete body strip down, as he’s transferred into an adult reformatory.
Immediately marked as a “single cell, high risk” type detainee, it doesn’t take long for Eric – whose frequent and violent outbursts got him relocated there in the first place – to stir up trouble and make enemies both with fellow inmates and security guards.
After a mistaken attack on another inmate lands the young delinquent into the disciplinary hands of the law, Eric is soon approached – and rescued – by the in-house therapist, Oliver Braumer (Friend), who believes that he can help the young man rehabilitate.
Unfortunately, getting to the root of Eric’s problems - and getting him to open up - is no easy task and Oliver - together with the other rehabilitating convicts - often find themselves the targets of both verbal and physical abuse. To top it off, Eric has to find a way to learn to share the walls of his new confinements with his estranged father, Nev (Mendelsohn), who is currently serving a life-sentence in the same prison.
Penned by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser – a former prison psychotherapist whose own experience with the British penal-system adds a hefty dose of authenticity and realism to the film – Starred Up, told through a series of wordless and violent expositions, is fuelled with gripping intensity which is hard to shake off. Relying on action, rather than words, the uniqueness – and the heart - of the story lies with the father-son narrative, whose bonding difficulties are depicted through the oppressiveness of life in prison.
Contributing to the movie’s relentless and uncompromising approach to despair and violence, O’Connell – mostly known for his role in the British TV-series Skins and recently seen as the lead in Angelina Jolie’s war-drama Unbroken – is an absolute standout; feral and unpredictable, his performance carries the film, while Mendelsohn is equally superb as a man whose persona and motives are seemingly hard to read.
Powerful, emotional but never too sentimental, Starred Up is a true British-prison drama classic whose quietly yielding power and passion for storytelling will leave you feeling captivated and moved.