Jaeden Lieberher and Bill Murray in St. VincentST. VINCENT

St. Vincent stars Bill Murray as the titular (if decidedly un-saintly) Vincent, a cranky, disheveled grump who may be the meanest man in Brooklyn, if not all of New York. He speaks in a honking regional dialect and guzzles brown liquor by the quart, and his only pals are a pair of fellow barflies and the local hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. He's frequently seen chain-smoking in a porkpie hat with oversize sunglasses, and spends his days at the track making losing bets with his bookie. At his ramshackle home, he watches old Abbott & Costello movies on an ancient television and, when drunk, drives straight over his white picket fence. When a neighbor kid needs to use a pay phone, Vincent begrudgingly gives him a dime for the call. Given all this, in what year would you guess St. Vincent takes place? 1957? 1958?

Nope. It's 2014. But why complain about writer/director Theodore Melfi's sentimental comedy not feeling like the present day when its bigger problem is not feeling like life in any era? A prototypical redeeming-the-asshole tale in which the arrival of a sweet-tempered child (Jaeden Lieberher's Oliver) reveals that our unfailingly rude protagonist is secretly a big softie, the movie at least boasts some comedic and dramatic heft courtesy of the cast. In a role that would be unbearable if played by anyone other than Bill Murray, St. Vincent's star may be doing his familiar dyspeptic-deadpan shtick, but he gives as close to an honest portrayal as the script allows. Melissa McCarthy is lovely and real as Vincent's new next-door neighbor and Oliver's mom; the endearing Lieberher proves just as polished as co-stars Terrence Howard and Chris O'Dowd; and Naomi Watts maker her aforementioned hooker - a pregnant Russian vixen with pink streaks in her hair - a joyously robust and funny caricature.

But none of them is quite able to overcome Melfi's aggressively contrived, cloying deck-stacking that eliminates all nuance and turns every potentially touching moment into formula corn, with the lump-in-the-throat finale feeling particularly unearned. (We may as well be watching the real Bill Murray, in a particularly shameless ceremony, receiving his lifetime-achievement tribute at the Oscars.) Well-meaning and -acted but hopelessly fraudulent, with every predetermined narrative development landing right on cue, St. Vincent is an easy-to-sit-through bummer. To be fair to the movie, though, I did stay through the entirety of the closing credits, which found Murray performing some mild clowning with a garden hose while harmonizing to Bob Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm." Then again, to be fair to me, I only stayed because it was the one scene I really liked.

 

Keanu Reeves in John WickJOHN WICK

Ten minutes into the ultra-violent action thriller John Wick, I thought, "Why does Keanu Reeves keep making movies like this?" Twenty minutes into it, I thought, "Why doesn't Keanu Reeves make more movies like this?!" An initially dour, clichéd outing that morphs, surprisingly quickly, into a beautifully executed and legitimately hilarious splatter-fest, Chad Stahelski's directorial debut finds Reeves' retired assassin Wick - a legendary figure described as "not the Bogeyman," but "the one you send to kill the Bogeyman" - seeking revenge on the Russian gangsters who killed his dog. Plot-wise, that's really it. And you actually don't need more, because (a) that dog was really adorable, so Wick's reaction is perfectly justified, and (b) the sequences of bloody retaliation are so spectacularly exciting and well-choreographed that additional plot would just get in the way. Stahelski, who served as Reeves' stunt double on two Matrix movies, stages inventive, almost balletic gun-, knife-, and fist-centric mayhem that keeps you wincing and laughing in equal measure. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad creates a fascinating honor-among-thieves infrastructure complete with unexpectedly clever dialogue, making the downtime between attacks nearly as thrilling as John Wick's scenes of carnage. And with Reeves peppering his Zen-like cool with a raw power and anger he's never before attempted on-screen, the movie finds room for excellent turns by Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Adrianne Palicki, Lance Reddick, and Dean Winters, the latter of whom played the hysterically loutish Dennis Duffy on 30 Rock. Here he's a sinister henchman who thinks he's smarter than John Wick. Good luck with that, dummy.

 

Olivia Cooke in OuijaOUIJA

I gave up on director Stiles White's horror trifle Ouija pretty much during its first five minutes, when a perky blond high-schooler, alone at home, noticed the kitchen door creak open by itself, and the spontaneous blaze from a burner on the stove, and the girl consequently chose to turn off all the lights in the house. Clearly, smarts weren't this doomed kid's forte. Nor are they the forte of Ouija, a mostly dopey, senseless, and fright-free supernatural thriller guaranteed to have an absolutely neutral effect on sales of the popular toy-store object. Olivia Cooke, a 20-year-old Brit assuming a spot-on American accent here, is an engaging and empathetic lead. But the only real reason to sit through this depressingly wimpy (PG-13-rated) scare flick for teen BFFs is the late arrival of Lin Shaye, the delightful Insidious medium who plays an unhinged rest-home patient here, and who consistently makes screen acting look like the most enjoyable profession imaginable. On those too-rare occasions in which I get to watch Lin Shaye perform, I'd argue it's the second most enjoyable.

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