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St. Vincent: Indie dramedy a work of art for Bill Murray

“St. Vincent” doesn’t work without Bill Murray.

The film, which centers around a crotchety old drunk gambler who takes care of his neighbor’s son to pay off gambling debts, could have been made with any number of other actors.

However, it’s only “Saturday Night Live” vet Murray who can handle the humor required to make the majority of the film enjoyable enough to balance the weighty drama underneath the comedic exterior of the film.

Dual-billed alongside slapstick comedienne Melissa McCarthy, Murray single-handedly carries “St. Vincent” in large segments of the film and offers the necessary nonchalant attitude required of Vincent in setting up the film’s most dramatic scenes.

McCarthy is nearly an after-thought in the film, overshadowed not only by Murray’s tremendous performance, but also by a heart-warming effort from newcomer Jaeden Lieberher as Murray’s young ward and an unrecognizable Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper.

Heartwarming and affable, “St. Vincent” can be considered somewhat of a comedic partner to the darker and more successful “Gran Torino,” a Clint Eastwood tour de force, without the weighty racial and political undertones.

While a large portion of the film deals with modern-day saints, “St. Vincent” is not overtly religious in nature, but finds the most in its flawed characters.

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John Wick: Keep expectations low and enjoy the ride

Nothing much is surprising about the latest action thriller “John Wick,” except for the fact that it isn’t completely terrible.

The plot is raw and unoriginal — vengeful assassin Keanu Reeves takes out a lot of bad people after they steal his car and kill his dog, a final present from his dying wife.

Every indication points in the direction of an absolute bust of a movie. The trailer is downright comical in the worst possible way.

It shouldn’t make sense that “a vengeful Keanu Reeves” is something anyone really wants to see, given what poor quality Reeves has put out over the last decade.

Yet somehow, despite all the tell-tale red flags of a poor movie, “John Wick” overcomes them all and is actually a pretty serviceable traditional action film, reminiscent of a more modern homage to “The Boondock Saints,” a film about vigilante killers who don’t really have, or need, a good reason to kill the bad guys.

Forget the plot. It’s unimportant. Skip over the uneven acting of leads Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki.

What “John Wick” excels at is replicating the action and excitement of “The Matrix” films without any science fiction jargon or the overly technical philosophical implications.

People need to die and John Wick is the guy who needs to kill them.

That kind of film isn’t for everyone, but ardent action fans will appreciate a quality traditional action thriller that isn’t burdened with too many stars (“The Expendables” series) or too many sequels (“Taken” series).

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Fury: A sign of good things still to come from Hollywood

If “Fury” is any indication of the direction cinema is headed for the rest of 2014, it’s a good time to be a film fanatic.

Coming off the release of David Fincher’s terrific thriller “Gone Girl,” it was hard to imagine Hollywood providing any level of consistency in the quality of filmmaking heading into the final few months of the year, but the action epic “Fury” puts out a tremendous effort just short of remarkable.

Director David Ayer, best known as the writer of “Training Day” and the director of “End of Watch,” provides a nearly perfect fictionalized account of a lone American tank stuck behind enemy lines in World War II Germany.

Interestingly enough, “Fury” is the first movie since 1946 in which an actual German “Tiger” tank was used in filming instead of a prop one.

“Fury” is strongest in close quarters, when the film’s stars Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena are encased within the tank itself, hammering home an “us-against-the-world” mentality that resonates throughout the film.

Ayer’s script and direction insist upon a heavy message concerning the consequences of war on both its participants and the innocent citizens who have to endure hardships as a result of fighting.

Where the movie becomes disjointed is a lengthy character development sequence outside the tank as Pitt and Lerman encounter a pair of German women in their apartment and force the women to dine with them.

Independent of the rest of “Fury,” the scene and its subsequent section with the rest of the tank’s crew is compelling drama. It just doesn’t fit within the rest of the movie, making “Fury” disjointed.

Some moderate editing could have improved the pacing and made the scene seem less like an homage to the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

The film is gripping and brutal in its tense action sequences, which occur both inside and outside the tank.

“Fury” has an uphill battle to climb as there’s no shortage of World War II films to choose from. This isn’t “Saving Private Ryan” or “Patton” and isn’t meant to be.

When seen outside the context of more complete films, “Fury” stands out for its strong main cast and terrifically gripping final action sequence. It’s a sign that good things are still to come out of Hollywood this fall.

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Gone Girl: Chilling tale makes great use of Affleck, Pike

That subversive grin smeared across Ben Affleck’s face has been plastered all over television and social media for weeks now as “Gone Girl,” the David Fincher adaptation of the best-selling Gillian Flynn novel, hit theaters at the beginning of the month.

It’s a smart marketing ploy and an ingenious casting choice by Fincher to center his film around Affleck, whose natural charm mixed with the public’s general disdain for anything he’s been involved in before “Gone Baby Gone” make him the ideal guy you’re supposed to hate in a film where Affleck’s character is believed to be involved in the disappearance of his wife.
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Fincher has often made smart casting choices that underlie the nature of the character by using public perception of the actor in his favor, most notably Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker in “The Social Network.”

But it’s not Affleck’s terrific performance that stands out in “Gone Girl.” He is very good to be sure, but the shadowing presence of Rosamund Pike as his wife is transformative in a way that few actresses have been able to accomplish.

Seen through voiceovers and flashback sequences for much of the film, Pike gives weight to the titular ‘gone girl’ Amy in a way that draws the viewer in without becoming too overbearing. The performance, played on a razor’s edge, is a delicate balance between naivety and awareness as the tension mounts between two lovers falling out of love.

Typical of a David Fincher film, “Gone Girl” is eloquent in its cinematography from the opening sequence of Affleck getting the morning paper on his front lawn to all the psychological tension that evokes his classic “Se7en” and the recent hit “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”

It’s unfortunate that quite possibly the best film to be released in 2014 will walk away with zero Academy Award wins and only a few nominations, but that’s certainly an easy assumption given voter history in recent years to avoid commercially-successful films.

Both leads — Pike, especially — are worthy of significant consideration and lead a talented supporting cast that includes brilliant performances by Neil Patrick Harris as an obsessed former lover and Tyler Perry as a pitch-perfect criminal defense attorney.

“Gone Girl” is the best film, bar none, to be released thus far in 2014 and there are few contenders that will be able the 149-minute thrill ride.

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The Judge: Even Downey Jr., Duvall can’t figure out poor script

“The Judge” has a fantastic cast led by Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall along with wonderful cinematography, so why is it so underwhelming?

The fatal flaw in “The Judge” is in an uneven script from Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, the sum of which isn’t as good as its individual parts.

A film about relationships blanketed within a courtroom drama, each element of “The Judge” is very well done, but none of the elements fit together.

Duvall and Downey Jr.’s up and down relationship is the heart and soul of “The Judge,” and in that respect, the film works. Scenes that feature the duo alone are the best in the film.

However, it’s the unnecessary placement of Dax Shepherd as a bumbling lawyer assigned to Duvall’s case and Vera Farmiga as Downey Jr.’s ex-girlfriend that overextend the 141-minute film by at least 25 minutes.

“The Judge” is worth a rental for Duvall and Downey Jr.’s performances, but doesn’t hit enough high points to make it worth rushing out to see in theaters.

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One Chance: A star-making film for actor James Corden

James Corden is going to be a big star.

The 36-year-old Brit will soon take over for Craig Ferguson as host of CBS’ The Late Late Show and plays a sizable role in the musical “Into The Woods,” which opens in theaters Christmas Day.

Movie goers can get an advance peek at one of Europe’s best kept secrets beginning Friday as Corden’s latest film, “One Chance,” opens in limited release.
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Corden stars as Paul Potts, a small-time cell phone salesman who attempts to hit it big as an opera star. The film is based on a true story as Potts was the first winner of the “Britain’s Got Talent” competition and has gone on to star in a number of top operas internationally.

There’s not really much to “One Chance” that hasn’t been seen in some form or other before. It’s your standard biopic in every single way.

Only one thing makes “One Chance” worth seeing: Corden.

The sweetness and charm he is able to bring to a character lacking in development within the film transcends what is otherwise a routine movie.

Though the film lacks the depth of the surprisingly similar “Julie and Julia,” “One Chance” makes the most out of its 103 minute running time, which doesn’t feel overly long.