Logan Lucky


Logan Lucky gives you the most Joe Bang for your buck.

(2017) Heist Comedy (Bleecker Street) Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Daniel Craig, David Denman, Farrah Mackenzie, Seth MacFarlane, Charles Halford, Hilary Swank, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, LeAnn Rimes, Macon Blair, Ann Mahoney. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

When Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from directing Side Effects in 2012, a lot of film buffs – this one included – were disappointed. Soderbergh had been for more than 20 years one of the most fascinating and interesting directors ever since emerging from the indie ranks. He’d directed huge blockbusters and small intimated films but the time had come for him to hang it all up.

Thankfully, he couldn’t stay away for very long and his retirement only lasted five years. He’s back with this stupid entertaining film that can best be described as Elmore Leonard by way of The Dukes of Hazzard or the unholy lovechild of Oceans 11 and Talladega Nights.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is a former football star whose NFL dreams were derailed by a knee injury. Since then, he’s worked whatever jobs he could find, be them in the mines of West Virginia or a construction gig in North Carolina. Through it all he makes the time to be a dad to Sadie (Mackenzie) who lives with her mom Bobbie Jo (Holmes) and her new husband Moody (Denman).

The Logan clan has always been the poster children for the adage “If it wasn’t for bad luck they wouldn’t have any luck at all.” Jimmy’s bum knee comes to the attention of the insurance company who deem it a pre-existing condition and the construction company that Jimmy is working for in the bowels of the Charlotte Motor Speedway has to let him go. To make matters worse, it turns out that Moody is opening up a new car dealership in a distant part of West Virginia and Jimmy is likely not going to see his daughter hardly at all. Moving to be close to his little girl is something he simply can’t afford.

So he decides that he is going to have to finance his life the old-fashioned way – by stealing, and he has a whopper of a plan. He’s going to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a car show when the attendance is low and security is lax. Jimmy can’t do the job by himself so he enlists his war veteran brother Clyde (Driver) who lost his arm in Iraq, and his hairdresser sister Mellie (Keough).

Even that won’t be enough however; he needs a demolition expert and there are none better at it than Joe Bang (Craig). Unfortunately, Joe has had a disagreement with the law and is currently in residence at the West Virginia state penitentiary.. Jimmy and Clyde are going to have to break out Joe so his absence isn’t noticed and sneak him back in so that it’s like he was never gone. Why not just stay out? Because he’s close to his parole date and he doesn’t want to mess it up. Jimmy’s got a plan for that too, however.

Heist movies, when done properly are maybe the most entertaining of all movie genres. Fortunately, this one is done properly. It has a large cast but not too large; it’s got some fairly impressive names in it and a director who knows how to make use of them. The writing is taut and smart and even though much of the dialogue is delivered in thick Mountaineer State accents the pacing moves at lightning speed. There is literally never a dull moment in this film.

I have to admit that early on in Tatum’s career I was not a fan. I’m happy to say that I am now however. He has worked hard and improved almost with every movie; he has learned to improve where he can and on those things he hasn’t improved upon (yet) he makes sure he chooses roles that don’t accentuate his flaws. He has enough onscreen charm to make Leona Helmsley smile through a toothache and of course just about any lady (and quite a few men) will tell you that he’s not so hard on the eyes.

Daniel Craig is a revelation here. Generally he plays tightly wound characters but here he seems to let absolutely loose and have more fun than I’ve ever seen him have with a character, well, ever. With his bottle blonde spiky hair and cornpone accent so thick that it might have been laid on with a trowel, he inhabits the character without fear or inhibition. I would be happy to see a Joe Bang spin-off movie.

Soderbergh excels at these sorts of movies. His Oceans series is proof of that but he knows how to pace a movie to leave the audience breathless. This is about as high-octane as a NASCAR race and the viewer never has to wonder for a moment what’s going to happen next because Soderbergh wastes not a moment in this film. He also infuses it with a jet-propelled soundtrack of roots rock, country and high-octane rockers that hit the audience like a dose of jet fuel.

Now those of a Southern rural background might take offense to this and I can’t say as I blame them. The movie really plays to Hollywood stereotypes as the Southern rubes that are street-clever and get one over on the city slickers It is this kind of disparagement that drove many West Virginians to vote for Trump. Maybe that’s something liberal filmmakers should take a look at objectively.

As it is this is as fun a movie as I’ve seen this summer and after a season of bloated blockbusters and over-hyped disappointments it’s a pleasure to just sit back and enjoy a movie that you don’t have to think about but just have fun with. This has the makings of a sleeper hit if it gets marketed right; sadly, that doesn’t appear to have been the case. A lot of moviegoers don’t know much about this movie whose trailer wasn’t much seen in theaters or on television. Hopefully enough will catch on that this is a fun movie that is everything that a summer movie should be. That should be enough to call an audience out of the heat and into the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of material that is right in Soderbergh’s wheelhouse.  The film is blessed with clever writing and a terrific soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Rural Southerners might find the stereotypes offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some crude comments as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatum and Keough both co-starred in Magic Mike, also directed by Soderbergh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baby Driver
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sidemen: Long Road to Glory

Deidra and Laney Rob a Train


Deidra and Laney are on top of the train situation.

(2017) Young Adult Comedy (Netflix) Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, Missi Pyle, Sharon Laurence, David Sullivan, Danielle Nicolet, Myko Olivier, Sasheer Zamata, Arturo Castro, Kinna McInroe, Brooke Markham, Cj Strong, Deborah Lee Douglas, Tua Kealoha, Lance Gray, Chad Wright, Gerry Garcia, Nick Moceri, Kami Christiansen, Monica Moore Smith. Directed by Sydney Freeland

 

When you’re a single parent, making ends meet can be no easy task, especially if your employment options are limited and your ex isn’t paying the child support they owe. It’s a difficult situation, one which can go from precarious to catastrophic in a single moment.

Deidra (Murray) is the class valedictorian in a small Idaho town where she is the oldest of three children, including her middle sister Laney (Crow) and her youngest brother Jet (Gray) who likes to play with action figures. They live on the wrong side of the tracks (literally; the train tracks border their back yard) with their mom Marigold (Nicolet) who works at a Best Buy-type electronics store.

One afternoon she unexpectedly loses it at work and goes on a rampage, smashing a big screen TV to pieces. Her erstwhile employer not only presses charges, they insist on making her out to be a domestic terrorist, raising her bail to unaffordable heights. There are bills to pay and Deidra realizes that not only can they not afford to keep food on the table or the electricity turned on, a social welfare worker (McInroe) is threatening to move Jet into a foster home if they can’t demonstrate that the environment is suitable.

In desperation, Deidra visits her ex-con dad Chet (Sullivan) who works as a technician for the railroad. He only has $13 to give them but he gives Deidra something much more valuable; an idea for a way out. He offhandedly mentions that there have been a spate of train robberies lately that have gone unsolved and the railroad brass has sent a security specialist named Truman (Nelson) to investigate. Vaping incessantly, he also has a checkered past in which he’d been drummed out of law enforcement for excessive use of force. He is clearly not a man to be trifled with.

Nonetheless Deidra figures out that she can hop aboard a freight car, break the lock and take whatever she can find in them. She knows she can’t do this alone so she enlists her sister Laney – who is embroiled in the Miss Teen Idaho pageant which she had only entered to support her “friend” Claire (Markham) who immediately turned her back on Laney when Laney was also selected as a finalist . Laney is at first reluctant but when things start to get desperate she agrees to help.

Deidra also enlists her ex-boyfriend Jerry (Olivier), who she dumped for selling pot, to sell the stolen merchandise on E-Bay. She’s set a goal of $12,000 which would be sufficient to catch them up on their bills and get their mom out on bail. She’s also pressured by the guidance counselor Ms. Spencer (Zamata) who believes that if she can get just one student out of town on a scholarship she’ll get promoted and Deidra is her best shot at it. With all this going on, the social worker and the railroad dick both sniffing around their lives and her dad trying to make up years of neglect to his kids, can this high school senior and her sister pull off the larceny they need to get their family whole again?

Those who have paid attention to my reviews over the years should by now realize that I’m not a big fan of the programming on the Freeform cable network. This movie positively reeks of the things that really make me frown about the cable network’s offerings. The script is absolutely ludicrous; for one thing, can you imagine a mother, particularly one who realizes she is the sole support for her kids, melting down like that and then treating her jail time as a vacation? None but the most irresponsible of parents would react that way and even then if they were of that nature they likely would have had their kids taken away from them long before. For some reason (and this goes back a long ways before Freeform was a gleam in Disney’s eye) kids movie/TV show writers delight in making adults be absolutely incompetent so that they can show how kids can solve their own problems.

Of course, normally Freeform and other Disney outlets don’t approve of using crime to solve the problems that their heroes and heroines are grappling with, but these are interesting times. For the working class, these types of conditions are reality and while the mom being hauled off to jail would in reality have ALL the kids taken to foster care, life for the working class particularly in rural towns is bleak and hopeless in a lot of ways – you can see why they chose to vote for the maverick outsider when it seemed like neither political party gave a rat’s behind about their situation. The movie reflects that frustration.

Murray, who also starred in the CW series Riverdale this spring, is a find. She plays Deidra as smart without being condescending and compassionate while being fierce. She avoids the clichés that so many young adult actresses fall into. Sadly, the material she has to work with here isn’t really up to her performance.

While the movie is entertaining for the main part, it’s clearly meant for a young adult audience and will offer little for audiences with a “two” or more as the first number in their age. I’m of the perhaps misguided belief that you can write terrific material for young adults without talking down to them as this movie does; it creates a world where the right thing to do is the wrong thing to do also. While empowering the girls in the movie, it also empowers them without consequences to their actions, something that really doesn’t happen often in the real world, even for adults. I applaud the filmmakers for making this an inclusive film that looks at the real economic situations faced by working class families everywhere; I just wish they could have presented real solutions and real information that kids who find themselves needing to be empowered can do so without fear of being jailed for it.

REASONS TO GO: Murray avoids young adult actress clichés. There is a decent entertainment value here.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a Freeform/Afterschool Special vibe (not necessarily a good thing). The ludicrous plot is clearly meant for youngsters, not adults.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and some just as mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The high school scenes were filmed at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meghan Leavey

Miss Bala


The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Coururier, Gabriel Heads, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque, Juan Carlos Galvan, Lakshmi Picazo, Javier Zaragoza, Leonor Vitorica, Hugo Marquez, Eduardo Mendizabal, Sergio Gomez Padilla, Felipe Morales, Sergio Miguel Martinez, Gabriel Chavez, Leticia Huijara Cano. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Innocence is a commodity that falls by the wayside in a corrupt society. It is hard not to take sides when absolute power rules with brutality and intimidating force and often the side you take is not one taken of your own free will.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a sweet and unassuming teenager who works selling secondhand clothes with her father (Zaragoza) and little brother (Galvan). On a whim she and her close friend Suzu (Picazo) decide to enter their names for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. That night they decide to go to a local night club and party.

During the evening, a group of thugs shoot up the club. Laura, who was in the bathroom at the time, escaped but witnessed the whole thing, being one of the few survivors. Her ordeal is just beginning; she is kidnapped the very next day and taken to Lino Valdez (Hernandez), the head of the drug cartel. Lino. Rather than executing the witness however, he uses her as a courier to ferry money across the border into the United States, bringing back arms and ammunition.

Lino and his gang use her brother and father to control her, threatening to execute them if she doesn’t do as they say and so she becomes a part of the gang. When they figure she can be useful for them as a pageant winner, they get her into the Miss Baja pageant and bribe the judges into letting her win. Her high profile allows them to use her as a means of seducing the powerful General Salomon Duarte (Couturier) and gaining control over him by that means. However, when she discovers that Suzu had not survived the shooting at the club (they assured her that she had), she realizes that nobody is getting out of this alive and she is left with a big decision to make.

As thrillers go this one is raw and gritty and sometimes not so pretty, even given the beauty pageant background. It displays the effects that intimidation, violence and brutality have on the lives of those caught in the crossfire and does so very effectively. Although it didn’t make the final short list, it was submitted as Mexico’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2012 Academy Awards.

There’s a gritty realism that shows not only the desperation and poverty of the people who live in Baja but also the arrogance, the brutality and the opulence of those in power. The consequences of our war on drugs have never had such a human face as this.

Sigman is not well known to me as an actress; she has mainly appeared in Mexican films and since this movie was made has had a recurring role on the F/X TV series The Bridge. She certainly has the beauty and the innocent look but there isn’t a lot of emotion that we get from her other than terror which isn’t necessarily a deficiency on her part – the role doesn’t really call for much else and therein lies the main problem with the movie.

We really don’t get to know Laura at all before the massacre and kidnapping. She seems like a fairly sweet kid, a typical Mexican teenager trying to help her family make ends meet. However, the movie gets into the action so quickly (which isn’t normally an issue for me) that by the time we really know what’s happening Laura is already in victim mode, and that’s really the only way we know her throughout the film all the way to its ambiguous ending.

Sometimes the ins and outs of the politics of the movie can be a bit confusing as to who is on who’s side, who is screwing who and who is at war with who. Things do come out of left field seemingly and while that keeps us off-balance a little bit, some further explanation might have been helpful, particularly for us gringos.

Where the movie excels is in its suspense and tension. From the moment the massacre starts most viewers will be on the edge of their seats, and not really sure what’s going to come at them next. Think of it as riding a roller coaster blindfolded and never sure if you’re going to go flying out of your seat. Some might find that an unpleasant experience but for the purposes here that does satisfy the Type A personality in me.

Despite the recent upsurge in quality Mexican films, this one didn’t get a great deal of attention when it was released back in the early months of 2011 which is a bit of a shame. While it isn’t as good as, say, Y tu mama tambien or Amores perros it is as good as any thriller that has come out from Hollywood in recent years.

WHY RENT THIS: Raw and gritty. Raises the thriller bar up a notch..

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Don’t really connect with Laura as much as we should. Occasionally confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a goodly amount of sometimes strong and bloody violence as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on Laura Zuniga, the former Miss Sinaloa, beauty queen and model who was arrested on December 22, 2008 for narcotics trafficking.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maria, Full of Grace

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Being Flynn

Little Miss Sunshine


Little Miss Sunshine

The Hoover family weathers yet another catastrophe but they suck it up in the end.

(2006) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Bryan Cranston, Beth Grant, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Wallace Langham, Lauren Shiohama, Matt Winston. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Some families seem to live charmed lives, while others seem to live under a cloud. Thus it is with the Hoovers, a middle class family living in suburban New Mexico that on the surface seem pretty normal – a supportive mom, a self-employed dad, an irascible grandpa and two kids. However, beneath the surface, there is nothing normal about any of them. 

Into this mix comes Uncle Steve (Carrell), the brother of mom Sheryl (Collette). He has just been discharged from the hospital after a suicide attempt. At the dinner table, he tries to explain why he tried to kill himself. It wasn’t because of the failed love affair with a grad student – a male grad student to the bemusement of grandpa – or the loss of his job after a meltdown, or the fact that his ex-lover has taken up with his rival, the second best Proust scholar in America. It’s just that his grant has been yanked and given instead to his ex’s new beau.

Everybody is kind of living in their own little world. Grandpa (Arkin) has been kicked out of the retirement community he loved being in because of his excessive drug use, and I’m not talking about the kind prescribed for his colon problems. Teenaged Dwayne (Dano) dreams of going to flight school and flying fighter planes for the Air Force, and has taken a vow of silence until he achieves that dream. Little Olive (Breslin) wants only to be the next Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant winner.

Sheryl is trying to hold everything together, but it isn’t easy. Money is tight, especially since her husband Richard (Kinnear) has quit his job in an attempt to sell a self-help system he came up with called “The Nine Steps.” However, there is light at the end of the tunnel – his agent Stan Grossman (Cranston) is going to a self-help convention in Scottsdale, Arizona and is supremely confident he’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. Richard is nervously…ok, agonizingly, awaiting the phone call that the deal is done.

Things change when a different kind of phone call arrives. The little girl who won the regional pageant that Olive was runner-up in has been disqualified and Olive can now go to the finals in Redondo Beach, California. She goes absolutely nuts with joy. Flying her there is out of the question – the family can’t afford it. Sheryl can’t drive her all the way there, since they won’t all fit in Sheryl’s car and the VW microbus is a stick shift and Sheryl only drives an automatic. There is no question of leaving Steve by himself, since he is still technically on suicide watch. That means everybody goes, even though Dwayne would rather be eaten alive by army ants.

They set off into the land of the surreal; driving along the southwestern highways that lead from Albuquerque to L.A. Along the way, every disaster you can possibly think of befalls the family, from financial to mechanical to personal. As the journey continues, each member of the family will have to face their own personal crisis and eventually, all of them will have to come together to support little Olive in her dream, despite enormous obstacles.

This is quite plainly the funniest movie I saw that year by far. I was laughing out loud throughout the movie, and during the climactic scene, nearly nonstop. I was laughing so hard Da Queen was beginning to wonder what species had accompanied her to the theater; judging from the hooting sounds I was making, it sure wasn’t Homo sapiens

Unlike a lot of modern comedies, this is a movie that doesn’t rely on one cast member to carry the jokes. In fact, it’s fair to say that nobody in the movie is overtly comedic. This is a comedy of situation and of character. Yeah, there are some good one-liners, but for the most part, this is a bunch of more-or-less ordinary people just trying to get by as their situation spirals out of control. They are riding in a microbus that sabotages them at every turn (they must push the bus to start it and then run like track stars to leap into the side door, and this bus also has the most persistent horn in the world – it emits the noise that you would expect of a wounded or dying roadrunner). 

A lot of people will go to see this because Steve Carrell is in it, but he isn’t the star of the movie. This is most definitely an ensemble piece and everyone continues pretty much equally. Kinnear generally appears in roles as affable but backbone-challenged guys, and he gently spoofs his own image here, a kind of nudge-and-wink job that doesn’t get in the way of the movie but adds to it. Carrell plays it very low-key, keeping the wackiness pretty much to everyone else. He isn’t the straight man per se, but the closest thing to it in this movie. Youngster Paul Dano has the toughest row to hoe, having to be completely without dialogue most of the movie, but he does a great job at getting across teen angst without saying a word.

Still, I loved Toni Collette in this. She plays a supportive mom who has to deal with a chaotic situation nearly non-stop and she loses it in a couple of places but in a manner that is not so over-the-top and perfectly believable. I think that’s really the key as to why this movie works so well – everyone in it is so believable, even the bitchy pageant official (Grant). Nobody sinks to caricature in this. Even Breslin as Olive is not annoying in the least.

As with all good comedies, there are moments of pathos and revelation. In the end, what keeps the Hoover family going is that they are a family and they lean on each other, dysfunctional as they are. There is a tender moment during the movie where Dwayne is completely shattered, sitting in a field and utterly lost. He doesn’t want to go on anymore. Little Olive just walks out to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. A simple moment between a little sister and her big brother that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative at all; it’s a completely natural little gesture of comfort that works because that’s what brothers and sisters do.

Dayton and Faris come from a music video background; this is only their second feature and the first to really make any impact. They took a tightly written script (by Michael Arndt) and delivered it without hamstringing it with cliché. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff; it’s simply a seriously funny movie that will be the kind of movie you’ll be able to watch a lot of times without it losing its freshness, and that’s a very difficult and rare achievement for a comedy.

WHY RENT IT: Laugh-out-loud funny throughout that isn’t dominated by one chracter or actor; the actors are believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those looking for a Steve Carrell movie will be disappointed; he is as restrained as he ever has been in a movie and is simply a cog in the machine here.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little bad language, a little sex and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Abigail Breslin wore a fat suit during filming to make Olive look a little chubbier than she actually is.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a music video by DeVotchKa as well as four different alternate endings.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100.5m on an $8M production budget: the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Illusionist

Country Strong


Country Strong

This is...American Idol!

(2010) Musical Drama (Screen Gems) Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Gabe Sipos, Lisa Stewart Seals, Jackie Welch, Meagan Henderson, Katie Cook. Directed by Shana Feste

There is an itch in most of us to be famous, but in some it’s more like a rash. Those in that sad condition can’t ignore it, can’t cure it, can only go about pursuing their obsession in a single-minded manner. Fame, however, shines a spotlight on us that few can bear for very long and when we fall apart, the whole world watches.

That’s what happened to Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country superstar whose bouts with the bottle led to a drunken incident during a Dallas concert which led to a miscarriage. Now in rehab, her husband and manager James (McGraw) is pulling her out a full month early in order for her to embark on a tour to rehab her image. Beau (Hedlund), who is an orderly at her treatment facility and an aspiring singer/songwriter himself (and a good one), is aghast but at Kelly’s insistence he accompanies her on the tour as an opening act and to a certain extent, as a watchdog to make sure she doesn’t drink. He’s more successful at the former than the latter.

Also on the tour is Chiles Stanton (Meester), a former Miss Dallas who has gone from beauty pageants to honky tonks in a single minded pursuit of Nashville glory. Kelly suspects that James is sleeping with Chiles, which is a little bit hypocritical since she has been sleeping with Beau since rehab. And Chiles is sweet on Beau, despite Beau’s disinterest. Yes, everyone sleeps with everyone else except I suspect Beau and James. They probably don’t sleep together. And Chiles and Kelly? In your dreams, pervert.

Kelly, with pressure mounting on her for a comeback, is patently unready for the Texas tour that is going to take her back to Dallas at its conclusion. She worries that she has become too old for her stardom and certainly for her husband who is no longer interested in her romantically but remains her manager nonetheless, shamelessly manipulating his wife. The miscarriage sits between them like the Great Wall of China. She begins to drink again, with devastating consequences.

All of this leads to some pretty public meltdowns that all the spin in the world is going to fail to erase. Can Kelly get her act together and show the world what country strong is all about? Will Chiles get the stardom she so desperately seeks? And will Beau, with his distaste for money, find an audience of his own? Tune in.

Roger Ebert likened this to movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s and I can agree with him there – the elements of A Star is Born are too many to count. Feste doesn’t appear to be out to give us an insider’s view of the country music world; instead, this is a look at the downside of fame, the dark side of ambition and the redemptive power of a really good song.

The three singers all contribute their own vocals, lending more authenticity to the proceedings. Paltrow again delivers, not only vocally but as the fragile singer. Kelly is a woman who was strong once upon a time, but the constant pressure and rootless lifestyle have taken their toll. Now she’s a woman trapped in a marriage that’s unfulfilling, lost in a sea of booze and bad breaks. She latches onto Beau as a life preserver and he’s only too happy to fill that bill.

Hedlund, recently seen in TRON: Legacy, plays the aw-shucks cowboy with a heart on his sleeve nicely. His vocals have a nice timbre, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix assaying Johnny Cash (as a matter of fact, Trace Adkins covers one of Beau’s songs on the end credits). His chemistry with Meester is undeniable (there were rumors that the two had an off-screen romance as a result of the movie that have been denied by both camps) and he makes a good foil for McGraw.

Tim McGraw made his bones as a country singer but he has acting chops as well. He tends to do well with roles that give him more of a strong center to work from, and James Canter has that. He is manipulative yes, but he’s also dedicated and honestly believes that he’s doing the right thing for his wife. There’s a scene late in the movie that has Kelly doing a Make-a-Wish visit to a child’s schoolroom where the two begin to dance together in the classroom, then abruptly James pulls away. It’s one of the best single scenes of his career and shows that if he wanted to carry a movie on his own (which he’s never done), he certainly has the charisma and chops to do it.

The movie stumbles in the very last scene which is a shame because the shameless Hollywood ending counteracts the effectiveness of the movie’s twists and turns in the last reel. Without that one scene, or rather, the appearance of one person at its conclusion, this would have gotten a higher rating from me than it did. That’s how critical a single scene can be to the perception of an entire movie, something aspiring filmmakers would do well to remember.

Country Strong is surprising in that it’s a much better movie than I anticipated it would be, expecting more of a generic country-infused music biz soap opera. While there is some of that in here (particularly in the complex romantic relationships), it is more of a look at the effects of fame on a treasured artist, and the human toll that fame takes. That wasn’t the movie I expected, but I for one am glad it’s the movie I got.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few unforeseen twists in the movie that make it worth viewing. McGraw and Paltrow give fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters of Beau and Chiles a bit cliche. Very last scene blows off goodwill from the movie’s final direction.

FAMILY VALUES: Much of the plot involves the results of alcohol and drug abuse; there is also some fairly sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim McGraw, a real-life country star, is the only one of the four leads who doesn’t sing onscreen (he does contribute a duet with Paltrow over the closing credits).  

HOME OR THEATER: The concert sequences work best in a big theater with a big sound system.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Dilemma

Whip It


Whip It

Ellen Page flies around the track, hoping her Juno reputation isn't following her.

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Zoe Bell. Directed by Drew Barrymore

The movies have had a love-hate relationship with the roller derby. A number of fine documentaries have been made on the subject of the skaters and their passion for this sport that many dismiss as pro wrestling on wheels (and those that do are ignorant of how physically taxing it is) dating back forty years, but few feature films have captured that world.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a tiny Texas town outside of the state capital of Austin and like many trapped in tiny Texas towns knows that there are two things expected of those being raised there; that the boys will love football and try out for the team, and the girls will love cheerleading and enter into beauty pageants, which is what Bliss’ hyperthyroid mom (Harden) is pushing her into. Bliss despises it and despises what she is expected to conform into being. She and her friend Pash (Shawkat) are octagonal pegs in rhomboidal holes.

Then, while on a trip to Austin, Bliss spies a flyer for a female roller derby event, and thinking it might be fun, convinces Pash to attend with her. Bliss realizes that this is something that speaks to her, watching girls beat the crap out of one another while whirling around a banked track. Bliss apparently has some sadomasochistic tendencies deep in her teenaged DNA.

She wrangles a try-out with one of the league’s sad sack teams, the Hurl Scouts (so named because they dress like girl scouts…all the teams have gimmicks like that) and to her surprise, she makes the team. She adopts the skater persona of Babe Ruthless (and yes, these are the kinds of names the real skaters take) and quickly becomes a break-out star in the league. She also finds kindred spirits in fellow skaters Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), as well as a surly rival in Iron Maven (Lewis) who skates for another team, the high and mighty High Rollers.

Of course, the manure hits the fan when mommy finds out and while her henpecked dad (Stern) is all for it, her mom forbids her lil’ angel from competing in a sport where she actually might get…bruised. You see, she neglected to tell her team she’s underaged, a major no-no. With a big match coming up and the clutches of conformity reaching out to grab her, Bliss has to make up her mind to decide to be what others expect of her or to find her own way.

Barrymore makes her directorial debut and quite frankly it’s a pretty good one. Like Barrymore herself, the movie has charm, wit and heart, and an excellent indie rock soundtrack. While Barrymore seems to be at home acting in romantic comedies these days, she actually pulls together this coming of age dramedy quite nicely.

It helps that she has a nifty cast to help pull it off. Harden is making a nice niche for herself as the overbearing mom, and she pulls it off without a hitch. Stern, who was a presence in the 80s and 90s and has gone largely MIA of late, is also satisfying as the dad.

The roller derby sequences weren’t a disgrace either; most of the actresses did their own skating and a number of actual skaters play minor roles in the film. You get a sense of the physicality of the sport and the conditioning needed to be any good at it, which sets it above a lot of sports movies these days which rely overly much on treacle to sell their storyline.

There are a few lapses in logic however. For example, the movie is set in Texas but nobody other than Harden seems to have the twang. I guarantee you if you got this many people together in Austin more than one of them would have the distinctive Texas twang. Also, I find it hard to believe that a mom like Harden would have missed the bumps, bruises and cuts that her daughter surely would have after a full-contact sport like roller derby. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Bliss would escape each of the matches without a scratch.

The movie has a fine empowerment message and looks at the sport and those who participate in it with some fondness and even reverence, which is a change from the low regard it is often held in. For my money, this is some superior entertainment that establishes Barrymore as a director with a future, and adds a little depth to Page’s resume as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The girl empowerment theme is done nicely. Page and her skating cohorts are believable in the derby sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough Texas twang here, as well as other lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is on the crude side there are certainly some sexual situations and drug usage but mild enough that most teens should be okay to see this, although the more impressionable sorts should get a long look before putting this in the DVD/Blu-Ray player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Shauna Cross was once a real-life skater in the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and took several of the character names, team names and backstage plot lines were taken from her experiences there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Perhaps owing to the movie’s disappointing box office receipts, there is a dearth of interesting features here; however, a Fox Movie Channel “Writer’s Draft” series on screenwriter Shauna Cross is a welcome addition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.6M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For those interested in the real thing, the TXRD website (the league depicted in the film) is here.