Soap opera takes over in Country Strong, Season of the Witch nothing to remember

by Mark Burger

As befits its title,Country Stronghas more than its shareof strong moments.It’s in the connectivethread between thosemoments, however,that the film unravels.Gwyneth Paltrowheadlines as KellyCanter, a six-timeGrammy winner (mentioned numerous timesthroughout the film) and country-westernmusic legend whose career has hit the skidsthanks to repeated stints in rehab and theresulting bad press.In effort to bring Kelly back into thelimelight, her manager/husband James(Tim McGraw) has arranged a concert tour.Accompanying Kelly on the bill are rebelliousyoung singer/songwriter Beau Hutton (GarrettHedlund, also seen inTRON: Legacy) and newcomer Chiles Stanton(Leighton Meester). The tour is a big break for both Beau andChiles, but Beau is wary, in no small partbecause he’s been carrying on an affair withKelly and is none too sure that she can handlethe rigors of a tour. Indeed, Kelly is prettyshaky from the get-go and the tour is a troubledone, despite James’ best efforts to comfortand support her. The principal actors all have big scenes,none more than Paltrow. She’s got it all toplay, and then some: Emotional scenes. Cryingscenes. Romantic scenes. Drunk scenes.Remorseful scenes. Performance scenes. Shehandles them as well as can be expected underthe circumstances (and the heaviness of thescript), and carries a tune quite ably.Aside from the principal four characters,however, no one else in the film has anydepth or dimension. Allof that has been savedby writer/director ShanaFeste for the leads, andshe has a propensity topack their scenes withevery clich’ in thebook. That’s not to saythe actors don’t playthem well. Hedlundis handsome, soulfuland, at times, truculent.That he carriesoff those aspects sowell, particularlythe last one, is dueto his sincerityin playing therole. Likewise,in what couldhave been thestory’s one-notebimbo, Meesteris sincere andappealing. Asfor McGraw,the only one ofthe film’s starswith any country/westernmusic experience(and it’sa lot), he quietly walks away with theentire movie, imbuing his characterwith a subtle yet transcendent dignityand strength. But, overall, it’s not enough to keepCountry Strong from plunging headlonginto soap-opera formula. There areabout eight endings for the film, eachone hokier than the last, which makesCountry Strong pushy to an almostinterminable degree. Shorter andsharper would have been better, tosay nothing of more effective. A medieval muddle in everysense, Season of the Witchis a bombastic combination ofswords, sorcery and silliness— with the latter facet takingprecedence throughout.Nicolas Cage (woefullymiscast) and Ron Perlman(not so much) star, respectively,as Behmen andFelson, which sounds like a Catskills comedyteam. Actually, they are heroic veterans of theCrusades who have forsaken war and abandonedthe battlefield. After being captured and branded as deserters,which they are, they are charged withescorting an accused witch (Claire Foy) acrosstreacherous terrain for trial. This being the 14thcentury (anachronistic dialogue notwithstanding),the Black Plague is everywhere and thecountryside is rife with fear and superstition. During the journey, which entails a goodnumber of strange occurrences, Behmen andFelson are forced to accept the possibility thattheir captive is, indeed, possessed of supernaturalpowers. Long before that, however,the audience is forced to accept the possibilitythat Season of the Witch is a clunker.Unintentionally hilarious and downrightcampy, the film never gains a dramatic (oreven melodramatic) foothold. Cage, whose preternatural locks havebecome his trademark from movie to movie,brings a stone-faced earnestness to the proceedings.This is hardly a role, a performanceor a project that the Oscar winner will likelysavor in years to come, or even next week.The indomitable Christopher Lee, who atthis stage in his career cannot be faulted forappearing in anything, lends his distinctivevoice to the ailing cardinal who sends theknights on their way. The Black Plague makeup does Lee no favors(nor anyone else, for that matter), and the mostastonishing thing about Season of the Witch isthat it earned a PG-13 rating despite being loadedwith violence, gore and oozing sores, not to mentiona climactic and gruesome barrage of CGIspecial effects. The holes in the plot tend to ooze,too — and none too pleasantly. January has long been considered a dumpingground for hit-and-miss movies, andSeason of the Witch has itself been “seasoning”on the studio shelf for some time. Thus,the timing for its release is pretty perfect asthings go. Early in the film, one charactercomments: “What madness is this?”What madness, indeed.