- The Lunch with L.A. Weekly Chief Film Critic Amy Nicholson: Tom Cruise, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and ‘Snowpiercer’
- The Lunch with Director William Eubank of ‘The Signal’
- The Lunch with Gillian Robespierre, director, ‘Obvious Child’
- The Lunch with Alex Pappademas of Grantland.com on ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past …’
- The Lunch with AJ Bowen of ‘The Sacrament’
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Tag Archives: Gwyneth Paltrow
It’s OK to laugh at “Country Strong” prior to seeing it; I know I did. Writer-director Shana Feste‘s film is saddled with substantial burdens, some of which are illusions and some of which are all too real. The title sounds like the slogan for Chevy’s new truck marketing initiative. There are several moments where characters wander around with a central metaphor literally tucked into a cigar box. There is also the seemingly incongruous idea of Gwyneth Paltrow, the gleaming golden yoga demigod of the jet set, playing a vodka-swilling Grammy-winning country artist who has been up and down the 12 steps of recovery so often she might as well just have an escalator put in.
But actually watching “Country Strong” proves surprisingly satisfactory in many ways. Feste clearly loves country music — not with the starry-eyed ardor of young love, but rather with the mix of well-informed delight and disappointment that characterizes any long-term relationship. The actual songs — so often the weak point in movies about the intersection of art and commerce that is the music industry (or, alternately, the place where art and commerce diverge) — are all strong, and in many cases excellent. And Paltrow is not only very good, she’s also matched with a supporting cast that bring life even to the script’s more cliché moments.
Paltrow’s Kelly Canter is being released from rehab early. Her husband and manager, James (Tim McGraw), wants to get back on the horse, and the tour bus. James has handpicked an opening act, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), an ex-beauty queen whom I mentally referred to as “Taylor Not-So-Swift,” pretty and poppy and presold. Kelly’s pick for an opener is Beau (Garrett Hedlund), a new face with old-school style, whom Kelly met while he was working at her rehab center and showed a mix of kindness and self-interest in her care, and whom we first meet singing Merle Haggard‘s “Silver Wings,” which makes it pretty easy for us, and her, to like him.
Of course, the road back to touring isn’t easy, especially with the “All About Eve” complication of Chiles — young, pretty, agreeable — making Kelly feel doubts she tries to drown in sin and booze. And Beau’s self-righteous streak — he calls Chiles “Country Barbie,” to which she simply says, “Thank you” — is also making the tour a challenge. But Feste makes everyone on-screen people — flawed, selfish, capable of cruelty and kindness. If McGraw were a car, he would have one gear, marked “stolid,” but that’s served him well on-screen before, and it does here. Meester turns what could have been a shallow joke into a person, and you believe both that Chiles has every idea of what she wants and no idea who Townes Van Zandt is. It’s welcome enough to see Hedlund emoting in even the smallest way after the neon numbness of “Tron: Legacy,” but he also hits some welcome notes as a headstrong-but-decent man who’s also a bit of a bastard, and he has a great low, soulful singing voice.
Paltrow, for her part, is great, and while she can’t save some of the film’s weaker scenes, she makes the strong ones soar. She has vocal chops, but you also buy her showmanship, and a scene where a cynically conceived Make-a-Wish visit becomes something sincere (which, in a post-modern way, actually is kind of cynical, but Paltrow and Feste pull it off) is impressive. At one point, worn luminous with exhaustion, Kelly looks to her husband and asks, sadly, “Will you remember me like I was?” Later, at a comeback show in Dallas, Kelly pops in on Chiles for a heart-to-heart that’s sincere, sweet, blunt and funny before giving one hell of a show.
Finally, the songs in “Country Strong” — the new ones, written for it — range from good to truly impressive. The title track is a perfect piece of new country, a fake Shania Twain-style number, “Shake That Thing,” and is executed by Paltrow with sass and skill. And “Give In to Me,” a duet between Hedlund and Meester, is the sort of plaintive, heartfelt ballad you can imagine being played as the first dance at VFW hall weddings for the next two decades. “Country Strong” stumbles, and has some slack in its silences, but it takes its world, characters and songcraft seriously, so that while much of it is hard to remember after the sound of the guitar fades from your memory, some of it still sticks in your mind with simple strength and real feeling.
Long-limbed and luminous, Gwyneth Paltrow walked into the roundtable interviews for “Country Strong” beaming with good health and bearing a smoothie in her right hand the way Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, bore aloft her bow. Asked about the provenance of her smoothie, Paltrow’s tone — mocking itself for its know-it-all semi-sanctimony — said it all: “It’s not from M Cafe, because it contains bananas … and bananas are not macrobiotic.”
You’d roll your eyes, but for the fact that Paltrow was already doing the same. This seemed as good a time as any to ask Paltrow if she thought people would be able to reconcile her yoga-loving Buddha-of-the-jet-set public image with her work in “Country Strong,” where she plays Kelly Canter, a vodka-swilling, uncontrollable country singer — “Which,” Paltrow interjected with a smile, “is much closer to the real me.”
But nonetheless, Paltrow acknowledged that selling the idea of her playing Kelly isn’t just problematic for audiences, but even felt odd for the studio behind “Country Strong.” “First of all,” she said, “I think part of the image that I had for a long time was extremely exaggerated. Clint Culpepper, the head of Screen Gems, when this script came to him I was already attached. He was like, ‘You all are crazy. She is so wrong for this part.’ And they were like, ‘No, no, she’s not.’ And now he’s like, ‘I can’t believe I thought you were wrong for this part. I admit it.’ But yeah, I think when you think of country superstar, drug, drink, addict, you maybe don’t think of me immediately, but it’s in there. She’s in there.”
Of course, part of getting Kelly out from in there involved slacking off and, bluntly, bulking up on Southern food to lend the appropriate level of heft and washed-out deep-fried gloss to Kelly’s physique and look. Asked to recount her role-appropriate Southern menu choices in Nashville, Paltrow groaned. “Oh, God. A lot of fried food, fried chicken.”
It was easy to joke about pulling up to the dinner table, but Paltrow also spoke with sincerity about the challenges of stepping up to the microphone. “I was excited about the music, but I was nervous,” she said. “I’ve always sang and had a fine voice, but I was nervous about playing somebody who was such a huge star — which is different than playing somebody who has a guitar and is singing or trying to make it. It’s a huge difference, and I was worried about that. My singing teacher in London, she worked me really hard: ‘There’s a big voice in there. We’re going to get it out.’ And I was scared of my own voice. But it was so much fun to discover that. I obsessively watched Beyonce perform because she’s it in terms of a performer: The talent and the confidence. I just thought if I could get a bit of that self-belief and abandon that she has on stage for that final performance of the movie where you see Kelly Canter, and see why she’s a star.”
Of course, the irony of Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Grammy-winning pop performer is that she could simply, in theory, ask for advice about playing the part over the breakfast table, considering she’s married to Coldplay‘s Chris Martin. But Paltrow, as she explained, only took a few notes from her husband. “Yeah, he was great,” she said. “But to be totally honest, I kind of picked the brain of my girl singer friends more, because I think it’s a very different thing to be a male in a band as opposed to a female lead, like Beyonce and Faith Hill, there by yourself. They were so generous of spirit, and the only reason I got through the Country Music Awards” — where Paltrow performed live — “was because of them. Beyonce was in London; she helped me so much before I went. When I got to Nashville, Faith helped me so much. Faith had also said to me, ’30 days before you do it, just start singing it; sing it every day so the vocal part is just in your muscle memory and you don’t worry about the vocal.’ And thank God, because if she hadn’t told me all that stuff? I just did everything she said, and she got me through it.”
Paltrow’s performance at the CMAs was a moment she’ll always remember, including a standing ovation: “Oh my God, it was the most surreal, amazing, bizarre, exhilarating experience. I feel like I’ll look back on that always and just be like … what a moment in my life! I can’t believe I was there and I did that. I was very overwhelmed by the standing ovation. It really brought a tear to my eye. It was just amazing that people were so supportive, and it gave me chills.”
Asked about her male co-stars Garrett Hedlund and country-musician-turned-actor Tim McGraw, Paltrow beamed — and sized them up with a laser-focused eye. “(They’re) both total hunks, love both of them,” she said. “Garrett is so sweet. He’s so big and tall and strong, but he’s got such an incredible sensitivity and vulnerability. And Tim is just great. He’s got so much in there, when you look in his eyes, it’s so intense. It was fun to work with somebody who’s discovering how good they are at a different thing. He has real chops, and I love both of them.”
And if the gamble of “Country Strong” pays off, it’s all part of Paltrow’s strategy of trying to avoid being pigeonholed — or worse, being bored: “I want to do something where it’s either short with someone great, like Steven Soderbergh, or it’s one project. I just want to work with good people, I want to push myself and challenge myself. But I don’t know. I’m very open. I feel so grateful and just excited about where I am right now, and I just feel like I’ve had this really surprising autumn where I’ve gotten to do a lot of singing and go on ‘Glee,’ and just … whatever. Just anything that’s fun and different and that is going to be inspiring.”
In a departure from her starring role as Manhattanite Blair Waldorf on “Gossip Girl,” Leighton Meester plays aspiring — and perspiring — ambitious and anxious would-be star Chiles Stanton in “Country Strong.” I asked Meester if she was able to funnel her anxiety about playing the part of Chiles into playing Chiles — if she, like Chiles, felt like she was entering a new world of opportunity and risk by taking a role where she knew she’d have to sing. “Yeah,” she said, “I think you always fight that in your life, and to be able to just allow that to come in, it’s a little uncomfortable and nerve-wracking — but it actually worked. I’m sure it was uncomfortable and nerve-wracking for everyone else, too, to have to watch it over and over. But yeah, I think all those insecurities come out, and unfortunately, I can really relate to hers. I think being onstage is terrifying. My hands are sweating thinking about getting up onstage.”
Meester, like Garrett Hedlund and Gwyneth Paltrow, didn’t just have to learn a part; she had to learn a world: “Yeah, country music is a completely different thing for me, and I really have this movie to thank for introducing me to it, because I fell in love with it and that entire world and Nashville. So I think the best part was that I could sing the music as the character. I think a good song is a good song, and the songs are beautiful regardless of the genre, and they really narrate the story well. The music that I did, we each had our own producer. Mine was Nathan Chapman, and he works with Taylor Swift and Jewel. He’s got this kind of young girl sensibility to him. But I think that it was a nice kind of way to be introduced to it, (that) sort of pop country.”
I asked Meester if there were any specific real-world country performers she looked at for inspiration or moments to steal. “Obviously, I was watching Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood,” she said. “Then during rehearsal, the rehearsal process, Shana Feste (writer-director) took me to a few honkytonks, and we saw people performing. She was like, ‘That’s kind of like more the beginning of the movie.’ They were downing shots of whiskey and getting up on the bar. A lot of them are great, but some of them didn’t know what to do with their hands, and they weren’t 100 percent comfortable.”
And Meester, laughing, explained how she came to love the look of her character — and even quoted the mockery Hedlund’s Beau shoots at Chiles in the film: “‘Country Barbie.’ I’ve never gone through so much makeup in my life. It was the whole look; it was tons of hair and curls. I would just be like, ‘Can I wash my hair finally?’ I kept on putting my fingers in there and saying it felt like a cemetery. It just felt like the ground with weeds and stuff in it. But yeah, tons of eyelashes and mascara and lips and cheeks and acrylic nails, the whole thing. It was fun. She actually had some good clothes. She had some really cute little jackets and stuff where I was like, ‘Hmmm.'”
“Country Strong” writer-director Shana Feste knew that to make a film about country music, she had to have country songs. I asked her how important finding great songs was to her process and her film.”It was key,” she said. “We took a trip to Nashville and we sat down and did these roundtables with singer-songwriters. Each song in the script, I didn’t write anything. I tried to write lyrics once, and they were the worst thing that you have ever read in your entire life. So I just wrote, ‘Garrett sings “Chances Are”‘ and kind of described the song. We sat down with songwriters and said, ‘This is what I want. This is what I want the audience to feel after they’ve heard this song,’ and they took the next step.”
In other words, I suggested, she was able to get songs written to order by some of Nashville’s best songwriters. Feste smiled. “Yes. It was amazing,” she said. “And having them come in was like Christmas. You just get songs sent to you and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe this person wrote this song about something that I wrote.’ Hearing the soundtrack, listening to the soundtrack, is one of the most rewarding parts about this film.”
Of course, that pleasure didn’t come without a cost — namely, arguing with studio execs that Gwyneth Paltrow could play a washed-out, boozed-up country icon. “What I love about her playing this role is (that) it is surprising, that it doesn’t immediately make sense,” she said. “When I’m looking at a list of actresses that could play this role that could sing, and I’m thinking, ‘OK, who am I going to actually pay money to see play this role?’, it’s Gwyneth. And I knew that she could do it. And yeah, she does have a public persona that’s very different from who this role is — thank God; Kelly is a mess. But all my favorite performances have been from actors that have nothing to do with their parts.”
I also asked Feste about the classic showbiz elements of the plot — specifically, the seeming rivalry between Paltrow’s fading, falling Kelly and Leighton Meester‘s rising, fresh Chiles Stanton, which could be right from the “All About Eve” playbook. “Yeah, I think you see a lot of those themes just in real life,” she said. “When I was writing this script, everything that was happening with Britney Spears was very public. She was shaving her head, and I saw how fixated we are as a society and building people up to see their downfall, and then to build them back up again, how much pleasure we take in building them back up again. Right when I had finished the script, Michael Jackson had just passed away, so it felt like a very timely story just borrowing from what I had seen in the media. And I think those themes are very prevalent. Anytime you see two women in the same business, you’re going to get ‘Oh, are they competing?'” But Feste made sure to blunt the sharp edge of that cliché in a few of the film’s most memorable scenes between Meester and Paltrow. “I didn’t want to show two women that were just out to stab each other in the back,” she said. “I wanted them to be allies.”
And, speaking on the topic of blunting the edges, Feste laughed at the regimen she put Paltrow on to get her leading lady in a just-out-of-rehab appearance. “I definitely was like, ‘Let’s get rid of those yoga arms. You’ve just been in rehab. Let’s just soften you up a bit.’ And she did. She was eating fried chicken with all of us.’ “Country Strong” expands nationwide this Friday.
This week’s Rocchi’s Retro Rental springs from two seemingly-unrelated events — a trip to Vegas, and The Oscars. Wandering around Sin City for a friend’s sister’s wedding, the reality of modern gambling — with Star Wars slot machines and low-stakes poker rooms jammed with tank-top clad, sandal-wearing crowds — came alive for me. On Sunday, a wacky semi-musical-number from the Oscars with John C. Reilly made me think back to one of Reilly’s earliest, and best, lead roles.
The writing and directorial debut of Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights), Hard Eight doesn’t have the epic sweep and scope of Anderson’s other films; it’s smaller, intimate. It opens as a young man, John (Reilly) sits flat busted in front of a coffee shop — and an older man, Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) invites John to come inside for some coffee and a cigarette. Sydney asks John about who he is and why he’s there: John’s broke, after ill-advisedly trying to win the $6,000 required for his other’s funeral. Sydney’s response to that flat statement is unexpected: “I think that’s very honorable.” Sydney asks John if he’d like to come with him, learn the way of the gambler: “You won’t win $6,000, John. But I can teach you how to play long enough and hard enough to get a free meal, a free room.”
We jump forward in time, to find John and Sydney making a living in Reno. John’s followed Sydney’s tutelage to the letter — part of the pleasure of Hard Eight is seeing the rumpled-yet-righteous Hall play a professional gambler passing on his skill, like Obi-Wan Kenobi with narrow lapels — but a cocktail waitress named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a small-time hood named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) both enter, and disturb, the smooth ebb and flow of John and Sydney’s life.
When everything in life goes right, it’s often just the set-up for when everything goes wrong, and this is what happens in Hard Eight — circumstances shift as randomly, and decisively, as a roll of the dice. But long before he stumbled into being an accidental comedian — with cameos as sasquatch and supporting roles as a race car driver and silly Oscar musical numbers — Reilly got where he was by being a hell of an actor; Hard Eight is the proof. Opposite him, Phillip Baker Hall — perhaps best known as the library cop on Seinfeld, in the same sad way many primarily recognize Marlon Brando mostly as ‘Superman’s Dad’ — brings a weary gravitas to his part, even as (or, rather, especially as) Clementine lashes out at the world and Jimmy puts Sydney and John’s modest, hard-earned life under attack.
Hard Eight isn’t as big as Anderson’s other films — that, in many ways, it what makes it so damned good, as some scenes unfold with the simplicity of a stage play and others unfurl with graceful, energetic camerawork that still always keeps the focus on character. The scene where Sydney takes on a yahoo in an acid-wash jean jacket at the craps table — a nearly-unrecognizable Phillip Seymour Hoffman, chewing scenery to dust — is a minor masterwork demonstrating character struggle through seemingly-unrelated action; more importantly, it’s funny as hell while still mourning the loss of a ‘gentleman’s gambler’ culture that may never have even existed to begin with.
Hard Eight on DVD is loaded with extras — from Sundance Institute work-in-progress scenes to Anderson’s frank commentary about the fights surrounding his first film’s release and his battles with the studio. But DVD extras are just that — extra. Hard Eight’s real pleasure comes as it gives Reilly and Hall truly great roles to demonstrate their talent — and Paltrow and Jackson truly different roles that demonstrate how good they are outside of our narrow normal vision of their skill. Most of the time, going to the movies is a gamble, and in a season that’s already given us expensive dreck like Ghost Rider and The Number 23, Hard Eight is a nice reminder of how rare — and satisfying — it can be when betting on a seemingly-small movie can deliver an unexpectedly satisfying payoff.