Texas is a big place. Lots of cities, country music followers, and now it’s apparently drowning in tears. Well, it would have been assuming Country Strong was actually shot there, but it’s actually Tennessee standing in and taking the brunt of the non-stop tear-jerking assault put forth by this dreadfully dull clunker. Poor Tennessee never saw it coming from this Texas-scaled flood.
It’s almost too easy to point fingers at this script, whipped up by writer/director Shana Feste. Country Strong feels forced because it is, country music sensation Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) married to a man who is impossibly oblivious to her problems. She’s suffered from alcoholism, lost a five month pregnancy live on stage, and James Canter (Tim McGraw) seems to think it’s all okay. Even if he’s only interested in the financial gain (which he is), there still needs to be some push for him to care and that never happens.
Plus, the movie never tells us what happens to the baby bird being flaunted around for half the movie. Talk about loose ends.
The film isn’t all about Kelly though, two newcomers Beau (Garrett Hedlund) and Chiles (Leighton Meester) fighting for their own fame and a relationship that might even best the alcohol as the most blatantly stunted aspect. There’s no chemistry, no shocking surprises, and no passion short of their on-stage performances.
The one truth about the movie: country music is alive and well here. While not necessarily a shock, the performances are outstanding, Paltrow in particular leaving it all out on stage. Meester carries her “country bumpkin” pop star, school girl appeal with pride, and Hedlund’s calm demeanor allows for a wide range of styles. The blend is better than you would think, although it comes to a point where you being to wonder why this isn’t just a concert in the first place. That would save the audience from a mountain of self-pity, cliches, and familiarity. As it is, the music more or less intrudes on this pitiful narrative, when it would be better off the other way around.
Sony’s AVC encode for this country music bonanza is fantastic, alive with rich texture, bold primaries, and generally delightful black levels, save for a bit of a dip in shadow detail. Close-ups are typically consistent, afforded plenty of space to shine and be appreciated. Focus is tight, occasionally losing a mild grip, if remaining sharp overall. Cities look fantastic in establishing views and complex stage set-ups are given all they need to succeed visually at home.
A smattering of grain peppers this one, fully resolved and most of the time free from view. This gives the image some outstanding natural clarity. Not only does it aid in the general fine detail, it keeps the depth going. Focused stage lights produce a powerful contrast where appropriate, never overwhelming to a point where they begin sapping fidelity from the image.
Generally, the color scheme can veer warm, providing a burst of burnt flesh tones that become more than a little distracting. Country Strong also loves delivering its emotional lows with an insufferable orange and teal palette, because obviously real drama only needs two colors, not merely dim lights. It’s truly awful, not simply discoloring the background, but teeth and eyes. They appear as if the characters have overdosed on some cruel April Fool’s prank backstage to turn them into Smurfs.
Aside from the abysmal choices at the digital helm, Country Strong is pleasing. Most will find the black levels significantly empowering to the quality despite the light crush, and Sony almost always presents film-based encodes with care. This one is no exception. It’s worth it to draw attention to a dress worn by Paltrow late at 1:39:40, a heavily sequined piece that presents every speck of detail to the viewer’s eyes. Everything sparkles and glistens with the lighting above, and it’s mesmerizing in HD. So is most of this one.
Discussing the audio is simplistic enough, focusing on one overwhelming element that gives the entire thing life. Every musical performances has its own presence, ranging from a moody and subdued piece by Beau to a small crowd in a bar up until the high energy pieces of the film’s final major show. Clarity is nothing short of phenomenal, everything carrying a natural bass line, brilliant highs, and powerful, effective vocals. They all feel full bodied and pure. Plus, you can add adoring crowds to the whole thing for a complete, enveloping concert effect.
Everything else being poured out from this DTS-HD effort is fairly mundane though. There are brief scuffles with brilliance, from rain to the clatter of a tour bus. These are fine bits of environmental design, while the dialogue never really clicks. The design is such that it always sounds the same regardless of the location, no echo or other effects created to give it some life.
Three featurettes kick things off, a half hour worth of general fluff focused on the cast, songwriters, and costumes. Four deleted scenes and an alternate ending are included in painfully compressed SD, but the real loser is a full song performance by Paltrow presented in stretched widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Digital. What a wasted opportunity to make that sequence come alive. Two music videos, Sony’s Movie IQ, and BD-Live support round off this package.