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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of March 23

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COUNTRY STRONG Jeff Bridges won an Oscar this past year for playing a boozy country singer in Crazy Heart, but don't expect Gwyneth Paltrow to win even so much as a People's Choice Award for playing a similar part in Country Strong. It's not that Paltrow is bad — she does a valiant job trying to overcome the role's predictable arcs through sheer force of tears and slurred words — but it's unlikely many folks will remember a movie that may well be "country strong" but is most assuredly cinematically weak. The film is basically a soap-opera version of musical chairs, as superstar Kelly Canter (Paltrow), her husband-manager James (Tim McGraw), hunky up-and-comer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) and aspiring singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) all attempt to commence and/or rekindle relationships. Consistency is hardly the strong suit of writer-director Shana Feste, but at least the unlikely character transitions allow the actors to provide some shadings to their portrayals. Yet at almost two hours, the film is criminally overlong and has as many false endings as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The soundtrack includes mostly new tunes, but the only country song that kept racing through my increasingly bored mind was Willie Nelson's "Wake Me When It's Over." **

DRIVE ANGRY Nicolas Cage's hilarious cameo in Grindhouse must have whetted the actor's appetite for headlining throwbacks to the disreputable fare of yore, as evidenced by many of the movies he's accepted over the last few years. Despite its high-gloss 3-D presentation, Drive Angry is the most obvious example of his commitment, given its penchant for fast cars, hot women and bloody violence. Cage plays Milton, who escapes Satan's lair to return to Earth for the sole purpose of saving his granddaughter from a murderous cult led by Jonah King (Billy Burke); along the way, he's assisted by a tough beauty named Piper (Amber Heard) and pursued by Lucifer's most accomplished tracker, known simply as "The Accountant" (William Fichtner). The opening half-hour, which relies heavily on the story's unusual characterizations as well as on some finely salted dialogue, promises more than the rest of the picture can deliver. Even by mindless drive-in standards, the action becomes rote long before the end, and Jonah King turns out to be a dull, one-note villain, a detriment in this sort of over-the-top fare. Even Cage is restrained more than usual, leaving Fichtner to provide any pop to the proceedings. He's amusing in that quirky Christopher Walken way, and a more appropriately bug-eyed turn from Cage would have resulted in a more memorable face-off. **

GNOMEO & JULIET In this toon take on, what else, William Shakespeare's immortal Romeo & Juliet, the majority of the characters are garden gnomes who come to life whenever the humans aren't around. As in the original text, the families of the boy (voiced by James McAvoy) and girl (Emily Blunt) are constantly feuding, making their love a forbidden one. But unlike the current Rango, the film is strictly for small children, with only a few shout-outs to Shakespeare and a happy ending grafted onto the proceedings. The music score relies on slightly altered versions of Elton John standards, and while it's always nice to hear his classics in any form, they're usually integrated into the story in only the most perfunctory manner. Honestly, for all the difference it would make, they could have just booted the EJ tunes and instead employed, say, Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" or Cee Lo's "Fuck You." **

THE GREEN HORNET Seth Rogen, superhero? It's nearly impossible to wrap the mind around such an outlandish idea, almost on par with Sarah Palin as U.S. president or Ricky Gervais as the next recipient of the Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet it's Rogen's slovenly appearance and snarky asides that help transform The Green Hornet into not just another superhero movie. Having said that, this is still rough going in many respects. An update of the 1960s TV show starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee (and a 1930s radio show before that), this finds Rogen (who also co-scripted) giving the Judd Apatow treatment to the role of Britt Reid, a wealthy party animal who, along with his ingenious employee Kato (Jay Chou), decides to fight crime by donning a mask and becoming The Green Hornet. We're not talking Dark Knight territory here: The plot doesn't advance so much as lurch forward like an alcoholic making another trip to the bar, the villain (played by Inglourious Basterds Oscar winner Christophe Waltz) is a cinematic zero, and the initially exciting action soon becomes redundant. But the comic approach works more often than not, Rogen and Chou banter with ease, and some of the gadgets are indeed pretty cool. Note to self: I've got to get me one of those coffee makers! **1/2


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