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I wonder if anyone had actually seen Country Strong before all the Oscar buzz started. Or is playing a troubled singer all it really takes? Country Strong stars Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter, a country star fresh out of rehab and trying to make a career comeback. Along for the bumpy ride are her husband/manager, Jim (Tim McGraw); a young singer, Chiles (Leighton Meester); and her rehab “sponsor” (read: love interest) and singer/songwriter, aptly named Beau (Garrett Hedlund).
Paltrow’s Canter is easily the least interesting character in the movie. Instead of seeing her really develop, the audience is subjected to watching her trapped in a cycle of drinking and crying. While this is certainly plausible, it does not make for a gripping story. Undoubtedly, the role would be exhausting to play, but it doesn’t really showcase Paltrow’s acting chops. She can sing, that’s for sure, but her guest spot on Glee also demonstrated her abilities, perhaps even better.
I found the developing relationship between Chiles and Beau the more engaging part of the film. Leighton Meester was both grating and relatable and I enjoyed seeing Chiles develop over the course of the story, as she tries to be both a country-pop princess and prove that she is more than just a former beauty queen. Beau is the heart of the story as he tries to help Kelly get better and negotiates developing feelings for Chiles. Garrett Hedlund brings the character a classic cowboy-with-a-soft-spot vibe without becoming clichéd and makes Beau pretty much impossible not to love.
What I most enjoyed about this movie is that the characters’ motives are consistently unclear. It’s hard to tell if Jim Canter is pushing his wife into a comeback tour for her good or for the good of her career. It’s hard to tell if Kelly is trying to get better or if she is just doing whatever she wants. It’s hard to tell if Chiles wants to be famous or wants to make good music. Mostly, it seems like the characters don’t know what they want or why and that makes their interactions and their development all the more realistic and compelling.
Since it’s bookended by a song about how “timing is everything,” it’s ironic that the pacing of the movie is so off. Some parts of the story drag on for too long while others aren’t given enough time to develop so their potential impact is short-shrifted in favor of less interesting material.
Country Strong was written and directed by Shana Feste, runs 112 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content. 3/5 stars

Black Swan, the ballet thriller starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, is also generating a lot of Oscar buzz and has already earned four Golden Globe nominations. Portman plays Nina, an obsessively driven ballerina who begins to come unraveled when she is cast as the lead in Swan Lake, a role that will require her to dance as both the pure white swan and the lustful black swan. Nina is pushed to let loose by director, Thomas, and to work harder by her overbearing mother, while she is also fearful of the competition, free-spirited Lily.
Black Swan was both raunchier and more graphic than I expected it to be. It is also a film that is not quickly forgotten. The storytelling is pretty messy, leaving a lot of moments dizzyingly unexplained at the end. Sometimes the imagery is a little predictable; for example Nina’s demise is paralleled by an old ballerina music box. At the same time, however, Black Swan is hauntingly scary, intense, and fascinating. Portman delivers a mesmerizing performance. 4/5 stars
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